Wednesday, 25 June 2008

REVIEW: "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only"

The RZ has a flight out of Gatwick to catch at a painfully early time in the morning, so he will simply paraphrase [title of show]:

"Describe Jay Johnson: The Two and Only in 40 words or less."

This show fucking rocks.

Where: Arts Theatre
When: Until 28 September. Tu-Sa @ 19:30
How Much: £25-£35
Concessions: None, but 2 for 1's and £10 discounts abound during previews.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £35 for Tony-winning entertainment that knows not to outstay its welcome.
RZ Other Notes: Seriously. This show is very funny with some touching bittersweet moments. See it.

Friday, 20 June 2008

REVIEW: Forever Plaid/The Woman in Black

This week, after spending days going in and out of his classmates’ festival of new experimental works, he decided to spend his leisure evenings taking in a pair of the city’s older offerings.

While the current production of Forever Plaid at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is new, the show itself is anything but, having become a mainstay of the American community and regional scene. Premiering in the early 90’s and loaded with nostalgic doo-wop crooners, Plaid is the story of a clean cut 50’s boy band who were killed in a traffic accident on their way to their first professional concert when their Mercury convertible was sideswiped by a bus full of parochial schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles. Given one chance to perform their show before crossing over, the band talk of girls, friendship, and music in between twenty-odd tracks. The plot is even thinner than in most jukebox musicals, but the concert setting makes it work.

It also helps, of course, to have a cast in fine voice (we do), and director John Plews’ addition of choreography (by daughter Racky) to what is in the US a staid, almost motionless performance, does wonders to make the material accessible to a nation who, in Mr. Plews’ words, never got what Plaid was. When discussing the show with him during the interval, plaid bands didn’t dance but coloured groups did. Whether intentional or not, the added subtext of breaking form adds a new dimension to the title band’s failures at success. Regardless of the subtext, Forever Plaid provides a calm, pleasant evening’s entertainment - and sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.

The Woman in Black, meanwhile, has been a West End juggernaut, currently in its nineteenth year. While it lives up to its reputation when it comes to scaring girls on the many (many) school groups who visit, the RZ found it more of a suspenseful evening than an outright frightening one. Perhaps it was his position in the upper circle, or just too much time watching Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. Either way, the play is still in fine form, with Sean Baker playing a wide berth of secondary characters and Ben Porter taking on Baker’s meta-character who must live out the vicious ghost story that unfolds. With the Japanese cast coming in September, the RZ sees a return visit on the horizon to see if better seats and a cross-cultural approach can build a new addition onto this old mansion of a play.

Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse
When: Until 22 June. Sa @ 20:00, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £12 Sun/£15 Sat
Concessions: £10/£12
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12. Fun, enjoyable show.
RZ Other Notes: Props to UatG for £1 programmes (printed onsite to demand) and £1 ice creams making an interval treat affordable should one not wish to run to the pub below.

Where: Fortune Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 20:00, Tu @ 15:00, Sa @ 16:00
How Much: £13.50-£39
Concessions: £25 seniors/£20 students and unemployed available 1 hr prior to curtain.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £22.50 - closer is better with this one but it’s not worth the top two prices in the RZ’s opinion. The show is frequently at TKTS, though, so get it there for half.
RZ Other Notes: No, there’s not an uncredited actress. Really.

Friday, 13 June 2008

REVIEW: "Betwixt!"

Did you like Stardust? What about Wicked? If the answer is “yes” to either, you have just over a week left to run to the King’s Head for what the RZ has been searching for since arriving in the UK: A solid, clever, and entertaining new British musical.

Utilising a hybrid of children’s theatre devices and grownup maturity, Betwixt! starts with fantasy novelist Bailey (Stephen Fletcher) having one hell of a day. His girlfriend is leaving, hype for his new book is rising, his agent is pushing a film, and he’s stuck in the middle with writer’s block. Just when things can’t get worse, a male version of Sally Bowles appears in the form of out-of-work actor Cooper (Ian MacFarlane, the author). When a mysterious door arrives, the two cross into a fairy tale world with adult consequences. As prophesy demands, the hero and the queen from another world are entrusted to save the prince, swapped with a real world twin, and charged to destroy an evil enchantress, the two encounter a world of colourful characters with comedic circumstances.

And what a crazy cast we have. Ex-Maria contestant Abi Finley spends most of the show as a disembodied head, and Amanda Symonds gets to chew the limited scenery as both the villainous enchantress Langwidere and her sister the Nymph Queen. Should rumours of Xanadu transferring to London come to fruition, the RZ strongly suggests casting Ms. Symonds in the Mary Testa role.

