Posts Tagged ‘Southwark Playhouse’

Mini-review – Kiki’s Delivery Service – Southwark Playhouse

December 27, 2016

I find it very cheering that a time of the year that is known for dull rehashes of the simplest kind of children’s stories is also somehow forming the coating in the petri dish from which many other works of theater are growing; not just the old favorites of Aladdin and Cinderella, but the expansion of the Panto form with Harry Potter (entering into the canon of proper fairy tales, although done as “Hairy Poppers” it’s obviously not meant for a kid’s audience). In addition at the Southwark Playhouse there is the introduction of an entirely new children’s book to the London stage. Well, truthfully, Kiki’s Delivery Service is hardly “entirely new” as I first saw the animated movie version over ten years ago: but it’s a new entry in the children’s stories genre of playwriting and very welcome after seeing two versions of Peter Pan in one month. Come on, people, there are other stories to be told here!

If you have not seen Studio Ghibli’s film, the story is as follows: Kiki is a young Japanese girl (living roughly in the here and now) who has been trained as a witch, and as she has just become old enough to be sent out into the world to find her own place to do witching. The training and the magic are pretty much not described (other than the fact there is less magic in the world than there used to be); what we are clear about is that Kiki rides a broom and has a cat familiar, Gigi, who talks to her. Why she must leave at 13 is also unclear; but Kiki is very eager to go out into the world. However, it’s hard for her to find a place to settle down; it has to be a place both friendly to witches and not currently having a witch. After some misadventures, she finds a place where she things she might be needed; and, for reasons that are unclear to me, decides to use her talents to create a delivery service.

The set was fairly simple – well, there was a projected backdrop which could have taken over the storytelling but mostly stayed in the backdrop, and various items were wheeled out (the cake shop piece was actually kind of spectacular) onto the floor – and the focus seemed to be on engaging the imagination rather than spelling everything out a la Miss Saigon’s flying helicopter. So we had a puppet cat, and Kiki actually being carried on her broom – but then flying with ropes later – and I found it fairly easy to let go of my own rootedness in quotidian reality and engage with a story about magic, and growing up, and both accepting responsibility and letting go. The actors did a great job of handling multiple roles – even the person who plays Gigi gets time off to be a hammy clockmaker – and, except for a scene where Gigi is shown as an animated projection on a clock, the company stuck to low tech solutions to depicting magic that I felt made the story hold together as “the real world plus magic.”

Retrospectively, I found myself wondering why Kiki would have to leave at such a young age, why she seemed to do so little magic, how it was that a world with trains could integrate with witches, and why we only find out at the end about time limits on familiars. It seemed like there was a lot of background material about this world that hadn’t been explained at all – but I doubt anyone watching it would think about it too much. Kiki’s Delivery Service was simple and sweet and provided a good opportunity to let the imagination fly – with or without a broomstick.

(This review is for a performance that took place December 14, 2017. I highly recommend it to people bored of traditional children’s fare – obviously other people agree as the performances, which end January 8th, are nearly sold out.)

Review – Toxic Avenger – Southwark Playhouse

April 28, 2016

In a world in which super hero comic books are providing fodder for entire movie franchises, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable that a movie about a super hero would provide an inspiration for a stage musical. In this case, the movie is The Toxic Avenger, a B-movie that rose to success on the back of midnight showings in Greenwich Village. At its heart, the whole concept owes more to the Rocky Horror Picture Show than it does to X-men though, as the entire charm of this piece is based upon being campy and over the top – the complete opposite of pretty much every musical on stage right now, which, if they’re not trying to deliver a message, are at least attempting to be sincere.

Southwark Playhouse’s performance of The Toxic Avenger is very sincerely silly, from the plot (nerd dumped in toxic waste becomes an extremely unsexy super hero, a la The Hulk) to the costumes (the quick changes of the duo who played about ten different characters each were really remarkable) to the songs (“All Men Are Freaks” was a personal favorite). Although I initially worried the tiny cast (five!) had bitten off more than they could chew – I mean, think of the room-filling numbers of Titanic – the show played to the comedy elements of double casting quite deliberately, including the pure genius number “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” in which Lizzii Hills, who plays both the evil mayor of Tromaville and the Toxic Avenger’s mom, does a duet as both of them, AT THE SAME TIME – changing clothes behind a curtain and finally just switching which side of herself she was showing to the audience. It was a completely unique moment the likes of which I’d only ever seen in cabaret and I loved it!

