Thursday, 29 November 2007

REVIEW: "Glengarry Glenn Ross"

Almost twenty-five years after its original run at the National, David Mamet’s masterpiece Glengarry Glenn Ross has returned to the West End with a vengeance. The tale of five estate salesmen willing to lie, cheat, and steal for survival, Glengarry is just as powerful today as it was twenty-five years ago, losing none of its timeliness or brilliance over time.

Glengarry is a personal favourite, and it’s easy to see why: Mamet is all about getting to the point, and there is no filler to pad out or water down the 80 minute (plus interval) piece. The language is sharp and the characters brutal to each other, their clients, and even their office.

Jonathan Pryce leads this revival as Shelley Levine, a salesman in search of his glory days while struggling at the end of his rope. Pryce is phenomenal, bringing out Levine’s weakness and sentimentality in a way that Alan Alda avoided in the 2005 Broadway revival. His enemy, Peter McDonald’s John Williamson, is played with a cool distance and unwavering apathy.

Levine’s other concern is top seller Richard Roma, played here with admirable sleaze by Aidan Gillen. Roma is everything Levine once was - smooth and charismatic, but equally despicable. Rounding out the salesmen are Paul Freeman’s George, a bundle of nerves ready for the chopping block, and Matthew Marsh’s Moss, willing to do anything to save his own neck. Both are excellent actors, though Marsh puts off odd aura of camp, something which would have been his undoing in the show’s cut-throat world and should have been dealt with by director James McDonald. All accents are, fortunately, strong with few wavering moments.

In addition to Mamet’s forceful text and the powerful acting, the characters’ plight is enforced and magnified by Anthony Ward’s pressure cooker sets, a pair of claustrophobic nightmares with low ceilings and little stage depth - there is nowhere in this world for the actors to escape.

Glengarry Glenn Ross is not a happy play, but it is an unforgettably supercharged modern classic. See it before the limited run ends.

Where: Apollo Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:45, W/Sa @ 15:00. Until 12 Jan.
How much: £15-£45
Concessions: Seniors (and there were quite a few when the RZ went) can advance book for £25, drama students (or maybe students in general?) can advance book Wednesday matinees through 19 Dec. for £10, otherwise advance book the upper levels for £17.50 or get best available an hour prior for £20.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £45. This is one to blow you away.
RZ Other Notes: Well, it won’t blow everybody away, as witnessed by the OAP two seats down from the RZ who fell asleep twice in the first act and left shortly after the beginning of the second. Readers with sensitive ears should be warned that Mamet is a wizard with profanity, and a couple of racial slurs are present. That said, the play itself stings because like Avenue Q, its grounding is in truth. In fact, avoid this show completely if you’re in the market for a house or you’ll be unable to trust anybody.

Friday, 23 November 2007

INTERVIEW: "Jonathan Sings Larson" Producers

On 6 Nov., PS Classics in conjunction with the Library of Congress released the newest CD in their Songwriter Series, Jonathan Sings Larson. Comprised of 16 tracks, the CD looks at Jonathan Larson’s personal demo recordings in addition to a pair of live tracks and a bonus DVD featuring Larson performing four songs from tick, tick...BOOM! in 1991. Copious liner notes include excerpts from interviews with Larson, his family and friends, and Steven Schwartz, the composer of Godspell and Wicked. The CD may be purchased at Amazon, CD Universe, or as legal MP3 downloads through eMusic.

Recently, producer Steve Nelson and assistant producer Ashley Griffin were kind enough to answer some questions for this site.

Q: How were you chosen to be the producer for this album?

Steve: I started the Songwriter Series back in the early 90s. I chose Larson as our next project in conjunction with the Library of Congress Advisory panel. [The Library of Congress] has funded the Series since '99.

Ashley: I was hired by Series Producer Steve Nelson to be the Asst. Producer/Production Assistant for the Library of Congress Songwriter Series. In addition to Jonathan Sings Larson I was also the Associate Producer of Charles Sings Strouse.

Q: What did the job entail?

Steve: This is basically audio archaeology - Larson's cassette demos were generally in good shape although new digital transfers had to be made in a few cases. Editing was a bit tricky in spots, but nothing too daunting.

Ashley: The job entailed spending many hours researching, listening to, and archiving everything and anything to do with Jonathan Larson. I spent many hours in the Larson office listening to, and watching all the archival footage they had, making notes, writing down song lengths, and ultimately spending a lot of time thinking about, and discussing with Steve what should be included on the CD and DVD. Once that was decided we got to work typing up lyrics, writing liner notes, etc.

