Posts Tagged ‘review’

Travel review – Siam Niramit – Siam Niramit Thai Village, Bangkok

January 12, 2015

Given the options for seeing Thai dance in Bangkok were mostly being presented to me as dinner shows, most of them on river boats, I thought that seeing a production that was the star of its own show (rather than a side attraction to dinner), I decided to book tickets to see Siam Niyarit, a production big enough to merit its own theater a block away from the Thailand Cultural Center (and its subway stop). My ticket was around 1100 baht (approximately twenty quid) and did include dinner, but unfortunately a late arrival from Cambodia meant that by the time I arrived at the theater I had about five minutes to get checked in and find my seat. Dinner is in an entirely separate hall next to a parking lot full of coaches, and the only food to be found was a packet of peanuts at the snack stall at the patio in front of the hall. They were searching bags for food and cameras (with a mandatory camera check – I kid you not) so I decided I’d just power through and catch dinner at a street stall afterwards. Dinner isn’t mandatory for this show, by the way: some girls who came in the same shuttle I took from the tube station (there’s one there on show nights to get you to the theater, located across an absurd number of intersections) hadn’t bought dinner. Ah well. I missed the elephant rides, too.

While I had thought the Smile of Angkor show was pretty big, Siam Niyarit blew it out of the water in the way only a show designed for a single stage, to be performed nightly, with a big budget to back it, can do. It’s basically a history of Thailand (with any negative stuff left out), hitting the peoples and dances of the various ethnic communities, showing the Chinese cultural cross-pollination in a nice narrative segment that didn’t need any language skills to follow, and ending with a big segment on the festivals of Thailand that didn’t really explain any of the festivals but did have performers dancing in the aisles.

The technical values of this production were really top notch. The lighting had obviously been very professionally designed, and the sets! They had an entire junk boat with a twenty man crew come onstage, and a little village with five or six huts that very much looked like they were full size. And this was just one of about five or six completely different scenes, each richly detailed, that graced (yet never dwarfed) the stage. Just when I thought there couldn’t be any more wow factor – they’d had live goats and chickens in the village scene – they brought out AN ELEPHANT. A real live elephant. And then a series of boats were PADDLED ACROSS THE FRONT OF THE STAGE in the pool someone had jumped into earlier. Now, maybe the boats were on little tracks – I checked and didn’t see any muscle movement from one of the women canoers – but WOW. And there was a rain scene and later some geysers, and the elephant WALKED BETWEEN THE LEVELS OF THE AUDIENCE. And during a bit about hell and heaven (if there was a plot I missed it), we had fifteen different people floating through the air dressed in gorgeous costumes, representing various mythological beings and creatures and damn, it was just all really pretty.

But you know what it wasn’t? Thai traditional dance, at least not for more than about three five minute sections, and that was what I had come to see. I was disappointed as this was my second try to see some and what I got was a spectacular that doubtlessly, in its 90 minute length, satisfied most of the audience, but left me disappointed. I will grant it was assuredly worth the price I paid (more so if I’d been able to eat beforehand), and, with its high quality design and good flow, I can’t deny that it was entertaining, if painfully loud. It just wasn’t what I wanted. The many street stalls near the tube stop (where I was quickly whisked back to) did, however, take care of my other hunger. And I think it was a really good thing that they took people’s cameras away – for some reason, the crowds at these things can be pretty rude.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 9, 2014. It seems to be on indefinitely.)

Mini-review – Abigail’s Party – Wyndham’s Theater

June 2, 2012

When “Abigail’s Party” was playing at the Menier this winter, I was torn about going. “Oh, a Mike Leigh play!” said the angel; “Arrgh, it’s set in the seventies and seems to be celebrated as much for its canapés as anything else.” In the end it sold out and that determined it for me; no luck getting $15 tickets like I could have for Pippin!

But then it was transferred to Wyndham’s, and while tickets seemed too expensive ($35!) a friend who needed cheering up wanted to go, and I thought, hey, an actual Mike Leigh comedy, let’s do that – plus it’s just around the corner from work, and a short play, so perfect for working girl me.

Well. I’m not sure how I missed this in all of the Twitter commentary, but in addition to being a play that features horrible 70s clothing (and canapés), Abigail’s Party has to be one of the unfunniest plays ever. It’s light hearted on the face – our hostess just wants everyone to have a good time – but she’s going to steamroll everyone into doing it her way. Meanwhile the one decent character is regularly humiliated (and kept from leaving!), and we get to watch two married couples bicker with each other horribly and very realistically to the point that I wanted to leave, too. The audience, however, was laughing fit to burst – I can’t help but think it’s because they were finding watching people be made uncomfortable and degraded struck them as great good fun.

As a record of life in the English suburbs in the 1970s, there’s no doubt that this is a very accurate play, and the acting was really very good from everyone, but I have just had enough with Mike Leigh setting up these parties in which miserable people make other people miserable. I don’t understand why other people find this so damned hilarious, either. I was barely able to keep my companion there through the second act (it now runs with a break, so 7:45 to 9:45) and only because I think this play is a British classic; but it’s one I won’t be revisiting. If only I could have actually been to a play about the real Abigail’s party, which was supposed to be taking place next door; I’m sure they were having a much better time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 28th, 2012.)