Buuuut … I found I was having some problems with the show due to my own inability to just relax and go with it. I really had a problem with all of the jokes they were making at the expense of the Toxic Avenger’s blind girlfriend (Hannah Grover) … I mean, I know that only a blind person could love a guy with his brain exposed and an eyeball hanging down his face, but … having her crawl around on stage when she lost her cane actually made me cringe. I just couldn’t laugh. And sure, her sex drive was part of the comedy, but … it just felt kind of like a message in a bottle from the old days when it wasn’t okay for women to be sexually enthusiastic. Hell, it’s a message from today as well, and it’s not one I like. On the other hand, the sexual voraciousness of the mayor seemed pretty well integrated into her personality. But then … the two men who were playing the hairdressers … it just seemed … well, like such negative stereotyping. Maybe I’ve been living in London for too long, that I don’t enjoy making fun of people as much as I might have back in my twenties. I’ve just … I don’t know, grown up … grown up a bit too much to enjoy this play.

The songs, though, are really very good – and bad songwriting is the number one sin for a musical in my book (hah hah, get it) – and it’s overall high energy and fun, and sure to appeal to lots of people … but it just wasn’t for me, even though they did really hit all of those B-movie notes just right on, as well as all of the notes in the song. I expect it will be successful and I hope they have sell out houses, because fun musicals like this are very uncommon and this one is put together just right – it just isn’t to my tastes.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on April 25th, 2016. It continues through May 21.)

Review – Xanadu (the stage musical) – Southwark Playhouse

October 22, 2015

While I love going into a show cold – not even knowing if it’s comedy or tragedy – I was unable to do this in the case of Southwark Theater’s Xanadu. Not only had I seen Xanadu on stage before, I’m a life long fan of the movie and even saw it when it was first released in the cinema. It’s worse, though – not only have I seen it time and time again on DVD (and VHS), I have listened to the soundtrack so many times I can sing along – and not just to the big songs, but to the Bsides you can only hear if you happen to have bought a copy of the singles on 45 (“Jungle Drums” and “Fool” being the two outtakes). Hi, my name is Webcowgirl and I am a Xanadu fangrrl.

This means it’s hard for me not to be hypercritical at a stage presentation of what should be seen (in my twisted world) as a timeless classic. I dug my heels in at the additional songs (two by Olivia Newton John – “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Physical” plus a couple from the ELO back catalogue) and grumbled over song arrangements and the loss of verses for my favorite tunes. But overall … I LOVED IT WITH A BIG PINK RAINBOW UNICORN ON TOP.

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The thing is, Xanadu is a flawed movie. It has plot holes you can drive a truck through. It has stunningly bad acting. And it has amazing music and dance scenes. So the people who made this into a stage show took the badness (the male lead is just very poorly acted) and made them into jokes which should be funny enough for even a non-clued-up audience to get; then added all sorts of bits from the original (i.e. some of the amazing choreography) and patched over some of the problems (i.e. why does the heroine, Kira, talk in an Australian accent) then layered on all sorts of fun and, let’s admit it, camp (was there a centaur in the original or a pegasus? Uh, no, but both of them are likely to have tears rolling from your eyes). The audience was ho ho-ing and ha ha-ing and just eating it up.

