Sunday, 30 November 2008

REVIEW: “Mother Goose” (Hackney Empire)

(Rapid Fire Review #3 in one day. Read below for thoughts on this year’s Perfect Pitch festival and Maria Friedman’s concert series at Trafalgar Studios.)

Growing up in the US, I was raised devoid of the great British tradition of Christmas panto, and only discovered the form last year as part of a group research project. Deciding that I should actually see the thing I was writing about, I went with my research partner to the Hackney Empire’s production of Dick Whittington as it was the only choice in the immediate London area which was open before our deadline.

As readers of last year’s review may remember, I was hooked. Hard. And, as it turned out, so were most of the mainstream critics who showered the production with raves. With such hype and fondness, the bar was set insanely - nay, impossibly - high for this year’s piece, Mother Goose. And, as you may have guessed, Mother Goose doesn’t quite reach Dick’s heights - which doesn’t mean that it’s still not a damn good show regardless.

Set in the town of Dalstonia, Hackneytopia, a battle between good and evil (the witches Charity and Vanity) is underway with the soul of poor yet optimistic Mother Goose on the line. While most of the standard panto tricks and cliches are in place (audience callbacks - scaled down in variety and quantity from last year, rhyming narrators, lots of weddings, bright medieval costumes, slapstick, etc.) Mother Goose is a subversive entry for two vivid differences.

First, there is no principal boy. Then again, there’s no PB in Cinderella or Snow White so take it as you will.

Second, this is the only pantomime with a singular Dame (the ever-wonderful Clive Rowe) who becomes the focal character *and* takes a heel turn: when gifted with the golden egg laying goose Priscilla, the Mother Goose character becomes self-centred and nasty in a radical departure from the loveable comedic characters that define most panto dames. I don’t actually have a problem with this - Susie McKenna’s script pulls off the transition well, and Rowe has both the acting chops and the charisma to make us want him to pull through the challenges at play.

I don’t have gripes with the ensemble of actors either - most of whom have returned from last year’s show including Kat B. as comedic role Billy Goose and Tameka Empson as good witch Charity. As for the rest of the cast, I’d like to name them but I didn’t get a programme and the Empire’s website fails to supply a list of cast members by role (nor are there photos yet to note from.)

So what are the issues? Well, the first act drags and feels particularly long. I had this complaint with last year’s show as well, but didn’t notice the problem on my second viewing. As the show is still in previews until Thursday, I suspect that there is still tightening to be done. I also caught a number of recycled jokes (are there lines which are supposed to be panto standards? More investigation is necessary) and recognised more licensed music this year (including a song from The Harder They Come) and fewer original tunes. While I have no proof to back me up, I suspect that Susie McKenna supplying not just the Hackney panto with a script and lyrics this year but also the New Wimbledon’s Cinderella may have played a part.

Most saddening, however? Clive Rowe isn’t allowed to throw sweets into the upper levels of the house anymore as *one* complaint filed by an angry patron (out of 45,000) last year caused a change in policy. It’s the destruction of simple, innocent acts like this which make the season a continual downer.

But me? I left feeling happy as can be. These are minor, nitpicker’s gripes here and the fact is that the Hackney Empire’s panto truly is on form for yet another year.

Where: Hackney Empire
When: Until 10 Jan., showtimes vary from M-Sa, two shows/day.
How Much: £9-19.50
Concessions: Vary, bookable in advance.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £19.50 for a top notch show.
RZ Other Notes: No, I’m not getting paid by the Empire to shill. I wish I was. I also wish they’d offer one or two child free performances for the childless adults who wish to come and not look like paedophiles.

REVISIT: “Maria Friedman Rearranged”

(Rapid Fire Review #2 as I clear through a week involving far, far too much theatre.)

So instead of going to the third night of Perfect Pitch on Thursday, a friend wanted to see Maria Friedman at Trafalgar 1 and I could get us ultra-cheap tickets, so I figured why not. “I can deal with seeing six shows in a week, really,” I thought to myself and put the booking in. While said friend ended up getting sick and being unable to attend, I dragged myself out of the house, taking comfort in being able to watch two episodes of Rose of Versailles on the tube.

It would, of course, be just my luck that the already late-starting show (scheduled for 20:30 or 21:00 on weekends) would start extra late as this being the first preview nobody had bothered to accurately work out how long it would take to change the sets from the early evening performance of Horrid Henry. The result? Standing around in a very crowed and tiny bar area for an extra half hour.

Was the show worth it? I guess. The setlist was identical to that at the Chocolate Factory, but trimmed down to an interval-less 95 minutes. Ms. Friedman has a lot of fun doing these concerts, and her charm and enthusiasm rubs off onto the audience making it hard not to leave satisfied, but I honestly wasn’t in the mood to appreciate most of it and wished that I’d stayed home and given myself the much needed night off that I’m only getting now.

