Tuesday, 29 December 2009
For many, Elizabeth Taylor is synonymous with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Despite personal tragedy in production, her sexy, smouldering Maggie draped herself across a film full of long, still shots, and the theatrical nature of the script often led her to play directly to the camera and audience in such a way as to immediately sympathise with the ignored wife and give in to her charms and appeals. Any new production, therefore, must find a way to keep the film as far from the audience’s mind as possible during the play.
In a stunning new production, director Debbie Allen (most infamous for her choreography in Carrie) has done just that by casting an all-Black family in her Cat. While purists may show disdain at Allen’s edits, mostly to reflect racial issues and salt up a bit of Big Daddy’s language, the new Cat is a fascinating view of a family and an era in decline.
Moved to the 1980’s, Brick (Adrian Lester) is a football player-turned-announcer now consumed with apathy and alcoholism after the death of his best friend and possible lover Skipper. He has cut off his wife, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) in every way possible, but most importantly in the bedroom. As Big Daddy (James Earl Jones) turns 65, word spreads through the family that he is dying of cancer - though the doctors have told him and Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad) that it was just a scare. Armed with the news, Brick’s older brother Gooper (Peter de Jersey) and his wife Mae (Nina Sosanya) are going full on for inclusion in Big Daddy’s yet-unwritten will, throwing their children and traditional family values in the faces of their opposition.
Williams’ play is a curio, not just for the way its repetitive style of dialogue would be co-opted and expanded by later generations (compare Maggie and Brick’s “Are you listening?” “I hear you.” with the “Talking/Telling” aspects of Glengarry Glenn Ross), but also for its portrayal of Southern traditions in decline and the needs of polite society to sweep anything undesirable - be it marital issues or homosexuality - under the rug only to watch as the house of cards collapses when the dirt dissolves the foundation.
Indeed, there have been many complaints among visitors for how the new time period weakens the crux (Brick’s possibly sexual relationship with Skipper), but the cultural shift of casting it in a Black family keeps it up: the role of the Church and traditional family structures are central in the African-American community, and sexual tolerance is still far behind that of society at large.
As far as Allen’s cast and direction go, Lester’s Brick is the picture of apathy: given over entirely to the bottle, Brick is a man of pride with nothing to be proud of. He’s flat, smooth, and devoid of emotion for anything except a drink and his memories - a calm amongst the storm around him. Lathan’s Maggie carries the first act, and demands both the audience’s sympathy and their annoyance: we can side with her while seeing why Brick wants her to go away and let him drink. The stars, however, are Rashad’s Big Mama, a well-meaning but intellectually lacking matron whose traditional power is shadowed entirely by the whirlwind of James Earl Jones’s firebrand of a Big Daddy.
To be honest, Jones was the selling point of the play for me going in, and the man could read the phone book for three hours and I’d still be enraptured, so take it for what it’s worth. However, to see a legend up close in one of the great American dramas is always a joyous experience, especially one which allows us both to see the voice of Darth Vader tearing into the fools he suffers in the name of polite society and for his delivery of the classic lines on mendacity.
So, needless to say, the production could do little wrong in my eyes, and it delivered by keeping me enraptured for the entire three hour runtime (one proper interval, one short one between the second and third acts.) While the new Cat is ambitious on multiple levels, it succeeds at two key aspects at the core: to bring a new, fresh angle to the text and to present the play well. See this while you can, and rejoice in the power of the straight play (especially with the Enron and Jerusalem transfers just around the corner.)
OK, so there’s one thing that did keep me from being fully engrossed in the show for all three hours, namely where I was sitting. It’s possible to get tickets in the slips for £10 on Lastminute, which is the only way I could afford a ticket, and depending on where you are (mine wasn’t TOO bad) you’ll miss a good deal of the action and when the eyes wander, so does the mind. The effect wasn’t as bad as at Arcadia, but the easily distracted should definitely shell out the extra cash for central seating, as both sides will face significantly restricted views (seats 1-12 lose being able to see the bar, seats 13-24 won’t see the dressing table.)
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Aladdin @ Hackney Empire
This is my third year attending the Hackney panto and every year it’s a gem and a total treat. The script is tight, the jokes brilliant, and the cast on tip top form. And Clive’s even throwing sweets into the audience again. Really, nothing else to say besides SEE THIS.
Rock 'n' Roll Aladdin @ The Shaw
The cast of actor-musicians give it their all and this is a fun show, but the script is middle of the road and very paint by numbers. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to those who don’t want to travel all the way to Wimbledon though. Especially if you prefer 50’s-70’s rock instead of most of the bits and bobs that get pinched for panto these days.
Morecambe @ The Duchess
I fully admit that I’m too young to really have appreciated this. It’s very nice, but there’s no real dramatic tension (Morecambe and Wise both led rather squeaky clean lives) and the humour feels old and dated now, especially since it’s a double act done by one. See it if you’re nostalgic, otherwise stay home and watch Morecambe and Wise clips on YouTube for an hour - especially the Mastermind segment. I think I laughed more at that than the entire show...
Dick Barton: Quantum of Porridge @ Croydon Warehouse
My second Dick Barton show, and one well worth the rather long journey out to Croydon for. Sharp gags, a plot twist in every scene, and some real creativity in the staging. Sure to join Hackney’s panto as one of my Christmas time traditions. See it if you can.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
On the other hand, let it be said that I absolutely believe in calling ‘em as I see ‘em. And despite thinking this version of Jest End is better than its predecessor, and regardless of the cast who worked their tails off to sing it well, the show still doesn’t come together.
For one, timing is everything in comedy. So why are there still jokes about Gone With The Wind, (nothing about Ernie Get Your Gun though) Mary Poppins, and Footloose (all gone for over a year) and bits about Little Mermaid and Legally Blonde (not open yet)? Ditto the farewell to Avenue Q which doesn’t close until March. All of the reality show bits are recycled from the last show as well, despite the fact that we didn’t have a casting show this year. I’ll almost forgive the Lord of the Rings song even if it took me forever to remember what it was from - though LotR wasn’t mentioned in the lyrics - but it was at least about flops in general. And still nothing about some of the biggest shows in the West End.
Second, the jokes are still one note. ALW and the Phantom singing “You’re Nothing Without Me” from City of Angels is a cosplay skit. It’s not something to put in a professional show, especially given that the joke is exposed as soon as people realise what the song is. The Barrowman and Donovan numbers were the same - Barrowman has a big smile and is loud, Jason Donovan hasn’t done stage in a while. Got it. Now do something with the other three minutes in the song.
How bad was it? I sat behind the creatives who were quite pleased with themselves, and I couldn’t hear all of the audience, but I *could* see the people off to the side thanks to the Jermyn Street’s lovely layout. And I saw that most of them weren’t laughing after the first verse of most bits.
Third, too much repetition. This is both in the lyrics (don’t repeat yourself in comedy unless you’re adding new context, and yes, this means writing new lyrics for each chorus) and in staging (I lost count of how many times the SA guy scratched his arse, how many times girls adjusted their tits, and how many skits ended with or involved someone giving two fingers.)
Fourth, too much repetition. This is both in the lyrics (don’t repeat yourself in comedy unless you’re adding new context, and yes, this means writing new lyrics for each chorus) and in staging (I lost count of how many times the SA guy scratched his arse, how many times girls adjusted their tits, and how many skits ended with or involved someone giving two fingers.)
See? Not funny. Neither is the third time Cameron/Fagin says "Maybe it's time to revive Miss Saigon." That's your second chorus. Your first is to comment on the upcoming Hair revival, the third is to change costume pieces and suggest Cats. See, it builds from happening to "Please no" to "Anything but that."
Anyhow, clearly there’s an audience for this sort of thing - after all, they packed the Menier for Forbidden Broadway - but despite the money and attention being thrown at it, Jest End remains on the wrong side of amateurish, feeling more like something being put on for friends (who seemed to make up most of the not sparse but not full house last night) rather than, you know, an actual paying audience.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
Now let’s assign adjectives for all of them as they relate to Faithless Bitches:
Script - Puerile. Bad. Awful. Advertised as “camp” but goes beyond camp, insults proper trash (John Waters would reject this script), and firmly resides somewhere between “Naruto cosplay skit” and “Lowest ranked submission in an amateur playwriting competition.”
What’s it about?