It’s fortunate they were so amenable, because the preview performance I saw had a few problems with the sound quality: people singing and not being miked, or (worse) audible talking from back stage picked up by not-switched-off mikes. And if I’m applying my non-Xanadu loving faculties, I think there were some moments where the singing was not quite up to par, particularly for the actor playing Danny Maguire (although he put the role across quite well otherwise). But … Carly Anderson just embodied bubbly charisma as Kira, and, my goodness, Alison Jiear just brought down the house as evil muse Melpomene (in a subplot completely missing from the original, but, oh well, they bought me when they stuck in the Pegasus). And all of the jokey asides …. let me tell you a secret: I’ve already got tickets to go again, but I knew I was going to want to see it more than once … and it left me feeling so elated I think I may try to see it a third time.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 20th, 2015. It continues through November 21st. I recommend trying to get seats in the center section, preferably three rows back from the barriers around the stage so you can see over them.)

Review – In the Heights – King’s Cross Theater

October 9, 2015

I was shafted out of seeing this the first time around. I was nearly broke, and just able to afford the discounted tickets you get with the 5 ticket scheme from Southwark Playhouse – and then, after buying it, discovered I couldn’t actually apply the ticket to the remaining performances of In The Heights. My money was gone (they wouldn’t give me a refund), and I was gutted. In the Heights was not going to happen because I did not have the money to go. I was pretty gutted, but poor is poor and Southwark Playhouse had absolutely no intention of giving me my money back.

Fast forward some three years and suddenly Miss Life in the Cheap Seats is actually able to afford a ¬£20 theater ticket without running out of money before payday, and the return of In the Heights to the King’s Cross Theater meant a glorious kismet where I could FINALLY GO SEE IT. Wahoo! I got a ticket for OPENING NIGHT baby even though this meant I was going to have to dash from my train arriving from Oop North to Kings Cross in order to make curtain time – that said, this theater is LITERALLY behind King’s Cross station and couldn’t be any easier to get to – it wouldn’t have taken me ten minutes to get there if I’d gone the right way, heading towards but not all the way to Granary Square (probably your best choice for a pre-show dinner if you’re not just racing there like I was).

And … well … how was it? It was like this: I cried twice AND I was dancing in my seat. Actually, at the end I was dancing in the aisle (as the cast headed offstage to boogie with us lesser beings). I knew the show was set in a poor neighbourhood in New York City, but since I don’t know those neighborhoods of New York City, I didn’t know that Washington Heights was the Hispanic neighborhood – and not folks from Mexico but this incredible conglomeration of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic and all sorts of other amazing places where the culture is less about mariachi and caballeros and more about SALSA. Whoopee! All of this dancing and fabulous music … and then mixed into this is the cross cultural street sounds of hip hop/rap – which is what is sung to us by our protagonist, Usnavi. He’s got a crush on Vanessa – but she’s in the more traditional dancing crowd. Does this mean the show has chosen to represent the different musical interests as clashing, so we can have a Jets vs Sharks showdown? No, Lin-Manuel Miranda knows that the problems in the neighbourhood aren’t about petty differences like this; they’re about poverty and (to some extent) gentrification.

And it’s the poverty that, to me, drove the most compelling storyline. In a world where we’re really trying to sell the story that everyone has the opportunity to rise via education, In The Heights puts it in our faces that just being smart can’t compensate for being poor. Nina has been the one everyone has looked up to as the one who would make it out; but to get by at uni, she would need to, essentially, force her parents to sell everything they own, and bring them back down to the level they started at. It’s a heart breaking position to be in (and if you know the stats, even if she has the money success will not be guaranteed). The song her father sings about this situation – “Inutil (Useless)” – was the first moment I cried during this show. I’ve just never heard a song in a musical about how terrible it is to be able to do nothing to help your children and this caught so many emotions just right.

Throughout, the show has several opportunities to go for easy solutions, but deftly avoids them to keep the action fresh and unexpected. The men doing backflips on stage, the Piraguas man, the surprising blossoming of love (and harvest of death) – all mixed with so much Spanish that I found myself wondering how well the British audience was doing at following along. But I had no problems at all, and ended the night feeling joyous and triumphant at having been present at one of the most amazing musicals written in the 21st century. Wow! I know I had to wait three years to see this the first time, but I promise I am going to be back before the November 1st end of its run, because this show is too good to not enjoy every little minute of it twice.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Saturday, October 3, 2015. It continues through November 1st. If you’ve seen the show, you might enjoy this article about where the characters might all wind up in ten years – but it contains spoilers so be warned!)