In other words, yes, it’s worth going if you’re a particular fan of Ms. Friedman or you haven’t seen this particular concert series before, but if you’ve already been you can spend the night elsewhere without regret.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 1
When: Until 04 Jan., W-F @ 20:30, Sa @ 21:00, Su @ 18:00
How Much: £25-35
Concessions: No idea.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying:” £20
RZ Other Notes: I gave this gig the same worth paying at the Menier despite the set being a good 15-20 minutes longer. The seats are more comfortable, however, at Trafalgar and £20 will get you a ticket at TKTS including the booking fee. I think the show also works better in the shortened form, but YMMV.

THOUGHTS: Perfect Pitch Festival 2008

Another year, another Perfect Pitch. This year the festival changed from showcasing 10 shows (15-60 min. presentations) at Upstairs at the Gatehouse to showcasing 6 (45-55 min. presentations) at Trafalgar Studios 2. While the new location lends to the festival’s cred, the reduction in showcased material - especially when two of the six were by the same person - is disappointing even if the bump in casting is equally impressive.

That said, I went on two nights and saw four of the pieces. As these works are still in development I won’t get into too much detail but will stick to general impressions.

First and foremost, I thought that while the scores to all of the shows were good, three of the four were identical in style - I felt as though I could cut apart the music and put the songs into different pieces without suspecting something wrong. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the limited (or entire lack of) arrangements used, as hearing theatrepop scores on piano alone (or with simplified string and/or acoustic guitar) makes it difficult to appreciate uniqueness in full. Now on with the individual shows:

Lift - Nine people ride the lift at Covent Garden station and their lives meet and intertwine. It’s a nifty idea, and while I don’t think the show could easily scale to the West End, I can see it fitting in comfortably at somewhere like the Chocolate Factory or the Kings Head. Likewise this would work quite well as a concept album. It’s a good (if not overly white) representation of modern London.

The Diary of Me - A rebellious 16 year old comes to terms with his estranged father dating again after his mother dies while understanding friendship and relationships. This would have been more interesting had I not seen Shit Mix a month earlier: fairly standard youth theatre fare, would do well somewhere like Oval House or on a TIE programme.

Can You Keep A Secret - A mother is constantly moving with her two daughters: one who fails to establish friendships online or in person yet falls for a local bad boy and another who is shy and escapes into a fantasy world with dangerous repercussions on reality. Similar thoughts to The Diary of Me, but taken from a more adult perspective. Word is that the teenage relationships involved are actually the main ones but the adults became the focus in order to keep things clean for the 45 min. format. The fantasy elements will, I suspect, be better dealt with when scenery and the full running time are involved.

The Lost Christmas - A pair of robots from the year 4000 come back to the present to find something missing from the winter season, meeting up with a girl in a traditional, respectable middle-upper class liberal family. The standout score of the bunch, the music here is more pastiche than straightforward and it works out well. This show probably worked best in the 45 min. format (along with Lift which is more episodic than linear) and this would make a nice alternative to panto.

In short: nothing OMGWOW but there’s clear potential in all cases and I wish I could have seen the last two shows (Rebels and Retail, which looks like a British Walmartopia and Through the Door, a time travel romance.) The scarier thing is that the festival organisers consider themselves to be a stepping stone in early or middle development for a five to ten year development cycle. IMHO that’s an excessive period, but not a surprising one these days - Next to Normal - currently running in DC - has been going for 10 years (even if it was production worthy after seven,) Rue Magique also made it to ten despite staying a disaster, and even RENT was being worked on for the better part of five years (arguably seven including when Larson and Aronson were toying around with it.) The turnaround time on production is only getting higher (remember the days when composers banged out a new show in 1-3 years?) and it's frightening to think that in many cases the reward is a 1 hour edition at a festival with 1800 other shows competing for eyes or 6-8 weeks on the Fringe with few places to follow up.

On that note, I wish the best of luck to all involved, and let’s all look forward to 2009.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

REVIEW: “August: Osage County”

To be honest, there’s not a lot for me to say: the New York press and blogosphere already reviewed this show to death last year when it opened on Broadway, and the London edition is an exact clone down to all but two members of the Original Broadway Cast coming over to reprise their roles. So, if you want a review of the play or the acting, google the Broadway reviews because nothing’s changed.

And by “nothing’s changed” I include the fact that August: Osage County kicks ass. A lot of it. While I’m not saying that this is the sort of play which will drive repeat visits (I doubt I’ll go back before it closes,) it’s very much worth seeing once and tickets are still available for all nights after this week. Believe the hype and make your booking while you still can. Go on, I’ll wait for you.

