Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Romeo and Juliet - RSC @ The Roundhouse, Monday 20th December 2010


A Chorus introduces two feuding families of Verona, the Capulets and the Montagues. On a hot summer's day, fighting by the young men of each faction is stopped by the Prince who threatens the law. Capulet plans a feast to introduce his daughter, Juliet, who is almost fourteen, to the Count Paris who seeks to marry her. By a mistake of the illiterate servant Peter, Montague's son Romeo, and his friends Benvolio and Mercutio hear of the party and resolve to go in carnival disguise. Romeo hopes he will see his adored Rosaline; instead he meets and falls instantly in love with Juliet.

The Montagues are recognised by Juliet's cousin Tybalt and are forced to leave the party just as Romeo and Juliet have each discovered the others identity. Romeo lingers near the Capulet's house and talks with Juliet when she appears on her balcony. With the help of Juliet's Nurse, the lovers arrange to meet next day at the cell of Friar Lawrence when Juliet goes for confession, and there they are married.

Tybalt picks a quarrel with Mercutio and his friends and Mercutio is accidentally killed as Romeo intervenes. In anger Romeo pursues Tybalt, kills him and is banished by the Prince for the deed. Juliet is anxious that Romeo is late meeting her and learns of the fighting from her Nurse. With Friar Lawrence's help it is arranged that Romeo will spend the night with Juliet before taking refuge at Mantua. To calm the family's sorrow at Tybalt's death the day for Juliet’s marriage to Paris is brought forward.

Capulet and his wife are angry that Juliet does not wish to be Paris's bride, not knowing of her secret contract with Romeo. Friar Lawrence helps Juliet by providing a sleeping draught, and when the wedding party arrives to greet Juliet the next day they believe she is dead. The Friar sends a colleague to warn Romeo to come to the Capulet's family monument to rescue his sleeping wife.

The message is fatally delayed and Romeo, hearing instead that Juliet is dead, buys poison in Mantua. He returns to Verona and goes to the tomb where he surprises and kills the mourning Paris. Romeo takes his poison and dies just as Juliet awakes from her drugged sleep. She learns what has happened from Friar Lawrence but she refuses to leave the tomb and stabs herself as the Friar returns. The deaths of their children lead the families to make peace, promising to erect a monument in their memory.
Escalus, Prince of Verona – David Carr
Mercutio – Jonjo O’Neill
Paris – James Howard
Montague – David Rubin
Lady Montague – Simone Saunders
Romeo – Sam Troughton
Balthasar – Gruffud Glyn
Capulet – Richard Katz
Lady Capulet – Christine Entwhistle
Juliet – Mariah Gale
Tybalt – Joseph Arkley
Nurse – Noma Dumezweni
Friar Laurence – Forbes Masson
Creative Team:
Dierctor – Rupert Goold
Designer – Tom Scott
Lighting – Howard Harrison
Costumes – Rachel Dickson
Its very easy to write a review when you really enjoy a production, and its even easier when you loathe it (in fact, in these cases, the reviews more or less write themselves). What I find really difficult is writing a review when a production has been more or less OK. Its very difficult to express “meh” in words. In terms of both production ideas and performances, there some very good ones, a couple of completely acceptable ones and a couple of really naff ones. It took me a long time to warm to both lead roles, and I think only Juliet really convinced me in the end that she was worth the effort, eventually winning me over. It takes a skilled actress to convey the impetuosity of a hormonal teenager if not in real love, then in love with being in love itself, and I think Mariah Gale managed to convey this very well in a kind of bewildered, hair-chewing and moody way. I felt completely ambivalent about Sam Troughton’s Romeo for most of the evening, and that’s never a good sign. What was a really bad sign is that I thought Forbes Masson’s Friar Laurence completely lacking in any kind of authority - religious or academic - and found myself increasingly irritated by his bumptious jollity, his rather laissez-faire approach to religion and his forever bounding about the stage like a slightly podgy ginger Labrador anxious to please everyone. What this production needed was a still core about which the city of Verona whirled in turmoil, and not finding it in Friar Laurence, I found it in the unlikely form of Noma Dumezweni’s Nurse, who managed to convey a strong sense of “been there, seen it, done it”, which was a pleasure to watch.
I also enjoyed the central conceit of the production, in that Romeo and Juliet started out in modern dress, standing out nicely against everyone else who wore more or less “period-style” if not strictly period costume, This made them appear like ghosts from the future. At the end, both wore more or less period costume, with everyone else in modern clothes – to quote Tennyson’s The Princess “The present as we speak becomes the past. The past repeats itself and so is future”. What I would like to have seen done here was a more gradual slide from one period to the other in the costumes rather than an abrupt change. Practically all I remember of the first opera I ever saw (Verdi’s Falstaff, if you’re interested – bad choice of first opera to see, and which probably explains my ambivalence about opera to this day) was the way that all the characters started in 1930s dress, and on each successive appearance, their costumes became more and more Jacobean. I remember thinking at the time what a clever idea that was.
I was disappointed that, because of the “in the round” staging, much of the dialogue was lost through a combination of bad projection and bad acoustics. I was also rather disappointed that the opening idea wasn’t developed any further – Romeo listened to the opening “In fair Verona where we lay our scene” speech via a recorded narration on headphones, almost as if he were a modern day tourist seeing the sights of the city. Another clever production idea was to have a rose window lighting effect projected onto the floor, the design of which was exactly the same as the metal grating cover in the middle – love may raise us up to heaven but pull us downwards into hell. This Verona was not drenched in blazing sunlight but composed of torchlit alleyways and shadowy courtyards. It was particularly nice to see the “Balcony scene” done completely from Romeo’s point of view – the acting area was in total darkness lit only by the light streaming from the window above. When Romeo climbs the balcony and he and Juliet finally get some major snog-action going, the entire wall surrounding the window lights up with the kind of sunburst you get surrounding Christ in Renaissance paintings. This was the only time that daylight shone on Verona, which I think was meant to echo the line in the closing speech about “The sun, for sadness, will not show His head”. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise how clever the lighting was. It’s a pity that I came away not feeling as impressed with some of the performances – I still maintain that Romeo and Juliet is an incredibly difficult play to pull off successfully, and I don’t think the RSC have quite managed it yet, at least as far as I’m concerned. But then we all know how difficult to please I am.

What the critics thought:

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Nutcracker - ENB at the London Coliseum, Wednesday 18th December 2010

Clara – Fernanda Oliveira
Nutcracker Prince – Fabian Reimar
Drosselmeyer – Juan Rodriguez
His Nephew – James Forbat
Mouse King – Yat-Sen Chang

Creative Team:
Music: Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Wayne Eagling
Design – Peter Farmer
Lighting – David Richardson

Its not Christmas without The Nutcracker. Fortunately, English National Ballet have finally jettisoned the pile of crap they have been foisting on the public for the last however-many years (I reviewed it last year and a complete load of crud it was too). Their new production is far more traditional and far better, making the company look much better. Unfortunately, the choreography is still way below par (the big pas de deux in Act II is a complete lift from the Birmingham Royal Ballet production that I witter on about ad nauseum to anyone who will listen and Act II is still as dreary and uninspiring as it always is - the story always grinds to a complete halt and becomes a series of interminable divertissments; its time someone had the courage to jettison these at least partially and do a re-write). Even so, there were several moments when principals couldn’t cope very well with what they were given and simply looked uncomfortable.

It was, for me, a game of two halves (with kick-off enlivened by a slight spat with a woman in the row in front who had draped her fur coat over the back of her seat and who was clearly concerned that I was going to steal it. I countered her fussings and re-organisings with “Don’t worry madam, I’m not going to spit on your furs” (a change from my usual anti-fur comment of “Excuse me, there seems to be blood dripping from your coat, Madam”). “Oh”, she replied, managing to put about 8 vowels in the monosyllable, “it’s railly nylon!” (as if someone in a £65 seat is going to be wearing a nylon coat over her Yves St. Laurent suit. Yes, and I’m Little Noddy, madam.) Anyway, I digress.

