Sunday, 28 December 2008

ARTICLE: 2008 Year In Review

Last year at this time I was gleefully taking a holiday on the continent, but this year the funds simply aren’t available - heck, they aren’t even available to make it back to the theatre before New Year’s. Reviews are likely to be sparse for a while, barring free tickets making themselves available.

To be honest, I can do with a bit less theatre these days. My goal for 2008 was to see 100 shows, and by my estimates I went to the theatre at least 125 times this year including revisits and to see shows which I didn’t cover here for a variety of reasons (friends in, professional coverage, etc.) which is a lot - arguably too much - by anybody’s standards (short of those who usher one of the big tourist shows and see half of it eight times a week.) Needless to say, I’ve completely forgotten about most of what I saw. This news shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as only the truly great and utterly awful remain in our memories. All of the shows mentioned below, regardless of whether or not I said they were good or bad, succeeded greatly in NOT being mediocre and forgettable. Regular readers will not be surprised to find an overwhelming number of musicals listed below as well.

“Nice Try” award - So Jest End. The author emailed regarding his dismay with my negative review, and I hope that he can take that venom and use it in future revisions of the show. I am also available to write snarky theatre parodies should anybody wish to hire my services.

Worst One-man show - An Audience With The Mafia. If I were a praying man I’d have asked god why this insipid, self-indulgent, and boring piece of dreck was allowed to make it to a stage. Easily one of the worst shows AT ALL of 2008.

Best Revue - Make Me A Song. I love William Finn, and the cast were excellent. Too bad nobody actually went, thereby ensuring that producers would see no interest in Finn in London and again passing over Spelling Bee for a London run.

Best Concert series - Maria Friedman Rearranged. While some more variety between the Menier and Trafalgar runs would have been nice, Ms. Friedman is charming and this concert series is warm and inviting.

Best One-man show - Jay Johnson: The Two and Only. A funny, touching piece about a man, his art, and the loss of heroes that was cut tragically short due to producer failure and placement in the Arts Theatre (Of DEATH!) The marquee is still posted at the Arts’ former location.

Best Concept In Need of a Dramaturge - Involution. This sci-fi look at genetics and religion had much to offer: a dystopian setting, interesting and conflicted characters, and some great dialogue, but it also meandered and dragged. Some well placed edits and this could be a serious contender of a piece.

Best Show That’s I Took Too Long To See - Black Watch. Finally something that justified reworking the main stage at the Barbican. So what if it toured for a year before I saw it?

Worst Characters - You’ve Been A Wonderful Audience. Dying comedians, annoying prats, and whiny sidekicks combined in the smelly furnace known as the Barons Court.

Play of Ultimate Suffering - Tough Time, Nice Time. OK OK, so I hadn’t slept for three days before seeing this due to an ongoing flu and felt like utter hell during the performance wanting nothing more than to reach a state of unconsciousness and failing miserably. One would think that two naked men sitting in a bathtub being entirely unsexy would have done the job, but sadly I made it through this one awake, in much pain, and hating every minute.

Best Adaptation - Brief Encounter. I truly regret not making more of an effort to see this delightful, cozy and brilliant production a second time. Thankfully it’s touring in 2009 and hopefully coming near London again if not making a triumphant return to the West End.

Best Pantomime - Mother Goose (Hackney Empire.) OK so I could argue that I also saw Dick Whittington for the second time in 2008 (and I liked it better) but of the three shows I’ve seen so far, this is unchallenged as the best panto of the 2008 season and likely to go unchallenged as finance is keeping me away from Croydon and Stratford.

Best Alternative Christmas Show - The Devil Wears Tweed. A hilarious send-up that got me digging for classic radio serials. And yes, it does border on being a musical. So did Brief Encounter.

Best Devised Piece - Spyski. A hilarious send-up that...hey wait a second, am I being too obvious with my love/hate of certain genres? Anyhow, this time it’s a crossover between espionage films and Oscar Wilde. What’s not to love?