From a design standpoint, the King’s Head doesn’t offer much to work with, but the team make it work, with the exception of sound. Yes, despite being unmiked, the show can get painfully loud at times, mostly during the big end-of-act numbers when everybody is belting over the band. Or perhaps the RZ just has sensitive hearing and needs to sit further back than the third row - who can tell?

Otherwise, there’s very few negative points that the RZ can make about Betwixt! The “real world” setting would be just as nice in London as NY (perhaps Mr. MacFarlane is actually an American?) and the show pushes the family-safe boundary with some post-watershed language and graphic choreography, but the RZ doesn’t have children to worry about so parents should judge for themselves if it’s safe for theirs. And while the score wasn’t immediately running through the RZ’s head on the way out of the theatre, it certainly charmed him enough to try and find friends to return with before the closing.

In short? Tongue-in-cheek fantasy is in right now, and if you like the genre Betwixt! will leave you charmed from the first scene. While it will never be a gigantic West End blockbuster, Betwixt! has a clear future in regional and community productions. See it while you can.

Where: King’s Head Theatre
When: Until 22 June, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £20 Unreserved, £25 Reserved
Concessions: £17.50 Unreserved or phone/come to the box office and use the booking code “goldfish” to get tickets for £15.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20 for a solid show, and the view is good everywhere in the theatre. Unless you really have a favourite spot, the £5 reserved seating premium isn’t worth it.
RZ Other Notes: Baily and the Nymph Queen. It may be a strictly by-the-book comedy poof moment, but it’s still riotous.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

REVIEW: "Oxford Street"

The RZ had meant to catch Levi David Addai’s testament to retail hell when it played at the Royal Court, but time and money failed to align with the requisite constellations. Fortunately, he received a second chance when the Royal Court announced a limited transfer to the Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Would sitting in a storefront watching retail workers complain add great depth and realism to the work?

Not really, though it did add quite a bit of atmosphere, though the choice of Elephant and Castle is an odd one. For non-London readers, Oxford Street is a busy, middle class street loaded with major shops. If you’re on the Tottenham Court Road side, you’ll get Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastore), Topshop, SportsDirect, and others. As you approach Oxford Circus you get some posher options, including the Regent Street Apple Store about a block away. Head further west toward Bond Street and you have all the major department store flagships minus the ultra high end Harrods and Fortnum & Mason. Elephant and Castle, on the other hand, features such offerings as Tesco, Iceland, something resembling a Sylvan Learning Centre, Poundstretcher (not a pound store but a discount retailer nonetheless), a mattress liquidator, some money wiring stands, and a bingo hall. Were it not for the presence of a WH Smith's, E&C would classify as what one of the RZ's best friends terms a "ghetto mall," or a mall that fails to attract a demographic with enough education and income to support the presence of a bookstore.

In other words, the people who shop there are more like the employees in the play’s shop, sparring over who gets £6.22/hr vs. £6.13, than the shop’s customers who can somehow afford £40+ for official football shirts and ungodly sums for trainers. Pleasantly, it looks like that demographic came out in droves for the play. Unfortunately, the RZ found himself wishing they’d been able to have something better.

The problem, with doing a retail based play, though, is that it will inevitably be compared to the ultimate disgruntled service worker film, Clerks. While Oxford Street doesn’t try to reach the former's humourous heights, it also doesn’t seem to try very hard at doing anything new with the genre either. College grad Kofi is miserably slumming it as a security guard, passing jokes with disgruntled Loraina to make the days go by while first generation immigrants Emmanuel and Alek bemoan Kofi’s spoiled British attitude and comparatively poor work ethic. When new employee Darrell comes to the store, everything seems fun at first: he gets on well with the boss and his coworkers, and even knows Kofi from their school days. However, Darrell’s past as an unsavoury character remains much of his present, and when he expects Kofi to assist with a shoplifting scheme halfway through the show, it’s easy to guess where everything’s going.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some funny or sharply pointed moments (two thwarted hoods changing course for the Trocadero) but there’s no real depth to the text - everybody is playing to archetype and there’s little to no emotional backing to the characters. As a result, the RZ found himself checking a neighbour’s watch every 5-10 minutes during the second half, waiting for the inevitable so the play could end.

Addai also throws in enough London geographical and landmark references to rival Kevin Smith, but whereas Smith’s lines are easily discarded, Addai’s carried more importance in the RZ’s mind, perhaps because he (and most of the audience) caught them. Whether the play could work outside of London without significant localisation is a tricky question to answer.

