Posts Tagged ‘Theater review’

Review – The Comedians – Lyric Hammersmith

October 15, 2009

It was with some trepidation that I headed to the Lyric Hammersmith to see The Comedians. A three hour running time has become a considerable burden to me on a school night and when I’d initially booked the tickets I hadn’t realized seeing the show was likely to wreck me for work the next day. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it at all, and really didn’t right up until I sat in my seat and looked at the program; I was there because the West End Whingers were going, and they tend to have a magical ability to sniff out good shows. In fact, if it hadn’t been for them, I’d never have managed to get in to see Enron. They’re also great company, though I’d brought my own posse along with me (admittedly in part so my American visitor Irene could meet Andrew and Phil). But, well, the Lyric has this thing where the first week of a show (usually) they do tickets at £10, so I figured, hey, if it’s bad, I’ll leave at the interval, and, gosh, I even have two different intervals to pick from! I also knew in my heart of hearts that if the show was good I wouldn’t regret the lost sleep.

First interval came around and I was still a bit on the fence. The show is about six men who have been going to night school to learn how to be comedians. I saw in the set up a bit of “The Pitman Painters,” with a lovable teacher (Matthew Kelly) who just wants to pass on a bit of his learning to a roomful of “characters,” with likely life lessons to follow at the end to send us all home with a smile. I figured the story would be mostly playing off of the comedy of the various “types” in the class, with a bunch of laughs in the middle during the “now we show our stuff at the comedy club” act before the heartwarming finale. (No, I didn’t read the program.) But I was wholly confused by what the types were supposed to be, as the accents were completely meaningless to me. I wasn’t able to tell the Northern Irish guy from the Republic of Ireland guy or actually from … well, any of the other guys except for the one who was supposed to be Jewish (and what was funny about that also passed me by). Being American was really working against me, and I wasn’t getting their casual jokes at all. I felt at a complete cultural loss. I was also kind of irritated by the overacting of Gethin Price, who as “teacher’s pet” David Dawson kept forgetting to interact with the other characters and instead kept acting toward the fourth wall. (“Hello​! You’re very sexy in an Alan Cumming kind of way, but would you please stop acting like you know we’re all out here and get on with being in the play? It ruins my developing fascination with you.”)

The one thing I did understand, and that got me back in the door after the end of first interval, in the face of the exhaustion I’d have to face the following day, was the drama that developed when the judge for the performances (Bert Challoner) appeared just after it was revealed that he and the teacher were arch rivals who had completely different ideas of how to be funny. Suddenly the students, who all wanted professional careers, were faced with failing their real test: getting a job. After getting a speech from him about what a comedian’s approach ought to be, suddenly it became clear that every one of them was going to try to fix his routine to better please the judge.

This conflict made me quite enthused to see Act Two, in which the students one by one (well, and once by two) went up on stage and did their best to wow the judge. This is when it finally became clear to me that I was watching an extremely good group of actors, because they were actors, not standup comedians, and yet for each of their acts I totally bought into what they were doing and the tension they were feeling. The best of the acts for me was the two-man routine Reece Shearsmith (as Phil Murray) and Mark Benton (as Ged Murray) did, when suddenly Phil, who’d been “the one who wasn’t funny” earlier, turned on his brother Ged and insisted he tell a racist joke that went completely against the philosophy of their professor – but that he felt sure would amuse the judge. The power of the moment when his jovial, gentle brother turned to him and said, “No, YOU tell the joke” and then physically moved him to a place where he would have to … words fail me. It was pure theater. I completely bought the characters and the situation. Admittedly, at the very beginning of the act, all I thought about was how pretty Michael Dylan’s blue eyes were, which wasn’t really about getting into his character so much as getting into him, but grab your pleasures where you will, I say. Anyway, by this act I was sold on the play, and the whole question of how to get a decent night’s sleep was moot; I was making the Ultimate Sacrifice and was going to call a cab after the show.

During the second intermission, I had a long conversation with an old guy who’s seen the show in its original incarnation in the 70s. According to him, the jokes the guys tell during the second act actually just aren’t funny, and people back them knew it. He said he was really surprised that people were laughing during the performance. I was, too, but I was confused because to me they almost all of the jokes seemed really offensive – I don’t see where being Irish or Catholic or Jewish is a comedy item and there’s no laughs for me in a joke about beating your wife up in a bar. But per Old Guy, this kind of humor was actually standard standup material in those days, especially up north (where this play was set), so the format itself was unsurprising – only the jokes were really flat. Of course there’s the question of the act the teacher’s pet performed, about which I’ll say little other than I thought about it during the De Frutos catastrophe the next night, but that had to be its own special moment.

Act three was, well, really not the heartwarming huggy-feely takeaway I was expecting and a lot more of the “this is going to get dark” my husband anticipated. There is a bit of a message about artistic integrity, but the whole thing is couched in a rather nauseating story that ends in a Nazi death camp, so any chance of a “feel good” is blown out of the water. Still, as we all walked out, a bit dazed and blasted, my thought was: what an amazing ensemble cast I just saw perform. Nearly three straight hours and I didn’t begrudge them a minute; once act two started I was bought in all the way. While I was too culturally confused to be able to see it in the big stars and lights the West End Whingers did, I’d definitely say this is a show worth catching.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, October 11th, 2009. It continues through November 14th. I ate at Akash Tandoor beforehand and can highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo plate.)