Visually, Act 1 is really, really lovely visually. There are people skating on the frozen pond in front of the Stalhbaum’s house, and the sets and costumes are in lovely muted and “antique” browns, creams, dull pinks and creams with the occasional mint green or pale blue dress or ribbon setting everything off nicely. The whole party scene is set behind a gauze, giving a misty and slightly hazy look, as if lit by candlelight (although the Christmas tree is bedecked with red, yellow and green fairy lights, which is completely wrong for the mid to late 19th century). Uncle Drosselmeyer’s magic tricks are somewhat laboured however, and there’s a completely irrelevant puppet-show taking the place of the traditional harlequin and clown automata. The confusion is heightened when people dressed as characters from the puppet show start a long, complicated and unexplained section of dance which adds nothing to the story so far. The rest of the party dancing, however, is lovely to watch, and I was relieved that the faintly embarrassing “Grandma and Grandpa” dance is here changed to a pain and stiffness-de-quatre for the whole Stalhbaum family, which was a lot more dignified. The final sections of Act 1 were, in themselves, a game of two halves. The part in which the Christmas tree grows huge (or Clara shrinks) was a real disappointment – nothing in the room changed apart from the Grandfather clock (which I think grew bigger at the incorrect moment) and the tree itself was simply pulled up into the flies to make it look as if it had grown. The anachronistic fairy lights didn’t extend the entire length of the bigger tree and it was pulled up too far so you could see it was simply a bit of painted cloth. The mice, however, were wonderful –really scary – with eyes blazing from skeletal heads and dressed in tattered Jacobean ruffs, doublet and hose. I loved the idea of using a huge mousetrap to fire bits of cheese at the toy soldiers, although they only did this once and it seemed a bit wasted not to make more use of the idea. This is also the first production I’ve seen where the mice actually win – the toy soldiers are taken off in a cage and Clara and the injured Nutcracker escape by running out of the house into the snow, which makes for a completely logical change to the woods of the next scene. The snowstorm scene is, for me, the defining scene of Nutcracker – fail here and you lose me entirely, regardless of how wonderful the rest of the production may be. In this production, this scene is really rather workaday – not awful, but then not really anything very special. At least, however, the snowflakes didn’t jump out of the freezer as in ENB’s old production! That production suffered mightily at this point by completely failing to include the traditional off-stage children’s chorus (I thought I had gone deaf) so it was a relief to have it back. However, regardless of the fact that the Coliseum is an opera house, it was sung by the children from the company, and was at times painfully out of tune – less “aaaah, ahhhh, aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh” than “aaah augggh awwwwuggggggghhhh”. Perhaps they were trying to scare the mice away? I said to Him Indoors afterwards that they should have had a chorus of opera students, but this was dismissed out of hand with “There are no opera students that young”. “Well then, St. Martin’s in the Fields is just round the corner and ENB should have rented their choristers to do the job properly rather than have that load of caterwauling” I replied. This useful, practical and entirely appropriate suggestion was ignored, sad to say.

All the good ideas of Act I were completely thrown away in Act 2. What looked like it might be an interesting continuation of the story (the Nutcracker and Clara were followed to the Kingdom of Sweets by the Mouse King) went completely for nothing and fizzled out within 5 minutes, the dark green set was incredibly dreary  and underlit (although enlivened by part of the Stahlbaum’s parlour dropping in unexpectedly for about 18 bars and then disappearing just as rapidly as the stagehand responsible realised his mistake) and there was no Sugar Plum Fairy – simply Clara in a different costume. Boooooo! Cheeeeeap! The divertissments* were, as usual, uninspiring, boring or, occasionally, completely bewildering. There now follows a short intermission in order to explain the asterisk in the last sentence.

* Each dance in what is termed “The Nutcracker Suite” represents an expensive and festive foodstuff that Clara might be expected to find in her Christmas stocking. The Spanish Dance represents oranges, which in the 19th century and well into the early 20th century (i.e. before year-round-everything in supermarkets) were only seen in northern Europe as a Christmas treat, The Arabian Dance is coffee, the Chinese Dance is Tea. The Dance of the Myrlitons (commonly known to those of a certain age as “Everyone’s a fruit and nut-case”) is candy-cane flutes, the Russian Dance is “trepak” which is a kind of toffee-fudge, the Waltz of the Flowers is candied flower petals. The Kingdom of Sweets is, appropriately, ruled by the Sugar-Plum Fairy; remember the line from “The Night Before Christmas” when the children were sleeping “and visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads”? Well, plums were another traditional 19th century festive treat, which is why what we call Christmas Pudding is called Plum Pudding by Dickens and others. Who said that this blog wasn’t educational? And now back to your usual programme.

“Coffee” seemed to be a lecture on the evils of the slave trade as instead of generic Arabian Nights stuff, Clara rescued two slaves carrying sacks (possibly of coffee) from a bloke in baggy pants and his four harem girls. We had no candy canes but got the reappearance of the people who danced in front of the puppet show in Act 1, three of whom wore the same costumes as they had the first time round and one of whom who had changed her ballgown for something slightly skimpier. Their presence seemed completely unexplained until a huge net sprang out of the wings and flopped over the woman. This confirmed that she was, in fact, being a butterfly, but failed to explain why she was being a butterfly, why the three men from Act 1 were dancing with her or indeed exactly what the entire point of this bit was in any way. The Waltz of the Flowers looked rather under-rehearsed and thin – it should have been an “all hands on deck” moment but ENB’s very small corps looked completely marooned on the chilly expanses of the ENO house. Fernanda Oliviera did an OK job as Clara but when she took on the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy her shortcomings were cruelly exposed. But still, the evening is a darned sight better entertainment than the old production, for which I suppose I should be grateful

The journey home was enlivened by reading an incredibly pompous interview with the designer in the programme.

“When I first did Giselle, she was always in blue and I had great fights about it, but it was only the influence of Walt Disney. Now I notice that not all Giselle’s are in blue, so maybe I made some poor attempt to influence them”.
Well, Mr. Farmer, let me correct you there. Giselle traditionally wears a blue dress in the ballet of the same name, simply because the costume designer of the first ever production (1851)was madly in love with the dancer who created the role of Giselle; she apparently had stunning blue eyes and the costume was made to enhance these. The first Disney heroine to wear blue was Cinderella, which was made in this film had no influence on the blue costume traditionally worn by Giselle in the ballet. Many modern Giselle’s still wear blue. Some don’t – and I doubt that you’ve had any influence on this at all.

What the reviews said:


Sunday, 5 December 2010

Cinderella - Sadler's Wells - Saturday 4th December 2010


London, 1940. Cinderella’s home is over-run by her new step-mother and her loud, obnoxious family. There is never a moment’s peace for her and her invalid father. When invitations arrive to a New Year’s Eve party, to which neither Cinderella or her father are invited, the uproar is louder than ever. During an air-raid, an injured pilot seeks shelter in the house, but is thrown out by the stepmother when he takes an interest in Cinderella. With the family gone to the party, Cinderella dances with a tailor’s dummy, pretending it is her handsome airman. Seeing that he has left his cap behind, she braves the streets in search of him to return it, watched over by a Guardian Angel. A bomb drops nearby, and Cinderella is thrown to the ground, losing consciousness. In her dreams, the Angel provides her with an invitation and safe transport to the party, which she is told that she must leave before midnight, along with a beautiful dress to wear.
The bomb has devastated the ballroom, killing the revellers. In Cinderella’s dream, however, all is well, and she arrives at the ball to find her airman waiting for her. They dance, but he loses her in the crowd and is cornered by the stepmother. He escapes and takes Cinderella home to his lodgings. She returns to the party, but midnight strikes and reality floods back. The building collapses and Cinderella is taken away to hospital on a stretcher, leaving only a single shoe behind her.
The airman scours the streets of war-torn London looking for the girl at the party, becoming obsessed with finding her. He is sent to the hospital for electric shock therapy, where he is reunited with Cinderella. The stepmother and her children visit the hospital and the stepmother makes an attempt to smother Cinderella with a pillow. She is discovered and led away to be arrested. The airman proposes marriage to Cinderella, who accepts.
At Paddington Station, the airman boards a train to return to his unit. Cinderella fears for his safety and asks the Angel to watch over him. The Angel climbs aboard the train and promises to bring the airman back to her safely. There is a puff of smoke and the train pulls away from the station.
Cinderella: Kerry Biggin
The airman: Sam Archer
The Angel: Christopher Marney
The Stepmother: Michaela Meazza