Fortunately, the highly diverse and talented cast give it their all. Cyril Nri is both paternal and professional as head guard Emmanuel, and Kristian Kiehling has straight-faced Alek down to a T. Amelia Lowdell makes the most of underwritten boss Stephanie, attempting to keep her slacker store-fronters on task. Likewise, Dawn Walton wisely keeps her cast and sets moving in a cross-traverse staging and Soutra Gilmour managed to find comfortable stools for 100.

It’s hard to say whether or not Oxford Street is worth the trek to South London, especially since the only remaining tickets are a limited number sold at the door. The production’s atmosphere is fantastic, and it’s hard to go wrong at the heavily subsidised price, but audiences should go in expecting a messy end - something not usually recommended.

Where: Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre (via Royal Court)
When: Until 14 June. Fr/Sa @ 17:00 and 20:00
How Much: £8, cash only at the door, limited tickets remain.
Concessions: None.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £8 for the atmosphere and the better scenes. Addai has potential as a playwright, but his work’s not quite there yet. However, most things are worth seeing for under a tenner.
RZ Other Notes: First and foremost, make sure you bring small change with you as the only toilets are the pay variety (20p). Second, the storefront (a converted jobs centre) is not air conditioned, and there was a wave of people rolling up sleeves and creating makeshift fans around an hour in (of 90 min. total.) Drinks are not allowed, so have some water or ice cream before you take your seat and hope for the best. The best seats in the RZ’s opinion are on the right side from the entrance regardless of whether you face the wall or the shop window.

Friday, 6 June 2008

REVIEW: "Love"

Ladies and Gentlemen, the trainwreck express is now calling at the Lyric Hammersmith.

After delivering the critically acclaimed Metamorphasis, Iceland’s Gisli Örn Gandarsson and Vikinguk Kristjánsson return to London with a jukebox musical about finding a sweetheart in your 70’s. Packed with more pop-rock standards than a 90’s school disco, Love is a saccharine, predictable mess of a show redeemed only by its charming cast and “Springtime for Hitler”-esque moments of jaw dropping hilarity. Spoilers follow, as Love’s “brilliance” needs to be described in depth to be appreciated.

The show begins (officially, not including an in-character choir session) as a City banker drops off his widow mother at a care home as she can’t tend to her broken arm in the country. Upset about the lack of a private room and confused by all the singing going around, there’s some bickering with nasty nurse Lutka before everyone agrees to try things for the weekend. As our heroine (whose name the RZ can’t remember - but hey, neither could Michael Billington or Charles Spencer and the show’s website doesn’t say) gets settled, she comes across a seemingly spry fellow named Neville. The two quickly fall for each other, and decide to escape into the city rather than face the home’s poor choice of dinner option. We follow them to the Lyric Hammersmith theatre (how clever!) where they see a parody of Chekhov and disappear into the night.

As the second act begins, the mildly amusing but impact-less show takes a turn for the nearest brick wall. The police are at the home, and our City banker returns, berates his mother for being unfaithful to her husband and making him worry before demanding she pack and be ready to leave in the morning. Instead she winds up sleeping with Neville and we get the mandatory “walking-in” scene including a naked man in his sixties (seventies?). When Mr. Banker’s mother holds her ground, the son is sent off through a musical mess of choir practice similar to the first act closing in The Mikado. The protagonist then asks Neville to move to the country with her, but he hesitates before beginning to pack his bags. Our narrator figure (who lives at the home with his mute wife) warns Neville that it won’t work, but he doesn’t care. He prepares to leave and, as our heroine emerges from her room, suffers a massive breakdown from dementia, backed by an Alzheimer’s patient singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

Yes, you read that right. A character suffers a breakdown and an ordinarily mute Alzheimer's patient starts singing David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

Anyways, the woman decides that she’ll see her new love back to mental health and remain with him in the home. Neville does recover, but, as in all fictional relationships involving old or diseased participants, it’s just in time to die for no obvious reason.

Oh, there’s also a subplot about a man attempting (and failing) to woo our main character’s roommate as he walked out on her thirty years prior and wants to start again.

The cast, mostly Hammersmith locals, try their best, and do their best to win over the audience despite the dreadful material. Börker Jónsson’s set, however, is problematic to view from the stalls, as it is composed of low walls (think half height cubicles) to make up the various bedrooms, and it’s difficult to see the cast when they’re behind them and sitting down, which is a good part of the show. Natasha Chivers’s lighting fares better, making good use of a star curtain and an impressive at first but overused light up bouquet of flowers.

