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

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Annie, Get Your Coat


‘The best thing for YOU ...’ sings Annie Oakley in the rootin' shootin' tuner Annie Get Your Gun ‘... would be ME.’ The best thing for YOU, dear reader, would be to stay away from this terrible production.

Written in 1946 by the great Irving Berlin and specifically for its star Ethel Merman, it chronicles the 1880’s rivalry-then-love-affair between Ohio amateur sharpshooter Annie Oakley and champion Frank Butler.

In the Young Vic’s bizarre production, by opera director Richard Jones, it’s somehow transposed to a formica-and-vinyl Midwest diner like a leftover set from ‘Happy Days’, although in a hallucinogenic second-act opener Annie is shown in jerky 8mm footage on a kind of Evita-esque Rainbow Tour meeting Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and de Gaulle.

Featuring showtune standards like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ and ‘The Girl That I Marry’ the lush, broad, inventive Berlin score is - literally - hammered into submission by the substitution of an orchestra with four upright saloon-bar pianos built into the front of the stage.

The plot carries us across the sweeping Ohio prairies and on a tour of most of the Wild West. The Young Vic is a large and flexible space, but ludicriously-monickered designer Ultz (real name: David Fisher) reduces this to an extraordinary horizontal slit in what looks like Portakabin siding, with the movement cramped into about ten feet depth of stage. The sight lines are so appalling that the final clinch between Annie and Frank, in an upstairs room the size of a broom cupboard, is invisible to more than half the audience.

Merman's voice famously filled theatres without a microphone and she was known as "leather lungs", but by comparison Horrocks has a couple of Tesco teabags flapping inside her puny chest, and her singing is criminally underpowered for the belted standards, nor is it any more appealing in the ballads.

She seems beyond uncomfortable. Pitching the role as a scruffy waif in an early Pauline Fowler wig, she’s barely as tall as her Remington rifle which she wields like it was a caber in the Highland Games rather than an extension of her own right arm. She also has a tendency to compensate for her one-dimensional acting by gurning at the audience, most of whom seemed to know her only as ‘Bubble’ from AbFab.

Julian Ovenden looks charming as Frank Butler, and his fluting tenor carries the tunes beautifully. Too beautifully, perhaps, since Frank’s a rawer and more rambunctious character than this rather polite performance suggests.

There’s a willing and capable ensemble, too few in number for the size of the show, but good contributions from Liza Sadovy as a particularly grim circus harpy, and John Marquez as a Brooklyn showman out of his comfort zone in the wild West.

It’s such a waste. This is a show so ripe for revival, with tunes you could actually go IN to the theatre humming, they are so well-loved, and it deserves the kind of treatment Trevor Nunn gave ‘Oklahoma’ at the National, not this clapboarded ham-fisted high-school rendition.

Production photo by Keith Pattinson for the Young Vic

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Low Calorie Breakfast at Tiffany's


What can you remember of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ - Mickey Rooney with an unconvincing set of false teeth and a cringingly awful Chinese accent? Audrey Hepburn cool as a January cucumber in her swept-up chignon, tiara, pearls and yard-long cigarette holder? The gamine, twittery but ultimately loveable party girl around whom New York whirls like snowflakes in a lightweight comedy?

Ain’t none of that here at the Haymarket where undeniably beautiful Anna Friel plays Holly Golightly far closer to Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Brightly peroxide (collar and cuffs, apparently, from the fleeting glimpse in the nude scene) and occasionally in a picture hat that makes her look disconcertingly like a shiitake mushroom, she may be closer to Truman Capote’s vision of Marilyn Monroe for the party, but captures only some of Holly’s mercurial quality.

To misquote Portia, the quality of mercury has become strained and in 2009 it doesn’t seem quite so ‘appropriate’ for attractive but insubstantial waifs to make a living from merely flirting with middle-aged suitors. Not that this is a morality play about prostitution, or, indeed, about anything apart from the characters who surround Holly, all of them ciphers.

Coming in at a butt-numbing two and three-quarter hours, the play is a succession of quick-change vignette scenes, using what look like two fire-escape staircases left over from a low-budget tour of ‘West Side Story’: there’s no depth, there’s no engagement - in Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of the original Truman Capote novella, it’s simply too hard to care about the characters.

Perhaps appropriately for Ms. Golightly, Friel looks everything but delivers nothing. Style over substance would be fine but she lacks the vital edge which makes Holly emotionally dangerous.

