Thursday, 14 May 2009

REVIEW: “Thriller Live”

As a child of the 80’s, the scandal surrounding Michael Jackson in the past 15 or so years is a high publicity decimation of a pop culture icon. I was never a huge fan (I can quote you the Weird Al parodies for “Bad” and “Beat it” far more easily than the original) but I don’t deny the man’s talent and like a number of the big hits.

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

Revisit: "La Cage Aux Folles"

(Quick post #2...on a roll.)

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.

REVIEW: Dimetos/Madame de Sade

(A very quick one to be followed by two more very quick ones.)

“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

REVIEW: “Shout!”

I felt a bit of trepidation as I headed to the Arts Theatre (of death!) before seeing Shout! last night. Here we had another jukebox musical, and one with less than impressive word of mouth as well. Things weren’t improved when I snuck a glance at a neighbour’s programme and saw it opening with the same Petula Clark song as that damn bus (the song being “Downtown” for those keeping track.)

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.

I digress.

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.