Posts Tagged ‘Simon Russell Beale’

Review – Mr Foote’s Other Leg – Hampstead Theater

October 6, 2015

I get a kick out of seeing shows that are headed for a transfer, and, as the fall season is ramping up, it looks like the clear winners of the race to the West End are Royal Court’s Hangman and Hampstead Theater’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg. In fact, Mr Foote’s transfer was announced today – so all the more reason to try to see it while it’s still in the intimate, affordable (£35 top seat) Hampstead Theater.

While the original Mr Foote was quite famous in his time, few people have heard about him these days – the one legged performer who once owned the Haymarket Theater (and, in fact, secured a royal license for it). Ian Kelly has attempted to remedy this with his recent biography of the late-18th century comedian/writer/debtor/sexual criminal. This biography forms the basis for the stage play, but, as a play, it takes certain liberties with the story in order to propel the action properly (a trick used frequently by Shakespeare) – most notably in the set up for the loss of Mr. Foote’s other foot, the onstage amputation of which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “sight gag.”

As played, this show focuses on the trio of Foote (Simon Russell Beale, as camp as a Girl Scout’s summer), his leading lady “Mrs” Woofington (the heartbreaking Dervla Kirwan), and the “leader of the opposition,” David Garrick (a somewhat stiff Joseph Millson). The three of them fight for fame and audience share, while sharing the stage and occasionally a bed (well, at least in one scene). Their journey is the heart of the show, but there’s a lot more to enjoy. In fact, the cast is nearly overegged with talent – Ian Kelly (showing off, I thought, as Prince George); Micah Balfour (as Foote’s servant and accuser, Frank Barber); and Jenny Galloway (as the acid-tongued stage manager and house mistress Mrs Garner) shine like little suns every time they are on stage. And this is on top of the glorious set – the recreation of what looks like the Hunterian Museum was most impressive.

But what this show is most of all – with its questionably period language and its perfectly period stage dressing – was a love song to theater. Its terrible jokes, its celebration of improv, the heartbreak of aging, the struggles of getting audiences when the government wants to shut you down – they’re the same kind of jokes you could hear (with American accents) in Face the Music and a million other plays of its ilk. But in this case, we’ve got the cream of London talent on stage telling the jokes and the best dressers money can buy making the whole thing look gorgeous. The script is just a little bit lazy – the ending kind of falls apart (“What, that was it?” said the woman sitting next to me), and the inclusion of the memory speeches seemed like a bunch of padding that were pretty but could just as well be stripped out in favor of a more direct experience of Foote’s failing brainpan. Still … this was a pretty glorious evening overall, and I think people will embrace it roundly at the Theater Royal Haymarket. In fact, the combination of the location (the theater Foote is connected to) and Simon Russell Beale is awfully magic. Go get yourself a ticket; I think you’ll find yourself having a very nice evening. And remember: NOBODY’S LEG IS CUT OFF DURING THIS PLAY.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, September 28, 2015. It has been extended and can be enjoyed at the Theater Royal Haymarket until January 23rd, which is a darned good thing as it’s completely sold out for its run at the Hampstead.)

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Review – The Hothouse – Simon Russell Beale et al at Trafalgar Studios

May 22, 2013

It’s been nearly six years since I saw The Hothouse, and my notes on the last viewing were quite short: as I liked it, that meant I thought it would be even better as performed by Simon Russell Beale at the conveniently located Trafalgar Studios.

Well, hmm. I think I may have been wrong about this. The marriage of the top male comedic performer on stage today and Pinter is not, shall we say, made in heaven. I found much joy in a play set in an insane asylum in which everyone is working to their own advantage; you get to wonder what each character’s real goals are. But in this version … every thing seems muddy. Miss Cutts, is she really a nymphomaniac looking to seduce every male member of staff, or is it just how Indira Varma plays her? (Jessica Rabbit, of course, was just written that way.) Gibbs, is he really there to help Roote (Beale), and, if so, what is he doing with a knife in his shirt?

The conflict between the characterizations and how the play is written becomes most glaring when Roote suddenly attacks Lush, with whom he had been drinking just a moment before. It seems completely out of keeping with his character, which is that of a bumbling official not much in charge of his subordinates. Where did the anger come from? Why would Lush submit to such horrible treatment? The more I thought about it, the more it all seemed a clash; Pinter has written the man to be violent and capable, not to be a doddering fool. The characters need to all seem murderous; instead, it’s the play that gets it in the neck.