Creative Team:
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Sound: Paul Groothius
Set and Costume Design: Lez Brotherston
I saw this production some 14 years ago when it was first launched, and was so excited when I heard it was finally returning. It was interesting to see whether it matched up to my memories and on the whole, I was very pleased to find that it did. Bourne has made several minor changes to the story – gone is the Prologue which shows Cinderella’s family before the arrival of the stepmother and there is a slight tweak to the ending (in the old version, the airman leaves to rejoin his unit and the Angel goes with him, promising to keep him safe. In the new, the airman and Cinderella leave together on the train and the Angel remains behind, instigating the start of the romance from “Brief Encounter”). Neither of these changes is an improvement; the jettisoned prologue allowed you to contrast Cinderella’s life before and after her mother’s death, and the new ending makes no sense whatsoever, leaving a far less emotionally satisfying and complete story. Change it back, Bourne, change it back!
I have a couple of issues with Bourne’s choreography. First is that he crowds the stage with movement and incident, making it very easy to miss important bits of the story if your eye is caught by something else happening on stage. When there is so much going on, details and vignettes go unnoticed and therefore unappreciated. When your story is as clever as this, it would repay tighter focus on the important bits – and also on the humour, of which there is lots. The second is that this is by no means “ballet”; its “dance” and some of it is very ugly indeed. Bodylines and angles are generally sharp, unnatural and awkward, and consequently unpleasant to look at. I would have liked to have seen a lot more classical choreography. I’d also like to have seen a lot more of the principals – whoever was operating the follow spot last night kept it far too tight, meaning that for much of the show, you couldn’t seen the principals’ legs or feet. This is a bit of a bummer when watching dance! Him Indoors pointed out that the quality of Ms. Biggin’s dancing was far superior to that of her partner, who had obviously partly been cast for his looks rather than his ability.
The entire production, however, retains its wonderful filmic quality and there is much fun to be had from spotting incidental details. I loved the seamless break between Cinderella disappearing behind the curtain dancing with a tailor’s dummy and reappearing on the other side with a real man. When Cinderella runs out of the house into the night, she goes through the front door (did you notice her door number was 12?) and pulls it closed behind her. It then immediately swivels on a central axis and we find ourselves outside the house with Cinderella still in the process of coming through it, exactly like a film shot. Just before Cinderella’s arrival at the ball, mist flows down the staircase and the banisters light up, which is a lovely, magical touch. On her visit to the hospital - Ward 12, naturally - the stepmother’s hat is in the shape of an upturned shoe (you can see this very clearly in the attached YouTube clip). There is a nice salute to the Ashton choreography here, with the stepmother and her family doing the same steps as Ashton’s Ugly Sisters and the train leaves Paddington from Platform 12. A lovely touch is that, as it pulls out, the hands of the station clock point to 2 past 12). In a sublime reversal of film tradition, both Cinderella and her airman wear glasses, lose them, fail to recognise each other and only fall in love when both pairs of glasses are returned to their owners. Genius. Its also nice to see a stepmother you can really, really hate! Catch this production while you can (its running until 23rd January 2011) because its completely fresh, highly enjoyable and a wonderful reworking of the Cinderella story. It took me a while to “get back into it” - my “eye” was out for most of the first act and only started coming back “in” during act 2 – but I hope it remains a part of the repertoire.
So it was a real shame that the bars at Sadler’s Wells sell little pots of unshelled pistachio nuts and allow the audience to take these into the auditorium, as the constant cracking of these led to one of the most unpleasant incidents I have ever experienced in a theatre. The couple concerned were drunk, noisy and quite the most ill-mannered, rude and uncouth people it has ever been my misfortune to sit next to. I’m writing to Sadler’s Wells – its ultimately their fault for selling the nuts in the first place – asking them to take some kind of action against these louts (their seat numbers were Q6 and Q7). It’s the closest I’ve ever come to decking someone in public and I apologise to my companions that they had to witness such atrocious behaviour. To the couple concerned: If you bought your tickets through the theatre then they will be contacting you. If you bought them through TicketMaster, I have contacts within that company which I will not fail to exploit. I’m on your trail and you’d better be out of here by midnight because this pumpkin is loaded and I’m not afraid to use it.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Season's Greetings, National Theatre, Thursday 2nd December 2010


It is Christmas at Belinda and Neville’s house and they have invited their family and a couple of friends for a traditional Christmas celebration. The guests include: Neville’s exhausted sister Phyllis; her husband Bernard, a doctor whose annual puppet shows are the stuff of legend and terror to both young and old alike; Neville’s friend Eddie and his pregnant wife Pattie; uncle Harvey, a slightly senile retired security guard and television-addict; Belinda’s unmarried sister, Rachel; Clive, a writer and friend of Rachel. Like every family Christmas, tensions are running high. Belinda and Neville’s marriage seems to be on the rocks, Phyllis is creating havoc in the kitchen by insisting on cooking the entire Christmas Eve dinner single-handed, Harvey is monopolizing the TV, Pattie is blaming Neville for not having promoted her husband and Rachel hasn’t had sex in months.

Clive’s train is late, is missed at the station by Rachel, and he is instead welcomed by Belinda, who is immediately attracted to him. Harvey, as a result of a misunderstanding, takes an immediate dislike to Clive, believing him to be a homosexual and prospective thief. Clive falls for the frustrated Belinda after Rachel tells him she is looking for no more than friendship. He and Belinda attempt to fulfill their passions beneath the Christmas tree, but are discovered when they set off the various electronic toys and lights beneath the tree in, initially, their lust and then their desperate attempts to turn everything off.

On Boxing Day, Clive arranges to leave as soon as he can. Meanwhile, rehearsals are taking place for Bernard’s puppet show The Three Little Pigs, all his efforts being undermined by Harvey. Bernard eventually snaps and tirades against Harvey. Very early the following morning, Clive, in the process of leaving, is intercepted by Harvey who believes he is a thief taking all the presents. Harvey promptly shoots Clive, who is pronounced dead by the ineffectual Bernard. The ‘corpse’ promptly lets out a moan and calls for Belinda, rather than Rachel. He is taken to hospital and Belinda and Neville are left together, Neville choosing to ignore all that has happened.  Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Neville Bunker – Neil Stuke
Belinda, his wife – Catherine Tate
Phyllis, his sister – Jenna Russell
Bernard, her husband – Mark Gatiss
Rachel, Belinda’s sister – Nicola Walker
Harvey, Neville’s uncle – David Troughton
Eddie – Marc Wooton
Pattie, his wife – Katherine Parkinson
Clive – Oliver Chris

Creative Team:
Written by – Alan Ayckbourn
Director – Marianne Elliott
Designer – Rae Smith
Lighting- Bruno Poet
Music – Stephen Warbeck

I actually wanted to go and see Cinderella, it being my birthday and all. You know, birthdays – the one time of the year when people actually ask you what you would like to see. But instead, Him Indoors calmly announced that he’d bought tickets for Season’s Greetings instead. So, feeling old and crotchety, I was dragged off through the snow and ice to see a play by a writer whose work I find unremittingly grim (not for nothing was the working title of this play In the Bleak Midwinter) and who, in my blinkered view, runs Tennessee Williams and Harold Pinter a close third for the title of “Dirge master”. In fact, halfway down the stairs at the National afterwards, I turned to Him Indoors and said “Do you think people will come and see this just because Catherine Tate’s in it?” Him Indoors (Left Ear Finalist, World Ear Wax Championships) didn’t hear me and instead I got an answer from the bloke going down the stairs in front of me, who turned and said “Why else would you come and see it?” Pretty good question, actually. Several possible responses flashed through my mind, including “Oh, someone’s obviously a big fan”, “Some of us didn’t get given the choice” and “What do you think you look like in that jacket?” but the one that popped out of my mouth was “Certainly not to go home afterwards feeling jolly, that’s for sure”. Because by ‘eck (as they say in Scarborough), not far under the glittery surface of Season’s Greetings there is a dreadfully bleak story. To use a meteorological metaphor, its just like a patch of black ice lurking underneath the pretty dusting of snow onto which you are about to plant your boot. And it’s a story that we can all relate to – The Awful Christmas. Which I suppose is why on the surface, this play is very funny, because to a greater or lesser extent, we’ve all been there. We can all tell stories, hilarious in retrospect, about The Christmas From Hell (in fact, to get things going, I want everyone who reads this review to leave a comment on the subject of “The Worst Christmas Present I Ever Received” or, if you really want to examine your conscience,” The Worst Christmas Present I Ever Gave”).

Once again, the National’s “Build an Entire House On Stage” team had been hard at work, faithfully recreating the ground and first floors (as well as tiny attic) of an enormous “We’re loaded and we want you to know it” home, yet the first floor and attic went almost entirely unused. The action of the play takes place exclusively on the ground floor, but I’m sure that there were directorial possibilities for the rest of the house – I bet you, dear Reader, have had an “Awkward Encounter on the Landing” at one point in your life that you would like to tell us about, or even an “I’ve Tapped Quietly On the Wrong Bedroom Door” moment. (names will be changed to protect the guilty, if necessary). There were some excellent performances, and a few quite ropey ones. I thought that Catherine Tate was remarkably restrained in the role of Belinda compared to how she might possibly have played the part – there was a lot less flailing around and mugging than I expected, and I have to say that I was impressed by her obvious talent for physical comedy, even though you all know that I absolutely loathe and detest farce. What did impress me was that at one point her character gets the line “I’m not bothered” and she didn’t do what everyone in the audience was expecting her to do. I enjoyed Jenna Russell’s Phyllis and Mark Gatiss’s Bernard immensely, but thought very little of Katherine Parkinson’s Pattie, mainly because I couldn’t hear very much of what she said, but also because I thought the way she moved bore little resemblance to how a heavily pregnant woman would actually do so. Costumes were OK on the whole, but I thought that they didn’t show nearly enough of the 80’s fashion excess that we all now find so excruciating. We all laughed at the bits in the script that we could relate to, but most of the audience would have laughed so much harder if they’d been given the chance to cringe in shamed recognition of jogging tops with shoulder pads in or novelty legwarmers (you know who you are!). Yes, there was a Snowman Jumper that bore a remarkable resemblance to one in Bennetton that I pined for as a young fashion victim but (thankfully in retrospect) never got, but one item of comedy knitwear does not an 80’s farce make. More comedy knitwear please!

Of course, the biggest laughs come from recognition and everyone practically piddled themselves when the line “Snow never comes at the right time, does it?” was delivered. It’s a crying shame that nobody piddled themselves over the Managing Director of Southeastern Trains. Because that really WOULD have been funny.

