Monday, 30 March 2009

NOTES: “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”

So a bit of explanation is in order here, and it’s an explanation in the form of a confession. I reviewed Priscilla for a magazine (not going to say which one) and when I write for money I find myself keeping the publication’s target audience in mind.

The target audience for the magazine will love Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Most people will love Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Even the West End Whingers loved Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

I was remarkably apathetic and in some cases hostile in my personal thoughts before seeing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I was unimpressed at the press launch, and the level of hype on the internets didn’t do much to change this. Then there was the announcement of £90 premium tickets. WTF London? I keep defending the British as being smarter than us Yanks and you have to do stupid crap like follow this bullshit policy from Broadway? You’re almost as bad as they are in Germany, charging €105 for a show on Saturday nights...

*ahem* But I digress.

I was not blown away by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I thought it was merely OK, I smiled a fair bit and there were some chuckle worthy lines but landed few big laughs. This isn’t to say there aren’t some good things about it. For example:

-The costumes. OMFG the costumes are amazing and, to be blunt, the entire selling point of the show.

-Jason Donovan. Yeah I’ve got the CD of him in Joseph. And he’s quite likeable here. Tony Sheldon was also great and the ensemble work their arses off in a never-ending series of costume changes.

-Kanako Nakano. Steals the show in what is the trashiest scene in a show of almost John Waters proportions.

-The music. You certainly leave the theatre humming the tunes - provided you know them all in advance. To be fair, the choice of songs wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe: I loathe disco but there were a few good 60’s and 80’s tracks as well.

Then there’s everything else:

-The music. Seriously? Too much Kylie. This may be me, as the Aussie Madonna never really took off in the US and even the real thing hasn’t had a truly great single since “Take a Bow.” The overuse of “I Will Survive” also hurts, and then there’s an individual fear, the fact that they use Harold Faltemeyer’s “Hot Stuff.” Why do I fear that when the song’s half decent? Because Faltemeyer himself cribbed it into his own disastrous piece of shit musical Wake Up back in 2002. But more on that later.

-The sound mixing is awful. It’s a good thing people are expected to know the songs going in because everybody is either over-mic’ed to distortion or gets drowned out by the orchestra. Forget about understanding ensemble numbers.

-The book. Tick is the only character who really grows (besides Bob who’s only in the second act and seems more resigned than proactive.) Bernadette has already matured and settles in more than grows. Adam/Felicia is cocky, arrogant, and annoying at the start and manages to growing whatsoever. This leads me to...

-Oliver Thornton. I have no idea what casting directors see in this man, because he is the most obnoxious thing I’ve ever witnessed on a West End stage. At first I wrote off his overacting and misuse of vibrato on pop to bad direction in that thing, but all my fears and dislikes were only confirmed here. I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke in person, and he worked on a show with a friend of mine who back up such claims, but I never want to see him in a show again.

-The lighting. To spoil here, Priscilla itself is covered in LED, and spends much of the show glowing hot pink. Hot pink and hot orange are, in fact, the default light setting for quite a bit of the show and I literally felt my eyes burning by the end - and the feeling remained the next morning. I guess it symbolises the desert because nothing else really did? The last show I saw with such a brutal assault on the eyes was also Faltemeyer’s Wake Up. See the connection? It’s a bad one.

-The sight lines are a fucking disgrace. There is no nice way to put this, because it affects so many of the seats. Theatremonkey’s chart is a good starting point, but many of the tickets that are tagged as restricted are still being charged at almost £60. The sides at the Palace have always been bad, but the real problem is the overhangs: a great deal of action takes place on top of the titular bus and if you’re in a vertically challenged position (say, behind Row K in the stalls or the rear half of either circle) you miss a number of the big moments. TV screens are available on both sides of the rear stalls to watch that segment from, but stealing a glance (the glow was distracting me in my just-behind-the-premium seat) the image suffered from lighting washout and was basically a series of glowing blobs. Get an HD camera and set the bloody thing properly.

So to be down with the current speak, the tl;dr is: Priscilla is critic-proof and the sort of show to see after a few rounds at the pub, with a group, and can be enjoyable if you turn your brain off for three hours. It didn't blow me away (I still say We Will Rock You is the best of the big jukebox shows) but it'll do just that to a lot of people. Just make sure to wear sunglasses.

Where: Palace Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Th (Post 4 May)/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £20.25-£93.25 including Premiums, varies by day.
Concessions: None at the moment?
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £30
RZ Other Notes: Rumour on the interwebs is that the balcony is closed off early in the week. Consider booking there and hope for getting bumped.

