Posts Tagged ‘theater reviews’

How I rate shows

May 5, 2012

You may notice if you read this blog much that I don’t assign star ratings to shows. I was required to for a while when transferring my reviews to Up The West End, a side project of one of the West End Whingers. Mostly, I don’t like to use stars, because for me so much of a show’s “rating” depends on how much I paid for it. Did my seats cost £75, like they did for Mary Poppins and the Bolshoi’s Giselle? Then I am expecting something pretty damned amazing right from the start. But mostly I try to stick to shows where I pay around £15-£20 for my ticket – a requirement when you’re going to see shows four nights a week.

With that cost scale, here’s what my star rating would look like:

5 stars: changes how I feel about theater. I will talk about it for years to come. I might have cried. If it’s sold out, I’d recommend standing outside in the rain for tickets. (Cock, Giselle, Collaborators, Propellor’s Richard II.) This doesn’t happen much.

4 stars: an extremely enjoyable night out, worth more than what I paid for the tickets. I left elated. I would probably go again. (Crazy for You, Jumpy.)

3 stars: fairly standard yet enjoyable fare, done at a high level of professionalism with a good script. I was engaged. (The King’s Speech, Betty Blue Eyes.)

2 stars: if you don’t really have anything better to do, this is probably not a bad choice, but a night at home watching TV might not be too bad as an alternate. Actually, you can probably skip this play, unless you have a compelling reason to go (collecting all plays by this writer, topic you’re interested in, bored and it’s cheap). (Hay Fever, Much Ado About Nothing at the National, Singing in the Rain.)

1 star: I made a mistake buying this ticket. No matter what I paid for it, I thought it might be better to leave during the interval, unless I really had high hopes that something tremendous and unexpected was going to happen in the second (or third) act. I am resentful about staying to see this show. (Woman Killed with Kindness and pretty much anything Katie Mitchell does, Floyd Collins)

0 stars: Suddenly I realized that I have a limited time on this planet and urgently needed to be making the most of the pitiful hours left to me. In some cases, this may mean I have to leap over other people in order to escape the room. Chances of being scarred are high. (Fram, Pierrot Lunaire, 4:48 Psychosis as done by Fourth Monkey.)

I don’t give numbers in my reviews on this blog because it’s all a bit of a finger in the air thing due to the impact on ticket cost on the “value” of a production (as well as the whole question of how long it is). I think, though, it’s obvious from what I write if the show in question is worth seeing or not, or if it’s just forgettable entertainment, or if it’s actually actively vile.

Do you disagree with this approach? To be honest, I do like the West End Whingers’ use of ratings as it makes it easy for me to preserve the surprise for shows I haven’t seen yet by just scrolling down to the number of wine glasses and then buying tickets for it if it’s a 5 glass show and reading the review later (after I’ve written mine). But then, I think they’re too soft and award 3/5 to shows I consider not worth making an effort for. What do you think?

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Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican

May 3, 2009

On Thursday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble‘s production of Peer Gynt. I was excited about this show for two main reasons. First, I love Ibsen, and I have never seen Peer Gynt before. Second, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch was supposed to be one of the theatrical events last year, and since I’d missed out on it, I wanted to see just what made this company’s work so outstanding. High hopes, eh? And I’d managed to score 8th row center seats, probably the best I’ve ever had at the Barbican.

The stage is fully opened and very bare as the story starts. The Barbican’s main stage is just a barn, and it really makes it difficult to get an intimacy to the proceedings with the 50 foot tall rafters looming above. A table and a chair or two stood in front of what looked like a billboard of the fjords of Norway; to the sides, a lowered area held chairs and what looked like about 16 people (8 on each side), sitting in chairs, who appeared to be fresh from a wedding party or hen do (the trampy clothing of the woman were confusing me but one woman was in her bridal gear); behind the wall a ramp led some two stories up from the rest of the proceedings, to a platform that looked like rather a drop to the floor below. In front of the billboard, a man dressed all in white (Cliff Burnett, sort of a cross between Nick Cave and Colonel Sanders) was playing an accordion, but he moved off stage as Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming in a tour-de-force performance) appeared, being bawled out by his old mom (Ann Louise Ross) for disappearing on a bender.

