"why don't you go fuck a play" Boy George, by Twitter 18.7.2012

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Slow Drag

Curtain almost up!!! Light some of the lights!!!

Technical difficulties caused some hilarity at La Cage aux Folles, relocated temporarily to the suitably French-sounding Menier Chocolate Factory, on the Rive Gauche beside the Pont de Londres ... but somehow the joie de vivre and ooh-la-la were left at the bottom of the costume skip which had clearly been scoured to the limits to furnish almost enough bugle beads and rhinestones to light up this low-wattage production.

Deferred opening and rumours of a diplomatic illness preventing Mr Douglas Hodge from performing added a frisson of excitement to what au fond (that's yer actual French) was a pretty workmanlike revival of a - I'm sad to realise - 25-year old musical.
It becomes painfully apparent that the Harvey Fierstein "book" is pretty thin, and the dialogues which further the plot feel like pedestrian filler or front-cloth scenes covering the finale scene change.

For that's what this production is, a panto - there's no third dimension to any of the characterisations, the plot and the family dynamic momentarily surprising but ultimately superficial, the sentiment is glucose and obvious even to a ten-year-old, but the dame's frocks are glittery and everyone sings and dances together at the happy end.

Talking of dames, stand-in Spencer Stafford made more than a fist of his role as drag queen Albin/Zaza and his singing is probably better than Hodge's would have been, but he's under-confident and the performance lacks star quality. His comparative youth makes the relationship with "husband" Georges seem unequal.

Talking of unequal, what on earth is a three-times Olivier winner like Philip Quast - for my money the finest ever Javert in a long line of Les Mis performers - doing hamming his way through such a low-rent piece in a very cheap evening suit?

There's some bizarre casting too. Filling in as a scene-shifter until it's time to play Madame Dindon in the final scene, Una Stubbs (audience chorus whisper of "I thought she was dead") is avian and urgently neurotic as though she were still gesticulating film titles on "Give Us A Clue", and Jason Pennycooke as the butler/maid Jacob lurches between a wig-slipping Sammy-Davis-in-drag impersonation and crudely executed pratfalls.

Menier Chocolate Factory has steadily sneaked its prices up to £25, which for bench seating in a small basement is dangerously close to real seats in the West End, and audiences may feel increasingly reluctant to apply the allowances usually made for fringe venues.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Into Victoria's Wood

It’s 21 years since I saw Into The Woods break new ground by bringing English pantomime to Broadway and twisting its neck, and this is the first production since that comes close.

Director Will Tuckett has lost none of the values in paring the show down to its bones for Covent Garden’s elegant but compact Linbury Studio, and the mirror-surrounded set and manually shifted scenery frame the stories as effectively as the 16-piece orchestra supports the clarity of diction and expression which make this production soar above its predecessors.

Flattening the characters’ vowels to an indeterminate “Northern” brings a Victoria Wood/Alan Bennett quality to their speech patterns which both Anglicises and endears them to a broad spectrum audience, many of whom clearly didn’t know the show of old.

Suzanne Toase stands out as a pert and plump Red Riding Hood whose bluff Yorkshire attitude suited the part in a way Sondheim probably didn't envisage, and Gillian Kirkpatrick’s enjoyably pivotal Cinderella reminded me of the mental posturing and facial expressions of Miranda Richardson’s Queen from Blackadder.

Singing Sondheim is difficult-to-impossible at the best of times, but in Into The Woods actors have the added frustration that the numbers are so often fragmented or truncated by the action. Singing is undeniably patchy: from the otherwise wonderful Anne Reid who struggles to make Jack’s Mother as lyrical as she is funny, to the blithe precision of Anna Francolini’s Baker’s Wife.

When given their head, though, it’s a treat to hear Clive Rowe add weight and resonance to “No One Is Alone” or Beverley Klein wring every emotion from a powerful but beautifully-shaded “Stay With Me”.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Drowsy Chap

I couldn't go with my gang of friends to The Drowsy Chaperone on the Whatsonstage.com outing last week, so had to catch up yesterday. Everyone I know who saw it on Broadway raved about it, and the London crew were no less enthusiastic.

Well, on Thursday either it had an off night, or I did. I'd had a bottle of wine and a pretty generous Mojito immediately before the show, but that ought to have put me into a receptive mood for some light comic pastiche of tinkly twinkly twenties musicals. Shouldn't it?