Steve: The DVD was the new thing, as the series had been audio only up to this point. The original High-8 analog tapes weren't in great shape, but the sound as OK and we got the best we could within our time/budget constraints. There is extensive Larson video that awaits a thorough restoration, but that is probably several projects at least.

Q: How much research and pre-planning went into the CD?

Steve: Far too much. This was a complicated one with 100s of hours of listening and trips back and forth between NYC and DC (where the original tapes are housed). The DVD and booklet work were also time consuming.

Ashley: Jonathan Sings Larson took a little more than a year from start to finish. I actually knew quite a bit about Jonathan Larson and his work before I started on the project. The most difficult thing was keeping track of everything we were listening to so that we could go back and decide what we wanted to, or what even could be included. There were hundreds of audio tapes, and dozens of different versions of songs, so we didn't want anything getting lost in the shuffle. In addition to listening, I also read interviews, scripts, play synopsis, etc. so that I could put the material in context. Just keeping track of all the work done on Superbia was incredibly challenging as Jonathan completely rewrote the show several times over about ten years, so it was very important to keep all the material straight.

Q: Considering the sheer volume of material you were assessing, what did you do to avoid burnout?

Ashley: Honestly that was one problem I was fortunate not to have. I did have to make sure that I planned how many hours I’d be in the office ahead of time, and make myself leave at a certain point. Jonathan Larson is so near and dear to my heart that I just felt such an overwhelming responsibility to Jonathan, history, and his fans. Any time I’d start to get tired I’d just remind myself that this was being archived for history. The song I spaced out on might be the song that the fans would most want to hear on the album.

Q: How organised was the original source material?

Steve: Everything's at LC, including all original audio. The Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation has listening copies, but these aren't available to the public.

Ashley: Everything was organized and labelled with a date. Some things were mis-marked, but that was pretty easy to deal with. There was literally a giant tape rack in the middle of the office with all the tapes organized (with individual numbers) so we just went from one end of the rack to the other listening.

Q: What were your initial criteria for song selection?

Steve: Use the best we had with an eye to as thorough a career span as we could get in a single CD.

Ashley: The most basic criteria is that it has to be sung by the composer - in this case Jonathan Larson. Although there were hundreds of demos of Jonathan performing his own work there were several wonderful songs that he never recorded. Also, we wanted to focus on material that no one had heard before. Everyone knows Rent, and many know tick, tick...BOOM! so we wanted to offer material that you couldn't get anywhere else. Ultimately the most important criteria was that we chose the songs that we wanted to listen to ourselves: the songs that we kept singing once we left the office. The ones we wished we could listen to on our iPod.

Q: What surprised you when putting together the collection?

Steve: He recorded a lot and was quite meticulous and demanding as to the sound he wanted.

Ashley: I don't know if one particular thing surprised me, it was more the general experience. Everyone talks about the brilliance of Jonathan Larson, and how he revolutionized musical theater with his innovative new sound and style. But when you’re living in the middle of all his work - watching home movies of him in his apartment trying things out - seeing and hearing his work as he intended for it to be done was so eye opening and made it so clear exactly how revolutionary he was. It's as close as I'll ever be able to get to hanging out with him in his living room. And to get to see that personal intimate side of Jonathan apart from the tragedy of his death which is so a part of, say, going to see Rent, gave a whole new outlook on his life and work.

I really heard everything from the Beatles to David Bowie to Rodgers and Hammerstein in his music in a striking and raw way that became so clear once you began to literally see the progression he made as a writer. How this song gave way to this one, which was rewritten as this.

Superbia was also a bit of a surprise for me. Like all Rent-heads I was incredibly intrigued by this "lost third show." One of the first things I did once I got to the office was to watch the DVD of one of the workshops Jonathan did of Superbia. It's ahead of its time for now; I can only imagine what it must have been like to see it in the 80's.

Q: Were there any tracks you wanted to include, but couldn't due to fidelity issues, participants unwilling to give clearance, outvoting from co-workers, etc.?

Steve: Not really.

Ashley: "Turn the Key/Ever After/Dear Mr. Hammerstein II" - this was a lovely piece from Superbia where (in the first draft of the script) the romantic leads Josh and Elizabeth meet for the first time. They are the only people in Superbia who have emotions, and the only way they have been able to learn about feelings is by reading "ancient" books of old musical theater lyrics (namely by Oscar Hammerstein II.) It couldn't be included unfortunately because 1.) There was no recording of Jonathan singing it, 2.) The only recording was from when the show was presented at a musical theater panel discussion, and there are interruptions from the crowd, narration, etc. 3.) The recording wasn't the best quality. (Meaning the technical aspects, not the performers.)