Review – A Streetcar Named Desire – Donmar Warehouse

August 27, 2009

Coming out of Hamlet, I was feeling pretty chary about going to A Streetcar Named Desire. Woo woo, another celeb driven classic that should have been revived simply based on its own merits and not because some screen star felt like spending his/her time slumming on the stage. I had been really excited about getting tickets to it (mostly thanks to the West End Whingers’ review), but this had all trickled away by the time the actual day rolled around. And, well, I had a cold (which I still have, three days later), and I actually tried to return the tickets, but the Donmar wouldn’t accept them as we actually had the paper tickets in our hands and couldn’t get them in theirs without trudging into town. So we trudged, bringing lots of cough drops and hoping we didn’t irritate the other patrons too much.

In retrospect, I’m glad they wouldn’t accept my tickets over the phone, as this was really a spectacular presentation of what I’m now convinced is one of the best plays of the 20th century – a play that far surpasses its silver screen version. Sure, the movie is an hour shorter, but the stuff that’s packed into that hour, which we get to see on stage, is really amazing. Tennessee Williams convinced us that these people existed – Stella (Ruth Wilson, incredibly superior to the film’s Stella), making a life for herself with the cards she was dealt, and succeeding at it far better than her sister; Stanley (Elliot Cowan), a violent bully who’s also loving and protective; Mitch (Barnaby Kay), a man who wants love in the form of someone who appeals to his better nature; and Blanche (Rachel Weisz), who’s pretentious and a liar but still trying to get through a life that seems headed downhill in a way that won’t leave her utterly broken. After the show we wound up debating what their pasts were like and what their futures were likely to be – meaning we’d accepted them as real people. Now that is some damned fine writing.

It has to be said that the presentation of this show did much to make it feel so real. J, who’s a big burnout due to getting a theatrical MFA and having spent most of his 20s in the theater, actually gasped when he walked in and saw the Donmar had been entirely transformed into the French Quarter, complete with replacement lacy ironwork surrounding the upper floor of the theater instead of the normal workaday iron bars. (This made us feel like we were spectators for a bunch of family fights in our neighborhood, quite appropriate given how close these folks lived together.) The set captured nicely both the airiness of the French Quarter and the very much run-down nature of life there pre-gentrification – a gorgeous spiral staircase wound up almost three stories but still, it was just two crappy two roomed apartments piled on top of each other – beauty, rot and claustrophobia all right there.

While the focus of the show (and my review) could easily be on Ms. Rachel Weisz as Blanche (she was, after all, on stage for pretty much every minute of the show), I wasn’t so amazed by her performance – it was good but I don’t think defined the role in the way I was hoping for. (She was too shrill at times and just a touch too young for the role.) However, the supporting cast was so generally outstanding that I’d like to pay them tribute. My favorite was Ruth Wilson as Blanche’s sister, Stella. This role was pretty much a cipher in the movie – a pregnant woman married to an abusive husband. But in this play, it was clear she was also a woman who’d given up a glorious past and let herself go with her passionate side – yet wound up in a much better place than Blanche, because she’d turned her back on it and never looked back. Ruth (as Stella) was really convincingly in love with Stanley and made the strain she felt being pulled between her husband and her sister very visible. She also had a bit of the look of someone who used to get all dressed up and know what proper manners were supposed to be. What was amazing was how she and Elliot Cowan were really able to carry off the dynamic of two people who were both intensely sexually attracted to each other but also could fight violently – then pull through the anger and make up to each other, all the while showing how close they were to each other – this was a vision of life in America that had so much truth to it I couldn’t believe it had ever really been portrayed as well on the stage before or since. God knows Carousel didn’t manage it.

While this may not be the Streetcar of a lifetime, still, it was vibrant and alive and worth dragging myself off my sickbed to see. And, I’m pleased to say, we didn’t wind up coughing our way through it, and even though we were stuck way off on the sides we could still see it pretty darned well. If you haven’t got tickets, well, time to hope this show gets transferred – though to be honest I don’t think you’ll ever capture that famous Donmar intimacy (and the effect this has on you as an audience member) anywhere else. Recommended.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 25th. It continues through October 3rd. The Donmar releases standing room tickets for every performance, and this is worth standing through. Else, please see my tips on getting tickets for sold out shows.)

Review – Les 7 Doigts de la Main’s “Traces” – Peacock Theatre

March 4, 2009

Last night I went with W, Cate, and DJM to see Les 7 Doigts de la Main’s “Traces” show at the Peacock Theatre. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect – it had been billed as a circus show but was being handled by a theater (Sadler’s Wells) I normally consider as being about modern dance. And yet it was being recommended to me by someone as a kind of Cirque du Soleil thing. What was it going to be about?