All set? Good. Now shut up and eat your damn fish.

Where: National Theatre/Lyttleton
When: Until 21 Jan. T-Su @ 19:15, Sa @ 14:00, Su @ 15:00, Varying weekday matinees @ 14:00
How Much: £10-£41
Concessions: Day seats are sold when the BO opens for £10 (front row stalls and circle slips). Standard NT concessions apply for students/seniors/unemployed/etc.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £41. Cheaper than Broadway for an excellent new work of American drama.
RZ Other Notes: If going for day seats, try to get the back row of the circle first, then the slips, then the front row of the stalls. The stage is high and the set is extremely vertical and spread out so you’ll be leaving with a major crick in your neck after 3+ hours of staring up.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

THOUGHTS: “Imagine This”

(Second post today - the current tour of Noises Off is covered below - and post #150 overall. I even managed to turn in a job application as well!)

I have a proper byline for reviewing this show, so just a quick opinion here as every other critic has weighed in.

I liked Imagine This even though I really didn’t want to going in. I thought the music was beautiful and epic (I can forgive musical anachronism and the people complaining about it seem to forget about Wildhorn, Boubil & Schonberg, etc.), the cast great, and the design stunning. I didn’t think it was perfect, however: the book has issues with tonal consistency, the jokes a bit too simplistic, and the inclusion of a particularly camp character (the term “flaming” would be the un-PC way to put it) struck me as one suspension of disbelief too far given the presented company’s religious leanings. Likewise I had an issue with the idealisation of martyrdom in the renewed age of religious terrorism but I appear to have been the only person writing about the show to do so.

While much of the show has been overhauled since its out of town run in Plymouth, I can’t help but think that Imagine This would have benefited greatly from a second out of town tryout to ensure structural integrity before fine tuning in the West End: the makings of greatness are there but it still needs further refinement should the producers decide to try again elsewhere.

It’s also telling (though I’m still not 100% sure what) that I enjoyed myself and my companion for the evening - someone even more jaded than I am and a good 20 years older - loved it, as did even the West End Whingers, but the official critics did not. Word of mouth is split on this one between an “I liked it and recommend it but didn’t OMGWOW” faction and a “This is utter shite and even Paris Hilton: The Jukebox Musical would be better” group. I’m in the former, and officially consider Imagine This to be a show that patrons will have to judge for themselves.

REVIEW: “Noises Off” (Touring)

(The reviews continue through Job Hunting Hell as your author attempts to procrastinate writing yet another cover letter.)

It takes a lot for me to justify the effort involved in crossing London to see a show at the New Wimbledon. Sometimes I’ll genuinely want to see a show coming in and other times it’s to get to a production before it comes into the West End at inflated prices (I’m looking at you, Carousel, which I had to miss...)

I didn’t go to Noises Off for either reason. I saw the Broadway revival in 2002 starring Peter Gallagher as sardonic director Lloyd and Patti LuPone as the er...dotty...Dotty, and though I liked it quite a bit, it’s very much a “once is enough” kind of play. So why go again? Because I am an utter anorak and catching the tour meant seeing an ex Doctor Who on stage in the form of Colin Baker.

For anybody who hasn’t seen Noises Off at the National, on one of many countless tours, or in regional, it can be a bit hard to describe. The first act takes place as a low end touring company are working through their last minute dress rehearsal of a door-slammer farce (Quick, into the bedroom! No not that bedroom, this one that looks like a bathroom!) It’s clear from the start that things are going pear shaped as nobody can remember lines or blocking and personal drama is starting to rear its head as we find out that co-producer actress Dotty (Maggie Steed) is having a relationship with one of her co-stars while director Lloyd (Ben Hull...I think, the website lacks details) is sleeping with both bimbo Belinda and stage manager Poppy whom he ruthlessly belittles onstage. Compounding issues are various offstage divorces, an overworked tech director, and drunken, half-deaf Selsdon (Baker) disappearing at inopportune times as the cast attempt to keep him sober.

The real triumph, however, lies in the second act: it’s six weeks into the tour and tensions flare backstage as the affairs split, change partners, and cause all sorts of general havoc. Where author Michael Frayn is so brilliant is in showing us the chaotic backstage happenings within a (mostly) successful performance of the actual play. It goes downhill again for act three, however, as we see the final performance falling apart from the first line.