It’s hard to really say whether or not the RZ liked Love. He found it extremely funny, for the wrong reasons, yes, but it did actually hammer home a point that people tend to forget - senior citizenss are adults and it’s not fair that we frequently treat them like children, be it out of misconceptions or as revenge for the injustices of our own childhoods. However, the message comes across with all the subtlety of a chainsaw, and the frequently uninspired song choices (including a scene clearly inspired by last year’s TV broadcast of octogenarians singing The Who’s “My Generation,” shamelessly copied here) don’t help. The RZ wouldn’t have had such a problem if Love was merely sympathetic, as sympathy, nostalgia, etc. are universals, but the book is so saptastic that it’s difficult to feel any real emotion.

In the end, it’s unlikely that most people will love Love, and the more you approach the cast’s average age or consider yourself a romantic, the more you’re likely to be sympathetic towards its flaws. For the rest of us, Love is a mercifully short (95 min. including interval) diversion good for a few mean-spirited laughs.

Where: Lyric Hammersmith
When: Until 21 June. M-Sa @ 19:30, 14/21 June @ 14:30
How Much: £13-£27
Concessions: Subscribers, locals, and young company members can get tickets for £5. Some nights are all seats for £9, which is also the student/under-25 rate. All other concessions £10.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £9 for curiosity’s sake. See this before Troilus and Cressida.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ had the fun of getting to the theatre the same night that the tube was thrown into chaos due to the unexploded WWII bomb near Bromley.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

CATCHING UP: The Common Pursuit, GWTW+LotR Revisited

(Classwork, laziness, and more have kept updates from regularity. However, since the RZ is going to a new musical tonight, it means getting old reviews out of the way.)

First off, the first time visit. The RZ had an opportunity to catch The Common Pursuit last week at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and found himself straddled on the critical fence the general spectrum of professional reviewers ended up creating. On the one hand, this is a traditional, well meaning play about what it means to hold to your ideals in the face of financial necessity, but on the other it’s very...well...upper-class, academic, and English. Telling the story of six Cambridge friends who form a literary magazine before going their separate yet linked ways in adulthood, The Common Pursuit hits the ideas of selling out and the decline of heroism, and is packed with excellent actors...but the RZ found himself wondering, despite his enjoyment, why it needed a second hour - short of the third act plot twist (itself outside the major themes) it’s blatant where everything is going by the interval.

Second, the long awaited commentary and space to potentially eat one’s words. The RZ was offered some free tickets to revisit Gone With The Wind a couple weeks ago, and took his source (not working on the production) up on the offer. So how is the show after all the cuts have been made?

Still pretty disappointing, but . The most painful bits are gone, and the runtime is almost comfortable, though a few embarrassing lines remain (see the first preview report re: soldiers and sex.) Madeleine Worrall’s Melanie is still shrill and annoying, and the cast still don’t have anything resembling realistic accents. On the upside, the music is better the second time around, though the RZ remains hard pressed to remember most of it, and the burning of Atlanta finally has a half-decent effect. In the end, though, the second act still dragged and the RZ left with a headache which means he doesn’t feel good enough about the fixed edition to actually recommend anybody except die hard chick-flick fans go and see it.

Last, the RZ went with a group of friends to take in Lord of the Rings one more time before it closes in July. Despite being a few minutes late thanks to’s overly tight dinner+show reservation times, his group found themselves comfortably seated in the rear stalls (not a bad upgrade from upper circle). Visually, LotR is still one of the best things in the West End, a lush parade of mechanics and lights the likes of which won’t be seen again for years. Unfortunately, the show didn’t seem as tight the second time, and the RZ felt detached from the story and characters. Perhaps it was distraction from the late arrival or the general half-empty atmosphere of the theatre, but things just didn’t click on a return visit. That said, fans of visual theatre would be wise to get tickets before Middle Earth vanishes next month.

Where: Menier Chocolate Factory
When: Until 20 July. Tu-Sa @ 20:00, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £22.50 general admission
Concessions: £18, limited availability
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £18. The RZ liked it, but didn’t love it.
RZ Other Notes: The staging is rather innovative, involving a sliding set that makes the Menier auditorium feel like the TARDIS. On the other hand, it means seats on the extreme right are obstructed as a wide portion of the stage is draped off.

Where: New London Theatre
When: Until 14 June. M @ 19:00, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £27.50-£60
Concessions: None officially, but word is that top price seats can be purchased on the day for £25 at the box office.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10 if you love the book/film/Jill Paice/Darius Danesh’s hairy chest
RZ Other Notes: The producers wised up and pulled the plug on this one. Had the show the RZ saw in June been the first preview, he’d have probably been more sympathetic, as would the critics as the show now is in a state where it can be turned into something adequate vs. being dreadful.

**No changes since the RZ’s full review. He does suggest, however, that those looking to go on the cheap book early in the week and buy in the balcony or upper circle - you are all but guaranteed a bump down to the first circle or stalls.**