What the critics thought:

(This was a preview performance, pro reviews in a week or so)

Friday, 12 November 2010

Dracula - Sell A Door Theatre Company @ Greenwich Playhouse, Thursday 11th November 2010


Jonathan Harker is a solicitor’s clerk who travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania in order to finalise the purchase of Carfax Abbey for the mysterious Count. Harker discovers that Dracula is, in fact, an ancient Vampire. He is imprisoned in the castle and, to his horror, Dracula sets off for England. Dracula’s entourage is a consignment of wooden boxes filled with earth from the family graveyard. Under cover of a torrential storm, the Count arrives in England. . During his journey, he has terrified and killed the entire crew of the ship. He inflicts his powers on the voluptuous and flirtatious Lucy Westerman whose sister is Harker’s fiancĂ©e Mina.

Lucy’s lover Dr Seward and Harker try desperately to protect her but she is turned into one of the undead., preying on local children. Their efforts to save her soul are masterminded by the eminent Professor Van Helsing. Her reign is finally thwarted when Seward drives a stake through her heart.

Dracula preys on Mina, who married Harker on his escape from Transylvania. Meanwhile, Renfield, an inmate of the lunatic asylum and a former victim of Count Dracula, is affected by the presence of Count Dracula, whom he refers to as ‘the master’. Dracula is aware that the vampire hunters are close on his tail and a dramatic chase commences as he flees back to his castle in Transylvania. Eventually, Jonathon has the opportunity to decapitate him and completes the execution by driving a stake through his heart. Jonathon and Mina are reunited and the curse is destroyed.

Mina: Laura Blackmore
Lucy: Daisy Burns
Jonathan Harker: Matthew Grace
Renfield: Kieran Hennigan
Florrie: Sophie Holland
Nurse: Louise Ann Munro
Dracula: Louis Parker
Van Helsing: Alexander Pritchett
Dr. Seward: Ellis Wells
Creative Team:
Producers: David Hutchinson/Phillip Rowntree
Director: David Hutchinson
Movement: Carl Vorwerk
Lighting: Robert Gooch
Designer: Adrian Gee

Dear Sell A Door Theatre Company

Dracula is a difficult play to pull off successfully. It has multiple locations, both familiar and fantastic. It requires a healthy scepticism for literalism. It needs startling and creepy effects, atmosphere in bucket-loads and period-specific costumes. Basically, you need to be able to throw shedloads of money at it. If you can’t do this, you are left with two options – to completely reinvent it or to pick another play. Unfortunately you did neither. Admittedly Liz Lockhead’s plodding, wordy and anachronism-heavy adaptation of Stoker’s novel (Edwardians wouldn’t have been familiar with the phrase “annual leave”, measure medicines in milligrams or refer to photographs as “snaps”) does you no favours whatsoever. It gets bogged down in its attempt to follow the novel too closely, and makes for a very long performance. Where the text is very wordy, it should be trimmed to give a tighter story and a more acceptable running time, rather than gabble it at such high speed that it becomes unintelligible. Where the text includes period terms such as “antimacassar” and “sal volatile” you should learn how to pronounce them correctly.

When you cannot run to period costumes, it is better to do without them completely and re-invent the look of the production to fit your budget, (perhaps using the “New Romantic” look of the late 1980s which drew heavily on the ruffled, lacy and gothic styles of the late Edwardian period) than resort to a strange rag-bag of shockingly tatty odds and ends. Trousers had ragged hems which flapped above the ankles, jackets had split back seams and bustled skirts ended above the knees in front and dragged on the floor behind, showing bare legs. Even a pair of black tights underneath would have improved on this immeasurably. Hollywood can get away with putting Van Helsing in a Drizabone raincoat, but not Greenwich. A simple black dress with a white apron over it says “ladies’ maid” ” if topped with a small frilly cap placed over neatly parted hair, whereas a modern “pencil” skirt, high-heeled ankle boots and long uncombed hair do not. Period hairstyles are difficult to recreate, particularly for women, but can be approximated with the use of a set of heated tongs, a set of curlers and a bit of research. It is not acceptable for actors playing Edwardian vampire-hunters to have a quiff or for those playing doctors not to at least brush their hair into a parting and use some hairspray or gel on it.

Considerable thought must be given to special effects when presenting the supernatural. Where you have neither the budget nor the imagination to provide these, then it is best to choose a play which does not require them, although the use of showers of rose petals to represent blood does at least suggest that someone had at least one good ideas. Recordings of sound-effects such as the howling of wolves are easily obtainable on CD to prevent having people standing in the wings going “Ow oww owwwwww!” which is, frankly, only acceptable in nursery-school productions.

Where “period specific” props such as Edwardian typewriters or “watch the birdie” cameras are mentioned in the text, it is probably a good idea to adapt the text to make their use unnecessary, as they are expensive to obtain or difficult to mock-up convincingly. Where the text refers to a gas lamp, it is better to change the text and use a candlestick than have a lamp-base which looks right for the period but which has no shade as it will simply look like someone has dropped it half an hour before the start of the play and been unable to obtain a replacement shade.

Much depends on your casting. When casting a late Edwardian doctor, it is not appropriate to cast someone who appears through his demeanour and body language to be apologising for his very presence on the stage, seemingly wearing an invisible dufflecoat for the entire evening. Neither is it advisable to have someone portray a Psychiatric Nurse as Catherine Tate as your audience will not find this remotely amusing. The role of Lucy must be given to someone who can act, and who considers it more important to give priority in their programme biography to the roles they played in Romeo and Juliet and The Secret Garden than to that of “Buster” in something called Lesbian Bathhouse. The part of Renfield does not leave much space for character development as he is a lunatic who spends the entire evening gibbering incoherently and it therefore a waste of talent to give this part to an obviously talented actor who would be far better used in the important role of Jonathan Harker. It is, however, entirely acceptable to cast someone with a gorgeous, chocolatey speaking voice in the pivotal role of the sexually ambivalent Count Dracula, particularly when he has the kind of hair you would like to run your fingers through as he drains your lifeblood out through your jugular vein. Thought however should be given to the advisability of making him speak in a “Transylvanian accent” as, to many people, this now bears a remarkable resemblance to that which is used in the “Compare the Meerkat” ads for insurance, and which may cause some reviewers to cough loudly throughout the performance in order to stifle incipient giggling attacks.

It is unwise to splash out money on flash programmes when this money could have been spent on better and more imaginative staging and costumes. Likewise it is cute but possibly financially inadvisable to buy nibbles for your audience to consume during the interval, particularly when the latter consists of carrot sticks, M&S mini-doughnuts and what I think were scotch eggs because I don’t like them. When one is performing in a theatre attached to a pub which can reasonably be expected to sell alcohol in the interval, thus saving you money and earning it for your hosts, it is not necessary to provide freebie drinks.

Finally, when inviting people who write theatre blogs to see your production, be aware that you may be letting yourself in for a frank and direct review. You should note that the contents of this review may change considerably should your Vampire care to review my jugular vein.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Or You Could Kiss Me - National Theatre, Saturday 1st November 2010


In the winter of 2036, in a shabby apartment in Port Elizabeth, two old men search for a way to say goodbye after a lifetime spent together. In the perfect summer of 1971, in a very different South Africa, their handsome younger selves search for the courage to fall in love. And poised halfway between these two stories – one imagined, one remembered – their real-life counterparts bear witness to both the beginning and the ending of an incredible journey

Cast:/Puppet operators:
Adjon Andoh
Basil Jones
Finn Caldwell
Adrian Kohler
Craig Leo
Tommy Luther
Mervyn Miller
Marcus Tilt

Creative team:
Director : Neil Bartlett
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Music: Marcus Tilt
Puppet design: Adrian Kohler

Lets face it – most of the audience were there to see the puppets. OK, all of the audience were there to see the puppets. . Most of them had probably seen War Horse. OK, all of them had seen War Horse. I think most of them were disappointed. OK, all of ….. well, I know I was. And after about an hour, I was thinking “Frankly, I’ve had enough of this”. And so, judging by the enormous amount of fidgeting going on, I think everyone else had as well. And so Handspring Puppet Company cynically played their ace card – a puppet dog. I say cynically because, up to this point, the dog has only been heard and imagined, not seen. The audience immediately perked up, stopped concentrating on the play and zeroed in on the dog. I’ve said it before (stop me if you’ve heard this one) that you can put on a fantastic, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza and the audience will enjoy it. Put a live animal into it and the audience will go beserk. It appears to work with puppet shows as well. Put on an experimental and extremely gloomy play about a difficult subject but make the main human characters puppets. And then put a puppet dog on the stage and your audience will love you. And your play.