Is this a solid production? Yes. Should you go if you haven’t seen it before? Yes. Is there a reason to go back if you’re not interested in the comedically gifted cast? Not really. The sets and general direction are both based on the National’s original production from the 80’s, so there isn’t anything new if you’re expecting more than nostalgia. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that Noises Off is still laugh out loud hilarious and manages to fulfil the demands of farce while subverting it at every opportunity.

Where: Touring, currently the New Wimbledon
When: Until 22 Nov., no idea after. Th-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £10-£25
Concessions: Student tickets available at the venue, no idea otherwise.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Solid production, good play, great cast.
RZ Other Notes: That said, don’t pay more than you have to. There’s a best available for £15 offer from and the upper circle (where the £10-12 tickets are) was closed the night I went (though the stalls were pretty full) so upgrades to at least the dress circle are likely.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

REVIEW: “Treasure Island”

Ladies and gentlemen! In the red corner, weighing in at three weeks, a run of solid and entertaining plays leading to a happy reviewer! In the blue corner, weighing in at nine months, a continual run of disappointment from the Theatre Royal Haymarket! Which of these giants will win?

The answer, if you’ve read any of the papers lately, is obvious: the Haymarket curse strikes again, this time intruding on what should have been an exciting adventure romp and leaving it with two hours of tepid, uninspired mush where one of the great pirate tales ever written should have been.

I’m not going to bother getting into the plot as I'm presuming that most readers here will have a familiarity with the Treasure Island story either from the original novel or some form of reinterpretation, be it the 60’s Animal Treasure Island cartoon, the Muppet version, or any other edition of your choice, and therefore spoil at will.

It all goes wrong starting with Ken Ludwig’s script. In another case of “why show or visualise what you can narrate,” protagonist Jim (charmingly albeit not boyishly played by Michael Legge) tells us everything: his feelings at making his first kill, his fears, how the boat moved, and so on. For example, Jim tells us in a narration that he cut the Hispaniola’s anchor but then it comes up again in the dialogue moments later in a redundant display of redundancy.

Next there’s the music. While Treasure Island is a play with a few songs, it has a mere two or three which are repeated constantly. I’ve got more pirate songs (even public domain ones) on my iPod than were used in the show, and that’s just a handful of Jolly Rogers tracks I found on Audiogalaxy over five ago. More shanties, less repetition. This production also deserves an award for sound effects overkill, from the blind man’s staff getting an extra electronic bang to heartbeats and a mechanical bird whose gears we can hear spinning away in the stalls.

Third, the swordfighting. The first fight scene was wisely choreographed in the dark with occasional flashes from a lantern for a worthwhile reason: besides looking cool it covered up the fact that what we did see of the fighting was pretty bad. Fortunately the big fight scenes in the second act look significantly better.

And then we have the design. I liked the wooden floors and ropes and jungle bits and bobs because they had the right feeling: ship, jungle, old inn, all good. The suck factor comes from Dan Kugels’ video projections, which reminded me of another show I’d seen through the entire first act even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Only during the interval did the realisation dawn on me: the projections were of the same types used in Lestat. This, by the way, is not a complement. Do we need to see spiders flash on the wall when Jim describes his nightmares of blind pirates? No. Do we need to see red blobs when Billy talks about his heart going? No. Do we all the same? Yes.

Finally, there’s the cast. They’re trying, heaven help them, but most of what they’re trying to do is keep their pirate-y accents which is about all they really *can* do given the slightness of the ensemble’s characterisation. It is mandatory, however, to give Keith Allen credit for being every bit the smooth talking fellow Long John Silver needs to be, living up to his star billing.

As I left the Haymarket, thoroughly battered, the question on my mind was “why?” As in “Why did they bother?” I wasn’t bored by Treasure Island, but I wasn’t impressed or charmed by it either: the show was, as a good friend of mine puts it, beige. What’s said is how much I wanted to like this: I love pirate stories (pirates > ninjas any day) and even found myself amused at the ill-fated Peter Pan: El Musical, but Treasure Island gave me nothing to walk away with: it’s 100% bland, empty, and forgettable fare fine for community and AmDram companies looking for a low-rent show over the holidays, but as a West End alternative? Save your pirate plunder for the punchy pair of Peter Pan pantos in Croydon and Richmond instead.

Where: Theatre Royal Haymarket
When: Until 28 Feb., W-Sa @ 19:30, Tu @ 19:00, W/Sa @ 14:30, Su @ 15:00
How Much: £20-45
Concessions: Seniors £20 matinees best available booked in advance, students £20 upper circle on the day, family discounts available.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5. This isn’t a worthless production that’ll eat your brain alive, but there’s no reason to pay either.
RZ Other Notes: I was under the overhang from the circles so I don’t know how filled they were but the stalls were rather deserted. If you do go, keep an eye on the start times because they’re all over the place - I forgot last night’s show was at 19:00 until I checked my booking at 18:10 and made it to the theatre with just enough time to use the gents’ before taking my seat.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

REVIEW: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

(If you're here because you saw the URL in the Evening Standard, please send an email or leave a comment as I'd like to know if anybody cared enough to visit as a result.)

