Posts Tagged ‘theater’

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 – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre

August 3, 2009

On Friday night, J, W, Mel, Bill and I went to the Arcola Theater to see their production of Ghosts. I was, of course (if you’ve been reading this blog for long), interested because of my deep love of Ibsen’s work (and a previous mostly successful interpretation of Ibsen by the Arcola) – and then there’s also the pre-show carnivores’ banquet at the nearby 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, always a motivation for a trip to Dalston.

Ghosts run for three acts with no interval, meaning roughly a two hour running time. But unlike the overblown Phedre, Ghosts blazed along from start to finish with barely a pause to catch its breath. It was like a 19th century version of August, Osage County – incest, drug use, suicide, and deep dark family dysfunctions – but set in a Victorian society ruled by Biblical morality. As the show tumbled from one horrific revelation to another, it felt like being in a car during the last seconds before a crash – everything was hyper-real and felt completely unavoidable.

Yet somehow it never seemed too over the top, like Osage ultimately was. We started with a woman who was excited to have her son visiting after a long absence, we’re told about the orphanage she’s opening in honor of her husband, we meet the maid who’s in love with the son. One by one, the things we thought we knew unravel, each new tragic element reframing to the whole, as we find out what the actual truth iss underneath the inaccurate pretty picture we started with. Finally it comes back to the only original truth, that Mrs. Alving loves her son, and what that now means for both of them and their lives.

Of the characters, my favorite was Pastor Manders, whose lines Paul Hickey somehow managed to say with a straight face. This closed-minded preacher starts the play by lecturing Mrs Alving (Suzanne Burden) about how wrong it is to read the corrupt literature her son (Osvald, played by Harry Lloyd) has brought home – then admits he hasn’t read it himself as he prefers to criticize based on second hand knowledge! Over the course of the evening we see him tempted and twisted and finally served his come-uppance (as I saw it) – as tasty a theatrical treat as one could ever hope to bite into.

This play really hinges on Mrs Alving’s performance, given that she is on stage for about 90% of the show, and Ms. Burden generally did a good job of creating a woman who’d spent most of her life living a lie and was ready to move into a new world of openness and freedom from social shackles. However, at the end when she was cracking under the stress of her son’s illness, she went rather more histrionic than I was willing to swallow. That said, who knows what the proper response should have been at the end of the play … but it was only about 5 minutes when I lost connection with the drama, and I’d been caught up for the rest of the show, so it was a minor flaw.

I also very much enjoyed the performance of Natasha Broomfield as Regine and Jim Bywater as her slimy dad Engstrand. Engstrand is such a schemer, a real laugh to watch on stage, and I pretty much forgot he was acting because it all sounded so natural, like he’d just thought it up while he was standing there! Meanwhile Broomfield really seemed to “get” the bizarre social limitations of 19th century society and how it would make both Regine’s dad’s job offer and the situation at the Alvings’ house completely unacceptable for her. She also formed the face of the society the Pastor represented, the conservative Norwegian society, and showed just how much Osvald and his mother were shaking up the social order with their radical ideas. Of course, the idea of a woman choosing to pursue her own happiness over her duty and to think her own thoughts was radical enough – living together “without benefit of matrimony” really was just pushing it too far. No wonder Osvald felt the darkness of Norway sucking the life out of his body … in that day and age, I would have, too.

In short: Ghosts was a really fun evening out and, as an Arcola play, fairly easy on the budget. It’s an interesting script and well worth watching. Our two hours flew by! And it certainly deserved better than the half full house it got on Friday. Check it out while it’s on.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 31st. Ghosts continues through August 22nd.)

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 – In A Dark Dark House – Almeida Theatre

December 7, 2008

Since I enjoyed Fat Pig so much, I was excited when I heard Neil LaBute’s newest play was making its European debut at the Almeida. His writing is very much focused on the American now – not so much the historical moment we find ourselves in as the psychological landscape we live in. I’m not sure if the way I’m wired inside is similar to the English that I live among, but I think it’s different, and I think LaBute gets it. Pinter, I think, is the playwright of the English psyche – a lot of his mysteries can only be understood by those who live here. LaBute seems to understand the lies Americans tell themselves about what they feel and what is important to them, about how they want to be and how they actually act, and about how the react when they realize (or have pointed out) these contradictions. I also very much like his dialogue – it very much sounds appropriate for now, rather than being written in some “high theater” style.

