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

Monday, 9 July 2012

Has Carmen Lost the Plot?

Written for londonist.com

We have been here before. Many times, it feels: ‘stripped-down’ pub opera featuring the concomitant apparatus of skinny jeans, transfer tattoos, funky tights, DMs, bad haircuts, jazz beards and studentish ensembles. With its garret-full of debris, vodka bottles, cellphones, laptops and fairy lights, Carmen at the King’s Head does not disappoint.

The chaise-longue on which the eponymous heroine is eventually throttled could as easily be Mimi’s deathbed and we are disappointingly not a creative bus ride away from Opera UpClose’s original staging of La Bohème at the Cock Tavern which sparked the whole thing off in the first place.

London is now saturated with railway-arch and pub opera, and desperate for more of the originality which inspired the pioneering productions: at least this weekend’s opening of Don Giovanni in a gay bar under Charing Cross has promise of gender-bending and a recognisable baritone in the lead.

Critics agree the drama has been pared to the bone, but lost some rationality in the transfer to its North London crime-squat setting, as well as the fire and passion of Seville’s gypsy band. Rupert Christensen in the Telegraph gave it four stars, though, enjoying its “rough-edged vitality, mostly well-acted, crisply directed and inventively designed” in contrast to Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard who thought it “short, and comically dreadful … a plotless try-hard mess”.

Ace opera bloggista Intermezzo picked on the “clunky English libretto, a bashed-up piano and an underutilised guitar” and we’d have to agree that you long for some orchestral support for the fabulous tunes in Bizet's lush and filmic score: although Elspeth Wilkes fairly hammered the pub piano into submission in a spirited accompaniment, Sam Johnson’s tentative guitar contributed little.

From a cheery start with the cast striking up the Habanera in the bar, the atmosphere’s charged with a convincing catfight and Carmen’s arrest by Don Jose but immediately deflated by a ten-minute wrangle to seat everyone inside the theatre itself.

Leads change nightly, but we enjoyed the chemistry between authentically Tufnell Park-born mezzo Flora McIntosh and East Sheen's hunky 'singing dentist' Andrew Bain as Jose, although he seemed to run out of both charisma and lung-power by the Flower Song climax.

Also, if you’re going to kill your girlfriend, hammering her face repeatedly into a canvas stage flat isn’t terribly efficient, as well as tension-breakingly laugh-out-loud funny.

Superdry Acoustic

Written for londonist.com

If you’ve been to site-specific arts events before, like Punchdrunk or Bum Bum Train or Theatre Delicatessen, you’ve probably ricocheted from one scene or event to another, feeling somewhere between a film extra and a peeping tom.

Heritage Arts and the crew behind Silent Opera bring you closer to the action and whilst there’s a certain amount of herding involved, you’re much more directly engaged with the performers and the drama.

Snap on a pair of Sennheiser HD headphones, snap OFF your mobile, and find first a beanbag or a patch of crowded floor in the ‘attic’ space of the Old Vic Tunnels rigged up as the realistically shabby student squat in which Rodolfo and Mimi fall in love: you can almost smell the stale joints and congealed pizza.

The orchestra’s a recording but the technician in charge is also a trained conductor who can adjust its speed to accommodate the singers: he might not be flailing his arms in an evening suit, but it works.

You don’t really need to know the story of La Bohème either, many of the audience were opera virgins and it’s sung in modern English with laugh-out-loud libretto lines like ‘fetch the Cillit Bang’ and ‘here's a feast worthy of Come Dine With Me ... Beans' enriching what’s basically a story of two boy-meets-girl romances at the end of which one dies.  As with most modernised Bohèmes, Mimi’s condition is updated from ‘consumption’, here to anorexia, but we wish they’d go the whole hog and make her a drug addict, it’s time for a Mimi Winehouse.