Q: What are your favourite tracks on the disc?

Steve: I like the live stuff (the DVD tracks), "One of These Days" and most of the RENT tracks. A lot of energy; a lot of him in those tracks. As Michael Greif said, "He wanted it bad."

Ashley: Well, I love all of them of course, but if I had to pick, I'd say my favorites are: "One of These Days", "LCD Readout" (the Superbia tracks), "All I Know", and "Find The Key."

Q: When choosing between multiple versions of the same song, how did you choose which to include - the one closest to the final, the best fidelity, the earliest?

Steve: I almost always go with the most engaging performance - the one that sells the song best.

Ashley: In some instances Jonathan had rewritten some of the lyrics, and then it was an aesthetics call - which we preferred. We mainly chose based on the best performance.

Q: There's very little material from Superbia on this disc, which is a bit of a disappointment to long-term Larson fans. Were there issues with the tapes or was this a creative decision?

Steve: There is a complete concert video of him doing it with Roger Bart and friends. I'd like to see that come out at some point, but that's ultimately a call for my collaborator Victoria Leacock Hoffman and the Larson family.

Ashley: We were originally going to put “Lets All Sing” and “Doin’ it on the Air” on the DVD for this album. [However,] Superbia is NOT in a definitive form, and it’s such a good show that we didn’t want to put something out and have people think “Oh! THIS is Superbia."

Q: The original demo for the song "Boho Days" is on the OCR from tick,tick...BOOM!, and the version on the CD is from the 2006 Library of Congress tribute concert. Why use this song and version rather than one of the other, possibly more obscure, songs from that event?

Steve: We thought about it, but this was the only one that really held its own with [Larson’s] versions. We almost released "Hosing the Furniture," which I would definitely use if there's a volume 2.

Q: A video of "Sunday" is an extra on the "Broadway: An American Musical" DVD set from PBS. What was your motivation for including this track instead of an alternative?

Steve: Ours is a different performance. I like this one better, although video quality on the PBS one is superior.

Q: The runtime for the CD is ~61 minutes. Was the plan to limit the CD to an hour vs. the media's capacity at 80 minutes, or did tracks cut during the selection process throw off the balance?

Steve: I've found over the years that 80 minutes is too much (though we have released CDs in the 70-75 minute range. There were quite a few things I wanted in (as well as quite a bit of video), so maybe there's a volume 2? We'll see.

A big round of thanks are due to Steve and Ashley for their participation. A review of the CD/DVD will be posted shortly.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

REVIEW: "Boeing Boeing"

(Happy Thanksgiving to all the US readers.)

The romantic era for commercial aviation may have died with Concorde’s grounding, but a glimpse at the glamour is back at the Comedy Theatre as French farce Boeing Boeing continues its extended run.

The set-up could have come straight out of Noël Coward: 1960’s Parisian playboy Bernard has three international air stewardess girlfriends and keeps them apart by rigidly holding to their flight timetables. When the schedules are thrown out of alignment and all three girls show up on the same day, it’s up to sarcastic maid Bertha and bumbling friend Robert to keep everybody safely apart.

Yes, the tropes and inanities of Farce are present, such as reciting timetables and the hapless supporting character making a complete idiot of themselves to prevent that one door from being opened. But honestly? Anybody buying a ticket knows what they’re in for: a laugh out loud work of pre-women’s lib comedy that’s perfect for distracting ticket buyers from rainy afternoons and troubles at work.

The madcap mania is backed by Rob Howell’s swingerrific set: a half-moon living room with plenty of doors to slam and devoid of colour excepting a hot pink kitchen door and a motif of primary coloured dots representing the three girls.

Of course, any comedy can be demolished by a sub-par cast regardless of the script’s strengths. Fortunately, Boeing has survived its cast change with flying colours, and even the mid-week matinee the RZ attended was sharp and spot on with the timing. Television legend Jean Marsh is a worn down woman as sarcastic housekeeper Bertha, pushed to her limits by Kevin McNally’s Bernard. Elena Roger, fresh from Evita has the least to do as the Italian Giselle, but busty Jennifer Ellison is full of life as spunky American Gloria. Still, it is Tracy-Ann Oberman who gets the best lines (and biggest laughs) as dominating German Gretchen.

While Boeing Boeing doesn’t soar to the immaculate heights of brilliance, it provides most of what is advertised: a hilarious performance with a high flying cast.

