Posts Tagged ‘West End Whingers’

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.)

Review – Phedre – National Theatre

June 9, 2009

Tonight was my birthday treat to my friend Cate, a trip to the National to see Phedre. I didn’t know much about it (I love it when the first viewing of a show is a complete surprise, though I seemed to remember a bit of the plot) and had mostly purchased tickets on two points: first, that this was the play mentioned by Proust over and over in In Search of Lost Time, and, second, for some reason the National was restricting ticket purchases to four seats per person. Fine, then, it must be something special, or so I reasoned – possibly the fact that Helen Mirrim is playing the lead role. So I got seats long before the show opened – and for a preview performance, natch! (NOTE: It’s been pointed out that I spelled her name wrong. Oops. I’ll correct it for the rest of the review but I feel I need to leave it as stands to support the criticism.)

As we approached the theater, such good luck! Who was on the astroturf sipping a French red but Andrew and Phil of the WestEnd Whingers! Phil attempted to point out what they called “real celebrities” to me (some Dame Shawn somebody and someone from an American sitcom I never watched, details on their review), but it couldn’t distract me from the fact I had two of the funniest guys in London sitting around and shooting the breeze with me. It was really a good start to the show.

After which … well, if you’ve never seen a Greek drama, you should know there is a kind of formula they follow. A proud character announces that he is going to go against the will of the gods, and, once he leaves the stage, a messenger appears and tells you that he’s met a terrible fate pretty much before he reached the wings. It’s rather like working at a start-up web company, really, listening to people talk about how rich they’re going to be or the CEO promising what a success his unresearched product will be once it hits the market “and is properly monetized.” Phedre actually has two ridiculously proud characters (Theseus – Stanley Townsend – and his son Hippolytus – Dominic Cooper), and two characters with heavily conflicting emotions (Phedre and Hippolytus) requiring them to go against the will of the gods. All of the “action” takes place off stage, and there is (as is usual) no intermission (leading to a two hour running time, which meant no pre-show wine with Phil and Andrew).

I think a lot of your ability to enjoy Phedre will depend on how you like this formula. I remembered partway through the show that the last time I saw one of these plays, even the presence of Alan Cumming half naked could not save the evening for me. Consider yourself warned; God knows I found myself wishing I had remembered this earlier.

While there are certain problems with Greek drama in general that afflict this play, Helen Mirren has the disadvantage of representing her incestuous step mother as just too old to be convincing as a person that Hippolytus might ever consider, making all of her mewling utterly unresonant. (A Mrs. Robinson would have actually been a contender as someone with enough juice to make a lusty spring/autumn fling a possibility). Furthermore, even though her character is supposed to be mentally unbalanced, Mirren herself was having a hard time riding the line between hysteria and calculation, especially at the balancing point that would have caused me, as an audience member, to be truly sympathetic to her plight. I didn’t feel sorry for her and she didn’t seem to have a grip on the impossibility of what she wanted even if there were no husband in the way – how could I get involved in her emotions enough for this to resonate as a tragedy? I’m hoping that after the show has a bit of time to settle down she’ll draw back the performance to the right level to pull the audience in, to make them care more about Phedre (and less about “Ooh, it’s Helen Mirren on stage” looking very much like herself). Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Hippolytus is arrogant but almost immediately brought into human scale by his love of Aricia (Ruth Negga, pretty and strong); but his blustering father is utterly unsympathetic as the “I shall curse thee immediately for pissing me off” king. (It’s required for the plot, but when you see someone acting so quickly without thought, you kind of want them smacked down a bit.) That meant of the three leads, only the son was sympathetic, despite initially being a prig. He is truly an innocent in this drama, but is also, I think, the more compelling of the three actors, hitting a good middle ground between GLOOM and DOOM and just being flat. At any rate, I didn’t find him painful, which is hardly an overwhelming thumbs up but, well, it was a bit hard at times to notice him while the people around him were tirading.

