Friday, 30 May 2008

REVIEW: "Dickens Unplugged"

After bringing Shakespeare, Star Wars, and American History to minimalist and humorous states of redux, Adam Long, co-founder of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, is back in London with a new work using the same old formula: this time abridging the works of Charles Dickens in the music hall inspired Dickens Unplugged.

The setup, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is simple: a group of five performers (in this case a Californian Dickens cover band) perform highly edited versions of the author’s works, ranging from one-song quickies (The Old Curiosity Shop) to multi-scene epics (David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol) interspersed with commentary on Dickens’s life. Were it not for the occasional use of post-watershed language, the RZ would gladly recommend this as a family show to introduce the aforementioned classic novels to younger punters, though to the show’s credit, the few instances of profanity are used appropriately and sparingly to emphasise major events or conflicts.

The effect is achieved by changing Jemima Penny’s costumes faster than Evening Standard headlines, and there is cross-dressing a-plenty as the all-male cast take dame it up to play a host of wives, including both of Dickens’s own. Needless to say, timing is everything and the cast were on when the RZ attended, even though (he suspects) it was understudy Ben Heathcoate’s first time on during this run.

And the songs (this being a musical)? They’re well harmonised late-Victorian inspired pieces for guitar and drum with a few notes played on a piano. The lyrics are sometimes too clever (or fast) for their own good, but Gareth Owen’s sound design refrains from bludgeoning the audience with volume, even those up front. Lez Brotherston’s set maintains the grimness of lower class Victorian living, but at the same time seems more appropriate for Sweeney Todd than the light-hearted fluff it contains (including two easy to spot theatre parodies)

On the whole, Dickens Unplugged is amusing in the same way as The 39 Steps, but doesn’t quite come together in a way that’s hard to put one’s finger on, perhaps because Mr. Long is simply caught in a rut after doing the same gig time and again, or the cast were holding back on a two show day. Either way, it doesn’t stop Dickens from being solid matinee fare capable of passing a rainy afternoon or providing a rest when running around the West End, and if you find you don’t like it, each act is approximately 45 minutes so you don’t have to suffer long before you flee.

Where: Comedy Theatre
When: M/W/Th/Fr/Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 15:00, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £16-46
Concessions: Seniors can advance book M-F performances for £21, disabled patrons can book all shows for £21, student rush 1 hr before curtain for the same.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £21. It’s fun but not that fun and offers are abundant.
RZ Other Notes: Dickens Unplugged may not do overly well in the West End (the RZ could swear the upper two levels were closed yesterday) but it will undoubtedly do well on tour and in regional/community productions.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

REVIEW: "Troilus and Cressida"

For centuries, Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan war has been written off as unstageable, and with good reason - the play is an absolute disaster, with plot threads strewn about like blobs on a Jackson Pollock. It is in the face of such adversity that Cheek by Jowl have returned to the Barbican, premiering their best attempts at dramaturgy first in France (way to honour their ACE funding...) before landing at the Barbican to deliver 195 minutes of sheer and utter boredom to London audiences.

Unfortunately, despite what the RZ’s tutor described as massive edits and streamlining, Troilus and Cressida is still an indeterminate mess as well as a paragon to false advertising. The titular lovers have little stage time, their romance being a mere subplot which could easily have been discarded (except then the play would need to be retitled), rather the focus is on the challenge between Hector and Achilles and the interference run by Ajax. Being unfamiliar with the original edition of the text (nobody stages it and it’s not on most American syllabi), the RZ can’t comment on the extent of the edits, but a girl was loudly complaining on her way out about how the company hacked up the play. Given that plays in Shakespeare's day would have been edited to run for two hours, the RZ feels that it was under-cut.

Visually, the acclaimed Nick Ormerod (half of the CxJ über-duo) goes for the glory but falls short, placing the show in a traverse that resembles something between a nomadic camp and a cheap circus. Again failing to live up to advertising, there is an utter lack of creepy clown masks (first image) on stage, but we do see gas masked Greeks as well as Ormerod’s clear love of first person shooters, as the warriors don a full set of steel helmets and cricket pads to look like squishy rejects from Halo (second and third images). It’s the same deal for both sides, except the Grecians have their kit painted black while the Trojans wear lots and lots of white, reducing the Iliad to a beginner’s game of chess. As the cast go knocking over stools and wrinkling the long strip rugs we’re treated so some bland lighting (with one good effect at the end) and a lack of purpose from the setup.