So when in the shabby flat the students decide to go off to the Christmas market and then to the night café, it’s YOUR arm they’re pulling to get up off your beanbag, and you join the drunken queue for the nightclub where Musetta’s singing, and eventually you’re standing at Mimi’s bedside when she dies.

You’re certainly carried along, although less emotionally than you might expect for such a heart-tugging tale – the headphone music didn’t seem to swell as passionately as in conventional theatre settings, and we weren’t quite swept away by the romance and the beautiful tunes although Emily Ward's Mimi was in fine voice.

It’s a young cast – when will someone do one of these fantastic immersive site-specifics with established opera singers - some of the acting is clunky, and despite the smooth shepherding of the 150-strong sellout audience up and down stairs and through the different scenes, neither the singing nor the on-stage movement was quite as fluid as it could be, although we were quite early in the run.

We’d have liked even more direct engagement between the actors and audience, in the Gatehouse’s Traviata, Violetta does a lapdance, and Bohème’s Musetta is no less a tart.  Being allowed to bring your wine would help the atmosphere too.

But it’s such an enjoyable night out – well worth the ticket price of £20 – with a young and cool Superdry-chic audience many of whom seemed to be on date night, and supported by a good popup bar, Hammer Horror flick club cinema, comedy, music, interactive film, and the rest of the Vault experience.

Daly News

Written for londonist.com

Hard on the round heels of her Cagney and Lacey co-star Sharon Gless impersonating a woman you almost certainly won’t have heard of, comes Tyne Daly in the stage personification of someone you couldn’t possibly have escaped hearing about unless you’d slept through the 20th century, its most famous operatic diva Maria Callas.

It’s also an occasion at Londonist Towers when the box of forbidden review clichés is momentarily unlocked and an editorial permit issued to sanction the usage of ‘tour de force’ and ‘bravura performance’ because this is an opportunity to savour an actress whose abilities were not so stretched by her television work demonstrate power and subtlety and pathos to rank alongside Tracie Bennett’s five-star portrayal of Judy Garland in last year’s barnstorming End of the Rainbow.

This is the second time a big-name American actress has essayed the role in London – in 1997 Patti LuPone gave us her Callas, but with her own reputation as a demanding and dominant stage presence not to mention already having played the ultimate diva Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, hers was more of a caricature whereas Daly’s engagement is both instantly credible and more sympathetic.

The format of the piece is simple – attended by a pianist and a stagehand, Daly recreates the master classes Callas gave at the Julliard School in New York at the end of her 20-year domination of the operatic stage, tutoring ordinary students.

Through the barbs and imperious asides she casts at them, we learn the truths of her own harsh wartime upbringing, hard-fought career path and painful love affair with the world’s richest man, Aristotle Onassis. In a cutaway scene where she plays both sides of the couple, and grunts Onassis’s claim that in return for her glamour and fame he gives her his “thick uncircumcised Greek dick” you can believe she actually has one dangling in her beautifully cut Martin Pakledinaz trouser suit.

A triumph of temperament over privilege, with points scored over rivals with more cushioned lives, it culminates in a magnificent moment at La Scala when she has the glitterati and the crowned heads of Europe where she wants them – standing in ovation to her achievements.

It could be static, and Terrence McNally’s script is undeniably patchy, but Daly’s performance drives the piece continuously, especially when she’s explaining the meaning and the music of an aria to her students – the passion and vigour with which she visualises each piece makes everything so clear and alive, you could wish ENO or Covent Garden would dispense with surtitles and just have Daly explain it all to you.

The Ladykillers

Written for londonist.com

It would be hard to find a theatrical concept more Londony than ‘The Ladykillers’, a ‘classic’ Ealing Comedy from the fifties following a gang of bungling bank robbers disguised as a string quintet to hide out in the home of sweetly dotty Mrs Wilberforce, whose windows conveniently face the train tracks at Kings Cross via which they intend to escape with the loot.

