Posts Tagged ‘Royal Festival Hall’

Review – Sandy Toksvig’s “Christmas Cracker” – Royal Festival Hall

December 24, 2009

I didn’t know anything about Sandy Toksvig or her semi-cohost Ronnie Corbett but the blurb on LastMinute.com for “Sandy Toskvig’s Christmas Cracker” totally sold me, promising “festive sing-a-longs” and a retelling of “A Christmas Carol!” It all sounded very English and a lot of fun, as I really enjoy group sings and I love a Christmas Carol.

Well. As it turns out, this show was just not all it was cracked up to be. Sandy had a few jokes to tell, Ronnie managed to make jokes about dildos (“Ann Summers calling: we need you to return our fire extinguisher”), viagra, and being felt up (not really appropriate given the number of under-12s in the audience), but somehow far too much time got wasted on a not very enticing story about a mute stagehand and the Christmas fairy he falls in love with. The guest artists seemed generally horribly wasted in the utterly underpowered Christmas Carol: neither Miriam Margolis (as Mrs. Cratchitt) or Tim Pigott-Smith (as Scrooge) were able to do much other than act as background to Toskvig’s own weak jokes.

Even sadder was the unsingability of the supposed singalong moments. We were invited to join Barb Jungr as she attacked holiday classics (“White Christmas,” I think, and, er, something else, maybe “Winter Wonderland”) with a Minelli-esque enthusiasm – possibly from the coked-up years. The thing is, even though her voice was good, when you start going all over the place with your songs, people can not sing along with you. I would have really wanted to, but hers was not a “lead a singalong” performance – it was showy solos all the way through. And the three tenor men who sang earlier – good voices but still, they were showing off and harmonizing, not inviting us to participate. This was an utter flop as a singalong. (And I’ve mostly supressed the memory of the horrible, flat voice of the child who played “The Little Match Girl.” Seriously, this is London: could they not have found a brat who could at least hold a note, and even the RIGHT note? Were they all off performing in Oliver? Did perhaps Ms. Toksvig owe this girl’s mother a favor of some sort? The mind boggles.)

Actually, as I sat there clutching the contents of my cracker and my ticket stub after the show – reminding me I’d shelled out £25 for the pleasure of attending plus £2 for a paper crown, a bad joke, and a battery operated candle – I realized that the whole evening, from the not funny magician to the not funny stagehand to the – dare I say it – not funny joke in my cracker, was just pretty lame. Was it under-rehearsed? Is the Royal Festival hall just the kind of barn that kills any show? In retrospect, the best moments were when an audience member was being chosen in pub-quiz style to participate in “The Christmas Carol” (as Tiny Skirt, er, Tiny Tim), and the brief moment when Ronnie and Mr. Pigott-Smith were joking with each other on stage. But otherwise it was a really poor way to blow my night. Thank goodness this dog is over; I only wish I’d been warned soon enough to have spent the night at home watching David Attenborough on the BBC Iplayer.

(This review is for the performance that took place on December 23rd at 7:30 PM. The show is now over. Weep not. A more thorough review can be found on the West End Whingers‘ site.)

Summary from the Southbank website: A Christmas cabaret in Royal Festival Hall featuring an array of guest stars from the worlds of music, magic and comedy, including the legendary Ronnie Corbett. Hosted by queen of the quips Sandi Toksvig and a house band, the show is a joyous mix of music and comedy. It features festive sing-a-longs and, in time-honoured tradition, a re-working of a much-loved period drama in the form of a hilarious romp through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, written by Sandi Toksvig and a specially commissioned Christmas anthem by Fascinating Aida’s Dillie Keane. Created by Sandi Toksvig and Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly, and directed by Fiona Laird, who directed Stephen Fry’s Cinderella at the Old Vic in 2007 starring Sandi Toksvig, each performance will have the same format, although star guests will vary through the show’s ten-day run.

Special guest stars now announced! Keep checking the website for updates – the remaining guest stars to be announced soon.

The 20 December performance is captioned and has speech-to-text reporting.