70’s softcore starlet Chesty is dead, her friends and fellow softcore washouts Pam and Monique start fighting at her funeral over the fact that Monique stole Pam’s leading role in the mainstream film Faithless Bitches. Of course, Pam stole Monique’s man, who is the father of her son and the son is fucking her male co-star in the film. Monique finds all this out from Angel Delight, the new hot young thang, and the love polygon unravels. Oh and there’s the lesbian producer behind Faithless Bitches manipulating everything. See the potential for something interesting there? Me too. Too bad none of it ended up in the script. Lame jokes, no character development, plotholes, directionless plot twists, you name it this thing fails at it. Big time.
Direction/Acting - Flat. One-Dimensional. Amateur. Not that the script offers much depth to characterise, but this goes beyond 70’s softcore acting (or even 70’s hardcore acting - Deep Throat is a damn entertaining movie even if you skip the actual sex scenes.) Director Harold Finley doesn’t know where to pull the comedic timing from, which is only a minor problem given that he wrote the bloody thing. Especially bad in the acting department (since the website lacks names) were the annoying twink/queen playing Monique’s son, the almost as vapid boyfriend, and the overdone Spanish/Hispanic/Italian/Who knows what he is because he’s called every epithet for it husband. Oh and Angel and Debbie Blake the supporting characters. And Pam during her breakdown. The actress playing Monique almost gets away with it because old bitches deserve some respect. But I can’t respect her for doing this given that she’s probably stuck on profit share.
Lighting - Nonexistent. Useless. There was lighting? Besides the projections telling us what the locations were (hint to the writer: We shouldn’t need to be told what the locations are) that nobody could see unless they were in the front row.
Set Design - Overcomplicated. Too clever for its own good. Some of the set changes, mostly moving around the coffin/table, took longer than the scenes that the set was changed for. See also: direction.
Costumes - Ugly. Unflattering. Fugly. Monique’s final dress. The semi-sheer shirts. The bad shirt choices in general. Pam’s dress at the top of the second act. BAD.
Production - Wasted. Failure. Faithless Bitches did a promo at West End Live. It was seen by 10,000 people. It was done too early and made no impact (other than to place doubts in my mind as to whether or not the show would be good - should have trusted my instinct). They had a huge cardboard stand thing for it earlier at the Courtyard. And it ended up where? In the studio.
So, to the producer of Faithless Bitches, this is for you: My email address is on the side. I’m working on a couple projects that could really use some development and enhancement money, and it’s clear that you’ve got a few thousand Pounds to burn or at the very least need some tax write-offs. And I want to put up a new production of Hedwig.
To everyone else: Faithless Bitches is a play with a message, and the message is BEWARE. This is not a play for seeing. This is a play for forgetting about and avoiding. Seriously. It almost makes Ernie Get Your Gun look competent by comparison.
Friday, 23 October 2009
Wednesday, 14 October 2009
Constructed around the letters of one Lieutenant Le Mesurier (his first name is conspicuously absent from the publicity materials), My Real War 1914-? is a superbly created one-man show (Le Mesurier, or Lem, is stunningly played by Philip Desmeules). Largely educational, intensely personal, and appropriately brief (80 minutes no interval), it is a pity that the text and performance are undermined by some unnecessary voiceovers and at times unnecessary or misused projections.
That said, I wish the schoolgroup who came to see Othello had seen this instead. The Great War is such a vital part of the English conscious that our pitiful turnout (some 20 people in Studio 2) was a disgrace to performance and memory alike.
Monday, 5 October 2009
The fourth wall is a barrier which the theatre has long been trying to both preserve and break, often simultaneously. For audiences, it’s a psychological safety curtain, separating us from the proceedings onstage and allowing us to emotionally engage without risk. For performers, the fourth wall can provide boundaries for performance, keeping a focus on the stage and not in the house. But then there’s promenade and interactive pieces, which have no walls, talking directly to the audience and making them as much a part of the show as the cast or the text.
The Author is all about breaking down the fourth wall. And the others. Looking at a play from four perspectives (two actors, author Tim Crouch who plays himself, and an audience member), The Author is about the walls we construct inside and outside of the theatre. About preserving our distance. About keeping it safe. About things not being safe.
For example, there is no actual stage. The four cast members are seated around amongst two sets of facing seats. Audience members are constantly talked to, pointed at, and referenced. And, in the cast of Adrian, are something that author Crouch clearly finds annoying: he talks about seeing everything, worshipping actors, and offers Maltesers to others. The events, told in a broken way resembling a group therapy session, revolve around one of Tim’s plays: a hyper-violent piece about wartime abuse which ends with Adrian being attacked by Vic, an actor who let the role get to him, at the stage door. Meanwhile Tim breaks down after months of researching torture videos by having a wank to a video of a baby sucking on a penis while actress Esther’s own infant is in the same room.
Needless to say, the audiences is taken out of their comfort zone. As someone who loathes audience participation and prefers to sit stoically in the back, I had the mis(?)fortune of ending up seated behind Crouch as he delivered the climactic tale. So much for that.
Personal squickiness aside, The Author is a brainy and challenging work in its themes often let down in execution: the dialogue is primarily “I” statements, there are odd pauses for non-beneficial lighting cues, and the events are far more interesting than the characters who lived them: Esther is a stereotypically shallow actress who thinks she’s deeper than she is, Vic is a big softie who keeps playing the hard man, Tim is suicidal, and if I’d been sitting near Adrian I’d have probably resorted to violence to keep him from talking. But as a fan gone pro, it’s an unavoidable reaction: we were Adrians at one point before we grew the hell up in order to be taken seriously.
So should you see The Author? I guess, if you’re the “I’m more fringe than you” sort or you like ticking extreme content boxes. Me, I’m a traditionalist, happy to let the action stay far, far away.
Addendum: I also have to take away points from the Royal Court (despite the fact that they were kind enough to supply a press ticket) for how much I loathe their bar. Sloane Square is not the easiest place to find an affordable pre-theatre meal (unless you come early enough to justify the walk to the Stockpot down Kings Road), and trying to even get a packet of crisps at the theatre is like fighting through an angry mob with the pre-Enron traffic. There’s nowhere to stand without getting jostled around like socks in the washing machine, and the more substantive bar offers disappear immediately, leaving people who come for the late show with empty stomachs and fuller wallets.
Friday, 25 September 2009
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean - if you like Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, Beaches, and the like, you'll love this early 80's play about small town women in a James Dean fan club who meet up after 20 years to reminisce and reveal secrets. The production is up to the Gatehouse's usual high standards, though the show itself wasn't really my thing - but I'm also not the target audience.
The Rat Pack - Live from Las Vegas - Is it me or is this show constantly on tour around the UK and the continent? I guess it's true that you can't stop a good tribute band, as again we have a well performed piece with impersonators doing Frank, Dean, and Sammy. The music is legendary and nice, the banter is VERY much a product of its era, politically incorrect in every way ("Did you say Jew-Jitsu? How would you like it if I called you a wop-sicle?") but you can't help but laugh. The audience ate it up, I would have been happier if it was a 105 minute one-act instead of a full two and a half hours, but again, not the target audience.
Seeing Newsrevue tonight.
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
Over the Threshold is no exception: Originally participating in and subsequently developed by the Perfect Pitch, Threshold won MTM’s best score award at the Fringe this year and has so far a number of 4 and 5 star reviews. Needless to say, it’s only natural that Threshold would come to the big smoke, settling into the cozy Jermyn Street Theatre.
What I don’t, however, is WHY. As in “Why is there so much hype around this show?” This isn’t to say that Christopher Hamilton’s book and score are bad - because they’re not - but why are people getting so excited about it? Yes, Threshold is thoroughly competent and professional, but it never, well, goes over the threshold into becoming special. Or even interesting.
Over the course of 75 minutes, two couples fight, have accidental partner swaps, and deal with the aftermath. Scottish Tom and Kate are new in London, he’s an out of work actor and she gave it up to be a stable office manager. They fight about commitment, his low libido, and whether or not he should move into a real job.
I can’t even remember the other two characters’ names, other than the prattish Englishman in an overly shiny suit and his American wife who spews words of comfort and wisdom while keeping secrets of her own. None of the characters are particularly special, deep, or exciting, and the misunderstandings lack the gravity of serious drama and the humour of farce.
The score, sadly, is equally plain. All of the songs are pleasant, but if you think you’ve heard it before on your Jason Robert Brown or Scott Allan CDs, not to mention about 80% of the shows that go through Perfect Pitch in general, you wouldn’t be too far off. There’s little variation in the tunes, just a lot of introspective mid-tempo piano ballads that wouldn’t be helped by a fuller orchestra because there’s nowhere for them to go.