Declan Donnellan (the other CxJ wunderkind) has plenty to answer for as well, not least of which the pitiful battle scene which looked like it was inspired by God of War. One of the RZ’s classmates questioned why the production was staged in traverse at the interval, but nobody had an answer by the end. Usually such a staging allows for a feeling of claustrophobia or intimacy, but neither was to be found here. Donnellan’s direction has also provided one of the most annoying characters in recent history to pervade the London stage in the form of Ryan Kiggell’s obnoxiously stilted Ulysses. With a pair of skinheads as Achilles (Paul Brennan) and shouting Scotsman Ajax (Laurence Spellman, whom the RZ suspects escaped from the tour of Black Watch) and a boy band filling out the ranks of the young Trojans. Given the quantity of homoerotic subtext present in the text now magnified by the staging, the RZ wondered if Cheek by Jowl should have thrown out most of the script and produced a Shakespearean porno instead, especially with the presence of Richard Cant as tranny maid Thersites.

There’s no doubt, however, that Shakespeare fans will discuss this production for years to come, as Troilus and Cressida is so rarely staged. Indeed, the RZ’s class was evenly split between “found it OK” and “didn’t like it,” and he is admittedly not a fan of Shakespeare, so take this review with a large block of salt. In the RZ’s opinion, however, the best seats are in another venue and suggests taking in some Brecht at the Young Vic instead.

Where: Barbican Main Theatre
When: Until 14 June, M-Sa @ 19:15, Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £25
Concessions: Cheek by Jowl reconfigure the venue so seating is more limited than usual, so no concessions.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £0. While the fight was laughably bad and the drag cabaret provided a moment of amusement in the second half, they don’t make up for the fact that this is a messy, dull play that no amount of Bardolatry can justify.
RZ Other Notes: Yes, I panned Shakespeare. Let the flaming begin.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

THOUGHTS: The Harder They Come (Transfer)

(Four days after and still no comment on Gone With The Wind revisited...)

Every now and then, the critics have to eat their words. And in this case, the RZ is going to eat his about this show having no chance of going commercial. Taking on a limited run at the Playhouse between now and whenever La Cage finally arrives from the Chocolate Factory, The Harder They Come is back in London and better than ever.

First and foremost, the book’s mess has been mopped up. The RZ approximates 10-15 minutes of obvious material are gone including a song at the beginning and a major spoiler-tastic scene towards the end. Some songs have been trimmed and other scenes clarified. The plot is streamlined, the acts feel more balanced, and it’s just right. The contrast of low budget staging and fancy West End theatre also helps to emphasise the show’s grit, lost to the concrete bunker known as the Barbican.

The music sounds better than ever too, and the cast deliver tight group numbers and some of the best choreography in the West End. The Harder They Come is still driven by its music, and a repeat visit only drove home the strength of the score.

With a (much) smaller stage than the main house at the Barbican, the RZ suspects that the West End transfer is closer to the original and while there’s an added intimacy in the tiny Playhouse, the energy feels lower as well, the side effect of taking a cast from original to transfer to tour to transfer in such a whirlwind. It may pay off to wait a bit before going, just so the cast can clear previews and get some rest.

The question is, does the transfer justify West End prices? Fortunately for punters, the prices are cheaper than most straight plays in the West End, a benefit of subsidised backing. Therefore, the RZ suggests booking ASAP to those who want to escape from the recent bombastic offerings from the old school and fast food fluff from the new.

Where: Playhouse Theatre
When: Until 1 Nov., M-Sa @ 19:30, W & Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £10-£32.50*
Concessions: Check with the BO
RZ Unofficial Worth Paying: £32.50 for getting it right and doing it for less.
RZ Other Notes: Somebody would be very foolish not to make a cast recording or official DVD of this show.