Date
Vocalist
Scrooge
Cratchits
Choir
15 Dec
Maria Friedman
Stephen Mangan
Sara Kestelman
Voicelab
16 Dec
Maria Friedman
Nicholas Parsons
Sara Cox
Voicelab
17 Dec
Sarah Connolly
Fiona Shaw
Jeremy Hardy
Diversity
18 Dec
Denise Van Outen
John Humphrys
Dick & Dom
Diversity
19 Dec
Barb Jungr
Roger Lloyd Pack
Sara Kestelman
Diversity
20 Dec
Clive Rowe
Jon Snow
June Whitfield
London Gay
Men’s Chorus
21 Dec
Sharon D. Clark
Rob Brydon
Sara Kestelman
London Gay
Men’s Chorus
22 Dec
Frances Ruffelle 
Arthur Smith
Sue Perkins
London Gay
Men’s Chorus
23 Dec
Barb Jungr
Tim Pigott-Smith
Miriam Margolyes
Voicelab
24 Dec
Maria Friedman
Lionel Blair
Sue Perkins
Voicelab

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Review – “Wizard of Oz” – Royal Festival Hall, London

August 6, 2008

“Surrender Dorothy,” indeed. For this show, I think “Beware Dorothy” might be a more appropriate tag.

As someone who grew up watching The Wizard of Oz over and over again (once a year, on TV), the possibility of NOT seeing this show was small. Basically, every time I saw the ruby slippers on a poster at the Southbank, I knew I had to go. Appropriately, I was promised tickets as a birthday present – what better to bring a sparkle to my eye? – then studiously avoided reading all reviews of the show until I went last night.

This may or may not have been a good thing.

From the beginning, I had problems with elements of this show. I liked the Kansas version of the set, with a video screen overhead showing images of fields and stormy skies and the floor fenced off by corrugated metal that nicely implied a not very rich farmstead. But from the minute she came on stage, Dorothy (Sian Brooke) rubbed me the wrong way. First, she seemed whiny rather than plucky (home from school on a farm? I promise you you’d be set to doing chores right away, not bothering the farmhands with your gossip), and her accent was atrocious. How can English actors get 40 kinds of English accents right and fail so miserably at almost every American accent? “Southern” and “New Yawk” do not substitute for Midwestern, and Dorothy sounded like she was about to run down the road to Tara and make a fancy dress out of the drapes. I was mortified. Not only do people from Kansas not talk like that (I should know), but neither did Judy Garland (whose performance was so clearly influencing this one) in this or any other movie.

That said, I was patient at the beginning despite my frustrations. Toto was adorable (though ever so focused on the contents of Dorothy’s pockets – ah, dogs!), the various characters were still establishing themselves (though mostly coming off a little cardboardy), Kansas isn’t exactly supposed to be “magical,” so there was still plenty of time for things to improve.

Sadly, the magic never happened at all. Dorothy’s tornado scene should have blown the metal away in preparation for entering a new world. Instead, she lay on her bed as it circled around the stage floor, while the video screen showed childish drawings of a spring around a funnel, with occasional projections over the spring of a boat, a cow, a bicycle, and a witch (if these were the “visual installation,” Huntley Muir has a lot to answer for). These drawings became a source of amusement for me, and I made sketches of them to show just how bad they were (see reproductions, fairly lifelike, made in MS Paint, the first the projection used while on the Yellow Brick Road, the other the one that appeared when they were in the forest finding the Tin Man) since I wasn’t particularly captured by the “action” on stage.YellowBrickRoadsign

So … Oz, land of wonders. Or not. The world was still full of corrugated metal, with a tiny opening in the back of the stage (6 by 15 feet?) showing blue skies and representing arrival in Munchkinland, now full of small children who managed to sing a bit but struggled with their dialogue. At this point, the failures in the lighting design (by Mike Gunning) began to really irritate me. A group of moving people in what is supposed to be an outdoor space should not be walking in and out of shadows on stage. Is this a problem with the Royal Festival Hall, say a lack of places to plug in lights? At the very least, much heavier use should have been made of follow spots; I would have kept one constantly trained on the red slippers during the entire time they were on the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet. Instead, they sat in the shadows, somewhat forlorn, a rather sad fate for such well publicized footwear.

