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

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Speaking in Tongues

'Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome' ... well strictly that's 'A Chorus Line' but it could apply to almost any show in the airless attic that is the Finborough Theatre and particularly to Charlotte Randle's shouty performance as an English teacher in 'Lingua Franca'.

I'm sure she's a subtle and sensitive actress, but veteran Peter Nichols' new play doesn't give her free rein to express it as he confines all his characters trapped in a Florentine language school in the 50's to one-dimensional stereotypes: particularly Rula Lenska visibly straining to add a sophistication and depth to her flatly-written Russian emigre countess, Abigail McKern's hard-workingly crude but ultimately uncomical Aussie lesbian, and perhaps most wasted Natalie Walter as a Nazi-sympathising Mädchen just two telephone plaits short of Helga from 'Allo 'Allo.

What saves the production from the scrapheap is the two semi-autobiographical characterisations: Ian Gelder as an ageing monolingual aesthete who turns to sculpture as a substitute for sex, and Chris New playing Steven Flowers now transplanted from soldiering in Malaya in 'Privates on Parade' and with a burgeoning socialist conscience fighting a complicated provincial diffidence.

It's as if Nichols is interested only in developing these two characters as projections of his own self, and that the others are disposable caricatures. It's how all self-centred people see the world and consistent with Benedict Nightingale's review of Nichols' 2000 autobiography in which he found the writer 'touchy, crusty' and 'disappointed with himself'. Gelder has the best material and gives a careful and considered performance, highlighting the fact this intelligent actor is sadly underused.

Apart from one bizarre scene in which the Italian school manager puts his head up the skirt of the German girl in a realistic display of what you could call cunnilingua franca, the play is terribly static, imprisoned in one room of the language school with only scruffy louvres hinting at windows in the low-budget set, although Will Jackson's sound brings cicadas, street noise and music to colour the space, and James Smith's lighting design occasionally projects Florence in all her glory across the blind windows.

Every teacher's entrance seems to be marked by a rummage in bag or briefcase, the extraction of a book or journal which is never read or used, and its careful replacement or repositioning for use by another actor. There are too many monologues and limited interaction since they are such ciphers, so the emotional climax when two women vie for Flowers' attention is unrealistic, and when the German gets stabbed in the eye the quickly-produced eyepatch just begs for her to sit astride a chair and sing Marlene's back catalogue.

What makes it all worth the effort, though, is the opportunity to see at close hand the work of Chris New. Since graduating from RADA in 2006 he has been the most perfect foil of 'Horst' to Alan Cumming's 'Max' in the Daniel Sherman production of 'Bent' before taking a storming lead himself as Joe Orton in 'Prick Up Your Ears'.

As Flowers, he is the ideal suburban Everyman of Nichols' imagination, combining pathos, humour and inner confliction in a performance of subtlety and understanding which makes the audience impatient for his next entrance. In his vocal delivery, he could be the new Leonard Rossiter and I suspect his comic potential has only slightly been tested to date. He has a very confident singing voice, too, which suggests an option to revive Privates.

He's clearly got a sense of humour because he tweeted the excerpt from Billington's Guardian review which referred to 'the sexiest seduction scene on the West End stage' with "Crow, Crow! ... who says gays cant pull off being straight!??"

Perhaps Lingua Franca would work better as a musical comedy, it's not so great as a, er, straight play.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A Lot of Night Music

The trouble with Andrew Lloyd Webber …

No, that’s too easy.

The trouble with Apects of Love is that it’s a trite plot centred on characters too self-absorbed to care about, woven with the relentless thread of ALW’s musical recycling. All the new Trevor Nunn production at the Menier Chocolate Factory does is illuminate the weaving flaws.

Apart from the fact the best-known song is hauntingly similar to a theme by Bach, one of the major melodies from Aspects ‘The Last Man in My Life’ is a shameless import from Tell Me On a Sunday, and the second trickles endlessly through Sunset Boulevard like a dose of musical dysentery.

Given this familiarity, and the fact that modern audiences expect less predictable lyrics than Don Black wrote in 1989 - sometimes you can spot the obvious rhymes bearing down on you like double decker buses – this revival of Aspects is less satisfying than perhaps it was when fresh.

It seems a frequent complaint that well-crafted performances are let down by the material, and there are some simply excellent singers in this production: Dave Willetts is outstanding, a beautiful mature timbre to his voice, but wasted on the banality of the music and lyrics, and it is especially refreshing to hear Michael Arden, as Alex, effortlessly hurdle the top ‘A’ in ‘Love Changes Everything’ without Michael Ball’s overexcited coloratura.

The plotting is tedious – self-centred actress Rose bounces between older and younger lovers, themselves uncle and nephew and one of which has fathered her coquettish teenage daughter with whom both men are further competitively infatuated. There’s a side issue of an Italian sculptress who may be mistress of both the uncle and the actress, ooh-er, sapphism Missus, and an uncredited ‘Hugo’ who incidentally has a lovely voice, who may also be shagging the actress. Although he looks like he'd rather do both of the men.

Throw in the wearing of a dress made for a deceased lady of the house, nicked directly from Rebecca, and the older/younger/actress/daughter quadrilateral borrowed from A Little Night Music and the source material becomes more interesting than the resultant musical.

It’s hard to warm to Rose Vibert because she’s such an unlovely character, but Katharine Kingsley’s confident performance shows the calculating coarseness lurking beneath the powder and paint, if rarely the warmth of a genuine romantic.

The production runs 2 hours 45 but you could trim half an hour of that by cutting the pretentious ALW operatic recitative (almost every word is sung) and turning it into dialogue between musical numbers. The set is a series of chipboard doors and picture frames which slide and occasionally reveal scenic implants including an Alpine panorama disturbingly reminiscent of Hilda Ogden’s ‘muriel’ from Coronation Street.

