Sunday, 23 December 2007

REVIEW: "Rough Music"

The Victorian period was a horrible time to be a woman unless you were Victoria herself. Controlling fathers, sexist employers, and condescending male colleagues were all that a woman could look forward to if Sylvia Freedman’s Rough Music is to be taken for accuracy.

Not to say that Freedman is far off. In this tale of working class dreams, seamstress Jessie Sanders flees her stagnant family to work in London, only to have her bags and money stolen part way. Retreating to a job at the local toy factory, she meets a pair of charming men...only one is a woman masquerading as a man to get ahead in life. As Jessie faces adversity and the chance to make her wishes of performing reality, the rest of the cast provide a troupe of supporting characters from a slimy owner to cheerfully unlicensed performers and the legal forces who punish them.

Throughout it all, Jessie is surrounded by the subjugation of Victorian sexism: her sister strives to marry well, the women at the factory write off various tasks as men’s work, and even the landlord who hires her to sing first thinks she wants to clean rather than perform. Ideals of chastity and restraint run through the script, even as cross-dressing Chad/Charlotte proclaims her love for Jessie and refuses to face her illegitimate father.

Set on a thrust, John Adams’ direction involves lots of northern accents and melodramatic overacting which serve the piece rather than detracting, grounding it in the era’s conventions. Norman Coates uses a wooden and musty design cast by Chris Ellis in a dim yellow evocative of gas lights. The period setting is enhanced by the use of musical hall classics like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Two Black Eyes”.

Rough Music doesn’t break new ground or teach the audience anything they don’t already know. It does, however, provide a vehicle for some lovely songs and some fast-paced yet old-fashioned entertainment, even if it’s strictly community-level fare.

Where: Kings Head Theatre
When: Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 16:30, Su @ 16:00 through 13 Jan.
How Much: £20 unreserved
Concessions: Usuals for £17.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10.
RZ Other Notes: Rough Music isn’t a bad show, but it feels contrived after Victor/Victoria and a stack of Takarazuka DVDs, as much of the plot revolves around the gender bending secondary. Perhaps the RZ is just sick of every play this time of year featuring cross-dressing. The fact that the actors were getting friendly with the audience beforehand and during the interval didn’t help either, given the show isn’t using a Brechtian or alienating staging, but this is nitpicking.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

FEATURE: Catching Up with Jack, Cin, and Spam

(A catch up post. Things should be closer to normal from here on out.)

Panto season is in full swing, and those with some extra cash to blow and some older children may find themselves seeking out this year’s “posh” panto offerings. The Barbican’s offering, Jack and the Beanstalk, certainly has some nice visuals, but the script by Jonathan Harvey is bland - the jokes fall flat, the double entendre cruder than necessary (oh his majesticles...). Urgency and excitement are missing across the story or Giles Havergal’s annoying character direction - even the slosh scene is dull, but at least Stiles and Drewe have given us some nice songs. Helen Baker is passable as Jack, and Andy Gray tries his best to win the audience over as very Scottish Dame Dolly Deluxe, but it’s just not enough. You could do worse with your panto choice, but there is far, far better.

On the naughtier side of the posh scale, Stephen Fry’s Cinderella is packing them in at the Old Vic. More a play with panto leanings than a proper panto, Fry has packed in the audience callbacks and classy London jokes but trades them off for intellectual ramblings and a defiance of panto tradition (nobody speaks in rhyme). Anne Dudley’s music is lovely, but she skimps out on the singalong by giving us an old standby instead of an original tune. The RZ’s companion (a huge anglo- and Fry-phile) loved it, and he left with a smile on his face which was enough. Stephen Brimson Lewis deserves props for his stunning set designs, and there were more than a few people in the circles (along with the RZ) wishing they could have been closer to see some of the costumes up close and the night after Buttons and Dandini’s wedding. Younger children, however, will be bored by all the big words flying around, but the intellectual families who want to safely slum it will be well served here.

The RZ’s companion also wanted to see Spamalot with Peter Davison, so a trip to the Palace was in order. The RZ saw the show with the OBC and again with Davison in August, and is mixed on returning to this piece: in some ways, it’s always good for a grin, and the RZ is a huge Davison fan. On the other hand, twice is enough to get all the jokes and the ensemble were clearly counting down the days to their break. The big dance numbers need refinement, and Hannah Waddingham’s Lady of the Lake lacks the discipline that a good stage manager or director should be giving her. Still, it’s hard not to laugh during the “Not Dead Yet” song, and it was thrilling to see Davison settle into the role after a tenuous performance over the summer. There’s talk of closing this in 2008 to make room for Priscilla, so book your tickets for the spring now (when the wonderful Marin Mazzie is in as the Lady).