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Review – A Little Night Music – Menier Chocolate Factory

December 3, 2008

Last night I headed off with my uncle, J and Sue to see A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Now, I approached this whole show with some considerable misgivings, chief among them that, though I am a big fan of musicals, I do not care for Sondheim. I base this on seeing two of his works and finding them not very good (“Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”) and the fact that I generally find his music “tweedley” and just generally not very hummable. Me, I want to walk out of a show singing something, like I did for “Drowsy Chaperone” and “Anything Goes,” but Sondheim doesn’t really leave me with a single memorable musical moment … it’s just kind of noise, like modern operas, though not to the extent that I want to stick an icepick in my ears like I did for “Pierrot Lunaire.”

My second major misgiving was that this whole thing was directed by Trevor Nunn. Now, chances are that if you know anything about musical theater, you’ve probably heard his name before. Unfortunately for me he is forever linked with “Les Mis,” which is stuck in my memory as the very first time I realized a musical could be complete crap. Nowadays I realize that pretty much anything can get hyped beyond all realms of belief and yet still be a steaming pile of poo, but twenty or so years ago this came to me as a tremendous shock. So I figured that once again I was likely to be signing myself up for something that was overdesigned beyond all belief and also hollow at the core.

Well, okay, there was one reason that I did not absolutely believe that this would be the case, and thus bought the tickets in the first place, and this was because this show was being produced at the Menier. Now, my first visit to the Menier was a bit of a disaster; the show (“Playing Our Song”) was a turkey and I left the theater with huge scrapes on my knees from the overly close seating arrangement. However, I loved the space; intimate as all get out (a bit much so in regards to the other audience members) and a really amazing place to watch people singing big songs to you from ten feet away. I’ve also been pretty impressed by the Menier’s record at getting its shows transferred elsewhere; while I can’t imagine why I’d ever bother with “Sunday in the Park with George” (as transferred to Broadway) its “La Cage,” now on the West End, is apparently quite the thing, and I thought that chances were better than not that this would be a good show and I’d be pleased to say “I saw it when” etc.

But then of course there was the Sondheim angle. Bit of a roll of the dice, eh, but the tickets were bought, and, if nothing else, my uncle was quite pleased to be going to see this show while he was visiting, and, well, the company would be good, so my fingers were crossed.

New to this trip was an Assigned Seating System (woo!) which ensured we could actually relax with our dinner and glasses of port at the Boot and Flogger prior to the show, all the while knowing we’d not have to sit in the row with the four inch wide aisle because we had seats waiting for us. Hurray! Unfortunately, “front row” meant “in the seats designed for people who are under five feet tall,” as we were ridiculously low to the ground and spent the whole time watching the show from over the top of our knees. Oh well, at least we had leg room – though we were a bit worry we might trip up the performers.

The show itself was actually a quite interesting little frippery (based on a Bergman movie – one of the happy ones, apparently) about a middle aged man wedded to an 18 year old girl (Anne Egerman, played by Jessie Buckley), who have an unconsummated marriage; he is attracted to a lush actress (named Desiree, my!) with whom he had a liason some years back, while his religious son is in love with the wife (who’s much closer to his age) and hating himself for it. All of this contained sexual energy goes wild when the unhappy family is invited to the actress’ country house for the weekend, at which point the play suddenly turns into one of those Shakespearean comedies of errors in which all true lovers are united at the end and we are sent home with smiles on our faces.

So there I was, hunched in my front row seat, watching these people sing and dance close enough to me that I could see the wrinkles on their faces (except for the 18 year old, whom appears to be actually … well, 19), listening very closely to the music and laughing at the clever libretto (who’d ever think to use “Titian” as a rhyme with “Venetian?”), and I realized … I was actually enjoying myself. Sure, I couldn’t stand Desiree Armfeldt’s (Hannah Waddingham’s) hairdo, which was too “1960s sex goddess,” and the miked voices made me want to tear my OWN hair out, and the actress’ aged 10 or so daughter was just verging on nauseatingly cute and precocious (though I did admire her for singing with so much hair in her mouth – was it all about the hair for me?), and my uncle was gagging a bit on the cigar smoke in Act Two – but wasn’t it all just rather lovely, with the simple, yet effective sets, the 100% professional cast practically sitting in my lap, the very interesting and believable characters? I mean, wasn’t it pretty much the whole package other than some niggling bits?

Anyway, by the intermission I’d perked up quite a bit, and by the end of the show I was thinking, well, who knows, maybe this Sondheim guy isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the fact it was a community college cast I saw performing “Into the Woods” affected how I feel about it. Maybe … maybe Sondheim is a taste best appreciated with age. When I found myself comparing the libretto to Cole Porter’s work, it did make me think I’d turned a corner. At any rate, it was a good evening out, and I do very much encourage people to take themselves down to Southwark and catch this show – it’s on for three months so you should have a bit more luck than you would at the typical Donmar production.

(This review is for a performance on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008. For a far more thorough review, please read the West End Whingers, who got a lot of benefit out of buying a program. Too bad I could find so little information about the cast on the Menier’s site – perhaps they’re shy.)