The production’s further damaged by the dismal performance of James Dreyfus, bad enough in Cabaret but here attempting the role of a cigar-chomping movie mogul and still coming out as Tom in Gimme Gimme Gimme. Suzanne Bertish has a better go at the vampish Italian neighbour Madame Spanella, although in a fringed gypsy skirt and paso doble gesturings, she seems to pitch it closer to Madrid than Milan. She’s meant to be an opera singer but mimes her arias, couldn’t they cast someone who could sing?

Capote once said the film was ‘a mawkish Valentine to New York City’ - here it’s more like a Tesco Value birthday card with the Manhattan skyline reduced to a few cheap cutouts against a backcloth lit variously in turquoise and magenta.

At the end, the loose ends of Holly’s story are all tied up, but you’ll yearn for the syrupy closing shots of Audrey and the strains of ‘Moon River’.

Production photo by Johan Persson

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Fine Execution at the Tower

Purism is not the issue here.

The evening started stately enough with Nigel Kennedy, still sporting his Gary-Rhodes-on-steroids butchered pineapple haircut, leading the Philharmonia orchestra through two melodious movements of Bach. So far, so dignified, so what.

What the audience had come for - and got in spades - was a hefty dose of Nige’s blokeish irreverence: chatting to the band, blagging half-finished glasses of champagne from the corporate stiffies in the front row, and generally parading his hallmark punch-drunk staggering routine like a pub comedian on a slow night in his native Brighton.

But when the man picks up a fiddle, and saws in to Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Jam’ it blows away every preconception, and his virtuosity is undoubted.

Perhaps sensing the audience’s preference for the more modern material, he confused the band by changing the running order - as he said ‘you don’t want to work up a sweat with this big band shit and then stop’. Some of the pieces were world premieres, of original 30’s Ellington arrangements re-worked by Kennedy to put more of the emphasis into the strings, and it’s a whole new sound.

It’s a whole new audience, too - many of whom don’t know how to behave in concerts, perhaps the idea that it’s in the open air makes them forget to stop chatting, particularly the chav in row P who answered his phone during the elegant and complex Bach Interventions in which Kennedy sparred electrically with cellist Karen Stephenson, before returning enthusiastically to the Swing era.

And then, just for a moment, with the lush big band sound washing over you, the first stars of the evening appearing over the battlements of the 900-year old White Tower, and the planes lining up for their descent into London City Airport, you begin to appreciate that setting this clumsily brilliant musical anarchist on a vulgar red gash of a stage against the stones of the Tower, in the historical, cultural and commercial heart of the city is what living in London is all about.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Blown by the 'Wind'

inherit the wind.jpg

Kevin Spacey’s timing is exemplary.

Not just in his personal performance but in bringing to the Old Vic such a dynamic production of the 1955 American war horse ‘Inherit The Wind’ - a courtroom drama based on the true-life story of a young Tennessee school teacher arraigned for promoting the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin against the orders of a Christian fundamentalist school board.

Written in the shadow of the McCarthy trials it is topical today because of the ongoing battle between religious right-wingers in the US who have repackaged their anti-Darwinist stance into a fresh campaign to coerce schools into teaching ‘Intelligent Design’ (by the hand of God) instead of evolution as an approved scientific theory of the origin of man.

It makes Madonna’s Kabbalist babbling look almost rational by comparison, and it’s coming to a courtroom near you pretty soon as they extend their campaign into the UK.

This play has a special resonance for me because, in my tortured youth wrangling with my parents about whether I should be allowed to 'go on the stage' or press on to University, 'Inherit the Wind' marked my 17-year old professional debut in the Harrogate Repertory Company's production. It's perhaps the phase that taught me there was no money in acting, since whatever I earned barely covered the fares for the last bus home each night.

I was pleasantly surprised how much of the dialogue I remembered, and the gospel songs, as taught to us by our unofficial chorus-mistress Zara Nutley, later language school owner Mrs Courtenay in the popular TV rubbish 'Mind Your Language'. I tried to Google some of the other actors from the show, Adam Kuryakin (possibly the first 'out gay man' I'd encountered in Harrogate) and Peter Codyre, or director Barry Howard, but I guess they're all dead.

In the meantime, enjoy the bareknuckle bout in 20’s Tennessee where Spacey is impeccable as the veteran lawyer Henry Drummond (real life Clarence Darrow) twanging his suspenders and twisting the witnesses’ words to barnstorming effect. He’s much shoutier than Spencer Tracy in the Oscar-winning 1960 movie, the internalised anger contorting his already hunched body into a shape that may physically recall Charles Laughton, but continuously commands the stage.