That said, I can’t fault the cast: all four members (whose names I don’t have down by role) are clearly talented and deliver the material as best they can, bringing what little life the show has, but they’re also encumbered by John Brant’s direction. Brant wants very much to be smart, but the limited abstract set (a few half-doorways and some clear chairs) instead inspired an internal logic which demands cast members wander through a maze of paths to go on and off stage as though the audience know the floorplans to the theoretical flats the characters occupy. It’s distracting and sloppy, realism be damned.
In short, I guess Over the Threshold won awards and got decent reviews for being bland and inoffensive: it’s hard to find fault with something that sits so squarely in the middle. I’m genuinely thrilled for the creatives - finding the money to get ANYTHING up at Edinburgh and back to London so quickly is a monumental task in and of itself - but this was really the best that was on offer at the Fringe?
Sunday, 20 September 2009
I remember when Kurt Cobain died. Nirvana had been the hottest band around, and though I didn’t have a copy of Nevermind, my sister had picked up a used CD of In Utero, sneaking it in past our mother’s overzealous eye (electric guitars in general were too much for her.) I remembered the controversy over the cover art and “Rape Me,” the brilliance of the MTV Unplugged performance, and how my 8th grade lit teacher told us that Cobain should never have been a role model because of his drugs and emphasised the pointlessness of the “Life’s not 100% fun anymore” line in the suicide note.
As someone who hated his classmates and most of his teachers, I thought she was full of shit. And I still do.
So now in Trafalgar 2 we have Kurt and Sid, a fantasia set in the hours before Cobain’s suicide. A frustrated Kurt is in the attic of his suburban home when the vision of Sid Vicious appears. To cut 95 minutes (including interval) short, this Sid (who is, as he puts it, “way too smart” to be the real Sid) is Cobain’s subconscious attempting to talk him out of the act. That’s about as close to a spoiler as anybody can really get, because we all know how it’s going to end.
Needless to say, I found myself asking what the point is (and doing my best not to ask the author, who was in attendance). Cobain’s life has been covered in numerous biographies, and his own journals are available at bookstores everywhere, and for less than the price of a ticket. There’s some witty banter in Roy Smiles’s script, but no real insight: Cobain’s relationship with Courtney Love was idealised with no mention of the two’s constant fighting, his medical issues are written off, and he comes across as the media slanted him 15 years ago: a whiny poster-boy ungrateful for his fame and taking an easy way out.
Production-wise, there are few complaints: Shaun Evans has Cobain’s signature drawl though he never quite channels the real thing’s complexity, and Danny Dyer is a calm yet verbally feisty Vicious both in and out of reality. Cordelia Chisholm’s set is a cluttered attic strewn with toys and records, the old cliche about a cluttered mind come appropriately to life.
Complaints aside, I’m glad I saw Kurt and Sid - the rising alternative rock scene was one of the best parts of the 90's, and we're about to hit that on the global nostalgia cycle. That said, I’m also glad that I didn’t pay for it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to soak up "Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam."
Tuesday, 1 September 2009
Thursday, 20 August 2009
Now, I consider an excuse to go to Pentameters to be a great thing: the staff are extremely friendly, they have a loyal audience of locals from inside and outside the industry, and the space has the right blend of run-down charm and hipness to make it an appealing location to watch a show. Sure the bar downstairs is expensive, but that’s why Tesco Express is across the street. Oh, and it’s a half hour walk from my house. Hard to beat that.
Except when you have this dead horse of a play. A rapid-fire response to the economic downturn, CCQ starts with high flying banker Brad Bradshaw being let go from his cushy city job before rapidly losing his live-in gold-digging girlfriend and flat. After quickly finding himself on the wrong side of the DWP, Brad moves in with a struggling (and awful) actress, ultimately being made over by one of her friends (played by John Campbell aka drag queen Ebb-on-Knee) and hitting the drag circuit to make ends meet.
Unfortunately, the idea is much funnier on paper than in practice. The main subplot, involving the actress whose name I can’t remember taking Brad’s dog Rambo (played by a rather attractive fellow in leather gear) through an X-Factor programme for pets brings the story to a crashing halt: it feels quickly written and tacked on as though Ms. Skarvellis realised that her original idea wouldn’t fill two acts. Given that the Pet Factor arc dominates the second act, a one-act would have been a better idea - especially given how long it takes to actually get to the title story of Brad’s entry into drag.
As such, what could have been a rags to new riches story or a fish out of water tale with the straight posh bloke entering the seedy gay club scene is instead a parade of flaccid jokes, saved only when Campbell camps it up and when Shonni Doulton appears as the health and safety obsessed DWP worker whom Brad attempts to dupe in the name of getting unemployment benefits. Much like the sentence above, the play uses a lot of words to say very little. And there is the rub: that of wasted potential. And therein comes the other August tradition: putting in anything to fill your house until post-Edinburgh tours come in.
Where: Above the Stag
When: Until early September. The website isn’t updated yet.
How Much: £12 at Pentameters. May be different at the Stag.
Concessions: £10 at Pentameters. May be different at the Stag.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £2 for some eye candy and three funny scenes.
RZ Other Notes: None.
Monday, 17 August 2009
Hello, Dolly! @ Regents Park - Fantastic revival. See it.
Helen @ Shakespeare’s Globe - Great cast, decent translation, but the overall production fails to gel and feels amateurish, like a BA designed and directed class project. See it from the yard.
State Fair @ Finborough - Easily one of the dumbest shows of the golden age, decently staged by Thom Southerland, though his continued lack of eye for detail is annoying. See it but make sure to bring water - it’s unbearably hot in the theatre.
Ernie Get Your Gun (Revisited) - Just as bad the second time around with a different Rex. We went, we mocked, we congratulated the cast on their freedom.
Confusions @ Union Theatre - Five Ayckbourn shorts. Fun night out, see it.
We Go Wandering at Night @ Cock Tavern - Not quite sure how the name fits in. There’s some decent bits and some annoying bits, but it’s amusing. Can’t remember if it’s still running, if it is then see it with a discount.
Jason and the Argonauts @ Scoop, More London - Free family friendly version of this Greek classic. Lots of fun, good atmosphere with the crowd. Bring a cushion and a picnic and enjoy.
Wednesday, 5 August 2009
The list and commentary below reflect 20 new works of musical theatre which opened between 2000 and 2009 in a 1st class (read: Broadway/West End/Major Level) venue and provided either a major contribution or simply serve as the most memorable works of the decade. This isn’t to discount smaller productions, but this is one for the big boys. It’s in no particular order than rough chronology.
Also, I suck for not knowing more about original works coming out of Asia.
2000 - Contact (Broadway)
Starting out with a controversial bang is Susan Stroman’s dance play which, famously, won the Tony award for Best Musical despite not having a score: the music was played from CD and nobody in the cast sung. Still, with sequences like Simply Irresistible, it’s easy to see the piece’s allure and its strengths overcome the technicalities.
2000 - Aida (Broadway)
Elton John’s first musical (The Lion King doesn’t really count, that was all music for the film), and Disney’s first show which wasn’t an adapted from a cartoon.
2001 - The Producers (Broadway)
Winner of more Tony awards than any other show, The Producers can be seen as the touchstone of the film adaptation craze, although its flaws became increasingly visible with time and uninspired casting.
2001 - Urinetown (Broadway)
The first of the modern meta-musicals, we arguably wouldn’t have pieces like The Drowsy Chaperone or [title of show] without this little piddle which managed to go from the New York Fringe Festival all the way to Broadway. It also deserves points for the score’s satirical take on Weil.
2002 - We Will Rock You (West End)
The only show from the decade which can well and truly be called critic-proof (Wicked didn’t exactly get glowing reviews but WWRY was roundly trashed). WWRY shows that jukebox shows can have smart concepts, stunning design, and pack in the houses around the world.
2002 - Hairspray (Broadway)
The show which all fluff musicals are now judged against. O’Donnell, Meehan, Whittman, and Shaiman turned John Waters’ tamest film into a stage show which captures both the joy of the musical along with Waters’ sense of humour and anarchy in presentation. Too bad the film remake is so awful.
2002 - Jerry Springer: The Opera (London Subsidised/West End)
The most controversial musical to ever premiere in Britain, Springer spends its first act turning the freak show that is daytime television into a portrayal of tragic victims of their own making while sending up its inspirational material before pointing out that similar characters are to be found everywhere in society.
2003 - Wicked (Broadway)
We Will Rock You may have more international productions, but Wicked is the first show since RENT that can truly be described as a phenomenon.
2003 - Avenue Q (Broadway)
And then there’s the little show that could - proving that charm, wit, and truth (along with a savvy marketing campaign) can upset even the biggest juggernaut. For the recently graduated and those turned out by the current recession, Avenue Q speaks directly to the audience in a way few shows can.
