Thursday, 20 August 2009

REVIEW: Credit Crunch Queen

The great thing about August is how laid back the theatre is in London: soft openings, short runs, and all sorts of fun things for theatre companies who can’t justify the costs of going to Edinburgh and for audiences who can’t justify the effort of going to Edinburgh either. In this case, it meant catching Jackie Skarvellis’s new play Credit Crunch Queen during its tryout at Pentameters before it transfers to the Stag this week.

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

NOTES: Lazy update

A list of shows that I have recently seen but been too busy, lazy, or forgetful to write up properly:

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

BONUS: 20 Musicals for the 2000’s

With the decade ending in a mere four months and little of inspiration (unless the final book for White Noise is somehow stunningly brilliant) from either the US or the UK, so we can start on these tributes to the naughts.

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

REVIEW: “Hot Air”

It’s nice getting asked to see shows before they go to Edinburgh: you get the drop on the Scotsman critic in finding a gem or a disaster.

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.

REVISIT: Hans Teeuwen

I first came into contact with Hans Teeuwen last year when he played at Battersea Arts Centre following his Edinburgh run and in advance of a Dutch TV taping at the Leicester Square Theatre. At the time I was amused and slightly puzzled, but further research AFTER the show was rather enlightening: once you understand that he’s all about how much he can fuck with the audience, it all becomes significantly funnier, and this year’s triumphant return to BAC in advance of Edinburgh, brings about an almost entirely new show - at least to English speakers.

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.

NOTES: Nun the Wiser

(Another short Edinburgh preview review)

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.

NOTES: Sammy J & The Forest of Dreams

(A Scotsman-length review as this was an Edinburgh preview)

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.