Peer Gynt looks to be an out of shape man in his middle 20s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his character is truly a touchstone of Western play writing. I can’t speak to Ibsen’s original, but this Gynt was a grandiose drunk prone to big dreams (singing “Peer Gynt the emperor” to a tune by the Pet Shop Boys) and telling ridiculous stories to mask his shortcomings. And his shortcomings are many; no job, no girlfriend, mocked by the town (played by the wedding guests, who make snorting noises when they see him), his family’s money dwindling around him. His mom wants him to use his limited charms to actually pull the only girl in town who likes him enough to marry him, just to save her from financial ruin; but Gynt is terminally incapable of following through on any plan, even if it’s only one that would take a few hours to execute.

What he does truly excel at is storytelling, even if it’s clear that the yarns he spins are nothing but lies, tales he’s often heard elsewhere and then tried to sell as his own (as he is caught doing several times). He starts the play out taking his mom on a magic reindeer ride (on the top of a spotlit table), telling her how he rode one across hill and dale and finally down over the edge of a cliff, plunging through clouds of seagulls as he fell, a moment of storytelling and dramatic imagery that actually set the wrong stage for the evening, as this was the very best moment of the entire play, when two people standing on a table created a forest with trees and giant stags in my mind simply through their words, and nothing that happened for the rest of this evening, an evening focused on spectacle over drama, would come near it.

I want to emphasize just how much of a spectacle this evening was. I saw many things I’d never seen on a stage before: a hanged man disco-dancing; a person having a near-death experience in a plane while being seduced by a demon; the lead character being sexually assaulted by a person in a gorilla suit; a woman giving birth to a wriggling piglet. I mean, WOW, there was so much going on stage – so much that I lost my ability to care about anything I was watching around about the second hour (despite going, “Wow, never seen that before. How long is this play again?”).

Peer Gynt, touchstone of Western drama that he is, is a hard character to like, as all anti-heroes are, but I felt like I should have been more emotionally invested in what was happening to and around him. But I couldn’t rouse myself to care about Gynt any more than he could rouse himself to fix his life. The pretty girl he loved, the strange journey through his future, all of the madness with trolls … none of it moved me. It’s like somehow amidst the cavernous spaces of the Barbican’s stage, the story just got lost. Maybe it was hiding under a pile of trolls. Really, I didn’t care; I just wanted it to be over, or to get interesting again, but it didn’t happen.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this show, even while I was occasionally impressed by its scale and vision. But like Gynt himself, Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand. At three hours and eight minutes running time, it just doesn’t reward its investment. I’ll be waiting for a real production to come by and advising people to skip this.

(This review is for a show on Thursday the 30th of April, 2009. It continues through May 16th. For other opinions, see < ahref=”http://www.viewfromthestalls.co.uk/2007/10/peer-gynt-october-2007.html&#8221;)View from the Stalls and the London Theatre Blog.

Review – South Pacific – Lincoln Center

January 5, 2009

South Pacific is one of the two shows that a positive review in the New York Times left me drooling to see. “This ‘South Pacific’ recreates the unabashed, unquestioning romance that American theatergoers had with the American book musical in the mid-20th century”? Ooh baby. That is the era of musical theater I worship, and Roger and Hammerstein are its deities. With a trip to New York on my schedule, South Pacific became the one show I had to see (thanks to the fortuitous temporary relocation of the Steppenwolf to these shores).

But by the time I got around to trying to buy tickets – fuggedabout it! Even with extra shows added for Christmas, there was nothing available until after I left! And the prices – good God! Who would have thought I’d been spoiled in London? But at straight prices, we were looking at $75 for the row D & E seats in the balcony (“loge”), and $125 for ALL other seats, both main floor (Orchestra/stalls) and the front three rows of the balcony! GOOD GOD! This was going to wipe my budget out in one fell swoop!