I watched this play from the cheapie “on stage” seats, and the overall experience was very odd: not just a backstage feel, but the exposed “three hundred people are watching me” thing combined with not very good angles for about half of the show (not a lot of backs but too many). I liked how cheap the seats were, but given that many of them weren’t even padded, by the interval I found my bum had gone completely numb. In a way, I was glad the show was played for laughs, because it kept my attention; overall, though, I was disappointed by this show and by my seats, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought it worth paying £45 or up to sit in the stalls. This Hothouse is merely tepid: give it a pass.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 21st, 2013. It continues through August 3rd, at which time the cast will go on a well-deserved holiday.)

Mini-review – Privates on Parade – Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theater

December 5, 2012

This ill thought start to the Michael Grandage season left me so puzzled as to why it had been picked that I actually did a little research before I started writing this up (normally I go for a “straight from the gut” impression without even the benefit of reading the program – let a show stand on its own merits, I say). Was it actually written in an era where the degree of raw racism it showed was funny? I had just the night before seen Our Boys so the filthy mouths of servicemen (lots of talk about sex and their own genitals) was fresh in my mind. But the gap between these plays was … well, there was a joke one of these nights about Moses parting the Red Sea, and on one hand there was Egypt and the other the Promised Land.

And Michael Grandage was the one with the mummy jokes.

Right, so it SEEMED likely to be awesome, and there’s no doubt that Simon Russell Beale is astounding and on form as a very gay post-war entertainer, with lots of star turns in deluxe drag (loved his Marlene Dietrich!). I was ready for laughs and delighted at the nudity and surprised that so much of the show was dance numbers …

And then the interval came around and I couldn’t believe it had only been, what, 70 minutes. It felt like two hours! And it already felt like it was ready to be over!

The problem, I think, comes down to the script. I’m sure there’s a lot of jokes in there that maybe rang a little truer in 1977 when England was closer to the memory of empire, but all of the crap about stupid chinks/brown faced people/half castes or what have you just got on my tits. Yeah, sure, when Britain cleared out Singapore became a massive superpower (the point made at the end), but you know what? We’ve moved on, and I’m not even a “we” yet. That means we’re left with a story about an intelligent young man who sells out his ideals for a chance at power, and an older man who sells out the people under his command to make some point about empire. That leaves about two potential human beings in the whole cast, and to be honest, Silvia Morgan was a stereotype, too.

That left Mr. Beale all alone to carry the show. Magnificent though he was, it simply was not enough. Bah. I guess I’ll just consider this one my “freebie” as when you bought the entire season, it was discounted so that one of the tickets was essential free. What am I going to do with the second one I bought for closing night? AAARGH!

(This review is for a preview peroformance that took place on December 4th, 2012. It continues through March 2nd.)

Mini-review – Collaborators – National Theatre

January 22, 2012

As ever, I’m a big fan of new plays, so when the National announced a new play about Mikhail Bulgakov was going to be in their fall/winter season, I was all over it. I mean, hell, a play about the author of The Master and Margarita (which I’d just read the previous year)? Yes please! I was slightly put off by it being more about the suffering of creative types during the Stalinist purges – I had some fears it would become miserabilist but decided I’d be hopeful and bought tickets anyway, for very early in the run.

Then something unforeseen happened: a one night only event came up that was so exciting I decided to postpone seeing the play. And somehow, it had become very popular, very fast, and the next time I could get two tickets for a show I had been planning to see in November … was January! Ah well. So this is my review, rather late, of a show that nobody is bothering to look for reviews of anymore.

To my surprise – it was great, a perfect marriage of a fine script and excellent acting, with the National for once restraining itself and not putting in an overdesigned set that stifled the imagination. Instead, Bob Crowley created a simple-seeming zig zag through the center of the Cottlesloe, with a little walkway around the near end of it and little Constructivist extrusions that hinted at walls and windows, and small changes of decor to indicate the center table was now a dining room/ a doctor’s office/ a desk in a writer’s workshop.

The play started off with an absurdist note, as Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) is having a dream in which a Elmer Fudd-like Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) is chasing him around his apartment with a typewriter. Real life, however, is just as ridiculous, as the Bulgakovs wake up to discover a new tenant is now living in their wardrobe (he falls out of it). They are dealing with the privations of daily life by living a little bit of a fantasy world, pretending to pour coffee for breakfast and then bragging about the wonderful hot baths they have taken.