Review – Casa Valentina – Southwark Playhouse

September 14, 2015

It’s Sunday night. I can write one review before work starts tomorrow. My options are: Kinky Boots, Briefs, or Casa Valentina (currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse). All feature men in dresses. But what gets the my time tonight? Casa Valentina, because even though I’m just a lowly blogger (and even though I had more fun at Kinky Boots), it needs me more.

Casa Valentina says it’s based on a true story, but the plot line still defies belief: in 1960s America, there were a group of men who used to travel to the Catskills to spend their holidays “en femme.” I had to look this up: it turns out the original was called Casa Susanna and was featured in a picture book you can find all over the internet (if you look). So it is real. But this is a dramatized version of what might have happened there. It starts out following one man arriving for his first weekend spent, with other people, dressed as a woman – and here you have a chance to see a real sisterhood among the various participants. But then a bigger story starts up, about money owed on the resort, one character’s desire to take the whole “sisterhood” mainstream (they had a magazine – this apparently was true), and a possible set up with the postal authorities for distribution of pornography. The stakes are raised, the arguments start, and Casa Valentina suddenly becomes a much more interesting play.

There’s a fair amount of wit and fine acting here (Gareth Snook as Charlotte was perfect in every moment), but to me the heart of the play is a debate on where this group sits with the rest of the world. There were laws in many states against transvestism, but Charlotte argues they can easily claim their privilege as heterosexual white men and rise above the hatred directed toward others … but can they, and should they? Watching a group who faced oppression argue about the ethics of oppression and the system of morality that held them down alongside many others was the highlight of my afternoon, and at one point the speechifying got so emotional that I wanted to stand up and clap when a character finally supported a vision that matched my own. It was so much more fully explored than the similar theme as treated in Kinky Boots – which is, after all, a musical comedy – and it elevated Casa Valentina right above the pool of mawkishness it could have slipped beneath and into an invigorating examination of the intersection of fantasy and politics.

The ending kind of collapsed on itself, but I can forgive that; Casa Valentina plumbed a rich vein of still valid debates, while leaving some of the deeper questions of the characters’ identities and evolutions unresolved and for us to pick through after the bows. Nice job, Southwark Playhouse: but please, if we’re going to buy into the characters, spend just a little more time prettying up those wigs – that dead cocker spaniel should never have come out from the turban.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, September 12, 2015. It continues through October 10th.)

Revew – Carrie the Musical – Southwark Playhouse

May 20, 2015

I know it was just last week that I was giving you a lecture about how I do make some assumptions about basic cultural literacy (regarding Death of a Salesman), and yet, here I am, less than a week later, having to admit I’ve never seen Carrie – the movie, the book, OR the musical. In fact, my closest acquaintance with it is via the book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. It’s this book that drove me to see the show, currently revived at the Southwark Playhouse, wondering what it was that made the original fail so badly; but then, there’s just the excitement and novelty of seeing a horror film/novel on stage – not some high-falutin’ literary stuff like Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera, but an actually blood-and-teenagers quasi-morality rollercoaster ride.

Or, you know, just a really bad musical. I was in.

I got a big kick out of seeing, after many years away, a reproduction of the high school dynamics of my youth on the stage. The mean and popular girls, the stupid and popular boys, the constantly changing friendships … and, of course, the rejected geek. Oddly there was only one in this school – there should have been a boy or two as well (later to rise, Bill Gates like, from the ashes of nerd-dom) – but in the case of Carrie White (Evelyn Hoskins), we had a girl with the double burden of being socially awkward and also the daughter of a freaky hellfire and damnation mom (Kim Criswell). In terms of setting up the story, all of Mom’s blithering about how the day of judgment was going to come helped nicely to build a case for Carrie losing her self-control as the bullying at school hit a peak – although that’s getting ahead of the story – but Carrie’s mom also creates a sort of logic to Carrie “coming into her powers” as she hits menarche – it’s not an uncommon idea, after all, that being able to bear children is a sign of being strong. However, Margaret takes it straight to wacky town with her crazy talk about “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” nonsense which seems really unfortunate if you have a teenaged daughter with red hair that you perhaps resent for causing you to spend your own adulthood as a single mother. It’s definitely a bad situation for Carrie, who’s only real support comes from a well-intentioned gym teacher.

