Friday, 26 September 2008

REVIEW: "For the Public Good/Celebritney"

(Second review within 24 hours. Check your feeds and/or below for the RZ's review of Riflemind at Trafalgar Studios.)

Ripped from the headlines, it’s Law and that a pair of one-acts at the Baron’s Court. And despite the onset of dehydration combined with the sweatbox heat of the theatre and the assault on the RZ’s abilities and judgement by Riflemind, he managed to make it through both of them.

First up: For the Public Good by Alice Josephs. Based on a recent BBC investigation, the play is framed by a group of women digging around in an old asylum: Isabel (Antonia Christy) is trying to put her family tree together and great aunt Eva has disappeared from all records. An anonymous email to journalist Misty (Laura Waddell) and a pair of friends make the trek to the disused building, and the group are met by former guard turned bag lady Fran (Hilary Burns). As the group are taken through the past, it is revealed that Typhoid carriers, though healthy, were imprisoned in the name of public safety.

It sounds like a lot, but it’s a brief 45 minutes and Josephs does a good job of interpolating the modern characters’ interrogations with the past’s ghosts acting out the events. Burns bounces from evil nurse to guilty conscience with ease, and the cast are decent enough though this isn’t a play to see for the acting.

A more upbeat second work, Heather Johnston’s Celebritney is more of a drama than the comedy the RZ was hoping for, and yet it still works: manager Vee Vee (Jenna Goodwin) and image consultant Jacinta (Rachel Lynes) are stuck with the challenge of turning ultra-boring goody-goody pink teen-pop queen Taysha (Natalie Louka) into an arsekicking bad girl in time to take the coveted Christmas #1. The problem is that Taysha’s management (her unseen single mother) has made sure that her daughter’s lifestyle has remained squeaky clean. Desperate for a scandal to keep their cash cow in the press, the pair begin seeking out ways of manufacturing controversy.

To be honest, there’s nothing particularly surprising about Celebritney, but it manages to stay amusing throughout and knows to wrap up just as it starts to outstay its welcome. The RZ wishes, however, that Johnston had given her characters a bit more depth: the trio here are all rather two-dimensional which is a shame because the script has a nice subplot polygon (this links to that which comes back elsewhere...) that shows Johnston’s potential as seeming throwaways bubble up to the surface.

There’s also the question of music, or the lack thereof. Any play about a band or a musician needs to have plenty of tunes. Instead, Celebritney relies heavily on a single track constantly repeated whenever there’s a scene change or someone flips on their stereo. And like bad pop music, it gets old FAST. The RZ wasn’t taking notes to count, but if he had to wager a guess, the same 45 second sample was probably heard between 10 and 12 times in the hour runtime - and it wasn’t even that good. Fledgling producers take note: royalty free collections, creative commons, and the podsafe network all have stacks and stacks of cheap (or free) to use music (within reasons and limits) to prevent your audiences from wanting to scream at your low budget.

So overall? Despite the heat and the headache, the RZ found these to be pretty decent and he’s not just saying that because he got a press comp for shilling the press release. Neither piece was amazing, but both were competent and the RZ is fond of short form evenings: if you don’t like what’s on now, something else is coming up which may suit you better. And hey, it’s cheaper than a trip to Trafalgar.

Where: Barons Court Theatre
When: Until 28 Sep., Tu-Su @ 19:30
How Much: £10, unreserved
Concessions: £7
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £7. It’s tempting to go for the 10, but annoying music deserves a penalty.
RZ Other Notes: This pairing makes the RZ wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea for someone to start a company and do regular evenings of short plays (e.g. four 20-30 min. pieces) based on current events. Sorta like the Neo-Futurists but longer and less self-involved.

REVIEW: "Riflemind"

Riflemind, n. 1. The state of wishing to blow one’s head off rather than suffer the second act of an insipid play. 2. An insipid play currently running at Trafalgar Studios.

Is there really much more to say? Riflemind may be the inaugural product of an artistic partnership between Trafalgar Studios and some celebrity studded international companies, but it doesn’t mean the play isn’t complete and utter tripe. And by tripe, the RZ means shit, and in the worst sort of way.

How so, you ask?