*OK so they offer premium tickets for £50, but you know what? Those aren’t on the proper scale and while they aren’t as stupidly expensive as in the US, the RZ strongly encourages British patrons NOT to support producers in this attempt to sell overpriced tickets.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

REVIEW: "Never Forget"

This is one of those times that being foreign has its distinct ups and downs. See, in the US, we never had Take That. Oh, we had plenty of boy bands but Manchester’s own never invaded our shores.

Needless to say, dear readers, you can guess the RZ’s level of enthusiasm and confusion at the prospect of spending £20 and an evening at a jukebox musical based on this group’s catalogue. Word from the road and previews was uninspiring, and neither was the fact that tonight’s press evening wasn’t fully booked. However, Never Forget is a new West End musical and therefore gets a visit.

Story-wise, Never Forget manages to hit a new low, even for jukebox musicals. Good guy Ash (Dean Chisnall) opens by proposing to girlfriend Chloe (Sophia Ragavelas, recently in Dick Whittington at the Hackney Empire). They have a party at his mum’s pub (Marilyn Cutts) where bill collectors come and announce that unless they fork over £10,000 in two weeks the bank will foreclose. In order to raise the money, Chloe’s brother (Craige Els) suggests the pair audition for a Take That cover band and win the money in a talent contest. The group is rounded out by three losers (a male stripper, a dominated bank manager, and an annoying fey Spaniard), Ash is seduced by a corrupt record producer, leaves the band and Chloe, realises his mistakes, and returns just in time to save the day just in time to get married in front of a children’s chorus used solely in the final scene.’s a jukebox show. If you like the band, you’ll like the music. If you’re not a Take That fan, this show won’t convert you. The RZ did actually recognise two songs in the score: “It Only Takes A Minute”, which was remixed and put into a DDR game (conveniently one of the songs nobody actually wants to play and also a cover for TT) and “Back For Good”, which was used for a huge piss-take in the last episode of Spaced. It’s all manufactured soulless pop music, enjoyable for three minutes at a time, though some of the extended production numbers (“Once You’ve Tasted Love”) run too long. The one good thing about the music is that it provides opportunities for Karen Bruce’s lively and well drilled choreography.

Bob Bailey’s set was designed for touring the show, and features some pure eye candy with a rain curtain that spells the words “Never Forget” and some fire bursts. James Whiteside’s lighting goes well with it, and there’s a lot of tricks with scrim and LED columns. While the actual set pieces look cheap, they work (and it’s not like Manchester is high end anyway.) More annoying are Chris Wood’s costumes, which range from chavtastic to pandering (the RZ lost count of how many times the guys stripped to their briefs) to flat out ugly and covered in brand names (Ecko and Nike were quite visible).

That said, the RZ found himself giving in and enjoying Never Forget despite its flaws and the large squealing fangirl presence. It’s not too long, and is something you can take your mum to, provided she prefers scantily clad young men to the cursing and crime in Jersey Boys. It does what the slogan says on the tin (they perform “A Million Love Songs” and there’s a happy ending) but the fails completely, as though one put a sign that said “Dog: A cute and loveable pet” in front of a cat. The cute and loveable part is right, but not the overall claim. It’s unlikely that the RZ will remember all but the most cursory details of Never Forget after 24 hours.

Where: Savoy Theatre
When: M-Th, Sa @ 19:45, Fr @ 17:30 & 20:30, Sa @ 15:00
How Much: Varies by night, overall £19.50-£55
Concessions: Day Seats and concessions available when the BO opens for £19.50 all days but Saturdays (£25.00).
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying’: £27.50. It’s candy floss for the mind and a fun way to pass an afternoon.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ sat in the day seats, which is amazing given that he was able to buy them for press night. It’s doubly amazing that he arrived five minutes before the box office opened and there was only one person ahead of him. Easiest rush in the West End?

The seats themselves aren’t horrid, but have their issues. You have to crane your neck a fair bit, get wet during the rain scene (not a lot), the lights get in your face a few times, and you’re sitting at eye (and ear) level with the speakers. The curtain call is damn loud, but in the end you get what you pay for.