It’s the revival that nobody wanted: constantly toured kiddy fare and led by someone off of a reality show. In all honesty, though - and that’s generally what readers want from a critic - I love this show. It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best (that remains Jesus Christ Superstar in my book) or even my favourite (Starlight Express) but Joseph is a fun turn-your-brain-off evening, and it’s got some excellent numbers (“Close Every Door,” “Any Dream Will Do,” and my personal favourite ALW song ever, “Pharaoh Story.”) It’s also been about ten years since I last saw the show, when ex-pop idol Deborah Gibson was touring the US as the narrator. That said, I also didn’t want to pay £30 for a recycled production (more on that later.) Fortunately a few rows in the gods are sold for £15, and since I was at Friday’s Mathilde reading next door at the Vaudeville I figured it wouldn’t hurt to pop into the Adelphi and see if cheap seats were left. Fortunately they were, and it turned out that Lee Mead was in fact not on vacation (he was earlier in the week) so all of the leads were in.

Now, before I nitpick the production to bits, I want to get something out of the way: I had a great time and left with a much needed smile on my face. I wouldn’t tell people to see this Joseph if they were in London for a visit when there are more unique things running in the West End, but it’s a fun night for locals who may have held off until the hype subsided.

Now, as I said before, much of this production is recycled: the sets and costumes were both pulled out of storage following the Palladium run and subsequent tour (featuring Lizi Hateley, Jason Donovan, and Philip Schoenfeld) from the early 90’s. The direction and choreography are based on that production as well, though I’m sure that updates have been put in and the production generally refreshed.

Unfortunately said fresh outlook does not apply to Jenna Lee-James, who narrates the show with a powerhouse voice that can belt to kingdom come but lacks stage presence as a character. Word is that Lloyd Webber prefers it this way - that the narrator is a simple storyteller - but I really don’t. In most productions outside of the Lord’s grasp the Narrator is more involved, and while not active in the story, is someone clearly enjoying the ride. It’s the difference between saying “Look, Joseph is getting done in by his brothers” and “Look, this spoiled brat is being smacked down by the ensemble - isn’t it cool?” with a Willy Wonka-esque glint in the eye. This is a juicy role to play with relish and it’s wasted in London productions (FWIW I felt the same about Linzi Hateley on the 1991 London CD - great voice, sang it well, but she sounded so bored when compared to Kristine Fraelich on the 1995 US tour or Jodi Benson in the US in 1997 and Kristin Hölk on the German cast recording.)

Lee Mead, the reality show winner in the title role, does a fine job. If he doesn’t have Donny Osmond’s vocal flourishes it’s not for lack of talent or capacity, and I suspect he’d do more with the score if he were further away from London - this is one time where it’s OK not to sing the script if done with taste (unlike a certain show which comes to mind.) I also forgive him for sounding like a muppet at times - it's endearing bordering on adorable.

Dean Collinson is fine as the Elvis-impersonator Pharaoh, though I question his choice to throw in an unnecessary mild profanity (“Damn I’m good.”) Arguably it helps cement the show on the family side of “children’s show” vs. “family show” (the latter having a some mildly mature or risque material for mum and dad that the kids won’t get) but it doesn’t add anything - though neither does the new song “King of my Heart.” That said, I’d rather have “King” than yet another reprise of “Song of the King” which got two full reprises (meaning the song was sung in full three times in a row) during the early/mid 90’s productions.

Sadly I didn’t spot any standouts in the ensemble. So it goes.

It’s uncomfortable to be quite so negative in this review given that I enjoyed myself and am tempted to return to the production after the cast change, but in a way this is the curse of reviewing Shakespeare on a more populist and entertaining level: once you see a show a certain number of times (this was trip 8 or 9 to Joseph in addition to a stack of cast recordings and video clips) you start making comparisons. I’m not going to say people should run to the Adelphi, but I’d recommend bringing first timers to the theatre here instead of The Lion King..and maybe some jaded regulars as well: despite whatever cynicism and crass commercial work behind this run, the material has such an innocence and charm at its core that it’s hard not to be won over by the end of the night.

