Thursday, 31 July 2008

REVIEW: "Big Bruvva: The Musical"

First there was Jerry Springer: The Opera. Then there was Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision. And now, a hybrid has emerged in Big Bruvva: The Musical as six wacky characters compete for the audience’s text message vote in this entertaining yet weak-toothed satire of reality television, recently performed at Upstairs at the Gatehouse and soon running at this year’s Edinburgh festival.

The idea behind Big Bruvva is solid enough: As their final challenge, the housemates must act out their day as a 55 minute musical before the audience votes the winner. There are confessionals/butter churning sessions aplenty, as the characters make their confessions to an increasingly snarky and sadistic Big Bruvva.

And what of these characters? Well, they’re everything you expect: the narcissistic pretty-boy, the anorexic bimbo, the gangsta, the moron, and the sexually ambiguous hermaphrodite with an agenda. And this is where the problems emerge. When Jerry Springer used these characters, it portrayed both a sense of knowing exploitation on behalf of Jerry the character, but also a look at the motivations behind what makes cheating diaper fetishists want to reveal themselves on national television. Big Bruvva lacks this emotional involvement, in part due to runtime, keeping everything (and everybody) on the surface: there are no hidden motivations for the housemates, merely a desire to be famous and shout at each other on TV. A bigger disappointment, however, is just how little it matters who wins at the end. Unlike in Eurobeat which changes its ending number and jokes accordingly, Big Bruvva has each person singing the same song.

Depth (or lack thereof) aside, Big Bruvva is a lot of fun. While the evening’s biggest laugh came from a meta-joke (of which there are many...jokes about musicals being musicals are getting old...), there are lots of chances for the audience to smile and chuckle. The songs are on the simple side, but complex doesn’t always mean better and they serve this type of material well - a chorus here and a verse there were stuck in the RZ’s head, which fulfils the “hum it on your way out” requirement. The cast aren’t amazing, but there’s a limit to what you can get on a fringe budget, but that’s matched by paying fringe prices. See it if you’ve got a free slot at the fringe or want something to wake you up after hours of pretentious straight plays or foreign high schoolers butchering a plethora of established and decidedly non-fringe musicals. Fun, fast moving fluff, and it’s meant in the best way possible.

Where: Edinburgh Fringe Festival
When: Check your fringe guide
How Much: Ditto
Concessions: Same
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £7.50
RZ Other Notes: Unlike Eurobeat, you text your votes to a proper mobile number so you aren’t surcharged for it. Also, keep an eye on the video screens beforehand for cameos by ex-Big Brother contestants.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

REVIEW: "Counterfeit Skin"

(Two more to go after this one...gotta keep ‘em rolling)

The problem with being an American these days is that sex dramas are just so droll unless they have graphic masturbation onstage being performed by barely legals singing profane lyrics. The reason for this? Savage Love. For the British readers out there who have no idea what Savage Love is, it’s the ultimate sex advice agony aunt. Dan Savage, a gay man from Seattle, writes it, and along the way he encourages people to explore their fetishes, cheat occasionally (and honestly), and to keep a good sex/love/other stuff balance in relationships. Counterfeit Skin, currently running at the Courtyard, is a big Savage Love letter where everybody ignores what would be Dan’s advice. Were the play a letter to the column, it would look something like this:

Dear Dan,

I’m an unemployed gay man in my mid-20’s living with my gay godfather and long term boyfriend of about two years. Over the past few months, our relationship has become stale, as I find we’ve become almost brothers, and it’s affected my desire to have sex with him. I’ve told him that I want to explore new things - some light BDSM, some roleplaying - but he refuses to because he’s afraid he’ll hurt me while I’m tied up and wants love and flowers, but not sexual spontaneity. Meanwhile my godfather has started sleeping with his male receptionist who’s an ex-hooker. He’s started showing some interest in me and is willing to fulfil my sexual needs. I really want some hard fucking, but I don’t want to lose what I have with my boyfriend. He cares a lot despite incessant nagging, and I can see us together forever.

Now, what the column would suggest (albeit more succinctly written):

Your boyfriend needs to grow a pair and buy some rope. Being in a relationship means being GGG (good, giving, and game) for each other, and if he wants some hugs and cuddles you need to give in to that, but he also needs to be there when you want to be whipped in front of the milkman. Be open about it, and come to terms with this, because otherwise you’re setting yourselves up for a life of sexual misery or a vicious breakup - one which will come if you start shagging this gold digging hooker on the side. As far as your godfather is concerned, he needs to DTMFA - family are off limits.

What actually happens in the play:

Everybody whinges on and on about being miserable, how you can have a gay relationship with hot sex or tender love, how everybody is disappointed in the protagonist for being a whinging prat, and he fucks the snooty whore as the godfather starts making advances on his other receptionist, a Welsh twink who wants to be a fashion designer.

They also play the song “Little White Lie” by Temposhark during every scene change, the curtain call, and when people are let back in at the end of the interval, making for at least ten if not fifteen times that snippets of Linkin Park wannabes assault the audience’s eardrums. It’s a wretched song and made the RZ want to kill the sound designer by the end of the play.

Besides the “we can see everything going to shit” plotlines, the writing is decent enough, though nobody’s particularly likeable, and it does a passable job of confronting the issues of relationship identity in the gay community if not modern Western culture in general. With the internet making it easier than ever to have a quick screw on the side or seek out partners for flings and long term relationships, questions of monogamy and the importance of sex in a committed partnership are at the forefront now more than ever.

Now if only they’d change that damn song...

Where: Courtyard Theatre
When: T-Su @ 19:30
How Much: £16 General Admission
Concessions: £12
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £8. It’s decent and there’s nice eye candy if you’re looking for it, but the plotting is thin and obvious.
RZ Other Notes: Savage Love is also available (and highly recommended) in podcast form (RSS here) as well as written.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

REVIEW: "I, Lear" & "The Female of the Species"

(A quick catch-up post. Still two plays behind after this one.)