Brilliant in the midst of all of these histrionics is Theramene (John Shrapnel), the messenger who comes in to tell of Hippolytus’s death. His outrageous tale of a wave that becomes a sea monster that doesn’t kill Hippolytus but instead leaves him free to be dragged to death by his horses (a tale so drawn out I was sure it was providing cover for Hippolytus to actually get off of the island) reallly came to life, finally providing a sharp moment for all of Ted Hughes’ glorious verbiage (especially alliteration). Sadly it was brought down almost immediately by Theseus, who fell to his knees and said, in stentorian tones worthy of the Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen, “My son!” (Later Aricia drags his bleeding, bagged body onto stage for the final scene, and when the curtain open for bows, my comment was, “My, he sure did get out of that bag quickly!” But, you see, we were all in need of some laughs at that point.)

My companions said: “It was painful, but I’m glad I got through it – kind of like a mammogram.”
And: “Phedre – is that Greek for ‘house full of nutters’?”

Afterwards we sat down and actually had some wine, and it was very pleasant. Soon, the experience will fade from all of our minds, though hopefully I’ll remember that I really just don’t enjoy Greek drama and shouldn’t go, no matter how much Proust has written about the play in question.

(This review is for a preview performance seen on June 8th, 2009. Phedre continues at the National through August 27th.)

Review – Under the Blue Sky – Duke of York’s Theatre

July 23, 2008

Last night I went with the WestEnd Whingers and crewe to see “Under the Blue Sky” at the Duke Of York’s theater.

Ostensibly this should segue right into a review of a show, but I have to pause and take a moment to praise the company. To go see a show with the Whingers means that, for once, I am surrounded by a crowd of people who can talk really intelligently about theater. By this, I don’t mean “namedrop famous actors/productions they’ve seen” (God only knows a lot of people think that constitutes clever conversation on the topic), and I also don’t mean “try to top each other in snarkiness” (because while they will baste and roast a turkey when they find one, it’s the underlying enthusiasm for the medium that makes the conversation even possible). No, I mean they can talk about other shows, new ones worth seeing, old ones worth remembering, connecting them to other plays and other works of art … letting me listen, learn and participate in great conversation in a company of my peers (and beyond). Sue, CitySlicker, Helen, Phil, Andrew, Graham, Paul (the GWTW Twitter man) … spending the evening with you is like a dream come true for me.

Anyway, I was naughty and didn’t read anything about the show before I went. Basically, it had Catherine Tate in it, whom I’ve had a good time watching on YouTube (even though it’s frequently been in car crash mode – it’s embarrassing but I can’t turn away), and, well, I was invited to go by people I wanted to hang out with, so I just went for it. The day of I realized I didn’t actually even know what theater it was in! And when I got there, I had a “bad theater experience” flashback (rather like the ones caused by Fram nowadays) right before the show started, as I remembered struggling through almost two hours (so it seemed) of the first act of Rock and Roll with seven cups of tea crying for a quick departure from my body. I finally leapt over four or five other audience members to make it to an exit door during a between-scene dark bit (and there were rather a lot of them) and spending the rest of the act watching the play through a bit of scratched-off paint on a window while the assistant director whispered to me a summary of the dialogue.

Er, so, back to the show. Uhhh …. well, it’s about teachers shagging teachers, and it’s kind of funny in bits, but touching in others (I cried during the last scene and felt just horribly manipulated, even though I liked it), and it plays straight through with no interval. I’d find it okay to recommend to people in general, in a great deal because it knows when to stop – it’s not a bad night out, really.

But. (I’m sorry, I just can’t stop myself, I have to say more.) The play is … incoherent. It has three scenes that don’t really seem to have anything to do with each other, even though the playwright has ensured that the characters in scene one are mentioned in the subsequent ones. The acting in the first scene is wooden – Chris O’Dowd’s first lines read to me as, “Hi! I’m acting in a play and these are the words I am supposed to say!” And while I don’t know what his accent was supposed to be, it seemed kind of … fluid. Lisa Dillon seemed to jump more readily into her character, but for both of them I found neither their words nor their actions made any sense. There was a sense to the situation … but not their responses to it or to each other. They seemed just like people who existed only as words written on a page. Only the writer can ultimately take the blame for this. (That said, huge kudos to the both of the actors for actually succeeding in making chile on stage during a show. I could smell each of the ingredients cooking in the pan from my second row seats and it smelled good.)

