Monday, 27 April 2009

REVIEW: “Rookery Nook”

I like farce. When done well it provides an entertaining night out with lots of laughs and a canny look at the peculiarities of social norms and morals. It’s a comforting form of entertainment where the entire piece is dictated by rules and form (like panto) and the creativity comes in exploiting these and finding something new to say within.

Unfortunately, it’s particularly easy to screw this up. All it takes is a slip in the timing, an inferior round of wordplay, or a bad mood in the audience to ruin everything.

Rookery Nook, now playing at the Chocolate Factory, is closer to the latter than the former. Looking at the sexual mores of the educated class, the play revolves around a trio of chaps trying to avoid the image of impropriety when a girl runs away from home in the heat of an argument. Of course, the girl’s reputation is already in tatters as one of the fellows’ wives took it upon herself to spread false rumours about her relation to her foreign stepfather.

Eagle eyed readers will notice that there is no actual misconduct here (though one of the men, who resembles Cary Elwes is clearly a rogue on his best behaviour). The fun in farce comes from the cover-up: keeping the three stewardesses apart in Boeing-Boeing, making sure the play runs in Noises Off, but so much of the actual “keep away” is absent here: there are only brief moments of threat at the end of the first act and the start and of course end of the second. Secondary characters take much of the time (a crusty admiral in the second act, a second girl added to make things worse in the third) and it keeps the pressure and the tension from achieving a properly tightened torque.

That’s not to say that everything about the show is awful: I quite liked the cast, and the costumes will please anybody who reads The Chap. There was some slightly clever lighting, and the play almost managed to keep my attention focused enough to ignore how uncomfortable the benches were (yes, my arse was numb at the interval. Fortunately there was spare room and I was able to shift around a bit during the second and third acts as revenge for the loudly crinkling people behind me.)

Is it amusing throughout? I guess. I was never bored, but the first act was distinctly underwhelming and the play only reaches top gear in two or three brief moments despite the dialogue flying past. The Whingers attribute this to the set being too big and taking energy from the jokes, and I’m likely to agree: despite being the Menier being a small venue, farce needs to be in cramped or expanded settings so that action can be concentrated (or distracted from). I think the ultimate weakness, however, lies with the script by Ben Travers: It’s a bit too by-the-book and lacks the oomph needed to really reel in the laughs.

But the Menier’s next show is Forbidden Broadway and all is therefore forgiven.

Where: Menier Chocolate Factory
When: Until 20 June. Tu-Sa @ 20:00, Sa/Su @ 15:30
How Much: £25/£34 (the latter being a meal deal with the venue’s restaurant.)
Concessions: £20
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. Safe, take your mum theatre with nice costumes.
RZ Other Notes: The assigned seating policy remains! I’ve never been on the black benches, but the red ones are desperately in need of some padding. Hopefully the money coming in from La Cage can help fund some decent seats!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

REVISIT: "Sunset Blvd."

I don't really have much to add after December's review. I honestly wasn't even planning to go again, but given the opportunity for free tickets and a chance to meet up with a friend before he left for an extended holiday did the job of getting me out of the house.

So what's there to say? Well, I saw the show from the stalls this time, and I don't think it really helped. Normally I prefer to either sit in the mid-stalls or front of the first circle, but I think the latter is very much the place to sit here: being able to literally look down at rather contemptible people is more satisfying than tilting your head upwards, especially with the poor rake in the stalls at the Comedy. Despite being off to the sides, our views (minus heads in front) were unencumbered, so props to those who actually check their sightlines.

As far as the cast go, something seemed to be on autopilot, though whether it was the cast or myself is hard to tell, though my companion suggested it was the former. Kathryn Evans provides the light which creates the shadows of this production and I find that Ben Goddard has calmed down enough to remain unlikeable but not in-yer-face.

Though it was only a Monday night, the stalls had notable pockets of emptiness, and I couldn't say whether the upper circle was open or not (the Dress was.) Word is that the production is breaking even but not selling gangbusters, so book now before the tourists arrive and the end-of-summer closing shortly follows. Worth Paying and notes are the same as before - £25 is about right.

Monday, 20 April 2009

No Updates and Cast Recordings...

Yeah. It's been a while since I've gone to the theatre.

Well, that's not entirely true. I saw a friend's cabaret on Easter Sunday (shockingly bad) and caught Calendar Girls (amusingly mediocre) for a commission, but no independent theatre-going to speak of.