Mid-late July isn’t exactly what the RZ would deem the best time to open a new show in the West End. With special events (the Proms) going on, local festivals (Chichester) taking place, and the entire industry gearing up for Edinburgh, the West End looks a bit haggard and unappealing. Nevertheless, new plays are still coming in (musicals seem to be on hold for a bit), so here we go.

I, Lear is a two-hander from award winning comedy duo Black Sheep. A Reduced Shakespeare-meets-39 Steps look at the theatre canon (“We’re going to do the best of British Theatre.” “I think you mean the best of theatre.” “Like I said, the best of British Theatre, such as Brecht and Chekhov.”), you can already guess what to expect and if you’ll like it. There’s the standard unevenness of sketch plays (the Brecht sequence is brilliant, the Sherlock Holmes one not so much) and a heaping dose of slapstick used to demonstrate the “techniques” required in acting.

The whole thing, as the title suggests, culminates in an abridgement of King Lear, easily the best segment, and the parts which dragged on earlier come back in a way which proved legion: better in the whole than on its own. At 75 minutes, I, Lear is the sort of thing you get a right laugh out of for £5-10 on the fringe, but £20 at Trafalgar seems excessive.

For those seeking out more intellectual fare, the non-air conditioned Vaudeville is hosting its own new one act, The Female of the Species.

Female is the antithesis to the manly I, Lear. Dame Eileen Atkins leads the cast as Margot Mason, a burned out feminist intellectual struggling to get one more book out to pay the mortgage on her new summer home. When a disgruntled ex-student appears and takes Mason hostage, chaos unfolds as Mason’s daughter intrudes on the verge of a breakdown.

The good news is that Female is actually humourous, something Atkins’ last appearance wasn’t. Her character is similar in both - a sharp tongued egotistical matron - but the character works better in this one, as she throws her status and weight around you see that this is a woman who made herself. The supporting cast are uniformly strong, and it’s nice to see a play done without mics in an intimate venue like the Vaudeville.

The bad news is that Joanna Murray-Smith ran out of ideas at the 75-80 minute mark when the play is 100 minutes long. As one might expect given the storyline (there’s a lot of this lately, isn’t there...), feminist theory is thrown around like peanuts at a baseball game, but for most of the play it works because it’s a part of the verbal sparring or sets up something in the plot and/or leads to a joke. The problems emerge when Murray-Smith has written herself into a corner with the daughter sympathising with the intruder (names escape the RZ at this point and it helps minimise spoilers anyway) and her emasculated husband being rather worthless. Turning to tired sitcom formulas, an angry new-man taxi driver is introduced, and this is where the play falls apart: Mr. Driver begins an extended, painfully dry monologue about gender roles and, still failing to resolve the story, Mason’s gay publisher is brought in to offer everybody book deals and bring about a happy ending for all. It’s trite, dull, and in a sweltering theatre, painful.

Where: Trafalagar Studios 2
When: Until 16 August, M-Sa @ 19:45
How Much: £15 on Mondays, £20 all other nights.
Concessions: None
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. Comedy club fare, comedy club price.
RZ Other Notes: Avoid sitting in Row A if you’re in the centre block. In fact, to play it safe, avoid Row A in general. It would be a spoiler to ruin the moment, but let’s just say it involves possible stains.

Where: Vaudeville Theatre
When: Until 4 October, T-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £35-£47.50
Concessions: £20 in advance for Wednesday matinee or 1 hour prior to curtain all other shows.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15. This is a fringe play on steroids which, despite some good performances, badly needs an editor.
RZ Other Notes: It gets hot in the Vaudeville. Really hot. Bring a bottle of water and dress lightly.

Monday, 21 July 2008

REVIEW: "Singalonga Hairspray"


When the RZ saw Ricky Lake shouting this at the TV in high school, he developed an affinity for the Pope of Trash and Baltimore city: any place with this many freaks and weirdos running around MUST be somewhere worth living.

Meanwhile, what started as a campy tribute to The Sound of Music has become a full-fledged business with a number of offshoot titles including Joseph, ABBA, and now Hairspray: the evil remake.

Evil remake, you say? Yes, the RZ finds this film redo of the stage redo of John Waters’ 1988 tale of lovably large ladies in 1960’s Baltimore evil for a number of reasons, least of which the production’s decision to snub Baltimore city itself (where the RZ lived at the time of filming) - an action which caused most if not all of the RZ’s friends to avoid the initial release altogether. The casting of John Travolta as Edna was neither inspired nor comforting, but merely creepy: his head would move but his fat suit wouldn’t, and his mannerisms and accent had neither Divine’s authenticity in the original nor Harvey Feierstein’s warmth, emotion, and wit from the Broadway production.

As far as the trademarked Singalonga experience, it’s a mixed bag. Yes, it’s fun to sing and dance along to the film with 400+ other fans but it also takes on the impression of a bad panto at times, with lame “hold up and turn this card” actions and prescribed callbacks. Treating the film like MST3K or Rocky Horror (another Singalonga product, theirs being the only version in London) with eternal catcalls of increasing rudeness would likely get one attacked by the rabid fangirls in attendance.