Despite being pleasantly surprised by the show, the RZ wondered on more than one occasion why anybody would bother putting this show on. While a reunion gig can occur every five or ten years (as Take That themselves are proving), the genuine nostalgia that drives audiences to this type of production for an extended run requires a minimum of twenty, meaning that Take That’s turn is at least another decade off, given that Wiki claims the original break-up was in 1996. One could argue the same about Queen and We Will Rock You, but WWRY has a more original premise and Freddie Mercury’s death accelerated the growth of the nostalgia factor.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

THOUGHTS: Eurovision 2008 Hopefuls...

So the RZ revisited Gone With The Wind last night (hey, the tickets were free...) and while he's still recovering his mind (and getting of his bum to write his Macross F 1-7 review) here are some fast thoughts on who the RZ hopes comes out on top in this year's Eurovision song contest:

Ireland - A protest entry, Irelande Douze Pointe has obnoxious novelty song written all over it - but it's glib and catchy.*

Spain - Baila el Chikki Chikki is also a protest entry and the singer resembles a long lost relative of Helge Schneider.

Latvia - There are PIRATES. And they've got the whole Toybox/Captain Jack sound going on, which the RZ digs.

Greece - The RZ thought they were taking the piss with the use of local instrument in Eurobeat, but their entries really sound that way - and it sounds good.

Belgium - It's an odd track and one of the RZ's friends pointed out that she finds the background films more interesting than the song.

Bulgaria - It's all rather Ace of Base but second rate.

Bosnia-Herzogovina - What the hell. No really, just what the hell. Not a horrid song, but the visuals. WTF?

France/Russia/Germany/UK = Bog standard. Nothing impressive here.

*Ireland and Spain are rumored to be sending intentionally bizarre/bad songs in response to the unofficial voting blocs that certain regions establish eg Scandanavia cross-vote, ex-Soviet countries cross-vote, etc.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

REVIEW: "Marguerite"

There’s something satisfying about watching the greats fall from grace, be it in fiction or the news. After giving us two of the biggest hits in West End history (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon), Boubil and Schönberg began their decline with Martin Guerre before falling flat on their faces with last year’s Broadway bomb The Pirate Queen. While Marguerite, which they contributed the book and lyrics to, is far from being a top notch work, it shows that this legendary duo are working their way back up.

Marguerite resets Alexander Dumas’s novel Le Dame Aux Camèlias in the second world war. The title character is a high end prostitute turned singer turned prostitute who’s shacking up with a Nazi general in occupied France, while her society associates take advantage of her position for rations and to raise their own standing in what is viewed as the new pecking order. The show opens at the end of the story, as the populace turn against Marguerite (Ruthie Henshall) before we flash back to her birthday party some time earlier. As the British bomb Paris, our protagonist has a brief encounter with pianist Armand (Julian Ovenden) playing the event. As the two fall in love, we follow a parallel storyline as Armand’s sister (Annalene Beechey) works for the resistance with Jewish lover Lucienne. While the concept is a good idea, it’s not without flaw and at times feels like an exercise in expressing national guilt over the natives' actions under the Vichy government.

Unfortunately, there’s just no real reason to care about Marguerite the character. It’s shown from the beginning that she doesn’t love Otto (Alexander Hanson), but is merely using him. While she talks of the great risks of meeting (and sleeping) with Armand, we are given no real sense of danger until the second act, and never any emotional ties to this woman. When Otto dies during the second act and Marguerite finds herself without friends or finance, she sings a “How did this happen to me?” song. The answer, of course, is pretty simple: she fucked the man for his money and the gravy train got derailed when her lover shot him. There’s no subtext to the character, just a self-pitying opportunist who finds herself playing romance Tetris like in any other romance novel or women’s manga.

Michel Legrand’s score is beautifully orchestrated traditional musical theatre with a clear period influence, but it’s not especially memorable, and there’s not a song that immediately grabs your ear and demands repeating on your iPod. Herbert Kretzmer’s translation of Alain Boubil’s original French lyrics is simplistic. The rhymes are functional and suit the piece, they’re also uninspired, and there’s no subtext or greater intelligence to them. While not every musical demands a “Color and Light” or even a “My Psychopharmacologist and I”, some greater depth in the words (including the book which claims three authors) would go a long way towards making the title character sympathetic,.