I can’t say whether or not there are any kind of discounts availble for this show (i.e. for students or groups), as I wouldn’t have qualified for them. I found myself thrown in the arms of a horror I’d attempted to avoid for years – the ticket scalper reseller. This is, unsurprisingly, QUITE the business in New York. I spent a lot of time popping around from one online site to another – easy enough when you’re at work, online, and singlemindedly focused – and the site that I like a lot was Tickets Now, which gets creds from me for being legitimate (it’s owned by Ticketmaster) and for having a really wide variety of dates and prices. I can’t say just how it works – it seemed like some of the tickets might have required meeting someone for a handoff – but it DID have tickets even below cost. And it had a deal that let you get $100 off your order if you applied for the American Express blue card – but be advised if you do that, your coupon may take a week (or more) to show up – in this case, not soon enough for me. And at costs starting rather too often at around $250 per ticket … well, I could find other things to do for that kind of money, which would get me through an entire season at the Royal Ballet. (Note: this site seems to be a good one for single tickets – keep this in mind.)

What was I to do? Well, I went to Ebay at a friend’s recommendation, and there I found a pair of tickets for sale for the princely sum of $170. Wait … at $125 per seat, this turned out to be below cost! These were offered by Ebay seller CalPaul47, and while I was a bit nervous about the whole thing, a note appeared (after I started buying the tickets?) saying that all Ebay ticket purchases made with/in New York were protected by New York’s laws on ticket resalers – which still left me feeling quite nervous about the whole thing. With overnight shipping, this was almost $200, the most I’d ever paid for anything on Ebay! How horrible if it all went wrong somehow!

As it turns out I needn’t have worried. The tickets made it to my friend’s office on time, as promised, and when we met her at the bar (just after getting off the plane and dropping off our bags), she had them in her hot little hands. These were “etickets” of a sort I hadn’t seen before – they had a bar code on them which the usher scanned (the next day) on our way into Lincoln Center – so far so good! We wound up with seats 515 and 516 in row A, and I was actually quite grumpy about this when I realized that in the big arc surrounding the stage (imagine the seats forming the curve of a letter D, with the stage as the straight bar), we were at the very point where the curve met the bar. This, I think, accounted for the lower price – but to be honest it wasn’t really that bad, as there was only ONE scene (when the girls were finishing “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair”) when there was important action happening on stage we couldn’t see. Otherwise, FOR THE PRICE, they were just fine – but they were NOT $200 seats each, no way, Jose. The price we paid was more or less right.

And, after all of that build-up, how was the show? It seems like it’s difficult to add much to a show that’s already been so effusively reviewed. But I had this advantage: despite knowing a few of the songs, I didn’t know most of them, and in fact didn’t really know much at all about the plot, as I’d given up on watching it the one time we rented it (the tape was destroyed and no fun at all). So for me, this was practically a completely new show which I was seeing as a blank slate.

So what happened after the curtain came up and the orchestra finished the overture (and the floor rolled back over the orchestra so that there was a nice thrust stage for people to perform on)? Well, Kelli O’Hara, our little Nellie Forbush, came out singing “Cockeyed Optimist” with a voice that sounded like melting honey … and I was totally sold on everything, for the whole show. Was David Pittsinger (Emil DeBeq) maybe a little creepy to be wanting to date a girl who looked to be 35 years younger than he was? (He looked to be fifteen years older than his character’s backstory seemed to indicate.) Well, with a deep, strong voice like his, who cared? And how was it I’d never heard “Some Enchanted Evening” before? (Picture me getting goosebumps as I type this)?

There are some little clunky bits with the show. “Dites Moi” is just too cute to be tolerated, but I was shocked to find “Happy Talk,” which I’d found nauseating on paper (and on the soundtrack), actually brought tears to my eyes because of the way it fit into the story. God, I’ve become a sap as I’ve gotten older. I found Nellie somewhat lacking in career goals, though the whole fact that she’d left a small town and joined the navy – for rough duty – was still pretty impressive. And, well, the whole bit about Nellie hating the thought of being the mother to mixed race kids … it’s not like the world has really changed that much, and to me it just seemed like facing up to the reality of how America still is in many ways, “under the skin” as it were. And the Bloody Mary character, she just seemed to be a cartoon Polynesian fantasy of Rogers and Hammerstein rather than the least bit real.