2004 - Caroline, or Change (Broadway)
Despite being spurned in New York, Caroline has become a favourite in the regions and was vindicated with raves and an Olivier award for Best Musical in London. Tony Kushner’s tale of an impoverished Black maid working for a Jewish family in turmoil is a pressure cooker of a character piece backed by Jeanine Tesori’s masterwork of a score that reveals more of its depth with each new production and take on the title character.
2004 - In My Life (Broadway)
One of only two flops on this list, In My Life is the ultimate in vanity projects: written, directed, scored, and produced by creator Joe Brooks, In My Life was a bizarre look at heaven and Earth, of love and loss, and of gay angels singing about brain tumours. In all seriousness, In My Life is the best disaster I’ve ever seen - there’s plenty of good stuff in there and the hilarious awfulness of the rest guarantees that it’s never boring with a surprisingly coherent internal logic.
2005 - 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Broadway)
William Finn’s contribution for the decade, Spelling Bee is another intimate show that bucked the odds through savvy producing and a brilliant mix of audience participation and emotional honesty. There are some people out there who will hate me for including this instead of Grey Gardens, but everybody has felt like a Barfee or an Olive at some point, whereas I have never felt like a crazy screaming cat lady.
2005 - Billy Elliot (West End)
The only British mega-musical to conquer London *and* Broadway this decade. The Woman in White tried, but failed to come together, whereas Elton John’s take on striking coal miners and dancing youngsters hit a chord with West End audiences still embittered 15 years after Thatcher and its feel good underdog story resonates with Americans.
2005 - The Light in the Piazza (Broadway)
Adam Guetell’s most successful score to date, and the show many hold up as the great art musical of recent years.
2006 - The Harder They Come (London Subsidised)
This is cheating a bit, mostly so that I could get in a 2006 show in English (the show didn’t go to a proper big venue until 2008), this is the first musical in Britain with an all-Black creative team and cast.
2006 - Rebecca (Vienna)
Michael Kunze reunites with long-term writing partner Sylvester Levay, shifting away from their preference for historicals to adapt Daphne DuMaurier’s legendary novel of broken affairs. A stunning score with beautiful lyrics and the best show to come from the German-speaking regions since...well...Kunze’s last show (Tanz der Vampire)
2007 - Spring Awakening (Broadway)
A hit thanks to sweeping the Tony awards, Spring takes Frank Wedekind’s classic play and hurls it into the present and shows that perhaps we haven’t become as progressive as we might think. Bonus points for an actual pop-rock composer (Duncan Sheik) providing the score. We need more people from the Billboard charts in the theatre.
2008 - Passing Strange (Broadway)
Stew may not be a big name, but his introspective tale of a middle-class Black youth on an international journey of self-discovery was the art-rocker choice from the 2007-2008 season and with the upcoming film will hopefully find a further life in regional and international productions.
2008 - In The Heights (Broadway)
The first Hispanic-focused musical on Broadway and another reminder that Kevin McCollum knows how to pick shows from up-and-coming talent and stands by his choices and faith: nobody thought Heights would last three months on Broadway after mixed reviews off-Broadway, but it wound up winning Best Musical.
2009 - Next to Normal (Broadway)
A fully realised American family drama as a nearly sung-through musical, Normal uses our reactions to mental illness to look at the fallacies of the nuclear family with a catchy, intelligent score. There’s no flinching from pain or singing one’s way to happiness here, and it hits all the harder because of it.
Monday, 3 August 2009
Sadly, Ten Pence Short’s new play Hot Air is quite firmly in the latter. Written by and starring (a combination that NEVER goes well in a multi-hander unless a top creator is involved) Laura Cairns, Hot Air advertises itself as a “hard-hitting debut” but in truth it’s about as hard-hitting as a birthday balloon filled with its titular commodity. While director and PR rep Nick Bruckman says that changes may be made before the festival opening, they go up this week and there isn’t time for the full rewrite necessary to turn this into an outright comedy or a thriller.
At this point I’m going to apologise. Not to anybody who worked on the play, for you all deserve what’s about to come, but to Matt Boothman, who reviewed the show for London Theatre Blog. Mr. Boothman managed to get a cast and crew list, which I am shamelessly pulling from his review, as nobody gave me anything like that. Take ten pence for bad press relations there. But yeah. Sorry Matt if I unconsciously pull any of your lines while skimming for names.
So anyways, Ms. Cairns has something of a half-decent concept: two women meet outside a house at the crack of dawn after planning a robbery on a website for house raiders. There’s potential in this idea, but it’s wasted in a script full of throwaway sequences and endless babbling from Alice Dooley’s chattering Elizabeth and Ms. Cairns’ uptight superpunctual Scot Margot. We don’t really find out why the site they met on was organised in the first place (other than the leader supposedly gets nothing from it), Margot’s handle, or any real depth about the characters. And why the song at the end? It’s padding and needs to go - the audience will be grateful for a chance to escape three minutes sooner.
Is it funny that Margot has a fetish for old men’s clothes? For about 10 seconds, and it’s certainly creative, but hardly a plot twist. But we never find out why she feels the need to break into dead peoples’ houses for them rather than, say, order cheap remnants on eBay or raid the charity shops. At least Elizabeth’s silver obsession is practical for a thief. After 15 minutes I wanted to smack down Elizabeth or watch them break down a door, but anybody who expects something to, you know, actually happen will be disappointed: nothing does and the big plot twist (since nobody should waste their time on this script) is that the raid is called off as the occupant isn’t dead but miraculously recovering in hospital.
In the end, this is a first draft which desperately needs a dramaturge to refine it into something interesting with a point and a message. It’s not fun enough to be a pub and a pint kind of play and it’s not serious or smart enough to make you think or engage the audience on a deeper level. But with some good rewrites, it may make a decent Afternoon Play on Radio 4.....eventually.
Where/When: Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Not doing prices, etc.
Opening with a twisted tribute to Michael Jackson, Teeuwen takes us through his usual targets: death, religion (the subject of a brilliant Shaggy Dog story), hand puppets, and lots of crude songs including one number, complete with audience participation, entitled “I Like Your Cunt.” One old bit to return, Dr. Hemmington, is better than ever, and comes complete with contortions.
Overall, Teeuwen’s new show is significantly tighter and more in tune with British tastes, and even his longer shaggy dog bits include more sub-jokes and move at a snappier pace, keeping the audience dancing about at the end of his line eagerly awaiting the punch-line’s knife at the end. This isn’t to say that Teeuwen is to everybody’s taste (we had two walk-outs), those who find him funny will love this new show while haters are unlikely to be converted here.
But consider me shifted from tentative to excited. Here’s hoping he works the UK for a long time to come.
Triona Adams was a high price hobnobbing theatrical agent, booking clients into the National and attending premieres and power lunches, but after a weekend retreat at a convent, she connected with her Catholic heritage and ultimately spent a year as a nun in training, which is the focus of the piece. The piece has its laughs and some memorable stories, and Ms. Adams certainly delivers it with conviction, but Nun the Wiser is an amusing diversion and not a side splitter or heavy hitting piece.
An adult musical wherein a character in the dumps learns a lesson with puppets. Yeah, Avenue Q did it first and does it more honestly and better, but there’s still plenty of funny bits in Australian two-hander Sammy J & The Forest of Dreams including opening song “Fuck You, Disney,” a hyperactive squirrel, and two absurd birds. There’s some smart puppetry, such as a brilliant bisection, and the jokes consistently hit their targets. Well worth seeing at festival rates.
Friday, 31 July 2009
(Been crazy busy this week between going to the theatre, going out with friends, and working on some original writing projects so I fell waaaaaaay behind in getting reviews up. This and the follow-up piece are as much reminders that I saw the things as actual reviews.)
Long time favourite of the British comedy and radio scene, much has been made of Spike Milligan’s experiences in the Second World War. From his delayed entry to his role as the battery’s joker to his ultimate discharge after suffering PTSD upon failing a suicide run, the play is an inventive, energetic adaptation of Milligan’s memoirs that’s well acted, well sung (there’s actor-musos), and includes some clever design. The first act, despite being shorter, feels a few minutes too long (it needs to lose about 3-4 minutes) though it lets out just at the point where “feeling long” turns into “actually going to check my watch.”
In other words, there’s actually something decent on at the Hampstead. Not that it’s too surprising when you see that it’s actually a production by the Bristol Old Vic making an extended stop before going out on tour. Do see it, the tickets are reasonably priced and you can get a nice coffee beforehand.
