Posts Tagged ‘Why the Lyttelton gives me PTSD’

Mini-review – Ballyturk – National Theatre

October 9, 2014

It seems like a new, 90 minute play would be the kind of thing I dream of, and it must be a dream for many people, because Ballyturk sold out pretty early in the run. I had a hard time getting tickets at all but finally succeeded; however, I really wish I hadn’t. What, you say, it’s an absurdist drama a la “Waiting for Godot?” Well, you know what, those gimmicky plays actually get boring pretty quickly and from the 30 minute point I was shifting uncomfortably in my chair desperately hoping something would happen that redeemed the time that was ticking by. Loud, incoherent heavily accented rambling, two dudes engaging in bizarre physical comedy: BORING! Boring boring boring! My only pleasures were listening to properly amplified 80s hits (My God Yaz in FULL STEREO! Can’t wait for the Alison Moyet tour!) and a completely surreal moment involving Jenga with wafer biscuits – otherwise I was clock watching and dreaming about other plays I could have been watching – or writing, for that matter.

Now, part of this play seemed to be about the nature of friendship (I felt), and it’s Big Picture Message was about how all life is ultimately a journey toward death and we all have to learn to let go. Well well. I can’t argue with a flaming cuckoo clock but it all just took SO long, and even for £25 I felt it was time and money poorly spent. Oh well – obviously many other people disagree and my review is coming too late to influence YOU, but I’ve said my bit: phooey.

(This review is for a performance that took place October 8, 2014. It ends Saturday October 11th.)

Review – The Silver Tassie – National Theater

April 15, 2014

(Based on a conversation with my husband)

99 puce balloons/dragging on the Lyttelton stage
Great war sells/Its red alert
The second scene from somewhere else
It brought the pyrotechs to life
Making us all squint our eyes
Waiting for the songs to die as 99 bad ideas go by

99 scripts they must read
98 the bin will meet
This one they’ll make all a flurry
Add some Tommies in a hurry
People speak and then they’re gone
What’s the audience waiting for?
Any play that features war?
Hynter’s job ain’t on the line
Was this the best play that they could find?

99 plays I have seen
Only one with puce balloons
It’s all over, I’m feeling shitty
Was this limp show supposedly gritty?
Not one character made me care
And this play’s seen lots of wear
The joyous bits went flopping by,
I think of home, and then I go.

(This review is for the first preview of The Silver Tassie, which took place on April 15th. While some of the performances will improve over time, nothing can be done to rescue this deeply flawed script. I imagine the person who revived it getting the V.C., which if you’ve seen the play you will understand is a joke meaning they should have just let it die.)

Mini-review – Port – National Theater

January 30, 2013

I did not plan on going to see Port at the National Theater. The tag line, “two kids, largely abandoned and growing up in the deprived suburban shadows of Manchester,” made me think it was likely to be cutesy or preachy or maudlin and, even worse, feature child actors. However, when I got an invitation to go to press night for free, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to resist. Free theater! Starting at 7 PM! Hurray!

Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed this play at all, though the impressions I got from the info on the National’s web site was pretty much entirely incorrect. I really thought it was going to be about an eleven and a six year old kid running wild, living under bridges and dumpster diving while they tried to keep together; instead, it was about some weird little kids growing up into profoundly fucked up adults in an environment where they could have learned some humanity at some point along the way but seemed to have nearly entirely failed. I’ve rarely seen a bleaker portrait of a sub-middle class existence; and although this would seem to be the same income level of the people that I grew up with in America (i.e. “trailer trash,” bottom of the barrel poor), for some reason either as life is lived in Stockport or as playwright Simon Stephens chose to portray his characters, I found myself utterly unsympathetic to these two near-animals. Kate O’Flynn was completely believable as Rachael Keats, but after watching her attack her grandmother in a nursing home garden I no longer was rooting for her (and had lost my taste for chocolate). There may have been a bigger political message that I, as a foreigner, was indifferent to: but as a play watcher, I got neither much of a plot nor really any other reason to be sitting in the dark while these horrors played out in front of me. I grew up in worse circumstances than this and not only clawed my way out, but kept my ties to my family and friends. These people, Rachael and her brother Billy (Mike Noble), I wanted nothing more than to get away from them and get out of the room and let them carry on with their misery far, far from me.