The gym teacher, however, in trying to manage the behavior of the girl bullies winds up utterly aggravating the more aggressive of the two – Chris (Gabriella Williams), a perfectly toned, tanned, and heartless blond that you know from the first scene is going to not make it to the end of the play. Her friendship with the one nice girl, Sue (Sarah McNicholas) seemed at the beginning like it was going to form more of a counterbalance to Carrie’s own unfortunate life – but instead, Chris becomes simply single mindedly mean, and the focus moves off to the romance between Sue and Tommy (Greg Miller-Burns, simply charming). Unfortunately, all of the high school kids wind up just becoming a big blur – and the feeling of hate and abuse I think that needed to be built in order for us to fully revel in Carrie’s explosion just doesn’t happen. I blame part of this on the fact the lyrics were so damned difficult to hear most of the time – and you can’t blame it on the accents because I should have been able to understand it all. And then the special effects bits that were supposed to help us “get” Carrie’s building telekinetic abilities nearly disappeared, especially from my seat in the corner. I knew something bad was going to happen, but it wasn’t built up to very well by the show, and the final disaster scene was neither scary nor moving – a bit of a damp squib in the end, possibly just utterly unsuited to the musical format.

However, what did work well was the fantastic acting of Evelyn Hoskins and the gorgeous voices she and Kim Criswell treated us to. Hoskins had be really believing in her as the lead character – she continued sympathetic throughout and just looked so fragile – and listening to her and Criswell belt it out had ten times the power of the levitation moments or the collapse of the gym ceiling. I think, maybe, we’ve got a case of a subject just being horribly mismatched to format. If it’s the duets that touch us, then let’s have more of them: but if they want to do an ass-kicking Grand Guignol performance, let’s have eyeballs being gouged out with corsages and people being run through with I-beam. Or something. The show is a bit of a mixed bag, but I can’t help but feel there’s something in it worth saving, maybe with an utterly reworked ending. Ah well, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it at last and I’m looking forward to seeing Hoskins on stage again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 19th, 2015. It continues through May 30th.)

Review – Gods and Monsters – Southwark Playhouse

February 13, 2015

Growing up as a teenaged goth girl who associated with lots of gay men, it was a natural that when Gods and Monsters came out, I would rush to the cinema to see it. But 1998 is now a long time ago, and I could barely remember anything of the movie I’d seen nearly two decades ago. Something about an English director and a very sexy gardener, 1950s homophobia and … Frankenstein. There was sex and nudity – I remembered that – but it had mostly gone fuzzy. I can’t say I walked into the Southwark Playhouse to see this new adaptation as a blank slate, but what was there was pretty fuzzy.

So now it’s 2015 and I’m reevaluating the story as well as evaluating the play from a changed perspective, as a more mature person as well as a more informed cineaste and theater fan. I’m much more aware of the effect of World War I on the psyche, thanks to eight years of living in the UK and the wealth of recent productions kicked off by the centenary anniversary of the start of the Great War. I’m also, as a middle aged woman, interested in the depiction of strokes on the stage. And finally, I have a more historically informed picture of what it meant to be gay in the United States in the decades before the 1980s – my interest in gay culture has continued, but it’s deeper and richer than it was when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. And so, to see this play, examining the mental state of a WWI vet after a stroke, I find myself thinking that it was an opportunity missed to do something thoughtful and relevatory about the human condition. Instead, we (the audience) got a salacious hagiography, with us in the role of Kay (Joey Phillips), the (horribly overacted) biographer of director James Whale (Ian Gelder), watching over his shoulder as he slowly attempts to seduce handsome gardener Clayton Boone (Will Austin).