The staging was great – I loved the airplane on stage for the “Wash That Man” song, and I really enjoyed the use of light, shadows, and Venetian blinds to create the feel of a plantation during the DeBecque scenes. I was really just sucked into the whole thing wholeheartedly. In fact, at the end, when DeBecque is risking his life along with another soldier, I found myself getting rather emotionally involved. Ah well. Isn’t that what theater is supposed to be like? At any rate, a great evening out, a wonderful show – do try to see it!

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 20th, 2008.)

Review – Cinderella – Lyric Hammersmith

November 30, 2008

Warning: The Lyric Hammersmith’s Cinderella is NOT a panto, despite the title and the timing. Along those lines, it’s not entirely a family friendly show, certainly not for those under 8 and not at all if you don’t like your kids hearing words like “bitch” (the children around me gasped) and seeing people murdered on stage. This caused a great deal of embarrassment to me, as the five year old I brought with me ended the show crying inconsolably due to the particularly gory ending. But if you’re aware of all that …

Cinderella is actually the most imaginative retelling of this story I’ve ever seen and far exceeded my expectations for what this story could possibly be (although I was hoping for broad comedy, drag queens, bad puns, and a singalong with a lot more positive energy after spending eight hours looking at flats in South London). The format was of several fairy stories being told by Cinderella (Elizabeth Chan) and the various actors playing different characters (except for Cinderella herself). The staging was the usual “telling not showing stuff” (which can be unusual though it works better with small budget shows); the characters held little paper birds to represent the “snow pigeons,” a frame was held up in front of an actor to represent a picture, a variety of mannequins represented the numerous guests at the ball.

The acting generally felt highly stylized and wasn’t really about character development in any way; the actors were representing archetypes and conducted themselves appropriately. Fortunately, instead of the cartoony evil sisters, we had two girls (played by Katherine Manners, whose singing in Coram Boy struck me so, and Kelly Williams) who actually behaved like normal girls – afraid of their mom, wanting to make friends but not above pointing fingers to save themselves. While I was happy with them, I found Ms. Chan actually just a little too dreamy and high-archetype for the show – I wasn’t really able to be pulled in by her performance because she herself seemed so distant and two dimensional. Oddly, it seemed to be the Prince (Daniel Weyman) who did the most “acting” per se – though he was being a prince who had to act in order to deceive his mother, so perhaps this isn’t really a fair example.

The fun part of this production was, for me, seeing how the actors conveyed fairly dense theatrical visions with lightweight tools. This really came to fruition in the final scenes, which (if you haven’t read the Grimm original or don’t want a spoiler otherwise, best you stop reading now ….) required the sisters to cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the shoes, and then later the entire “evil Stepfamily” had their eyes removed. A bit of red yarn and what looked like potatoes seemed to carry the deeds well enough (plus having them dropped into a bucket of water for effect), but my ability to enjoy this bit of theater (and it was really fun!) was terribly marred by the way it upset the little girl I’d invited to join us. She’d actually really enjoyed the entire show – I suspect all of the different stories were really catching her imagination – but this was just too much and I felt bad for having so crucially misjudged what was going to happen onstage that night. I enjoyed so much of it, including the non-standard musical accompaniment (Terje Isungset played bicycle wheels and icicles – pretty neat!), but I probably won’t be able to pull myself out of the funk caused by terrorizing a little girl for a while. On the other hand, the mistake did lead my husband to utter the immortal lines, “Look behind you! Oh, you can’t,” so it’s possible the rest of the group I was with had a good time in spite of this.

(This show is for the evening performance on Saturday, November 29th, 2009.)

Review – Spyski, or, The Importance of Being Honest – Peepolykus at the Lyric Hammersmith

October 31, 2008

As this show is closing its run November 1st, I’m going to write just a brief review.

Peepolykus are very silly and their shows make me laugh, and I was very excited about going to the Lyric Hammersmith to see their latest, “Spyski, or: the Importance of Being Honest.” Even though every bit of this show was a big pile of gags, they still managed to create interesting characters and win me over emotionally as well as making me laugh. This, plus the silly visuals (the bunk bed that turns into a disco?) that take “low budget” and turn it into an asset made for a fun evening. I couldn’t help thinking as a “whup whup whup” noise sounded overhead and a handbag was lowered from the sky of the overblown nature of “Miss Saigon” – why have a real helicopter when you can have people see a much better helicopter in their minds? In addition to all this, the story did a nice job of blending in elements of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which was fresh in my mind after seeing it at the Vaudeville earlier this year, and they get extra points for including David Bowie’s “Kooks” at the end – one of my very favorite songs. In short: a fun show, well worth the very affordable ticket price, and I’m here, as sent by the cast, to warn you via my blog: we must be horses and not sheep! Only the true power of the theater can save people from the mindless obedience encouraged by the government!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, October 30th, 2008.)

Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) – The Old Vic (and soon The Circle in the Square Theater, NYC)

September 18, 2008

This show is being transferred to the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. Consider yourself warned!

Disclaimer: somehow, several years ago, I inadvertently watched Living Together (The Norman Conquests) on video back in Seattle. Normally I don’t watch plays on video tape, but I was broke (as I got this from the library it was free) and it was English and I figured it would be funny.

Well, it wasn’t. An utterly dull lead character, a rather silly sex farce plot … I turned it off midway and got to work on something more exciting (doubtlessly sleep, or possibly washing the dishes). I couldn’t figure out how it had just turned out to be an utter and complete dud, like a can of soda pop with no fizz, or chips that had gone stale in the bag. So the chance of any real surprises for this show were low. And yet … years later, its existence had slipped my memory. Title? Playwright? Nada. Zip. It was as if it had never happened.

And so, happily lacking a key bit of information about a certain playwright, I chose, back in December, to see “Absurd Person Singular,” which I considered at the time to be my first play by Alan Ayckbourn. In an unsurprisingly similar vein to the video I had once watched, my reaction was that … it was just so dated. I found it a real struggle to get through and really not particularly funny. The only consolation was that I went with the West End Whingers, a pair of guys I’d been dying to hang out with, as they seemed to be pretty sharp theater goers and also completely capable of knowing when to cut and run rather than insisting on punishing their theater companions while at a dog.

So another ten months or so rolls by, and yet I’ve still not made the connection about the video I saw years back and the lame play I saw in November. I was unable to properly weigh the value of watching Alan Ayckbourn versus the pleasure of a night out with the Whingers. So what did I do? When invited, I said yes, thinking perhaps Absurd Person Singular was a one-off dud. I mean, hey, this guy’s written practically hundreds of plays – everyone gets it wrong now and then, right?

The correct thing, apparently, would have been to have trusted my instincts about Ayckbourn being the Neil Simon of English theater and somehow to have REMEMBERED the horrible video I watched years ago. And yet … memory like a sieve, I forgot and I went. And if maybe the description on the Old Vic’s website rang a little bell, I just figured, eh, with a professional cast, this will be so much better, right?

Well, I’d say the only thing I got right about this evening was that it’s nice to hang out with savvy theater folk. I loved the lovely reconfiguration of the Old Vic into an “in the round” theater, until I figured out my seats were basically level with the head of the person in front of me; while I’m okay with not being able to see everyone’s faces in this configuration, I’m not okay with not being able to see them because I have someone else’s head in my face. But it was cool to see the rows of seats, like bleachers at the circus, lining the space behind where the stage normally is. I think it made the Old Vic a lot more fun.

Otherwise, well, the play is a dog. There’s just no getting around it. Who cares about Norman? (Stephen Mangan, nothing personal, mate, you did your best.) He’s not an interesting character and it’s impossible to believe anyone would want to sleep with him. Yeah, he does do some fairly comic lying and BSing, but he doesn’t seem to have any motivations behind his words or even behind his existence and didn’t seem the least bit believable. In fact, he was every bit as much of a dullard, a fizzless soda, a non-crispy chip, as he was in the horrid video. If only he’d killed himself like he’d been threatening to in the first act the whole thing would have been so much better!

Sadly, many of the doubtlessly undertheatered audience were laughing at the thin humor in this show. Now I’ll admit, the cast was good. In fact, I loved Amanda Root as Sarah, the uptight wife of Reg (Paul Ritter). She was completely inhabiting her anally retentive character, and when she finally flipped out at Annie (Jessica Hynes), I was lapping it up. But what was the point of this show? I was far more interested in the home made games that Reg was describing than anything else going on stage, though I got a little giggle when it became clear that Norman had (insert spoiler here). That said … what is the logic of the mountaineering game? It has sherpas, but what else does it have? Does everyone climb the mountain at the same time? Are there funny costumes to wear like for the cops and robbers games Reg had everyone playing during the first act? How do you win?