The instruction realm takes a painfully long amount of time to clear as well. Unlike in good panto where you get the callbacks as you go or Rocky Horror where you pick them up or improvise, Singalonga smacks you across the face with a 30 minute introduction. The RZ took notes on his shiny new iPhone throughout and will now post his thoughts below:

-They’re playing the OBCR before it starts, not the film OST.
-If you’re going to charge £14.50 for a ticket, don’t show a full set of adverts.
-A hon with an Essex accent is hosting and it doesn’t work.
-They want us to dance along besides singing.
-The press (spec. Mark Shenton of The Stage and his two companions) are the only ones not standing up.
-For Motormouth Maybelle, we’re supposed to make a sound like a sexy pussycat on a motorbike.
-This prompting is like Hairspray: The Panto
-14:17 (started at 14:00) enough prompt commands start the damn film
-Party popper? Fabric strand? These are missing from the RZ’s prop goodie bag.
-And now a cosplay contest.
-The costume standards for the kids are not on par with Lil’ Miss Hon at Honfest.
-Host to catgirl: “Are you at the wrong film?”
-Adults all fail vs. Miss Hon, but darned if they aren’t trying.
-14:30 still more prompting info
-14:35 film finally starts
-Interval after “Welcome to the 60’s”, Mark Shenton flees with his two guests.

As far as the film itself, besides the generic backgrounds (no Baltimore landmarks are shown, such as the Washington Monument, Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, nor any street signs) it’s close enough to pass as Bawlmer for non-Baltimorons, but so much of it felt like the production team wanting to make changes so that it was THEIR film and THEIR version. Tracy doesn’t go to jail here, a major plot point in the prior versions, which lessens the finale’s impact, “Big Blonde and Beautiful” doesn’t hold the punch it does onstage, and the altered ending feels like a concession to political correctness: the anarchy and energy from the original film and the stage version just don’t come across. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad film - it’s certainly a lot of fun - but it’s just not the Hairspray the RZ has come to know and love.

In terms of the Singalonga package? If you’re a die-hard fan of the film (and there were plenty in attendance, including a group of girls sitting behind the RZ who not only sang and danced along but shouted many of the lines with the film), you’ll have a lot of fun here. It’s good, clean fun and were it not for the exorbitant ticket price could be a routine thing to attend in Leicester Square. For those who want a bit more cynicism or kick in their postmodern film-viewing, however, this is not the show for you.

Where: Prince Charles Cinema and on tour in the UK
When: Listings vary. Check the Singalonga website.
How Much: £14.50
Concessions: £10 for kids and seniors.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5.00 for a second run film. If you really want the Hairspray experience, save your money: for the cost of two trips to Singalonga you can see the superior stage version in the West End.
RZ Other Notes: As others suggest, you can recreate the experience (minus the party popper) in your own home for less by buying the DVD and having your friends over. For those who can't get enough of shows like this, word is that Mamma Mia! is next on the agenda. The RZ also suspects that after this review, he won't be getting a press invite for that one.

Sunday, 20 July 2008


(This play is closed now so it gets the quick treatment)

Take a slovenly shelf-stocker, a hyperactive Essex hoodie, and slam them into an apartment with a disgruntled soldier/terrorist/we’re-never-quite-told and blend with a Pinter-esque sense of ambiguous reality. The result? In My Name. Whiny sloppy white loser has been renting his flat to a nervous, uptight Middle-Eastern looking fellow that’s sleeping on the couch when 7/7 hits. When Mr. Uptight starts hearing people talking in Arabic all over, he begins to panic as memories of raping someone’s 11 year old daughter in order to advance an interrogation. Add in the appearance of Mr. Hoodie making a racket, and you get rants about why people want to bomb the country: It stands for nothing anymore and we’re just superficial gadget freaks without beliefs, morals or direction.

The play’s biggest problem (it has many) is that none of the characters are likeable or worth getting behind. When the interval came (one needed to rework the set by shifting everything 1/3 towards stage right), the RZ hoped that all of them would die.

Redeeming qualities? One, namely the crudest game of Guess Who in theatrical history.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 2
When: Closed
How Much: £17.50
Concessions: Good question.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: Doesn’t matter since it’s not open.
RZ Other Notes: Hopefully I, Lear, which the RZ is seeing tomorrow, will fare better.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

REVIEW: "Zorro"

There’s something unsettling about seeing a Spanish driven production of an American pulp fiction hero in a London theatre. And that feeling is independent of the show itself: the last Spanish musical in the Garrick received some of the worst West End reviews in recent history and while Hollywood has made the Zorro character more than he ever was in print, it’s still a troubling jump to bring such an action driven story to the stage.

In a way, the new Zorro reminds the RZ of the recent Robin Hood musical produced in Bremen, Germany. The two share a similar tone and, at heart, storyline: the displaced noble returns to his home (be it Nottingham or colonial California) to become a hero dispensing GREAT JUSTICE against the semi-legitimate ruler. The German Robin Hood had some decent songs and nice cast, but was an overly mediocre affair. Unfortunately, this Zorro isn’t much better.

Opening to a band of Gypsies, the community elder informs us that we are about to hear of legend, and the story begins. The ageing colonial governor Don Alejandro (Jonathan Newth) is beloved by the people, and in his age sends his three children (two surrogate) towards their future: not-quite son Ramon (Adam Levy, resembling Peter Capaldi in Neverwhere) is on the fast track for military leadership, dreamer Louisa (Emma Williams) is to live with an aunt, and Diego (Matt Rawle), the freewheeling heir is packed off back to Spain to study at the military academy before taking over as governor. Three years pass, Diego ran away from the academy, and Ramon has imprisoned the Don and taken over the settlement. Louisa flees to Spain to find Diego, now living with a band of Gypsy entertainers, and the rest is self-discovery I’ll-be-a-hero plotting that’s strictly by-the-book.

Stephen Clark’s book, however, is flawed. For about 95% of the show, Zorro is a larger than life romantic adventure. The other five percent, however, are campy dialogues which serve the plot but derail the tone, as if Clark lacks faith in the story’s ability to keep the audience entertained and needs to joke it up whenever things begin to get too serious. While the camp is amusing in its own right, removing it would be for the better. Also responsible for the lyrics, Clark turns in a set of functional but unamazing ballads leaving most of the choral and dance songs to the Gipsy Kings who write their lyrics in Spanish.