I can’t deny the audience seemed to lap the show up, but I was really sad that an obvious element was nearly entirely skipped over: Whale’s stroke has left his mind impaired in a variety of ways, and there seems to be a clear implication that he, as if struck by lightning, has become his own monster, unable to control his mind as it wanders back in forth in time, perhaps in truth become a monster. But though the flashback scenes to his youth and military service are set up clearly enough to show their impact on his ability to be in the present, to me it seemed he could have just been having a PTSD episode. Strokes can cause a lot of other damage as well, and listening to Whale recount the many people he’d worked with in perfect clarity, it seemed hard to believe he’d really taken that much damage from the stroke. And as a man depressed enough to be considering suicide, I’d expect a far greater impetus to do it than just having some uncomfortable memories come up.

If I was imagining this show was trying to depict his sexual appetites as monstrous, it’s not an easy sell, especially given the fact he’d lived openly as gay most of his life. Trying to seduce a strong, solid gardener? Not monster material at all. Not being successful? I’d expect that wasn’t something worth killing himself over, although it would have been an easy out story wise for this to have been so. So it’s a bit depressing that there seems to be no gods or monsters in this play, just a tired old man who in my eyes was pushy and a bit of a quitter.

However, the core element of humanity played true in the development of the relationship between Whale and Boone. Boone (Will Austin), with his nearly cartoon-esque physique, is not a very deep character and may actually make no sense historically, but I found his softening of his attitude about gay men genuinely touching. He is a kind man, despite his killer (literally) physique; and this made it hard for me to deal with watching Whale pursue him in an almost predatory fashion. Whale wants, not Boone’s body, but his mind, his will, his sense of morality. He wants to turn him into a monster. But he ends the play accepting him as a fellow human being. It would have been hard to swallow, but Ian Gelder’s rock-solid performance just gave me no room to believe in him as anything else other than the character he portrayed. I only wish that the character of the cinema history student and the maid Maria (Lachele Carl) could have been toned down to levels suitable for an intimate theater – this, more than the nearly two hour long first act, had me questioning whether or not I could stand to stay for the second act. But Gelder holds up nearly the entire show on his much thinner shoulders – for him, it is a tour de force. But the show, overall, is bloated and too grating for me to recommend. If you’re a fan of the movie, you want to see three handsome men get their kit off, or you have a thing for old Hollywood, you’ll probably have a good evening; but for me, the sum was less than the parts (and I did see quite a few parts). Perhaps the writer should have been less desirous of following the original movie script – but I can’t say as it’s been so long since I’ve seen it.

(This review is for opening night, February 10, 2015. Gods and Monsters continues through March 7th.)

Review – Grand Guignol – Theater Royal Plymouth at Southwark Playhouse

October 29, 2014

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse – or, rather, I thought I knew what to expect … a series of short and terrifying/bloody plays, perhaps all from the original plays of the Grand Guignol, or perhaps all or some new but “in the style.”

What, you say you are unfamiliar with the Grand Guignol Theater (perhaps only knowing it as a a euphemism for the bloody stage predecessor of the slasher flick)? Then this play may be perfect for you, because what it really is is a recreation of the theater at the time, a sort of homage slash farce featuring shocking (but ironic) overacting, buckets of body parts (laying about the stage like laundry), and delicious pocket run-throughs of such classics as “A Crime in the Madhouse” and “The System.” You say you’re unfamiliar with them? Well, it’s not surprising: Andr√© de Lorde (depicted on stage by Jonathan Broadbent) wrote over 150 plays, but very few of them have been translated into English. Yet somehow each horrible play we see seems to exist in a reality of pure horror that exists outside of the normal bounds of mere storytelling and into the world of the mythic … a place inhabited by writers such as Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. This blending of metafictional reality and historical inspiration seems to me to support the choice to perform this as a farce, letting us step back into and then away from the “reality” of what’s going on. We are watching a play about a theater, with actors playing actors who had roles in the plays written by … you see what I mean? But it all starts out with a wink, and so we accept that it’s a bit of a joke, but once we’ve taken that step, then we come a little closer to believing the falseness on stage (I have to say having the ceiling swaying over head about did me in) and then, when the “reality” of the play – that there are real murders going on and genuine madness in the cast – starts to creep into the story, then suddenly we no longer know if we are watching a play or an actual murder. And the walls start spurting blood and the actors are dying and IT’S ALL JUST TOO SCARY!!! and then it’s bows. Wow! What a trick!