Saturday, 25 July 2009
In 1973, The Who released an album that would change the world forever, influencing rock contemporaries and spreading through the ages, ultimately resurfacing in the grunge movement (Eddie Vedder cited it as a primary influence), jam bands (Phish covered it in full at a Halloween gig), and even pop-punk (American Idiot).
That album, was, of course, Quadrophenia (duh, it’s in the post title) and it is, without a doubt, one of the greatest works in the history of rock music. A densely layered concept piece, Quad bridges The Who’s definitive loud sound - everybody plays lead on every song - with the synths, strings, and musical complexity of the burgeoning progressive movement. Quad’s beauty lies in its ability to harness these sounds without giving in to the pretentiousness of prog: this is an album about the explosion of a movement, of violently encountering the transition from youth to adulthood, and of desperately trying to find oneself in the world. It’s bleak, harsh, and yet spiritual, ending with the potential for hope.
Like Tommy and the abandoned Lifehouse project, Quadrophenia tells something of a bizarre story as only The Who could get away with. It’s 1964, and a lad of 16 named Jimmy is leaving school, getting a well paying but distinctly working class job, and spending his money on the speed and fashions required to stay in with the mod scene that he follows but never quite connects to. As his life begins to deteriorate, Jimmy finds himself split into four personas modeled on the members of The Who: a tough guy (Roger Daltrey), a romantic (John Entwistle), a nutter (Keith Moon), and what’s labeled a hypocrite but really more of an ineffectual and observer (Pete Townshend, who wrote and scored the entire album.)
When things hit bottom at home at the end of the first disc, Jimmy takes off for mod central in Brighton, only to find his solace shattered in the off-season with the city nearly deserted and after a disappointing encounter with one of his heroes.
It sounds simple, but deciphering the story in full requires reading the album’s liner notes or seeing a video of the 1996-1997 tour with its linking narration. The songs themselves give little away, reflecting emotion and a personal journey but not providing a wider frame of context. It’s of little surprise, therefore, that when Quadrophenia was turned into a film in 1979 that much of the original story (and music) was discarded. It also guarantees that fans familiar with the film but not the album are going to be completely lost at Quadrophenia, the musical.
Returning to roots, the stage Quadrophenia dispenses with any sort of dialogue and sticks to the music and attempts to tell its story through lyric and dance. As suggested above, this is quite an undertaking, especially as the original double album is just over 85 minutes and the production truncates one song (“I’ve Had Enough”) and cuts the second leitmotiv instrumental (“The Rock”), which brings the story to a head on vinyl. Making up the runtime are seven early Who songs, some of which were brought out of cold storage for the film, and reset into context. For those familiar with the album, the additions in the second act will feel like padding. For everyone else, they’re going to fit right in. Either way, the added tracks add a sense of authenticity to the period - Quad is very much later Who, and doesn’t sound like anything from 1964.
But does the adaptation actually work? For the most part, yes. Pete Townshend himself has contributed to and supervised director Tom Critchley’s adaptation, teaching the cast about the period and ensuring that his vision is accurately represented, much as he did with the original Broadway production of Tommy. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems (more below), but overall the show is stunningly true to the spirit of the album and it bursts across the stage in a whirlwind of sound and fury.
First and foremost, John O’Hara’s orchestrations are stunning. Adapting the score for nine pieces (2 keys / 2 guitars / 2 strings / bass / drums / brass), the music gains a level of undercurrent for the motiv structure to shine through and guaranteeing that the music is appropriately loud. It’s also a tribute to Jason Barnes’s sound design that the cast are still able to be heard over the blaring band without ever getting painful to hear and without the muffled and echo-y tones of most tours (and touring venues).
Credit also goes to Frances Newman for her excited, visceral choreography and Carl Perry for the costumes so stylish as to remind us in one shot why the mods looked so damn cool: I left the theatre wanting one of Jimmy’s marked up parkas, even if the revivalist/torch carrying mods of here and now find the garment passé and stereotypical.
So where’s the big problem? Well, as I mentioned before, the story can be obtuse, and while the staging brings it to life as much as possible, it doesn’t always manage to make sense of itself on stage. One reason for this is the presence of a Young Jimmy representing the whole id, who struck me as somewhat superfluous. There’s also some time jumping in an attempt to clarify some lyrics in the face of onstage happenings which would be a spoiler to reveal here. Sophie Khan’s set doesn’t help much either: there’s a sofa for the first few scenes, a revolve, and a giant ring in the second act. The band are visible on a two tiered cage at the back for a couple of cast members to climb on, but otherwise the location prompts are determined by how much the viewer is paying attention to the lyrics. Clubs are easy, a solo moment on a pier not so much.
Another, more pressing issue, is in the portrayal of Jimmy’s personalities: all four are played by different actors in identical clothes. The technique is engaging and works as the situation shifts from Ryan O’Donnel’s romantic reaching out to others to George Maguire’s tough guy fighting with his father (John Schumacher), but it can be difficult to tell the four apart, especially when Maguire is physically very similar to ineffectual Jimmy Rob Kendrick and maintains similar body language. Jack Roth’s lunatic tends to slouch and keep a worrying grin, and Ryan O’Donnell keeps a saddened look most of the time though he too blends into the others at times. A second viewing made it easier to work out who was who at times, but the majority of visitors won’t make the effort.
Confusion aside, all four of the lads - three of whom have been with the production since workshop - are fierce to watch as are the rest of the cast including Kevin Wathen who stands out as The Godfather, singing most of the early Who numbers and Sydney Rae White as the abstract Girl.
At the end of the day, the weaknesses of the piece are, in their own way, amplifying its strengths. The abstract nature of the story and focus on internalised conflict make it a universal tale of putting behind childish things, not unlike Spring Awakening, but better. It’s like the class braniac gut punching the captain of the rugby team at graduation. And it’s absolutely bloody brilliant.
Where: Touring until 3 October. Check the show website for details.
When: Tu-Sa, Fr/Sa are two show days.
How Much: Varies by stop. Tickets were £7.50-£28 when I saw the show.
Concessions: Varies by stop. ATG theatres are doing twofers for members on some nights.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30. It’s worth every penny to hear the music performed live though some may find the story difficult to follow.
RZ Other Notes: This is not a traditional show for musical queens. One such person posted on a message board that she hated the show - it was too loud for her taste, and when asked what she was expecting confessed that she’d never listened to The Who before and didn’t care for serious rock in general. Her loss. While I doubt that Quadrophenia will convert fans of traditional MT fare to The Who, much as We Will Rock You is unlikely to convert haters to Queen, I can only hope that people do give it a try because it really is that brilliant.
I’m also sad that the tour has apparently been cut short - early press implied that the show would go until November, including stops in Milton Keynes and Wimbledon, which would have been incredibly convenient. Now I have to debate going down to Brighton (relevant but mostly sold out) or somewhere a good distance from London if I want to see it again before it ends - sales have varied location to location but are nowhere good enough to suggest that a West End transfer would be profitable.
Oh, and why the hell didn’t someone get the cast on T4 to promote this show? It’s still incredibly relevant 35 years after the album came out.
Friday, 24 July 2009
So when offered a deal I couldn’t refuse on tickets, I gladly snapped them up. And in retrospect, I was a bit harsh on my prior worth paying - only £15? What was I thinking?
Anyways, most of my prior comments stand as written, but as always, a few changes have been made and a new cast are in, so here goes again with the magic bullet points.
-Some of the background animations have been changed. They still look good, and somehow WWRY manages to be the only show to go nuts with the light boards and NOT make my eyes hurt, perhaps because the lighting in general is so damn impressive.
-Michael Jackson has been added to the list of those who died early. But where the hell is Keith Moon?
-I went on what turned out to be the night of a thousand understudies. John Boydon was again on as Galileo in the first act, playing the role as a bit more stupid and his ticks were more pronounced than I remember. His voice was also going, and he was replaced in the second act by Matthew McKenna who was excellent as Galileo’s more confident side.
-Continuing the understudy trend, TV casting reject Rachel Tucker was on as Scaramouche. To be honest, I think this is the perfect role for her. She wails on the numbers, and brings a completely new take to the role: rather than the fiesty cockney she has a heavy Scottish accent and speaks with a slow burning and intentional sarcasm. She may not be as fierce as other Scaramouches, but it works brilliantly.
-In a rare occurrence, Mazz Murray was out and Rebecca McKinnis was on as the Killer Queen. It was nice to see a new take on the role, but Ms. McKinniss didn’t do very much to make the role her own. Her voice was also on the thin side and she lacked the command presence during her songs that Ms. Murray or the original Killer Queen, Sharon D. Clarke, possessed.