In a Dark Dark House is well suited to the elements I like of his style. The story is about two brothers dealing with some very bad elements of their childhood as well as their relationship with each other. The younger brother Drew (Steven Mackintosh) has made enough of a wreck of his life that he’s wound up at a nut farm/”rehab” facility after a major car crash; he’s asked his estranged elder sibling Terry (David Morrissey) to come and help with his therapy. This all seems pretty pedestrian, even given the serious lack of empathy between the two brothers. In fact, it seems like it’s all going to blow up and the play is going to end rather quickly (though I had no idea where it was going to go) when Terry decides he’s just had enough of his brother’s game-playing bullshit and gets ready to storm of the stage and just leave him to his own devices (and likely jail sentence) when suddenly it comes out what the therapy session is really dealing with; not parental abandonment, not serious physical abuse (at the hands of their father), but child sexual abuse, and Terry’s possible role in allowing this to happen to his brother.

Wow. Suddenly I was sitting up on the edge of my seat. This is not really a topic I’ve seen dealt with much in the theater, and I’ve never seen it handled particularly well. But the effect sexual abuse has in later years on the adults who were its victims, and the particularly squirrely convolutions it has on the relationships between two people who both suffered it at the hands of the same person and then spend years not talking about it to each other … that was really something. I became entirely lost in the dialogue and really focused on the play, quite an achievement given the condition I was in (sleep dep and burnt out from work).

Oddly, it was the second scene that really had me on edge and was also the strongest one of the night. Terry left his brother as an avenging angel out to find the person who screwed them both up. Incongruously, he winds up on a miniature golf course, where Jennifer (Kira Sternbach) is waving her rather underclad (and well toned) bum at the audience while she cleans up the ball tubes (the conversational innuendo in this scene was pretty heavy, so please don’t blame it on me!). This 15 year old, who is rather heavily flirting with Terry, turns out to be … the daughter of the man who sexually abused him and his brother.

Really, just where was it all going to go? As the scene ended, with the tension ratcheted up so high I could almost not bear to watch any more, I had NO idea what the playwright was going to choose to do. We’d already done childhood sexual molestation – did we have any more evils to hit?

The final scene is at Drew’s fancy house; he’s made it out of rehab and is celebrating. Then his brother Terry shows up to tell him about what he’s been up to, and … well, let’s say it doesn’t go well. I enjoyed it, though – it was a good evening out and a peach at 1:45 running time with no interval (forgive me but I was exhausted and the Almeida is a long trek from my house), and I felt well rewarded for trusting to an author I enjoyed to provide me with an energizing and provocative (in ever so many ways) night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 4th, 2008. In a Dark House runs through January 17th.)

Review – Now or Later – Royal Court Jerwood

October 28, 2008

Just saw a fantastic play at the Royal Court Jerwood, Now or Later by Christopher Shinn – a play which is receiving a world premiere at this venue (or did a month ago). Wow! When do new plays ever hit the ground this topical and this good? It’s set on election night in America, where the Democratic candidate’s son is holed up in his hotel room watching election results with his best college buddy. As the results come in, news of a scandal is unfolding – pictures of the son dressed as Mohammed at a campus party are showing up on the internet. Will he apologize for being offensive? Will he stand up for his right for political expression? Will his dad ever actually talk to him? Will anyone treat him like he’s something other than a tool his parents use to further his father’s political career?

I had never been to the Royal Court before (the plush seats reminded me of sitting in my dad’s ’69 Pontiac Bonneville, if it had had a brown interior instead of a white one), and starting off our relationship with this play was really just setting up a standard I can only hope the Jerwood can maintain. Eddie Redmayne (as John Junior) was very good, though he had a bit of a strange American accent and seemed to be playing up the mental instability a bit. Nancy Crane, as mom, really had the plasticky-fakeness of politicians down straight. John Senior (Matthew Marsh) seemed to be trying to hard to come off as a “type” (the way he was wiggling his hand by his side just seemed like something he’d seen on TV but not managed to make seem natural for his character), but as he slid into his interaction with John Junior the two of them were positively electrifying, rather like watching the climactic scene of Frost/Nixon. Never have 75 minutes gone by so fast.