I think Handspring have seriously misjudged their audience here. Sure, they don’t want to get pigeonholed into doing cutesy plays about farmyard animals but this is what their audience are waiting for, so they should have gone with something like Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty or maybe Charlotte’s Web. I’d have gone been head of the ticket queue for all three – and cried buckets at the end of the last two. War Horse was such a roaring success because it gave the public something they couldn’t normally have seen on stage. But, apart from the puppet dog, you could have done Or You Could Kiss Me with a cast of humans and nobody would have batted an eyelid. In fact, I predict that if the author wrote out the puppets he could sell his script to every drama school in the land and have it performed by angst-ridden teenagers dressed entirely in black at the Edinburgh Festival on a more or less annual basis. It was all a bit too self-consciously clever-clever and experimental for my tastes – and certainly not what I wanted to see. I wanted a puppet horse winning the Derby for its blind owner whose parents were killed in a car crash when he was five (or so he thinks…..) and whose evil landlord is about to foreclose on the farm - “Gee, Blackie. I sure am gonna miss this place. Look at that sunset. Shame about not being able to see the ducklings hatch next week. Unless, of course, you overcome all the odds, a major personal romantic crisis and that gammy leg – which you injured rescuing me from the abandoned well on the old Tucker place - and win the Derby tomorrow in front of Sally who can’t afford to leave her job at the restaurant and marry me” (cue music from Chariots of Fire and cut to Sally in the crowd at the racecourse selling her last pillowcase and putting the money on Blackie to win at 300:1 just before the starting gun). Now THAT’S a puppet show. Not the problems of two old South African men coping with the hospitalisation of one of them while remembering the golden summer when they were teenagers and first met on the beach while the rain pours down and the cleaner fields telephone calls from angry solicitors.

Having the teenagers and old men represented by puppets and their middle-aged selves by live actors was a decent idea, but not when both actors were bland and essentially unsympathetically portrayed. And having everyone dressed in black and constantly delivering their dialogue into handheld microphones while reacting to messages crackling out of an old answering machine was just so Sixth Form DramaSoc that I lost both my patience and all feeling in my right buttock. Never have an hour and 35 minutes passed so slowly (and with no interval – what is it with directors that nothing has an interval these days?) It all felt so god-dammed worthy and right on and it irritated the hell out of me when I wanted an essentially daft but heart-warming story with a friggin’ puppet horse in it. Give me what I want and I will love you for it and sing your praises in my review. Or, of course, You Could Kiss Me and I’ll leave the theatre unfulfilled and grumpy.

What the critics thought:

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Hamlet - National Theatre, Saturday 2nd October 2010

Hamlet maunders on and for quite a long time.  Most of the characters are dead by the end.


Hamlet: Rory Kinear
Ghost of Hamlet’s Father: James Laurenson
Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle: Patrick Malahide
Gertrude, Queen of Demark and Hamlet’s mother: Clare Higgins
Horatio, friend of Hamlet: Giles Tererra
Polonius, Chief Minister: David Calder
Laertes, his son: Alex Lanipekun
Ophelia, his daughter: Ruth Negga
Fortinbras: Prince of Norway: Jake Fairbrother
Rosencrantz: Ferdinand Kingsley
Guildernstern: Praswanna Puwanarajah

Creative Team:
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Jon Clarke
Fight Director: Kate Walters

An open letter to Nicholas Hytner after a preview performance
Dear Nick
Because it was pissing down in stair-rods last night, it was a pleasure to be safely ensconced in Seat 17B last night (we note that Seat 2B is on permanent reserve for the West End Whingers during the run of this show so that they can make witty remarks about it). However, this is the only reason it was a pleasure to be in your chilly, over-airconditioned auditorium for nearly 3 ¾ hours; I would rather go and stand out in the rain than sit through this production of Hamlet again. Thankfully, the seat’s arms had not been taken to fight against a sea of troubles or I would have fallen out of it as I dozed fitfully in the freezing darkness – perhaps you were trying to recreate the frozen wastes of Denmark? Sitting there I began to think that this production was a big, fat, frozen waste of my time, when I could have been at home with a bowl of soup and Strictly Come Dancing.
The question I would like to ask is “Do we really need another black and white, modern dress production of Hamlet? Perhaps you saw the David Tennant version last year and decided to recreate the experience for those of us who couldn’t get a ticket in the hysteria?” Honestly, Nick, the paying public are getting really, really fed up with modern dress productions of period plays – they’re so old hat. Oh, how we long for the occasional farthingale and elegantly pleated ruff. Even a rough old ruff would be a nice change. And if you are going to spend an outrageous fortune on suits, fatigues and cocktail frocks, how about a bit of colour for once? This black-and-white palate may have been avant garde for ENO’s Mikado 20 years or so ago, but its getting very dreary, particularly when your set is heavier on the pale than Procul Harum. In a word, sweetie – its sterile. About as visually interesting as Ed Milliband. Give the audience something to look at as they wait for the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. Him Indoors got quite agitated in the interval – apparently even opera directors are realising that audiences have had enough and going back to traditional, period productions. And how about ditching the “we all live in a surveillance society” theme with stage-managed TV broadcasts and guards looking ominous in shades and ear-pieces for once? You can hear their agents now: “Dharling how are you? Listen love, the National want you for their Hamlet. No, not actually Hamlet, couldn’t swing that one. They want you to play “Guard”. You’ll get 3 short lines in Act 1 and then the next 3 ½ hours is just standing around in a dark grey suit wearing shades and an ear-piece and looking ominous. You said on your CV that you could do “ominous”, didn’t you? Yes, perhaps a little tedious, love, but you can at least hook the ear-piece up to your iPod and catch up on The Archers. Fabulous, dharling. Can you provide a dark grey suit? Fabulous. Must dash, New York’s holding on the other line. Ciao!”
While we’re on the subject, how about getting some decent actors? Ones who can project. Failing that, ones who can actually speak coherently and don’t mutter or gabble. Projection and coherence would be nice, but we know we can’t have everything. One would have thought that an actress of the standing of Clare Higgins would have made a better go of Gertrude and played it with a little more panache. Ms. Higgins is strident and unfocussed, lacking only a trail of cigarette ash down her front to resemble a drunken fishwife from Eastenders. We had to strain to hear Giles Terera’s Horatio and we really think you should do something about your Ophelia. Yes, we know that you subscribe to the fashionable “colour-blind casting” theory but its embarrassing for all of us when another character refers to her “milky-white bosom” when the lady in question is…erm…. Definitely Not Milky White. Did you run out of money during casting? Is this why Polonius, having been stabbed behind an incredibly tatty curtain, turned up again at the end as the Gravedigger? Or was this a comment about reincarnation? Were you hoping to bring the audiences’ interest back from the dead? Thank goodness you could afford Rory Kinnear, because a lot of the time he was relatively OK.

Can we have a synopsis in the programme at some point? We notice that none of your productions have this any more, and some of us would like to know what is going to be happening during the next 3 ¾ hours so that we can schedule a nap during any potentially boring bits. You know, like the many bits where Hamlet maunders on about dreary, introspective stuff? Can we have the heating on instead of the air-conditioning? Its October and its pissing down outside. Can we have cough sweets given out free like they have at the Royal Opera House, because last night it was like sitting in a TB ward. A woman down in the stalls practically coughed up a lung at one point. She was the one sitting behind the large, blonde woman wearing the bright red jacket in the side section of the front row. The one who was so well lit up all the time. You must have seen her – everyone else in the auditorium did. Wasn’t it a shame that she fell very visibly asleep so early on in the evening?

And for chrissakes can you find that idiot whose mobile went off just after Hamlet croaked “The rest is silence” before being drowned out by DiddleDeeeDeeDiddleDeeDee Dummmm…… and ban him from the National? For Ever?

Yours sincerely

Not The West End Whingers

Monday, 20 September 2010

Passion - Donmar Theatre, Monday 13th September 2010


Italy, 1863.Giorgio, a young soldier, is bidding farewell to his mistress, Clara. He is to join his new regiment in the outposts of northern Italy . She, already being married, cannot accompany him, but they agree to write to each other regularly. Giorgio is a man going places; he has the confidence of his commanding officer, Colonel Ricci and is well-liked by his fellow officers.

Doctor Tambourri, the regimental doctor, is caring for a special patient, Fosca, the cousin of the garrison commander. She is ugly, ungainly and a recluse, seeking seclusion in books, which are her only passion and which are in short supply in the garrison. Giorgio lends her some of his. He is somewhat a dreamer but Fosca craves intellectual stimulus, and though frail and with an illness that manifests itself in hysterical convulsions, she clings to him.

In letters, Clara warns Giorgio to keep Fosca at arm's length but she becomes increasingly dependent on him, passing him surreptitious notes. Giorgio, realising the deep involvement Fosca has with him, asks for leave which is reluctantly granted. As he departs, Fosca asks him to write to her. When she finds out that Clara is already married, she becomes even more of a recluse shunning all contact with anyone except the doctor, who believes that her condition will only improve if, and when, Giorgio returns. When he does, Fosca dictates a letter that turns out to be a love letter from her to him.

Colonel Ricci tells Giorgio about Fosca's marriage to a worthless count, whose profligate ways and harsh treatment made her ill and left her penniless. They visit an overgrown garden and are caught in a rainstorm which affects Fosca so much that she faints and has to be carried back to camp by Giorgio. He too falls ill and is granted sick leave to recuperate in Milan. Fosca follows him to the train which will take him away from her. He begs her to give him up and return to the camp where she can receive medical attention.

