Wednesday, 28 January 2009

REVIEW: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Me: Doctor! There’s a play inside my head!

Doctor: Really? How extraordinary? Is it an examination of youth culture through a veil of historical parallels inspired by German pop music?

Me: Why yes, it is. But that’s not the play I’m talking about.

Doctor: It’s the one you’re usually talking about.

Me: Well, yes. But right now I’m thinking of a play with an orchestra.

Doctor: An orchestra? With a play?

Me: Yes.

Doctor: Well, my dear boy, that’s not a play. That’s a musical.

Me: But there aren’t any songs.

Doctor: Then what on Earth is the orchestra there for?

Me: Someone offered it to Tom Stoppard.

Doctor: So what’s it doing in your head?

Me: Well, the play inside my head is also by Tom Stoppard.

Doctor: Doesn’t that mean it’s inside Stoppard’s head?

Me: No, it’s at the National.

Doctor: So what the devil are you seeing me for?

Me: Well, it’s a play about mental illness. Or the perception of mental illness. And it has two men named Alexander Ivanov, and a boy played by a girl named Sacha Ivanov..

Doctor: The girl is named Sacha Ivanov?

Me: No, the boy she plays is named Sacha Ivanov.

Doctor: That’s an awful lot of Ivanovs. Perhaps Mr. Stoppard should be seeing me instead of you.

Me: Well, this play *does* officially kick off his mania for examining the Soviet government more thoroughly explored in The Coast of Utopia and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Doctor: But Rock ‘n’ Roll was set in Prague.

Me: Yes. Soviet Prague.

Doctor: ...I see. So tell me more about this bizarre idea for a play.

Me: Very well. Ivanov and Ivanov are cell mates, and Ivanov believes that he has an orchestra inside his head and, being obsessed with musicians, believes Ivanov is there to either join or sabotage his orchestra. At the same time, Ivanov is not there to join the orchestra but as a political prisoner who escaped the military prisons by going on hunger strike.

Doctor: Well he certainly beats to a different drummer.

Me: No, he’s quite clearly non-musical.

Doctor: Who, Ivanov? But he has an orchestra inside his head.

Me: No, the other Ivanov. Meanwhile little Ivanov is being told off for not being musical either, for failing to play in time, and for asserting his father’s innocence and sanity which simply will. not. do. We also get a fleeting revelation that Ivanov may be hiding behind his orchestra as a coping mechanism for his own unwelcomed political leanings.

Doctor: I’m beginning to see why this may make audiences mental.

Me: No, it’s actually quite brilliant - the fact that they all look nothing alike helps. Anyways, Ivanov tries to break free from his orchestra and fails while Ivanov asserts his sanity and refuses to lie that yes, he was mad (which he was for protesting) and therefore goes on another hunger strike which distresses the third Ivanov very much.

Doctor: So they all get shot then? That’s what normally happens in these circumstances.

Me: No, nobody gets shot, though a bassoonist gets beaten up rather badly and a few violinists go spinning. It’s quite an accomplishment that none of their plucking instruments got broken during the chaos. There’s also smart use of the Olivier’s revolve which never seems as tacky or dull as the one in Les Miz.

Doctor: Is anything as tacky or dull as Les Miz?

Me: Good point.

Doctor: But what of the actors? Surely there aren’t any actors running around in your head?

Me: No, I don’t allow actors into my head - load of good for nothings all of them. The same with musicians, which is why it’s frustrating to think of a play with an orchestra.

Doctor: Do they play all night?

Me: No, the play is a brief 65 minutes that feels like 90 but in a good way.

Doctor: In a good way?

Me: Well yes, it keeps me focused and entertained and it unfolds in a tense manner that neither flies by or plods and comes across as a well packed runtime.

Doctor: You’ve been cutting back on your theatre-going lately, haven’t you?

Me: Is it that obvious?

Doctor: Yes. Next thing you’ll tell me is that it’s worth spending two hours to go to Hammersmith or Wimbledon for a show because it’s a good experience.

Me: But you really SHOULD see Spring Awakening.

Doctor: And you’re delusional as well. So what’s left?

Me: Well, besides the question of who’s crazy, it’s a matter of knowing when it’s possible to game the system - or rather that in Soviet Russia, the system games you. Both Ivanovs attempt to subvert the system which in turn subverts their subversion and gets away scot-free, as do they.

Doctor: Really?

Me: Yes. Who’d have thought that somebody could leave a Soviet Mental Hospital without getting shot?

Doctor: So happy endings all around!