Worst Classic Play - Troilus and Cressida (Barbican.) Boring, badly staged, boring, poorly costumed, boring, over-acted, boring, full of annoying characters, boring, expensive, and REALLY FUCKING BORING. Also deserves an award for Worst Stage Combat. No wonder it went over so well wherever they premiered it (somewhere on the continent that speaks French) and little wonder that I continue to avoid Shakespeare as a result.

Best Play - August: Osage County. Did you really need to ask?

Best Surprise - Imagine This. I went into this expecting a horrid score and to be hit with the “help help we’re being oppressed” stick. Instead I was greeted with some sweeping tunes and the best musical staging all year.

Runner-up: A Tale of Two Cities at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Not just for who was behind it but for making Dickens’ epic intensely intimate and for assembling one of the best casts on the London Fringe.

Best Turn-Your-Brain-Off Show - Joseph. It’s a long time personal favourite, and it’s hard not to crack a smile by the end.

Best Early Closure: RENT Remixed. Two months early. Everybody else has gone on to better jobs without skipping a beat.

Best Revival: The Music Man (Chichester.) OK so not a TONNE of competition this year, but everything about this production was spot on and even this cynical bastard felt chills of anticipation and excitement when Winston sang of the Wells Fargo Wagon. Unfortunately it appears that plans to transfer this production to the West End this spring have fallen through due to the economy.

Biggest Waste of the Creators’ Time: Rue Magique. Ten years went into this insipid mess about child prostitution. Sometimes it’s better to pull the plug and pursue alternative avenues.

Best Fringe Musical: Betwixt. Smart, funny, and charming (there’s that word again...) this show was a perfect reminder of why London is so desperately in need of more mid-sized venues. Word is that this one is bound for New York.

Most Out Of Character Production: Come Dancing. A remarkably tame celebrity pet project took centre stage in this year’s lineup at Stratford East. And while I had some issues with the piece, there’s a lot going for it and it’s always a thrill to see pop composers coming to the theatre.

Die Vampire Die Award: Dracula (White Bear.) Can we please just get Tanz der Vampire in London?

Most Overhyped Production: Marguerite. The creative team from Les Miz. One of the biggest divas in the West End. An utterly unimpressive evening with bland lyrics and the least sympathetic lead character in a musical since Scarlet O’Hara. Speaking of which....

Worst New Musical: Gone With The Wind. Not only did GWTW have a longer gestation period than Rue Magique, it had far more money behind it and a creative team which should have known far, far better and taken the necessary steps to either quit while ahead or perform the radical reworkings needed to make this piece tolerable. While Rue Magique was certainly an example of what not to do in writing a musical, it was never boring - a term which more than aptly described Gone With The Wind.

Best Musical Performance: Elena Roger in Piaf. Talk about a celebrity vehicle! And a personal one as well - my professional writing debut was a review of the Donmar’s production.

Best New Musical: Eurobeat, The Harder They Come (tie.) Funny enough, neither of these is *truly* new (both ran on the fringe long before I saw them) but they were new to me and I wound up visiting each four times. Eurobeat was wickedly funny and full of catchy novelty pop songs. The Harder They Come may have been a film adaptation, but with the original creatives contributing the film’s anarchic spirit and grit came across surprisingly well, especially after the show took up residence in the small yet lavish Playhouse vs. the impersonal bunker at the Barbican (I felt more involved in the circle at the Playhouse than in the front row at the Barbican.) Sadly both shows came to premature demises - the former closing two weeks early after a disastrous tour and the latter closed two months ahead of schedule. But amazing they were, and will be fondly remembered.

Here’s looking forward to 2009 and posts requiring far less formatting.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

NOTES: Noel at Noel

When I saw Brief Encounter earlier this year, words such as "nice," "pleasant," and "old-fashioned" were terms that I frequently used in a positive manner to describe Kneehigh's remarkable production.