I was referred to this by the WestEnd Whingers (really just the best theater blog out there if you’re looking for hot tips for shows to see, or warnings for turkeys), and I am really grateful to them for pointing me in the very, very right direction. Its brevity made it a play that was easy to squeeze into a weekday evening, yet good enough that it managed to lighten my mood after a rather crummy day at work. It’s been extended to November 1st, though tickets are a bit hard to get – try SeeTickets as the venue has almost no availability. It’s your last chance – see it while it’s hot!

Review – Slung Low’s “Helium” – The Barbican

September 24, 2008

A few weeks ago I read a review for a show (in The Metro, which shockingly put it online for once) that really caught my attention. It sounded like one of those site-specific pieces – sort of … well, what do you call those Punchdrunk-style things where the audience gets walked around? Er … well, okay, it sounded like an interesting piece of theater to experience, one where the story is very much created by what it’s like to watch the play, rather that just sitting and watching a story take place in front of you. I was especially interested because (as I recalled the review) it was about a girl’s relationship with her grandfather, and I had a very close relationship with my grandmother and am thus interested in seeing this kind of thing depicted by other people.

The show was also described as being very intimate, with just one person being allowed to watch it at a time. Wow! That sounded very different. And it was short – so if it was terrible, it would all be over soon. And Boy Howdy was it cheap – £10 a ticket. I was sold.

As was, apparently, everyone else on God’s green earth who had read the Metro (or perhaps TimeOut, as its review was also pretty positive). Tickets were sliding out of my husband’s fingers (as he attempted to navigate the Barbican’s online ticketing facilities) faster than I could say, “Yes! No!” and we wound up booking for the last hour of the last night of this show, with entrance times an hour apart. Damn!

As we (at last) arrived (with tickets that had fortunately been rejiggered so we were only 15 minutes apart – and then they let us just come in immediately after each other, with a five minute separation), we were greeted by cheerful tour guides, who gave us birthday card invitations (with our specific entrance time written on them – as well as our names, of course) and gummy worms, then sat us down to await our turn. When my turn came, a guide came and introduced himself to me. He was going to be my guide for the whole show, and he promised to get me every time and make sure I went to the right place (none of this Battersea Arts Center faffing around stuff, thank God). He explained to me that there were going to be people in the rooms we were going to go in, and even though I could see them, they couldn’t see me and wouldn’t respond to me if I talked to them (I restrained myself from rolling my eyes), though I was free to walk around and look at things unless he had pointed out a particular place for me to be. He also very kindly took my sweater and purse. I realized he was just an actor, but still, I’ve hardly had someone talk so nicely to me in the two years I’ve been here, so it was actually a nice way to start the evening. I restrained myself from making some kind of, “So, it’s closing night, how have the audiences been?” kind of comment and let him stay in character instead.

We then walked up to a little free standing building that looked kind of like a plywood garden shed, with stairs going up to a door and no windows. Around the space I could see other jumpsuited guides walking people up to other buildings … hmm! A series of simultaneously occurring plays! How cool … The guide explained that we were actually starting at the end, which he repeated as if many of the people attending had just found it far too confusing. He opened the door for me (while promising to come back and get me when it was time to leave) … and in I went.

Inside the shed was a little room that looked like someone’s office, with books on the wall, a desk, and a few partially packed boxes. A woman (Vicky Pratt) was sitting in front of the desk on the old-fashioned phone talking, while the (also old-fashioned) radio droned on loudly. After a while it became clear that the radio was actually commenting on what she was saying, and, eventually, even talking about me – or, rather, my presence in the room. Between the woman and the radio, I gathered that she was there to clean up her grandfather’s place after he died, and that there was some sort of mystery she was trying to solve … something about how he used to give her a helium filled balloon for her birthday every year … I think. Unfortunately because I was sick, I was kind of fading in and out of paying attention, and I was getting very hung up at looking at all of the detail of the little environment I was in. What was the book she was flipping through? Was there some clue in the periodic table that was on the wall? Um … was I supposed to be listening a little better? No matter, she hung up the phone, the door behind her opened, and presto! There was my guide.