Me: Well, no. Ivanov’s second hunger strike does him in and he dies as Ivanov comes to take him home while Ivanov is off dancing in the streets to an orchestra that doesn’t exist. And the woman at the National’s box office was a total bitch who I’m glad to see replaced by a ticket dispensing machine.

Doctor: Get out of my office. How dare you imply that we should have silent, efficient ticket collection machines who won’t make snarky remarks about queues and pretending to lose your tickets like the glorious staff around the West End?

Where: National Theatre (Olivier)
When: In rep until 25 Feb., Check the NT website for times.
How Much: £10-30 (Travelex Season)
Concessions: £10-25 depending on who you are and when you buy. Day seats for £10, can be booked online and at the BO.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 due to the short run time.
RZ Other Notes: It was tempting to go for a Stoppard double feature this week and take in “The Real Thing” at the Tabard, but time did not permit.

Monday, 26 January 2009


Helena Blackman stars in Stephen Sondheim’s “credit crunch” musical SATURDAY NIGHT

Jermyn Street Theatre, London
10 February – 14 March 2009

Helena Blackman, runner-up of ‘How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?’, stars in a timely
new production of Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway musical SATURDAY NIGHT at the
Jermyn Street Theatre, set in the days before the 1929 Wall Street Crash.

SATURDAY NIGHT is a fascinating depiction of life in the roaring twenties – when the stock
market rose five-fold in as many years, and ordinary Americans gambled on apparently
endless credit. It tells the story of Gene Gorman (David Ricardo-Pearce), a young Wall
Street clerk who dreams of leaving his ordinary life in Brooklyn, and risks everything to
gamble on the spiralling stock market – including his fiancĂ©e Helen (Helena Blackman). This
is the first time Stephen Sondheim’s newly revised version of SATURDAY NIGHT has been
seen in the UK, including the UK premiere of two new songs.

Directed by Tom Littler (Sir Peter Hall’s regular Associate Director, director of JINGO: A
FARCE OF WAR and The Scotsman Critics’ Choice production of Sondheim’s PASSION at the
2006 Edinburgh Fringe). The Musical Director is Tom Attwood (recently MD on THE HISTORY
BOYS at the National Theatre and in the West End).

Helena Blackman rose to fame when millions voted for her in the final of the BBC’s “How Do
You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”, and was recently nominated for a TMA Award as Nellie
Forbush in the national tour of SOUTH PACIFIC. Casting will also include David Ricardo-
Pearce (Anthony in the West End production of Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD) and Joanna
Hickman (Beth in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and Johanna in SWEENEY TODD for John Doyle / Watermill Theatre)


Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on their play “Front Porch in Flatbush”


10th February – 14th March 2009
Tues – Sat @ 7.30pm
Sat & Sun @ 3pm

Box Office: 020 7287 2875 /

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes (including interval)


Described by The Scotsman as ‘A hugely talented company’, Primavera is led by Artistic
Director Tom Littler and Producer Chantelle Staynings, who was recently awarded the Stage
One New Producer’s Bursary for productions including Nicholas De Jongh’s PLAGUE OVER
ENGLAND. Primavera’s four Honorary Patrons are playwright and director Peter Gill; the
actors Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal and Diana Quick; and the playwright Peter Nichols.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

CATCHING UP: Mandy/Norton/Spring

So I actually did go to quite a bit of theatre this week. However, I also had a fatal computer death from City of Heroes doing the final deed to my recalled graphics processor and making it impossible to post before Friday. Any other procrastination was, to be honest, laziness.

So first and foremost was the final performance of Mandy Patinkin’s whirlwind week in London. I’d meant to see Mr. Patinkin back in 2004 in New York but the timing didn’t work out and I missed out. To be honest, though, I didn’t really - consistency is a guarantee with the man as are overdramatic renderings of every song he does. I’m not knocking his abilities as a performer - he’s played two of my favourite roles in film (Rube in Dead Like Me and of course Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride - which he did NOT say the line from) but the Forbidden Broadway lines about Super-Frantic Hyper-Active Self-Indulgent Mandy are totally true.

That said, I still defended the man against angry audiences after who felt the set list was far too old and unfamiliar. Anybody who reads up on the man’s concerts knows exactly what they’re in for: Sondheim, more Sondheim, and classic American songbook with a focus on Tin Pan Alley and early Broadway. If you’re lucky (I wasn’t) he sings Harry Chapin.