Was this play realistic? Probably. Was the acting good? Yes. Was it worth watching? I think not. As I dashed into the comfort of sleeting rain, I wondered why in the hell wasn’t The River done here and Port done at The Royal Court? Does the National just have really poor standards for script acceptance? Does the Royal Court have much better connections with people who know how to make good plays? The whole thing is a mystery to me, but there’s no doubt in my mine that Port was a waste of money and effort.

(This review is for opening night, which was Monday, January 29th, 2013. It continues through March 24th.)

Commentary – Scenes from an Execution (the first half), final dress – National Theater

September 29, 2012

So. Thursday morning, 10 AM. I’ve decided my bad ankle means no dancing for me tonight. But I want to go out. I look at Google Calendars and see my friend Tim Watson is off to see Scenes from an Execution at the National Theater. It’s described as “funny” and stars Fiona Shaw. I see there are some front row tickets available for twelve quid. I buy them. Job done.

When I arrive at the National, I discover the show is running late, and that the “first preview” is now being billed as a “final dress.” We are offered the opportunity both to watch the show AND get our money back (as they say the show may be stopped in the middle) and I take it. With a running time of 2:45, an 8 PM start time now means that my jolly trip to the theater is about to become a Friday morning death march at work, and I want to be able to leave at the interval with a clear conscience. Getting home at midnight is just NOT the way to be a responsible arts lover and worker bee. Of course, I know that if I love it, I’ll stay.

It starts. A man is flying overhead in a box; Fiona Shaw is sitting on the floor in the most horrid rag while a naked man is draped across a rock. The man in the box tells us she is Galactia, female artist of the Renaissance; the man on the rock is her model and lover. She is preparing to paint the battle of Lepanto on commission for the Doge of Venice. Shaw approaches the man on the rock and starts a lusty scene. Her breasts are falling out of her top; I realize, with horror, that in my seat I am perfectly positioned to discover if she’s actually completely without undergarments. I do NOT want to know. Somehow, Entertaining Mr Sloane turned the exact same situation into high comedy; but as scene after scene goes by with the same dress and my eyes at crotch level, I find myself just incredibly uncomfortable and looking at all sorts of different places on the stage.

A man comes on stage with an arrow sticking out of his head. He can make it twitch. Galactia gets him upset, does some quick sketches, and brusquely sends him off stage. This marks the end of the comedic section of this play.

Now as the play goes on, I start having troubles with the script. I think back on my knowledge of art history. There is no Galactia. The problems she’s facing as a woman painting in Renaissance Italy are purely imaginary. She’s not famous for her realism; no one has ever spoken of the Venetian artist Galactia because there has never been such a person. There are no daughter painters worrying about her legacy to them as a gender; there is no female art critic giving lectures on politics. There is no one worrying about a female artist’s outrageous behavior at a funeral or her flaunting of social conventions. It’s all made up. They are debating things that are irrelevant in the historical context. The women of this time were not allowed to do any of these things.

We might as well be watching an episode of Mork and Mindy. I imagine its star is Space Commander Galactica and her glitterboots of wonder, single-handedly saving Venice for democracy and freeing all women to do and say what they want for all time. Only in my version, things are actually funny. Fiona Shaw and Robyn Williams would probably make an outstanding theatrical pair.

When the interval rolls around, I don’t care about Galactia and her imaginary daughters and the painting she never painted because she didn’t exist. Her struggle to be personally true and free of the limits of politics in her work have no resonance. I leave, and I realize that, even though I can rebook, and would be happy to do so for full price for a good play, I don’t consider this worthwhile, because despite some tremendous acting all around, the script is a dud and doesn’t merit nearly a three hour commitment.

I recognize that this was sold to me as a dress rehearsal rather than even a preview, and I give my feedback to you with these caveats. The problems I saw were due to the script, at such an essential level that I do not believe they can be overcome. Other people may feel differently; reviews of the entire show will be coming out soon. I will read them carefully to see if this show was able to salvage itself in the second act; I fear it is an impossible task.

(This review is for a semi-preview, as described, given on Thursday, September 27th.)

Review – Juno and the Paycock – National Theatre

November 16, 2011

Although my trip to the Lyttleton to see Juno and the Paycock was for a preview performance (tonight is the official opening at the National), I’d like to note that there’s no reason not to judge it fully as it stood last night – the production of this 1924 play is a transfer (and coproduction) with the Abbey in Dublin (which has already been reviewed).

