Thursday 22 April 2010

REVIEW: “Pressure Drop”

It’s nice to see the Wellcome Collection (and by extension Wellcome Trust) expanding into theatre. The organisation has put on some fascinating work in the past, and their gallery is a great place to spend an hour mulling over the mix of art and science.

But did they really have to make something as flat as Pressure Drop their premiere piece?

Well, perhaps flat’s not quite the right term to use. A rather cramped promenade set out across three mini-stages and accompanied by 80’s rocker Billy Bragg with band, Pressure Drop is part of the Identity Project series. In this case, question is “What is the identity of the modern white working class?”

Now, I’m foreign, so some of the impact may well be lost on me, but I feel like I’ve been in England long enough to have spotted all the tickboxes:

-Boozing up
-Family ties
-Sense of entitlement
-Male pride
-Desires for the future
-Sense of community
-Sense of lost community

In other words, it’s a two hour episode of EastEnders. Family patriarch Ron has died, and while unemployed factory man Jack is being pressured by loudmouthed friend Tony (played as a masterful cunt by David Kennedy) to stand in the council elections for the BNP, prodigal son Jon returns from New York after escaping his working class roots and making it in New York as a stockbroker, and Jack’s intelligent and artistic song George (Shea Davis as a remarkably non-annoying kid) is bullied by Tony’s son, the chavtastic Barney. Rounding off the tropes are kind Nana (June Watson) and Jack’s unhappy and unsure wife Jacqui.

Well, we’ve seen it all before. Jon is aghast at what’s happened to his old friends (or rather how little has), he’s kicked down for ascending and becoming an outsider, Tony spends the entire play being a loudmouthed racist, and the funeral barely happens in peace.

It’s all well handled by the actors, but Mick Gordon (book and direction) seems to have banged the play out in about as much time as it’s taking me to write this review. The night I went (final preview, thanks for the press tickets), the show ran 30 minutes over time, and it fails utterly in one of its key scenes: Jack consistently delays his decision to sign the paperwork and stand for office, and his ultimate decision is made due to an offstage conversation with George which would have had far more impact had it been presented on stage, thereby breaking one of Mamet’s rules of good drama. Jacqui is given too little to do (a sign of genuine working class women?), and while we’re supposed to hate Tony, the character is so utterly unlikeable that it was tempting to take advantage of the promenade staging and deck him multiple times onstage. Likewise, the reveal that Jack’s party is the BNP is given away FAR too early, without enough time to build to hit the audience emotionally. We see the flier in the first scene, we can predict the rest. There is a clever trick which I shan’t spoil here (it’s perhaps the smartest part of the show), but there’s a lot of standard fare surrounding it.

The advert’s selling points, however, are Billy Bragg’s music and performance along with the hybrid promenade/installation staging. Both are nice, both are entirely superfluous. The music provides commentary, but doesn’t engage the cast or the story except for one song which everybody here can guess. And how ironic it is that the racist will dance to a song covered by The Specials and originated as a reggae piece. But that’s part of it, innit? Anyhow, Bragg’s in fine voice but those coming to see him will be disappointed by how little he actually does, and the fact that it’s him is superfluous.

As for the promenade staging, it’s a clever use of the Wellcome’s space, but with only three locations in a relatively small space, the piece doesn’t really have room to portray a neighbourhood and uses the device more to avoid set changes than involvement. Compared to, say, Mincemeat or works of a certain well known company, the promenade is wasted: Pressure Drop would work just as well on a proscenium stage or in a black box as the prom style and lose nothing.

So is Pressure Drop worth seeing? It’s not bad, and if you arrive early enough you can wander through the Wellcome’s free gallery first, but it’s ultimately trying too hard and revealing too little. The Corrie Omnibus on Sunday has about as much to say, and won’t set you back £20, but there is something about seeing it live and up close which helps. But in the end, team, the pressure's gonna drop on you.