Anyways, on to Tuesday, where I should have (but didn’t) run into the West End Whingers as we were both independently at La Cage Aux Folles to see how Graham Norton was holding up as Albin. And to be honest, they were far kinder to the man than I’m going to be - utterly horrid were both my and my companion’s opinions. He failed to land many of the jokes (this is bad for a comedy poof) and, in the words of the professional drag queen, “moved like a straight man in a dress.” He was consistently off key, out of time with the orchestra, and they significantly upped the reverb on his lowered “I Am What I Am.” At no point did I or my companion truly believe that Norton’s Albin was in love with Georges, and he was Graham Norton in a series of (very unflattering) dresses rather than a true character.

So thank goodness for Spring Awakening at the Lyric on Friday, as it was NOT “Totally Fucked” though Iwan Rheon was undoubtedly cursing out “The Bitch of Living” as he hurt his back during rehearsal and understudy Richard Southwind proclaimed “Mama Who Bore Me!” and covered Moritz for first preview. The cast are, thankfully, strong overall (minus Lucy Barker who portrays Ilse as a third-rate first-act Sally Bowles) and Christine Jones’s set fits beautifully into the Lyric’s space as does the true third star (after Sater’s book and Sheik’s music), namely Kevin Adams’s beautiful, breathtaking lighting designs. While a West End transfer is all but announced, book now and see it in the more intimate space and at a lower price. I’d also recommend sitting in the circle - there are a few design issues which are difficult if not impossible to see from the stalls due to the high stage. Highly recommended and worth the £35 top price.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Update: Why No Content?

Believe it or not, I haven't actually seen a play this week. I did get to the Spotlight on Ruthie Henshall, but is that anything really worth writing about?

That said, I did "see" Hamlet 2, which is coming out here soon. The first 45 minutes could have been dealt with in 20, and the movie doesn't take off until Steve Coogan's character actually writes the titular mess. The laughs pick up from there, but that doesn't mean you won't find the best part of the film by searching YouTube for "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" as they released it officially as a promo clip!

Anyways, three trips planned for next week: Mandy Patinkin, a return to La Cage to see Graham Norton, and the much anticipated transfer of Spring Awakening.

Friday, 9 January 2009

THOUGHTS: “Into the Woods”

“Does the puzzle come together,
piece by piece and row by row?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know
Where the fucking pieces go!”

OK, so the above quote isn’t from Sondheim’s Into the Woods (it’s from the also brilliant Next to Normal) but it’s fitting given the master’s fondness for puzzles, mysteries, and games: many of Sondheim’s shows exhibit jigsaw symptoms of layers and lyrics which come across as confusing on their own but come together to form a large, intricate whole. Into the Woods is very much in this vain, following on from Sunday in the Park with George in its use of linked but largely self-contained acts to illustrate a thematic whole on the childhood lessons provided by fairy tales. It's a deep show that is constantly engaging the audience from one direction or another, and multiple viewings or some quality time with the cast recording are needed to do more than scratch the surface.

To be honest, Into the Woods isn’t in my top three Sondheims (those would be Sunday, Sweeney, and Forum with Company a very close fourth) but that’s like saying Phish Food isn’t my favourite flavour of Ben & Jerry’s. I still like it, and it’s excellent stuff, but odds are good that I’ll buy a pint of Half Baked first. And, being a show which has plenty of cast recordings and an official DVD out of the original production, chances are good that regular theatregoers have previously encountered Into the Woods at some point and already have an opinion of it.

The production at Upstairs at the Gatehouse is surprisingly high-end for a Fringe production, featuring a cast of 11 well established actors - four of which double as musicians - plus TV comedian Paul Nicholas appearing through occasionally glitched but generally well done interactive video, the production is an effective demonstration of how to stretch limited funds.

And thankfully, the implementation is largely successful - Cinderella blowing the birds’ line on the flute is somehow appropriate - if not slightly gimmicky when an actor-musician is interacting with someone poking an arm through a moving projection. It says a lot that while I felt the show dragged towards the end, there wasn’t anything I could specifically point to and say “I’d change that” and even actors who didn’t immediately impress me had their moments when I could appreciate the casting. I also suspect that patrons on the thrust’s sides on busy nights may find themselves with a less than ideal view.

tl;dr: It’s a hard show (like most Sondheim) to perform at the best of times, and it's being done as well as a 120 seat venue can hope for, even if the Graduion thought the staging needed to be more metaphorical.

Where: Upstairs at the Gatehouse
When: Until 1 Feb. Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Su @ 16:00
How Much: £12-15 unreserved depending on the day
Concessions: £10-12 depending on the day
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £12 will get you a seat on any night but Saturday.
RZ Other Notes: You can also get tickets for £10 on lastminute. This is the last time I’ll review a Gatehouse show here - I like the venue and the shows they do, but it feels like it’s hard to maintain the professional distance needed to review productions here clearly when you get drinks with the show’s director and one of the venue’s owners after..