TinManProjectionThroughout the entire time in Oz, the metal background never went away. The scene in the cornfield (full of crows who looked like Goth versions of Robert Michener in Night of the Hunter) took place surrounded by metal, the poppy field (in which escapees from St. Trinians held giant red flowers over their heads) was similarly ghetto gated, even the Emerald City had a shantytown look to it. By the time we made it to the Wild West hangout of the Wicked Witch of the West (featuring cowboy hatted and duster wearing, all-black, “Yo hee oh” chanting Winkies – what had gone wrong with this world?), I’d long given up on ever escaping from this dim little set. Was there no fly system to carry things away? Was there no backstage? Did the revolve only provide a tatty little yellow marley circle for the performers to half-heartedly stroll on?

What I found myself longing for (other than for the people who sat in the audience talking like they were at home watching TV to DIE) was the raw energy and enthusiasm of Pantos. (This show isn’t done as one per my English born companion, but I had thought from reading the West End Whingers’ article on why they weren’t going to see the “Wizard of Oz” that it was). The Cowardly Lion (Gary Wilmot) was getting there; he hammed it up, gave his lines 110%, and acted like he needed to act loud enough for the people at the back of this barn (most of us) to feel his performance. While this wouldn’t have been appropriate for a really serious performance, it seemed like it fit with this show fairly well. And the Tin Man (Adam Cooper) was not a bad dancer and actually tossed in some gratuitous (and much appreciated) tap moments. In fact, for me, the closest this got to magic was when the gang of four were bitten by a “jitterbug” and all wound up dancing around on stage. This show could have used a lot more of this kind of action – as well as a lot more enthusiasm in general.

It seemed ultimately it was all brought down by Sian Brooke, who just seemed to be going through the paces (the joke in our row being she was off to Oz in search of acting lessons and returning to Kansas hoping to find her accent). Is she upset at being trapped in this turkey and just biding her time until her contract is over? I haven’t seen such a listless performance since the closing week 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, in whch the half-full houses seemed to be pulling the smiles off of the chorus members’ faces en masse. Maybe she just found the work of taking care of a dog and acting at the same time too much to handle, but in a town with the depth of theater talent that London has, there is simply no excuse for her lackluster performance. She let down every other person on stage, except for Toto, who, obviously, isn’t a person and appeared to be having a great time, which meant at least one living creature in this horrid barn was. Certainly the 10 year old napping on my shoulder wasn’t, nor her 8 year old sister.

In short: not as bad as Fram (see the Framometer at the WestEnd Whinger’s site – and note we actually stayed through the interval though I would left if this hadn’t been my birthday present – my friend said the increasingly hysterical levels of cheese were encouraging him to stay to see just how bad it could get) but still a turkey and TOO DAMNED LONG. Don’t take your kids, don’t go yourself, play your get out of jail free card before you buy and take a pass on this mess.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008. For an even more sizzling review, read Russell’s Theatre Reviews, where the origin of the horrible overhead projections is explained in great detail. The good news is that West Side Story, which I’ll be seeing next week, is supposed to be great, as is Pygmalion, which I’m seeing tonight, and even Into the Hoods, which ends at the end of this month, should be fun.)

Shen Yun “Divine Performing Arts” Ensemble – Chinese Art Spectacular – Royal Festival Hall

February 23, 2008

NOTE: I completely support freedom of religion, and I support the right of Fa Lun Gung practitioners to follow their religion as they see fit. This review is NOT “anti-Fa Lun Gung,” it is simply a theatrical review of what was billed as an arts performance. I am against the suppression of Fa Lun Gung as it is against the universal rights of man to not be able to follow the religion you choose.

Well, this was not the night I was expecting. I was warned, more or less, in the opening number, in which pretty dancing ladies in traditional dress, buddhist monks, and Chinese warriors danced on stage in front of a video screen. Suddenly, a flying chariot shot down from the sky and the deity within it said, “All come together and live a thousand years!” or something like that, and the people on stage all turned and bowed to the video screen.

Oh my God, we had bought tickets to a Chinese religious “revival.” And this wasn’t some run of the mill religion: it was the heavily persecuted Fa Lun Gung cult, for two and a half hours. Holy shades of Xenu, Batman!

