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.

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