Well, as it turned out, it was kind of a post-apocalyptic acrobatic modern dance piece done to a soundtrack that ranged from industrial to rap, with five 20-ish performers who actually took the time to exhibit some personality on stage rather than just being faceless, interchangeable performers. There was sort of a narrative, but not much – it was mostly a series of various stunts with conversation (and occasionally music) between them. One piece was set up as a reality TV show, but it was mostly a set up for people doing back flips off of a teeter-totter. Far more interesting were the pure motion bits, such as the tumbling routines that opened the show, the runs and flips off of vertical poles that closed out the first act, and the dives, jumps, and flights (practically) through hoops that ended it. I really enjoyed the male/female balancing act in the first act (though it made me think of the much more emotionally engaging Circus Contraption with nostalgia, this despite the high emotion of the performance in question) and the very unusual “man trapped in giant metal hula hoop” thing in the second act, which was completely unique in my memory.

I enjoyed the hard edge of this troupe, with their utterly unshowy costumes and industrial set, but I felt that with the very high quality of acrobatics involved, it could have been so much more. La Clique utterly embraces the “fun cabaret” thing, though the performances are of mixed quality; Circus Contraption creates a wonderful “Edward Gorey Goes to the Carnival” atmosphere that compensates for not having professionally trained acrobats among their numbers (and their costumes are great – willpower overcoming budget, I think). While I liked Les 7 Doigts de la Main’s aesthetic and really appreciate their skills, I hope that the next time they come through they will have thought up a more compelling way to display their talents. Still, it was a good night out, and I would certainly recommend it (as long as you get discount tickets).

(“Traces” continues at the Peacock Theatre through March 14th. This review is for a performance that took place on March 3rd.)

Review – The Nutcracker – New York City Ballet (Lincoln Center)

December 29, 2008

Two days before Christmas my husband and I went to Lincoln Center to see City Ballet’s Nutcracker, as choreographed by Balanchine himself. According to the program, Balanchine is the one who brought this ballet back into the modern story ballet repertoire and established it as the Christmas ballet of choice for all dance companies, and before he touched it, it has pretty much been unloved in forgotten*. What I was there to see, though, was not “The Nutcracker, as Envisioned by Mr. B. in the Great Revelation Which He Shared with America,” but rather yet another take on one of my favorite story ballets (most of the versions I see credit Petipa as being the originator of their choreography), one which has millions of different possible combinations of how to handle the music. I’ve seen Kent Stowell’s (at Pacific Northwest Ballet), Matthew Bourne’s, English Ballet’s, Arizona Ballet Theater’s, and a few others I can’t remember right now. I love the way all of these different choreographers and dance companies take something which I sort of think doesn’t have a lot of flexibility (the music stays the same and there’s always the Hoffman story behind it all) and makes completely different ballets – in my mind, at least.

City Ballet’s Nutcracker is most notable, in my mind, for the fact that rather than having Clara turn into an adult before she goes into the fantasy world (where the various Suite dances take place), a child is present throughout in the role – which limits the dancing she can do, as you’ll never get anywhere near the same quality of dancing from an 8 or 10 year old as a 24 year old! (She’s also called “Marie” instead of Clara – how did that happen? – and was performed by Maria Gorokhov.) This also limits the emotional intensity of the role – it’s not about her coming into adulthood, it’s dancing about an 8 year and her toys and fantasies. This is not intrinsically interesting and, I think, diminishes the overall potential of the ballet substantially.

That said, there are things to enjoy about the first act, primarily the costumes and the charm of the young dancers (and some fun scenery as a scrim is used to hide the living room, the first time I’ve ever seen this done – the children stand in front of a door and peer in the keyhole, and the lights go on behind the scrim so we can see what they are looking at). This half of the Nutcracker follows a more or less normal “plot,” with boys and girls (and adults) showing up for a party at Marie’s parent’s house, Marie being given a Nutcracker, and the inevitable fight between the boys with their war toys and Marie (and the girls) which results in the Nutcracker being injured, a “growing Christmas tree” and rat/mice versus Nutcracker battle.

City Ballet’s also has a dance for other toys that Drosselmeier brings with him, in this case a toy soldier (Austin Laurent) and a “Harlequin and Columbine” pair (Erica Pereira and Brittany Pollack). There is also a new character, the nephew of Drosselmeier (played by Joshua Shutkind), who is kind to and solicitous of Marie (and later becomes the spirit animating the Nutcracker when we move on to the dream sequence). Marie falls asleep on a couch and the story transitions into the dream sequence, of which the most notable thing was the multi-headed rat king. Once the Nutcracker has defeated him, his crown is given to Marie, and the set is swept away to a snowy wonderland (no idea why) where Marie and the Nutcracker appear to be royalty of some sort and hordes of ballerinas come out to dance as snowflakes while white bits fall from the ceiling. This last bit was pure theatrical magic, although I was a bit worried that the ballerinas were going to slip on the “snow.”