In Spanish. At the Garrick. Again. This is what the RZ refers to as Cabaret disease. When dealing with foreign territories and characters, it’s appropriate nee expected to include some form of localised flavour text, such as referring to people as Señor and Señorita. And while Cabaret gets away with having the occasional song verse or line in German, most shows that try significant foreign language integration fail miserably (see: The Light in the Piazza) and Zorro falls into the latter category. Any time the Spanish kicked in on a song the lyrics ceased to matter and that is not good writing for the musical theatre because it breaks your music-text integration.

But anyway. The music’s good, there’s lots of flamenco dancing by real flamenco dancers, and on an entertainment level, the songs do their duty by preventing boredom. And then there’s the effects. For those mourning Lord of the Rings, Zorro may not offer the sheer presence of money onstage, but there’s plenty of sword fighting (GOOD sword fighting, not the rubbish you see at the Globe or Barbican), fire effects, acrobatics, and magic. Despite the show’s action being scaled down to fit the Garrick’s relatively small stage, there’s been so much disappointing spectacle going around lately that seeing it done well gives the RZ much cause to celebrate: he likes his eye candy as much as anybody.

Last, there are also three acting standouts whom the RZ wishes to address before wrapping up: While Adam Levy’s acting choices aren’t overly original (see above), his ability to play the calm dictatorial bastard is a joy to watch, as the RZ is firmly in the “every story is only as good as its villain” camp. Nick Cavaliere is given a thankless role, as the Sancho Panza-esque Sergeant who attempts and fails repeatedly to woo Zorro’s true star: the fiery Lesli Margherita, making her West End debut as the take-no-prisoners Inez. Ms. Margherita may be given billing on the website under the company vs. the principles, but make no mistake: she is the woman to watch and wipes the floor with all who get in her way.

Despite its flaws, Zorro is shaping up to be a much-needed hit for the Garrick. Tour groups are already making their presence felt, as are a significant number of Spanish visitors if the RZ’s seating neighbours were anything to go by last night. It may not be an amazing show, but at the right price Zorro is a popcorn flick onstage fulfilling all stereotypes of fluffy summer tastes in the theatre.

Where: Garrick Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 15:00
How Much: (Post-preview prices) £35-60, some variance between Fr/Sa and other perfs.
Concessions: A “Fair Access Rate” for M-Th is listed on the website as being £29.50, but didn’t include students when the RZ bought his ticket during previews. Your mileage may vary.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Amusing but not amazing.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ went to Zorro on the cheap and paid £15 for the front row restricted view seats in the upper circle. They were fine as long as the action wasn’t on the front lip of the stage, which is more of a problem in the second act than the first. If you can, book here and move back a row or two or get discounted seats elsewhere. Zorro is also a vertically driven show, so heed all warnings about the rear stalls having overhang problems. Also, the Garrick is not air conditioned. Bring water or expect to buy ice cream at the interval if it’s warm outside.

REVIEW: "Buddy"

Before Mamma Mia! there was Return to the Forbidden Planet. And before Jersey Boys there was Buddy. A jukebox bio-musical ahead of the trend, much like its title character, Buddy has been on the UK theatre scene in some form or another for an impressive 19 years, and shows no sign of stopping as the current West End run continues (having been planned as a six month tour stop and extending twice) while a new tour is set to embark.

Buddy, as the name implies, tells the story of prototype rocker Buddy Holly and his rocket-speed rise to fame and untimely death. In many ways, the show is quite a success: it covers the key time-span in Holly’s career (1956-1959) and makes the man quite likable despite portraying him as a stubborn, selfish workaholic who doesn’t eat and prevents his band from sleeping because something’s just not right with an arrangement. The show moves swiftly from hit to hit and event to event while keeping the audience inline with the turbulence of the times, ending the first act not when the Crickets hit the pop charts, but rather when the band managed to win over an all-black crowd at Harlem’s Apollo Theater despite being four of the whitest people to ever live in Texas in a funny, energetic concert sequence worthy of bringing down the curtain.

Unfortunately, Buddy also suffers from prototype syndrome: the second act is wildly uneven, as we follow Holly’s whirlwind marriage, departure from the Crickets, and fateful tour with the Winter Dance Party. It’s this last event which (tasteless pun unintended) brings everything crashing down. The final evening is dramatised in its full glory, including an extended MC-audience sequence, and the plot grinds to a halt for a 20-30 minute concert yet Holly’s death is passed over in a minute, showing a chair with his guitar, before summoning the undying spirit of rock via Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” and the mandatory encore.

The RZ doesn’t want to imply at any point that he’s ignorant of the fact that Buddy’s selling point is the music - it’s smack you over the head obvious, and people aren’t going because the plot is so intricate and advanced. That said, if the RZ wanted to see a tribute band he’d go to a flat out concert. And boy oh boy could the cast of Buddy put on a great concert. The entire cast double as musicians and make it work. There’s a lot of energy on the stage, and while the RZ would like to single out performers, the cast aren’t listed on the website and as always he didn’t buy a programme. In general, however, he didn’t find any weak points from the performance side.

The design, on the other hand, is weak. The cheap looking, obviously well toured and worn set pieces are wheeled in and out in a way that makes the automation in Jersey Boys even more stunning, even if the rougher methodology makes for a more “rock” atmosphere in line with the uncharted early days, gleefully countered by an eye-attacking set full of commercial images and brands from the era. A video screen for animations is smack dab in the middle of this backing and herein lies a problem: the animations are ultra-smooth, clearly created for video vs. film, and look too modern for comfort, particularly when a flash to a radio broadcast in England uses the current BBC logo and most of the typefaces shown are also too new to be accurate. The resulting effect is out of place and breaks period in an unpleasant and intrusive way.