Where: Comedy Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 7:30 PM, Th/Sa 2:30 PM
How Much: £15-45. The theatre is a minefield of restricted view locations, so make sure to check Theatre Monkey before booking.
Concessions: Seniors can book discounted tickets in advance, students get best available for £17.50 from 60 min. before the show.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25 for a funny but ultimately forgettable show. You can get decent tickets for that, but also plenty of restricted views.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ is unsure of how restricted restricted view can be re: the pillar problem, but given that the action goes all the way to the edge of the stage, he recommends checking with the Monkey before booking. If you do go, make sure to take your seats early and stay near your seat during the interval as they play an excellent selection of French oldies (original and covers of US/UK songs) during these times. The day the RZ went, the lineup included “Monday Monday” and “It’s My Party”.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

REVIEW: "Pirate Jenny"

“Gentleman, today you see me washing glasses
And I make the beds for everyone.”

So begins Brecht and Weil’s legendary song of revenge, “Pirate Jenny”. Originally sung during the wedding scene in The Threepenny Opera, playwright Nick Ellis has teamed up with the Cambridge Multimedia Theatre to turn this classic into a full-fledged musical utilising live actors and animated designs.

The plot, in a nutshell, focuses on Jenny, a servant girl abandoned at a boarding house full of rogues and perverts in a Scottish seaside town. Abused by the landlord and tenants, she dreams of being rescued by pirates and murdering all who get in her way. When the opportunity arrives, Jenny sets out to sea, but not all is as it seemed back home, nor is a pirate queen’s life as glamourous as believed. It’s all something of a children’s theatre, complete with a moral delivered straight to the audience, but one with sexual innuendo and cursing.

The cast of four work hard, starting in little more than their underwear and only taking on defined characters in a proper Brechtian manner by putting on a series of coats and hats. The three male actors (who play Jenny’s confidant, boss, and eventual pirate husband) also take on a variety of chorus roles in a series of Weil-sound alike musical numbers. Michael Fentiman’s direction attempts to give meaning and depth to the characters, but they never break past the cartoons who support them.

Cartoons? Yes, Pirate Jenny relies heavily on animated backgrounds and a handful of cartoon characters to play the ship’s crew, boarding house tenants, and other minor roles that do little interacting with the live cast. While adding to Jenny’s sense of fantasy, the cartoons distract as much as they enhance, and I frequently found myself staring at the background waiting for a change instead of the actors.

While Pirate Jenny attempts to rise to Brecht’s standards of ethical instruction, it lacks the depth and maturity of its inspiration’s works, leaving us with an immature and shallow piece that only served to make this critic wish he was at the 2006 Broadway production of Threepenny once again.

Where: Bridewell Theatre
When: Closed, show is on tour.
Cost: £12, general admission
Concessons: Unknown (the RZ’s receipt went MIA)
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £3. Forgettable and mediocre.
RZ Other Notes: Another website with incomplete cast information, and the RZ stupidly forgot to grab a rare free programme (well, suggested donation programme) on the way out. For those with a free evening seeking a quality multimedia experience, check out Cabaret 1927 during one of their BAC or Working Man’s Club performances instead - their work is far more clever and entertaining.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

REVIEW: "Electronica - The Musical"

To Chris Guy & Nathalie Delorme:

Congratulations on the production of your new musical Electronica. Getting anything resembling a musical produced in Fringe London these days is a massive achievement. Programmes were unavailable on Saturday, and while one was promised via email, posting commentary in a timely manner overrode my ability to wait. Please forgive any misspellings or improper song titles as a result. Hopefully this post will still be useful and constructive for the show’s future.

The performance I attended (Saturday, 17 Nov.) was sparsely attended, but a solid show...for a draft. The score is incredibly catchy and most of the songs are well crafted, such as the opening battle (“Change the World” / “I Wear What I Want”), “End of an Era”, and “Just Wondering”. A couple of the numbers (e.g. Jackie’s waltz) are clunkers, but expected for a show in development.

Combining live guitar and keys with extended pre-recorded tracks is an interesting approach to the venue and budgetary restrictions, but why not go entirely pre-recorded at that point? And why use an acoustic guitar when the reliant tracks are so electric? Also, the cast need to be mic’ed when singing - not because it’s impossible to hear them, but because an undistorted voice clashes with punk and electronic backing.

In addition to the score, using Camden Town in 1981 is a smart decision, and the dialogue and costumes are appropriately reflective. However, with strikes every week and the New Romantics (who receive plenty of lipservice) all around plus the Falklands on the horizon, the book lacks the depth necessary to do the era justice. The basic plot is respectable, but the time frame (one week) is too short for the story. Additionally, the characters are shallow and one-dimensional: Tippie gets everything she wants, Koog is slimy, and Alec is the naïve kid manipulated by the rest.