Most insipid and bad plays do the audience the favour of being irredeemably bad or making it clear up front that there’s going to be some obvious lack of fulfilled potential which makes it easy to work out if it’s worth staying for the second act or at least having the benefit of being short yet not a total write-off. And then there’s Riflemind, which suckers the audience into returning for the last hour with the mysteries and intrigue of the circumstances surrounding a rock group’s breakup some 3-10 years earlier. We never know exactly how many years, though, since we hear that John, the lead guitarist and singer, hasn’t played for three years but also hasn’t seen some of his bandmates for ten - including his brother - whoops, spoiled the pointless secret which has no actual impact. Needless to say, the first act sets up the possibility for big reveals and big conflicts which never come in the second act. Instead, the audience get repetitive, irritating, aggravating, and shouty dialogues for a brain and butt-numbing two and a half hours but just manages to avoid being an outright bore. The audience aren’t given the answers or details they deserve, sacrificed for an actress making bad sandwiches and endless, meaningless yammering. The cast and set are all fine, though it’s hard imagine how they could have put up with both a full Australian run in addition to having to run through such rubbish again here. At least they’re well fed - in addition to the afore-mentioned sandwiches in the first act there’s also mass consumption of Chinese delivery in the second.

In short (and the RZ is keeping this short as possible since remembering the play is making him physically ill), Riflemind can be summed up by paraphrasing a Monty Python sketch on a different Australian product: Riflemind is a play with a message in it, and the message is BEWARE. This is not a play for seeing, this is a play for walking past and avoiding.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 1
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Th & Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £25-45
Concessions: Unknown
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £0.
RZ Other Notes: Whatever happened to Bushwhacked, the punk band reunion show that ran at the Royal Court last year? That was supposedly far more interesting.

Monday, 22 September 2008


(Yes, the RZ will post these when asked.)

For The Public Good
by Alice Josephs
Directed by Alex Summers

With Daisy Aitkens, Hilary Burns, Clareine Cronin, Antonia Christy and Laura Waddell

'Locked Up For Life Through No Fault of Her Own. Is She On Your Family Tree?'

'A healthy patient harbours a deadly disease. Over sixty years later an anonymous email draws together five women to uncover family and state secrets in a derelict asylum. Inspired by a recent BBC investigation, For The Public Good explores the hidden tragedy behind draconian measures to protect the nation's health.'



by Heather Johnston
Directed by Alison King

With Jenna Goodwin, Natalie Louka and Rachel Lynes

'God Gives You Talent But He's Not In Charge of Celebrity'

'Taysha, the latest thing in pop, is managed by uber-ambitious A&Rlady,Veevee. But she's straight. Too damned straight for a pop star.Vevee hires PR guru Jacinta to spice up her image. But Jacinta has herown agenda ...'

Where? Barons Court Theatre, Curtains Up Pub, 28a Comeragh Road, London W14 9HR. Barons Court and West Kensington tubes.
When? Tuesday September 23rd - Sunday September 28th 7.30 pm
Phone? Barons Court Box Office 020 8932 4747 (24 hours) to reserve tickets. Pay cash on the door.
Tickets? £10 (£7 concessions)

See map @

First Draft is committed to new writing. We perform two new plays every other month inspired by current events.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

REVIEW: "Come Dancing"

(Note: This is the second of two reviews posted on the same day. Read below or check the RSS feed for thoughts on the press launch for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Also, the RZ wrote this review between films at the Osamu Tezuka festival currently running at the Barbican and the public wifi was inconveniently borked, hence the lack of cast or creative names.)

Sometimes it’s fun to be the mean-spirited voice of doom when reviewing shows, but sometimes it’s an annoyance. Case in point, Come Dancing, the new musical concluding previews at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Written, scored, and narrated by ex-Kinks front-man Ray Davies, Come Dancing is meant to be a wistfully nostalgic look at dance hall culture in the oh-so-British 1950’s.

The good news is that it succeeds in most key aspects: the stage has been transformed into the local Palais, complete with onstage seating and a functional bar, the characters and attitudes are appropriately period, and while there’s a fair amount of cliché or face-palm worthy material, the good nature of the piece makes it quaintly familiar rather than preaching or hitting the audience over the head with the conceptual cricket bat. Davies’ score uses a handful of his hits, but also comes through with 20 new songs, all appealing if not catchy, and balances the evening between the big band standards and dance hall crooners of old and the early days of rock ‘n’ roll.

So where does it all go wrong? The biggest place is with Ray Davies himself. Not content to be a behind the scenes force, Davies goes Bright Lights Big City on the audience and takes over as a narrator, watching from the bar and commenting from time to time when not chatting with the leading lady. The result is that the show isn’t about dance hall culture but about HIM and HIS CRIPPLED SISTER and how HE wanted to write HIS song about it. The result, needless to say, is intrusive and self-indulgent: the material is strong enough to stand on its own, disabled girl seeking forbidden interracial love and all. Come Dancing’s second great weakness is in its direction: the night the RZ went, the scene and song->book->song transitions were slack and lacked sharpness and power. Admittedly, the RZ saw the show almost a week ago at the second preview, and the director could have cleaned this up greatly, but these are generally the last things to get attention. Given time the cast and band may resolve the issues on their own, or it could have been fixed already. Either way, the RZ wondered how much stronger the show would have been if, say, Des McAnuff had handled the direction.