Where: Adelphi Theatre
When: M/W/Sa @ 19:30, Tu @ 19:00, W/Sa @ 15:00
How Much: £15-50, top price varies by night.
Concessions: Check with the box office.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30. This’ll get you stalls any night at TKTS.
RZ Other Notes: I paid £15 for my ticket on the day and got back row centre of the upper circle. It’s vertically far from the stage but a clear, unrestricted view and a great bargain if you just want to see the show without shelling out top price (my dinner wound up costing more than my ticket.) As it turned out there were multiple rows empty and while the ushers held people to their original locations for the first act I was able to move from Row N to Row G at the interval.

On another note, the only show I’ve seen more times (and with more casts) than Joseph is RENT.

Saturday, 15 November 2008


It turns out I know someone in the cast for this production, so doing a full review goes into iffy conflict of interest territory. A few notes though...

1) The production itself is something of a mixed bag. I love the set layout but it’s overcomplicated in that there’s some set dressing and a rollaway screen that requires downtime between songs to make a scene change, breaking up the flow. Ditto the use of video screens.

2) It’s very obvious that the director was influenced by the film, so you have strip club Out Tonight instead of Mimi at home Out Tonight.

3) There are 24 people in the cast vs. the original 15. Yes, amateur theatre is about getting people involved, but it left a lot of actors with nothing to do except occasionally wander around as the homeless people.

4) While each production should have its own original direction, this version made me appreciate certain aspects of Michael Grief’s staging even more, namely the initial burst of motion during the opening chords of the title song and the way everybody wandered back into the SOL line during the ICY Reprise leaving a space for Angel. This production was very low on movement and high on literalism, so everybody but Collins faced away from the audience while sitting on church pews. The setup also meant having to loop the SOL chords during the funeral lines while everything was set up.

5) I love Seasons of Love but that doesn’t mean we need to hear the chords as everybody enters at the top of Act One. That’s not in the show as written. We don’t need an encore either.

6) Voice Mail #4 (Alexi on the Beach) was moved up a position so that Without You takes place in September. I don’t really buy it, as the second act was structured to hop through seasons from Winter (HNY/TMOLM) -> Spring (Without You) -> Fall (Contact/GL/WYO) -> Winter (Finale). This takes six months out of the timeline.

7) Props to using the original orchestrations. The band aren’t loud enough, nor is the mixing quite right which, given the entire band are on electronic instruments, is a bad thing.

Despite my personal issues, however, this isn’t a bad production and it’s one that RENT fans should try and see before it closes next week. It’s obvious that everyone involved loves the show and you can see that everybody wants to be getting it right.

Where: Bridewell Theatre
When: 18/19/21/22 Nov. @ 19:30, 15/22 Nov. @ 15:00. Two charity performances as well.
How Much: £15 Unreserved
Concessions: £12
No worth paying/Other here.

Friday, 14 November 2008

REVIEW: "Chav Scum Kills God"

So while The Teenage Theatre Critic is off at the opera and the Royal Ballet I’m reviewing a play called Chav Scum Kills God. Just a touch of a difference.

And between you and me? I think I may have made the right choice.

The first full length play from Drew Davies, Chav Scum follows...well...a chav named Robert (Bradley Benjamin) as he wakes up in Hell, which resembles an empty waiting room. Greeted by the Other (Michael Lindall), a cross between a psych ward assistant and Kryten from Red Dwarf, Robert is informed that he died in a car crash while choking on his KFC. Fortunately, Hell is what you make of it: the only people put through severe torture are those who feel they deserve it. Likewise, there are chances to climb Hell’s social ladder as revealed by Robert’s father (Des Brittain) who is sleeping his way to the middle class via the great dictators. It all ends up with Robert proclaimed as the chosen one, destined to wear a time bomb necklace into Heaven and kill God in a blow for equality - after all, people in Heaven get better moisturiser.

Sound horrible? Amazingly it’s not, but I’m not claiming that it’s brilliant either.

The problems with the show lie with Robert and his father: the characters are utterly dull though Benjamin and Lindall work their best with what they’ve got. Likewise Sarah Alborn makes the most out of her one scene as Kathy (details involve plenty of spoilers) but she too falls into the “chav stereotypes are so 2006” category, and the ending may make its point but it’s dramatically unsatisfying.

Where Chav Scum shines (besides its brevity - the runtime is 90 min. including an interval of questionable value) is with the two characters running interference: the aforementioned Other has two incarnations - one for Hell and Heaven - and Lindall fills his time onstage with subtle movements gestures which are not only good for laughs but also enhance rather than detract from points where the Other is not the focus - think of Penny’s role in Hairspray during “I Can Hear The Bells” and the Madison sequence for a comparison.

The other character whom I dearly adored was Jonathan Hansler’s Lou, aka Satan as interpreted by George Carlin. It’s easy to see why people would follow this devil, as he oozes charm and straight talk while manipulating his surroundings.