The winner of the central conflict, the battle of the bands in Act Two, is obvious from the first scene - there’s no suspense, and the key performances aren’t shown (could there be a better point to put in a pair of songs to build depth and tension?). The problem is compounded as sub-plots such as Alec’s flirtation with drug use are written off - I expected him to pass out towards the end of the second act, but the actual events were underwhelming. The book also fails to support some of the songs, such as “End of an Era”, which is deserving of a far better set-up. The performance numbers need more introspective lyrics, but they will come with revision.

In spite of the flaws, the evening passed quickly and the pacing was tight - I enjoyed the show greatly. Electronica has the potential for an extended Fringe run or trip to the festival circuit should the book get the attention it needs and deserves, but the strength of the score demands a better text. I look forward to seeing a new revision in 2008, and wish you the best of luck on your future work.

Where: The Red Hedgehog, Highgate
When: 20-24 Nov., 27 Nov.-1 Dec. @ 8:00 PM
How Much: £11
Concessions: £10 if you come via mass transit. They assume you do, though.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: A very tentative £10. The RZ believes in supporting new talent in musical theatre, but this is reading/workshop level stuff, and not the polished work that a tenner will get you in any of the major fringe venues.
RZ Other Thoughts: Again, no programme, no cast info. In the RZ’s opinion, the cast were a mixed bag, and ranged from decent all-round to good at acting or good at singing to flat out annoying. YMMV.

REVIEW: "They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina"

In the midst of Maddy-Mania, the subject of missing children appears daily in newspapers across Britain. Cashing in on good timing, Theatre 503 have mounted a production of Sarah Wooley’s They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina, currently running at the Tristan Bates.

Oak Trees looks at the quieter end of child abduction, long after the media have lost interest. Ray and Eileen, a pair of pensioners living in a small English village, are confronted by a visitor from the American south claiming to be their son, kidnapped some 22 years earlier. Ray is suspicious, but Eileen takes to the man, eager for her prayers to have been answered. As questions and conflicts between the characters are raised, new truths emerge from all parties.

Besides its topical subject matter, Oak Trees is an intriguing play for its sense of structure: except for the penultimate conflict, all of the scenes are presented as a series of intimate two-handers. As a result, Ray and Eileen are given focus as the situation begins to create rifts in their marriage and realities. Adding to the mystery is the lighting, which keeps the cast visible yet in a permanent shadow, mirroring the half truths coming from the text: everybody is holding back, and nothing is entirely revealed. Taking a nod from the film world, instrumental background music is used to great effect, underscoring the key moments of conflict and revelation.

While some may be sick of the constant updates on what Maddy’s parents ate for breakfast, They Have Oak Trees in North Carolina is an intense, psychological look at those required to cope with the aftermath of familial tragedy.

Where: Tristan Bates Theatre @ The Actors’ Centre
When: Tu-Sa @ 7:30 PM until 1 Dec.
Cost: £12 General Admission
Concessions: £8 for the usuals
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12. Well acted, well paced, and while not a life-changer, fairly priced. Fans of dramatic plays and one-acts will feel they got their money’s worth.
RZ Other Notes: The long week took its toll on getting this one out in a timely manner (posted early Sunday morning for a Thursday night performance), so the RZ may not have said as much as he was originally planning. The review for Electronica: The Musical will be coming faster, promise. Also, due to no cast information online and no free cast list at the house (programmes are even hidden - get one at the green room bar if you want to pay), there’s no cast details in the review. The three members are all solid.

Friday, 16 November 2007

REVIEW: "Present Laughter"

Noel Coward is frequently maligned for writing empty plays without depth. How one can accuse him of doing so with Present Laughter, currently running at the National, is beyond me.

Laughter is the tale of one Gerry Essendine (Alex Jennings), aka Coward writing himself, who spends the evening’s three hours ranting and raving about the tolls of an actor as his mistresses, colleagues, and secretary beleaguer him as he prepares for a trip to Africa. While the plot is thin, a sharp commentary on the state of the theatre is hidden within: the threats to ageing actors, casting politics, and the inability to separate onstage from off all surface as the farce plays out.

A particularly pointed moment comes when a young playwright confronts Essendine for playing shallow, empty roles in repetitive, indistinct plays. After Essendine tells slams the young man’s work, he explains that the future of theatre will be in ideas and psychology. Gary replies that may all be fine and good, but the theatre of the present demands a plot. While Coward was writing a decade before Waiting for Godot and the absurdists, his reply to the early avant garde is clear. As in real life, this figure of the alternative follows Essendine for the remainder of the play, a shadow hovering over the traditional farce’s end.