It’s possible Spacey was impressed by the 2007 Broadway production in which Christopher Plummer finally threw off the mantle of Captain von Trapp and won plaudits for his portrayal of Drummond.

For Drummond to have the audience on side is an easy win, you could argue, since the lawyer is fighting for the rights of the common man and the free thinker, but to succeed at this he needs a credible opposition.

In the real story, three-times failed presidential candidate, and tub-thumping bible-basher William Jennings Bryan came to Tennessee as the prosecuting counsel. The character’s called Matthew Harrison Brady and in David Troughton’s strong performance he’s also a lurchingly crippled titan, matching Spacey barb for barb in the war of the words over bible passages and driving himself to a personal resurrection of his political career. If he’s ultimately weakened by the fight, the fault’s in the script rather than the performance. This man’s on his way to King Lear.

Half ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ half ‘Gone With the Wind’, the design whips up a confectionery vignette of the Old South. Director Trevor Nunn punctuates the court action with gospel singing and torchlight processions lovingly dressed in shades of sepia like the Kansas scenes in ‘Wizard of Oz’. Given the script is by Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence - authors of ‘Mame’ - it’s clear Sir Trevor is desperate to turn it in to a musical.

Outstanding among the 40-strong cast, something not usually seen outside the National, Mark Dexter plays the visiting cynical journalist who orchestrates the defence, based on Baltimore satirist H L Mencken, with a handsomely attractive oily charm - as he says ‘I may be rancid butter but I’m on your side of the bread’, and Ian Cunningham adds convincing value as the banjo-twangling court supervisor Ralph Meeker.

An old-fashioned ‘well made play’ but an excellent production. Go.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The sound of one hand Clapham

As I've said before, it's 21 years since Stephen Sondheim took panto by the throat and throttled it into a self-styled morality play called ‘Into the Woods’.

If nothing else, the current production at the Landor theatre highlights the age of the material, and the bum-numbingly lengthy exposition necessary to tell the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk before the interval - after which the plot thickens and the cast thins as many of them are picked off by a marauding giant whilst blaming each other for collective and individual misfortunes.

It’s intended as a metaphor for the disintegration of society, but the jury’s out on whether Sondheim was presenting an original metaphysical deconstruction of America at the end of the 20th century, or smoking crack.

The tedious first half needs pace which the cast couldn’t deliver on Friday since they were struggling with too-recently-arrived costumes and a clever oversized bookshelf of a set which demanded mountaineering feats whilst singing in a hoop skirt and minor key.

An announcement asked the audience to treat it as an open dress rehearsal and on that basis, it was just about OK. It also started over half an hour late which allowed us the opportunity to appreciate what a scrofulous pub the Landor really is, perched on the edge of an edgy housing estate. It’s a shame, because the theatre upstairs has a great reputation which doesn’t percolate down to the bar, and at closing time we had to shoulder our way through a number of chavs in what looked like pyjamas, and endure some colouful (I use the word advisedly) banter from dusky youths lounging about on a street corner.

The lead characer of the Witch is in disguise for the first half - and Lori Haley Fox was the only cast member to use a strong American accent so she appeared initially to be Ruby Wax in a burka (not in itself an unattractive prospect) but after the ‘transformation’ revealed blonde streaks and an overbite unfortunately reminiscent of Julia Davis in Nighty Night.

Others were more promising including Ryan Forde Iosco and particularly Luke Fredericks as the swashbuckling but shallow Princes, the latter clearly relishing a second outing in knee-length boots after his stint as Rolf the boy Nazi in Sound of Music, and with a lovely voice.

It’s notoriously hard to sing Sondheim because the lyrics are so often truncated or interrupted, but Sue Appleby as Cinderella and Leo Andrew as the Baker overcame this particularly well, and Andrew‘s ‘No One Is Alone’ had great resonance.

One of the best quotes from Into the Woods is ‘nice is different than good’.

This is a nice production.

A Talent not to amuse

Back in the days when boys became bands without the unwelcome attentions of Louis Walsh, or girls sang aloud without a televised vote - young Victoria Wood penned a simple, funny and sweet piece for the Sheffield Crucible based on her own experiences backstage in a provincial talent show.