I have, however, gotten ahold of the cast recording for next to normal, which just opened on Broadway. I adore the score for this show, and have since receiving a *cough* of the 2005 Festival production, back when it was still called Feeling Electric. So I should love the cast recording right?

Yeah, I do. But that doesn't mean I don't have a lot of quibbles with it. Some of the cuts are awkward because the snipped dialogue covers transitional underscoring, breaking up what should be two flowing pieces. The mixing is also off - the guitars, especially the electric guitars, are too low, and the harmonies are overly slick. The whole thing reminds me of the Broadway cast recording for RENT in a way - I find that recording to be far too sterile and while it does a decent job of presenting the score, it's just not right. (For the record, I prefer the German cast recording, iffy translation aside, which uses the original arrangements but was recorded live. The mix is slightly edgier and there's more energy than the rushed New York edition.)

The N2N CD suffers in the same way. Part of a soundboard was leaked from last year's off-Broadway production, and on the tracks where comparison is possible, the soundboard blows away the CD: there's the right amount of roughness, the arrangements shine, and the cast are surfing on the waves of the band and not floating ten feet above. But clearly someone was happy with it because it got released. And, to be honest, I'm listening to it all the time. There are a tonne of brilliant tracks here, and even with the flaws it's an amazing piece.

But I still prefer the Festival Version of "A Light in the Dark."

The album also brings up a good question: what is the point of cast recordings? The inclusion (and exclusion) of dialogue on the N2N disc really makes me wonder. The cast album for Hedwig plays like a rock CD, whereas Avenue Q's includes just enough to provide context to the music. RENT cut a couple of small dialogue pieces, mostly to ensure that the first act fit onto a 74 minute disc (80 minute discs existed then but were uncommon) and comes off more as an archive. Most classic cast recordings are both preservational (key songs) and promotional (sell the big song.) I'm more tempted to put N2N into the latter - a (relatively) cheap way to try the music before committing to expensive show tickets. Of course, given that the physical CD is pushing $25 depending on where you buy it, only the iTunes release really counts in that sense. I'd forgive so much more to have the full dialogue on "Just Another Day" and "Catch Me I'm Falling."

But it's not there. Alas. Fortunately we live in enterprising times and somebody can/will/has supply/ied.

Monday, 6 April 2009

THOUGHTS: Tabú by NoFit State Circus

I’m not a big fan of the circus. I guess it’s partly because I’m a snob, and partly because Dr Who taught me that clowns are creepy. The bizarre pride of family tradition and inevitable inbreeding (“8th generation circus family” “9th generation circus family” and “living on the road and only knowing circus people” combine in my head in unpleasant ways) doesn’t really help.

But hey, I was offered free tickets to Tabú, and it was an excuse to see something at the Roundhouse, which I walk past somewhat frequently and have never actually visited properly, so why not?

Tabú is promoted as circus meets burlesque and punk, and it’s not an entirely inaccurate description. Following the trends of new circus, there aren’t animals or greasepaint laden clowns (decidedly less creepy), but the show maintains a wonderful atmosphere, feeling appropriately grimy, dirty, like a slightly guilty pleasure to be attending this in public. The female costumes are what largely inspire the burlesque tag, lots of pre-war muslin and low cut high-skirted dresses (though no actually nudity and only minor stripping, usually to lose a large skirt on a trapeze).

As far as punk, that brings me to my favourite part of the evening, which is the music. While not punk as traditionally defined, the music is an odd blend of outsider (think Jandek lyrics meeting the Vaselines’ deranged tunefulness) mixed with new swing (Squirrel Nut Zippers), a splash of continental classic (Brel/Piaf) and a dusting of new wave. It’s all performed live, and I wish I’d checked the merchandise table for a CD - there really should be one.

The actual circus-ing is pretty traditional, spruced up by a steel towered behemoth out of a dystopian six year old’s Meccano set full of winches and human counterweights. There’s some avant garde use of video, and an entertaining scene done on perpendicular trampolines, one doubling as a projection screen. A few scenes, such as the opening use of silhouettes and the finale, are beautifully creative. Others are more standard fare, but it’s all supposed to come together in a look at the darker side of human desire. I didn’t always see it, and found the second half more cohesive, but it’s there for the people who want it (and can be ignored for those who just want a spectacle.)

The production is also advertised as promenade, which is misleading: the action is largely central and elevated, but the entire space is standing room and attendees are encouraged (and sometimes forced for safety reasons) to move around. My companion and I both moved around a fair bit, largely to avoid crowding and to take advantage of shifting our viewing angle, and found it a rewarding experience: sometimes moving towards the back or over to a side paid off big time, other times it was a decent but not in your face view. Most of the audience, however, stayed largely put. Your ticket, your call.