Surely all you have to do is order in a cracking composite set from Michael Taylor, hire the wonderful Marcia Warren who has been giving good ‘old lady’ for years and populate the gang with some loveable ‘him off the telly’s – including the half of Armstrong and Miller who isn’t the droll one in the car insurance adverts – and Bob is indubitably your aunt’s husband.

So it’s Londony, but is it Londonist?

Anchoring the action in a single set – even if it does twirl, shake its dangly bits and do the splits more convincingly than Ivy Paige in a midnight show at Madame Jojo's – loses the affectionate nostalgia the Alexander Mackendrick film delivers in its depiction of mid-century London street life, although the bank robbery choreographed by Scalextric is ingenious if a bit unclear.

What’s left is a character-driven farce in which each of the hoods gets a backstory not derived from the film, which is when Graham Linehan’s script draws equally on The League of Gentlemen and The League of Gentlemen, borrowing from both the immaculate heist movie and the TV sketch show for stock British characters and moments of bizarre transvestism.

The print critics fell over themselves to be nice about the show, generally rating it four stars, and few could scrape up even a mildly dissenting comment. It also beguiled political comedian Mark Thomas on BBC2's Review Show as he only tried half-heartedly to convince Martha Kearney that it was a thinly disguised piece of Tory propaganda designed to maintain the old social order.

So it’s great to welcome to the West End a commercial hit which isn’t another jukebox musical – you really can count on the fingers of one hand the number of comedies which expect to sell out on a Saturday night: Alongside Jerusalem, One Man Two Guvnors – and shortly to be joined by Noises Off at the Old Vic – The Ladykillers is among the best shows in London without a band.

Goodness Gracious George

Written for londonist.com

After the press night of The Killing of Sister George starring Meera Syal, intrepid Londonist reviewers JohnnyFox and Zefrog hid in a wardrobe in the dressing room shared by characters Alice McNaught (Childie) and June Buckridge (George) as they fought over their postmortem of the night’s performance. Here’s what they may have heard:

Childie: oh come on, George. It wasn’t that bad, the critics are not going to kill the play. People seemed to enjoy it and they did laugh, even if the theme can seem a bit heavy-going.

George: are you insane, Childie? We’re no longer relevant to contemporary dramatic discourse: post-Tipping The Velvet, lesbianism doesn’t have the shock factor and the plot about my dismissal from a BBC radio series is about as exciting as a Clare Balding outside broadcast from the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Childie: you have to admit that the play has probably set the tone for lesbian representation on stage and screen right up to this day. Do you think that’s why it’s so difficult to tell what period the action is supposed to take place? I mean, between the anachronisms in the language and the clothes I am not quite sure whether I am supposed to be in the 1950s or in a Hoxton loft in 2011. I do like the set, though. It was clever of Ciaran Bagnall to include that giant radio speaker in the backdrop. My dolls just love it!

George: The set’s fine, but no more accurate than the costumes by Pam Tait: my Blundstone boots weren’t seen much outside Australia till the 80′s but I thought Mrs Mercy [Belinda Lang]’s suits were as elegant as her finely-tuned performance, an autocratic BBC vixen to the fingertips of her calfskin gloves. Pity about Madame Xenia [Helen Lederer]. Was she meant to be Ukrainian?  The accent travelled from Gdansk to Vladivostok. Via Leeds. And what a clunky overacted performance, it was Calendar Girls all over again.

Talking of accents, Miss McNaught, given that you’re Scottish why do you speak pure Brummie ?

Childie: Oh yes, Mrs Mercy! Isn't she lovely? And sooooo nice!


George: What?

Childie: Don’t you think we could make a bit more of that scene at the beginning when you make me eat the end of your cigar? I mean, for us it’s nothing unusual, you trying to humiliate me, but it’s the first time the audience becomes aware of it and I feel we could do much more  – making it real dramatic and all.