Friday, 27 March 2009

CATCHING UP: Spring Awakening (v2: Novello Boogaloo)

(Last week was another no theatre week, but this week I wound up at three shows. One, Cooking with Elvis, won't be getting covered here due to personal familiarity with the producers, but I'd recommend it regardless. It's a bizarre play but an interesting one. The other show that I'll cover here in some detail is Priscilla which I reviewed for a magazine'll see.)

So in exchange for sitting in the onstage seats last Friday while the cast ran most of the second act’s technical rehearsal I got free tickets to see the transfer of Spring Awakening at the Novello. This marks my third time seeing the London cast, so I’ll keep this brief because the core elements have already been discussed at length.

-The set is narrower at the Novello than at the Lyric, and the band are now partly hidden behind the onstage seats.

-The acoustics are bassier now, and have a good boom to them.

-Did you know that instead of regular stage numbering they use the show’s German title (Frühlingserwachen) to mark places?

-Sight lines are excellent, even from the rear stalls though I’d still avoid seats on the far sides.

-The night I went was filled with tech issues including a very loud and unhappy machine during the hayloft scene and an unscheduled bang in the graveyard.

-Despite this the cast pushed through, the one true sign of professionalism that night.

-Why’s that? Because except for the adults (who are constantly excellent), the acting quality has plummeted lately. While I’ll cut the cast some slack for being in a new venue and getting their changed blocking down, the book scenes were blown through, barely acted, and shrugged off. Likewise, a certain Welsh leading pair’s accents kept slipping.

-The sad thing is that Michael Mayer had flown up from getting the Vienna production through previews to supervise the transfer’s tech.

In short? Maybe go again in a month or two when things have settled down or aim for understudy days. This just nailed the burnout coffin into my Spring Awakening coffin, though, and short of going specifically with friends I believe I’ll be away from the Novello for a while.

Monday, 16 March 2009

NOTES: The Back Room

I honestly don't want to give Adrian Pagan's new play The Back Room much exposure (no pun intended), but at the same time, it's worth posting a warning: Mr. Pagan has managed to make the lives of seedy, backstabbing rentboys boring. Sure there's plenty of skin to look at, but none of it holds an interesting or particularly deep character: you've got the gay for pay ex-squaddie, the pair of Britney Queens, the barking Scot, the preppie with a secret, and the semi-intelligent romantic interest. The dialogue is clunky, big plot twisting secret unsurprising and uninteresting, and the whole thing simply falls flat. Nice use of the stage's outside window, though.

Where: The Cock Tavern, Kilburn
When: Until 11 April, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Su @ 17:00
How Much: £12 general admission
Concessions: £10
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £1. This doesn't deserve the infamy of a worthless.
RZ Other Notes: None.

Friday, 13 March 2009

REVIEW: The 1959 Broadway Songbook

When I first heard that The 1959 Broadway Songbook was being performed at a pizza restaurant, I immediately found myself questioning who would actually be performing that evening: The Rockafire Explosion? But no, my oblivious foreign self was subsequently educated that Pizza on the Park is, in fact, a respectable venue for jazz, cabaret, and other forms of evening entertainment like the hotel venues of old.

The 1959 Broadway Songbook is a cabaret, comprised of four performers (Nathan Martin on piano, West End standards Anna Bergman and Susannah Fellows, and American Jeff Harnar who compiled the piece). Over roughly 100 minutes, they attempt to encompass what was undoubtedly a high point in the golden age of Broadway, a year where over twenty new musicals (including The Music Man, Gypsy, West Side Story, and Flower Drum Song) by virtually all of the greats opened. The upside is that the show flows quickly, the performers are good, and the venue is surprisingly nice.

The downside is that there are SO many songs to clear and SO many major titles that virtually none of them are performed in their entirety: we hear a verse here, a chorus there, and even some of the biggest songs such as "Rose’s Turn" are reduced to a mere fragment in the interest of time. As such, it’s impossible to ever make a true connection with any of the material or performers, and it’s so frantic that it’s hard to classify as a nice night out. Amusing, but not nice.

Where: Pizza on the Park
When: Until 13 April, Sundays @15:00 & 19:00, Mondays @ 19:45
How Much: £25
Concessions: None
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10......
RZ Other Notes: ....but this being in a restaurant you will undoubtedly end up spending extra and feel extremely foolish if you don’t order something beforehand. Doors open 90 minutes before the show, so you can get your dinner (think Pizza Express or slightly better quality) and be on your coffee or wine by the time the show actually starts.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

SITE: Why no updates?

Loyal(?) readers may have noticed the lack of updates lately. It's not that I've been putting off reviews (just one, the 1959 Broadway Songbook concert, which I saw Monday...), but I actually had a week - perhaps my first since moving to London - when I didn't go to the theatre.

