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

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Stopping by Woods

As a child, I was fascinated by the story that Princess Elizabeth had been informed of the King’s death at the exclusive ‘Treetops’ game lodge in the Aberdares national park of Kenya. Forty years later, when I could finally afford to experience it for myself, it turned out to be an arthritically creaking wooden assembly on stilts facing a rain-sodden pit of mulched foliage to which, at sunset, drifted a random collection of forest-floor wildlife.

Soutra Gilmour’s rickety stick-ety four tier set evokes the same image as the cast creeps out of the undergrowth to launch Into the Woods in a blindingly obvious setting that has somehow taken the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre twenty years to realise but in Timothy Sheader’s brilliantly detailed production comes close to a perfect match.

The folklore’s as complex and tangled as the branches overhanging the stage: half a dozen Perrault or Grimm fairytales are Magimixed with an original story about a childless baker and his wife, cursed by a witch and ultimately redeemed in a messily-written second act with a crude motif about everyone needing other people, outing Sondheim as the mawkishly sentimental sap he really is.

The fine cast, strong singing and excellent orchestrations under the enthusiastic baton of Gareth Valentine drive the show, but on a long wet evening you’re uncomfortably aware that Sondheim threw one too many plots into the mix, and that despite the intriguing cadences, too few of the musical snatches mutate into actual songs.

In such a polynuclear script, there are some brilliant turns: Hannah Waddingham first and foremost as possibly the best Witch yet seen in the role: enjoying the crippled disfigurement and working it like Anthony Sher’s three-legged Richard III, then transformed into a page-boy-bobbed vamp disturbingly reminiscent of Fenella Fielding in ‘Carry On Screaming’, but singing throughout with such clarity and distinction it’s like hearing the material for the first time: ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Children Will Listen’ both quite outstanding.

Not far behind come Jenna Russell, one of the cleverest Sondheim interpreters as she showed in the recent Sondheim Prom at the Albert Hall, as a sardonic and abrasive Baker’s Wife, and Helen Dallimore equally brilliant as an unconventionally tetchy Cinderella with consummate phrasing in ‘On the Steps of the Palace’. It’s harder to warm to Beverley Rudd‘s scene-stealing chavvy Red Riding Hood since she seems directly derived from Suzanne Toase’s clever characterization in the 2007 ROH/Linbury production.

Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas make a pair of preeningly self-absorbed princes, complete with drainpipe leggings and Russell Brand hairpieces, Xavier particularly strong in partnership with Jenna Russell in ‘Any Moment’. It’s also refreshing to see the minor role of Jack’s Mother played by someone who is both an experienced comedienne and a fine singer, Marilyn Cutts (from Fascinating Aida) appropriately wearing a carpenter’s tool belt and nailing this part totally.

In such an exposed setting, you wonder how they’ll ‘manage’ the magic – a beanstalk must appear, a wolf devour a grandmother, a giant tramples the world underfoot and there’s a transformation scene as challenging as any pantomime … suffice it to say that this is where the director and designer’s ingenuity come into their own, and all the devices – particularly the appearances of the giant voiced by Judi Dench in what you could call ‘Dame Ex Machina’, are cracking.

Murder Will Out

Ed Fringe 2010: Girl, Constantly F*****g Interrupted
Writer/performer: Celia Peachey
Director: Tim Stubbs Hughes
The Public Reviews Rating: 2 stars

Great title, rubbish play.

I was about to launch into a diatribe against this piece – a sketchy, tentative overlong rummage around the physical and mental attic of the solo character Faith’s brain as she retreats from her murdered mother’s funeral to debate her mental state with the voices in her head. It sounds far-fetched, the voices aren’t well differentiated and it feels rather like an extended audition for accents and characterisations, but not good ones.

But journalistic ‘research’ sometimes leads you up a strange path and I came across the blog and website of the uncredited author and performer, Celia Peachey

Turns out the whole thing is true: her mother was indeed murdered – strangled with a dog-lead by her former lover who was himself a previously convicted killer, and her body hidden in a toilet. Here's the news item. Peachey is going through an angry and uncomfortable postrationalisation in a shroud of psychobabble about ‘the universe’ as well as battling alleged maladministration in the Essex Police, and her own recent grief.

So the faults are really in the marketing – if this weren’t scheduled as a comedy (it isn’t) but as a theatre piece, and if preferably the character(s) were played by someone other than Peachey herself, it might fare much better as a scarily well-informed drama about bereavement, mental imbalance and shock. Maybe bring it back to Edinburgh next year in a fresh treatment, and populate it with more of the living/deceased characters?