George: I told director Iqbal Khan that George needed to be more menacing. It’s not sufficient just to wear trousers and take longer strides to emphasise her angry masculinity, for the play to pivot on whether or not she’ll go ‘over the edge’ we needed to get closer to her psychotic neuroses: unfortunately he’s read Rebecca West but I saw her more as Rose.

But you’re right about the cigar.  I’ve finished it now, so get on your knees and eat my butt.

A Night on the Bog

Written for londonist.com

Have you heard the one about the Irishman who walks into a bar and says he’s killed his father with a potato spade? The landlord gives him a job and immediately leaves him alone with his daughter whilst he goes to a wake… It sounds like the set-up to a shaggy-dog joke rather than the essence of a plot by one of Ireland’s most famous dramatists.

Some London revivals have “important” written all over them. You can tell by the dressy South Bank-ish audience, and by the way broadsheet critics fall over each other to show their Google-enhanced erudition.  The Telegraph’s Charlie Spencer called it a “tragicomic marvel”, Paul Taylor in the Indie cited its “dangerous iconoclasm” and Michael Coveney compared it to Gogol.  They all refer to the riots in 1907 after J M Synge’s depiction of the Irish as bog-trotters too easily bedazzled by storytelling and superstition, and harp on the play’s influence over any and every subsequent writer.

Gobshites, as they say in Co. Mayo.

It was a grand night for half-Ethiopian half-Irish and total babe Ruth Negga. In between wowing the press with her stage performance as fierce barmaid Pegeen she was scurrying upstairs to catch herself as Shirley Bassey on BBC2.  As the wayward patricidal bedazzler, Negga’s Misfits co-star Robert Sheehan divided the jury, some seeing him as better at the geeky inadequate and less convincing as a silver-tongued charmer whom all the women adore.

Most of the cast are experienced Irish actors, and play heavily and emphatically on the lilting language – in fact it’s hammered home with such vigour that surtitles might be preferable and give them more freedom to act naturally.  First among equals is surely Niamh Cusack portraying a wily and seductive Widow Quin, and like Negga arguably too lovely to be totally credible as a barefoot goat-breeding peasant woman.

The two acts are bookended with some vogueish Pogue-ish drum and flutery evoking the Corrs on their night off, there’s a goat-skin bodhrán for goodness sake.  The hyper-realistic set depicts the single location of the bar and kitchen of the shebeen, yet it slides and whirls like the Tardis in a totally unnecessary display of stage mechanics: it’s a hundred-year-old Irish drama, not the Sound of Feckin’ Music.

Seville Partnership

Written for londonist.com

At Londonist Towers, our fondness for Wilton’s – the last surviving ‘grand musical hall’ in the country – knows few bounds.  We love its raffish ‘beautiful state of disrepair’ auditorium, its varied repertoire and its super nice cheap bar.

The shabby chic auditorium is so adaptable and for this week’s performances of Carmen it could so easily have been a flamenco dancehall in early nineteenth century Seville.

It finds an ideal partner in soprano Kate Flowers’ dedicated Co-Opera Company.  Based in an unpromising industrial estate in Sydenham, like Wiltons it’s unsupported by any public funding but manages to offer intensive vocal training and workshops to promising singers through an inventive sponsporship scheme which anyone can join.

The singing is mostly excellent and the acoustic makes it all so clear and understandable – even for a Swedish Escamillo and Rumanian Carmen who emphasise the international scope of the company.  Some of the voices take time to warm up, but the ensemble pieces are as pleasurable as the arias with Tom Lowe, Catherine Rooney, Felicity Buckland and particularly Alex Duliba enriching their quartet of supporting roles with bravura performances, and Ian Beadle brilliantly and confidently doubling Zuniga and Morales.

This is a very ‘polite’ production: Carmen done by the West Wittering Young Conservatives, perhaps. Adriana Festeu looks and sounds more Samantha Cameron than a cigarette-factory spitfire, and despite his lovely and strongly sustained lyric tenor, Michael Scott is too scarily Boris Johnson to convince as headstrong soldier Don Jose.

