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

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Stagey Play For Stagey People

production photo by Johan Persson

How splendidly the Donmar adapts to every new production: from the blinding pennants of the Spelling Bee school gym to the stark guns-and-gantries of the all-female Julius Caesar and now an authentically lamp-black pickled Victorian music hall with soaring columns, creaking boards and a whiff of oranges and cheap scent in the pit.

Rose Trelawny is the darling of the ‘Wells’ theatre troupe but leaves to marry a young posh bloke.  Although she finds his family stifling and eventually bolts, on her return she’s lost her ability to act. The situation is saved by a young writer in the company who’s invented a new and more naturalistic style of play which suits Rose’s new manners.

It's a vehicle for author Arthur Wing Pinero's campaign to change the nature of theatre, seeking to reflect real people in credible situations, here by ridiculing the bombastic and overdone performances of the time. Ironic, really, when you think how his farces like Dandy Dick and The Magistrate still depend on strident acting.

It’s a doubly Londony show, too: set in 1865 when Sadler’s Wells - long before it became the terpsichorean temple of the Waitrose-going classes - was the satellite TV channel of its day churning out lurid melodramas for a lowbrow audience, and the director is Islington-reared, Central St Martin’s-trained film maker Joe Wright who turned Keira Knightley into Anna Karenina.

In the same way we couldn’t wait for that train to arrive, and although both the ideas and the plot are interesting and amusing, Trelawny is a very slow burner and takes too long to develop. Patrick Marber’s script additions blend seamlessly with Pinero’s original and the cast double both the acting troupe and the frightful society family, none better than Ron Cook as the stern Vice Chancellor and a theatrical landlady who’s a close cousin of Old Mother Riley.

Playing Rose, Amy Morgan trills prettily and simpers in a white frock as readily as Amanda Seyfried in Les Miserables but the best of the casting is in the smaller roles: the wonderful Maggie Steed as a fading actress and disabled dowager, Daniel Mays as a posturing ham actor of the oldest possible school.  Finest of all is Daniel Kaluuya voicing Pinero’s own opinions on theatre and the development of the new realism as the hesitant playwright Tom Wrench: excellent characterization and subtlety in a play where most others are deliberately cartoon figures.

This review written for Londonist.com and published 28 February 2013

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

THE VORTEX by Noel Coward
Rose Theatre, Kingston
* * * * 

David Dawson, Kerry Fox, The Vortex © Simon Annand

Coward's scraped-savings visit to New York in 1921 taught him two things which would serve him for a lifetime: that Broadway plays were performed at a much snappier pace than English comedies, and that if you were young and pretty and could play the piano, someone rich would invite you to a party. He was entertained frequently by the eccentric and flamboyant American actress Laurette Taylor and her diffident writer husband J. Hartley Manners and repaid them by picturing their characters in two early plays. In Hay Fever, it's affectionate and light-hearted, in The Vortex, it's cruel, and Stephen Unwin's vibrant but contradictory revival splendidly highlights the spite. 

read the rest of the review on www.onestoparts.com here

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

No More, Mr Nice Guy ...

SOME GIRLS at Theatro Technis
* *

Some Girl(s) - yes, that's how it's titled - is not Neil LaBute's best work. Less funny than Fat Pig, less edgy than In The Company of Men, it's best known as a production vehicle for ex-sitcom stars to entertain their TV audiences in the comfort of a theatre. In London David (Friends) Schwimmer and on Broadway Eric (Will & Grace) McCormack played the central character referred to as 'Man', a wired, awkward, nervously energetic writer on the verge of commitment to marriage who - in four separate-but-near-identical hotel rooms across the States - meets a series of ex-girlfriends.

Ostensibly, he's out to make peace with them and settle some old emotional debts - they each seem to have a valid reason to be angry with him - but it's equally clear he, and they, have 'issues' to work out. Unfortunately in Tower Theatre's amateur production, shorn of any 'him off the telly' celebrity interest in a principal actor, it just doesn't come off the page and it's hard to engage with either the writer on the stage, or the writer of the play.

'Man' - although I'm fairly sure it was 'Guy' on Broadway - is a neurotic who's had one espresso too many, popping on the balls of his feet, twisting his hands in mid-air to make a point, forever touching his face or his forehead or his hair, verbally and physically contorting to rationalise his past transgressions and present himself as a 'nice guy'. Laurence Ward captures this accurately, but it still makes you want to punch him.

LaBute has his hero engage the women's emotions or sexuality, and occasionally make genuinely reparative offers of reconciliation for his past behaviour, but the character fails as a credible Everyman because he's so monothematically an 'average white guy' locked in a cage of whiny self-justification.

Tower Theatre is an ambitious amateur company, producing twenty or more shows in a year, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the casting or the directing; everyone knows their lines, it has good pace, the women are nicely differentiated, the set's substantial enough and the stage management work hard to make each successive hotel room distinct from the others, but on this play their efforts are largely wasted.

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk and published on 13 February 2013

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Venus Rises in East 17

Ye Olde Rose and Crown, Walthamstow

* * * * *

‘Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome …’ – yes, I know that’s from A Chorus Line, but it crosses my mind every time I go to the Rose and Crown – although the dark at the top of the stairs has had a makeover with shiny new loos and there’s a fresh air of confidence alongside the Toilet Duck.

At last the R&C has come of age, and this production of One Touch of Venus ranks with the best the venue has housed.  A featherweight plot, in which an art gallery statue comes to life and falls in love with a geeky loser, but enlivened first by tintack-sharp lyrics by poet and humorist Ogden Nash and crisp one-liners by S. J. Perelman, then topped off with music by Kurt Weill.  But this is not Weill in his Weimar/Brechtian mode, as by 1943 he'd emigrated from Germany and studied jazz and musical theatre with Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein, so it’s tuneful, bright and massively enjoyable, designed to lift the spirits during wartime. 

It’s less a revival than a rediscovery, since Venus is rarely performed and the brilliance of this version is to play it crisp and straight, avoiding the camp which often undermines fringe productions by less intelligent directors, with impeccable diction and accents to capture those complex lines, and with some exceptionally strong and engaging voices.

In the leading role Marlene Dietrich once turned down because it was too risqué, Kendra McMillan’s Venus is perfect casting: tall and classically curvaceous she balances seductiveness with wit and her singing voice is warm and inviting, you can see why David Jay-Douglas as the gauche barber character falls instantly in love with her.  He too is nothing short of excellent, channelling Jerry Lewis as an endearingly hapless schmuck, with an elegant baritone.  Their duets are both beautifully realised, and beautifully realistic.

Standouts among a terrific ensemble include Danielle Morris enjoying the dialogue of hardboiled secretary Molly, and James Wolstenholme as the crafty art gallery director. Lauren Osborn as jilted girlfriend Gloria is a touch too cartoonish, but the rest of the cameos and characterisations are fine.

It’s good.  Very good.  Just well-sung, well-acted, well-dressed and well-lit.  If only all fringe shows could be this competent. 

Such an obscure musical, and one without any popular ‘standards’ among the songs, is hard to revive and the cast and production team have elevated this one brilliantly.  All credit to director and girl-to-watch Lydia Milman Schmidt.

originally written for www.remotegoat.co.uk