In short? It didn’t convert me to circus, but it convinced me that I should see NoFit again if they’re in town, and I think the production hit far more than it missed. Recommended.

Where: Roundhouse Theatre
When: Until 19 April, M-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:00
How Much: £20. You will be standing/walking for 2 hours.
Concessions: £18, Under 16’s £12.50
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £20. Worth it for the music alone.
RZ Other Notes: If booking online, do your best to book directly through the theatre as your booking fee goes straight to the Roundhouse’s youth theatre charity.

Friday, 3 April 2009

REVIEW: Blok Busta

I don’t even know where to start with this one. I guess the easy, lazy, and potentially humorous way to go is with another good/bad list...

(EDIT: On revision while dropping in links and formatting I realised I should briefly cover the plot. In Glamsville it's illegal to listen to disco, but the Blok Busta is going around killing girls with long black hair by playing disco to them. His suspicions fall on a group of teachers and students at Glamsville High after they bomb the school and start a nightclub. Some infighting occurs, another girl dies, a male fantasy lesbian cop hits on good girl gone bad Virginia Plain, and the mystery is solved at the end.)


-The score (too many contributors to list) is mostly original. There’s a few covers in there (including “Sugar Baby Love” by the Rubettes - guaranteed to throw off anime fans everywhere) but there’s a LOT of new tunes here.

-A lot of the songs (bottom of the page) are catchy and have lyrics between competent and clever. I wouldn’t mind having a cast recording on my iPod, even though I’d be hard pressed to justify paying for it. There’s the occasional clunker but for the most part the music is decent.

-The lighting is concert appropriate though a bit excessive during the encore.

-The cast do wonders for the material. For some reason the creative team didn’t feel it was worth listing or mentioning the cast members on the website so I can’t reference them, but the fellow playing Aladdin Payne (yes they all have names this lame) and the actress who took the triple role of the initial victim (forgot the name), Delilah, and Jenny Jenn also deserves credit for bringing some life to the production.

-As actor/musicians, the cast do a great job often doubling on instruments.

-Disco music is a lethal weapon. I approve.


-It’s not glam. I know that Blok Busta *advertises* itself as a glam musical, and it does cover some songs from the glam movement and has some glam-ish costumes (though they’re more Jem than glam) but some of the key glam tropes are missing.

-Case in point? The lack of androgyny. Yes the guys have make-up and sparkly costumes and platform boots, but where’re the waifs, the torch songs, and the posing? The characters move like stereotypes and don’t feel inhabited.

-Likewise the movement is off in performance. A big part of Glam was toning down the phallic “Man plays big guitar at crotch level” aspect of Rock, but it was here in abundance. The girls rocked out as well, so they reclaim some points there, but again, the aesthetic was close but not right. Go read some Auslander, see a proper stage production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and try again.

-The book. There’s (barely) a plot, but it’s thin and gleefully discarded for the next tune (hint to Mike Bennett who wrote the show: *NEVER* say something like “This makes me sad. Let’s have a song!” Songs in musicals should be extensions of the characters and not forced. Priscilla makes the same mistake.)

-More on the book. I was chatting to another audience member at the interval and they made the comparison to a comic book. Given that I’ve been on a reading bender lately including as much books of Top 10, The Authority, and Transmetropolitan as I can get ahold of in addition to revisiting Watchmen, any self-respecting comic book author would be insulted by being compared to Blok Busta. I’d compare it more to Vampires Rock, and found that by shifting my expectations from “musical” to “concert with plot-like banter” the second act was more enjoyable.

-Which brings me to the pacing. I felt every minute of the two hours here.

-The spoiler moment with “I Will Survive.” I want to go on Room 101 just to lock that song away forever.


Mike Bennett (author and no relation to the brilliant Michael Bennett) has written good material in the past. I know people who’ve worked with him on other projects and they had nothing but good things to say about them, so it seems like Blok Busta is simply misconceived and an unfortunate mis-step in a long, industrious, and largely well received career. Here’s hoping to a return to form and better things in the future.

Where: New Players Theatre
When: Until 18 April, Tu-Sa @ 19:30, Sa @ 15:00
How Much: £20. Try and get row J or forward.
Concessions: £15.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: A very generous £10. Conveniently you can get tickets for this on lastminute. It’s worth going if you ignore everything BUT the music.
RZ Other Notes: For such a small venue the New Players has a number of seats which feel remarkably distant.