It’s delightful to hear the voices supported by an excellent sixteen-piece orchestra but the acting lets the side down under William Relton’s awkward direction. It’s quite an achievement to mount Carmen with a cast of just nine, and they all work extremely hard, but  when you think how much more was delivered in the same space by the Union’s Iolanthe, it might do this company a service if they could hook up with some of London’s more imaginative fringe theatre directors to put a spark into the staging and characterisations.

Shaw-fired Success

Written for londonist.com

The first surprise in Fiona Shaw’s off-piste production is the all-white revolving maze of a set, peopled by such a troupe of bowing and scraping servantry – alternately linen-folding, bread-baking and boot-polishing – that we could have landed at Downton Abbey. Instead we’re pleasingly detached from time and place in a bravura attempt to modernize the ‘impossible to update’ Marriage of Figaro.

Purists found it distracting, but we suspect most Londonistas would love it as much as the cheeky, punchy libretto by Jeremy Sams. Shaw’s feminist influence tilts the scale heavily in favour of the women characters with Susannah more calculatedly manipulative than typical operatic maids, Barbarina chucking her guts up after bingeing on alcopops, and the Countess packing her Louis Vuittons to leave Almaviva.

John McMurray, ENO’s head of casting, came onstage to announce a substitute Countess in Elizabeth Llewellyn – the British Jamaican soprano who was such a thrilling Mimi in last season’s La Bohème. He should really have taken a bow for not only is she superb, calm and centred whilst the madder characters caper around her, the rest of the principals are outstanding without being household names. Iain Paterson is a robust and barely deferential Figaro while resisting the stentorian overtones of a Bryn Terfel or Thomas Allen, and musically quite brilliantly-matched with Roland Wood’s rather approachable middle-class Almaviva.

The production bowls along till the interval, after which the fourth act could be an anticlimax were it not for the fine renditions of each of the solo arias carrying the evening splendidly to a climax.

This has to be ENO’s ‘genius’ season because it includes so many delicious and brave choices in its repertoire: from Nico Muhly’s edgy exploration of internet sexuality in Two Boys and the harrowing but enthralling rediscovery The Passenger centred in Auschwitz, to a chocolate box of delights in the colourful Elixir of Love and now courting controversy by daring to deconstruct such a traditional and beloved warhorse as Figaro. With standby tickets from £10, this is a London institution to be proud of, and to support. Go.

Tightly Wound Clockwork

Written for londonist.com

Not many of London’s ‘urban villages’ have been more mauled about than Stratford.

A combination of attritive decay with a succession of ham-fisted local authority interventions begat a poundshop-dominated 70s shopping arcade on a windswept island choked by a red necklace of double-deckers. The construction of the Olympic site and Westfield complex is a further haymaker punch as its unsightly ‘old’ centre is to be screened from the sensitive gaze of Olympic spectators by a 450-metre metallic frieze of fishy leaves known as the ‘Shoal’.

Which is a pity, because behind it shelters a beacon of goodness, artistic endeavour and community spirit that cannot be crushed by planning committees, the 127-year old Theatre Royal. Itself a survivor of a string of redevelopment initiatives, the building is most famous as the home of Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theatre Workshop from 1953. In the latest incarnation under artistic director Kerry Michael its manifesto is to bring London’s new communities to the stage, and portray their experiences as second and third generation migrants.

What’s almost more exciting than the artistic endeavour is the artsy, intelligent urban black audience that regularly fills the seats, and the vigour of its community marketing. The latest production, a 50-years-on reworking of Anthony Burgess's ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is outstanding.

In post-rioting London, coinciding with the opening of Westfield and government navel-gazing about the management of angry disaffected youth, it could not be more topical as Alex’s gang of ultra-violent ‘horrorshow ninjas’ bursts hooded onto the stage like a looting gang, but drive the plot with such energy and pace that you’re almost attracted to their motives. Ed Duranté’s boxfresh script and Dawn Reid’s direction play with language so much more generously and musically than the original, that the Stanley Kubrick 1971 movie pales by comparison.