I'm going to use those same words to describe Noel at Noel, currently at the New End, but with an opposing connotation: Australian cabaret singer John Michael Swinbank gives us two hours of Coward classics, but despite some occasionally amusing anecdotes, there's no real spark or passion which grabs the audience and refuses to let them go. To be entirely honest, I came very near to dozing off during the first half, and relied on a coffee during the interval to get me through the second. Swinbank is by no means a bad singer, but the show just failed to captivate or particularly entertain me although the OAPs surrounding me were far more amused - perhaps this is merely a generational difference.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

THOUGHTS: "The Devil Wears Tweed"

Sorry readers, I've got two shows today and one tomorrow to cover for freelance. I'm also in a disturbingly lazy mood, so this one is being kept short.

And the short of it is this: The Warehouse have put on some top notch Christmas-time entertainment that is well worth taking a trip out to Zone 5 to see.

For, you see, instead of pantomime, the company have instead looked to Britain's great history of broadcast entertainment to create a series of new adventures featuring legendary radio hero Dick Barton, Special Agent. Since 1998 the Warehouse have produced five new adventures for the adult Dick Barton and now two prequels. Each episode is a loving riff on postwar radio serials complete with anachronism, overblown dialogue, Imperial pride, and a tongue in cheek appreciation of the tropes which made the original great. This year's show, Young Dick Barton II: The Devil Wears Tweed is no exception as Dick crosses the globe in search of a three piece suit which grants the wearer unlimited power.

I'd love to say more, but it would spoil everything and the fun is in the surprises. The cast (including multitalented author Duncan Wisbey), most of whom take a multitude of roles, are uniformly top notch, and Stefan Bednarczyk's lyrics (Bednarczyk also appears in the cast) are more clever than any heard recently in the West End.

So what are you waiting for? Get booking!

Where: Warehouse Theatre, Croydon
When: Until 22 Feb. Performance times vary.
How Much: £14.50-£17.50 (includes day membership in the venue)
Concessions: Limited but bookable in advance for £10.50
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £17.50. One of the best things on offer this holiday season.
RZ Other Notes: It's cheaper (and easier) to buy your ticket to Croydon from the Underground office at London Bridge than the National Rail ticketing office.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

REVIEW: Peter Pan (Richmond)

In the past ten years, the world of British Pantomime has seen an upheaval in its production methodology thanks to the rise of the QDOS and First Family Entertainment companies (the latter being a joint between the Ambassador Theatre Group and LiveNation.) Both companies are responsible for mass produced pantos, chock full of celebrities - both American and British - and and in the case of the former, special effects (last year’s QDOS Aladdin featured a 3D holographic genie) and, sadly, a rather generic product.

For foreign readers, I should explain a bit about panto season: A panto’s lifespan is merely six to eight weeks, and productions almost always sell out, which is why a number of smaller regional companies use their annual production as a key fundraiser. That said, most modern pantomimes are remarkably high end productions featuring as many set changes as a West End musical and possibly even more costumes so getting one up is frighteningly expensive and because these are family shows and frequently populated by school groups, ticket prices need to stay low. For performers, panto is absolute hell: the performance schedule ranges from 12 to 16 performances a week.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of money flying around and for a commercial producer, it’s an absolutely daunting proposition. Enter QDOS and FFE who have an advantage that independent companies, such as the Hackney Empire don’t: scale. This year, for example, FFE are putting on 12 shows, and QDOS are putting on even more. Of them, most will in some way be recycled - the sets and costumes go into storage come February and go off to a new city in December, sometimes with the prior year’s script (albeit with a few updates to reflect local interests and current affairs.) In other words, the manufacturing costs go down (65% of the QDOS budget goes to production payroll) and if a theatre in Glasgow gets last year’s show from Brighton, well, it’s new to them.