Clara, meanwhile, has made a decision; she will stay with her husband and bring up her family - the affair with Giorgio is over.

Back at the camp, a transfer notice organised by the doctor arrives for Giorgio. This devastates Fosca who once again repairs to her room in much distress. The colonel discovers the love-letter, written by Giorgio although dictated by Fosca, and challenges him to a duel. That night Giorgio visits Fosca's room and acknowledges his love for her. The following morning, both he and the colonel are injured in the duel.. Months later a letter from the doctor informs Giorgio of Fosca's death just three days after the duel - which she knew nothing about. Having lost both the women who loved him, he is alone.
Clara: Scarlett Strallen
Giorgio: David Thaxton
Colonel Ricci: David Birrel
Lt. Torasso: Simon Bailey
Dr. Tambouri: Allun Corduner
Sgt. Lombardi: Hadyn Oakley
Lt. Barri: Ross Dawes
Major Rizzoli: Tim Morgan
Pvt. Augenti: Iwan Lewis
Signora Fosca: Elena Roger
Creative Team:
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Neil Austin
Choreography: Scott Ambler
Passion is not Sondheim’s most immediately accessible work, there are some (initially) unsympathetic characters, and there’s not a lot that’s hummable from the score for the walk back to the station afterwards. Its all too easy to get it all wrong, particularly when its on a relatively small scale. But in this production, everything is very well judged and done with just the right amount of reserve, so that later in the show when stops need to be pulled out a bit, there’s room to spare for the full histrionics to come to the fore (things do get a bit – well – operatic towards the end). Indeed, the character who banged his chair down just that bit too emphatically in one of the opening scenes probably learned his lesson as the entire back came off and there followed a few sticky moments during which he struggled to regain his hold on both his composure and his furniture. As the chair had to remain on stage for several minutes afterwards, the audience – or possibly just me - then had a great deal of pleasure watching various people sit on said chair and wondering if they were going to fall off it. Alas no – a quick slop of wood glue and the application of a rubber hammer to the joints backstage and all seemed to be well.

Summer Strallen looked ravishing (both in and out of her crinolines), like a cross between Anna Leonowens and a Botticelli angel, but it was difficult to imagine her falling for David Thaxton’s rather anaemic Giorgio. Somehow, he seemed just that bit too dull and ordinary to inspire Clara’s passion. Elena Roger, however, proceeded to wipe not just the floor but the walls and the ceiling as well with both of them as the embittered and ugly Fosca. Although standing at least a head shorter than anyone else in the cast, she wrestled with the inherent absurdity of her role like a prize-fighter and quickly subdued any misgivings that the audience might have had about how this ugly duckling could possibly tempt her prize away from Strallen’s gorgeous swan. In the bar beforehand, I’d said to a fellow audience member who had never seen the show before that, if she wasn’t in tears by the end, it meant that she had no soul; fortunately for me, there were several points when my own eyes began to prickle as the story reached a climax – although personally I could have done without the thunderstorm at this point.. Having had my English Literature teacher drum into my head constantly that “thunderstorms are a device which indicate a breakdown in society or relationships” (Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy are full of them), and having endured many operas with Him Indoors in which dramatic moments are underscored by someone backstage rattling a metal sheet like buggery while rapidly flicking switches on the lighting desk (Rossini never wrote anything that didn’t contain at least one Force 8 gale), I’m now on constant “Thunderstorm alert” at the theatre, rather like a taller and prettier version of Michael Fish, and I find them hackneyed and rather OTT.
This was a preview performance and I hope that the professional critics will give this revival all the plaudits and superlatives it well deserves.
Full marks to the set designer for clever use of the restricted space – a wall pierced with three arches and covered in crumbling frescoes of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; I spotted Leda and the Swan, Daphne and Apollo and (possibly) Diana and Acteon, subtly and cleverly highlighting not only the gradual crumbling away of the three central characters’ happiness, but also the idea that love given or received is capable of transforming even the ugliest duckling into something beautiful. Clever also was the incorporation of the Donmar’s upper balcony into the set design. Not so clever were the two idiots sitting next to me who sat cackling like a pair of ugly and demented ducklings through all the dramatic bits near the end and ruining things for those sitting around them. I shot one of them with a pointed comment in the hope that they might transform into adults who know how to conduct themselves at the theatre. But I don’t hold out much hope. Some ugly ducklings merely become big, ugly, noisy ducks.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Into the Woods - Open Air Theatre @ Regent's Park, Thursday 2nd September 2010

When a Baker and his wife learn they've been cursed with childlessness by the Witch next door, they embark on a quest for the special objects required to break the spell - a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold- variously swindling, lying to and stealing from Cinderella (attending the Royal Ball wearing the slipper) Little Red Riding Hood (wearing a cape as red as blood), Rapunzel (who has hair as yellow as corn) and Jack (who has exchanged his white cow for a sack of magic beans). By the end of act 1, the spell has been lifted and everyone seems happy - the baker's wife is expecting a child, Cinderella has married her Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Granny have been rescued from the wolf and Jack has killed the giant and solved his mother's financial problems with the aid of a stolen hen which lays golden eggs. Even the witch is now young and beautiful, having been cursed with age and ugliness in return for losing the magic beans from her garden and locking Rapunzel up in a doorless tower - but the consequences of everyone's actions return to haunt them later, with disastrous results.
The baker doesn't cope well with fatherhood, Cinderella discovers that her Prince is a serial womaniser, Rapunzel loses her sanity after being locked up for so long, the Witch has lost her magical powers, Red Riding Hood has lost her childish innocence and trust of strangers and the Giant's wife comes to take her revenge on Jack. The narrator of the story becomes embroiled in the plot itself as it shakes free from convention and starts to spiral wildly out of his control. Lives are lost before the survivors realize that they have to act together in order to overcome the problems they created by wishing. In fact, it becomes obvious that "Happy Ever After" isn't where the story ends, but only where the problems really start.
Narrator: Ethan Beer/Eddie Manning/Joshua Swinney

Cinderella: Helen Dallimore
Jack: Ben Stott
Baker: Mark Hadfield
Baker’s wife: Jenna Russell
Stepmother: Gaye Brown
Stepsisters: Amy Richardson and Amy Griffiths
Jack’s mother: Marilyn Cutts
Little Red Riding Hood: Beverley Rudd
Witch: Hannah Waddington
Mysterious Man: Billy Boyle
Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Michael Xavier
Rapunzel: Alice Fearn
Rapunzel’s Prince: Simon Thomas
Voice of the Giantess: Judi Dench

Creative Team:
Book: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Timothy Sheader
Movement: Liam Steel
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Puppet Designer: Rachael Canning

You can hide in the woods, certainly. But you can’t hide in Into the Woods – this is very much an ensemble piece and shortcomings can be brutally exposed. Just like the ingredients bubbling away in a cauldron, occasionally something appears which brings delight, sometimes its wiser not to look too closely. Some of the performances here are very bad, some others are merely badly served by the production. And overall, I would say that the darker aspects of the show are those which lose out – perhaps literally because this isn’t a show best seen by bright daylight. The bosky darkness of the Open Air Theatre by night may well bring added depth – but hey, we could only get tickets for a matinee.

The set is fantastic – a maze of walkways, stairs and ladders, punctuated by trees. Its used inventively to suggest the disorientation of being alone in the woods, yet by its very nature this makes it very hard to zoom in on individuals or small groups when there are other things happening elsewhere. And far too much takes place in the space underneath the structure, where only those in the really expensive seats at the front can see clearly. But when its good, its really really good – a group of characters standing on a spiral staircase and opening green umbrellas becomes a beanstalk both credible and incredible, a saddle on the seat of a swing makes a horse (just add imagination) and a huge birds nest perched on top does double duty as Rapunzel’s tower and the baker’s hideout for the finale. And elsewhere there are wonderful visual jokes to enjoy – never before have I seen the Three Little Pigs appear in Into the Woods, but their presence carrying straw, sticks and a hod full of bricks is funny and welcome and feels entirely natural, as does that of birds made of branches, a puppet cow a la War Horse and a chicken (one that lays golden eggs) made out of a push-along lawnmower. It’s a shame that the costumes didn’t match up – there was far too much of the “Swampy” eco-warrior look for my liking. Where Cinderella’s sisters should don silks and satins to go to the ball, here they just go in the tweed knickerbockers outfits they’ve worn all along. Rapunzel’s Prince was wearing a boring suit that looked like it had been donated by one of his peasants. Again, on the flip side, some costumes were wonderful – the Witch was decked out in shiny “mould green”, the skirt of which had been pleated at the back to fall into cobweb shapes.