Avoidance of cliché seems to be the production’s hallmark: the violence is choreographed by Jonzi D and Katie Pearson with a rare technique which avoids contact while dramatising impact. Fred Carl’s music is wonderfully undpredictable, finessing hip-hop rhythms with Dave Brubek-louche jazz incidentals, blues and soul. The acting’s fine, too, not just the gang members but their families and victims seem more resilient and three-dimensional, particularly in Susan Lawson Reynolds and Marcus Powell’s sympathetic performances.

But the real discovery is Ashley Hunter, fresh out of Central School of Speech and Drama, entirely engaging and charismatic as Alex.  Truly an actor to watch.

Goddard's Polish

Written for Londonist.com

A brand new Alan Ayckbourn comedy, his 74th, celebrating he’s now twice a prolific as Shakespeare, comes as close to London as its six month tour permits (Richmond this week, Windsor next) and seems to ask ‘am I ready for the West End?’

 It has some familiar ingredients: three differently disappointed wives, three feckless or inert husbands, portrayals of the middle-English middle-class so accurate that if he’d set up a giant mirror in the bar of Richmond Theatre during the interval, Ayckbourn could have got a third act out of it – and, as in The Norman Conquests a male protagonist who manages to attract and then disrupt the equilibrium of wildly different women.

The novelty this time is that the ‘Norman’ character, George Riley, remains offstage throughout and his complex personality is revealed only in hearsay when his doctor gives him six months to live. Ayckbourn makes him so many different things to so many different people: mentor, rock idol, teacher, inspirational lover, moralist and endlessly supportive friend – and yet also someone that the other characters clearly don’t know as well as they think they do - that you might wonder if Ayckbourn is playing with faith and they’re talking about God.

 The play’s clever because by restraining actual detail it makes the audience project their own fears, thoughts and doubts into the characters and their situation – what starts out as a surface comedy about amateur dramatics along the lines of his A Chorus of Disapproval turns into something much darker in the stronger second act when some uncomfortable truths are revealed. 

At first it looks headed for a typical farcical ending and a quick curtain, but then twists sharply to a sombre conclusion which had the audience discussing it all the way back to the station. Is it headed for the West End?  Possibly, and with an unexpectedly subtle central performance from Liza Goddard as the oldest of the wives as well as convincing support from Kim Wall as her husband, it already has the feel of a Shaftesbury Avenue production.   But Ayckbourn often re-assesses his plays after their first outing and some judicious tightening and perhaps introducing the darker themes earlier in the process could make an interesting play even better.

Unravelled Jersey

PUBLICATION DATE: 13 AUGUST 2010 on Londonist.com


With a topical reference to ‘Glee Club’, Manuel Simons' late-night show is part paean of praise to Bruce Springsteen, part stretched sketch in which teen wiener Johnny from Jersey wants to model himself on “The Boss” but sings and sounds more like Shirley Temple.

Simons plays all the parts so Johnny’s journey from weak gleek to emancipated gay rocker is submerged under a series of accurately drawn but oddly-voiced friends, teachers and role models.

It's a clever concept and Simons works hard on his characterisations, but the theme seems un-Camden and un-contemporary and the piece is neither academic enough to examine issues of masculinity versus acceptance nor sharp enough to make the same points satirically.

Simons can clearly sing, both in the falsetto and baritone registers, so it’s a pity that this isn’t more of a musical and less a hyperextended version of the scene in ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ when Georges teaches Albin to act butch.

Queer in the USA is at Etcetera Theatre 265 Camden High Street until 15 August, nightly at 10.30pm. Tickets from 08444 771000 or online via Camden Fringe box office at £7.50. Runs about 75 minutes.