Now, the gimmick of these three plays (for there are two others) is that they all show different takes on the same weekend (description here). I wish that was an interesting enough reason to see them, but I think there’s a reason these plays haven’t been mounted for 34 years. In short: they are dated and they stink. Please save yourself the trouble and stay at home. Perhaps you too have dishes to wash or even some sleep to catch up on – better to do so in your house than in the deliciously reconfigured confines (and I emphasize “confine”) of the Old Vic.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008. I have little hope that further performances will improve the script, so consider yourself warned. The Whingers’ take on Norman is also online.)

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.)

Review – Will Tuckett’s “Faeries” – Royal Opera House, Clore Studio

July 14, 2008

After trying for weeks to find a time when my only friend with a child could accompany me (with her daughter) to see Will Tuckett’s “Faeries”, I was delighted when I got a phone call offering me a pair of free tickets with no strings attached (other than that I not post my review until today). A lot of people wouldn’t perhaps just be wandering around central London with nothing to do an hour before curtain time, but there I was, and I was completely willing to drop everything and run over to the Royal Opera House to see a show … for free! (How did my friend know that I’d be likely to do that? I must have a reputation …)

I have to interrupt the rest of the review with the reason why getting this call meant so much to me. I had known about this show for four months and had been trying to buy tickets for it when they went on sale but was unable to come up with a day that worked … because the ROH required each party have a child in attendance and in all of London I am only aquainted with one child, who would have to be brought up from Worcester Park in order to allow me to attend the show. What is up with the ROH saying you need to have a child with you to attend? Are they worried that the show will attract pedophiles, or is this just a blatant attempt at discriminating against the childless? As a woman who does not have any children nor, indeed, any relatives in the entire country, I found this policy onerous and incredibly unfair to me, a childless person. It’s bad enough that I can’t sit down and have my lunch in Coram Fields, which is only a block away, but to be forbidden from attending an art event because I can’t access a child? In 10 years of attending puppet and children’s theater this has never been an issue before. If I want to attend, I should be allowed to attend, understanding that there will be many children in the audience (and frankly they were better behaved than MANY audiences I’ve been stuck in the middle of, especially at the ballet. Must we talk during the overture?). Otherwise, if they want to be sure a certain number or percentage of children attend, they should just reserve seats for them rather than forbidden adults, flat out, from attending without children.

Walking into the show I had little idea of what to expect. I was thinking: the guy who designed the really cool looking Wind in the Willows ballet! Fairies! The … er … guy who choreographed the Pinocchio ballet I didn’t care for so much … well, maybe I should forget about that bit. At any rate, I was pretty excited about seeing a brand new ballet, as I always am.

However, it had never occurred to me what the plot might actually be about. In this case, it was sort of a Railway Children story, about two London kids sent to the countryside during the war. The girl gets split up from her brother and winds up running around in the woods and fields … and of course meets fairies. She makes friends with one, gets caught by another, and eventually gets caught up in needing to defeat an evil fairy “who wants to steal our freedom” (or something like that).

Walking into the hall, the atmosphere was good … there were period-dressed “Station Agents” handing out identification tags to the kids, and on stage was a fairly large puppet playing an old woman telling the kids where to sit and hurrying them along (a nice way to establish the puppets as “people” early in the performance). We took a seat near the very back of the stage so we wouldn’t have to get shoved off to the side, as everyone that sat down in the middle was asked to move to the edge of the risers – a bit of a punishment for people who came in on time!

Though the human cast initially seemed to be around ten people, I think there were only 2 actual speaking human roles, and after Our Heroine ran off, it was really just her and a phalanx of people operating the puppets. Unlike bunraku (or even Avenue Q), the people manipulating the puppets were all dressed in period clothing, which distracted a bit from the action. I thought that the woman with a red and white band on her head was going to turn out to be a fairy queen, but eventually it seemed that she was, really, just a woman wearing a scarf knotted on her head as if she were cleaning the house. I did like the fact that the people manipulating the Evil Fairy were dressed as soldiers, but otherwise the clothing didn’t add to the narrative. I don’t think it put the kids off, though, so maybe I’m just too picky.