One thing that was disappointing throughout was the lack of singing talent; everyone seemed to be a singing actor, rather than an acting singer – apart from Cinderella, who could neither sing nor act. She wowed everyone with her creation of the role of Glinda in the original production of Wicked, but there was nothing of her sparkle on show this afternoon The Mysterious Man’s “phoned-in” performance was mirrored by Beverley Rudd’s practically faultless Little Red Riding Hood, who lit up and practically walked away with every scene she was in. Congratulations to the casting director for picking up on the clues in the next about LRRH’s physical appearance and engaging Rudd for the part. Those in the “chorus” parts (people like the Wolf and Steward, who otherwise have very little to do) were kept busy and useful on stage and there was excellent group choreography, although generally the “chorus” were on the opposite side of the set from the principals and it was nearly impossible to pay attention to both at the same time.

What shocked me to my theatre-going core was the dreadful “performance” by Judi Dench, who voiced the Giant’s wife (fantastic enormous “puppet” – just hands, eyes and mouth made of bits of “junk” – which “peered over the trees”). I know that the role consists of less than 20 lines, but really Judi, I do think you could have put a lot more than your very bland reading of them. Even if you are a “Giantess” of the Stage. Tsk, its enough to put you completely off your Capri-Sun.



Monday, 30 August 2010

Danton's Death - National Theatre, Wednesday 11th August 2010

Three revolutionary groups are presented at the start of the play - Danton's supporters, Robespierre's supporters, and those who do not agree with how the Revolution has evolved. Danton and Robespierre have different views on how to pursue the revolution - Danton's supporters back the end of Robespierre's repressive measures, which have already caused great suffering among the people, and they dod not find in the Revolution the answer to the material and moral questions facing mankind. One citizen deplores the fact that his daughter has been forced into prostitution to support her family. Danton accepts his friends' proposal to meet Robespierre but this meeting proves to be fruitless and Robespierre resolves that Danton must be killed, though he still doubts that this decision is just.

Danton's friends press him to fight or flee Robespierre's supporters, but Danton does not see any need to do so and does not believe that the French National Convention will dare to act against him. Danton confides the guilt he feels for the September Massacres in his wife Julie. Danton is imprisoned and led before the National Assembly, which is divided - it feels it has no choice but to acquit him. However, Robespierre and Saint-Just reverse its opinion.

The prisoners discuss the existence of God and life, and an attempt to prove that God does not exist fails. Danton's supporters are transferred to the Conciergerie. During this time the revolutionary tribunal arranges for its jury to be made up of honest and faithful men. Danton appears confidently before the tribunal, impressing the public with his willingness for justice to be done. Seeing the hearers' sympathy for Danton, the court is adjourned. The tribunal's members invent a plot to change the public's mind. At the tribunal's second sitting, the people stop supporting Danton, due to his lifestyle. Danton's liberal programme is revealed as unacceptable to the masses.
Danton and his supporters are condemned to death. Danton and his friend Camille Desmoulins exchange thoughts on life and death. Danton's wife Julie, to whom he has pledged to be loyal beyond death, posions herself at their home. The people show themselves to be curious and ironic on Danton's way to the scaffold. When Lucile Desmoulins sees her husband Camille mount the scaffold, she goes mad and resolves to die too, crying "Long live the king!" and thus guaranteeing her own death sentence.

Danton: Toby Stevens
Legendre: Ashley Zhangazha
Desmoulins: Barnaby Kay
Lacroix (sweetie!): Gwilym Lee
Julie: Kirsty Bushell
Lucille: Rebecca O'Mara
Marion: Eleanor Matsuura
Robespierre: Eliot Levey
Creative Team:
Adapted by Howard Brenton from Georg Buchner
Director: Michael Grandage
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting: Paule Constable.

Yes, yes, this is three weeks or so late, I know. Its been hell around Castle TheatreReviews of late, and all my spare time recently has been taken up playing Farmville on Facebook and writing outraged Emails to my local branch of Sainbury's about their new Self Service tills. Such is life.

Even if I hadn't had to go to the dentists and have two fillings on the morning of this show, I don't think I would have enjoyed this very much; in fact I can best describe it as "fucking dreary". To paraphrase Victoria Wood's sketch about Othello: "I don't think its got a plot; its just various people talking - and sometimes they do things in brackets". Fortunately, there was no interval so the agony was over within an hour and a half. The set was just as dreary as the play itself , evoking the interior of the Donmar Warehouse and circled with enormous shutters that required constant opening and closing by a couple of "Citizens" who had nothing else to do but walk round and open them, wait for a couple of minutes while a couple of lines got spouted by various people standing on tables declaiming to the downtrodden masses metaphorically waving their pitchforks and making outraged "rhubarbe rhubarbe" noises in French accents, and then go round and close them all again. One of the problems of this type of play, much like The White Guard, is that you have to have a very good grounding in all the historical comings and goings to fully understand what is going on and why, and who everybody is, and why everyone is getting in such a flap about things. If you don't, then you spend much of the time trying to sort out the good guys from the bad and trying to decide who's side you are on and why. Once you start to realise that you've set yourself an impossible task, you eventually start to tune out and stop caring, particularly when the lead character is played as an arrogant c*nt. And so it was here - I know some odds and ends about the French Revolution, but my interest rather peters out once Marie Antoinette's head has fallen in the bucket; my understanding about the political upheaval in the years which followed this event is - to put it bluntly - nil points. Until the bloke playing Robespierre was addressed as "Citizen Robespierre", I thought he was Talleyrand, ffs.

The only thing worthwhile in this production, which seemed to go on all night even though it was very short (there's only so much declaiming and rhubarbe that you can take in one go) was the final couple of minutes in which we were mercifully rid of Dreary Monsieur Danton and his equally Dreary Amis with the aid of Madame Guillotine's hairdressing device ("Just a little bit more off the top, I think") - even though the machine itself was woefully small, it was so spectacularly cleverly done that real heads appeared to be falling into the basket It even seems to have shut Les Madames Defarge up for five minutes or so (which is always a Very Good Thing). In fact, Danton's Death was the most interesting bit of his entire life.

What the critics thought:

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Le Corsair [The Pirate] - Bolshoi Ballet @The Royal Opera House, Wednesday 4th August 2010

Synopsis (pay attention, this is long and complicated!):

A crowd of Turks, Greeks and Armenians throng a square where slaves girls are for sale. A band of pirates appears, led by Conrad. Medora, the ward of Lankendem, throws a bouquet to Conrad, who realises she loves him. The Pasha arrives to buy slaves but none please him. He sees Medora and wants her but Lankendem says that she is not for sale. But the Pasha is determined and offers a price that Lankendem is unable to resist. The Pasha orders Medora be bought to his harem; she is distraught. Conrad swears he will save her. The pirates “kidnap” all the slave girls including Medora, with Lankendem in hot pursuit.
The pirates arrive at their hideout. Medora pleads for the release of the other slave girls and Conrad agrees, but Birbanto (another pirate) protests and tries to raise a mutiny. Meanwhile, Lankendem is caught by the pirates, and he suggests a plot to retrieve Medora. Birbanto sprays a flower with poison and tells Lankendem to give it to Conrad who, overcome with the poison, collapses. Medora is frightened by this and manages to stab Birbanto in the arm. She then faints and is carried away by Birbanto’s friends, followed again by Lankendem Birbanto is about to kill Conrad when he wakes. Hearing that Medora has been abducted for real he and his loyal pirates give chase.
Back at the harem, the Pasha’s harem girls are amusing themselves. Zulma, the Sultana, demands respect but Gulnara (the chief Odalisque) and her friends mock her. Lankendem arrives to deliver Medora to the Pasha. She begs for her freedom, complaining that Lankendem has treated her cruelly. He is banished by the Pasha. Pilgrims arrive, asking for lodgings for the night. Medora discovers that they are really Conrad and his friends in disguise. There is an entertainment, after which the pirates throw off their disguises. Conrad and Medora are reunited. Gulnare pleads for help to escape the harem. Birbanto and his friends arrive at the harem and try to capture Gulnare. Medora recognises Birbanto and tells Conrad of their treachery, identifying him by the wound on his arm. He and Conrad fight and Birbanto runs off. The Pasha’s guard arrive; Conrad’s band is routed and he is sentenced to death.
During the preparations for the Pasha’s wedding to Medora, Conrad is prepared for his execution. She begs the Pasha to spare him, and he agrees on the condition that she marries him. Medora tells Conrad of the Pasha’s conditions and the two lovers decide to take their own lives. However, they are overheard by Gulnare who suggests a plan.

The wedding procession arrives, with the bride veiled and the ceremony takes place. Medora dances for the Pasha and is given an ornamental dagger by him. He begs for her love, also giving her a handkerchief. Threatening the Pasha with the dagger and tying him to a chair with the handkerchief, Medora and Conrad escape the harem. Gulnare runs in and unties the Pasha. It is announced by a guard that the pirate ship, with Conrad and Medora aboard, has left the harbour. The Pasha is outraged at the escape of Medora, believing her to be his wife. Gulnare produces the ring used at the ceremony; it was not Medora who was veiled, but her!
A storm overtakes the pirate ship, on which Birbanto has hidden. He tries to stir up a mutiny and is thrown overboard by Conrad. The ship hits a rock and sinks, but Conrad and Medora climb onto the rock and are saved.