I quickly "got" the narrative schtick of co-author Bob Martin as "Man in Chair" and enjoyed his asides and three-dimensional persona much more than the Pantomime characters paraded across the stage performing the musical numbers.

Summer Strallen (and some so are not) was dental-drillingly shrill as Janet the bride, and so obviously school-of-Italia-Conti that it reminded me her aunt is actually Bonnie Langford. Her cheesy bridegroom was so annoying I've happily blanked him out. There was a tap-dancing best man who was like a toe-curling Tory MP in a House of Commons Christmas review, and a big broad black aviatrix whose only purpose in the show seemed to be for rhyming a finale number and testing the tensile strength of sequinned lycra.

The ridiculous brokers' men routine of the gangsters-disguised-as-bakers bored me rigid, and their corny puns were feeble - was it ever explained WHY they are disguised as bakers, or what the nature of their gangsterhood is? If there was a plot, this is the point at which I lost it to a momentary doze.

And who or what is the Drowsy Chaperone herself? Why, for example, is she "chaperoning" a bride on her wedding day, but not in any way preventing her from seeing the groom? Why is she "drowsy" - roughly interpreted as a narcoleptic alcoholic - and why doesn't she have a name or a personality?

Of course, this is a vehicle (even tumbrils are vehicles) for Elaine Paige, in my humble opinion one of the most self-indulgent actresses on the London stage, and this part certainly ain't a stretch for the short one.

No amount of vertical feathers or cantilevered millinery gives her the stature a commanding central role requires. Not that she was ever a subtle interpreter of female characters; now in fact square of jaw, bejewelled of gown, curled of wig and smooth-trowelled of complexion she has finally mutated into a sort of Danny La Rue mini-me.

The songs are universally forgettable, except perhaps Strallen's thumping "I Don't Wanna Show Off No More", a motto which Ms Paige really should have woven into a sampler and tacked to the wall of her dressing room. She needs better material and better direction to make use of her mature vocal talents: in this tosh, she's just coasting.

What really annoyed me about this production was how unfavourably it compared with Curtains, which ran parallel to it on Broadway in the same genre of pastiche musical, but penned by Kander and Ebb and with the impeccable David Hyde Pierce in the central role as a stage-struck detective who solves a murder in an out-of-town theatre but also manages to "fix" the musical show at the same time.

I think what's wrong with Drowsy Chaperone is that it's a spoof of a spoof. Trading so heavily on Salad Days , Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Boy Friend it's trying to parody a group of musicals which were already themselves pastiches of an earlier age.

It's not much of a consolation, but it was a delight to witness the exhumation of Anne Rogers, a musical comedy star of great magnitude in her heyday, looking trim and singing competently as a dotty older lady.

I'd last seen her on stage in No, No, Nanette at Drury Lane in the early 1970s wiping the floor with Anna Neagle, and she must have been forty even then: it's good to see her still stealing scenes.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Phantom Menace

I went to Phantom of the Opera on Monday. I'd never seen it before.

Has this thing really been running for 21 years? Why?

Unlike many Phantom audience members who plan and save and look forward to their visits like a state occasion, I was still mooching around the new Primark in Oxford Street at 7.25 thinking the curtain was at 8, so despite a swift cab to the Haymarket I missed the opening moments.

This did give me an opportunity to stand at the back of the Circle for a couple of minutes and survey the two to three full rows of empty seats, giving the lie to the claim on Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group website that "In London there has never been a seat unsold" ... well there were at least a hundred empty on Monday 14 May 2007, Andrew.

Watching the drama unfold, and seeing the stilted performances, you start wondering why it just isn't the hottest ticket in the West End any more.

I looked up the original cast - Michael Crawford and the queenly Sarah Brightman (who I can't stand anyway) of course, but also the almost as queenly Michael Ball, superb David Firth and pre-Fred Elliott John Savident heading an impressively well-experienced ensemble.

Contrast this with the current collection of just-out-of-drama-school hopefuls and regional-theatre-veteran-understudies and you begin to see the flaws.

The creaking you can hear isn't just the 21-year-old stage machinery (although that's noticeable enough) it's the cramping of budgets to the point at which the production is as undercast as it is underlit.

Some of the performances are so two-dimensional that in their bejewelled costumes and powdered wigs, you're reminded of a pack of playing cards: especially Wendy Ferguson, subtle as a heifer in her role as fading diva Carlotta Guidicelli, and Heather Jackson who plays Madame Giry the ballet mistress more stiffly than if she were an exceptionally arthritic Mrs Danvers in Rebecca during an unseasonably wet Cornish winter. You'd just want to burn the house down with her inside, the wood in her performance could only add to the blaze.