I stepped out of the back of the shed and my guide offered me some popcorn as we walked the two or so yards to my second stop. Mmm, popcorn! He had me flip a switch and then sent me into the next environment, my favorite of the night – “A theater with a seat just for you!” as my guide had promised. Inside the box, I found myself standing behind a balcony at a movie theater, “far above” the rows and rows of tiny seats on the floor. It was adorable! A movie was playing on the screen showing magic tricks, which I think was supposed to be a scene from the grandfather’s life, perhaps something about handling disappointment poorly. A balloon did appear on the screen … but I wasn’t paying nearly enough attention. The environment was just so adorable that I spent at least half of my time looking at the incredible detail. I felt like I was inside of a doll’s house (did the box of popcorn perhaps have a label on it saying, “Eat Me?”). Then the movie was over, the credits rolled … and the door opened, and my guide was waiting outside.

The third room had a much more mechanical look to it, like I was going into a safe or a submarine. I was instructed to sit in the corner and put the headphones on. I opened the door … and there was a man sitting in the corner with his own headphones on, dressed in a kind of jumpsuit … with a radio next to him … and something funny about the floor …. ah! I got it! We were in an airplane in World War II, and he was talking to his friends in the other airplanes on the radio. I could hear what they were saying to him in my headphones … but then also … another voice … the one I heard in the first room. It was two voices, in fact, apparently the grandfather, commenting on this period of his life, and … the mystery character. Then, suddenly, we were going on a bombing raid, and the floor of the room opened up, a great breeze blew in from the opened bombing bay, and we watched as the bombs fell out of the little airplane’s belly and made pretty fire bouquets … all over Dresden.

My my my. How these things do come full circle. (Which probably means nothing to anyone reading this who doesn’t know me personally.)

At this point, I’ll actually stop telling the tale of the show, so that if they remount it, anyone who reads this review will still have some surprises. There were two more environments, neither of which was nearly as good as the second and third, and then a little fun bit as you walked out, but overall, I felt … well, like it was good, but like the story was just starting as I was leaving! It’s actually a good thing to have a show not wear out its welcome, but this one really seemed just too short. I was enjoying myself and really going with it and would have been happy to have kept on with the story for at least another half an hour, even though I was ill and just all too grateful that half of the scenes had a place for me to sit. I apologize if you missed it, but given how fast the tickets sold out the day the reviews hit the street, I’m sure you are not alone in this. Let’s hope it gets done again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 20th, when I was pretty much on my deathbed but still bound and determined to get out and see this show. It was closing night. Apologies in advance if you want to see it.)

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 – West Side Story – Sadler’s Wells (New Victoria Theatre, Milton Keynes Theatre, The Lowry, The New Wimbledon Theatre, etc.)

August 18, 2008

(Note: this show has now moved to New Victoria Theatre in Woking from Tuesday 2 through Saturday 13 September 2008, from whence it will be at Milton Keynes, The Lowry in Salford and then The New Wimbledon Theatre – even Glasgow and Cardiff.)

As a big fan of the American musical, I was determined to add West Side Story to my “seen” list – and not a cheesy high school production or a remount of the movie, but something very much like the version that’s at Sadler’s Wells right now (and through August 31st, after which it’s touring, including a two week visit to the New Wimbledon Theatre starting October 14th). It’s billed as the 50th anniversary version and “very true to the original choreography,” so I figured it was going to really to give me an opportunity to judge this show in its purest form. Does it deserve to rank with the best of the best, or was it just a 50s flash in the pan that people cling on to because of the Romeo and Juliet connection? Old chestnut or classic? There was only one way to find out … and on Friday, Katie and J and I headed out to Get Experienced.

As it turns out, this show is rather painfully popular and nearing the end of its run, so, as a blogger, I don’t consider it worth my while to spend a thousand words talking about it. You’ve either got tickets or you weren’t going to go (though perhaps you’ll go see it in New Wimbledon). I found it … well, fun, really! Jerome Robbins is a great choreographer, and the initial fight choreography was high energy and a blast to watch. The dancers were totally on form, and I had to think actually better than they would have been in the 50s – although (I think) there were way many performers to choose from back then, technique has really moved forward, and I felt like Joey McKneely’s version had a likely better execution than the original might have had. (Not that one can replace Chita Rivera, but …)

So … the music. Wow, the music was really dated, in a way I found occasionally painful. Xylophones, bizarre not-quite-melodic songs … West Side Story‘s score sounded like it was blended from some record of 50s exotica and more experimental opera of the era. Only a few of the songs were hummable, and “Tonight” was not! This left “America” and “I Feel Pretty” as the only songs I could remember after the show. The other songs were interesting and moved the narrative forward, but weren’t … well, let’s say I won’t be buying the soundtrack and singing them to myself (or an audience of amused strangers).