To sum it up: Fun time, worth popping in, and short enough that if you like it you can leave after 40 minutes at the interval or stay for the whole time and still make it to the pub for multiple rounds after.

Where: Courtyard
When: Until 30 Nov., Tu-Su @ 19:30
How Much: £12.50
Concessions: £10, local residents with proof of address can get £5 tickets until the 16th
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. Cheaper than a film at Leicester Square, but not quite good enough to justify the full price.
RZ Other Notes: This production is in the Courtyard’s studio which is a) warm, b) unreserved seating and c) not raked. Complicating matters is a concurrent run of Measure for Measure in the main house which, the night I went, looked to be loaded with school groups that crowd the limited waiting area. Fortunately Chav Scum lets out before Measure can even reach its interval.

Friday, 7 November 2008

REVIEW: "Linie 1" (Film DVD)

Back in July I reviewed the long-running musical Linie 1 after a trip to Berlin. At the time the stage version had just come out on DVD, but getting a copy is difficult: one needs to either visit the GRIPS Theater in Berlin or order a copy directly. As the company doesn’t have the facilities to process credit cards, getting ahold of the disc outside of Germany is troublesome to say the least. Fortunately the 1988 film version has recently been released on mass market DVD after spending over a decade out of print on VHS.

In many ways the film is an easier watch than the stage disc: the movie runs barely 100 minutes (vs. the play’s 180+) which has greatly streamlined the rather messy plot. The film also offers the benefits of specialised casting: while most of the cast were in the original stage version, characters such as the Boy in the Raincoat (played here by Andreas Schmidt, most recently seen in The Counterfeiters) have been recast for age appropriateness whereas the stage DVD cast is full of ageing members about to finish their contracts. The songs also have a poppier and in some places stronger arrangement than on stage (e.g. Hey du.)

That’s about where the benefits end, though. A number of songs (including the haunting 6 Uhr 14 and the angsty Tag ich hasse dich has been replaced with the poppier In jeder Großstadt bin ich zu Haus) have been axed, and the design can only be described as bizarre: the film will spend ten minutes in a realist mode only to throw ticket inspectors to smoke filled tunnels or have policemen dancing for one shot of a song while chasing down a busker while moving normally otherwise. Scenes set outside of a train car or station hearken back to the 40’s with a combination of fake buildings and painted backdrops, and the film’s altered ending does nothing for the sake of clarity. It’s not bad like the RENT movie was, largely due to the continued input of the theatrical creators, but the aesthetic is jarring and may put viewers off the first time through.

The filmed Linie 1 also fails to tackle some of the play’s larger themes, such as urban anonymity: the Girl is given a proper name (Sunny) as is the Boy (Humphrey - three guesses as to why) and even though it’s a minor issue given the wholesale reduction of material, it takes away some of the magic and the grit. I’d need to pull out the stage DVD or the script books to check, but I suspect the play’s extensive use of Berlin dialect has been toned down, though it’s still present.

As far as the DVD itself is concerned, the film is presented in a 1.66 aspect ratio and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The print has been newly telecined (with 4% PAL speedup) and remastered and the colours are nice and intense with no visible film damage and retains an appropriate amount of film grain. The audio track is straightforward 2.0 stereo encoded in Dolby Digital. As is annoyingly standard for German releases there are no subtitles, either in German for the hard of hearing or alternative languages for foreign viewers.

In terms of extras, there’s a 30 minute making of which is mostly talking head footage of Reinhard Hauff (director) and Eberhard Junkersdorf (producer). There’s some interesting discussion of how they adapted the material and some of the technical constraints (getting a real train car into the studio proved rather difficult), a photo gallery with some music, the original trailer, and direct links to the songs. The original press kit is also included as a rather nifty DVD-ROM extra.

Overall, Linie 1 the movie is a product of its era which hasn’t held up as well twenty years on as its inspiration, but it’s an accessible version of the work and is well worth the price (a scant €10 online - cheaper than the OCR) for those who are curious and is available from your German DVD merchant of choice including

Thursday, 6 November 2008

THOUGHTS: “Confessions of Honour”

Job applications, writing commitments, and the first cold of the season are keeping me from reviewing this in greater detail, but I did want to get a post up about Gerry Hinks’s Confessions of Honour to say....that I liked it. Quite a bit, in fact, but it ticks a lot of my boxes: history, good pacing, interesting subject, not being painfully obvious with how the twists go, quality acting, the list goes on and on. The only real qualm that I have is that at its core, this play is a two hander but there are four characters: the central Frederick Salisbury (Keith Minshull) and Wolfgang Meissler (author Hinks), as well as the Warrant Officer who occasionally pops her head in to mind them and the RSM who is only around for the beginning and the end. I can understand having a third character to frame the play’s events surrounding a Victoria Cross awardee returning his medal to the regiment, but another seems excessive.