Not that Ruthie Henshall doesn’t try. Utilising a classical soprano for most of her songs, Ms. Henshall sings in fine form, though her emotions are forced or outright lacking during scenes such as the opening party and when she begs Otto to spare Armand. Likewise, Mr. Hanson’s Otto is an archetype and not a character, flat until Marguerite angers him, and we don’t see any of the love he professes - the two are together for convenience. Mr. Ovenden’s Armand fares better, but Ms. Beechey steals the show as conflicted resistance fighter Annette.

The real star, however, is Paul Brown’s glamourous set, evocative of the era’s films combined with Mark Henderson’s sepia toned lighting. While the RZ found himself groaning when he first saw a turntable in use, the designs reminded him more of Rebecca than Les Miz. And yes, the much discussed explosion at the end of the second scene is truly impressive.

Overall, Marguerite is a misplaced love story where the side characters prove more engaging than the principals. There are certainly worse things running in London, and Legrand’s score justifies the cost of tickets. However, the piece isn’t ready for a West End run. Had the RZ seen it in Cardiff or Manchester as an out of town tryout, he’d have said that some focused rewrites could shape things up, but he saw it four days before the London press night. There’s no word on if revisions will continue after the official opening, but Marguerite needs work should there be plans to transfer. As it stands, the show is only OK.

Where: Theatre Royal, Haymarket
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30 until November.
How Much: £25-£60
Concessions: £20 day seats when the BO opens. Seniors can advance book W Matinees for £25, disabled seats are £25 advance bookable. Students £20 stalls/£12.50 upper circle on the day.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £32.50. Treat it like a concert with sets and costumes, it’s just not “there” enough to pay full price, but one can justify half.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ recommends the creative team go across the street to see Brief Encounter as a reminder of how less than ideal characters can be emotionally engaging before going back to revise this show. Couples looking for an evening at something romantic would be encouraged to do the same.

Friday, 16 May 2008

REVIEW: "Never So Good"

Only a master actor like Jeremy Irons could turn a Tory prime minister of lesser regard into a cuddly benevolent - and yet it works so well.

Told as an autobiographical reflection, Never So Good starts as a young Harold Macmillan leaves for the first World War after being expelled from Eton for buggery. Choosing to associate with Catholics and radicals, to the dismay of his domineering society mother, Macmillan is an idealist thrown to the violence and destruction whose legacy still pervades Britain. Wracked by survivor’s guilt, Macmillan’s younger form (Pip Carter) personifies his destroyed idealism through the remainder of the play as the older Macmillan (Irons) enters politics and rises through the ranks of the Conservative party, from his position in Churchill’s cabinet to his eventual succession as Prime Minister despite a cheating wife and orchestrating much of the failed endeavour to reclaim the Suez canal in the 50’s.

As a biography, Never So Good is quite a success - the characters are interesting throughout, and we see the seedier side of the upper classes (always entertaining). As theatre, Never So Good also makes good on its name, as director Howard Davies keeps the play exciting and from feeling its 2 hr 40 minute length, despite telling forty years of story, as it hits only the keynotes and highlights. A certain West End musical which the RZ is set to re-review next week could learn quite the lesson here. Time jumps are represented in musical interludes, as Macmillan goes from party to party and the music and fashions change even if his tux doesn’t. The practice of holding dialogue between younger and older incarnation allows the audience into Macmillan’s thought process in a naturalistic manner.

That said, Irons does take his portrayal a bit far, under-enunciating at times though it is clearly a character choice as it comes and goes depending on if he’s addressing the audience or other characters as his not-much-younger self. A comment at the end that audience members can google a certain internet bookseller for copies of Macmillan’s autobiography is also out of place, and a disappointing way to end an otherwise solid play.