Thursday 11 March 2010

REVIEW: “Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi”

It’s a busy day at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool: the guests are frenzied, receptionist Neil is leaving for Japan, and manager Jo has been invited to go with him. She’s distraught and torn between her safe life and going off with a friend turned potential lover. Amidst the chaos (since the paragraph so far has covered the opening number), a woman has been spotted on the roof and may be about to jump. When Jo goes up to check it out, she finds herself talking to Alice, her predecessor from 70 years prior. The majority of the show from thereon is a flashback about Alice’s time during the golden age of Hollywood, and the ups and downs of her relationship with Thompson, a rogue and childhood friend trying to clean up his act and win her heart.

There’s a lot to appreciate about Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi. It boasts a cast of 19, manages to fit them all onto the Union’s stage, has a huge creative team working for it, and even offered press tickets to bloggers (including insane ones like yours truly). There’s also the benefit of an original book, new music, Andrew Wright’s energetic and sharp choreography, and Rebecca Hutchinson pulling a double shift as modern day Jo and 1930’s Young Alice.

So before I go all rant-y and do the “tear everything I see apart because that’s what the readers expect” bit, I’ll get the pull quote out of the way first:

Fans of traditional musicals will love “Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi.” It’s a charming, pleasantly scored fairy tale, a love letter to the pre-war Liverpudlian spirit, and another hit for the Union. It’s sweet, gentle, and pleasantly old-fashioned. The West End Whingers would love it, and it’s fantastic to see a new, original show with so many people behind it coming into town.

Unfortunately, I’m a raging cynic and it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

It may have just been because I had a long day, but I found the pacing rather excruciating: directed by its writer Phil Willmott, “Adelphi” moves at a snail’s pace, and despite the first act only being 65 minutes, it felt like at least 90. The second act was snappier, but both could have done with cuts. Part of this, however, needs to be attributed to the evolution of the musical form - it’s rare to stop the plot these days just to have a scene set up a song and dance number. Old fashioned charm is what the show is about, though, so I get it. And I’m glad they’re there, because Wright’s choreography is a highlight of the show.

The book also has some issues with the continuation of action: while the parallel of Jo and Neil is set up as a foil and an interest point against Alice and Thompson, the former isn’t actually developed enough to matter: all it does is help telegraph the final plot twist, and more astute viewers will pick up on it from the start.

Mr. Willmott’s score (assisted by Elliot Davis) is also pleasant, but ballad heavy and both forgettable (can’t remember any tunes 12 hours later) and had some familiar sounding chord structures. And unfortunately, Jon-Paul Hevey sounded like he was having a bad night, as his singing became increasingly awkward through the night though he mostly made up for it with his scouse charm and well-meaning roguishness.

And yes, this is a show full of scousers. And visiting Americans. Visiting Americans played in part by American actors who really should have helped their English compatriots out with their overplayed accents and informed Mr. Willmott that Americans don’t call elevators “lifts.” But that’s a nitpick there.

As I said before, there’s a lot to recommend “Adelphi,” and traditionalists and new musical enthusiasts will both get their kicks out of the production. Mancurians and the sarcastic, however, are likely to be less than enthusiastic.

Monday 1 March 2010

NOTES: ‘Modelling Spitfires’ / ‘Lost Soul Music’

Hard though it may be to believe, I’ve actually been to the theatre lately and HAVEN’T gone solely to review a show or because a friend was involved or because I was working on it. And since I’ve got deadlines for other work today, these are going to be mercilessly brief. Cast and creative information for Lost Soul Music is not present on the Pleasance website and I didn’t buy a programme.

First up, Modelling Spitfires at the New End. When Maruice comes back to the family house after a stay in a mental institution, sister Marcia’s life is turned upside down: she was planning to sell the house, move out of the city, and start living life for herself after caring for an abusive elderly father and raising a daughter as a single parent. Maurice has other plans, and the manipulative genius with the emotional maturity of an eight year old has been hard at work to ensure that Marcia stays put.

There’s some interesting work going on in Spitfires about how we handle family responsibilities: the drain they take on those doing the caring, when we put ourselves first, and so on. The problem, though, is that Spitfires fails my basic test of a family drama, which goes like this:

‘Can all of the problems be resolved by either shooting an instigator or having one of the sufferers commit suicide?’