Where: Duchess Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 15:00
How Much: £35-55
Concessions: Seniors can book matinees in advance for £25, student day seats for £17.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20.50 and you’d be foolish to pay more - Buddy is on tickets for a tenner every weekday and discounts are everywhere.
RZ Other notes: This production was originally supposed to be leaving the Duchess in March to make way for a transfer of Xanadu that subsequently fell through. Having seen the inside of the venue now, the RZ agrees that it would be the perfect home for the quirky American musical, but wonders if, come March 2009, the opportunity or desire will remain.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

REVIEW: "Black Watch"

Folks, let’s be honest for a minute. Does the RZ really need to write a full and proper review for this show? Between it’s Edinburgh, world tour, and now Barbican productions, every critic, blogger, and their dog have written glowing raves (some twice) about Black Watch (whither the Whingers who felt that despite all the pieces being excellent the whole didn’t come together). Adding yet another rave here would seem masturbatory (look at me, I can rave too!) and forced, so he’ll keep this one short:

-Yes, it’s an accurate portrayal of the insanity surrounding active military life.
-Yes, they fucking curse a shitload of times.
-Yes, it’s absolutely brilliant.
-No, it doesn’t matter what the reviews were because the entire run sold out in advance.
-Yes, there is a queue for returns every day.
-No, the Barbican won’t mind if you’re in the first 10 or so people and steal a cafe chair to use.
-Yes, this is actually an entertaining and well made play.
-Yes, it’s really part of BITE, the most pretentious large-scale theatre line-up in London.

And there you have it.

Where: Barbican, Main Stage
When: Until 26 July, M-Sa @ 19:45, Th/Sa @ 14:00
How Much: £25
Concessions: For an altered-stage production at the Barbican? HA!
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. Believe the hype.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ gives the Barbican a hard time in part because until Black Watch he finds the main stage to be a soulless bunker and has only found about a quarter (now around 40%) of the theatre programme he’d seen to be anything but disappointing or hideous. Much of this is due to his populist leanings in the theatre and the BITE programming staff’s desire to be anything but. The film programming is much more egalitarian, however, and the RZ likes the fact that there’s free wifi and recently discovered that the terrace cafe actually offers decent tea and cake, even if they expect an arm and a leg for it.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

REVIEW: "Elisabeth"

Elisabeth is a musical that confuses Americans and Londoners alike. After all, it’s a musical about a great ruler with a common name. However, Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay’s powerhouse is not about either of the British queens, but rather the final Empress of Austria, assassinated in 1867 by an Italian anarchist. Sisi, as she was nicknamed, is a beloved national figure, spurred in modern times by the trilogy of films starring Romy Schneider presenting an idealised life at the palace between the beautiful yet headstrong Empress and her husband, the doting Kaiser.

Reality, however, was quite different. The actual Elisabeth was miserable at court, and publicly mused that getting married at 15 was the greatest mistake in her life. Using her beauty (spurred on by anorexia - she had a 17” waist) and a demanding personality, sparks frequently flew around the palace, especially with the Kaiser’s mother in law. Neglectful of children and self-motivated, it is this truth, combined with a fantastic twist, that drives the musical. While it is acclaimed today as a modern masterpiece, the Vienna critics circle decried the musical for murdering their treasured figure. Unbeknownst at the time, this sharp rebuke of syrupy historical revisionism was just what the public wanted, and Elisabeth ran for five years before closing in 1997 only to be revived for another two years in 2003 - a production the RZ saw multiple times which has since been commercially released on DVD.. Subsequent productions have opened in Japan (it is a mainstay of the Takarazuka Revue as well as the Toho stages, both groups using a different revision), Hungary, Sweden, Finland, and in a restructured edition, Germany. Unfortunately, there has never been an English language production, and given Michael Kunze’s attitudes towards Broadway after the Dance of the Vampires fiasco, the RZ doubts there ever will be.

Why has Elisabeth become such an international phenomenon? Like all good historical musicals, it looks at a conflicted period - in this case Austria between the revolution in 1848 and the years preceding the first World War. The rise of nationalism, Hungarian autonomy, demands for a parliament, and the declining influence of the monarchy in an overextended empire provide a fascinating series of events for a strong lead to manipulate.

Elisabeth adds an additional motivation to the Kaiserin’s actions. When her assassin, Luigi Lucheni, is interrogated in the afterlife about her murder, he claims that she wished to die: she was having a love affair with the personification of Death. When scoffed by the unseen voice, he summons Death and Elisabeth’s contemporaries as witnesses, taking over as a narrator. Death admits that he loved Elisabeth and interfered in her life to bring her closer. Of course, one of the most beautiful and powerful women in Europe would hardly go without a fight, and this conflict lurks in the shadows of her battles at court and for her own freedom in a world which expects her to be a silent figurehead.

Almost entirely sung-through, Sylvester Levay’s music is beautiful and haunting, full of character anthems (“My life is my own,” “Kitsch!” “When I want to dance”) as well as quieter, more intimate moments such as when the Kaiser goes to Elisabeth for comfort, only to be rebuked. His initial plea is tender and impassioned, allowing Kunze’s lyrics (among the best in his career) to gently float to a woman scorned. An intelligent use of reprising prevents any one song from being overheard, but the return of familiar tunes creates a well played web of layers and links throughout.

It is here, however, that the RZ begins to have issues with the Berlin production. While the German productions, courtesy of Stage Entertainment, have always featured a reduced orchestration compared to the Vereinigten Bühnen Wien’s lush originals (unsurprisingly - Stage Entertainment are private while the VBW receive a massive subsidy allowing them to maintain a 40+ person orchestra in their productions), the Berlin production sounds hollow despite the programme listing 28 players - representative of the large orchestras expected in Austrian and German productions. Therefore the RZ suspects the fault may lay with questionable sound design.