The second half follows the conceit that the ballet is taking place in the “Land of Sweets,” but all of the traditional names for the solos have been changed. The Arabian (or Peacock in Stowell’s version) dance is now “Coffee,” the Chinese dance is “Tea,” the Russian dance is Candy Canes – where did this come from? I was put off my the peculiar choices here. On the other hand, the freaky woman with the giant skirt I hadn’t seen since Ballet Arizona made an appearance, and I got a huge laugh watching the little kids come out from under her skirts and dance on stage. Thanks to Justin Peck for being this ballet’s panto dame (Mother Ginger, to be accurate) – I really enjoyed his clowning and hamming. We also got a nice Waltz of the Flowers, with the flowers in lovely tiered full skirts in increasing intensity of pink that poofed up gorgeously as they swirled around. Aaah!

Unfortunately, I was rather checked out for Teresa Reichlen and Charles Askegard’s performance in the final duet of “The Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier.” But I don’t think it was just me worrying about the bills piling up during this trip; it was the rather uninspired choreography in all of the show leading to its ultimate, well, canned duet. I just wonder what was going on for Balanchine – to me, it felt like he just wasn’t very excited about this show and didn’t want to make it a showcase for outstanding dancing – he just wanted to move the narrative along. I wonder if the music didn’t inspire him enough, or if he was in a hurry, or if there was something else going on – but when I think of the incredible things he was doing at this time and earlier, I feel like he forgot to care about the Nutcracker enough to make it a great dance piece. So, overall, while I found this an entertaining enough evening, I left disappointed. Balanchine was not only not able to make the first act any better than almost anyone else (only Bourne has excelled here), but he didn’t even make the second act brilliant like I think he had the ability to do. Ah, well – at least the music was great, and with luck, I’ll be able to see City Ballet more than once in ten years and get a better choice of shows the next time.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 6 PM on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008.)

*Note the Wikipedia article on the Nutcracker completely blows this assertion out of the water. What is up with this obsessive worship of Balanchine? Is City Ballet incapable of accepting the fact that things have gone on in ballet during the time he was choreographing that didn’t involve him, that other influences were moving ballet forward at the same time? No wonder I came to the UK being ignorant of Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan!

Review – Cinderella – Lyric Hammersmith

November 30, 2008

Warning: The Lyric Hammersmith’s Cinderella is NOT a panto, despite the title and the timing. Along those lines, it’s not entirely a family friendly show, certainly not for those under 8 and not at all if you don’t like your kids hearing words like “bitch” (the children around me gasped) and seeing people murdered on stage. This caused a great deal of embarrassment to me, as the five year old I brought with me ended the show crying inconsolably due to the particularly gory ending. But if you’re aware of all that …

Cinderella is actually the most imaginative retelling of this story I’ve ever seen and far exceeded my expectations for what this story could possibly be (although I was hoping for broad comedy, drag queens, bad puns, and a singalong with a lot more positive energy after spending eight hours looking at flats in South London). The format was of several fairy stories being told by Cinderella (Elizabeth Chan) and the various actors playing different characters (except for Cinderella herself). The staging was the usual “telling not showing stuff” (which can be unusual though it works better with small budget shows); the characters held little paper birds to represent the “snow pigeons,” a frame was held up in front of an actor to represent a picture, a variety of mannequins represented the numerous guests at the ball.

The acting generally felt highly stylized and wasn’t really about character development in any way; the actors were representing archetypes and conducted themselves appropriately. Fortunately, instead of the cartoony evil sisters, we had two girls (played by Katherine Manners, whose singing in Coram Boy struck me so, and Kelly Williams) who actually behaved like normal girls – afraid of their mom, wanting to make friends but not above pointing fingers to save themselves. While I was happy with them, I found Ms. Chan actually just a little too dreamy and high-archetype for the show – I wasn’t really able to be pulled in by her performance because she herself seemed so distant and two dimensional. Oddly, it seemed to be the Prince (Daniel Weyman) who did the most “acting” per se – though he was being a prince who had to act in order to deceive his mother, so perhaps this isn’t really a fair example.

The fun part of this production was, for me, seeing how the actors conveyed fairly dense theatrical visions with lightweight tools. This really came to fruition in the final scenes, which (if you haven’t read the Grimm original or don’t want a spoiler otherwise, best you stop reading now ….) required the sisters to cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the shoes, and then later the entire “evil Stepfamily” had their eyes removed. A bit of red yarn and what looked like potatoes seemed to carry the deeds well enough (plus having them dropped into a bucket of water for effect), but my ability to enjoy this bit of theater (and it was really fun!) was terribly marred by the way it upset the little girl I’d invited to join us. She’d actually really enjoyed the entire show – I suspect all of the different stories were really catching her imagination – but this was just too much and I felt bad for having so crucially misjudged what was going to happen onstage that night. I enjoyed so much of it, including the non-standard musical accompaniment (Terje Isungset played bicycle wheels and icicles – pretty neat!), but I probably won’t be able to pull myself out of the funk caused by terrorizing a little girl for a while. On the other hand, the mistake did lead my husband to utter the immortal lines, “Look behind you! Oh, you can’t,” so it’s possible the rest of the group I was with had a good time in spite of this.

(This show is for the evening performance on Saturday, November 29th, 2009.)