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

REVIEW: “Hit Me”

I’ve lamented in the past about the dissociation which comes from being foreign and trying to engage in British culture. A healthy diet of UK sitcoms and Dr. Who have gone a long way, as has following various trends in music (thank you KLF link to the Teardrop Explodes.) At the same time, I saw Never Forget not knowing what a “Take That” was and completely failed to understand Madness’ appeal when I saw Our House.

So imagine what happened when I saw a musical about Ian Dury. I honestly have no idea how to classify the man - his lyrics and performance style place him would place him in the field of outsider musicians if he were an American, but at the same time he topped the UK charts. And at the same time, the theatre was at least half empty last night so the following can’t be THAT big. It’s all rather confusing.

If nothing else, it meant I went into Hit Me with no preconceptions other than hearing something about punk and smart lyrics. And the play did indeed show off Dury’s lyrics, boasting eight of the man’s hits. The music actually turned out to be closer to the Teardrop Explodes or Madness than what I associate with punk (punk does not have keyboards or saxophones,) but it worked.

I wish I could say the same about the rest of the play. Writer/Director Jeff Merrifield has given us a two hander on Dury’s career, but it’s a messy play - much like Dury himself and his music. What we actually get are a series of anecdotes - some funny, some incomplete - told by Dury (played by last minute stand-in Adrian Schiller) and roadie Fred ‘Spider’ Rowe (Josh Darcy.) The two fight, talk over each other, and cut stories off to tell others, and while it would make an interesting backstage DVD or talk show episode, compelling and dramatic theatre it is not. While we see the two reminisce, argue, and reconcile, they speak everything else to the audience. In other words, Hit Me is two hours of narration broken up by a few songs.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some worthwhile aspects of the piece. The light-stuffed pipework maze which provides a backing wall is clever and accents the musical moments well. Schiller is also impressive, capturing both the physical limitations of the crippled Dury but also the swagger and radiation which comes from a rocker on the edge of an immolating supernova. He growls and screams Dury’s songs against an over-amplified click track, bringing a raw fury to the music. Given that Schiller rehearsed the show in a week while working two show days on a Christmas production, this is a phenomenal turnaround and he can be forgiven for requiring the occasional prompt during the mostly solo second act.

While Hit Me is far from stellar theatre, it provides an interesting introduction to a particularly British musical phenomenon and I found myself spending today looking up clips of Dury on YouTube so it manages to succeed on some levels. If nothing else, audiences who go will be treated to an excellent performance and a hilarious, if not entirely crude, interchange of vicious insults.

Where: Leicester Square Theatre
When: Until 1 Feb. Sa-Su, Tu-Th @ 19:30, Sa @ 16:30, Fr @ 19:00 & 21:50
How Much: £20-25
Concessions: £20 (regular £20 seats are in the slips.)
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10
RZ Other Notes: Where to begin....first and foremost, the lack of rake at the Leicester Square is incredibly annoying if there are people in the row in front of you, even with the stage so high. Also, the venue runs a powerpoint slide show advertising future performances INSIDE THE AUDITORIUM before the show and during the interval. Talk about the hard sell!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

NOTES: “Cinderella” (Shaw Theatre)

This production’s already closed, and all I can say is that I wish I saw it earlier in the run so that I could have done my part to warn people off: this production was absolutely terrible, putting forth every negative stereotype about panto one could imagine. The sets? Ugly. The costumes? Cheap and ugly. The TV stars? Dominic Littlewood was OK if not a bit disturbingly old as Buttons but Britt Eckland has not aged gracefully, mangling her words and forgetting her lines.

And then there’s the script: mercifully brief (45 min. per act) but the humour rarely takes off despite being a Baron Hardup edition and having the pick of the proverbial litter for satirical fodder. The song choices were OK, if not uncreative - two or three of the songs also showed up in the previously reviewed Cinderfella, which makes it doubly sad that panto writers are still using “Amarillo” as a big number. The cast in general - whose names I don’t have available - were clearly plodding through the end of a poorly sold run as the Evil Stepsisters barely stopped to breathe between lines and forced callback prompts (“Weneedtobuyadressohyeswedo.”) And then there’s the ensemble who, featuring 10 women and two men - plus children (strictly female) came across as strictly come terrifying due to permanent am-dram smiles of the sort which arise from improper cosmetic surgery or too much botox.

In short? A disappointing end to this year’s panto-going and another reminder that the hardest thing about panto is making it all seem so easy.