The puppets were, in my mind, the best thing about this show. They came in a variety of sizes and took full advantage of their ability to be free of the normal laws of gravity and, er, bodily coherence, that human actors are limited by. This, of course, made it easy for the fairies to fly (and levitate), but they could also just stand sideways, or have their heads and tails come off and go on their own adventures. I also loved the detailing of the smallest puppets, all little fairies. I wanted to just pop them in my pocket and take them home with me. (Nice work to whoever designed these – brilliant!) And they were actually handled as characters, with their own voices, movement styles, and emotions – important aspects in making an object take on life and make it possible to focus on the face of the puppet instead of the person who was speaking for it.

The dance, however, wasn’t particularly interesting, and I wonder if the kids liked it or even cared. The scene where Our Heroine was dancing with her fairy friend was good, but the parts where, perhaps, emotion was being expressed were … I don’t know, meaningless. To me, they didn’t add to the narrative and just weren’t interesting to watch – they just seemed obligatory. While I went to see the dance, because that is what I love, and I enjoyed the show, if I had been expecting to enjoy it because of the dance I would have considered this show a complete failure. However, I’m open to enjoying any theatrical experience on its own merits, and as I enjoyed the other aspects of the show quite a bit, I can’t say it was a bad show because the dance was bad/boring/unimpressive.

Note that the evil fairy was actually scary enough that he was making the kids in the audience cry. I’m curious if they were going to try to lighten him up or just roll with it. For really little kids, he could easily be the incarnation of bogeyman nightmares.

So, overall this wasn’t a bad show, but the degree of excitement I had about going to see it wasn’t really matched by what was presented on stage. That said, the children in the audience were really caught up in what was going on and didn’t complain or barely make a squeak for the entire 75 minutes, so clearly something is working well. If you’re taking a kid to this, they will probably enjoy themselves, but if you were feeling sad because the ROH didn’t want your childless presence at this show, cry no tears – there will be other shows you will probably enjoy more. Me, I’m going to have to question whether or not I want to see Will Tuckett’s shows anymore – this makes the second one I’ve seen that left me flat, and good puppetry just isn’t enough to console me for indifferent dance. I’d rather just see a straight puppet show and keep my expectations set appropriately. Speaking of which, the Metro has £10 off top priced tickets to see Monkey: Journey to the West (the opera!), though it’s only good on matinees for Thrusday July 24 (2:30 PM) and Friday July 25 (4 PM). I don’t have £65 to lay out on theater seats for any show, but if you do, book through the ROH website (www.roh.org.uk/monkeyjourney). Hopefully Monkey will be a show where my expectations are finally met!

Review – Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter – Kneehigh Theatre at The Cinema Haymarket

June 18, 2008

(This, my favorite show of 2008, is now in New York City at Studio 54. Both The New York Times and blogger Steve On Broadway love this show – don’t miss it!)

Several months ago I heard about a unique hybrid production of the movie of Brief Encounter and the play that inspired it (Still Life), presented in the cinema where the movie premiered back in the day (restored to its glory for the show). I was intrigued but held off going so that I could attend with a gaggle of my friends. Time passed, the event hadn’t been organized, and my uncle was in town looking for a show to fill the slot on Sunday (which in London means slim pickins, no doubt about it). Torn between seeing an opera none of us had much of an interest in and a show that I personally was quite interested in, based on a movie my uncle loved, it wasn’t too hard to make the argument for skipping Covent Garden in favor of the Cinema Haymarket.

And what a good choice it was! Brief Encounter is pure theatrical magic. I can hardly sing its praises highly enough. In part, I think, I just didn’t know what to expect – I thought it was going to be people performing the dialogue in front of a movie screen. This did happen – for about the first five minutes of the show … but as it was performed, two of the actors were in the audience, and one of the “actors” was on the screen, addressing one of the people in the audience – so it was completely unlike the audience participation version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was kind of what I thought the show was going to be like.