Review – La Clique – London Hippodrome

October 4, 2008

Last night, on a whim, I took my sister and husband to the opening night of La Clique at the London Hippodrome. To be honest, I was somewhat motivated by the fact that since it was opening night, I could get a “scoop” on my blog. Now, I’m not so low that I’ve gone to writing stories with search keywords like “Britney Spears Naked!” or “9-11 Conspiracy Revealed!” in this blog in order to improve my traffic (see this article by Charlie Brooker to get the joke), but I have to realize there’s a lot to be said about writing a review of a show early in the run rather than the day before it closes. So I pinched my nose, forked over 30 quid a pop for tickets (standing at 10 was a big “no”; I was hoping for the 20 quid “stool” seats, but they’d all gone by 6 PM the night of the show), and in we went, moths flying out of my pocket as we walked in the door. (NOTE: Friday 10:30 PM tickets can be had for £10 with promo code STA: book at LoveTheatre.com.)

Venue first, as I figure no one has really been in the Hippodrome unless they were clubbing in the late 80s: the entrance is right on the corner of the block of buildings on the east side of Charing Cross’s Leicester Square tube exit, and it’s most remarkable to see this big staircase heading off of the sidewalk in a place that’s only ever been a flat wall before. Up we went into a sort of reception area, with clots of people milling in front of a desk where we needed to exchange our tickets for wristbands indicating which area we’d paid to sit in (yes, it’s not reserved seating – we went in half an hour before showtime so we could get better seats than we would if we showed up closer to showtime). To the left was a bar area that had all sorts of food (such as pies), so a real dinner could easily be had here (though I preferred my Chinese food dinner at Red Hot, about three minutes up the street); to the right, a coat check area.

Inside the venue there was a circular depressed area seating about 250 people, backed by red curtains; in between the lowered seating area and the curtains was a smallish raised area containing what I think were the extra premium “seats with tables” (with flowers and candles on them) and a grand piano (off to the right); the nicest bar in the house appeared to be on this level, directly across from the curtains, and the seats kind of expanded out “behind” the little circular stage in the middle toward the bar.

Entrance to the venue was all stage left, and we continued on up to the seats and stools area. This was a balcony with four levels of seating, two of them tables (the ones lowest and closest to the stage were reserved, but apparently the second layer of tables would have been fine for people with my level of wristband if we’d been quick), the two further back rows of high backed chairs (which were all moved up to the glassed walls on the edge of our level of balcony to let us better see the action on stage – otherwise the balustrade was right at eye level). Behind all of these was another, less well equipped bar area (no port; wine 3.65 a glass), and a quite expansive ladies’ room. (What can I say, it’s a joy to not have to wait, and with about 15 stalls and a 1940s ambience, it was really much nicer than I expected.) We were too late to get a table, but took our places in the lower row of chairs and to the right of the stage.

If you are thinking of going, my advice is this: stools on the left to the house would be okay; all chairs and tables upstairs have a good view for all of the show; the premium tables downstairs have rather too many views of performer’s backsides; the seats really close to the stage are a DANGER ZONE and likely to result in you getting splashed or inadvertently involved in a performance; the lower seats close to the bar and facing the stage likely have a good view for everything. (I can’t say about the standing room tickets as I’m not sure where these people were shuffled off to.)

The evening opened with Cabaret Decadanse, who presented a puppet singing a disco song – pretty cute, well done, but not compelling for me as the puppetry wasn’t that amazing (I do see a lot of this stuff) and the music was recorded. If someone had been singing, that probably would have done it for me, but it wasn’t, so I sat there going, “Okay, I’m waiting to be sold on this show still!”

The next act was a “veddy English” balancing act, two guys in bowlers and suits, looking like they were fresh out of some Monty Python skit. I think the gag was that one was the butler to the other. Their skit, playing with umbrellas and canes and their hats, was a blast, and when (whoosh!) we suddenly got to see what they looked like under their suits, I was most impressed. Goodness! It’s just not what you expect of an English guy, to be ripped out like that, but then again most English guys don’t stand on each other’s head when they’re trying to share an umbrella, either. (It did make me miss my home town’s Circus Contraption, though – the strong man and the tiny, trusting girl-child just had a really powerful emotional impact on me that these guys couldn’t touch.)

My second favorite act of the night was “Mario, Queen of the Circus,” who juggled and did unicycle stuff while Queen songs were played. I admit, I’m a sucker for Queen, but there’s a lot to be said for acts that are in the small timeframe a rock song admits – you just can’t get bored of what’s happening. More importantly, though, he was a really good juggler – his stuff was timed to the music. I also enjoy the dichotomy of “art” and “rock and roll” – so often this stuff gets all pretentious and fruity and up its ass, but the Queen songs kept it fun and lively. Mario was on three times, and I really enjoyed seeing him every time.

Less exciting was “Captain Frodo,” whose a contortionist. His schtick of being inept kind of put me off of my balance, but he just didn’t put out a persona I felt was compelling. Admittedly, he was up against some very sexy competition (such as Ursula Martinez, the stripping magician – is it really legal to strip down to absolutely nothing in London?), but … I don’t know, maybe it was the sideburns or the mustache. At any rate, I didn’t go for his stuff, and it wasn’t just because watching him dislocate his elbows was hard on the stomach (though my sister had to flat out turn away from the stage).