Anyways, this leads us to this year’s Peter Pan at the Richmond Theatre. While amusing, March’s disastrous run of the Spanish Peter Pan El Musical did little to endear me to the story, which I loved growing up (thanks to the cartoon on Fox.) Unfortunately, there was little new about this more traditional production. In this case, Peter Pan is in a similar place to last year’s Cinderella at the Old Vic, as it straddles the line between family play and proper panto. Bonnie Langford is lovely and something of an institution in the title role (one she’s been playing on and off for at least twenty years) but somebody forgot to direct in at least one mandatory pantomime thigh-slap amidst some impressive aerials. Simon Callow tried as Captain Hook, but the role’s true menace down - a child behind me was cheering him on and Callow had to demand boos from the audience in the first act. Tony Rudd was fun in the role of bumbling Boson Smee, but Samantha Gifford was rather bland as Wendy (not really her fault - the role exists to stamp down everybody else’s fun.) The singalong at the end was also a standby ("What do you do with a drunken sailor?") and audience members were left without a lyric sheet (I confess that I don't know the middle part) and it didn't matter anyways because the sound in the upper circle was awful.

This was my first time at one of the major companies’ shows, and I’ll be entirely honest: I only went because I wanted to see Bonnie Langford. I paid about £10 more for my seat in the upper circle than I did for centre stalls at Mother Goose in Hackney (factoring in booking fee and transit to Zone 4,) and received a show that was professional in every way, but ultimately lacking in excitement and Panto Power.

And I have another Peter coming up after Christmas as well. Because there’s no way I’m missing Brian Blessed as Captain Hook.

Where: Richmond Theatre, Richmond
When: Until 11 Jan., M, W-Sa @ 14:00 and 19:00, Su @ 13:30 and 17:30
How Much: £20-£27
Concessions: Family tickets and concessions available on a limited basis.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15. It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great.
RZ Other Notes: While the upper circle lacks leg room, the rake is fantastic and I had a clear view of everything on stage except for about 20 seconds where the Darling children fly to the absolute top of the space and their heads were missing. I didn’t get to check out the first circle or the stalls, but I’d avoid any rear section for this show.

Also, I really wish they weren’t selling all sorts of spinning toys with flashing lights and loud motors. Sadly these sold in abundance and it looked like every child in the audience had one - I think I saw more of these than interval ice creams.

Friday, 12 December 2008

THOUGHTS: “Potted Potter”

(Second review in a day. Family Friendly season continues. This got professionally reviewed last year and may or may not get covered again this year, so just a short one from me.)

I love the Harry Potter books. While I didn’t get into the series until book four had been long published, I pre-ordered books five and six for same day delivery and went to midnight madness for book seven (even if I did read the leaked version online in advance - I was surrounded by 4channers that weekend and didn’t want to be spoiled.) Needless to say, the thought of a comedic redux was appealing, but I didn’t have a chance to make it to last year’s run at Trafalgar Studios.

Fortunately Potted Potter is back, still performed by its creators Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, and still promising all seven books in 70 minutes. Needless to say, it’s also fortunate is that Potted Potter is pretty darn funny, revelling in the books’ formula and embracing the inner fan in all of us. From the audience quidditch match (complete with appropriate levels of violence) to Dan’s demands to stop playing the rather dull Harry and take over as Dumbledore right as Book 6 is about to end (no spoilers here!), the show is sharp, hilarious, and revels in its low budget.

Will non-Harry fans have a reason to go? Not really. But Potter aficionados, both young and old, will have a ball. Just not a Yule Ball - this is a show performed at Christmas, not a Christmas show.

Where: Trafalgar Studios 2
When: Varies. Most days are two shows at 12:00, 15:00, or 19:00.
How Much: £20
Concessions: Children and standard concessions £15. Family tickets for £60.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15. A short Fringe show at Fringe prices.

Review: "The Dreamers of Inishdara"

Sometimes you see a listing and the description just clicks: An Irish country setting, a concept reminiscent of Stardust, and a legendary lady in the cast. And sometimes, the execution just fails it completely.