That's right. A full week where I stayed home every night. No shows, just me, the DVD player, and far, FAR too many hours on City of Heroes (my primary character is up to level 38 now!) So why didn't I go to the theatre?

Well, for one thing, money's tight. While I get some occasional writing work, job hunting is hard work, demotivating, demoralising, and a near exercise in futility these days. So the lack of funds rules out shows that I have to pay for. Of the shows I don't have to pay for (be they through officially reviewing, seat-filling, etc.), nothing really clicked last week. Sometimes it's a case of "I don't feel like traveling across the city to see this even if it sounds interesting" and sometimes it's "I'm sick of seeing disappointing productions there and the seats are uncomfortable as well."

The good news is that things are looking up: three shows this week (a touring dance show which I'm reviewing elsewhere tonight, and another play tomorrow night) and more to come. I, sadly, will NOT be blogging Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as I'm getting paid to write about it (yay!) and having never seen the film am trying my best to go in blind. In the interim there will likely be other things to see.

And, to be honest, I did go and see something last week: the film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's legendary graphic novel Watchmen. And to give you the short opinion? This film fucking rocks. It was everything I hoped for (no short order!) and more. The characters were appropriately psychotic, the sex and violence at adult levels (it's rated 18 for very good reasons), and the new ending works beautifully. I'm not sure how much people who haven't read the book will appreciate it, but for people who HAVE read it, your opinion of the book will likely be the same as your subsequent opinion of the film. Just don't go in expecting fights and explosions every 20 seconds. This is an intellectual, character driven film that has occasional bursts of graphic sex and violence, not the other way around.

And on that note, I'm off to have a bowl of cereal before trekking out to Hammersmith to watch Bollywood-style dancers.

Monday, 2 March 2009

CATCHING UP: “The Hound of the Baskervilles”/”Hate Mail”

Frequent readers will be unsurprised by the revelation that I’m quite fond of the pub theatre. These spaces are often quirky, intimate, and friendly, and it’s almost always nice to pay one a visit.

Pentameters, in Hampstead, have been putting on plays since the late 1960’s, and have occupied the same space since the 1970’s. And the space is absolutely wonderful: funky architecture, chairs with mismatched cushions, hand drawn fliers and art, the place exudes a DIY charm that makes me wonder why I’ve never been before, but surely makes me want to come back. *ahem* But on to the play: one of many adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Hound begins not immediately as the book does, but rather with the book’s place in the Holmesian canon, pointing out that Holmes is recently deceased after his battle with Moriarty in Switzerland and briefly covering how the great detective met with our narrator, Dr. Watson. From there the script is rather straightforward as one would expect, hitting the high points in a brief 90 minutes plus interval.

Despite it being years since I’ve read the book and forgetting many of the details I was able to follow the play easily. The acting was generally solid, and the staging decent if not quite as tight as it should be: scene changes involve the actors playing the Barrymores (Sir Henry Baskerville’s staff) removing a tarp from a set of furniture, meticulously folding it, and then setting the furniture into place. The problem comes from Watson, often standing on the other side of the stage, waiting to begin his transitional narration until the folding patterns are completed, which looks rather silly to the audience.

Otherwise? It was nice - the sort of thing which you can precede or follow up with a cup of tea and the newspaper.

Hate Mail at Above the Stag, on the other hand, isn’t nice - as the title implies. Nor is something behind the scenes either, as the play was shut down and recast, reopening later this week.

The play itself is an epistolary, a form I’ve learned to loathe after seeing Crocodile of my Heart, a collection of letters between Chekhov and his lover at the Akadamietheater in Vienna. In expository theatre two (or more) people sit down and read (usually letters) at each other for the duration of the play. There is little blocking and virtually no direct interaction between the characters, rather some bemused looks from one or the other while their words are being read. In short, it’s a very dull and lazy form of theatre and one I wouldn’t ever spend money seeing. Fortunately, my tickets were free.

It’s fortunate as well that Hate Mail, which tracks the interactions between the children of two adult friends through to adulthood has a half-decent script with some funny ha-ha moments, but nothing that’s funny ho-ho or uproarious. It manages to passingly keep the attention but not command it, and warrants little else. I’d talk about the cast, Sarah Whitlock and Hugh Futcher, but both were fired from the production (perhaps because neither could pull off a convincing American accent or read without mangling their lines the night I went.) The two have been replaced by Bryan Hands as snot and mud loving boy Dan and London drag standard Bette Rinse as the wealthy gone bust Penelope. I’ve no plans to revisit the show, so here’s hoping they outdo their predecessors.