The best act of the night was David O’Mer, the bathtub aerialist, who did this stuff with two silk rope-things hanging from over the stage where he rolled himself up the ropes just using his incredible muscles (first his arms, then his legs). He was the one who wound up splashing the front rows of the stage, who had a plastic splash curtain laid down in front of them. (This one very gay black guy dropped his and just revelled in getting splashed – I can see where that would have had its appeal!) O’Mer was just totally sexy and really had his act in top nick – there was no laziness or cue-missing, and he was mighty fine to watch. Phwoar! (And for the gents in the audience, if you didn’t have a good time with Ursula Martinez, there was also Yulia Pikhtina, the gorgeous, amazingly coordinated hula hooper, who was so classy I couldn’t believe she was Russian. Miss Behave was also back for another round, but I don’t think that her schtick is really the kind of thing that would get you that special feeling like O’Mer did for me.)

Most of the performers were on at least twice, which was good for some acts (Mario) but less so for others (Cabaret Decadanse’s “I Simply Cannot Do It Alone” from Chicago was awful, partially because you couldn’t see the performers leg and feet very well, but also because the puppet was dressed so cheaply that it just wasn’t compelling to watch in any way.) But in summary, it was a fun night but worth more like 20 quid rather than 30, and I would recommend it as really fun to do with a bunch of people after work.

(This review was for opening night, Friday, October 3, 2008. Apologies for the less than stellar writing, but I’m off to Italy in two hours and just can’t spare much time!)

Review – Slung Low’s “Helium” – The Barbican

September 24, 2008

A few weeks ago I read a review for a show (in The Metro, which shockingly put it online for once) that really caught my attention. It sounded like one of those site-specific pieces – sort of … well, what do you call those Punchdrunk-style things where the audience gets walked around? Er … well, okay, it sounded like an interesting piece of theater to experience, one where the story is very much created by what it’s like to watch the play, rather that just sitting and watching a story take place in front of you. I was especially interested because (as I recalled the review) it was about a girl’s relationship with her grandfather, and I had a very close relationship with my grandmother and am thus interested in seeing this kind of thing depicted by other people.

The show was also described as being very intimate, with just one person being allowed to watch it at a time. Wow! That sounded very different. And it was short – so if it was terrible, it would all be over soon. And Boy Howdy was it cheap – £10 a ticket. I was sold.

As was, apparently, everyone else on God’s green earth who had read the Metro (or perhaps TimeOut, as its review was also pretty positive). Tickets were sliding out of my husband’s fingers (as he attempted to navigate the Barbican’s online ticketing facilities) faster than I could say, “Yes! No!” and we wound up booking for the last hour of the last night of this show, with entrance times an hour apart. Damn!

As we (at last) arrived (with tickets that had fortunately been rejiggered so we were only 15 minutes apart – and then they let us just come in immediately after each other, with a five minute separation), we were greeted by cheerful tour guides, who gave us birthday card invitations (with our specific entrance time written on them – as well as our names, of course) and gummy worms, then sat us down to await our turn. When my turn came, a guide came and introduced himself to me. He was going to be my guide for the whole show, and he promised to get me every time and make sure I went to the right place (none of this Battersea Arts Center faffing around stuff, thank God). He explained to me that there were going to be people in the rooms we were going to go in, and even though I could see them, they couldn’t see me and wouldn’t respond to me if I talked to them (I restrained myself from rolling my eyes), though I was free to walk around and look at things unless he had pointed out a particular place for me to be. He also very kindly took my sweater and purse. I realized he was just an actor, but still, I’ve hardly had someone talk so nicely to me in the two years I’ve been here, so it was actually a nice way to start the evening. I restrained myself from making some kind of, “So, it’s closing night, how have the audiences been?” kind of comment and let him stay in character instead.

We then walked up to a little free standing building that looked kind of like a plywood garden shed, with stairs going up to a door and no windows. Around the space I could see other jumpsuited guides walking people up to other buildings … hmm! A series of simultaneously occurring plays! How cool … The guide explained that we were actually starting at the end, which he repeated as if many of the people attending had just found it far too confusing. He opened the door for me (while promising to come back and get me when it was time to leave) … and in I went.

Inside the shed was a little room that looked like someone’s office, with books on the wall, a desk, and a few partially packed boxes. A woman (Vicky Pratt) was sitting in front of the desk on the old-fashioned phone talking, while the (also old-fashioned) radio droned on loudly. After a while it became clear that the radio was actually commenting on what she was saying, and, eventually, even talking about me – or, rather, my presence in the room. Between the woman and the radio, I gathered that she was there to clean up her grandfather’s place after he died, and that there was some sort of mystery she was trying to solve … something about how he used to give her a helium filled balloon for her birthday every year … I think. Unfortunately because I was sick, I was kind of fading in and out of paying attention, and I was getting very hung up at looking at all of the detail of the little environment I was in. What was the book she was flipping through? Was there some clue in the periodic table that was on the wall? Um … was I supposed to be listening a little better? No matter, she hung up the phone, the door behind her opened, and presto! There was my guide.