If the answer is yes, the play fails. And, in this case, there would be an instant happy ending for Maurice if Marcia kills herself, and an instant happy ending for everybody (namely the audience) if she shot Maurice ten minutes in. This isn’t for lack of trying by the actors, particularly author Vanessa Rosenthal, who also plays Marcia, and it’s nice to see a proper set in the New End and all, but August Osage County this isn’t, and sitting through three hours of August was nothing compared to the 95 minutes (with interval) of Spitfires.

Speaking of death as a release, there is much soul searching and selling at the Pleasance in Islington these days as they present a series of Lost Soul Music. A set of six one-act musicals about losing your soul, and hemmed by the team behind TONY! The Blair Musical, Lost Soul is presented in sets of two, so a patron needs to visit three times to see all six pieces. Being an anthology of sorts, there’s the benefit that if the first show isn’t to your fancy, the second very well may be.

The day I went, the selections were ‘All the Best Tunes’, about a boy who sells his soul to be able to sing, and ‘Soldier of Fortune’, about a time jumping coward who goes from battle to battle, ultimately becoming a shell shocked god of war. Both pieces have doubled cast members (as do the other four), and the set is a simple, yet effective way of using the Pleasance’s size and revolve, relying upon a well constructed and positioned flat.

Musically, ‘Tunes’ is the more original - a jazzy set of tracks and perfectly in line with the history of jazz and blues being termed the devil’s music and the religious imagery involved. ‘Soldier’ relies heavily upon traditional tunes (e.g. ‘Bring Back My Bonnie To Me’) with repurposed lyrics.

The books....could do with a bit of trimming. Despite each piece being around 50-55 minutes, they both felt like they were running out of steam by the end, and some minor edits for pacing could easily keep the energy from flagging. I don’t really have anything else to say about ‘Tunes’ - there’s nothing groundbreaking in its story or the way it’s told, but it’s solid and works well. ‘Soldier’ is a bit more problematic, as the audience often shares in the protagonist’s confusion about where (and when) he is, particularly for the first third. The anti-war message also feels like less of a gentle leaflet and more like a conceptual cricket bat by the end, but it undoubtedly will appeal to many in the audience.

To sum up: Avoid Spitfires, take a chance on Lost Soul.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

UPDATE: Why so silent?

Things have been rather quite on the blogger front lately, and in this case it's not because I've taken out a New Year's resolution see less theatre (though Mark Shenton and the West End Whingers have), but rather it's a question of time and energy. I've had back to back shows to work on, and while there will be some down time, it's going into a third. This reduces both the time (and money) I have to spend on going to the theatre - even when I can score free tickets since transit costs get reassigned - and when I'm spending all my time working on a show, I tend to not really want to sit through more of them.

Instead, I've been catching up on my anime viewing, getting some alternative contract work, and so on and so forth. I have been to the theatre recently, mostly for paid critical work, and most recently for Legally Blonde (short: it's good, safe family/first date fare but don't pay full price) and next for The Little Dog Laughed. After that, well, we'll see. After running around London to make sure rehearsals are running and dealing with ongoing HR crises, it's so much easier to just put a DVD on and forget about things for a while. So instead of theatre, I may put in some occasional anime or DVD reviews - things that either have a known appeal to the theatre crowd (e.g. I *finally* got a copy of the RENT Live DVD) or a broader outside appeal for non-fans to dip their toes in the water. We shall see. Again, time and energy.

And on that note, I've got phone calls to make before rehearsal.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

(This is almost certainly my last review for 2009 and probably my final post for the year as well.)

For many, Elizabeth Taylor is synonymous with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Despite personal tragedy in production, her sexy, smouldering Maggie draped herself across a film full of long, still shots, and the theatrical nature of the script often led her to play directly to the camera and audience in such a way as to immediately sympathise with the ignored wife and give in to her charms and appeals. Any new production, therefore, must find a way to keep the film as far from the audience’s mind as possible during the play.