Thursday, September 8th, 2011. In a frenzy of purchasing I attack the National Theater website with the aim of securing, at the lowest possible price, tickets to all of the shows in the fall season – all of the ones I think I will enjoy, that is. I read the description of Juno and the Paycock: “One of the great plays of the twentieth century, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock offers a devastating portrait of wasted potential in a Dublin torn apart by the chaos of the Irish Civil War, 1922.” Oh, well, okay! A great play, something to teach me about Irish history, and the pain of wasted potential – sounds like another August: Osage County or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof! I happily dropped two tickets in my basket (balcony at £20, not as cheap as I was hoping) and went on to the rest of the season.

So. Intense struggling characters; a tightly knit family with their long connections (and resentments) carefully revealed through dialogue; some specifics about living conditions among the poor in the early twenties; a decent leavening of
Irish history. This is what I hoped for.

Horrible, comic, painful overacting (particularly from Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper, who seemed to be in One Man Two Guv’nors); conversations that killed time but went nowhere; lines shouted from the stage; history as window dressing; characters cut from cardboard and moving like paper dolls on a set that looked like a rotting mansion. And worst of all, the play turned “the poor Irish” into caricatures: drunk, lazy, supersitious, ignorant, everything I would criticize as a ridiculous stereotype in a new show. I could feel no sympathy for any of them, because they were not sympathetic; but I felt genuine anger at the playwright, who, I felt, had not made an honest play.

This show was for me like being stuck at two of my least favorite shows of the last thirteen months, Men Shall Weep and Chicken Soup with Barley, as I frequently could not understand what was being said on stage (my American-ness working against me) and had a real dislike of the core characters. But Men Shall Weep at least seemed realistic (and sympathetic, if schmaltzy) and Chicken Soup incorporated the history of London communism to an extent that I became interested enough to do further research. And both of them had characters drawn from the fabric of reality, not from the funny pages, with relationships between them that held together after the curtain dropped. Juno and the Paycock, though – I am convinced that it is fatally flawed as a work on the 21st century stage; and the production could not convince me it had any merit at all.

At the interval (ninety minutes in and at least thirty minutes after I started wondering when we were to be set free), I consulted my companions about our courses of acction. Only one of us wished to stay and it was only so that he could finish his review by saying that he’d actually seen it all; but without me by his side, he didn’t feel he could stay awake. I was not willing to stay just so I could say that I had. I hated it. I wanted to leave the theater with a violent passion. We compromised by looking up the ending on Wikipedia, decided we didn’t really care how it played out, then all melted into the night.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011. It continues through February 26th, 2012. If you feel eager to see this play, I advise patience as you are very likely to be able to get discounted tickets later in the run.)

Review – A Woman Killed with Kindness – National Theater

July 13, 2011

Walking out of the National after Tuesday night’s preview of A Woman Killed with Kindness, one question was foremost in my mind: what the hell did director Katie Mitchell think she was doing? Why revive this weak member of the revenge-tragedy era (1607) of plays in the first place, and why stage it so the cast spend a quarter of their time talking to the set and another quarter making so much noise moving furniture and dishware that the dialogue is incomprehensible? Sat in row Q of the stalls, I could see all of the elaborately filled stage (two houses, two stories each, two staircases, and more doors than an Escher print), but for the first ten minutes about all I heard was “bride,” “cut the cake,” and “one thousand pounds” (in close proximity to the words “hawk” and “hounds”). Then the pretty lady in white (Anne Frankford, Liz White) was led upstairs by her husband (John Frankford, Paul Ready), to shortly come down limping and clutching her bloody crotch. Good God. I might have asked where we were going, but frankly I didn’t understand how we’d even got to where we were.

As a positive note, my inability to hear so much of the dialogue (a problem I heard other people discussing as they left the Lyttleton) meant that I was in a state of dramatic tension throughout, as everything I did see happening in this 2:10 (no interval) production was done in a state of isolation that left me completely unable to guess what was going to happen next. It was rather like having one of those amnesia problems that leaves your short term memory destroyed. The brother sent to jail (Sir Charles Mountford, Leo Bill), would he come back? His sister, depressed and prone to pulling a rifle on housebreakers (Susan, Sandy McDade), what was her motivation in life in general? Who was the guy who had the crush on her? Who was the guy who kept lending her brother money? Were they the same person? What did they really have in common with the developing menage a trois next door?