Jack and the Beanstalk
Where: Barbican Centre
When: Varies through 12 Jan.
Cost: £16-£35
Concessions: Kids go half price. Everyone else pays full.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £8 - there’s better out there that’s more deserving.
RZ Other Notes: Princess Melody is insanely annoying, and the Barbican aren’t kidding about starting promptly after the interval (and weren’t kind enough to ring the standard bell) - the RZ barely cleared the ice cream line when they were starting up again and there was a mad dash from all to make it back in.

Where: Old Vic
When: Varies until Jan. 20
Cost: SOLD OUT, £15-£40
Concessions: 100 £12 tickets are reserved for under-25’s at all performances, seniors and disabled persons get £20 for top price tickets.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 - this is fun panto for grownups.
RZ Other Notes: Blah blah first gay mainstream panto blah blah fanservice yay. If you think that Fry’s full of himself, you’ll hate this. If you like your panto traditional, you’ll hate this. If you like jokes about the class structure of British supermarkets, you’ll love it. And the show curtain? Fabulous.

Where: Palace Theatre
When: M-Th, Sa @ 20:00, Fr @ 20:30, Fri @ 17:15, Sa @ 15:00
Cost: £15-£60
Concessions: Depends on which box office worker you get. Officially there are student matinees on Friday where students are guaranteed discounts. Sometimes they’ll give you a discount with your student ID or equity card 60 min. before, sometimes you can get front row stalls behind the conductor for £17.50 instead of full price (go 20-30 min. before curtain and ask for what’s cheap and ask for something better than what they point out). Sometimes they’ll tell you to sod off instead. If you want to play it safe, find an advance booking code or expect to run to TKTS.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Add £5 for the first time, £10 if you’re a die hard Python fan or big on a cast member.
RZ Other Notes: As the concessions tag implies, the RZ and his companion were stuck going to TKTS and getting tickets in entirely separate areas due to the confusion over day seat policy. Don’t let this happen to you.

Monday, 17 December 2007

On Holiday...Sort Of

Apologies for the lack of updates recently. The RZ is on post-term holiday, which means that instead of relaxing by the beach or visiting friends and family in the US, he is slaving away at his computer working on end of term assessments. He does have reviews to write, and will try to at least get some thought posts up in the interim, but with foreign company around for the next few days and an end of year trip to the continent (for what else but more theatre), updates will be sporadic until New Year's.

Monday, 10 December 2007

THOUGHTS: "Dealer's Choice"

(Poor Trafalgar Studios. For some unfortunate reason, the RZ always finds himself attending wonderful productions there when he has no time to write proper reviews.)

Providing a nice testosterone-packed filling for a sandwich of David Mamet extravaganzas (the previously reviewed Glengarry Glenn Ross and upcoming Old Vic production of Speed the Plow), Dealer's Choice may not have quite the same punch that its American counterparts offer, but sheds a light on six men and how easily a dream can rise or be crushed nevertheless. With its macho cast and design transferred intact from the Menier Chocolate Factory, the set has been adjusted nicely to fill out Trafalgar 1's stage, and fans of watching behind the scenes work can watch a poor stagehand count chips and set the table during the interval before the play's driving poker game begins. Dealer's Choice may not be the best play in London, but it is far from disappointing.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 1
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £15-£40
Concessions: Thursday matinees all seats £24, usual suspects get best available for £20 same day.
Unofficial RZ "Worth Paying": £15. Add £5 if you know your poker as the details will go over your head if you don't unless you buy the programme.
RZ Other Notes: A good play to pass the afternoon with, but not the stuff of main attractions. See it if it's convenient or you have the money to spare - it's solid, but not exceptional.

Friday, 7 December 2007

FEATURE: Family Theatre Fest

(An attempt to get caught up. Possible double show day tomorrow, and CD/DVD reviews coming this weekend as well.)

Christmastime is here, and with it comes a veritable slew of family friendly entertainment ready for first-timers and infrequent attendees at a wide range of price and production quality options.

For those seeking a budget option, Told by an Idiot are offering Beauty and the Beast at the Lyric Hammersmith. A slightly anachronistic take on the classic fairy tale, Beauty attempts to do panto without the good bits: the jokes are corny, the plot banal and padded: it takes half the first act to set up the story and Beauty’s arrival is the act one curtain. Exposition comes not in a brief scene up front, but in a drawn out re-enactment by a group of barn animals leading to a secondary (read: barely touched on and pointless) romance angle between Beauty’s dog and a duck. There’s not even good eye candy or comic relief: the drag acts are short on camp, and the sets and costumes look cheap. Without the flair and irony of panto, the key idiot here is the artistic director who approved this pap without getting an override on the script. While Beauty entertained the youngest in the audience when the RZ went, it lacks the depth and maturity to cross over from children’s theatre to proper family fare.