The set: good, very flexible, nice use of projections (shock!), kept the attention focused on the actors but still did a good job of creating the different “scenes” (the balcony scene, with “Romeo” climbing up the fire escape ladder, was especially cute).

The accents: for once, they were GOOD. Maria had an honest, fresh from a Spanish-speaking homeland young woman, and didn’t sound forced, but rather very much real. This was a huge relief to me (and based on her name I think she was probably not pushing herself too much to get it right). The rest of the performers – not once did I have my “Good God, why can’t English actors do American accents?” button pushed. Were they all Americans? I didn’t read the program (too busy watching the show), so who knows, but what they were was competent and believably American or Puerto Rican.

What does this leave? The acting and the story. Who would think that by coming to London I would have suddenly been put into a frame of mind where young toughs getting into a knife fight would become much more poignant rather than quaint (in America, we just expect street toughs to shoot each other). So when we got to the climactic knife fight, which seemed like a bit of a throwaway in Romeo and Juliet, it became so much more – young kids throwing their lives away for a stupid sense of pride in a way that meant more than it did in R&J (rich fools duelling, not very sympathetic) and very much seemed like “look, nothing’s changed.” And Tony’s role is very different – he’s a nice guy trying to break things up, he’s a completely sympathetic character. Maybe it’s a bit unrealistic that he would fall in love with a girl he only just saw at a dance, but once the fight happens, far more so than in a tale of star cross’d lovers, Tony and Maria really and truly to seemed to have no chance in the world of keeping their relationship together in a world where no one, really, wants to see them succeed.

How was the acting, though? I think it all comes down to this: we all knew how it was going to end, right? And yet way up there in the second balcony, the second balcony, mind you (where I could afford seats), I could here scores of people sniffling at the end – reserved old English people having a cry about the tragic end of what could have been a beautiful romance. And me, uh, I had some dust in my eyes and my contacts were dry, okay?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 15th, 2008. Performances continue through the 31st of August though it’s mostly sold out, but, hey, if you just want a single, you can always call the day of and get a return ticket. More information on the official “West Side Story 50th Anniversary Production website. This show will be touring for a while so you have many chances to catch it still!)

Preview of August: a month in theater

July 28, 2008

Shockingly, there are several days left to July and I have not a single show in store. That said, I do have some things scheduled for August, but not much yet due to going out of town a few times. (It’s summer, what can I say, I hear the call of the sea.)

August Theater Plans
5 (Tuesday): Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall. This is a birthday present and I’m looking forward to it! UPDATE: This was miserable.
6 (Wednesday): Pygmalion at the Old Vic. Hey, better late than never, and you can’t get much later than closing week. What’s amusing is that I actually won tickets to this show early in the run, but it was on a night when I was hosting a party so I couldn’t go. Ah well. I’m sure it will be much better now that the Old Vic’s lack of AC will be heating up the action on stage that much more. UPDATE: Brilliant, too bad it’s closed now.
12 (Tuesday): Three-Penny Ring Cycle at the National Theatre. It’s one act, it’s musical, it’s based on two classics, what’s not to love? UPDATE: Bah, we were rained out, or had a rain delay, so we got refunds and went home.
13 (Wednesday): All-male Mikado at the Union Theatre (Southwark). This will mean I’ve seen the Mikado twice this year, but the Union Theatre has won my heart and thus will get me to make the bet this one will have ten times the charm of the first. UPDATE: Bah again, this was sold out. Why didn’t I buy my tickets sooner?
15 (Friday): West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells. They’re about the cheapest seats I could get but they’re still a lot – but I’ve never seen this before and it had to happen.
23 (Friday): Naughty cabaret at The Roundhouse. With friends. Naughty friends.

Also, I’m aiming to fit in the Victorian Music Hall thing at Wilton’s and Into the Hoods – it should make for a busy month all in all even though eight shows makes me feel like I’m kind of sleepwalking my way through it.