In all, it’s none too surprising that the RZ liked this play given that he reads non-fiction for fun and studied quite a bit of history as an undergrad. While others may be turned off by the work’s subject matter or right wing political leanings (the National being known for generally leaning left-ward), there’s really not much to complain about with this piece. It’s well constructed, mature theatre that makes no aspirations to brilliance but also refuses to compromise its integrity - much like Macmillan himself.

Where: National Theatre/Lyttleton
When: In repertoire until 14 August. Check the website for dates and times.
How Much: £10-£41
Concessions: Day seats and standing room available for £10 when the BO opens, standby for £15 90 min. before the show, student tickets for £10 60 min. before the show.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30 for a well done, classy piece by the National that sadly falls short of amazingness.
RZ Other Notes: Much of the run is sold out, but tickets do resurface on the National’s website. They’re also not kidding about the quantity or quality of the strobe light and sudden loud noises when issuing warnings, though these affect the two pre-interval acts only.

Monday, 12 May 2008

REVIEW: "King Lear"

“I was young and foolish then.
I feel old and foolish now.”
--They Might Be Giants

Springtime in England means pleasantly warm, breezy days, cricket matches, and for the artistic, a new season at Shakespeare’s Globe. Part legit theatre with a focus on both new writing and the classics, part tourist attraction, and part educational outreach, the Globe has faced its fair share of controversy from the artistic press in the past.

That said, the only controversy surrounding this year’s season opener, King Lear, is the Globe’s choice to promote it as “Shakespeare’s Greatest Tragedy.” Is it because Hamlet or Macbeth are greater?


It’s because the Globe’s Lear is pretty damn funny. Lines are played to the maximum comedic effect (gaining a response from the audience), undermining the tragic path of the title character and those surrounding him. Despite the high body count, it’s easier to laugh at the lines about the difficulties of marriage and Edmund’s dilemma of engaging Goneril and Regan at the same time than to get through the detached veneer director (and artistic director) Dominic Dromgoole has hidden the text behind. The RZ wonders if he would have cared or felt anything when Lear loses Cordelia if the aforementioned tonal issues, well, weren’t. Had the comedy been cut back after the interval, the shift would have gone a long way towards reminding the audience that this isn’t a happy play, even if the characters (including the dead) get up and dance during the curtain call. Instead, the whole thing plays out as a nasty episode of Footballer’s Wives.

Combine this with Trystan Gravelle (Edgar) and Daniel Hawksford (Edmond) blowing through no less than seven accents each, one can easily see what the RZ thinks of how this production was staged. As it stands, he’s still not sure if Gloucester’s sons are Welsh, Scottish, or even from Gloucester. All he knew was that Edmond must be the villain as he had the most attractive costume (as villains are wont to do - evil comes with style.)

David Calder is a cuddly Lear, though he mumbles his way through the first act and was overpowered by a chorus of drums and rain sticks during the storm scene. Joseph Mydell is far more regal is Gloucester, and Paul Copley is a wonderfully crotchety Kent. The RZ suspects, however, that Pamela Hay got lost on her way to Lord of the Rings, as she stands above the action moaning and wailing out ballads in Middle English like a cat whose tail is being slowly cut open.

This isn’t to say that this Lear doesn’t feature some successful moments, as it does, but the Globe’s production is by no means the tear-jerker that it claims to be.

Where: Shakespeare’s Globe
When: In repertoire until 17 August. Performances at 14:00 and 19:30, check the website for booking days and details.
How Much: £5-£33
Concessions: None.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5. The RZ is not a Shakespeare fan and got more entertainment out of watching planes fly by, monitoring the audience, and enjoying a spring evening outside than from the actual play.
RZ Other Notes: Standing in the yard at the Globe is fun, and it’s easy to bring in your own snacks/drinks. Patrons should definitely bring water, especially on warm and humid days. Patrons in the yard can come and go as they please to use the loo, get drinks, sit on the benches overlooking the Thames, etc. The full runtime is 185 min. including the interval after act three. While the RZ isn’t enamoured by the play, he found the first half mostly interesting, though found himself bored quickly by acts four and five. Anybody who says Shakespeare doesn’t need a dramaturge is lying.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

THOUGHTS: Jerry Herman's Broadway

To sum it up in a single word, Sunday's tribute concert to Jerry Herman (benefitting Crusaid) was...well...nice.