These two flaws combine to form the third: the pacing. While the story is enjoyable and never drags, the action is slow to build in the first act with the last 5-10 minutes on comparative rocket speed in order to hit an appropriate point for an interval. The second act is better, and the RZ is unsure of whether or not this problem is fixable: the show is already tight at just over two hours, and there’s no room to cut the story any further. In a way, issue three could be a result of issue one: were Davies’ narrator to go and his lines and songs reassigned to the characters (all of which would work with somebody else singing them), the problem may resolve itself, but it’s hard to say and the RZ can’t quite put his finger on why it doesn’t work.

Therefore, it’s difficult to comfortably pass a final verdict: there’s a very good (though admittedly not a great or brilliant) show in Come Dancing, but it’s buried under the trappings of a decent to good one. The RZ would still encourage readers to see the show at Stratford East when tickets are still cheap, but couldn’t recommend it at higher West End or even touring prices without further retooling.

Where: Theatre Royal Stratford East
When: Until 11 October, T-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 15:00
How Much: Until 23 Sep: £12-20, From 23 Sep: £14-40
Concessions: £9-17, not good for onstage and front stalls table seats
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £17. It’s a good show, but not a great show.
RZ Other Notes: For the hubbub about the amateur dancers, they don’t do much (a bit of ballroom before the show and during the interval). Likewise, the much hyped onstage bar is obstructed from the left side of the circle - avoid if you want to watch Ray Davies watching the cast instead of patrons paying £40 to sit onstage watching the cast.

THOUGHTS: Priscilla Press Launch

While the RZ has been hard at work pounding away on his master’s thesis, the marketing team behind the upcoming West End production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert did some pounding of their own, this time at the hearts and wallets of group bookers, press, and industry insiders. The RZ had the fortune to attend the launch presentation, and figured that he may as well opine about it as he does everything else.

First, what happened? The launch consisted of speeches from the producers ("we're all going to need a joyous show next spring"), the director (who talked like every nightmarish prat director you could imagine), and the four key UK cast members, who include Jason Donovan and Oliver Thornton, who recently stank up the West End as emo posh boy Mark in RENT: Remixed. The audience were also treated to three production numbers by the Australian cast (yes, they paid to fly them - and their costumes - over). The choreography was dazzling and the costumes truly amazing - it’s rare for that aspect of design to sell the show, but sell it will.

What we didn’t see, however, was anything from the book. Yes, we were told that it’s full of Australian humour and that they’re shifting the role of Tick’s son from being a surprise plot twist in the film (which the RZ hasn’t seen), but the audience never saw or heard any of it. Yes, the RZ knows that it’s the musical numbers that sell shows, and we’re talking about a film adaptation which doubles as a jukebox musical, but even a minimal amount of dialogue to lead into the numbers (think what’s on most cast recordings) would have gone a long way towards quelling doubts.

The big issue, in the RZ’s mind, is of course the one that drives his evil American eye, namely the pricetag. Priscilla is undoubtedly expensive to stage, and those costs are being passed onto the audience in full, with new record-setting highs for West End pricing: tickets start at £20.75 for the highest and most vertigo-inducing balcony in the West End, and the stalls max out at £65.75 for standard tickets on weekends. “Premium” seats, continuing their assault from New York, are £85 on weeknights and £95 on weekends. No, that’s not a typo and yes, you read it correctly. The producers are seriously asking for ninety-five pounds for a ticket. And yes, the rich and people on expense accounts will undoubtedly pay it, but that doesn’t mean the average theatre-goer will. And with the credit crunch persisting, the £65 top is increasingly unappealing, especially when there’s top notch touring a short train ride away in Wimbledon, Croyden, and Milton Keynes for half as much.

Monday, 15 September 2008

UPDATE: Too Much Theatre

It’s finally happened: the RZ’s theatre-going habit has outstripped his ability to keep the site updated in a timely manner. Mind you, going to the theatre at night has been functioning as a perk for focusing on work during the day, namely the work of getting his behemoth of a master’s thesis written. As such, the RZ has seen the following shows but will not be writing full reviews on them:

Well @ Trafalgar 2: It’s funny, and raises some interesting questions, but also suffers from “hate all the characters” syndrome. By the last 20 minutes the RZ was hoping that the main character would go McDonagh on someone’s arse.

