Posts Tagged ‘Sharon D Clarke’

Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theater

January 31, 2016

There are three playwrights whose works I collect obsessively, aiming for “the complete set.” Shakespeare isn’t one of them, oddly enough … but Ibsen and Pinter are. The third member of this set? American author August Wilson, whose work The Piano Lesson I first saw in a student production at Rutgers University in the mid-nineties. Then when I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to see one after another of his works – some of them debuts – at the Seattle Repertory Theater. I saw him hanging out writing at a local coffee shop. He was an icon of American history, a playwright with a compelling vision of documenting the African American experience in the 20th century.

I was afraid I’d never get to see his plays again after moving to the UK and The Pittsburgh Cycle would be forever left with gaps. But to my joy, the Young Vic decided to stage Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2010, and the game was back on … but with a long, long gap between that show and the National Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which officially opens February 2nd. I couldn’t wait after five years of no Wilson, though, and I went and got a ticket for the first night of previews. It’s nearly the earliest in the cycle and it was the second one he wrote – and its subject, the fabulous (titular) 1920s blues singer, was one who I was eager to see on stage. I mean, this was IT. I was so there.

At the start, musicians Cutler (Clint Dyer), Levee (O-T Fagbenle), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) sit in the green room and warm up while waiting for Ma herself to appear. The play begins to seem like it’s another Waiting for Godot – but with four musicians waiting for eternity to pay them a visit. I stepped back, though, and realized what I was actually seeing on stage: August Wilson giving us a chance to see how African Americans act with each other when they’re not under the gaze of white Americans (in this case the fractious recording studio bosses, Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie – and Irvin – Finbar Lynch). Yeah, there’s some discussions about how black and white Americans deal with each other, but what’s more important is that it’s four men talking philosophy and bullshit, being friends with each other, talking about their aspirations, being themselves in a way that’s impossible to do when under the eye of The Man. Wilson’s given us a gift, a chance to be backstage on a number of levels, and as an audience member, my job was to sit back and enjoy.

This isn’t Beckett redux, though: Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) does appear, and, oh my, she is SUCH a character, a million megawatts of talent with willpower that could send a rocket to Pluto and back. I can see why Wilson wanted to immortalize her in a play. Seeing a black woman fight to get what’s hers – and pushing back and the ridiculous barriers people try to fence her in with because of her race and gender – was inspirational. I was also amazed to see her toting Dussie Mae, a female groupie (Tamara Lawrance), with her into the recording session – giving us a bit of a chance to see a bit of life on the other side of that power divide. I have no idea to what extent any of this was based on historical evidence or if Wilson just cooked it up in his head – but Wilson (and Lawrance) has created an impressively real character and dynamic, and I was … well, I couldn’t tear my eyes off of the stage. Wow.

The ending … well, you guys know we’re not living in a very nice world, right? And Wilson reminds us that some things haven’t really changed a lot in (nearly) a hundred years, and gives us food for thought. It was a good payout for my financial and time (2:35) investment, and I hope the run is as successful as the quality of the cast and the material deserve.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on January 25th, 2016. It continues through May 18th.)


Review – Mother Goose – Hackney Empire

December 23, 2014

After eleven months of heavy duty theater watching, I approached the Christmas season somewhat fearfully. I had agreed to review five shows in two weeks; on top of the shows I said I’d see with friends, I was looking at 14 shows in 12 days: six of them pantos. But you know what? It was like TWO WEEKS OF CHOCOLATE after a year of eating health food. December has been MY CHRISTMAS TREAT TO ME. Sure, no normal person would want to see three pantos a week (or more) for the entire month of December, but I LOVED IT!

And what panto did I want to see at the end of the second week? Hackney Empire! Because the whole point of the Christmas season panto-ganza is that I HEART PANTO and I wanted to see the BEST PANTO IN LONDON and after seeing five other pantos I was warmed up to it! I had had five appetizers and I was was ready for the main course (and had paid appropriately and invited friends)! And I was even more ready for it because Clive Rowe had been taking a star turn at the National last year and even though Suzie McKenna’s writing is good, having a dame like Clive really changes the dynamic of a panto. So Friday night and bring on Mother Goose!