-Rounding out the swings, Amanda Coutts was on in Ms. Tucker’s regular track as Meat and Rakesh Boury as Britney Spears. The duo were fine, nothing to really comment on here.
-Gary Lake is a rather crass Pop, and it’s amazing that Alex Bourne can still be excited about doing the show every night after how many years in?
-The ensemble need a dance call. Some of the choreography was out of sync and you can see where bits and pieces have been revised over the years because some people do the old moves and some the new ones...
-I was off to the side in the rear stalls and the sound was an issue - the lyrics were totally drowned at times (Seven Seas of Rhye). Then again, most people are expected to know the words going in. I don’t recall having these problems when sitting in the centre, but I also didn’t note anything in the prior review so it’s hard to remember.
In short? We Will Rock You is still a fun night out for Queen fans and tourists and well worth a visit to say you’ve gone. The design aspects are still impressive, and the cast work their butts off. And dude. It’s Queen.
Where: Dominion Theatre
When: Open Run. Check listings for times.
Concessions: £20 student tickets, best left when the BO opens; £13.50 SRO when otherwise sold out
RZ unofficial “worth paying”: £35. Half price plus fees. It’s a very good show but a standing O pay full price no matter what show? I’m still not convinced, especially with how much better the book could be.
RZ other notes: There are a lot of tourists and “not often at the theatre” types here. They liked to go to the loo during the show. Very annoying.
Thursday, 23 July 2009
Then again, if my experience (along with Mark Shenton’s) is anything to go by, there aren’t that many hardcore to go around. At least not for a month-long run at the Stag, which may be why these things are usually one-nighters.
But I digress.
Officially, any show which is commercially produced and fails to return turn a profit to its investors is a flop. For entry into Not Since Carrie, the flop-lover’s encyclopaedia, a show needed to fail financially AND run for under 250 performances (and run before 1988, though a second volume is long rumoured to be in the works.) The shows in Blink!...vary. Some are long running financial failures, some didn’t cross the pond well, and some are just, well, there.
At this point I should really just hand things over to Mr. Shenton, as his previously linked post on Blink! matches the majority of my thoughts almost word for word. A few other bits to bullet-point though...
-The narration was heavy on the Wikipedia (lots of dates and performance counts) and lacking in any sort of useful context for the songs. If you’re highlighting shows that nobody knows, then you have to give the audience some context lest the acting be completely lost. And yes, I have written better.
-The narrative delivery also came across as too casual and a last-minute concern. I liked that it was split amongst the cast, but it was thrown off and clearly not of much concern.
-”New Music” from Ragtime was well condensed from six characters to two, but played at a turbocharged tempo, which undermines the beauty of the song. Props for trying something different, but no.
-The two medley sequences, one on UK hits/US flops and one on actor-musos, despite being the most questionable in terms of merit in a piece like this, are the most entertaining parts of the evening.
I wish I could be more positive about Blink!, but the evening found itself squarely in the realm of decency, never falling too far or rising too high. It’s amusing and fairly cheap and the bar’s not too expensive for pre/post/interval drinks. And remember, it could always be worse.
Where: Above the Stag
When: Until 16 Aug, Tu-Fr @ 19:30, Sa @ 17:30 & 20:15, Su @ 18:30
How much: £10 unreserved
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5 with an E for Effort.
RZ Other Notes: I’d give it the £10 if someone had the clever idea of including a drink with the ticket price.
Tuesday, 21 July 2009
(ANOTHER EDIT: This review has also been quoted by the Independent!)
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Trainwreck Express is now calling at the Comedy Theatre.
I’m not sure where to go from there, really. It’s rare that such a disaster opens in the West End, and Too Close To The Sun is certainly an amusing disaster to watch as it descends further and further from shocking to abysmal to “oh no they didn’t” and beyond.
I guess we should begin at the beginning, with James Graeme coming down the stairs as Earnest Hemingway and revealing how badly his costume was measured as he lifts his arms and we see the waistband holding his mic pack. Some bad dialogue and he goes offstage, a toilet flushes, and he comes back onstage with a glass of urine which he analyses and leaves on the mantle until the end of the rather long opening scene where a stagehand removes it by the time the set swings around again.
The actual plot (in as much as there is one, and it’s all in the second act) involves a gold-digging secretary (Tammy Joelle) hoping to become wife number five, old friend and slimeball producer Rex De Havilland (Jay Benedict) trying to convince the Hollywood hating Hemingway to sell his biography rights, and wife #4 (Helen Dallimore) strutting around as mistress of the domain controlling Hemingway’s diet and setting rules for everybody while working as fast as she can to get rid of the competition for Earnest’s affections. Oh, and conveniently enough, none of Hemingway's books are actually mentioned by name. Perhaps the estate caught the foul wind of what was going on.
I should point out that the music, lyrics, and production are by the same team responsible for the infamous 2005 flop Behind the Iron Mask, if that gives any of you an idea of the quality you’re in for. The brilliant dialogue includes lines like “What are you doing now?” “Looking for a decent script.”, “What part of Popeye never rusts?” “The part he sticks on Olive Oyl.”, and there are such witty lyrics as “I was the big barricuda” and “A hoochy-cootchy Alabama way down south” a scene on where to best stick the gun muzzle when killing yourself, and the night’s big laugh moment involves Hemingway sings a ballad about being stuck in solitary silence while Rex is off being manic about the film possibilities in a half-lit part of the stage and upstaging the song.
And speaking of being half-lit, someone must be pissed at Helen Dallimore because she wasn’t lit at all in her last couple songs.
But there’s lots of reasons to be annoyed about the cast, particularly Mr. Benedict who, despite being in numerous musicals, is entirely incapable of singing this score on key. Then again, neither can anybody else - perhaps the a-lyrical lyrics (Rhymes? Metre? We don’t need those here!) and a-melodic melodies (and I don’t mean in the avant garde outsider musician sense) are to blame, given just how many blown notes and painful flats there were. Although, perhaps a comparison to outsider musicians isn’t entirely off base: the opportunities for unintended laughter easily matched those of a Florence Foster Jenkins concert, though Madam Flo had the charisma to avoid losing over half her audience at the interval. She also, wisely, stuck to a single piano and didn’t inflict Connor Mitchell’s half-decent half-wtf arrangements on an unsuspecting audience including some unfortunate children.
Many of us weren’t smart enough to leave, however (including - to quite a few surprises - the West End Whingers), and pressed on through the second act with a Blitz spirit, not willing to surrender to the pain and wanting to see just how they could top themselves next. Would the raw timbre set catch fire? Would the stuffed deer head begin talking as Earnest planned to kill himself? We still hadn’t had a geriatric sex scene, so it was an obvious thing to hope for. Ultimately we got none of those three, but we were treated to some of the worst drunken acting in ages and some pointless songs after the suicide.
In other words, the creative team from Behind the Iron Mask have provided something for everybody who missed their previous outing to tell stories about and a guaranteed entry in a West End version of Not Since Carrie. It’s tacky, ugly, and the must-see disaster of the year. Flop collectors will cherish this, though I doubt anybody else will. Those trying to go certainly shouldn’t PAY for a ticket, but freebies are out there if you look and chances are you can collect a stub from someone walking out after the first 10 minutes without missing much.
Hell, you could probably just walk right in and the ushers wouldn’t care - it’s not like the theatre’s going to be anywhere near full anyway.
Where: Comedy Theatre
When: Until 5 September. Tu-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £10-£55
Concessions: Almost certainly and Ambassador Friends can get top tickets for £20 at all performances. It’s also on lastminute for £10 and has appeared on their sales for as little as £3.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5 for trainwreck entertainment value.
RZ Other Notes: Like with Shakespeare, tragedy can be a source of many laughs. Also consider checking with the discount booths by Leicester Square around closing time - some may have extras or promo tickets to give away.
Sunday, 19 July 2009
Thom Southerland is seen as one of the up and coming wunderkinds of musical theatre direction. Focusing primarily on classic musicals, he and producing partner Nick Robinson have set about bringing back the golden age classics, including the upcoming premiere of Rogers & Hammerstein’s State Fair and, at the Irving Berlin estate’s request, this production of Call Me Madam.
One of Berlin’s less-often performed works, Madam takes an oil baroness turned ambassador (a fierce Beverly Klein) and her progressive attaché (Mark Henry-Evans) and drops them into the Lichtenstein-like Dutchy of Lichtenburg. Their goal? I’m not exactly sure - when she leaves she’s told not to give them any money, which sets up her pulling out the chequebook when she finds herself attracted to local politician Cosmo Constantine but he stands firm and doesn’t take the money - at which point...her job IS to get them to take the loan and be indebted to the US through the machinations of her liason? This all made sense (I hope) in the original version, but the book was reworked here for length and cast size which has left something of a Dutchy-sized gap in the book’s logic.