Our House @ New Wimbledon (Now touring somewhere else): How the original production won the Olivier is beyond the RZ’s comprehension - it must have been a painfully dry year. Not having been in the UK when Madness were the shit, the only thing keeping him from leaving this shitty production at the interval was the thought of spending two hours on the train to and from Wimbledon for an hour of theatre. Not that it was all bad - the choreography was great, the songs would be fun to play DDR to, and the cast tried their best - but the sound design was poor (there were lyrics?) and the RZ facepalmed repeatedly during the performance, the plot of which was as such: do the right thing and wind up an unemployed convict, do the wrong thing and wind up successful only to murder your mum by accident.

The Pretender Agenda @ New Players: An office full of scandal makes for a funny play, but it needed another workshop: the first scene could have been cut entirely though the play was overall entertaining and a good reminder of why you should always be nice to your temps. The cast was loaded with TV stars the RZ didn’t recognise (that all gave quality performances either way), but he suspects that only 10% of the audience (somewhere in the 50-75 person range) was NOT comped the night he went - most of the people in the stalls knew the author who was also in attendance.

Eurobeat @ Novello: Went with a friend who loves the trash factor of Eurovision this time. No surprise, she loved it. No surprise, Poland won. The RZ has shilled for this enough by now and doesn’t even work for the damn show.

Small Craft Warnings @ Arcola 1: Typical Tennessee Williams with the added bonus of an unrehearsed understudy coming to the rescue of a mostly solid cast (who all slipped accents a few times). Great speeches, but a bit of a mess. This was the RZ’s first time at the Arcola and he’s fallen in love with the space, not to mention the neighbourhood’s restaurants.

The Harder They Come @ Playhouse: The RZ popped in for the closing. Nothing particularly special or different, no speeches at the end.

On the RZ’s agenda for this week is a preview of Come Dancing at Stratford East and a lot of continued writing work along with the Osamu Tezuka festival at the Barbican (where he will probably hide in the back row of the cinema with his computer continuing to make last minute revisions).

Friday, 5 September 2008

REVISIT: "Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision" / "The Harder They Come"

Last night was first preview in the West End for Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision. The RZ already reviewed this show from its touring run a few months ago, and his opinion is pretty similar. The songs are still what you’d expect from a camp-fest, and while one character’s nationality has been changed from Estonian to Polish, little else is different short of an all-too-occasional ad-lib regarding contemporary issues such as the Olympics. Unfortunately, touring to a series of half-empty houses has taken its toll on the cast, and the comedy wasn’t quite as sharp as it was back in Wimbledon nor were the songs as tight, as though everybody expects the laughs to hit regardless (they did, but not consistently). With luck some good reviews will come in from the press and the tour will play out, but the RZ suspects that everybody is coming to work under the threat of being on borrowed time.

And, speaking of borrowed time, The Harder They Come closes next week at the Playhouse, and the RZ is making his mandatory return visits as this one already toured and is likely to end its life-span here. It’s still excellent stuff, if not a bit slower and more mournful than before, but the shift in tone works and the RZ had the good fortune of catching Matthew J Henry covering as main character Ivan.

In short: Two shows worth making a last-chance effort to catch, and two of the cheapest shows in the West End to attend, even before discounts, which are available in abundance.

NEWS: ......

Sometimes you find out theatre news that's interesting or exciting, and sometimes it just makes you go "WTF?"

In this case, it's the upcoming year's season for Toho Stages in Japan. Most of the schedule is pretty straightforward: there's a couple of new domestic shows, not to mention a few major classics - both old and new. Of course you can't forget Japan's love of Michael Kunze, with Elisabeth and Tanz der Vampire getting revived.

And then there are the interesting bits: Stephen Fry's adaptation of Me and My Girl is coming up, as is A New Brain by William Finn and, for the first time in ten years, a star-studded (or so a forum poster claims) Japanese revival of RENT.

Now, a lot of people find foreign language productions of musicals a bit odd and off-putting, especially ones where one suspects a massive cultural disconnect (such as when Toho did Fiddler on the Roof). But that's not cause for bewilderment.

What is? Looking at the lineup and seeing that somebody was dumb enough to resurrect Desperately Seeking Susan. And yes, it's the same cesspool that barely ran two weeks, but now with more Japanese and without even the original's pretty awesome logo art..

