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.

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