With this warping of reality, the conceit of the play – that Bulgakov is “asked” to write a play about Stalin, then meets with Stalin regularly in a secret bunker where Joe types it up while Bulgakov takes care of business of being a dictator – just plain works. Beale keeps the big man wavering on either side of sanity, while Jennings manages to make Bulgakov’s evolution from underdog to willing servant of an ugly machine seem completely logical. But the genius of the play is that this interaction takes on the hyperreality of a fairy tale in which a deal is struck with the devil (or with fairies), and every wish you make is warped in front of you – handfuls of gold coins turn into rotting leaves, the gift of eternal life is twinned with eternal aging, a beautiful house is revealed to be roofless and full of cobwebs. Every step Bulgakov makes, whether it’s to work with or undermine Stalin, is twisted around so that he becomes an object of hatred to all of his friends, a person who actively undermines other artists, and, finally, a writer who is so compromised he has completely lost sight of his own authorial integrity.

From reading the program notes, it’s clear that none of this ever happened, and that the play is a fantasia on the real life of Bulgakov. But its grounding in reality means hits deeper truths that a more factual play would have been less universal (while I was given enough of a teaser to become interested in reading what really happened at the time). Overall, this was a brilliant work, wonderfully presented, and while I’m glad to hear it’s transferring to the Olivier, I think there will be something lost in taking away the intimacy (and the additional strangeness caused by the audience being dropped in lumps around the corners of the set) of the Cottlesloe. See it there if you can, but do see it even if you have to wait; a new work this good is truly a reason to celebrate.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 17th, 2012. It is booking through Sunday, May 13th, 2012.)

Spoiler-free Review – Deathtrap – Noel Coward Theater (2010)

August 24, 2010

So. Deathtrap, like Mousetrap, is a play where you need to hide the ending from any readers/potential audience member (assuming they haven’t seen the film) in order to ensure they have a good time – if there is a good time to be had.

What a tricky position to be in, to figure out how to criticize a play in which most of what you say has to circle around giving away any of the key plot points! Is there really any point in reviewing a show under this kind of constraint? How honest can I be? Does it take away the whole point of writing the review?

As it turns out, in this case I had a very good evening, so I’m willing to play along with Ira Levin’s little game and keep the secret(s). What does that let me say, though? First, make sure you get a seat at row G or further back – in fact, you may just want to go for one of the balcony seats altogether. Second … hmm … if I say Deathtrap is a murder/mystery/thriller, does that tell you enough? I mean, there’s going to be a murder, you know that, right? I mean, with a title like “Deathtrap,” that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

So: five characters in a late 70s setting. Simon Russell Beale (playing, er, a writer, but mostly he seemed to be Simon Russell Beale, not Sydney); his plucky, kooky, wife Myra (Claire Skinner, about 15 years too young for the role but somehow managing to look well over 45 anyway); a hunky young dude who seemed utterly insincere all the way through the play but made up for it by, um, being hunky (Jonathan Groff as Clifford, a younger writer); Helga the wacky Swedish psychic (the venerable Estelle Parsons, total scene stealer, she was); and straight man and Sydney’s lawyer, Porter (Terry Beaver).

For many people, the cast list alone would be enough, but I’m a burnout and I still demand a good show no matter what name player is on stage. And by golly Deathtrap delivers the goods. It is scary, it is funny, and it is so self aware of the fact it’s a play that it makes it even easier to suspend your disbelief and really get behind the totally outrageous action (and plot). I really did not expect almost anything that happened in the show, as it was so cleverly written that it outsmarted the audience by predicting its own reveals (as much of the play is about writing a play) and then going down a completely different path. Still, it’s not so frightening that I couldn’t handle it (I’m a bit of a pansy); the artifice of it all puts enough separation between you as audience and the action on stage that you don’t have to be grossed out, you can just have a good laugh. Except for … well, Simon Russell Beale making out with someone from 10 feet away, he’s really just a bit old for that kind of passionate display, but this will probably be some people’s favorite part of the show.

Anyway, this is an utterly professional, well polished production of the sort I think London does very well, and I expect audiences will be packing the house of the Noel Coward for the length of the run. Though it’s a show made to appeal to audiences rather than push them into new places, how can I fault it for doing what it says on the tin? You will have a good time, and you can thank me for keeping the secrets under my sombrero. I may be a critic (of sorts) but I do want YOU to have a good time, too.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 23rd, 2010. For another point of view, see the West End Whingers, whom I don’t think engage in spoilery activity despite warning of same. Deathtrap runs through January 22nd, 2011. I’d say it would be a real palate cleanser during panto season; you may want to wait until then to see it if you don’t manage to sneak in a cheap visit during previews, which end September 16th. And for God’s sake if you’ve come a-visiting, please go see this and not that stale old Mousetrap; so much better to run out of the theater laughing and with your heart pounding because you’ve just had so much fun and not because of an angry sense of just having wasted your evening.)