Many of the mainstream critics have complained about the increased presence of World War II overshadowing this production, absent in the 1939 original. In my opinion, the war material (a radio broadcast between the first and second scenes) helped with setting the date, and brought a sense of urgency to the proceedings, although more could have been done to follow it up. The material in no way detracted, but it didn’t add much either.

Much has also been said of Tim Hatley’s set, a claustrophobic wedge of a grand manor, which brings a sense of confinement to Essendine’s world. While doors abound, a clear vision of entrapment lingers throughout the production.

The cast are solid, and I particularly enjoyed Sara Stewart’s devious Liz and Anny Tobin as Gary’s snarky secretary Miss Erikson. In what is perhaps the Lyttleton curse, most of the actors tripped over at least one line over the course of the evening. Given that there were only four performances before the play goes on hiatus for another two weeks, chances are this is due to a lack of rehearsal and refreshment before the current run.

While Present Laughter is a play to be enjoyed in the present, it provides a full evening’s entertainment despite some slow scenes.

Where: National Theatre/Lyttleton
When: In Repertoire. Check the NT Website for dates and times.
Cost: £10-£36.50
Concessions: £10 day seats, £5 standing room, £18.50 regular standby 90 min. prior and £10 student standby 45 min. prior
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £18.50
RZ Other Notes: This play is long. Extremely long, in fact, clocking in at just under three hours with intermission. Given that comedy almost always plays best when short, there are a number of slower moments between the one liners and key pieces. Still, Coward’s self-satire is at its best when he talks about the theatre and nature, and there is quite a bit of autobiographical commentary throughout. That said, 20+ minutes of trims would certainly be appreciated.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

THOUGHTS: "Vincent River"

(This is the shortest review that will ever appear on this site...the RZ has an early class tomorrow, and the press have all raved this one anyways.)

Gay East-Ender Phillip Ridley gives us play where OXO Mum* is confronted by beaten up pretty boy from Essex. Pretty Boy found Mum’s dead kid, they drink and talk, revelations and hijinks ensue. Good dialogue, nice sparse set, uncomfortable bench seats at Trafalgar 2.

*The OXO part is the second to last advert in the series.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 2
When: Nightly, 7:45 PM until 17 Nov.
Cost: £22.50
Concessions: Usuals for £15
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £15. Solid all around, but not one you're going to remember forever.
RZ Other Notes: Another one of Ridley's plays is running now as well, but the RZ doesn't have the time or energy to look it up. There was a post-show Q&A, and the RZ also saw a discussion lecture with Ridley a few weeks ago. Fascinating guy, see his stuff if you're unfamiliar with it.

Monday, 12 November 2007

UPDATE: News, etc. (17 Nov.)

Well, 28 shows on Broadway have stagehands on strike, and the West End Whingers are stuck in New York with it. If you want an in depth discussion, you're better off going to All That Chat or the Broadwayworld boards. The economics, politics, and such are more complicated than the news is letting on, tensions are raised on both sides, and the whole thing is a mess - there are no clear lines here and everybody is screwed until this thing is over.

Back on this side of the pond, it's a busy time of year as Christmas tourists start flooding into the city and the West End there anything opening in the West End? There's plenty in "Off West-End" and the Fringe, and panto season is of course upon us as well, but to the RZ's knowledge there are no new major musicals opening except for La Cage at the Chocolate Factory, and few big plays until after the holidays as well. Corrections are, of course, welcomed.

Lastly, while things have been quiet on the review front this month, that's about to change: the RZ has six shows to attend this week, four of which will be covered on this site. Should international mail manage to deliver his recent shipments, there will also be a CD and film review going up as well, plus an interview or two.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

REVIEW: "Rafta Rafta"

Are Indian families really this conservative? If Ayub Khan-Din’s play Rafta Rafta, now closed at the National, is to be believed, the pre-feminist mentality lives on with the UK’s largest minority. Based on Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time, Khan-Din uses a healthy dose of humour to show two working class Asian families’ responses to a sexless marriage, exposing generational and intra-familial conflicts.

Utilising Bollywood’s writing conventions, Khan-Din’s dialogue avoids the language one would expect with this type of play: profanity is non-existent, and with one exception (played by Simon Nagra’s), the sexual talk so necessary to solving the young couple’s problems emerges through discretionary whispers and evasive terminology: the direct words are never there, just as frustrated Atul (Ronny Jhutti) is incapable of maintaining a dialogue or open relationship with his father, the gregarious Eeshwar (Harish Patel).