The second scene was the big blow out (well, in terms of “what the audience came to see”) with Catherine Tate and some actor that wasn’t Catherine Tate (in the minds of the audience – but seriously, it was Dominic Rowan, who gets brownie points for conjuring up tears on stage). This was a sort of sex farce scene that cracked me up because, er, the one teacher I know in the UK public school system is really as much of a ballbreaker as Catherine Tate’s character was and it all just seemed too likely to be true. That said … as she got meaner and the guy got weaselier/creepier … I found myself not liking either of them. In fact, I wanted terrible things to happen to both of them just to spice up the scene. (I thought this during the first act, too.) Since neither of them really managed to seem real, it just didn’t matter to me what happened to them. I laughed at the crude bits and thanked God that actual nudity was never involved as it would have been Too Much, and while something terrible did happen, I was happy about it.

The final scene was for me the best part of the play, even though the long speech in the middle was, once again, completely unrealistic and took me out of the “lost in the show” mindset (and made me firmly aware of being at a play). Actorially speaking, we had two powerhouses: Francesca Annis (whom I had not previously seen but who held the stage … I mean, she just had it) and Nigel Lindsay (who smoked the Almeida in Homecoming and was quite charismatic in a rather limp production of Awake And Sing at the same theater). Lindsay was brilliant, utterly unselfconscious, perfectly in character, completely believable – I hung off of every word that came out of his mouth. His body language, everything was perfect for the character he was portraying. (And who knows, maybe the playwright understood this language better than that of the other characters he was creating dialogue for.) Watching him interact with Annis was a pleasure for me. That said … when they said that another character was dead, my feeling was actually one of relief, that I wasn’t going to have to see the rest of the wooden characters brought back on stage for some sort of horrible resolution (a la any number of cheesy movies) after the interval, but just instead could walk out of the theater with the show wrapped and on a bit of an up note.

Anyway, my summary is that this show was flawed but, still, not a bad night out, and, in fact, I think most people who would enjoy it wouldn’t really care about the stuff that bothered me. For the folks who are super diehards: it’s not a bad way to spend a free night, but, you know, there are likely to be other options. Try Brief Encounter first if you still haven’t been – it’s still the best thing on right now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on July 22nd, 2008.)

Review of “Rosmersholm” – Almeida Theatre

June 13, 2008

Last night my uncle and my husband and I went to the wilds of Islington (which is actually far less wild than Dalston, where Ibsen and I last crossed swords) to the Almeida to see Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. I’m on an Ibsen quest, like my Pinter quest, though Ibsen is making it easier by being dead and thus not making it possible to have new play added. We ponied up for a program, which revealed some important Ibsen tidbits for me, especially regarding the order in which he wrote his plays: Rosmersholm preceded Hedda Gabler by four years (1886 and 1890), and was written just before The Lady from the Sea. This gave me an idea of where he was in terms of his skills as a playwright – oddly, near the height of his powers, given that the nearly perfect John Gabriel Borkman was written in 1896 and his last play in 1899. (I can also now say that I have my list of plays to see: I’m going to plan on skipping the critical failures, which I don’t think will ever be produced anyway, but I also have a dire need to see Ghosts and Peer Gynt.)

Rosmersholm (the home of the Rosmer family is the correct translation, I believe) is an odd play. I ended the first act feeling elated, but the second act left me dissatisfied and the third disgusted. As in Lady from the Sea, this comes down to problems with the script. The first act was very naturalistic, mostly concerning a confrontation between Mr. Rosmer (Paul Hilton) and an old friend of the family, Doctor Kroll (Malcolm Sinclair, last seen in Dealer’s Choice – boy, can this guy act!). Listening to Kroll go on about the values of conservatism, the ignorance of the masses, how wives should get their opinions from their husbands, how liberals are evil and a force of corruption to true and noble values, and how wretched the press is was (etc.) was actually a blast. He was strongly opposed to many of the things I personally believe in, but, even though some of his opinions were merely dated, so many of them seemed to still hold relevance today and I found his rants quite intriguing. I was also fascinated by how quickly he shrugged off Rebecca’s (Helen McCrory) attempts to engage him in conversation – after all, what could a woman know about politics! Then Rosmer dropped his bomb on Kroll, the shit hit the fan, exciting debates about atheism and what liberals believe in ensued, and I was hooked, and ready to recommend this play to all of my friends.