Revisiting it thirty years later, she freely admits she had to explain a lot of the references to the cast, so it's not surprising many of the jokes had to be audibly elaborated by the older audience to its younger boyfriends during last Thursday's first performance at the Menier. There is hardly a gay bar in London in which you couldn't hear someone 'doing' a Victoria Wood sketch, and for the previews they were out in force, and lapping up the familiar comic lines.

Asked to comment on her friend Julie Walters' appearance in "Mamma Mia", Wood explained to the Daily Mail that musicals 'really weren't her thing' - which may have been tact as Walters was uncharacteristically dire, but also disingenuous since Wood recently wrote 'Acorn Antiques the Musical' with a swathe of pastiched production numbers. For 'Talent', the musical additions are modest parodies of cheesy cabaret songs which mostly serve to give the male cast members an opportunity to perspire copiously in velour suits with polyester ruffles.

Wood appears to have cast this production with a number of old friends - Jeffrey Holland, once the comedian Spike in Hi-de-Hi is amusing as a pensioner magician, but former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry rather less convincing as the randy compere of the rotting Bunters night club.

It's like an explosion in the comedy section of the BBC archives, or at least in the skip where they throw the stuff they don't use any more.

The stronger casting is in Suzy Toase playing the role created by Wood, and the ever reliable Mark Hadfield doubling a magician's assistant and the night club's catering manageress in the funniest segment of the show when she organises the table allocations. Both these actors excel at deadpanning the flat northern inflections of Wood's material and illustrate both her easy facility with the language, and its ultimate failure to satisfy.

To genuine Lancastrians, the camp non-sequiturs of Wood's dialogue "she was going to be a nun but they kept having tomato soup and she lost her vocation" are routine, being heard on the bus from Bury to Bolton every day of the week, and Wood's skill was to spot the patterns and write it down. Custard creams aren't inherently funny, but when suggested by a northern housewife as a more palatable alternative to oral sex, it gets a laugh.

Whilst she has undoubtedly become a 'national treasure' through sketches and sitcom, comparison with more structurally capable dramatists like Alan Bennett are inevitably disappointing. In fact, the way Christopher Luscombe's recent production of Bennett's 'Enjoy' outshines 'Talent' despite the fact they were written at similar times, reflect on both Wood's script-updating and directing skills.

Sometimes, Talent alone is not enough.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Captive Audience

Banged up in a US prison two inmates from opposite sides of the tracks forge an unlikely friendship against a background of corrupt wardens, wisecracking murderers and a hanging. The stage version of 'Shawshank Redemption' is ‘Chicago’ for straight men.

Whilst not actually channelling Renee Zellweger and Catherine Z. Jones, leads Kevin Anderson and ‘The Wire’ star Reg E. Cathey draw parallels as Anderson’s innocent-behind-bars learns quickly who not to trust and how to manipulate the corrupt system, while Cathey’s persistent recidivist tries to distance himself from the morality but eventually succumbs.

Like most current screen-to-stage adaptations (Sister Act, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) legal ownership of the movie rights prevented a direct adaptation from the filmscript and the source material reverts to a less sparkling original novel or treatment.

The dialogue’s too fluent for movie realism but works well enough on stage where the supporting cast turn in sharp characterisations, notably Ryan McCluskey’s engaging performance as the cheerful gambler Heywood. McCluskey is billed as first cover for Anderson’s lead role and it would be interesting to see him play it.

Equally outstanding is the least sympathetic character, the violent sodomite Bogs played with utter conviction by Joe Hanley whose priapic readiness to exact the ultimate rite of passage on new inmates gives new meaning to the phrase ‘hardened criminal’.

Ferdia Murphy’s two-tier set of prison bars is simple to the point of emptiness, and bizarre when placed in the blue white and gold cherub-studded proscenium of Wyndham’s Theatre. Lighting Designer Kevin Treacy could have worked harder to reduce the spill on to the auditorium and focus more harshly on the prison.

An interesting echo on the sound system actively suggests the hard surfaces, but otherwise there's little to indicate place, the passing of time or seasons, or to convince us that this is a real penitentiary.

There’s plenty of shouting and banging, and a lot of booted stomping in the fight scenes but ultimately this Shawshank is hollow. As Roxie says - it’s just a noisy hall where there’s a nightly brawl, and All That Jazz.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Moppet Show

In Victorian times, to improve their prospects of even low-paid employment we sent children up chimneys and down mines. Nowadays we send them to Sylvia Young. It's difficult to know which is the greater cruelty.