Review – London Assurance – National Theatre

March 4, 2010

London Assurance, at the National Theater, marks the first time I have ever gone to a show based on a character’s name. I’ve got no natural attraction to early 19th century works; farce can too often seemed forced; but there was nothing I could do to resist the lure of a “Lady Gay Spanker.” My God. The comedy value of that moniker alone had me gaping. And, when sales for the season opened, I saw that it was very substantially sold out for nearly all of the early run. What did these people know that I didn’t? A farce in which a Gay Spanker pretends to seduce an aging fop suddenly aquired an unbearable attraction for me. Oh National Theater, take me away to the land of laughs!

But, well, then, come show night (second preview), I had second thoughts. The Olivier! Ever stained by Fram, still holding on to Nation! I saw my night of easy laughs suddenly burdened by the worries of _two intervals_ (and the poison of a really long day at work). Gah! I imagined myself dragging along from scene to scene, begging for release from my prison. At least I had aisle seats, and in the very last row, so I could easily run out if needed.

As it turns out, my fear of farce were unwarranted. The stilted jokes and heavy-handed hipness of Man of Mode, the lack of laughs in The Misanthrope (at the Comedy), all were washed over by the gleeful giggles elicited by a show scripted nearly at the level of The Importance of Being Earnest – instead, all the promise of the line “when Lady Spanker discovers the young couple, she needs little prompting from the visiting chancer Dazzle to lead Sir Harcourt astray,” was in every way achieved.

With this showcase for top comic actors, the National reasserted itself as a venue that can get together a cast that does it all right, down to the second butler. I only regret I didn’t pony up for better tickets so that I could have enjoyed it more, because the actors’ comic reactions were making it all the way to the last row, making me wish I’d been able to admire them from closer. And they stuck to one interval and a 10:15 exeunt – hurray! (In fact I’d misread the program about there being two intervals in the first place, so my bad.)

Enough of my fawning. The story, in short, involves an arranged marriage, a young heiress, debtors, rakes, an aged, egotistical fop, and a country house setting, and the requisite double identity (not to mention a false beard). Sir Harcourt Courtley (Simon Russell Beale), is perfect as a fat, painfully vain man who sees himself as a catch for an eighteen-year old. Despite the burden of what seemed like an excessively silly script, Beale managed to do it all without becoming ridiculous – or, rather, he made his character as utterly and completely ridiculous as he deserved to be, pulling laughs the second he walked on the stage with his impossibly over the top and yet perfect posing and posturing.

While his son Charles Court (Paul Ready) is both amusing as a drunk and then fairly comic as a smitten swain reduced to a double identity to dupe his father – and then his new love, Grace Harkaway (Michelle Terry) – neither member of the young couple can hold a candle to the brilliant, braying Lady Gay Spanker (Fiona Shaw), whose hysterical lines about hunting, marriage, men, and whistling to call your husband had me guffawing and hee-hawing myself. I was both admiring how good she looked in her period-perfect costumes and totally buying her character as a one-woman party in riding boots. She was both a shining string of diamonds as an actress and an utterly delightful character – I can’t remember ever seeing such an independent, self-directed woman pre-Shaw – and when Shaw and Beale are on stage together, PHWOOM! I can’t imagine how it could have been better.

Sure, the set up of the play was ludicrous from the start, but when you take great dialogue and give it a wriggling mass of top-drawer talent to perform it, it’s suddenly clear why this play ran for ages and ages when it first opened. The National has graced it with a flexible but not overdesigned set, appropriate but inobtrusive music, and some good staging that only faltered when the mechanical rat in the last scene ran out of batteries before he managed to scare Sir Harcourt Courtley out of his last bout of self-admiration. Nearly 200 years later, this play is still perfectly attuned to English comic sensitivities, and for a really good, “forget your troubles, forget your cares” night out, London Assurance can’t be beat.

(This review is for the second preview, which took place on March 2nd, 2010. The official opening is March 10th. The show runs at least through June. For reviews from a variety of reviewers, please see UpTheWestEnd.Com – it’s a short list at present but they will keep updating it as the dailies start to publish theirs.)

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.)