In a stunning new production, director Debbie Allen (most infamous for her choreography in Carrie) has done just that by casting an all-Black family in her Cat. While purists may show disdain at Allen’s edits, mostly to reflect racial issues and salt up a bit of Big Daddy’s language, the new Cat is a fascinating view of a family and an era in decline.

Moved to the 1980’s, Brick (Adrian Lester) is a football player-turned-announcer now consumed with apathy and alcoholism after the death of his best friend and possible lover Skipper. He has cut off his wife, Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) in every way possible, but most importantly in the bedroom. As Big Daddy (James Earl Jones) turns 65, word spreads through the family that he is dying of cancer - though the doctors have told him and Big Mama (Phylicia Rashad) that it was just a scare. Armed with the news, Brick’s older brother Gooper (Peter de Jersey) and his wife Mae (Nina Sosanya) are going full on for inclusion in Big Daddy’s yet-unwritten will, throwing their children and traditional family values in the faces of their opposition.

Williams’ play is a curio, not just for the way its repetitive style of dialogue would be co-opted and expanded by later generations (compare Maggie and Brick’s “Are you listening?” “I hear you.” with the “Talking/Telling” aspects of Glengarry Glenn Ross), but also for its portrayal of Southern traditions in decline and the needs of polite society to sweep anything undesirable - be it marital issues or homosexuality - under the rug only to watch as the house of cards collapses when the dirt dissolves the foundation.

Indeed, there have been many complaints among visitors for how the new time period weakens the crux (Brick’s possibly sexual relationship with Skipper), but the cultural shift of casting it in a Black family keeps it up: the role of the Church and traditional family structures are central in the African-American community, and sexual tolerance is still far behind that of society at large.

As far as Allen’s cast and direction go, Lester’s Brick is the picture of apathy: given over entirely to the bottle, Brick is a man of pride with nothing to be proud of. He’s flat, smooth, and devoid of emotion for anything except a drink and his memories - a calm amongst the storm around him. Lathan’s Maggie carries the first act, and demands both the audience’s sympathy and their annoyance: we can side with her while seeing why Brick wants her to go away and let him drink. The stars, however, are Rashad’s Big Mama, a well-meaning but intellectually lacking matron whose traditional power is shadowed entirely by the whirlwind of James Earl Jones’s firebrand of a Big Daddy.

To be honest, Jones was the selling point of the play for me going in, and the man could read the phone book for three hours and I’d still be enraptured, so take it for what it’s worth. However, to see a legend up close in one of the great American dramas is always a joyous experience, especially one which allows us both to see the voice of Darth Vader tearing into the fools he suffers in the name of polite society and for his delivery of the classic lines on mendacity.

So, needless to say, the production could do little wrong in my eyes, and it delivered by keeping me enraptured for the entire three hour runtime (one proper interval, one short one between the second and third acts.) While the new Cat is ambitious on multiple levels, it succeeds at two key aspects at the core: to bring a new, fresh angle to the text and to present the play well. See this while you can, and rejoice in the power of the straight play (especially with the Enron and Jerusalem transfers just around the corner.)

OK, so there’s one thing that did keep me from being fully engrossed in the show for all three hours, namely where I was sitting. It’s possible to get tickets in the slips for £10 on Lastminute, which is the only way I could afford a ticket, and depending on where you are (mine wasn’t TOO bad) you’ll miss a good deal of the action and when the eyes wander, so does the mind. The effect wasn’t as bad as at Arcadia, but the easily distracted should definitely shell out the extra cash for central seating, as both sides will face significantly restricted views (seats 1-12 lose being able to see the bar, seats 13-24 won’t see the dressing table.)

Tuesday 15 December 2009

NOTES: Holiday Show Roundup

Things are extremely busy over here in show meltdown land, but as a bit of distraction I’ve attempted to keep up some of my annual holiday time theatre going. So, for those in need of some cheering up and rediscovery of inner youth, here’s the four big holiday shows I’ve seen in the last month:

Aladdin @ Hackney Empire
This is my third year attending the Hackney panto and every year it’s a gem and a total treat. The script is tight, the jokes brilliant, and the cast on tip top form. And Clive’s even throwing sweets into the audience again. Really, nothing else to say besides SEE THIS.