Whereas the New York school of the performing arts produces 'The Kids from Fame', British establishments like Sylvia Young and Italia Conti seem to turn out 'The Kids from Chiswick' since their fee-paying structure attracts the upper middles as to a gymkhana and moulds polite, drilled, well-spoken automatons which can be shipped like weak-kneed veal calves, six dozen at a time, directly to wholesale meatpackers such as Cameron Mackintosh or Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Being modelled for gurning cheerfulness in cereal adverts for 40 hours a week delivers children whose innate propensity to beam, caper and twinkle for cameras means it's an impossible task to coerce them into credible characterisations of cowed, starved and maltreated orphans.

This probably explains why Matthew Bourne's choreography was defeated by cheerfulness and the opening scene of 'Oliver' with its stark wooden benches filled with teens spooning slop out of bowls was so not much Workhouse as Wagamama.

Singling out two or more of them to fill the roles of Oliver Twist and Artful Dodger only adds fuel to their fires of ambition, culminating of course in the dreadful 'I'll Do Anything' television contest which spilled the first handful of wrigglers onto the Drury Lane stage.

It's a calculated commercial ploy, of course, to cast so many small children from a big catchment area in a massive show like this. There are now about 140 kids involved in 'Oliver'. Assuming each of them brings a schoolful of chums, and their chums' parents, to the production it could actually pack the theatre for 80 nights. Or, more probably, matinees since a lot of them look as if they shouldn't really be up so late.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Nuns On The Run

In a week in which seventeen assorted British piss artists on a stag weekend were arraigned in Greece for impersonating nuns - albeit not convincingly enough for the prosecution to produce a single complainant witness at their trial - it seems appropriate to reflect on the position of the Sisterhood in popular entertainment, and why nuns are perceived as funny and cute.

Anyone who's seen or read The Magdalene Sisters - or, indeed, rewound and replayed the segment where Geraldine McEwan thrashes the bejaysus out of Dorothy Duffy with a rubber hose and a glint that should really have disqualified her from ever again playing sweet old ladies like Miss Marple - would consider institutionalised sadism, lesbianism, mental cruelty and downright cant to be core values in convents, but stage musicals resist the repressive and celebrate nuns as cuddly.

Fair enough, but I wouldn't want to bring one home.

Clearly this bunch trained at the Eternal Sunshine Seminary of St. Connie of All The Fishers since they have 'Sound of Music' written through them like rock - there's the dour one, the sour one, the chubby one, the feisty novice and the septuagenarian rapper. Well maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't envision the rapper but in this production it's veteran Julia Sutton (whose age it would be indecent to guess but I bet it starts with an 8 before the show's run is finished) who steals every scene in which she appears.

Sister Act has a slow start as it struggles with the necessary plotline in which lounge singer Deloris van Cartier, girlfriend of a small-time hoodlum, witnesses a gangland murder and is forced to hide out in a convent until the perps can be brought to trial. That this segment is played out to a crude pop musical score which belongs more to X-Factor than Broadway is a frailty in the show that needs to be fixed. Patina Miller, although playing a substandard lounge singer, doesn't make you warm to her as automatically as Whoopi (National Treasure) Goldberg, and only gets the audience onside later in the show.

Patina, incidentally, is not the 'Broadway star' the production hype might have you believe. I don't think she's headlined any show indoors in New York although she did appear in 'Hair' in Central Park - and Sister Act itself has never been to Broadway, coming to the Palladium from, er, Pasadena via eight weeks in Atlanta and a two-year rewrite gap. Don't get me wrong, she's good, but she's also slightly misrepresented. Possibly to avoid too much Googling, she's dropped her middle name - search 'Patina Renea Miller' for her early career.

Once Deloris is pitched into the convent, enter Mother Superior Sheila Hancock and her penguin chorale and suddenly we have a musical. In her first speeches, the standard of acting is raised a thousandfold, the comedy is subtler, and she and Ms Miller begin the sparring double act around which the show then revolves. I have to confess I know Sheila, slightly: we shared a monumentally weird holiday in Budapest a couple of years ago and the episode in which we were involuntarily herded in to a 'couples' massage in the Gellert Baths would make a musical comedy number in its own right as we tried to explain our way out, in clutched towels and pidgin Hungarian.

Hancock's only solo - a 'tale as old as time' Beauty-and-the-Beast-retread entitled 'Here Within These Walls' is beautifully if gently delivered: she shares a graceful musical quality with Sian Phillips, belying her 76 years, although the show has been 'adjusted' since Atlanta to reduce the singing load for Mother Superior. Where she excels is in a redefined characterisation which resists comparison with Maggie Smith in the movie, and which is more wryly and directly funny. Although why she didn't attempt an American accent escapes me.