What’s amazing about this play, in retrospect, is how close it seems to have stuck to historical truth: psychologist Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) was de Lorde’s real life collaborator; Poe (one of the roles played by Andy Williams) was an inspiration for the Guignol plays, if not necessarily a spectral presence threatening de Lorde with harm if he didn’t do as instructed; and Paula Maxa (Emily Raymond) was the most murdered actress in Paris. I suspect that all of the plays that we were given tiny snippets of were actually based on real works of de Lorde’s; it all adds verisimilitude to the actual plot, which involves a Jack the Ripper style murderer (who could it be?) and Binet’s search for the source of de Lorde’s inspiration. Meanwhile, jokes are thrown in about the difficulties of working with audiences, the fickleness of actors, and how most critics deserve the fate of de Lorde’s fictional victims: given that I was there on press night, these jokes were met with gales of laughter.

As it turns out, even switching the comedy with horror is a technique lifted from the original Grand Guignol: I think it’s that the laughs put us into a heightened emotional state and somehow more receptive to revulsion (as a character we have begun to sympathize with is actually cruelly murdered on the stage). This play is pretty much perfectly written and performed in campy “turn the volume to eleven” glory; I can’t imagine a more perfect Halloween play or a more brilliant celebration of the infamous accomplishments of The Grand Guignol.

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 27, 2014: it continues through November 22nd. Don’t hesitate to go because Halloween is over: if you’ve got any taste for farce or passion for theatrical history, it’s a must see, and really so well acted!)

Review – Next Fall – Southwark Playhouse

October 5, 2014

The idea of a comedy about a relationship with two guys sounded to me intensely appealing on the face … I mean, it’s the 21st century, we’ve really moved beyond the closeted humor of The Odd Couple and the hysteria and self-hatred of La Cage Aux Folles – isn’t it time that we admit that, like any couple, two dudes (in a relationship) in an apartment has just as much potential to be funny as any other situation? So I was ready to sit down to a good time evening and see a nice, fresh American take on what it means to be gay now with Next Fall at the Southwark Playhouse. (I mean, really, based on my friends on each of the coasts, I’m waiting for a family comedy as both of the long term guy couples I know also have daughters and there is definite comedy and drama gold for someone with a pen at the ready.)

As it turns out, this play actually fell far short of being a comedy, despite having lots of funny moments. The topics – religion, relationships, and death – were, to be honest, the kind of things that in real life we will make fun of, but which, as part of a play, actually tend to throw a pall on jokes. Do you know a good joke about organ donation? I’m sure there are plenty out there, but if you’ve spent an evening building up a relationship with a character (or years being someone’s friend), it’s actually not really a space where I find I’m ready for laughter.

The story of Next Fall is about two men who fall in love despite their age and religious differences. Adam (Charlie Condou) and Luke (Martin Delaney) initially struggle because of their different paths in life; but as they are drawn together, it’s Luke’s close relationship with God that makes it hard for Adam to feel comfortable in their relationship. And why wouldn’t it be, when his partner prays for forgiveness after sex and spends intimate moments lecturing him about what will happen if you’re on a plane during the rapture? This is on top of the constant promises to finally admit to Luke’s family that they’re actually a couple (which will happen “next fall,” get it).

In the “making this a comedy” support group we have fag hag Holly (Sirine Saba), who wants to be supportive but somehow still totally lets down Adam in the hospital; Mom (Nancy Crane), who falls apart unbelievably, and control freak Dad (Mitchell Mullen, 100% perfect in every way); and “why am I here” closeted gay man Brandon (Ben Cura), who clutches tightly onto his bible while feeling closer to God than Adam because he sticks to cheap sex rather than having a dirty “relationship” with another man. (Rarely have I seen a character who so utterly existed only to deliver a single line, although he was very hot.)