I stepped out of the back of the shed and my guide offered me some popcorn as we walked the two or so yards to my second stop. Mmm, popcorn! He had me flip a switch and then sent me into the next environment, my favorite of the night – “A theater with a seat just for you!” as my guide had promised. Inside the box, I found myself standing behind a balcony at a movie theater, “far above” the rows and rows of tiny seats on the floor. It was adorable! A movie was playing on the screen showing magic tricks, which I think was supposed to be a scene from the grandfather’s life, perhaps something about handling disappointment poorly. A balloon did appear on the screen … but I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention. The environment was just so adorable that I spent at least half of my time looking at the incredible detail. I felt like I was inside of a doll’s house (did the box of popcorn perhaps have a label on it saying, “Eat Me?”). Then the movie was over, the credits rolled … and the door opened, and my guide was waiting outside.

The third room had a much more mechanical look to it, like I was going into a safe or a submarine. I was instructed to sit in the corner and put the headphones on. I opened the door … and there was a man sitting in the corner with his own headphones on, dressed in a kind of jumpsuit … with a radio next to him … and something funny about the floor …. ah! I got it! We were in an airplane in World War II, and he was talking to his friends in the other airplanes on the radio. I could hear what they were saying to him in my headphones … but then also … another voice … the one I heard in the first room. It was two voices, in fact, apparently the grandfather, commenting on this period of his life, and … the mystery character. Then, suddenly, we were going on a bombing raid, and the floor of the room opened up, a great breeze blew in from the opened bombing bay, and we watched as the bombs fell out of the little airplane’s belly and made pretty fire bouquets … all over Dresden.

My my my. How these things do come full circle. (Which probably means nothing to anyone reading this who doesn’t know me personally.)

At this point, I’ll actually stop telling the tale of the show, so that if they remount it, anyone who reads this review will still have some surprises. There were two more environments, neither of which was nearly as good as the second and third, and then a little fun bit as you walked out, but overall, I felt … well, like it was good, but like the story was just starting as I was leaving! It’s actually a good thing to have a show not wear out its welcome, but this one really seemed just too short. I was enjoying myself and really going with it and would have been happy to have kept on with the story for at least another half an hour, even though I was ill and just all too grateful that half of the scenes had a place for me to sit. I apologize if you missed it, but given how fast the tickets sold out the day the reviews hit the street, I’m sure you are not alone in this. Let’s hope it gets done again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 20th, when I was pretty much on my deathbed but still bound and determined to get out and see this show. It was closing night. Apologies in advance if you want to see it.)

Review – Pinter’s “A Slight Ache” and “Landscape” – National Theatre

September 16, 2008

I am a big Pinter fan, so there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be heading to the National to see “A Slight Ache” and “Landscape,” a (second) set of Pinter one act plays (“The Lover” and “The Collection” being the ones I saw and loved earlier this year). But I was shocked to find out that three weeks beforehand, it was already nearly sold out! Who were these maniacs with a strange inclination toward highly modern story telling … in the form of one acts? Well … who knows, but with £10 tickets (in some areas), I wasn’t going to question it too much.

Once I got to the theater, which was full and rather noisy, it came to me … people were here to see Simon Russell Beale. Now, I haven’t really got the hang of the British theatrical establishment (in part because I really detest the culture of celebrity here, but also because I’m usually too cheap to buy programs and have a mind like a sieve), but I did start remembering seeing him rather a lot … like in the extremely fun Major Barbara … and apparently also The Alchemist and even Galileo. He did actually make a bit of an impression, so perhaps there’s something going on here with this person that I’ve been missing. And, gosh, it appears I’ve also seen Clare Higgins acting alongside him, in that very production of Major Barbara. I almost feel gauche to not have remembered her name. Ah, well, I’m sure they’ve both long forgotten about me.

Anyway, as to the plays: um.

*sigh*

I’m SO sorry, but I was really disappointed! “A Slight Ache” was acted extremely well, but the director made the horrible mistake of actually embodying the third “character” – I think it was a mistake – well, if it was actually originally a radio play, this non-speaking role wouldn’t have been filled. But why bother? To me, it would have been far more satisfying with the two of them talking to thin air rather than actually having to make “Mr. Death” have some sort of a body and face and move. And … the script! PLEASE was every playwright REQUIRED to write a play about boring middle aged people having to confront death in a surrealist/absurdist fashion (“The Sandbox,” “The chairs,” “Waiting for Godot,” etc. ad nauseum). Sure it was Pinter, and the dialogue was interesting, and there was a bit of implied or actual violence and some odd tension, but I got bored and never particularly cared what happened to the characters. In fact, they pretty well lost me the minute the husband decided to send his wife out to invite Mr. Death in for a cup of tea. Aside from the fact the whole thing was set on my birthday (“It’s the longest day of the year!” – Freudian slipped that as “longest play of the year,” can’t imagine why), I really didn’t get a lot of sparkle out of this show. And someone’s hearing aid was uttering a high pitch shriek that was particularly audible during all of those Pinter silences. I wanted to stick an ice pick in my own ear and make the noise go away. Who’d think Pinter’s quiet bits could actually be so painful?