Unfortunately, the problems do not stop at the sound. Based on his original Vienna staging, director Harry Kupfer returned to create the low budget touring friendly reduction - and by reduction, the RZ means massive reduction. Gone are the opulent set pieces of the Viennese original and the simple, yet elegant designs of the Essen and Stuttgart productions. In their stead we have a large box and some wing-themed furniture going around on a turntable. There’s also a giant bust of the monarchial eagle hanging over stage right which becomes so forgettable that the RZ wondered what the pieces he saw all over the stage were when it was destroyed in the nightmare scene.

Likewise, theatrical technology has advanced in the 15 years since the original staging, but has done little to assist this production. Traditional backdrops have been replaced by a wall of projections, designed by Thomas Reimer, intersected by mirrored walls at the sides courtesy of designer Hans Schavernoch. Schavernoch is also responsible for painting the Hofburg on the bottom row of projection panels, creating a disjointed look whenever one is raised (which is frequent - most entries are via turntables), made even uglier by the fact that the panels are semi-reflective: when scenes are lit from the side the lighting creates streaks across the projections in a manner that is neither artistic nor intuitive, but crass and sloppy. The action is also reflected in a hazy manner. Intentional or not, the only word the RZ can summon to accurately describe this problem is “ugly.” Reimer’s projections fare little better, ranging from tacky (a gaudy image of the true Sisi in the opening scene, some flying postcards at the beginning of “As one plans and schemes”) to nauseatingly smooth (the Ferris Wheel mechanics in “Nothing is difficult” combined with the real rising cart made the RZ motion sick when he sat in the stalls).

Continuing with the lighting, Hans Toelstede has overlit his cast to extremes: the RZ had trouble making out faces because of how bright the lights were at both performances he saw, each time from a different section of the theatre. On an upside, Yan Tax has provided attractive new costumes (excluding the new Death costumes which are sequined atrocities), but the RZ wonders why: certainly the costumes from the VBW revival are available, as are those from the previous Stage Entertainment edition. The costs associated could have gone towards something useful, such as finding a lighting designer who could make the costumes look good from the audience.

Cast-wise, the Berlin Elisabeth is a mixed bag. One of the key attractions of this production is the well publicised return of originators Pia Douwes (Elisabeth) and Uwe Kröger (Death). The RZ would like to say that both are in excellent form, but he’d be lying if he did - neither performer was present for the two performances the RZ attended. While he is unsure of the circumstances of the former, it was known in advance that the latter would be absent due to a conflicting booking for a concert, and both have taken multiple leaves for alternative engagements. Unfortunately, absenteeism plagues this production across the board: the RZ counted seven understudies or alternates performing on the Saturday night. While not seeing the cast member one wants to is a peril of live theatre, the RZ also believes that one should not take a limited and high profile engagement if one does not plan to attend.

So, on with the alternates. Annemieke van Dam tries her best in the title role, but isn’t there yet. She screeches her belts, and her voice doesn’t make smooth progressions. Her acting is passable, but she lacks presence. The RZ feels the same about the alternate Death, Felix Martin, though Mr. Martin is in far better voice. The RZ also had the opportunity to see the second cover Death, Martin Pasching, who had both the voice and presence to carry the role full time.

Continuing through the principles, Bruno Grassini was in for one performance as the assassin Lucheni, and blatantly phoned it in. Fortunately he was out the next night, and Thomas Hohler brought forth the sarcasm and sharpness needed for the role. Markus Pol does what he can with the underwritten role of Kaiser Franz Joseph, and Oliver Arno is engaging as Kronprinz Rudolf, though he is unlikely to be remembered as one of the greats. Another standout is Norbert Lamia as one of the most disengaged and apathetic actors ever to play Sisi’s father, Max, a role which demands a kindness and closeness to his daughter lacking in its entirety here. The remaining principles and ensemble were acceptable, but little stood out. There is word on the internet of low morale backstage which would go a long way towards explaining what the RZ saw on stage including a number of dropped lines and missed lighting cues at the second performance.

While the critics in 1992 were premature in declaring that Elisabeth killed Sisi, the RZ shall confidently state that this new production is killing Elisabeth. Whereas the Vienna production played two sold out years and the Essen and Stuttgart productions routinely performed to full houses, ticket sales for the Berlin edition are perilously poor: the Theatre des Westens has four levels and the upper two are permanently closed through the production. Tickets are routinely available at Berlin’s half price booth (albeit for 1/3 off in most cases), and even the RZ noticed a plethora of empty rows on a Saturday night. Supposedly this Elisabeth is schedule to tour after completing its Berlin run in September. In the RZ’s mind, the producers should cut their losses and close - a painful statement to make as Elisabeth is one of the RZ’s all time favourite musicals.

Where: Theatre des Westens, Berlin
When: Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:30, Su @ 16:30
How much: €34.39-€103.39 (not including premiums). Prices vary by night, and the price of a first price ticket early in the week will get you a third price ticket on Saturday night. Despite being shown on the seating plan, the two Rang levels (1. Rang and 2. Rang) are not for sale. All seats that ARE available are good, though the RZ would recommend avoiding the side row and the loges.
Concessions: 20% off for students, elderly, unemployed, etc.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: €58. This is enough to get a first tier ticket for Hekticket (the half price booth across the street from Bahnhof Zoo) or a fourth price ticket on Saturday nights. The strength of the material overrides the poor production but only to a point.
RZ Other Notes: This is the first German production of Elisabeth to use the Vienna script, specifically the revision for the 2003 revival. The 2001 Essen and 2005 Stuttgart productions used an alternative edition which restructures the second act, streamlining the plot and clarifying a number of the character paths. In the RZ’s opinion, the Essen edition is superior,but there are those with an affinity for it.