Based on this viewing alone, Southerland’s reputation strikes me as...slightly misplaced. Despite his fascination with remarkably American shows (recent work including The Unsinkable Molly Brown and a version of RENT which friends told me to avoid as it was guaranteed to inspire rantage), he doesn’t always get his continuity right: cast members had no idea how to handle the flag, money was miscoloured, accents were broad, and word was that a current London newspaper was used during previews rather than anything looking period. And given that Southerland also reworked the book for this production (a necessity of a shrunken cast), did he have to leave in the constant “I’m a Republican” references? Nobody laughed at them.
In terms of getting actors in the right place and hitting their emotions? It’s fine, and Southerland made a decent go of working to the thrust's demands but there’s nothing revolutionary about the staging.
Enough moaning, though, because it was still a good time out thanks to Drew McOnie’s lively choreography along with Klein’s vivid performance (though the whole cast are lovely and free from any of the show's blame) and, of course, Berlin’s enchanting songs. Alex Weatherhill does his best to negotiate a five piece band, reduced from the original 36, and thanks to the small space and focus on the brass lines, the music maintains a jazzy feel and doesn’t sound empty in the venue.
A final weakness, however, is the lighting, which came down to a no-show from the designer and an enterprising student doing the whole thing on the get-in day in his place - forgivable but annoying nonetheless.
See it if you’re local or have a soft spot for the classics.
Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse
When: Until 16 August. Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £12 (All Days but Sat), £15 (Saturday), UNRESERVED SEATING
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. I really should say £12 since there are no discounts, but it's value compared to top ticket price...time to pull out the bus passes and student IDs?
RZ Other Notes: Maybe State Fair will be better? It was entering rehearsals while Madam was in previews.
Was it more relevant back in 1993? Almost certainly, but time and advances in civil rights, complete with David Cameron recently apologising for Section 28, have blunted the play’s edge and place it in an odd void between introspective period piece (not enough real period depth) and Grange Hill/After School Special. The sad thing is how much things haven’t changed, especially for queer youths, but this isn’t the play to send the message anymore.
So why bring it back? I have no idea, though the current production at the Kings Head is directed by its author, Patrick Wilde, and he makes a decent if not inspired go at things, with the selection of backing and transitional music being the best part. The cast are a mixed bag, though I can’t pull up names thanks to the Kings Head website not listing anybody, but focal character Steven, who is on all the posters and out and proud, is well played, as is his female best friend. Conflicted love interest John is a weak link in the cast, while a sympathetic teacher is portrayed...well, no so much portrayed as phoned in and incredibly fake.
In short, find the film (retitled Get Real) instead.
Where: Kings Head
When: Until 16 August, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £18 (reserved)/£15 (unreserved)
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £4 (Cost of renting the film at Blockbuster)
RZ Other Notes: None
Monday, 6 July 2009
The good news is that I like the London cast of Forbidden Broadway far more than I did the locals in Spring Awakening. Forbidden Broadway also has a tonne of new UK specific material, some of the best recent US bits (though they cut the dialogue sequences from the Jersey Boys and Spring Awakening segments), and a few of the old classics which never fail to amuse (Ten Years More, Circle of Mice.) Unfortunately there’s plenty of the diva jokes which, honestly, are my least favourite parts but I’ve never been gaga for Liza or Sarah so while the general humour is funny - as it is to the many, many tourists who kept Forbidden Broadway open through the years - I was always ready for the next show, trend, and gimmick to be eviscerated before my eyes. The humour is generic enough for casual fans to get it but there are layers for the hardcore to peel back and it’s oh so mean but only as a lesson in tough love.
Speaking of cuts, the show moved fast - VERY fast. When I saw Roast of Utopia I counted around 20-25 sketches, and I would hazard to say there’s closer to 30 here, though the production here is also a good 30 minutes longer. And, of course, time flies when you’re laughing your head off and trying to hide your jealousy that someone else’s blog got namechecked in the first parody and yours didn’t.
Still reading this? Why? Go book tickets (just leave some cheap ones available so I can go again!)
Where: Menier Chocolate Factory
When: Tu-Sa @ 20:00, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £25 except Saturday matinees £15
Concessions: Ask directly, £34/24 show + meal deal bookable in advance
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25. The legend lives.
RZ Other Notes: What’s Jest End again?
Wednesday, 1 July 2009
The King and I @ Royal Albert Hall - Nice. Not impressive or amazing, but nice. It’s not one of my favourite shows to begin with, but Maria Friedman was lovely as ever and justified the three hours.
Been So Long @ Young Vic - Felt so long, despite only being 95 minutes. Decent cast but some “they got it wrong” bits in the set, virtually no plot, and little characterisation.
The Missionary’s Position @ Hoxton Hall - Music Hall meets morality play with some bad meta-theatricality at the end.
Zanna Don’t @ Upstairs at the Gatehouse - Not an Ovation production so no need to not comment. Zanna has a lot going for it including an incredibly catchy score, but the book has some major issues and doesn’t show the truly vicious nature of American high schoolers which undermines its message.
West End Live 2009 @ Leicester Square - Biggins was less annoying than last year though I wish I had video of him making his MJ crack in retrospect. Overall some good performances and it’s a nice if not crowded and exhausting event.
The World at One - Sellebrity @ Kings Head - Three twenty minute plays on the cost and demands of celebrity. Basically a lot of people being nasty to each other. I didn’t see the version on social networking, but this was OK and decent lunchtime fare. I’d go to another one.
Mincemeat @ Cordy House - A promenade look at an infamous WW2 operation in which the British military dumped a corpse on the coast of Spain with the intent of spreading misinformation. Again some displeasure from meta-theatricality (though this may be house style looking over the Cardboard Citizens website) but overall a fascinating production with an excellent use of a warehouse space. Bring water if you go.
And now I’m all caught up. I’m attending Forbidden Broadway at the Menier later this week, but have a commission so it’ll only be brief thoughts here. More to follow...
Monday, 1 June 2009
Yes, assignment. I should get it out of the way here that I didn’t pay for my ticket to Arcadia, and as such didn’t get to choose where I sat as tends to be part of the bargain. Anybody associated with the box office or producing the show will know where I got Upper Circle A1 from, and they will also know that the seat should be taken out of the theatre and never be sold to begin with. Why? You can’t actually see the stage. Oh sure you can see the very back of the stage in an arching sliver from about 2/3 of stage left to its corner, but virtually none of the action takes place there. Even engaging in the rather rude act of leaning with all your might provides at most half a stage worth of view. Yes, the tickets are marked restricted, and no, I didn’t pay for them, but other people seeking a bargain will only to leave in frustration.
My advice to those people? Take the benches in the back. You’ll have a clear view of everything you need, just smuggle a cushion into your bag when you go to the theatre.
But anyways. Not being able to see the show proved quite the distraction as RADA types speaking RP tend to sound the same and you get the effect of listening to an indistinct radio play from the experience. Sure the occasional moment of brilliance still smacks you with the hammer of literary light, but the rest of the play seemed a world away from me, the audience member, to the point where I debated bolting at the interval. Fortunately I didn’t bolt, as my cramped quarters did allow me one distinct advantage: being able to see where there were potentially better empty seats in the lower circle for the second half. And sure enough, despite a dirty look from an usher, I moved myself down to Dress Circle C24 and could see virtually everything except one of the entrances.
The benefit of being able to visually follow the story helped immensely,and I found the second half far more engaging, but the damage was already done: I still couldn’t actually get into the story well enough to really take it all in.
And, as I’ve written almost a page of A4, I guess I should explain what the story is: an associate of Lord Byron’s is tutor to the daughter of the house, a genius of a 16 year old who works out the dissipating nature of thermodynamic transfers far before her time. Meanwhile her tutor is subject to scandal for sleeping with a few local wives, Byron is implicated, and the whole scandal feeds into the second of Stoppard’s formulaic intertwinings (combining periods and realities is to Stoppard what the escalation of brutality is to McDonagh) about warring professors looking at the decline of enlightenment against the romantic era, tracking the grouse population, and working out Byron’s role in the scandal. It’s directed by David Leveaux, known to Americans for both his prior Stoppards as well as the 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof. The cast, including Stoppard’s son Ed, are fine, it’s all very RP and proper, but the acting didn’t reach the cheap seats.