As the older generation (all first generation immigrants) deals with foreign words, the younger must reconcile their parents’ culture with modern British surroundings and lifestyles. Perhaps it is most telling that the crudest character (Nagra’s Jivaj) is intermarried, yet his white British wife is far more observant of Indian customs than he of Asian descent.

Also as with Bollywood, music plays a role in the play, with songs by Niraj Chag used sparsely but to great effect. Tim Hatley’s eye-popping house set is full of colour and character, but was it necessary reveal the interior with a turntable effect when we never see the exterior after the first three minutes?

While successfully directed by Nicholas Hytner (artistic director for the National) himself, a touch up session with vocal coach Kate Godfrey between runs would have been beneficial as accents frequently slipped, especially Meerya Syal’s as Lopa, the wisecracking mother who spends her non-speaking time in the matriarchal position of cleaning up after the rest of the cast.

Rafta Rafta, when combined with the season’s earlier run of The Emperor Jones, takes a polar approach to storytelling from the latter, but is no less effective in helping the National reach out to ethnic Britain.

Where: National Theatre/Littleton
When: Closed.
Cost: £10-36.50
Concessions: Day seats + Usual Suspects for £10, SRO when sold out for £5
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £22.00 (Full price dress circle). Major Bollywood fans and members of the community may find additional value in the piece and should add £5.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ found Rafta Rafta an entertaining look at Anglo-Indian culture and a great way to spend a matinee. While this is by no means a brilliant, life-changing production, it’s a fun and well constructed play - far more than the last Indian focused piece he saw (the OLC of Bombay Dreams) - and it deserves a good life in regional and amateur theatre.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

REVIEW: "The Blacks"

(Another one guaranteed to lose readers...make sure to read the additional notes at the end.)

“Kill Whitey!” As a middle class high school student in the American midwest, it was shocking to hear these words for the first time on late night community television. Week after week, though, the angry black man would show up, hang a Jamaican flag, play reggae music, curse out those who called to make requests, and shout black power slogans at the TV camera. Frightening yet fascinating, racial conflict became an exciting aspect of late Friday night television.

Fast forward ten years and an ocean away to Theatre Royal’s new production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, an infamous, racially charged play. Billed as the first UK staging in fifty years, this updated edition relies heavily upon the language and styles of hip hop, but came off as toothless and dull to this American reviewer.

Most of The Blacks is staged as a play within a play: a group of white-faced black actors enter as a royal entourage (including The Queen), and a group of working class black performers enter, carrying a coffin containing what they claim to be a white woman murdered in hatred. The next 90 minutes are spent attempting to convince the audience of black hatred and violence in a white world by re-enacting the murder while covering up the killing of a traitor to the cause before executing the establishment members. Along the way, two members of the performing party attempt to throw off their hate to love each other, and a preacher is barred from the community for sympathising with whites.

Technically, The Blacks is something of an intentional mess: the script is very much in the absurdist tradition, short on plot and long on causing intentional discomfort for the audience to make a point. Boasting two directors (the pseudonymous Ultz and Excalibah, the former also designing), we see actors milling about, passing off hand mikes, and shouting over each other - it’s not engaging or involving and rarely advances anything. Such a staging fits with Genet’s style, and also presents a (sub-conscious?) play on the stereotype of the “lazy black”, although pulling off the chaos night after night clearly requires a great deal of work.

Music plays a large role in this production, and while not a musical, the songs fit the mood and are appropriate enough. No composer is credited, but Carl Ramsey’s lyrics are fitting.

In terms of casting, The Blacks is very much an ensemble piece, though Tameka Empson stands out as the white-faced Queen Elizabeth II, and Excalibah performed with a fury as the evening’s MC. Martina Barnett got the best musical numbers, a pair of chant based tracks.

When first performed in the late 1950s, it’s easy to see how contemporary conventions would have been subverted and white audiences would have been shocked and outraged by what they saw: the key plot device of a black man killing a white woman was the standard propagandist plot for keeping blacks down in society. As a historical setting, original production ran 150 years after the abolition of slavery in Britain and at the same time as the African independence movements, namely the liberation of Ghana from French control. With the loss of empire and black independence in the daily news, The Blacks would have capitalised on the fears and shame of the white bourgeoisie and its role on colonialism.