And why would the RZ see a production he didn't like twice in a weekend? For one, he loves the show. For another, he was (unsuccessfully) attempting to engage one of his few remaining fanboy desires and see Pia Douwes in the role that made her famous. Ah well. Bring on Der Schuh des Manitu in December.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

REVIEW: "Vinegar Tom"

(A quick review in between shows. According to Blogspot, this is the RZ's 100th post.)

When the RZ arrived at the oddly posh Cobden Club (in the middle of a not so posh set of housing estates) for the new Gilt and Grime production of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, he was given a free programme with a smile. He smiled back and went into the very nice member’s bar (which he couldn’t afford to go to otherwise), looked at the rather cute and pudgy fish swimming in the tank, and sat down on an all-too-comfortable black leather couch to see what he was in for. To his delight, an acquaintance was the rehearsal stage manager. To his semi-delight and possible trepidation, he proceeded to notice a number of contemporaries and alumni from his fine institution.

As house was opened, the RZ headed for the club’s grand hall, greeted by a pair of usherettes in quite low cut tops and dinner jackets and found a seat on a lovely sofa as the remaining audience filtered into a stylish, mirrored room with low lights and high ambiance.

And then the play began.

For those familiar with the works of Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom is standard fare. It’s militantly feminist, utilises bizarre techniques to grab one’s attention (in this case Brechtian song insertion, frequently led by the usherettes) and keeps things safely under two hours. It also takes a good 15-20 minutes before anything useful happens, and the final scene comes across as uncomfortably tacked on.

Taking a look at 17th century witch hunts, Churchilll uses feminine sexuality as the grounding for her strands of persecution: the village slut, midwife, and widow are all accused and tortured by the end (it hurts the audience as much as the characters), as is a happily married woman who forces a miscarriage in a fit of despair. The hunt is, of course, sparked off by a childless couple who never have sex and are naturally upstanding Christians, despite the husband begging the slut for a lay early on.

Simon Kenny’s sets are minimal, just some white curtains and a wicker chest. Pablo Baz does what he can with the Cobden stage’s minimal lighting capabilities, relying heavily on white, less white, and red to set tones and moods, but the whole thing is mercilessly minimalist, as is Tom Platten’s direction: there’s a massive “I can be more fringe than you” vibe as if edginess comes from flat acting all around, though the exception is Peter Saracen as upstanding dairyman Jack, last seen in You’ve Been A Wonderful Audience. Readers shouldn’t mistake that as a compliment, however, as the RZ found him an obnoxious whinging prat in both. He did, however, enjoy Moya McGinn and Alice Keedwell’s usherettes, and when the cast had to do little but stand and sing they were at their best.

There’s really not much else to say. If you like your political theatre with a sense of the absurd and the brutal, this Vinegar Tom is a must-see. If, like the RZ, you expect a play about sexuality to actually feature something sexy, you’re better off elsewhere.

Where: Cobden Club
When: Until 26 July. W @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:00, 24 Jul special @ 19:30
How Much: £15 General Admission
Concessions: £10
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10 for a chance at the surroundings before the show and varied levels of amusement within.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ may love where he studies, but he also has an open disdain for many of the excesses and traits inherent in the productions. While Gilt and Grime are sharper than the average postgrad production he’s seen this year, the trademarks, for better or worse, are all there.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

REVIEW: "Linie 1"

Fans of political theatre, children’s theatre, and German theatre are all likely to have heard of Berlin’s GRIPS Theatre. One of the nation’s top companies, the GRIPS perform a staggering 15 plays in repertoire, with routine new additions tackling the issues facing contemporary German youth. However, the company’s most famous plays are those dealing head-on with Berlin history: the political play-cum-cabaret Eine Linke Geschichte (A leftist history), about the Red Army Faction, and their first musical, the 1986 Linie 1 (Line 1).

Linie 1 is a tricky play to review, especially for a foreigner. It is billed (and appropriately so) as a “musical revue” directly below the title, though the published scripts and posters have referred to it as a rock musical and “the Berlin musical.” The first and last terms are the most accurate, as it plays closer to a revue (more below) and requires a great deal of knowledge regarding 1980’s West Berlin to fully appreciate. Even visiting German speakers will have a problem following the dialogue in full, as it is written and performed with an extreme usage of Berlin dialect.

Caveats aside, Linie 1 is perhaps one of the most brilliant shows ever written in terms of capturing a zeitgeist: A well meaning and naive girl from the West German provinces runs away from home, seeking out the rock star she fell in love with, upon finding out she’s carrying his child. Unfortunately for her, Berlin is not the gilded paradise she imagined, and when it’s revealed that her lover falsified his address, she wanders around the city, running into and associating with the equally well meaning dregs of society inhabiting the underground stations while her new friends attempt to reunite her with the man who ran. Then again, she may not get to meet him if the area pimp gets to her first, and who is this strange lad in a trench-coat following her around?

To be honest, though, the plot doesn’t really matter. Linie 1 runs over three hours including interval, and the story is often derailed to explore another facet of society through the outsider’s eyes. It takes almost half an hour to wrap up events after the massive plot twist in the second act, and even that is undermined by requiring significant emotional involvement for a character who appeared in a single scene some two hours earlier. Likewise, re-appearances are foreshadowed but fail to materialise at times, and massive leaps of faith are mandatory to handle the conclusion. The ensemble cast of eleven take on a staggering number of characters, with only the central character maintaining a single identity through the evening, creating the detached wonder-bordering-confusion facing those in unknown territory: as soon as the audience get attached to one of our heroine’s encounters, they alight from the train never to be seen again.