The one point of sanity in this whole show was Frankford’s footman (Nicholas, Gawn Grainger), who invariably spoke clearly enough that I could hear him all the way in the back of the stalls. It was a wonderful example of the skill a truly experienced actor brings to the stage. To make it better, he seemed to get all of the good lines, including the one during the card game, where he suggests the adulterous couple (and the cuckolded husband) play “between the sheets” (“knave out of doors” in the original script). This whole scene was a riot of double entendre, with no need to resort to the crude hip-thrusting that’s made many a Shakespearean play fall flat (ba dum tish) in my eyes. I considered it the highlight of the play, far better than the maudlin death scene that ended the show, which was made even more ridiculous by a phone going off playing “The Grenadier’s March” about two minutes before the last breath was drawn. People in the audience laughed when “the woman”‘s head fell; I can’t help but think it was in grateful relief for us, too, being set free of our imprisonment. This show was the low point of the year so far for me, and I only stayed through to the end so I could report back definitively on whether or not it redeemed itself at the end. In short: no. Avoid at all costs. Accept a loss on the ticket if you can’t return it; your time must be more precious than this.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011. It officially opens July 19th. You have been warned. The National website describes this play as “fast-moving, frightening and erotic.” The first, at least, is true, but by 40 minutes in you will feel like the clock has stopped and it’s all just one long never ending string of unconnected scenes until you can run out of the theater into the night. For a deliciously cutting analysis of it all, may I recommend the West End Whinger’s mocu-interview review.)

Review – Men Should Weep – National Theatre

October 21, 2010

Once again, the National has failed to touch me with an incredibly produced and likely well-acted show. Men Should Weep is a sort of “heart warming tale” of “family togetherness” in a Depression-era Glasgow tenement. John (Robert Cavanah), the patriarch of the Morrison family, tries and fails to work with a hang-dog persistence that requires us to admire him while we can’t fail but notice that perhaps he’s not really trying that hard; he’s got his wife Maggie (Sharon Small) to carry the weight of taking care of the seven children he’s saddled her with while he expects her to serve him when he comes back from a hard day of standing on a street corner. Maggie is caught up in living for the moment, leaving little things like taking her son into the doctor to have his chronic cough treated for later because she doesn’t like to focus on the bad things. Meanwhile, the neighbors are dealing with head lice and beating each other up; somehow the Morissons come off like a bundle of love, even as the eldest son (Pierce Reed) gambles and drinks, the eldest daughter (Sarah MacRae) runs off to be a kept woman, and Granny (Anne Downie) is practically auctioned off to another family member for her pension money. It’s basically the UK as the ConDems are hoping to remake it over the course of the next few years, as everyone sells whatever they have for money but empty-pockets dad rules the roost.

Unfortunately, any ability I might have had to get interested in these characters and their lives was horribly wrecked by the thick Glaswegian dialect. I eventually got that “wains” meant children and “deed” meant dead, but for the first half hour at least the only words I caught were “Alec” and “Lily.” Even after the interval, during a key argument, I totally missed just who it was that went to jail for defrauding the policemen’s benevolent fund. I considered leaving and skipping the second act because I’d just completely failed to connect to anyone or their problems (although I was in love with Granny just a bit); instead I trudged on through the full three hours and was not rewarded for my investment of time.

I can’t fault the cast in general. Small was fabulous as the “heart of gold” mom; Sarah MacRae gave her all to her key speech that I felt certain had served many an actress attempting to prove mastery of the accent (though I found her unconvincing overall). But I just didn’t care, and not even the great supporting work from neighbors Karen Dunbar and Lindy Whiteford can change my mind. (A real thank you goes to understudy Louise Montgomery, who was not only good as Maggie’s sister Lily but also the only person in the cast I could consistently understand.) I checked: the English people surrounding me weren’t able to follow along either. The set was perfect, the accents were no doubt spot on, but these alone could not rescue the night.

I am not going to discount my dislike as due to missing at least half of the dialogue in this show. This was just not an interesting play. It has a lot of good character studies in it but that just wasn’t enough; I felt it was a lesser work overall and probably not worth the trouble of reviving so glamorously. There was no dramatic tension and I didn’t feel any evolution in any of the characters. It certainly looked poverty square in the face (or perhaps a bit rosily in the face), but … insofar as I like plays to illuminate the human condition, it just didn’t cut it. No doubt people will sing its praises, but if you find yourself yawning after the first hour, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

(This preview performance took place on Tuesday, October 19th. It continues through Sunday, January 9th, 2011. For the completely opposite take, please see Ian Foster’s review. It’s a fact that we almost always see things exactly the same way: when we finally both agree, expect the universe to implode.)