Leanah Dubh (Gemma-Leah Davreux) is a half-fairy postmodernist painter (a la Jackson Pollock) with a migraine: separated from the Irish land she falls weak, dependent on stranger Crow Murphy to get her home safe. Once recovered, Leanah needs Crow to leave - and fast. Her saintly landlord’s evil brother (Peter Dunne as Brian Quigley type Dick Branigan) has barred men from the premises and will evict her if one is found. Matters are complicated by the arrival of a space-case leprechaun (Patricia Quinn in fine form) who informs Leanah that she is to marry the Fairy King - a daunting proposition.

There’s a lot going for the play: the characters (minus an uncomfortably out of place parish priest) are interesting, and the story was interesting and well paced.

And then things start going wrong. Much of the dialogue could have been scripted for fantasy LARPers, and while green themes are hot, the constant reminders of Irish natural beauty are overdone. Accent troubles also abounded, particularly from Mr. Dunne who wandered between Ballykissangel Irish and Rupert Murdoch Australian and Stephen Elliot MacDonald who to my ears sounded Scottish instead of country Irish. The appearance of an English bulldozer driver at the end whose sole purpose was to finalise Dick’s redemption, was awkward and a waste of an ensemble member. And then there’s the higher than average Fringe ticket price, rivalling those of professional pantos.

I don’t want to imply that The Dreamers of Inishdara is horrible or a wasted night out - it’s absolutely not - but the play feels like a work in progress at this state and could benefit from some time with a dramaturge. It’s also a difficult work to judge because it’s right on the border of “family play” and “adult play” and my expectations vary between the two. It’s (mostly) entertaining and (mostly) well acted and an intimate and choice, but with so much family fare up and running this time of year, The Dreamers of Inishdara is likely to find itself dreaming of full houses rather than being blessed with them.

Where: Jermyn Street Theatre
When: Until 13 Dec. 08, 19:30 PM, Sa @ 15:30
How Much: £22
Concessions: £16
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £13.50 (Half price plus TKTS fee)
RZ Other Notes: Yeah. I booked this to see Patricia Quinn, who did not disappoint. Even from the next to back row, this is likely to be the most intimate setting one will see this legendary lady perform in.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

THOUGHTS: “Sinderfella”

As readers can probably guess, I love the great British art of pantomime. The colours, the shouting, the good fairy entering in a giant penis costume.

OK, so the last one is a bit odd, but nevertheless appeared in this new example of the all grown up sub-genre of adult pantomime. Tacky, crude, and raunchy as can be, Sinderfella is cheap, in your face, and a good time when sober - but those around me were clearly enjoying themselves more after at least a couple drinks.

The cast, led by London drag standard Bette Rinse, are clearly having fun as the double (and single) entendres fly, dildos are waved, and the Ugly Sisters (Peter Kosta and Simon Gross, the latter also being the author/director) torment both poor Cinders and the audience more savagely than in your standard kiddie fare. To my surprise, though, this production (despite all the drag and the location) was actually LESS gay than Stephen Fry’s Old Vic show last year.

Yes, it looks cheap (it was) and yes, there’s too much music in the second act (7 full songs in 30 minutes) and yes, they do play “Be Our Guest” far, far too often, but Sinderfella is a foul-mouthed hoot nonetheless.

Where: Above the Stag Theatre
When: Until 22 Dec., M/W @ 19:30, Th-Sa @ 21:00, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £12 general seating
Concessions: None
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10.
RZ Other Notes: If you buy a programme you get a free raffle ticket for a gift that made the winning lady smile quite a bit.

Monday, 8 December 2008

REVIEW: “Sunset Blvd.”


This simple, hyphenated word brings terror to the hearts of musical theatre fans everywhere, for as every production putting this concept to use (e.g. Sam Mendes’s Cabaret and John Doyle’s Company) shows, there are just as many proponents of creativity as there are decriers of the reduced, simplified arrangements and often passable but not impressive playing, let alone the claims that one craft is impinging on the other’s place. As long as small theatres like the Watermill continue wishing to produce musicals, however, the need for compromise will occur.