I walked away from this play asking myself, why was it written? What was the point? Was it to show that “gay marriage” was important to give same sex partners the rights to be with their partners in the hospital, like their families? (The story of Alex B Toklas essentially dying penniless because of Getrude Stein’s family stealing her partner’s bequest handled this well for me.) Was it to engage in a meaningful dialogue about religion in relationships, or about evangelic homosexuals? Adam’s rant about wiping his ass with the bible killed this line for me. Or was it to actually build a comedy showing that two guys with very different life paths could still love each other despite the various obstacles in their way? This is the story that won me over; but at the end, the story line about Adam took a turn that I found impossible to digest and untrue to the narrative at hand, unless it was really to prove the superiority of those who follow the path “of righteousness” as compared with us lesser non-believers. After 8 years in England, I’ve come to love feeling safe from the intrusiveness of God-botherers in everyday life; this play made me think that the theater would be a far worse place if they had the upper hand. Ah well, it sold well in New York; I can only hope that UK theater goers will reject this play’s message.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, September 29, 2014. It continues through October 25th.)

Review – Dogfight – Southwark Playhouse

August 23, 2014

A new musical is always a cause for celebration Chez Webcowgirl. I’m convinced the glories of the “golden age” were due in part to the high volume of new shows being created during that time; without a higher volume, it’s hard for the cream to rise to the top. So I was enthusiastically ready for Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse – a new musical, bring it!

And yet somehow so many years had passed between the movie that is this show’s source material and now that I had pretty much completely forgotten about Dogfight and how revolting I thought its premise was. The thought of a contest to see who could bring the ugliest girl to a party is deeply offensive to me. And as I sat there, realizing what I was about to see, I felt a creeping sense of horror. I’ve avoided seeing Taming of the Shrew for ages because I can’t find comedy in misogyny, and this evening brought that feeling right to the front again. There was a drama going on centered on the young men going to Vietnam – the “Three Bees” – which to me seemed an interesting subject to focus on. Birdlace (Jamie Muscato), Bernstein (Nicholas Corre) and Bolan (Chellen Chugg Jones) are three young Marines having their last hurrah before being shipped out to Vietnam – and it’s clear they don’t have the faintest idea what they’re about to face. They’re not just full of bravado – they are genuinely steeped in ignorance about America’s military might and their own power.

But as the play goes on and I saw how their sense of elitism, entitlement, and arrogance leads them to treat other people as things – to be screwed, screwed over, or shot – I found my ability to empathize with them disappearing. These guys were jerks, from a long line of jerks, and their attitudes are the basis of the rape culture we have today, where raped women have to defend their clothing and pretty much their entire sexual histories if they bring an attacker to trial.

And watching the show, I felt a sense of creeping horror at what it took to create it. What does it mean to hire an actress to be “the ugly one” or “the fat one?” What kind of mentality does it take to put a woman in front of an audience and dress her in a way that deliberately makes her unattractive? To me there seemed to be a meanness pervasive in the whole exercise. It was even more grating to see the very pretty Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson), with her beautiful voice, presented to us as ugly and fat. (And for her to be put in a dress clearly from the 1980s for the big party scene – seriously, Lee Newby, you got so much of this era right, did you have to screw that one up so hard? It ruined my suspension of disbelief. Sew a new one if you couldn’t find a 1964 era dress in maroon.)

The songs were serviceable, the choreography lively, the music sadly forgettable. The whole effort was almost saved by the incredible charisma of Jamie Muscato … almost. But it was brought down by Rose’s characterization – not how she was performed, but how she was written. Rose had to be cut from cardboard for the whole thing to make dramatic sense, because no woman with self respect would ever forgive or want in her life someone who thought picking a stranger out to be an object of ridicule was an acceptable pastime. As a person who sees women as people, I just can’t forgive this show for choosing to take as its premise that they aren’t. I was relieved at its short running time because I felt complicit watching it, much as I did watching Carousel. With luck, my next musical outing will meet with greater success.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 21st, 2014.)