Meanwhile, I’d suggest a pre-performance voice-over to identify that this is a true story, as experienced by the actress because that’s not apparent from the performance.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Rea Window

There’s a plethora and a half of one-woman shows at the Edinburgh Fringe where the material spills from the uncoordinated ramblings of an early-disappointed or pre-menopausal harpy at the microphone. ‘Look at my awful life’ they rant ‘and feel better about your own’.

In 'Pension Plan' at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, the oddly spelled but also oddly engaging Leisa Rea cherrypicks some of this theme but the structure’s markedly different from the other vaginal monologues on the fringe. Her set celebrates the undeniable but rarely-accepted truth that not everyone can be a Winner, and it’s OK to lose sometimes, because therein may lie the key to your sanity.

There’s some lovely home-baked interactive TV, including on-screen graphics that hark back to the ‘Vision On’ deaf children’s programme in their unabashed clumsiness, and an ‘outside broadcast’ clearly from outside Rea’s back door by ‘the biscuit-eyed lady’ that binds you to her in sisterly affiliation and mutual love for sandwich creams. She makes origami birds out of her medical diagnoses and rejection letters, and in a combination of courage and confectionery encourages the audience to eat a biscuit she’s baked in the shape of a foetus.

Like a lot of self-written and self-staged work at the Fringe, Rea could benefit from an ‘act doctor’ to sharpen the focus and presentation of the material. But the content’s her own, and all the better for it.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

No Shoes Company? No Stars Review ...

A million years B.C., when I was a first-year drama student, we were encouraged to tit about with improvisation and gradually take, from the frankly ludicrous scenarios and inane characterisations we invented every wet Friday afternoon of the Autumn term, some semblance of a skill set which could be useful in actual acting performance, if any of us made it into the profession which at the last count only two of us did. And one of those gave it up after three weeks.

What we didn't do was invite paying customers to observe the painful process, which is the first mistake perpetrated by the No Shoes Theatre Company in its mostly execrable 'Improvised Musical' which shows its shameful face at 6.30pm nightly in C Venues in Chambers Street.

The press release says the 'energetic company' has worked on productions of 'Sweet Charity', Jason Robert Brown's 'Songs for a New World' and 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change'. Clearly they learned nothing from this collective experience, since not one of them can put together a coherent melody line or a quatrain of lyrics without dead air pauses, mugging at his fellow cast members and the audience, or dissolving into self-indulgent giggles.

We might have struck them on a bad night. Somebody should.

They invite the audience to propose a title, a theme song, and a location for the show. Our audience chose the location as a Job Centre, on the grounds that it would be good preparation for them, and despite it being a situation which would be largely familiar to most of the population, these actors couldn't posit a plot, or realistic characters, or a song which had any site-specific relevance or commentary. Their lack of imagination was breathtakingly poor and they conspicuously failed to bring the plot to any kind of resolution in the painful hour during which they kicked it around like a dead rat in a midden.

They are hampered by a 'band' comprising keyboard, drums and something which scarcely made an impact, which has a collection of vamps-till-ready so interchangeable and anodyne that there's no possibility of anyone launching into a recognisable 'musical theatre' genre.

The only countervailing comment is that you might admire their tenacity in persevering with a production which so frequently defies their own abilities. They aver that this is part of the 'experience' of the piece, and that there's validity in the activity even on nights when it all falls apart. As an exercise in gestalt therapy for embryo actors, you could agree. But not for paying customers.

The ineptitude is spectacular. And if I see any quotation which says 'spectacular - The Public Reviews' I shall be back to Edinburgh to slap each and every one of them individually.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Brass Polish

Not having had previous exposure to this group, I spotted one of the lederhosen-clad soloists in the bar before the performance. ‘What part of Bavaria are you from?’ I asked in all innocence. ‘Fulham’, he replied.

Part of the wise and worthy ‘Five Pound Fringe’, Oompah Brass’s “A to Z of Oompah” can be found in the GRV venue, on the back steps behind C Venues in Chambers Street.

It’s a gem.

Two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn and a tuba form a band not know for its lullaby potential, indeed their proud boast is that people in the front two rows may regret sitting so close. But there’s plenty of subtlety in their musical arrangements and in the virtuosity of each member: it’s extremely hard to coax high clear and sharp notes from a trumpet, or to make a tuba play the lead line of a complicated melody, but these guys (and one girl) just laugh it off.