To be clear, there was quite a bit of traditional Chinese dance, including a charming “Tibetan bowl dance,” a number in which whirled yellow handkerchiefs (which looked like dandelions) made a field of flowers (supposedly forsythias), and two different fan dances. But these were interspersed with the most heinous vocal performances I’ve seen since … well, I am thinking of Lyric Opera Northwest’s Carmen, but we weren’t really suffering from poor vocals. What we were presented was a culturally painful pastiche of anime style hooped ballgowns, a straight Western singing style, and lyrics … all about Fa Lun Gung. Let me give you an example.

“So vast loomed this world/I knew not who I was/Oh how many lifetimes? The number was a blur.
“Lost no help in sight/Only distress and pain/How weary, how heavy was this longing heart.
“Until one day I finally came upon the truth/Until The Way (Da Fa, from Fa Lun Da Fa, the great path of Fa Lun Gung) I had sought pierced the ear like thunder.” (Okay, that’s not as obvious as the one where the woman sang, “Fa Lun Gung, it’ll make you feel better,” but this happens to be the one I had the pen out for.)

I was mortified. I had inadvertently fell into a cache of very sincere religious people singing and dancing their hearts out in support of their faith, and I had paid to be there.

To be fair, the artistry was quite good if you like Chinese dance, and the erhu (Chinese violin) performance was great, but I was crawling in my skin and rather angry with the promoters for hiding the true nature of this performance. I mean, I have no one to blame but myself for not realizing that the Bach “Saint John’s Passion” is basically a really long Bible reading, but the promotional material for this performance said it was a Chinese performing arts presentation, and indicated nowhere that it was a group of American Fa Lun Gung believers on a tour of Europe to raise consciousness about their great religion and their persecution by the Chinese government.

That said, I was quite absorbed by the two pieces about how, well, let’s be clear, the Chinese authorities beat up, imprison, and sometimes kill people who practice Fa Lun Gung. The piece set in the prison (with three women prisoner who clearly are being held because of their faith) may have been extremely corny insofar as it proposed that someone could see images of dancing Chinese fairies if they believed hard enough; but the bit about being beaten to death in jail, that was pretty real and it hit a nerve that most dance I see just pretends isn’t even there. The two women who saw their friend joining the angels in heaven (albeit a Chinese/Buddhist heaven): totally outside of my belief system, and yet the raw need to believe something positive could come out such a horrible death (and probably some rather bad lives) was palpable from my balcony seat. It even gave me some sympathy for my own torturers. And, I have to admit, the way China’s ramping up throwing dissidents in jail with the Olympics on the way, I felt rather cheery about having someone say, “Yo! China! Let’s talk about how great it isn’t!” (This was exactly the point made in the other religious dance piece, in which the mother and her daughter started out waving a Fa Lun Gung banner and were then forcibly separated by soldiers – the rather subtle message being that the world should not be a bystander to this abuse. They pointed this out to us before it started in case we might have missed the extremely heavy-handed symbolism.) I imagine the Chinese government gnashing its collective teeth over this show, which, well, really worked the political angle, generally speaking in a club like way.

Fa Lun Gung also seemed not so great, based on the dance piece in which the punk and the goth had goddesses and monks shaming them for their bad clothes (but then rewarding them with a religious text in a scene that had me thinking of Joseph Smith and the golden tablets) – is conformity really such a virtue for them? I think, though, rather than them disliking them for being “punk,” it may be, in fact, that they were being rejected for being homosexual – and for me, a religion (or culture or country) that persecutes homosexuals is not one that I could ever support.

While the religious element in general had me wishing for a much earlier end to the show, I also take issue with it being too long overall, using video screens in an imagination-inhibiting way, and … well, the singers just shouldn’t have been there at all, because they were boring and they ruined the flow of the rest of the show. And how could they do a show about Chinese arts and culture that didn’t have even a nod to the Journey to the West? So while at the end we were exhorted to bring our friends and family, I will say to you instead: avoid, avoid, avoid this show, even if you really like Chinese culture (like I do) – it’s like watching a two and a half hour long religious infomercial.