Not that the leading men are outstanding: Earl Carpenter has been playing the Phantom for nearly 1,000 performances. If his mannerisms were any more arch, he'd need scaffolding. Michael Xavier is a tuneful but unwashed Raoul, more Che in Evita than a suave French Vicomte, and his darting stage moves in odd directions unrelated to the motives of his character made me wonder if he had Attention Deficit Disorder.

I certainly did in the second half when most of the tunes are re-hashes of the stuff you heard before the interval, and the plot descends firstly into the bowels of the opera house and then into ... well, bowels really covers it.

This was the first night of the “new Christine”, although I couldn’t tell you which one I saw except to say she was shrewish and dark. The role is now being shared equally four performances a week between Leila Benn Harris and Robyn North. This is ostensibly to make audiences feel they are not getting the “alternate Christine” on any given night or matinee.

Since both performers are modestly experienced for West End headliners – Ms Benn Harris having understudied the one-number Mistress in Evita, Ms North most recently 'touring with Shane Richie', you could say it’s Alternate Christine EVERY night.

Who thought I’d ever pine for Sarah Brightman.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Monopoly Money

I'm standing outside B&Q in the Old Kent Road where two school-age chav truants are trying to light a spliff, a dishevelled amputee is waving his arm stump in my face and a black crack whore is begging for small change. The crack whore is wholly unsuccessful in her mission, the sizeable clump of South London's walking wounded at the bus stop clearly has its own problems and shrugs her off - she wails genuine tears of anguish which merge with some lip-corner spittle and a light drizzle to bathe her face in a sheer patina of despair.

I almost want to hug her.

Most of the walking wounded have come from the adjacent Asda, and overflowing from their flimsy carriers I see the stark red and black labelling of its "Smart Price" range which might as well be branded "Poor People's Food" featuring as it does the 8p strawberry "flavour" yoghurt and the 38p jar of coffee-flavour granules. This de-specifying of nutrition and value from food destined for people on low incomes upsets me almost more than the crack whore, because it's so commercially institutionalised.

I feel invisible. Not belonging, not even suspiciously regarded by the other people waiting for different buses, and yet also in a way as if I have the third eye and can see what's "wrong" with the big picture. I get this a lot, I hope it's not arrogance.

I also feel grotesquely rich, even though I am waiting for an off-peak bus in the Old Kent Road and the driver will probably wave me through thinking I'm a pensioner. I'm on the bus because I have the decorators in at my flat by Tower Bridge, barely a mile away and currently for sale (see below) at an amount of money which could set up this entire bus queue in comfort for its collective retirement, and I've been despatched to get some more paint. I don't have the car because the decorator needed my parking space.

I don't feel too smug about it either, as if my relative affluence has somehow been achieved at their expense, which it hasn't except in the Newton's Law sense that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction therefore if I am comparatively well off, someone must have suffered financially as a consequence.

I am concerned that this massive population of disadvantaged and disenfranchised people lives literally on my doorstep, and feel helpless to do anything political or practical to effect any improvement. In the harsh fluorescent of the bus, they look so defenceless and defeated, until two black women start a vicious, screaming, gynaecologically-expletive cat-fight over the last remaining seat, and everyone perks up and looks suddenly cheerful.

The irony that this scene is being played out in Old Kent Road is not lost on me. I guess I first learned about property trading as a 12-year old playing ferocious tournaments with my Monopoly-mad next-door neighbours in another Kent Road, in Harrogate. Even then, I always wanted to own Bond Street.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Star Turns 2

Fast forward to Friday. During the afternoon, I had an appointment at the London Palladium to negotiate its hire for the London Gay Men's Chorus Christmas show and it was more than exciting to be on that stage, especially as it was maintenance day for Sound of Music and the mountain was rotating on its mechanical axis whilst we discussed the percentage commission on merchandise and whether we could let just any old queens use the Royal Box.

Perhaps my smartest piece of negotiation was to ask if I could buy the house seats for the evening performance, and was thrilled to be able to pick up two superb stalls seats at face value, since they're touted for so much more on the street.

By staggering coincidence, it was Connie Fisher's first day back after illness and Lesley Garrett's first after holiday so whilst the previous evening's audience had to accept four major understudies, we were dealt almost a full deck. As it turns out, Garrett's leaving the cast and Fisher has been given more time off to rest her vocal cords and we may have seen their last performance together.