The songs were nice, traditional Broadway songs that made their composer a legend for a reason. Hearing two new songs from Jerry Herman's current work in progress was extremely nice. The four main singers (Melissa Errico, Sal Viviano, Ron Raines, Klea Blackhurst) were nice and well chosen, if not awe-inspiring, and our host for the evening, Ms. Angela Lansbury herself, exudes niceness and charm (and looked far better than she had when the RZ saw her in Deuce last summer). It was nice to hear the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Don Pippin, original conductor from Mame) playing these songs as they were meant to be, without relying on a pair of synths and sounding properly lush. The Capital Voices were nice as backing singers, though they overpowered the lead at times. The lighting wasn't so nice, nor were the sound flaws, but these events have limited time in the venue and are to be expected.

Was it disappointing that Jerry Herman himself (unfortunately ill) and Barbara Cook couldn't make it as advertised? A bit. And while this won't go on the RZ's list of all-time memorable theatre evenings (like the Library of Congress's 2006 tribute to Jonathan Larson was), he certainly felt he got his money's worth, and was disappointed at the number of empty seats in the upper circle (he was able to move from rear house on the side aisle to not-as-rear house dead centre with a half-empty row in front of him) as well as on the other levels.

Where: London Palladium
When: One-off. 4 May 08.
How Much: £15-£175
Concessions: None. Charity gig.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": Whatever you feel a worthy donation to a good cause is.
RZ Other Notes: Angela Lansbury may be in her 80's, but she still justifies any ticket price and sparkles more onstage than most of the young thangs the crowds fawn over these days and. Eden Espi-who?

Monday, 5 May 2008

REVIEW: "Branded"

Green issues are a hot topic these days, affecting every level of governmental policy from transit to trash pick up. The corporate world is equally affected, with the growing fairtrade movement and an increased awareness of where and how the things we take for granted are being produced.

Unfortunately, such themes rarely translate into good theatre. Last fall’s Water at the Lyric Hammersmith was a creative attempt, but weighed down under a overly-complicated story and falling victim to its engaging but distracting design. Branded, penned by Simon Bent (Elling) for the Old Vic’s New Voices programme, suffers in a similar way, except it’s far worse.

Played out by a cast of 50 enthusiastic amateurs (easily the best part of the show - no joking), Branded takes us through the issues surrounding a pair of shoes. Hippie company owner Benjamin doesn’t wear shoes (they’re thought-constricting), but he does like the idea of selling out to an evil American tycoon who uses Chinese sweatshop labour that hires consultants to get them through not-so-surprise inspections. A group of youths who ditch school and live off of KFC kill another over his shoes and run into Heathrow expansion protesters while on the run. And OMG these shoes are entirely constructed of recycled materials in the EU with no carbon footprint. The plot is the issues, leading to a preachy performance that feels all of its 90 minutes.

At least the hip-hop interludes which provide some nice dancing and no dialogue are enjoyable - everything else is preachy and surrounded by Lorna Heavey’s overkill quantity of projections and video monitors (as with Water - why do “green” themed shows use so much electronic kit?) and the opening features some of the shakiest video ever shot, projected on the show curtain. If Blair Witch made your nauseous, the sequence here will as well. Of course, as a mention to identity and understanding that we, the audience, are part of the cog, everybody is filmed coming into the auditorium as well.

There is one final upside to Branded: all the tickets were free, so the only thing lost was an evening. And, in all fairness, it was nowhere near as bad as Gone With The Wind. However, until the environmentalists learn from political theatre’s past and create engaging works that inform without bludgeoning the audience over the head with the conceptual cricket bat, the genre will remain consistently weak.

Where: Old Vic
When: Closed
How Much: Free
Concessions: N/A
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: N/A. He’d have been upset if tickets were over a tenner, though.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ’s green-friendly housemate had an excellent suggestion for fixing the issues with Heathrow expansion: raze Luton to the ground and shift London’s primary airport functions there.