Apart from ‘Do you play the Trumpet Voluntary?’ ‘No, only for money.’ there’s scarcely a corny pun or old musical joke not explored in the commentary between the songs, but it’s delivered with such natural charm by Oompah founder Nathan Gash and particularly by the handsome trombonist Patrick Johns who had all the ladies in the audience, and a couple of curious men, swooning when he shoved the bell end of his instrument in their faces.

In their random alphabet, they cover everything from Bach to Megadeath but the focus is on recognizable rock and pop thrashers they can serve up with a Bavarian twist.

They’re all music teachers, but performers at heart since the energy and enthusiasm of the show is infectious, you just want to join in – and at the end, in ‘the greatest pop song ever written’ you get your chance in their brilliant climax. Just make sure you know ALL the words to Bohemian Rhapsody.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Floppy Haired Tossers

My Edinburgh posse recommended ‘Out of the Blue’, the Oxford undergraduate a cappella singing group. Oh right. Spoilt chinless posh boys frittering away a musical month in jolly old Edinburgh before joining mummy and daddy on the grouse moor? I had to be dragged there.

And on they bounce: hearty chaps in flannel suits, blue shirts and ties all floppy-haired tiggerish adolescence with Bullingdon confidence. I gritted my teeth for the opening piping treble.

“I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar …” breaking in to a beatbox version of the Human League 80s synthpop classic, complete with every note of the backing track vocalized, these guys have you hooked from the first word.

Their solo voices are amazing, any one of the 12-strong collective makes Philip Oakey sound like a tube station busker, and they throw the lead lines around the group like practised handballers, but when they blend in four or eight part harmony it’s physically thrilling. It looks effortless and casual but the reality must be the product of rigorous choreography and constant rehearsal.

This year their show has been blown up from the constraints of a poky venue at C Central to the cavernous and comfortable George Square Theatre (aka C Plaza) where the wide stage gives freer rein to their energetic shoeless choreography, from bopping along to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’ to simian freerunning in a completely refreshed treatment of the usually-cliched 'Wimoweh'. Their cheeky humour is subtle and worked especially well in Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’.

In the rarer still numbers, you’re even more aware how exciting the voices are: if you thought The King’s Singers version of Billy Joel’s ‘Lullaby’ was touching, prepare to weep openly at OOTB’s more finely-judged closer-harmonied rendition at four fifths the speed but which manages to keep Joel’s Long Island sound without drowning it in cathedral cheesiness. This has to be one of the single best-arranged and best-performed pieces you can hear in Edinburgh this week.

It's a strong ensemble and perhaps invidious to pick out individual performers but there's a natural actor in lanky Tim Jones, OOTB's president and tenor soloist so committed to the performance that even his floppy curly lock-tossing is in time with the music.

Need a niggle? Their technique is applicable to more musical styles than they showcase in a tight fifty-minute set, and I wanted to see how it worked on a wider range of material. Maybe next time.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Bargain Bucket of Sondheim


This is not the best week to put on an intimate Sondheim revue.

Overshadowed by the glorious Sondheim Prom at the Albert Hall, by Maria Friedman’s all-Sondheim set at Cadogan Hall and the reputedly outstanding Into The Woods just beginning at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Throw in the fact that acts in the Camden Fringe have minimal preparation and stage time before strutting their fretful hour in the Roundhouse Studio and the cast of Sondheim by Sondheim more than have their work cut out.

And yet - the Tuesday audience was more than receptive, and for many it was an inexpensive opportunity to hear some of Stephen Sondheim’s less well-known material culled from rarely performed shows like Passion, Evening Primrose, Anyone Can Whistle and Marry Me A Little.

All the performers are ‘actors who can sing’ and the three men do much better than the eight women, particularly Peter Kenworthy, recently excellent as Dexter Haven in High Society at the Gatehouse, although even he has trouble with the top notes in ‘Being Alive’, and the very strong and elegant voice of Michael Stacey who rather outshone his partner in the duet ‘It Takes Two’.

Many of the pieces are performed as an ensemble, including an opening ‘Weekend In The Country’ from A Little Night Music which showed up the cast’s nervousness and felt more under-rehearsed than even the hasty staging of a fringe festival should allow. The later ‘The Sun Won’t Set’ from the same show, and the closing ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park were much stronger and hinted at improvements to be expected later in the week.

Musical Director Aaron Clingham is at the keyboard and unfortunately the balance of voices and accompaniment is uneven, as is the cueing in the ensemble pieces when the cast would benefit from being able to see a conductor.

Sondheim material always works best in its original context, and the same company is mounting one of his best, Follies, long due a London revival, at Ye Old Rose and Crown Theatre from 21 October to 13 November. May even be worth the trek to Walthamstow.

written for www.Londonist.com