The score is at its best when the nuns are given full throttle: two stand-out numbers (all originals and different from the movie because of copyright issues) are 'Raise Your Voice' in which Deloris instructs the choir in singing and which ascends in power through more key changes than the average Eurovision vehicle, and 'Take Me To Heaven' first sung (badly) by Deloris and her backing singers then turned into a holy roller by the nuns. I also enjoyed the hoodlums' spoof Barry White crooner 'When I Find My Baby' (I'm gonna kill her) and in the Sisters' patter song 'How I Got The Call' lyricist Glenn Slater gives free rein to internal rhyme which looks hugely jolly but is unfortunately macerated by either the diction or the sound desk, couldn't tell which.

Diminutive Julia Sutton threatens to upstage even Hancock as the gravel-voiced hard-drinking Mary Lazarus, and Claire Greenway outweighs Kathy Najimy as the sunny funny nunny Mary Patrick. The minor characters are all fair to good, although I can't quite see why Ian Lavender merits an over-the-title billing for his small contribution as Monsignor Howard.

It's the female ensemble that deserves the kudos, though, for its stamina in switching scene by scene from playing the nuns to the whole panoply of other characters who populate the story, from biker gangs to disco queens. It's a bit like the hardworking crew of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, but with better songs and - you won't believe this - more glittery costumes.

The set (by ex-Czech Klara Zieglerova) works very hard too: double revolve, lots of rising and falling elements, and it makes the scene transitions mercifully slick ... ingeniously so in the 'chase' when the hoodlums get in to the convent to find Deloris, there's a series of doors and arches moving on the revolve whilst the entire cast breaks in to a run through them which must have taken designer and choreographer ages to work out, but v. effective.

Jesus's nailed crossed feet appear from above periodically which is as camp as the giant in Into the Woods ... but even the luminous stained glass windows pale into insignificance against the nun's costumes which are so progressively flashy - by the finale they're so reflective you almost can't look - that designer Lez Brotherston must have finished them in a welder's mask.

The West End is well-supplied with big musicals, tickets are £60something, and with 20,000 a week to sell the Palladium's hard to fill. But for naturally uplifting musical comedy which is reliant on talent rather than the weight of costumes and effects in Priscilla - currently playing to every gay man and his mother in the Western World - I'd calculate Sister Act is a hit.

Get thee to a nunnery. To a nunnery, go.

Especially if you can get discounted tickets.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Alphabetical Order

Can’t quite see what all the fuss is about. Saw it tonight and couldn’t really fathom why anyone should think it worthy of revival, and more or less said as much to Christopher Luscombe in the after-show discussion.

Being fairly specific in location and despite the fact it deals in human interaction and lack of direction/determination in our lives, it’s not a patch on Abigail’s Party with which it’s pretty contemporaneous, nor in terms of production does it come anywhere near Luscombe’s moving ‘Enjoy’.

That may be down to the action and I’m a victim of saw-the-original syndrome and Imogen Stubbs nice as she is doesn’t have the vocal timbre or natural anarchy of Billie Whitelaw, and Chloe Newsome is just too still and scary to give a third dimension to the Barbara Ferris part.

Good work though from Jonathan Guy Lewis and interesting casting including Ian Talbot, giving up the day job as artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, to play a bit part.

Of course it’s refreshing to hear some Frayn dialogue from the days when he was actually funny and didn’t take himself too seriously (i.e. before the Copenhagen/Democracy watershed).

The cast said audience reaction had been surprisingly varied, some nights almost no laughs - rivalling a famous production at the Watermill Newbury where Frayn had told them not a single line attracted a laugh and encouraged him to re-assess Alphabetical Order as a ‘play’ rather than a ‘comedy’.

Luscombe’s next project is to be a revival of his production of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. Hopefully without Christopher Biggins who ‘graced’ its last outing in Blackpool. You read it here first.

Friday, 13 March 2009

A Savoy Opera

It was mental aberration day. Having seen Entertaining Mr Sloane in the afternoon, I was idling away some time before a second show, in the Costa Coffee outlet in Waterstone's: dodging the rain, reading the magazines and sampling chapters of a couple of books I would later order for much less on Amazon, when at about 6.30pm I got a text from an unknown number.

'It's Jane. I've been locked out of my flat and will join you as soon as possible.'