I've seen Sound of Music before. And not just the film, although I was taken as an impressionable twelve year old in new shoes which blistered my feet and by my grandmother's neighbour Alice Oldfield - she who used to tittup across the cobbles on a Thursday with the Heywood Advertiser and say "Hello, Hilda. I'll tell you who they've buried ..." - on her twentieth visit to the Theatre Royal, Bury, to see Julie Andrews yodel her technicolour socks off.

No, the stage version I saw was at the Apollo Victoria in the early 80's, I think, when Petula Clark had a crack at it. Presumably she felt being a tax exile in Switzerland gave her a unique alpine insight into the character of Maria von Trapp.

It didn't really give her much of an insight into anything else because she was as painted and wooden as the scenery and any spirited resilience she brought to the part came across as pugnacious defiance that she was, even then, twenty years too old for it.

At 23, Connie Fisher has no such problem. She convinced me entirely as a replica of Julie Andrews' interpretation of the role, and since no stage or screen representation ever attempts to portray the real frumpy, dumpy and grumpy matriarch that was the original Maria Augusta Kutschera von Trapp, who cares if sugary tunefulness is the stock in trade when it's done as well as this?

What really pleased me about this evening was the audience. It was full of people who had saved money to bring family or friends to this show as a treat. Not the usual jaded, half-empty, half-bored West End audience, but out-of-towners who'd made an occasion of it, and the friendliness and enthusiasm of people in the bars and foyers was a genuine delight.

Star Turns 1

It's been quite a week in the West End. On Tuesday, my best-mate James, who works for Cameron Mackintosh the theatre mogul, phoned to say he had a spare ticket for the first night of Equus starring Daniel Radcliffe, and the majestic Richard Griffiths who, it only occurred to me much later, had played his Uncle Vernon in the first couple of films.

Fearing Peter Shaffer's dusty old tract might have been re-worked for commercial consumption as 'Harry Potter and the Blinding of Nags' I hesitated just long enough to speculate that this was the hottest ticket in the West End, and ran to the dry cleaners for my suit trousers.

It was electric. Radcliffe is astonishing in that as a film actor he has the stage technique to speak clearly and unmiked in a 1500-seat three-tier West End theatre, and either he has natural stage talent or took Thea Shorrock's direction intravenously because he's wholly convincing as Alan Strang and in the masturbatory climax to the first act, or in the ballet in which he blinds the horses he simply owned the stage.

A lot of reviewers took a swipe at the producers by asking why a paean to Laing's psychiatric theorising is really deserving of a revival, but as a vehicle to exorcise the ghost of Harry Potter from the corpus delicti of Daniel Radcliffe, I can't think of a better excuse for dragging it down from the shelf for 16 weeks. And I bet it goes to Broadway too.

R D Laing. He's out of favour now, but he did a lot to demystify mental illness and drag it in public perception out of the strait jacket and electric shock era.

Laing was an off-road explorer in a time when Freud was the only cartographer and Peter Shaffer was giving his pathfinder views a sympathetic airing about the same time Tennessee Williams was still in grand guignol mode railing against giving his heroines lobotomies.

I do think all Laing's stuff about the insane having mystical insights into the nature of life that the wholly rational are missing is a bit over-selective. I think all sorts of people have incisive insights into the futility of mundane diurnal existence. It's just a coincidence that we're actually mad too.

You can't leave this arena without a comment on the physical actor. He's lean and highly toned, in a way simply not visible under the Hogwarts robes and whilst the nudity is entirely natural and within the context of the play, you are entitled to a Mrs Henderson moment in which you ponder - who knew Harry Potter was Jewish ??

I think I was more shocked to see him smoking, than with his cock out.

Actually, and I had to look this up, Daniel Jacob Radcliffe is a child of mixed religious background, but clearly his mother had the final say when it came to the snip.

The bars were heaving during the intervals, and not entirely with celebrity, although I did spot Bob Geldof but up where we were sitting the best on offer was Cilla Black, who I think was smiling - surgery seems to have triangulated her features, and Gail from Coronation Street who is as attractive and elegant as her character is frumpy and naff.

There was a lot of free champagne and I have to confess that Fiona Phillips from GMTV, a woman I have often derided as a total moron, kindly picked me up when I fell over someone's umbrella. It won't make me watch her crap show, but she was rather nice.