WTF Japan, seriously?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

RANDOM: On Seeing "Phantom"

Can the RZ make a confession? Until last week, he had never before seen The Phantom of the Opera. Sure it had toured where he grew up and worked, and yes he’d been to Broadway plenty of times, but the tour was always a bad time or at the Kennedy Center (where a tour costs more than Broadway). And Broadway? There’s always so many other things to see, especially at Tony time...

So why not write a proper review? Well, it wouldn’t do much good. The show has been talked about for ages, and the cast are changing over at the end of this week. It’s also the kind of show where one of three people make up the majority of audiences: tourists, those on a romantic outing (Valentine’s Day/Anniversary), and fanboys/girls. Routine theatregoers don’t go to Phantom often because, like the RZ, there’s so much else happening that they find no urgency in doing so.

It’s also hard to judge a show that’s about to celebrate its 22nd anniversary without having to work through years of ingrained hype. The RZ grew up with the OLC on cassette and has one of those heat-sensitive mugs that shows the Phantom’s mask when you pour your tea in back in storage, but he only routinely listened to the first side of the tape (roughly through “Music of the Night”).

So seeing it live? It’s hard to be unbiased after all this, and having an associate in the cast take him backstage before the show didn’t help.

The big problem, really, is wondering nowadays what the big deal was. The spectacle which wowed audiences 22 years ago is old hat now, and while it still impresses it’s not as immersive as Starlight Express or as lush as Lord of the Rings - but it works and works well though the chandelier felt so...well...slow. The score is pretty, and the big numbers that got so much radio exposure in the 80’s hold up, but “Music of the Night” seems unusually long. The lyrics had a lot of false or non-rhymes though - far more than the RZ remembers from the tape of long ago and something which was greatly smoothed over in various translations (something he double-checked on the Japanese and German recordings before writing this piece).

And then there’s the whole creep-factor. Phantom is considered one of the ultimate stage romances, but the RZ wondered why Christine didn’t immediately report the Phantom to the authorities or stab him when he made his first sexual advances. Last he checked, stalkers and obsessives are considered to be bad people, not love-love icons. “Point of No Return” is doubly creepy in this context. But again, it works - just not on the level it was intended.

So in the end? It’s a good show, but 22 years of status and hype behind it make the experience one audiences go in to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of being swept away or leave thinking scratching their heads. The RZ uncomfortably finds himself somewhere in-between.

Monday, 1 September 2008

THOUGHTS: Under the Eagle

Sometimes, being an American abroad can be an unpleasant experience. Sitting through a 2.5 hour play about how the US government is an evil force out solely to protect its own interest generally tends to be one of them.

Such is the thrust of Andrew Cartmel’s (Dr Who, Torchwood) new play Under the Eagle. It opens as Vi, a vicious political comedienne (Francesca Anderson), is arrested onstage in the middle of a piece about the Prime Minister being a gutless whore subservient to the Americans, only to have been invited to a weekend retreat by the PM’s American wife Tamina (Claire Louise Amias). Matters quickly escalate when it’s revealed that Tamina’s not just looking for a celeb to pal around with, but wants Vi present as a reminder to her husband that the British public are sick of cowtowing to American demands. See, it turns out that the American president, Lenore Rose Locke (Angela Dixon failing at accents) is in Britain to supervise the handover of a suspected terrorist: a suspected terrorist who’s a British citizen and possibly not guilty of any actual terrorism. It’s up to the Prime Minister (David Morley Hale) to stand for what’s right as sex and politics fly while Vi gets it on with the deputy PM, much to the frustrations of LRL’s manipulatively motivated Chief of Staff (Eben Young, an actual American).

Fortunately, Cartmel has actually stood and delivered a tight piece of political theatre despite some padded dialogue. Both sides are equally sleazy, from the British use of passive-aggressive interference to LRL’s part-George W Bush part-Hillary Clinton mixture of evangelical ruthlessness. And while the surprise twist in the second act is worthy, the ending is unsurprising and confirms what everybody knows all along: in the end you make compromises and sacrifices no matter how unpopular they may be.

Where: White Bear Theatre
When: Closed
How Much: £12 General Admission
Concessions: £10
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12. Well written and entertaining without sacrificing intellect. It’s uncomfortable at times but not to the point of being painful.
RZ Other Notes: Seating at the White Bear is L-Shaped. Arrive early to get onto one of the two long benches. The funniest line in the play involves LRL walking in on the Prime Minister who is in the process of being seduced by Tamina. After a fight ensues LRL asks the PM to pray with her. He stutters out a refusal to which LRL replies “You don’t want to pray with me?” “No. I want to have wild, deviant sex with my wife!” Hence the reason there will always be a Britain.