Instead, what we got was a full-fledged multi-media show with just that clip of film as its basis, with live music and multi-tasking character actors (a cast of eight, I think?) that occasionally sang and danced and even bounced up and down in unison to indicate the passage of a train. Our star-crossed lovers, Laura (Naomi Frederick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) plunged into it all whole-heartedly, taking us on a boating trip, dancing in the air with joy, being kind and thoughtful to each other, and falling in love in most heart-rending fashion.

Meanwhile the rest of the brilliant cast was hamming it up in a variety of roles my uncle claimed saw little screen time in the original, but which added a lot of texture (in the form of two other love affairs) and provided the opportunity for all sorts of hijinks. It all ended in a fairly melancholy way, but we were so energized from the rest of the show, who could care? And as to the (American) woman in the bathroom who said that she didn’t remember Brief Encounter being a comedy – I say, you make a show that works in the medium you’re using, and this was a brilliant piece of theater.

My uncle, who’s retired, said Brief Encounter was worth paying full price to see – and considering he paid for three tickets, I consider that quite a compliment. (The matinee wasn’t available at the TKTS booth, although it often is for evening shows.) Also, after seeing four plays in four days (six for him), we all agreed that this was the best of the bunch – the icing on the cake for his trip to London. For me, it’s the best play I’ve seen in at least three months, possibly the year to date, and the only one that I’d go see again.

Slippery Mountain – Not So Loud Chinese Opera Company – New World Restaurant, London

April 13, 2008

Three weeks ago I read in the Metro that there was a Chinese opera being performed in a restaurant in Chinatown, with dim sum and tea served beforehand. And it was only an hour long! While the price seemed a bit steep (£25), it sounded to me like a great night out and I snapped up for tickets (for me, J, W, and my fellow Sinophile Mel) right away.

The restaurant (New World) had a great upstairs space with a large area cleared out for the show. We took our seats and were immediately given our snacks. Sadly, we weren’t given any sort of plates, just a round steaming dish with 1 shu mai, 1 egg roll, and 1 steamed fluffy pork bun in it. Hmm – a bit tight for the price. I was also grumpy to notice they’d got a two for one deal going that I missed out on by buying early. At the very least if I’d been aware of it I probably could have convinced a few more people to attend. We also got some other food (lamb pancakes, pork and cashew nuts, and chicken on crunchy fried noodles) to round it out, and the food was good even though we had to ask to get plates.

Our cast consisted of three demons (or monks, depending on the scene), our hero Mulian, his mom, Mulian’s tutor and stand-in demon fighter, and a woman sword specialist. The plot was, er, rather non-Western: Mulian is sent by his Buddhist superior to deal with his mother in hell, where she is about to spend eternity trying to climb Slippery Mountain to make up for her shortcomings during her lifetime (fornication while a nun being apparently a big no-no). Most of the scenes take place in hell, where the three demons sing cheerily about chopping up, burning, and torturing the souls that come their way. Their scenes allowed for a lot of vernacular dialogue, referring (for example) to “Asbos” and “insulting the Olympic torch” (the second a reason for extreme punishment). I found this all reminiscent of Panto and a good deal of fun. The dialogue was mostly in English, but Mulian’s mom spoke exclusively in Opera extreme Mandarin (I could almost follow along) and Mulian’s teacher spoke frequently in Mandarin, but for both of them, the “chorus” of demons/monks helped us follow along. Mulian’s mom’s arias were all in Chinese, but for these we had a sheet to help us follow along (as it were) and the action on stage was very helpful in demonstrating what was being said.

The show itself was not of the highest production quality, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting this in such a short production. The highlight was a battle between Mulian’s teacher and the demon swordswoman, who went head to head in staff versus double sword action. It was a blast. I was a bit sorry we didn’t get any acrobatics, but it was a small space, and hopefully I’ll get to see some this summer when the Peony Pavillion comes to town. Overall it was a good night out, and my greatest complaint was that I wished I’d had a little more tea – being able to sip a hot cup of Jasmine tea while watching a show has got to be one of the most pleasant theatrical experiences I’ve had in a long time, but our pot was long emptied before the show started up and the staff didn’t seem to want to come by the tables to refill, empty, or do anything else once they’d served up.