It’s a pity, because the cast are talented and try their best with the limited material available to them. Much has also been made of casting the diminutive Lisa Hammond as a disabled Beauty, but given the point of the story (beauty comes from a good heart within), there’s no cause for surprise or amazement: Ms. Hammond is clearly comfortable in the role, despite its saccharine goodness at every turn.

At the other end (more expensive) of the spectrum, the winter holidays are an excellent time to visit the well heated Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s production of Lord of the Rings. Spurned almost universally by critics in Toronto (where it originally ran) and London, this £12.5 million production is by no means the disaster presented in the newspapers.

That said, the RZ is perhaps not the best judge: he found the original novels painfully dull and avoided the film adaptations out of association. As a result, the extreme story compression necessary in keeping the stage version to three hours is a welcome breeze (almost as welcome as the one used in an effects sequence), as it boiled Tolkein’s long, meandering epic into something manageable and approachable as was done twenty years earlier for Les Miserables. Fans of the novels (or films) may find themselves put off by how much is left out, and families with younger children (say below ten) may wish to avoid the show as one must pay constant attention to keep up with the story or be left with little choice but to take a £60 nap and ride it out. Even with a basic knowledge going in, the RZ still couldn’t say who half the characters were afterwards.

Lord of the Rings, though, is not being sold on book alone. Billed as a musical (though more accurately described as a play with songs), the score was created by Finnish folk group Värttinä and Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. As one of the few people who liked Bombay Dreams, it was Rahman’s involvement that drew the RZ to see LotR, and while the score maintains a strong western (specifically celtic) influence, Rahman’s touches are evident in the lush vocal lines and instrumental harmonies, having been played up by orchestrator Christopher Nightingale. While the music primarily underscores dialogue and battle sequences, the few songs that stand on their own are pleasant but ultimately forgettable - none of them stick in your head as you leave the theatre.

In terms of production, everything about Rob Howell’s designs is jaw-dropping and large. From the big sets (including the beautiful forestry that extends into the house and covers multiple boxes) and enveloping sound to the fascinating fantastical costumes (watch out for the trees) and kaleidoscopic lighting, the staging screams money from every corner of the rotating, elevating, and flying stage.

Though Lord of the Rings is a bit too expensive and mature for some family outings, a happy compromise exists in the Young Vic’s touring production of Herge’s Adventures of Tintin, returning to London after last year’s engagement at the Barbican. This particular stage production of Herge’s legendary comic series (of which there have been plenty) is adapted from the 1958 serial Tintin in Tibet, where the young adventurer journeys to the Himalayas after discovering that a friend’s plane crashed in the mountains.

As with LotR, die hard Tintin fans will certainly find issues to nitpick, but the play maintains the adventuresome spirit of the comics, with Tintin staying true to his senses of bravery, loyalty and friendship in the face of unending adversity. David Greig’s script also pays loving tribute to Herge’s humour and warmth. Songs appear sparingly, and also fall into the pleasant but forgettable category.

Having toured for a year, the cast are thoroughly drilled and running at speed. Dominic Rouse is morally upright yet never preachy in the title role, while Stephen Finegold blusters as crotchety Captain Haddock. Miltos Yerolemou plays one of the more childish roles, Tintin’s loveable dog Snowy, but tends to channel another famous white dog from the same era more than Herge’s creation in the later books. The ensemble take on multiple parts from hotel staff to Nepalese porters and Buddhist monks with precision while maintaining individuality (e.g. a comic porter resurfaces as the comic monk).

While the sets and costumes are on the lower end of the spectacle spectrum, a number of clever sequences await within, such as utilising a step-ladder and a scenery cut-out to replicate an airplane and the use of fly wires for the second act’s big climb.

Since most families have only once chance to take in a Christmas time play, and with rising ticket prices making it an increasing gamble, the RZ feels that the best *value* is none of these options, but to journey to Hackney Empire for the annual panto (see prior review). For those wishing to avoid the noise and commotion of the pantomime, tickets are still available for Tintin which only cost £5 or so more.

Where: Lyric Hammersmith
When: Through 5 Jan. Schedule varies. Check the website.
How Much: £10-27
Concessions: Under 16s and OAPs can advance book for £10, Students and 16-25s can advance book for £7.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £1 and only if you’re not the adult who has to go with the kids.
RZ Other Notes: The children in the audience were far better behaved than the adults in front of the RZ who laughed every time someone used Ms. Hammond’s wheelchair. This adaptation is truly banal and nobody over the age of 8 will be entertained.