I was left hoping for more during the second (shorter) play, “Landscape,” but it just didn’t happen. This play was more attractively mysterious – why were these two people living together? What had happened between them? Was she mad? – but just unfortunately not engaging, possibly due to burnout earlier in the evening. I did learn an awful lot about proper care of beer in a traditional pub, but that really wasn’t enough to justify the evening.

In short: I’d probably advise a miss on these, even if you really like Beale. Not everything a playwright creates in genius, and this night is only for the hardcore, which means I probably deserved every minute of it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 15th, 2008.)

Review – Jordi Savall and Rolf Lislevand – BBC Proms, Cadogan Hall

August 22, 2008

On Monday, I did the unthinkable : I skived out of work to go see a concert over my lunch hour. Now, in the States, I wouldn’t have considered this too unusual, as in a downtown location I could have easily walked to a concert in a plaza or something (a treat I frequently indulged in back in my days temping at a law office in Seattle), but in London, this required a half hour tube journey to make it to my destination. With time getting to the tube and then to the hall, suddenly my lunch “hour” was two and a half hours long … but, to see Jordi Savall, I was more than willing to push the limits of what was an acceptable time to be away for lunch.

To some degree, to appreciate why I considered it worthwhile to upend my entire day (and race, panting, up several flights of stairs), you have to understand how I feel about Jordi Savall’s musicianship. He is … an artist. He is perfection. He occupies the throne of exaltation previously reserved for the likes of David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux, and Perry Farrell (and now occupied by Carlos Acosta and Arianna Lallone and Bill Viola, gods who walk the earth alongside us mere mortals).

I spend many of my days at work listening to Otto’s Baroque Music on 1 FM (the irritating commercials are almost made up for by the great music), and I can always tell when Jordi is playing. Maybe it’s something about how he records his music; frequently, the sound quality is so intimate I can hear the light movements as the bow starts to move across the strings, and often even the breathing of the man who holds that bow. It is not like being in the same room as the player; it’s like sitting directly in front of him, like being able to feel the vibrations in the fabric of your clothing. It’s amazing. (It’s also nicely described here if you want to hear someone else rhapsodize about him – it’s not just me.)

I realized one day, sitting here at my computer, that now that I live in Europe, I can get that feeling much more directly by actually going to see him play. I don’t know rich classical musicians; sitting around cloistered away is not how most of them live – they play and they teach. So, as I mentioned in July, I looked and found his touring calendar online, and, much to my delight, discovered he was going to be in London … performing a “BBC Proms” lunchtime concert (whatever it is that a Prom is, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with wearing long dresses and tuxedos and dancing). I marked it on my schedule, promised my boss I’d make up the lost time … and waited for August 18th to finally roll around.

The concert itself was in Cadogan Hall (pronounced Ka-dug’gin, like “a jug in”), delightfully situated a quick sprint to the right of the exit of Sloane Square tube station. And it’s gorgeous inside, a nice rake so the seats had a good view of the stage, and the upper balcony gorgeously curved around the lower floor – I would recommend it for any concert (of the sort I enjoy, at any rate).

The performance itself was the music I’ve learned to love over the last 15 years, primarily Marais and Ortiz, with Savall on his lovely, English-made viol, and Lislevand alternately on guitar and archlute. A BBC presenter introduced it while I was finding my seat, and talked about each bit of music and its composer – a nice touch, I thought, since I so frequently know nothing more than what I read about them in the program notes (when they bother to make them!). Jordi was also interviewed, which I found very charming (and probably shouldn’t have surprised me, this being a radio show, which I might not have realized – I thought it was just a concert series) – I felt like he was trying to describe the infinite when he was talking about music, and that words were just about not good enough to put the content of his head and heart out there to the world. In addition to the ever popular Preludes and Musettes from Marais’ third book and the Hume pieces I’d heard last winter at St. John’s Smith Square, I also got to here “La Sautillante,” which was new for me, and I was pleased as if I’d found a rare B-side in a record shop.

All in all, the concert wrapped up very nicely within an hour, and I was able to rush back to work and get on with my day … knowing, full well, that when I go back to think about what I did that day, the only thing that I will remember in the future – possibly the only thing I will remember about this entire week – is the gorgeous hour I spent in Cadogan hall listening to the best viola da gamba player in the world doing what he is most brilliant at; making ancient music come to exquisite life.

Here’s the program, which, with luck, might be available to download on the BBC website:

* Ortiz: Passamezzo antico; Folia; Ruggiero Romanesca; Passamezzo moderno (Savall and Lislevand)
* Hume: “A Souldiers March”; “Harke, harke”; “A Souldiers Resolution” (Savall)
* Marais: Pièces de viole, 3è livre – Prélude; Muzettes I/II; La sautillante (Savall and Lislevand, I think)
* Sanz: Jácaras; Canarios (Lislevand)
* Marais Couplets des Folies d’espagne (Savall and Lislevand)