Sir Trevor Nunn is 70.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Feel the knead in me ...

Production photograph by Avshalom Aharony

You may not know much of Finchley: La Thatcher’s old constituency perhaps you recall, a pimple on the forehead of London’s map-face just before it breaks out in to the bushy afforestation of, well, Bushey and the rest of leafy Hertfordshire.

Be grateful though that someone has thought to fund its modern and enterprising ‘Artsdepot’ complex and to host part of the London International Festival of Theatre where Israel’s Nalaga’at troupe is packing not just the Jewish home crowd but people from all over London to its uniquely experiential show.

Nalaga’at is a company of eleven adult deaf-blind actors, most of whom lost their sensations from birth or in infancy, welded into a performing company by director Adina Tal and delivering an ensemble piece in which the group kneads, seasons and bakes bread on stage whilst telling personal stories and acting out pantomime-like sketches. The set is wonderful, warm with carpentry and golden light - we could be in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop, or the Baker’s house in ‘Into The Woods’.

For the hour it takes for the bread to bake, your mind may wander. Once you’ve accepted that this is a tremendous piece of work to inspire, coach and direct the deaf-blind, leading them with cues from a tambour drum or by touch, and that it took two years to develop and rehearse the show, you are allowed to consider where else this could go and what's the balance between occupational therapy and entertainment.

Showing off that you know waggling your hands in the air is the sign-language equivalent of applause is only part of the range of reactions available, but you will certainly marvel at the varieties of communication through signing, mime, translation of one-person’s hand gestures by his speaking neighbour, fractured speech, and the surtitles.

The whole event is best bracketed with the two hands-on options: BlackOut bar in which, rather like Dans Le Noir restaurant in Clerkenwell, you are led by your blind waitress to eat and drink in total darkness, where every movement has to be tentative and (particularly if you are seated with Henry Hitchings the theatre critic of the Evening Standard) every conversation sounds like double-entendres from a Carry On film.

There’s also a full-service and brightly-lit restaurant run as ‘Café Kapish’ in which charming and totally deaf waiting staff will take your orders in sign language. Best brush up on your charades for ‘Goat Cheese Panini’ …

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Of Thee I Sing, but not memorably


Book: John Wiedman
Music and Lyrics : Stephen Sondheim
Direction and staging : Michael Strassen
Musical Director: Michael Bradley
Lighting: Steve Miller

Reviewer: JohnnyFox
The Public Reviews Rating: [3 stars]

U.S. Presidents get a raw deal from musicals … in Kaufman and Hart's 1937 I'd Rather Be Right George M. Cohan starred as Franklin Roosevelt who despite his polio paralysis sings and dances - at least in Annie he remains confined to his wheelchair whilst the ginger moppet bawls a succession of shaky key-changes into his ear. Contemporary musical satires like Michael Friedman’s 2009 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Obama: The Musical have yet to build on early promise but at least in those none of the contenders gets shot at, as do the nine (count ‘em) potential victims in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins currently in a new production by Michael Strassen at the Union Theatre, Southwark.

Assassins is a difficult musical to pigeon-hole. Despite comparing its vengeful plot with Sweeney Todd, it doesn’t fall in to Sondheim’s tuneful-and-waspishly-witty category alongside Follies, Company and Into The Woods. Nor is it in the obscure-but-intriguing box with Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park. Some claim that as a series of sketches about each of the assassinations, it’s more like a revue than a musical – certainly it defeats Sondheim’s ability to make comic capital out of human relationships since the nine would-be murderers in this show scarcely have one between them and losers and loners don’t make for snappy lyrics. It’s the lack of connectivity between the characters that limits the show, and leaves you feeling cheated with only 8 songs in 90 minutes (although this version runs 110 which indicates a need for tightening and cutting).

If it has a theme it’s that in modern America ‘everybody’s got the right to his dreams’ and that even achieving notoriety by killing the President, can legitimise your pathway to fame and a book deal. In this, it shares its theme of unattained dreams and a consequent ruthlessness with Mama Rose in Gypsy, but this music is as far from the pit band jollification of the Orpheum Circuit as possible. There’s a certain cleverness in the way each is matched to its assassin’s historical period whilst still belonging to the Sondheim canon, such as a Sousa March, a Bacharach-and-David styled lounge ballad, barbershop harmony or ragtime, but none can be extracted as a ‘standard’ to survive outside the musical’s context and they don’t stay in your head long enough to hum on the way home.

Despite these structural difficulties, there are some excellent individual performances and a consistently good ensemble. The whole cast sings clearly and accurately without miking, and Glyn Kerslake (as John Wilkes Booth) John Barr as Charles Guiteau (who shot President Garfield) and Leigh McDonald as Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin Sarah Jane Moore, are particularly strong.

Not all the characters are drawn in three dimensions or allowed the full range of emotions, but Nick Holder drew every ounce of humour as well as anguish from his brilliantly realistic characterisation of Sam Byck, a bankrupt salesman in a Santa Claus suit who initiated a plot to fly a 747 into the Reagan White House.

Although there’s no set save the dingy bare walls and floor of the railway arches which form the shell of the Union Theatre, costumes and lighting are of a high standard for what is essentially a low-budget profit-share production. Fresh and thoughtful orchestrations by Richard Bates give new life to the score as played by a versatile six-piece band.

Director Michael Strassen deserves great credit for the illuminated way in which the stories are presented, and for his huge versatility in staging this recondite and convoluted piece as smartly as his much-lauded production of Company in the same space last year.

But now, please - have a go at Follies.

This review written for The Public Reviews