The new Sunset Blvd. is another Watermill birth: the actors are the orchestra, and a formerly grand show is re-imagined as a chamber piece. I never saw the original, lavish productions in the 90’s, which gave me nothing to compare this production to causing me to judge this production cold (and not just because my companion for the afternoon was running late!)

I won’t bother to include a synopsis, as the details are available on Wiki and both the musical and the original film on which it is based have been skewered countless times, including a brilliant rendition on Tiny Toon Adventures, so even those not directly familiar with the work are likely to have been exposed to some aspect of the story. I will say, however, that the material left me neutral. I enjoyed myself, and a number of the songs are great (the opening “Let’s do Lunch,” the sarcastic “Every Film is a Circus,” and the frantic title song) but the score is decidedly middle of the road for Lord Lloyd-Webber and while Sunset Blvd. is thoroughly professional and dramaturgically sound, the original film is a timeless classic and gains little from being musical-ised.

Getting back to this rendition, however, I felt the actor-musician concept worked. While I was quite impressed technically - the actors are constantly switching off instruments - I felt the concept neither added nor detracted from the material. The arrangements weren’t particularly thin, but I do wonder if they intentionally snuck a few riffs in as I heard bits of Phantom and Les Miz sneaking into the background on some songs.

What DID work to the production’s benefit, however, was size. We see events unfold from Joe’s perspective, and Diego Pitarch’s small set with its cold, steel revolving staircase lent itself to the cramped quarters at the Comedy. Playing the show in a large set would add to the sense of decay, but the mounting pressures and tensions play better in a venue that promotes the human over the mechanical. That said, I felt that the intimacy and the claustrophobia must have been diminished over the tinier Watermill and I was only in the first circle.

While the actors may still be finding their roles again in the new space, the performances I saw from the four principles were almost all mixed: Kathryn Evans as the great Norma Desmond only hit her stride in the second act, though once she did she easily made up for any earlier failings. Ben Goddard found the piece’s comedy as the acerbic Joe, but seemed absent (and musically off) from his second act love scene with Laura Pitt-Pulford’s bland Betty. In my book, the only actor to maintain his presence and intensity for the entire performance was Dave Willetts as the delightfully and domineeringly creepy Max.

In short? There’s nothing bad or particularly wrong about this Sunset, but it never quite hits the point of greatness that it strives for. Musical fans (especially ALW fans) should go, but I don’t feel right recommending it for, say, the once a year crowd. A strictly middle of the road Meh from me.

Where: Comedy Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30, varies for Christmas week.
How Much: £17-£64
Concessions: Likely, check at the box office. Preview tickets are £10-£20 off.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25
RZ Other Notes: The original production of Sunset Blvd. was so lavish that it ran for years and never made a cent in profit due to ongoing expenses and some rather costly personnel choices. I suspect that this production will not have the same problems.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

NOTES/REVISIT: “Sweeney Todd” + “Imagine This”

I had a chance to catch the Union’s production of Sondheim’s legendary Sweeney Todd this week, but won’t be reviewing it as I also have a friend in the cast. It’s also sold out and closing on Sunday.

It did, however, give me an excuse to bring up an old debate: What’s the difference between London AmDram and most of the London Fringe? After all, nobody’s getting paid at either of them and I’ve seen pros slumming it in London AmDram for exposure.

This was also my first trip to the Union, and it’s a nifty venue - I’d love to put something like Hedwig in there. I’d also want to get the seats redone - they rival the Menier for being uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t planning to revisit Imagine This, but a friend wanted to go and it’s not exactly hard to get free tickets (or discounts - they were handing out £25 fliers afterwards) so back to the New London I went. The show’s been tightened up a bit since I saw it originally, but it’s still in need of one more revision - the campy slave character is still annoyingly out of place and the first act didn’t hit particularly well with my friend or a fair bit of the audience, but the second act certainly did - even if I’d personally cut the final song. In short, it’s flawed but so much is good (score, cast, design, and yes, concept) that I stand by saying that Imagine This is worth giving a chance on a discount.