This isn’t to say that most of these sequences aren’t interesting - they are - and Volker Ludwig (the company’s driving force as well as the book and lyrics’ author) intentionally designed the show to be a series of sketches versus a traditional book show. However, the RZ feels that some well placed edits could easily streamline 20+ minutes off the runtime and leave the audience with a more emotionally satisfying work.

Our unnamed protagonist's journey comes backed by Birger Heymann’s score, played 22 years on by show band No Ticket's original members (except for a new sax player). The songs are catchy, and despite being blatantly 80’s maintain a freshness and honesty some two decades later. While responsible for driving almost none of the plot, the music provides the introspective view needed to provide pathos from the recurring characters, from the unnamed girl’s excitement in “6:14 Bahnhoff Zoo” to a busker’s bitter song about the capital, the beautiful at heart Maria’s mournful tune (“You’re pretty, even when you cry”) and number featuring the embittered crowd waiting for a train.

Mathias Fischer-Dieskau’s design offers as much as a small thrust stage can, with some clever effects that can only work in a low budget venue like the GRIPS including the proto-MTV method of placing the band on a scrim fronted platform . Yoshio Yabara’s provides the most recent update to the costumes, which retain their period vintage.

Finally, we have the cast. Being an ensemble company, members of the GRIPS come and go through the years, but many have returned to perform in Linie 1. 2007, however, saw a mass exodus, and a new company were promoted on the website. Kathrin Osterode has the voice and the potential, but doesn’t appear to have quite settled into the role (something difficult given Linie 1 only gets 4-5 performances per month). Laura Leyh is more adjusted on her track, which includes the confidant role of Maria. Jens Mondalski is a playful punk, and hanging on after 22 years, Thomas Ahrens and Dietrich Lehmann remain as two homeless elderly who bicker while providing a poignant reminder of those ignored by Germany’s economic dominance in the 80’s.

While it possesses its share of structural flaws, Linie 1 is a fascinating look at the latter days of divided Berlin, a spirit of the age which has far outlived the circumstances responsible for its creation, and which its creators never expected to be performed as a historical piece. While performances are limited, visitors to Berlin would be well served to seek out this engaging production.

Where: GRIPS Theater, Berlin
When: In repertoire. Check the company website.
Cost: €18 general admission (£15)
Concessions: €10 (£8)
**NOTE** Ticketing at the GRIPS is extremely low tech. Reservations must be phoned in to the box office and claimed up to 24 hours in advance at the theatre. Payments are cash only, and if you will be unable to claim your ticket in advance, email the venue and they’ll hold your place until the day. The BO is open for collections from 10AM-5PM.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15. Despite its problems, Linie 1 is a crash course in the Berlin experience with great music from a remarkable company.
RZ Other Notes: That said, because the GRIPS is a company designed for children’s and youth productions, most performances are flooded by school groups who are not always the best behaved, even (especially?) for Germany. The night the RZ went there was plenty of talking, moving around, and open text messaging through the entire show, and he would guess most of the audience were 13-16 years old. Because of the company’s reputation, you do see a fair number of independent adults in attendance as well, though they are certainly in the minority.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

REVIEW: "Divas"

(Reviews from the RZ’s continental excursion will follow shortly, but the standard rule of what closes first gets reviewed first is in effect.)

If one were to look at the 20th century’s most legendary singers, any number of performers may appear: Jacques Brel, Ethel Merman, John Lennon, countless opera leads. But if one were to look at the defining singers in popular music, the 1930s were an era rife with talent and larger than life characters. Divas, the newest offering from choreographer Peter Schaufuss is an attempt to pay homage to three of the greatest: Edith Piaf, Marelene Dietrich, and Judy Garland. The key word, really, is “attempt.”

It’s not that there’s anything particularly bad about Divas, per say, and the central concept is certainly a valid one worthy of exploration. However, Schaufuss’s choice of styles (heavily driven by ballet) doesn’t click with the songs. The RZ isn’t particularly well educated in dance, so he may be missing something obvious, but it’s certainly hard to describe in words the general feeling that things were close, yes, but not right. Perhaps it’s Mr. Schauffus’s desire to maintain a period look in most of the numbers but to avoid period dance, the fancy yet infrequently used LED backing board, or end of run apathy and the amateurish movements which invaded the evening, but the piece failed to click in a way that would take a dance enthusiast to properly explain. The use of Nazi imagery in the Dietrich segment also made the RZ feel unusually uncomfortable - perhaps a side effect of his recent visit to Germany - but the two numbers in question (one whose title the RZ can’t remember and the other being “Where have all the flowers gone” featuring a freshly scrubbed looking HJ wooing a girl) seemed out of place with the evening's overall tone.

So anyhow, the big question(s): Is Divas worth getting a ticket for? If you like the musicians in question , the RZ says yes, it is. The prices are reasonable and there are discounts a-plenty. None of the three acts is too long (each diva gets 30 minutes with two 20 minute intervals) though the Judy Garland segment features an early bow two shows before the end making it feel artificially long. If nothing else, it’s nice to hear these old tunes resurrected and, as always, there are far worse options at hand, though it certainly doesn't live up to, say, Susan Stroman's Contact.

Where: Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
When: Until 5 July, 19:30, W/Sa @ 15:00
How Much: £16-36
Concessions: £20 on the day.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. Divas is an amusing distraction but nothing to spend serious money on.
RZ Other Notes: Given the emptiness on the night the RZ went, he would recommend what he did: buy a £10 upper circle ticket on lastminute and hope for an upgrade. In his case, he wound up in the first circle, which had plenty of seats to spare as did the extreme sides of the stalls. Be aware that the rake is poor in the Apollo’s seating and the guard posts on the front of the circles are high, ditto the safety rails. Be warned that the music is also on the loud side and the recordings used are not as well remastered as they could be.