I thought it was a wrong number but something made me text back to ask which Jane and where she thought she was meeting me, thinking it might make for a teasing story. Turns out it WAS for me and, despite being instrumental in the organising of it, I had completely forgotten my class reunion and pizza evening with chums from The School of Life.

I fled to Bloomsbury, calling anyone I could think of to see if they'd like my now-unwanted ticket for Carousel - and I even stopped by the theatre to try to palm it off on an unsuspecting punter, but they weren't having it. So I questioned the ushers about interval times, took off for the School of Life reunion and by bolting my gnocchi made it back in a swift cab to the Savoy one minute before curtain ... of the second act.

I have to say, it's not a bad way to enjoy this show which otherwise runs three hours, and whilst I had bought a ticket I did notice there was no check on the way in, and you could do it without by joining the audience as they returned from the interval. Starts at 9.15.

The second half also contains the darker and more imaginary elements of the plot, including the death and ascent to heaven of the anti-hero Billy Bigelow, and his redemption through the heavenly agency of being able to see how his wife and child fared without him. Billy is played by the sensational Jeremiah James - himself 25% of the theatrical boyband Teatro and an all-American leading man of considerably quality both physically (he's exceptionally tall) and in his lyric tenor voice.

I think it was his singing and that of West End debutante Alexandra Silber that made me realise that what must set Carousel apart from its contemporaries (and Oklahoma!'s a much better show) is the singing. The difficult score demands classic soprano virtuosity and the Silber delivers it, and there is excellent support from a strong ensemble chorus.

Which then brings us to the contribution of Lesley Garrett, whose talent for self-publicity and positioning is rapidly making her the Dame Hilda Bracket of contemporary musical theatre, here playing the supporting role of Nettie Fowler, heroine Julie Jordan's kindly but mumsy cousin.

Fans of the West End Whingers will be aware of GarrotteWatch, their informal monitoring of the infrequency of The Doncaster Diva's actual appearances, since the slightest indisposition seems to have her excused duties on a scale to rival Martine McCutcheon whose frequent absence from My Fair Lady actually made a star of two of her understudies Kerry Ellis (Elphaba in Wicked) and Alexandra Jay (Sophie in Mamma Mia).

In fact, the absence of principal understudy Ms. Kathryn Akin from tonight's cast suggested to me this was her reward for having covered for La Garrett at the matinee. Bite me if I'm wrong.

Of course she delivers with deadly amplification the ultimate Anfield Anthem 'You'll Never Walk Alone' but what should be a comforting lullaby to Julie as she cradles her dead husband in her arms is decontextualised and turned into some sort of statuesque Last Night of the Yorkshire Proms as Garrett mangles it with her terrible vowels, and dimpled glances at the audience.

This being a provincial production (up from the Churchill Bromley) the rest of the cast and even Nick Bagnall the director are possibly terrified of her and everyone else stands rigid whilst Garrett gives us her coal-dusted coloratura with the lights dimmed funereally around her.

I'm not sure whether it's worse that she attempts an American accent whilst speaking and abandons it the second she starts to sing, or that she bites all her words with those sharp backwards slanting teeth.

A good production, although unbalanced by Garrett's contribution, it's redeemed by Adam Cooper's excellent choreography - this is the first time I've enjoyed the 'dream sequence' and ballet, particularly the indefatigable contribution of Lindsey Wise as the central character of Julie Jordan's young daughter.

I liked the sets, too, and the computer-generated projections on the front cloth, particularly the moonlit night-time ferry crossing back from the island. William Dudley, I think, deserves the credit.

Warm Hand on Her Entrance

The reverential applause accorded Imelda Staunton on her entrance at yesterday’s matinee of Entertaining Mr Sloane threatened to rival that given to Angela Lansbury on Sunday at the Shubert Theatre. So signally and thoroughly has Ms. Staunton ascended the steps of the plinth of National Comedic Treasure that it can be only a matter of time before she snatches the mantle from the present incumbent, Dame Julie Walters* and assumes the throne itself.

Of course, I knew her when she was nothing. Well, not exactly but apart from the fact I went to school with her actor husband Jim Carter (and I played the leads whilst he was the butlers and spear carriers), I did ‘spot’ Imelda in one of her earliest stage outings as Clara the maid in Coward’s Hay Fever at the Watermill Theatre Newbury (in the days before you were required to play a bassoon at the same time) in 1977.