Anyways, this is a play which falls squarely under the category of “nice” and “intimate” and while not a life changer, “a wonderful way to escape a nasty, rainy afternoon.” The London run is closed, but I believe there was one more short run following which may have a day or two left.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

REVISITS: Come Dancing + Eurobeat

When closing dates approach I generally try to revisit shows that I liked - especially if deals abound. Last week I had the opportunity to hit two shows which are sadly on the way out.

Come Dancing has really come together since previews. It’s still on the self-indulgent side, but it doesn’t feel weighed down by it anymore. Everything that needed to be tightened up has been, and the show is a wonderful little charmer that deserves to tour well and settle in at one of the West End’s smaller venues (I nominate the Duke of York’s) for a return engagement. There’s still a few days left for this one, and tickets are still available at Stratford East’s reasonable prices, so get there while you can.

I also made it to the closing of Eurobeat on Saturday. I’ve been utterly shameless in raving about this production, and this made it my fourth visit. The show is still hilarious even when you know what’s coming, and the hosts’ freedom to ad-lib (particularly about Andrew Sachs and Icelandic banks) helps to keep it fresh. The show really turned into a cult flop of sorts, as the first timers in the crowd were clearly overwhelmed by repeat visitors bringing full sized flags and going absolutely batshit insane. Most shows can only dream of the enthusiasm the crowd brought to this performance, and it’s sad to see it go - albeit not for too long, as continental tours are going up and a new edition of the show, complete with ten new songs, is in development for an opening next year in Australia. Good times await, as does a sad one as I try to find the time and money to make a fleeting return to Brief Encounter before the 16th...

Monday, 3 November 2008

REVIEW: "La Cage Aux Folles"

So I got lazy and the official critics already have their reviews up. So instead of a proper review, have some ramblings...

La Cage is a show that most theatre geeks find to be a minefield subject. On the one hand, it was a breakout hit and one of the first mainstream musicals on Broadway to deal with the gay lifestyle. On the other, it was a surprise upset for the Tony, taking Best Musical over Sunday in the Park with George, which is a sore spot for Sondheim fans. I love Sunday - I think it’s absolutely brilliant. And yes, I also liked La Cage, which I saw for the first time about a week ago.

The new West End production is based on last Christmas’s run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and while the sets have been scaled up to fit the Playhouse’s more generous proportions, the cast, orchestra, and general production values have remained smaller than in the original. And while I hadn’t seen the show before and wouldn’t have known better, my companion for the evening (one of the top names in London drag) was quite familiar with the show, having seen both the original (and prematurely closed) West End run not to mention numerous regional productions across the UK.

His opinion? This La Cage keeps it real. The smaller ensemble (six male cagelles vs. eight men and two women) is closer to what a real club would have, Tim Shortall’s costumes are more down to Earth than in past runs, and the emotions are genuine. Neither of us were particularly fond of Douglas Hodge as testy tranny Albin at the interval, but Mr. Hodge found his character’s depth by the start of the second act and improved by leaps and bounds as the back half played out. As the papers raved for him, I’d guess that his issues have been resolved.

Personally, I liked the balance at hand in this production: both the loving relationship between Albin and Georges (Denis Lawson) as well as the panic that strikes son Jean Michel (Stuart Neal) which drives the show’s action: the same dread that comes from introducing friends and partners to overly religious or tragically unhip parents is instantly recognisable and though it’s devastating for Albin the audience are likely to understand the character’s motivation, passing off the character as more than a mere caricature.

So yeah. Believe the hype with this one: this is a high energy production (how else can 165 minutes fly by so fast?) but one which leaves the audience comfortably warm by the end. The fall season only has one big musical left (Imagine This, which won’t be covered here due to a paid review commission) so if you’re looking for a big, traditional West End fix or you want something romantic to replace the soon-to-close Brief Encounter, you owe it to yourself catch La Cage aux Folles while you can.

Where: Playhouse Theatre
When: Until 10 Jan., M-Sa @ 19:30, Th/Sa @ 14:30. Varies Xmas/New Year’s
How Much: £17.50-£55 (£57.50 for cabaret table seating - prepare to crane your neck.)
Concessions: Day seats available, check with the box office.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £45 - The best thing to hit the West End in a while, but doesn’t quite come together enough for the top price.
RZ Other Notes: Rumour is that if sales are high the producers are planning to extend the run and bring in Graham Norton to play Albin. Take it with a rock of salt but so far there’s nothing announced yet to follow....