Meanwhile, Americans have since faced fifty years of open tension and media coverage regarding race relations: Watts, LA, MLK, Malcom X, Farrakhan, August Wilson, Public Enemy, The Boondocks, and even recent controversies both inside the black community (the Read a Book uproar) and outside (the Jena 6) all served to remind white society of its role in moulding the contemporary black community. Racial tension and uproar are nothing new to Americans, though great potential exists should an enterprising director attempt something similar in the US with the execution of George W. Bush and co. and a thorough damning of white America’s crimes. However, this is sadly not that production.

In comparison, the British have had race riots in the past, but public concerns over black integration and identity are muted - perhaps this explains the glowing reviews from the local mainstream press. That said, had Theatre Royal decided to do an alternative adaptation - say The Arabs - there would have been a far greater immediacy, controversy, and shock value in the production (all things Genet wanted to subject white audiences to with the play). Now, the debate over colonisation is tired, and by relying upon Genet’s base rather than extending the political and social issues, the creative team have failed to maintain the edge necessary to cut through the British class system and the audience’s expectations of black society. As it stands, this edition of The Blacks is a wasted but well intentioned opportunity.

Where: Theatre Royal, Stratford East
When: Until 10 Nov. at 7:30PM
How Much: £12-18
Concessions: £7-10
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £7 to see what all the fuss is about and for the cast.
RZ Other Notes: OK, biases out of the way. The RZ hates absurdist theatre, and his view of The Blacks stems almost entirely from a displeasure with the artistic movement, not with the subject matter at hand. Given Genet’s stated desire to use alienation effect (though not in the same manner as Brecht, whom the RZ adores), this is not a play that the audience (especially the white audience) is expected to like. In that respect, the play is quite successful, but don’t go in expecting a coherent plot, good dialogue, or sharp commentary on the current state of affairs. If you do, chances are that you will spend 90 of the play’s 100 minute runtime bored like the Rogue Zentradi.

If you go prepared for a challenging, if flawed work that is fully in line with the house’s history of controversial plays, you are likely to appreciate it more than the RZ.

Friday, 2 November 2007

REVIEW: "Five Tanks"

Five Tanks, running at the Hackney Empire is a work best experienced under the influence. This one-act play by Lab Ky Mo takes a look at the oh-so-mundane world of a London call centre, but imbibes it with such hilarious inanity in the face of disaster that one can’t help but laugh for the wrong reasons throughout.

It’s not just the plot (or lack thereof) that’s funny - we’re treated to a peanut gallery of characters from “I’m not racist” micromanager Nick, desperate to land a bonus and quit, to talentless actress Branwen and unshakeably bummed Dougal who, having narrowly escaped being bombed on a London bus, comes to work regardless out of apathy. Our zero-heroes spend the day on the phones calling everybody but their clients, taking smoke breaks, and complaining about how much they hate going to work. In other words, the same conversations everybody has at the office.

Where Five Tanks truly shines is in its deliciously poor dialogue, such as when supervisor Rehana explains her ritual of breaking the Ramadan fast each night with six packets of crisps and three cans of Red Bull consumed in a specific order (could anybody not high on pot have written that?) Throughout the play we hear of workplace squabbles and scattered back stories familiar to anybody who’s temped their way through low end office jobs: Ex-soldier Erno longs to sail to Australia to see his estranged daughter after a messy divorce, Branwen has an audition and mutilates Mel Gibson’s speech from Braveheart for material, and so on.

There’s supposed to be some satire and sarcasm regarding Muslim-Westerner relations in Five Tanks (Nick uses Reana as a token when discriminating against new employee Saeed), as well as an emotional consideration of the important things in life (family, happiness), but the play lacks the depth for proper thematic exploration. Instead, we see the truth: people care about their snacks and bills, and world events pass them by. It should be meaningful, but instead it’s as mentally nutritious as a bag of crisps. Five Tanks is entertaining, but entirely in the sense of watching a disaster unfold.

Where: Hackney Empire
When: Until November 10, T-Sa 7:30 PM
Cost: £12 General Admission
Concessions: £9 General Admission
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £9 - this is B-movie bad, and if you enjoy camp, schlock, and the finer points of flops, this is the play for you.
RZ Other Notes: There are no comments on the cast in this review as the RZ refuses to buy programmes and the Hackney Empire website doesn’t have a cast list.

Regarding the content of the show, the RZ had a grin on his face the entire time, as he gleefully took in the stupidity onstage. The mainstream critics trashed Five Tanks, perhaps rightly so, but it was too much of a hoot to see how bad things could get to not love it. If you drink (the RZ doesn’t), have a few pints, some alcopops, or a bottle of wine first and enjoy!