Where: Theatre Royal Drury Lane
When: M @ 19:00, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 14:00.
**NOTE: The schedule is different for Christmas time. Check the website or with the BO for details.**
How Much: £15-£60
Concessions: Students can get best available same day for £25. Not sure about others.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £42.50
RZ Other Notes: The RZ does not recommend sitting in the stalls due to the stage’s distance and the use of height and depth, and would recommend the grand circle were it not £60 for the entire space. Fortunately there are always discounts available, and the RZ heartily recommends taking advantage of them. Make sure to arrive early as there is a pre-show scene as people are seated starting 15 min. before curtain. Easily shocked patrons should avoid sitting on the aisles, as there is a scene where orcs go through the auditorium jumping around trying to scare people. The RZ stared one down when it got close and his row was left alone, which may help as well. Also, watch out for low seats that get uncomfortable towards the end of each act.

Where: Playhouse Theatre
When: Through 12 Jan. M-Sa @ 19:15, W/Sa @ 14:00
**NOTE: The schedule is different between 24 Dec. and 5 Jan. Check the website or with the BO for details.**
How Much: £10-£40
Concessions: 20 front row seats sold for £10 when the BO opens (10AM), £10 SRO when sold out, Children half price, Seniors can advance book Tuesday evenings for £30 best available, students can get best available for £20 same day.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. Tintin addicts should add an extra £5-10, and with the family pricing parents should take the recommendation as an average per ticket (so 2 £30 tix + 2 £15 tix = £23 average.)
RZ Other Notes: The audience loved it, the RZ enjoyed it, too bad it’s not selling enough to have kept its originally scheduled 12 week run. Also, beware the basement gents - the doors are out of alignment in the stalls and don’t lock.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

REVIEW: "Dick Whittington And His Cat"

(Yes, a review of Jonathan Sings Larson is coming soon, as is one of Show Business: The Road to Broadway on DVD. End of term work is making for a very busy Zentradi, and he's already behind another show review with two more in the next two days coming up - all family stuff for the Xmas season.)

Are you ready to do the Cool Cat Chat?

You’d better be - panto season is back with a vengeance, and Hackney Empire are leading things off with Dick Whittington and his Cat. A community affair, the show is packed with local references from council elections to a parking fine attached to the great horse.

There aren’t any washed up soap stars here, either: the multi-ethnic cast features West End talent Hannah Jane Fox (the original Scaramouche in We Will Rock You) as the feisty big-note-belting Principal Boy and Clive Rowe (recently The Drier/The Bus in Caroline or Change) as Sarah the Cook. Rowe’s dame is full of flair, but thankfully avoids the grotesque, sprinkling just enough nods to the adults to let the mind fill in the gaps while stealing the show with a knockout number “borrowed” from a certain Broadway show. David Ashley is a gnarly King Rat, bedecked in the show’s best costume, and the most surprising cast decision was caught by the RZ’s companion for the performance: Tameka Empson, who recently donned whiteface to play the Queen in Stratford East’s controversial production of The Blacks, took on the bumbling Good Fairy. One celeb has managed to sneak his way in: Radio personality Kat (how appropriate) lovingly tackles the comedian role as Idle Jack, a position that is anything but.

That said, panto is not made by actors alone, and and Susie McKenna’s script enthralled the school groups (the RZ and his companion were the only adults present on their own), and was packed as full as Sarah’s pasties with corny jokes and audience participation, but could have used a bit of tightening up in the second act. In addition to a set of panto standard costumes, Lotte Collett’s sets are vibrant and colourful, especially her multi-piece ship and during McKenna’s second act diversions under water and in the jungle (with a special surprise I won’t ruin here).

Lastly, praise is due to Steven Edis for providing and conducting a score with both original and pinched numbers full of energy and catchy tunes that pleased both young and older members of the audience.

Dick Whittington doesn’t break any boundaries for pantomime or offer a particularly new or challenging experience, but it does make good everything it promises: some frolicking fun for the family and a traditional panto experience.

Where: Hackney Empire
When: Times vary. Check the website.
How much: £9.50-£19.50
Concessions: Varies with original ticket price, can be booked via the website.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £19.50. This is a solid production, and the RZ has spent this much money on far worse things in the West End. The Empire is a great venue that’s dedicated to the community, and discounts are offered left and right so it is actually an affordable way to take the family to a show.

RZ Other Notes: Sadly, the RZ did not get to have the full panto experience as the ice cream queue was too long to clear and they ran out of his favourite flavour anyways. He and his companion both loathe children, which made things interesting to say the least, but it wouldn't be panto without them. Given that these are the worst things the RZ has to complain about, the next one can't come soon enough.