Unfortunately, act two descended into, I don’t know, something like “truthyism” but perhaps better described as “writeryistic.” Plot points need to be made, and what better way to do it than two letters sent by a dead person! (I was kind of reminded of the arrival of heralds in the Greek plays, describing off-screen action, such as murders and wars.) We just weren’t buying it and the endless exposition was beginning to grate. I couldn’t buy Kroll rejecting Rosmer’s friendship outright in act one, and his subsequent return in act two layered a second thick improbability on the first. C’mon, this is all supposed to be naturalistic, have the people actually act naturally!

Speaking of which, I was really having problems with Helen McCrory’s costuming and performance. Victorian women didn’t keep their hair in modern office girl fluffy half-twists, they didn’t slop their bodies all over the place, and, in general, I just think she didn’t do her research on properly playing a woman of the era, even if she was a free thinker. I also found the way she made herself tremble when she was confronting Rosmer just a little too much. How is it that an English actor can go to so much effort to get an accent right and then totally drop the personal representation of a historical era?

The penny finally dropped in the third act, when Ibsen threw reality out the door and suddenly went for a sort of Young Werther gothic drama. Rebecca’s revelations were all a little too much to be believed, Rosmer’s endless mood changes were completely over the top, and the ending was just … ridiculous and as over the top as a pasted on Hollywood ending a la Lady and the Sea. If Ibsen has gone to all of this trouble to create real people with real problems, why have them start acting like silly ninnies just to wrap up the show conclusively? All three of us grumbled as we left – such high hopes, so cruelly dashed! I’ll still keep seeing Ibsen, but I’m hoping he doesn’t let me down as roughly as he did last night.

In other news, my esteemed colleagues the West End Whingers have been blamed by a cast member of Gone with the Wind for that show’s “untimely” demise. I think it’s ridiculous to think that anyone who pays to see a preview as putrid as the one they described should be considered in anyway obliged to keep mum about it – in my mind, they were doing a public service! If you want it to be a secret, then workshop the show or have more dress rehearsals, and if you’re genuinely concerned about what to add and what to keeep and how it will play in front of a live audience, then for God’s sake do what they did for Hairspray and trial it in some smaller theatrical markets (Seattle and Chicago in this example). Could this show have succeeded? Possibly, with months more of rewrites – but from what I heard about the songs, I think perhaps not.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thrusday, June 12th.)

Absurd Person Singular at The Garrick

December 4, 2007

I had a great time tonight at Absurd Person Singular at the Garrick. Okay, well, let’s be clear, it’s a wee bit difficult to have a good time at a show so profoundly misogynistic. Is your wife shy? Berate her! Depressed? Tell her to shut up! Suicidal? Ignore her in favor of more “fun” people. I found the whole concept of this show being a comedy a little difficult to swallow. The audience was laughing enough, but part of me wondered if they were mostly so old that a seventies chestnut was comical. I found the whole air of foreboding rather Pinteresque; I presume the rest of the audience was just in a Christmas panto/comedy mood and wanted to laugh.

Me, well, let’s be clear, it was the presence of the lovely West End Whingers that made my night. Bitter, jaded burnouts who are willing to cut their losses at intermission: that’s what I’m talking about! And there was piles of wine and I got to meet Liz who is clearly a genius because she thought Venus as a Boy was a work of brilliance only surpassed in its excellence this year by RNB’s “Chroma” – and since she shares my opinions, I, of course, think she is great and remarkably perceptive.

Really, hanging out with City Slicker and the Whingers was great. God, it was nice to really dish theater! I can’t wait for our next outing. Meanwhile, my next outing will be tonight with Katie, to see Bitch-slapped by God, which I read somewhere was the cure for Christmas Pantos. I figure last night’s show would have taken the shine out of any Christmas cheer out there; this one should actually burnish it to a fine polish, with the aid of some liquor.

Oddly, thanks to all of the wine I drank last night (possibly to get the taste of the show out of my mouth) I went to bed singing. (I’m afraid it was some ELO from the Time album, though I can’t remember the exact song.)