A pity, really. Arcadia *is* a good play (though both acts could lose 10-15 minutes as the entire thing clocks in at 2 hr 50 including interval) but I suspect I’m in the minority in saying that I was bored by the end of each half and quite happy to get some air afterwards.
Where: Duke of York’s
When: Until 12 September, M-W, Fr/Sa @ 19:30, Th @ 19:00, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £15-£49.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: N/A. Can’t honestly judge.
RZ Other Notes: Is it me or is the new Ambassador website absolutely hideous for anybody trying to get, you know, useful information without having to do three times as much work as on the previous site? Heaven help those trying to book for touring productions.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Unfortunately, the truly big “everybody knows these songs backwards, forwards, and sideways” hits are about an hour of music. Thriller Live is two and a half hours and four of the songs everybody expects (Thriller/Bad/Billie Jean/Black or White) and wants to hear are the finale/encore. That leaves quite a bit of time for second and third tear material from the Jackson disco catalogue and the ballads nobody remembers or cares about.
Again, I’m finding myself saying “nice cast, shame about the play.” Ben Forster is simply amazing as one of the show’s many singers, and if there’s any justice in the world will be playing Galileo in WWRY. Denise Pearson is also a standout singer, as are Ricko Baird and Earl Perkins. Ashton Russell was on as young Michael when I saw the show and stood out in the opposite direction, failing to stay in key and looking as bored as I often felt. The dance ensemble were universally talented and genuinely hard workers performing the brutal choreography associated with Jackson’s videos and stage shows.
And then there’s the design. While Jonathan Park’s set is passably functional and Adrian Gwilliam’s costumes appropriately fun, Nigel Catmur’s lighting is an abomination worthy of the pits of theatrical hell. I get that no, this is not traditional theatre (well, it is in a way...) but more a concert and as such will rely on more concert styled lighting. Get it, got it, no problem with it. But it’s bad concert lighting (ya know?) with an overhead ring throwing LED everywhere but on the stage and the production relies heavily on lightboard animations (including one during “The Man in the Mirror” that takes us through MJ’s many faces before showing John Lennon, JFK, a host of other historical figures, and finally Barack Obama) which are bright, constantly moving, and in many cases look like primitive GIF files. There’s also an excessive use of oversized flashbulb (painful if you’re off to the sides and therefore find yourself angled towards where they pop) and enough driving, unrelenting fast colour changes to rival Priscilla for most painful visuals in the West End.
And before anybody asks, no, I’m not epleptic, and no, I’m not generally photosensitive. I can go clubbing, watch strobe heavy 80’s anime, and stare at monitors all day and still not suffer eyestrain or headache, but I found myself closing my eyes for minutes of respite at Thriller. If they JUST had the latter aspects of the lighting, it would have gotten a sentence here and I’d have moved on, but the sheer in your face quantity of LED bothers me not just for its physical effect, but also its artistic one: this is a concert full of hit tunes sung by talented singers with legendary choreography. So why try to distract everybody by showing all kinds of flashy crap in the background? Have some faith in your material and performers let them speak for themselves. You know, like in Shout (which I also revisited yesterday and still enjoyed.)
Where: Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury
When: Tu-Fr, Su @ 19:30, Sa @ 16:00 & 20:00, Su @ 15:30
How Much: £23.50-£54.50
Concessions: Best available for £20
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. Add £5 for every MJ CD you have that isn’t Bad or Thriller.
RZ Other Notes: First and foremost, this was my first visit to the Lyric Shaftesbury and it’s a truly beautiful theatre, both architecturally and in its decor. Second, the balcony and upper circle were closed last night so MJ fans may wish to consider buying cheap and aiming for a bump. Third, I recommend staying for the first 15 minutes and then bolting to the bar until the second half when all of the songs that matter are played.
Monday, 11 May 2009
Once again offered tickets and once again back to the West End run of La Cage. With Graham Norton's departure, the principles of nightclub owner Georges and diva drag queen Albin are now played by Philip Quast (who played Georges at the Menier itself) and Roger Allam. Hodge is excellent in the role, warm and affectionate, torn between the love of his life and the happiness of his child. Allam is a butchy queen, looking quite masculinely built from my seat in the circle, but gets into the motions and sings better than Norton (not saying much). he's not QUITE there yet, but I suspect he'll be in fine form after a few more performances. Memory may also be playing tricks on me, but I want to say a few new visual gags were also directed in with this cast change and despite two prior visits, the production feels fresh enough to warrant revisiting.
Previous worth paying and notes stand.
“Nice cast, shame about the play.”
There isn’t much more to be said about either of the Donmar’s current productions: both of which boast the standard celebrity and established actors one would come to expect from the venue, both feature some amusing design (the red pool in Dimetos and the huge mother of pearl sitting room and gigantic frocks in Madame) but both are excruciatingly dull texts with the former boasting a nonsensical second act - even the director didn’t know what it was about - and the latter making the man who gave us some of the most infamous S&M pornography ever made tame and quite matter of fact.
I guess go if you want to see some people from the telly doing high-brow theatre (the snooty French accent doesn't come through online on that), but otherwise wait for the season to progress...
Saturday, 2 May 2009
Fortunately it was all uphill from there. Not far uphill, but up enough that I was happy enough to sit back and enjoy the ride. I suspect this is because of adjusting expectations: the descriptions of Shout revolve largely around the flimsiness of its unattributed book. No, the book’s not as clever as, say, Return to the Forbidden Planet, but it does the minimum of creating excuses or introducing songs and doing so without ever saying “Let’s have a song!” And, to be honest, given the amount of time the book requires out of the runtime, I’m content to write it off and reconsider Shout as a revue a la Tomfoolery rather than as a proper book musical.
But nobody knows what a revue *is* these days, let alone sees them, so it’s easy to understand why everything gets promoted as an event or a musical when the truth is that revue may be a more appropriate term (even if this satirises the 60’s instead of today, but that in itself reflects our current changes in attitude.)
Meanwhile, it would be useful to talk about the show itself.
The year is 1960. Georgina (Tiffany Graves) is a modern young woman who heads down to London in search of love and the high life. On the train she meets Ruby (Marissa Dunlop), an actress in training, and shy wallflower Betty (normally played by ex-Wickeder Shona White but understudied by Francesca Newitt when I went). The trio end up renting a flat in Peckham above Best Cuts, a hair salon owned by Georgina’s aunt Yvonne (Su Pollard). The four women become fast friends and we spend the next decade as they marry, divorce, and belt through the tunes of the time as bridged by Tony T (John Jack), editor of Shout Magazine.
As I stated before, the book is largely irrelevant, though it has some laughs in the Carry On vein, and Jack’s editor speaks Public School English with the condescending tone of early television adverts which lends both a tongue in cheek to the proceedings as well as a reminder of how far we’ve come. The main thrust of the show is a decade of classic pop from Petula to Dusty, bubblegum to psychedelia, and the four main ladies (in addition to Jessica Kirton as a dialogue-free shop assistant/trophy girl) do an excellent job of belting to the rafters and reminding us all that the 60’s really were a golden age of music. Yes, that includes Su Pollard.
Also praise-worthy are Morgan Large’s designs, both simple and evocative of pop art, bright clean colours, and the rise in trippy patterns while functional and (short of some overdone strobing by colour-smart lighting designer Ben Cracknell) tasteful. Come to think of it, “tasteful” is probably the best way to describe the whole affair though “obvious cash-in” comes second.
Another groovy point was Large’s costume designs for the girls, but I was rather confused by the costumes for Tony T: much of Shout’s promotion on tour (and the CD cover) refer to it as a mod musical, but the lack of a sharp suit and skinny tie, anorak, or other iconic mod images stood out though they could be a logistical necessity for some extremely rapid costume changes.
Anyways, to sum it up: your enjoyment of Shout will be directly proportional to how much you like 60’s pop music and whether or not you can get past the fluffy book in lieu of something more intellectual.
Where: Arts Theatre
When: Until 28 June, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 15:00, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £20-£42.50
Concessions: £25 excluding Fri/Sat nights, book one hour before the show
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Maybe a few more if you’re a big Su Pollard fan.
RZ Other Notes: I guess it just shows that whoever composed most of Petula Clark’s music is all too happy to let the tracks out as long as they get their royalty cheque. Too bad they wanted an impractical amount for an official release of the brilliant short film “Animato” by creator Mike Jittlov. Jittlov created the film in 1969 and it’s a breathtaking work of stop motion and hand worked animation but the music was never cleared so you’ll have to do some digging to find a copy of the piece. A reworked version with new music was included in Jittlov’s feature film The Wizard of Speed and Time.