Rock 'n' Roll Aladdin
@ The Shaw
The cast of actor-musicians give it their all and this is a fun show, but the script is middle of the road and very paint by numbers. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to those who don’t want to travel all the way to Wimbledon though. Especially if you prefer 50’s-70’s rock instead of most of the bits and bobs that get pinched for panto these days.

Morecambe @ The Duchess
I fully admit that I’m too young to really have appreciated this. It’s very nice, but there’s no real dramatic tension (Morecambe and Wise both led rather squeaky clean lives) and the humour feels old and dated now, especially since it’s a double act done by one. See it if you’re nostalgic, otherwise stay home and watch Morecambe and Wise clips on YouTube for an hour - especially the Mastermind segment. I think I laughed more at that than the entire show...

Dick Barton: Quantum of Porridge @ Croydon Warehouse
My second Dick Barton show, and one well worth the rather long journey out to Croydon for. Sharp gags, a plot twist in every scene, and some real creativity in the staging. Sure to join Hackney’s panto as one of my Christmas time traditions. See it if you can.

Wednesday 18 November 2009


Never let it be said that I don’t believe in second chances.

On the other hand, let it be said that I absolutely believe in calling ‘em as I see ‘em. And despite thinking this version of Jest End is better than its predecessor, and regardless of the cast who worked their tails off to sing it well, the show still doesn’t come together.

For one, timing is everything in comedy. So why are there still jokes about Gone With The Wind, (nothing about Ernie Get Your Gun though) Mary Poppins, and Footloose (all gone for over a year) and bits about Little Mermaid and Legally Blonde (not open yet)? Ditto the farewell to Avenue Q which doesn’t close until March. All of the reality show bits are recycled from the last show as well, despite the fact that we didn’t have a casting show this year. I’ll almost forgive the Lord of the Rings song even if it took me forever to remember what it was from - though LotR wasn’t mentioned in the lyrics - but it was at least about flops in general. And still nothing about some of the biggest shows in the West End.

Second, the jokes are still one note. ALW and the Phantom singing “You’re Nothing Without Me” from City of Angels is a cosplay skit. It’s not something to put in a professional show, especially given that the joke is exposed as soon as people realise what the song is. The Barrowman and Donovan numbers were the same - Barrowman has a big smile and is loud, Jason Donovan hasn’t done stage in a while. Got it. Now do something with the other three minutes in the song.

How bad was it? I sat behind the creatives who were quite pleased with themselves, and I couldn’t hear all of the audience, but I *could* see the people off to the side thanks to the Jermyn Street’s lovely layout. And I saw that most of them weren’t laughing after the first verse of most bits.

Third, too much repetition. This is both in the lyrics (don’t repeat yourself in comedy unless you’re adding new context, and yes, this means writing new lyrics for each chorus) and in staging (I lost count of how many times the SA guy scratched his arse, how many times girls adjusted their tits, and how many skits ended with or involved someone giving two fingers.)

Fourth, too much repetition. This is both in the lyrics (don’t repeat yourself in comedy unless you’re adding new context, and yes, this means writing new lyrics for each chorus) and in staging (I lost count of how many times the SA guy scratched his arse, how many times girls adjusted their tits, and how many skits ended with or involved someone giving two fingers.)

See? Not funny. Neither is the third time Cameron/Fagin says "Maybe it's time to revive Miss Saigon." That's your second chorus. Your first is to comment on the upcoming Hair revival, the third is to change costume pieces and suggest Cats. See, it builds from happening to "Please no" to "Anything but that."

Anyhow, clearly there’s an audience for this sort of thing - after all, they packed the Menier for Forbidden Broadway - but despite the money and attention being thrown at it, Jest End remains on the wrong side of amateurish, feeling more like something being put on for friends (who seemed to make up most of the not sparse but not full house last night) rather than, you know, an actual paying audience.