Thirty-two years later, Staunton is quite beyond criticism and certainly laid the ghost of Beryl Reid, although the seduction scene in which her pubic hair is so clearly displayed through the diaphanous negligee is perhaps not quite becoming for a future Dame of the British Empire.

Can’t remember Peggy Ashcroft getting her minge out, can you?

The brown and shabby living room set places us firmly in Vera Drake country and, indeed, I was mildly surprised Staunton didn’t invite Sloane to ‘sit on the bed and take your knickers off’ but she now inhabits a character who shares with Vera only her inability to express her emotional self and fondness for floral aprons.

The set works wonderfully to establish the claustrophobic framework of the ‘well made play’ too safely contained in its proscenium arch, and serves Orton's dialogue and situations magnificently as they become increasingly surreal, but departing from the same platform as Pinter or Osborne, whom, I hope, he despised.

The entire production is first rate but for me the delight was Mathew Horne who was as good as anyone I’ve seen in the role, including Malcolm MacDowell in the 1975 revival with Reid. Although working with Staunton makes any actor look like a giant, Horne’s physicality surprised me as he ranged from imposing to threatening, and particularly convincing in the eruptions to violence.

Despite his Gavin and Stacey popularity and limited stage experience, there was not a trace of the look-at-me-I'm-off-the-telly which has ruined so many other transitions from TV to West End. And he's not miked.

I’m not sure you can congratulate an actor or director for ‘the way he sat on the sofa’ but others who’ve seen the production may have been impressed by how he seemed to almost wear it, owning the central seat and allowing the action to revolve around him. Clever.

My jury is still out on Simon Paisley Day, playing Staunton’s brother Ed who adopts outwardly Sloane as his chauffeur and inwardly, the play hints, as his lover. I think it’s a BAFTA Best Supporting nominee, but over-reliant on smoking for dramatic effect, and his foot-tapping repressed impotence OCCASIONALLY had tinges of Blakey from ‘On The Buses’ which might have been correct for period but not for timbre.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

High School, Musical

review of Spring Awakening at the Lyric Hammersmith

The Rake's Progress

I'm going to have to stop attending revivals, at least until Alzheimer's kicks in, because my memory is still good enough to make bad comparisons. Anyone marginally less than a hundred and six probably hasn't seen (Sir) Alan Ayckbourn's 1986 play Woman in Mind or, if they have, didn't retain that experience as a pivotal episode in their theatregoing life.

The plot is simple enough: desperate housewife whacks herself on the head with a garden rake, and awakes to an invented world of more charming relatives and a posher house. The staged juxtaposition of her idealised fantasy and disappointing real life eventually overlap in a surreal climax as she goes quietly off her head.

What's clever is that this marked Ayckbourn's transition from a writer of frothy comedies suitable for amateurs and provincial repertory companies into a real playwright with issues to expose and a range of techniques which went beyond staging two plays side by side in different auditoria (House and Garden) or three overlapped stories in consecutive plays (The Norman Conquests) by exploring the fourth dimension, with the shift of time and conception - first in Woman in Mind, and subsequently in Henceforward, Communicating Doors and Comic Potential.

It also used first person narrative, with the female protagonist speaking directly to the audience, a year before Willy Russell wrote Shirley Valentine.

In 1986, it signalled the transition of Julia McKenzie from musical comedy and TV sitcoms to character acting, as despite Ayckbourn's reservations about the casting, she gave what is still considered the performance of her career, and won an Evening Standard best actress award.

Fast Forward (that's probably another Ayckbourn play title) to 2009 and Susan is now played by the entirely excellent Janie Dee, and her compelling likeability places the audience directly on Susan's side which makes it tougher for the 'real' characters - dull Vicar husband, torch-carrying local doctor, and lumpen sister-in-law to gain much ground, or any trust that their version of events is more accurate than Susan's.

This is further hampered in the current production by the casting of perfectly good actors as husband Gerald or doctor Bill - but they're rather ordinary-looking and not known in the West End and it's hard to see what Janie Dee's character would find attractive in either of them. McKenzie was supported by Martin Jarvis and Peter Blythe, and in the replacement cast, Pauline Collins was matched with Michael Jayston and Ralph Bates.

The current under-casting seems to be a fault of many Bill Kenwright shows, but usually only to minor characters, here - despite the credit crunch - in a cast of 8 it seems unnecessary cheese-paring.

The revival is directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourn himself, and it feels too reverential as the production lacks pace and the frenetic climax isn't nearly surreal or bizarre enough.

Times have changed, we need our madness with more special effects.