Storywise, this Mother Goose is about the dangers of greed. At the beginning, Mother Goose is in danger of losing her house because she can’t pay the rent; but when she gets a goose that lays golden eggs (a goose that apparently has no idea what her new owner had been doing with her previous geese), her sudden wealth makes her avaricious. Of course, who doesn’t want to her Clive singing “Goldfinger” and walking around in glamorous gold ball gowns, but Ms Goose wants to be young and beautiful as well and is seduced by the evil fairy into taking a bath in a supposed “fountain of youth” … all in a plot to steal the goose.

Plot, however, is not the reason I go to panto. I go because I love to laugh. And with a master performer like Clive Rowe, this is pretty much guaranteed. He teases the audience mercilessly, ad lib on stage until the other performers forget their lines, and manages to make a hat constructed of goose eggs seem like a perfectly normal thing to wear. Of course, what we also get are scripted jokes (bad puns for the kids, innuendo and politics for the adults), fun dance numbers (Hackney always seems to slip in some tap dancing and I, for one, wholly approve) and the truly fantastic voices of all of the members of the cast. Good witch Sharon D Clarke could be doing concerts and instead we get the pleasure of listening to her serenade us while wearing wings. The whole things comes together so perfectly that, once again, I had tears rolling down my face because I was having such a good time. What ever have we done to deserve a panto as good as Hackney puts on every year? I think I’m just going to have to leaves some extra cookies out for Santa on Christmas eve, because he gave me everything I could have asked for with this one.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 12, 2014. It continues through January 4th.)

Spoiler-free review – Ghost the Musical – Picadilly Theater

July 5, 2011

I was sure I was the only person in London who had not seen Ghost, and while I’m sure that’s not exactly true, I think it’s important that I write a review for those people out there who have not seen the movie, so that they can approach it with the kind of open-mindedness that I had when I went to the show. I therefore pledge that in this review I will give away no plot points you can’t figure out just from looking at the poster, because I believe it’s fun to go to a show and not know what is going to happen already. (I’ll do a more detailed review with plenty of info about the plot later for you aficionados.)

Right. So … Ghost is a musical … love is very important in it … and there is a ghost! (I don’t want to say who the ghost is because I didn’t even know THAT much when I went.) It’s set in New York, and while the movie was in 1990, the stage version seems pretty appropriate to now, with mild updating such as people using cell phones and digital cameras all of the time. I had some problems with some of the office scenes as the costuming was too London-like, but the subways and streets of Brooklyn were all done really well. I also didn’t have a single accent bobble, probably the first time I’ve seen a show set in America played by a (partially) English cast where I didn’t cringe at misprounounced vowels.

While I found the musical part of this show not really my cup of tea (the lyrics were just terribly simplistic and the tunes were all forgettable – a great vice like Caissie Levy has cannot fix this problem), the story itself was actually very compelling. I was actually on the edge of my seat during the first act and found myself really wondering what act two was going to bring – something which very rarely happens to me. The themes of love, sadness, revenge, loneliness, and regret transcended the “this is a movie adaptation that we can now convince people to pay people to watch on stage” and made for something which I think was much more universally appealing. In addition, there were GREAT special effects, which left me and my group of friends scratching our heads in a “how did they do it kind of way.” While I would never want to see a show for the effects, the important thing for this is that they were all done so quietly and seamlessly that it allowed the “magic” to happen and for you/me (“the audience”) to just enjoy the story that was happening without having that grumbly let-down of “did you see the mirror under the land speeder just then.” In fact, though, the special effects were SO good that I’m recommending it to two lighting designers as an excellent example of state-of-the-art design.

While I would have voted for stronger songs, I can’t deny that this show was enjoyable and that the audience seemed to have a really fantastic time – crying (for real!) at the sad parts, standing and cheering at the end. And I thought it was a good night out. Overall I’m predicting this show will be successful, and if you’re looking for a good evening with your girlfriends or out of town guests, this is a very good example of what you can do with a solid budget and a top quality cast. It’ll be running for a long time, I’m sure. Enjoy!

(This review is for a preview that took place on Monday, July fourth, 2011. Official opening is July 19th.)