Medora: Ekaterina Krysanova
Conrad: Ruslan Skvortsov
Gulnare: Marianna Ryzhkina
Birbanto: Vitaly Biktimorov
The Pasha: Alexei Loparevich
Zulna, the Sultana: Irina Zibrovna

Creative Team:
Music: Adolphe Adam (with additions by Delibes, Pugni, von Oldenburg, Drigo, Zabel and Gerber – and probably Drooper, Snorky, Fleegle and Bingo, for all I know)
Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka (after Petipa)
Design: Boris Kaminsky
Costumes: Yelena Zaytseva
Well, I have to say that I spent a great deal of time being confused (and with a running time of over three hours, there was plenty of time for me to do it in) being confused and at times downright bloody mystified as to what exactly was going on and who the feck certain people were during this performance. The synopsis given above is a cut-down version from the one given in the programme, which was so confusing as to bring on brain stem death in anyone trying to make sense of it. I wasn’t helped by several things; the principals used every opportunity to change their costumes, often appearing in two or three different ones in the course of a single act; various characters mentioned in the cast list didn’t appear in the synopsis (who the hell was Mufti when he was at home?); several times an unidentified person in an important-looking costume would rush onto the stage, do a big solo and then rush off again, never to be seen or heard of again; and this version bore only a passing resemblance to other productions of Corsair that I’ve seen. I was therefore reduced to soliciting help with what was going on from various other audience members during the intervals along the lines of “Who was the woman wearing the green dress?” and “Was the woman on the balcony wearing the white dress the same woman who did a dance in the red spangly one?” and “Do YOU understand what’s going on?” Fortunately a lady in the row in front took pity on me and said “One should never worry about the plot of Corsair – one should just enjoy the dancing” (they speak like that at Covent Garden). So I took her advice and just sat back and let it wash over me. Unfortunately, there was so much washing over me that I thought I was going to drown at several points in the evening. By heck, this was a long night. I can do no better than to paraphrase one of the reviews below and say “It was so lovely that I hoped it would go on for ever – and then some time later began to fear that it might”.
Quite why the Bolshoi perform this version is beyond me – it was all so glitzy and overstuffed that I can only compare it to eating an entire box of liqueur chocolates in one go; one is nice as a treat, and having a second one makes you feel wickedly self-indulgent. After the fourth you’re starting to regret the entire thing, and when you realise that there’s another layer underneath, you begin to wonder about the availability of plastic buckets in the immediate vicinity. It was all so piled on that I began to lose the ability to be discriminating about what was good and what was merely indifferent, and there seemed to be plenty of indifferent being presented on the stage, with lots of very strained “ballet acting” by any poor bugger not actually involved in the dancing (You want to buy a rug? Very nice rug, Effendi, cheap cheap. You no want to buy good rug? May the fleas of a thousand camels infect your armpits, Infidel!) The sets didn’t help – in the main they seemed designed for a much wider stage, and seriously cramped a lot of the action, particularly the set for the Pasha’s palace, which suffered from looking like a bizarre hybrid of Old Peking (Its behiiiiiind you!) and Carry On Follow That Camel with leftover bits of Chu Chin Chow thrown in just in case there was any unused space (which there invariably wasn’t). This on occasion meant that there was an odd column whack bang in the middle of where people needed to dance on the left, which wasn’t then mirrored by another one on the right, forcing those on the left to dance round the column and those on the right to wonder where their column was. In the jardin anime section, there were so many tutu’d and turbaned bodies trying to pick their way through the forests of vaguely horticultural scenery while maintaining a fixed rictus smile and worrying about whether Zvetlana on the opposite side could manage her watering can what with her dodgy elbow and all that that I seriously began to long for Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock to stroll on, spray the entire scene with RoundUp and put York stone paving down. Corsair can be done with a (relatively) coherent plot without truckloads of unnecessary stuff – but this wasn’t it. The final hair on this particularly overladen camel’s back was an entire animatronic pirate ship going down with all hands behind a front-projected curtain of crashing waves at the very end. Interesting to see – but it didn’t add anything to the plot, was practically unnecessary and just slowed the climax down to a complete crawl.

Strangest of all was the complete excision of the role of the Slave (a famous Nureyv role) and the resultant section of Act 3 in which it appears, leading to more head scratching. Perhaps it was the fleas from that camel.

To paraphrase a well-known saying: over-long, over-done and over ‘ere.

What the critics thought:

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Tempest - The Old Vic, Monday 2nd August 2010

The magician Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda, have been stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero's jealous brother Antonio—helped by Alonso, the King of Naples—deposed him and set him adrift with the then three-year-old Miranda. Gonzalo, the King's counsellor, had secretly supplied their boat with plenty of food, water, clothes and the most-prized books from Prospero's library. Possessing magic powers due to his great learning, Prospero is reluctantly served by a spirit, Ariel, whom Prospero had rescued from a tree in which he had been trapped by the witch Sycorax. Her son, Caliban, taught Prospero how to survive on the island, while Prospero . Following Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda, he had been compelled by Prospero to serve as the sorcerer's slave. In slavery, Caliban has come to view Prospero as a usurper and has grown to resent him and his daughter.
The play opens as Prospero, having divined that his brother, Antonio, is on a ship passing close by the island, has raised a tempest which causes the ship to run aground. Also on the ship are King Alonso of Naples, Alonso's brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, and advisor, Gonzalo. All these passengers are returning from the wedding of Alonso's daughter Claribel with the King of Tunis. Prospero, by his spells, contrives to separate the survivors of the wreck into several groups. Alonso and Ferdinand are separated and believe one another to be dead.
Caliban falls in with Stephano and Trinculo, two drunkards, whom he believes to have come from the moon. They attempt to raise a rebellion against Prospero, which ultimately fails. Prospero works to establish a romantic relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda; the two fall immediately in love, but Prospero worries that "too light winning [may] make the prize light", and compels Ferdinand to become his servant, pretending that he regards him as a spy. In the third subplot, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso and Gonzalo so that Sebastian can become King. They are thwarted by Ariel, at Prospero's command. Ariel appears to Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian as a harpy, reprimanding them for their betrayal of Prospero. Prospero manipulates the course of his enemies' path through the island, drawing them closer and closer to him.

In the conclusion, all the main characters are brought together before Prospero, who forgives Alonso. He also forgives Antonio and Sebastian, but warns them against further betrayal. Ariel is charged to prepare the proper sailing weather to guide Alonso and his entourage (including Prospero and Miranda) back to the Royal fleet and then to Naples, where Ferdinand and Miranda will be married. After discharging this task, Ariel will finally be free. Prospero pardons Caliban, who is sent to prepare Prospero's cell, to which Alonso and his party are invited for a final night before their departure Prospero has resolved to break and bury his wizard's staff and book of magic. In his epilogue, shorn of his magic powers, he invites the audience to set him free from the island with their applause.

Prospero: Stephen Dillane
Ariel: Christian Camargo
Caliban: Ron Cephas Jones
Boatswain: Ross Waiton
Alonso: Jonathan Lincoln Fried
Gonzalo: Alvin Epstein
Sebastian: Richard Hansell
Antonio: Michael Thomas
Miranda: Juliet Rylance
Ferdinand: Edward Bennett
Trinculo: Anthony O’Donnell
Stephano: Thomas Sadowski

I wasn’t quite so sleepy this time round as I was when I saw this company’s production of As You Like It – but honestly, the pace they took it at was enough to cure anyone’s insomnia. Obviously the Director had given them all the instruction “The best way to do Shakespeare so that everyone understands what is going on Is. To. Speak. Very. Very. Slowly. And. Pause. Between. Each. Word”. During the opening scene, everybody thankfully ignored this, but remembered in time for the next one, so that by the (non-existent) interval, I was glancing at my watch every couple of minutes and making strenuous “Get ON with it!” movements with both my hands. There were places where the pace mercifully picked up but the average pace could kindly be described as “stately” or rudely as “bloody slow”. Still, at least most of the cast were audible this time round. Mr. Dillane, playing Prospero, had been roundly criticised by the press for his lack of projection in As You Like It, and for the most part managed to rev this up several notches, until about half an hour before the end when decided to inject a bit of variety into his rather bland performance by playing about with the sound levels:

We. Are. Such. Things. As. Dreams. Are. Made On. And.
Our. Little. Life. Is. Rounded. Off. With. A. Sleep

which made the last act appear like the sound technician was buggering about with his knob (steady!) in his little booth and twisting it left and then right and then back again to keep himself from dropping off through hypnotic speech pattern overload. No such problems from Juliet Rylance who gave her performance by megaphone again – any louder and she could have saved the director of a production some 15 miles away the expense of having a Miranda on stage, merely having to open the theatre doors so that Miss Rylance’s performance could be heard from afar. Alvin Epstein, as Gonzalo, had either switched his throat mike off completely, was making sure that the bats in the rafters got their fill of Shakespeare or was just inaudible.

Rather than present Prospero’s Island with any attempt at realism, the set designer had tried to be tricksy and cute by having no set other than a large, round circle of sand in the middle of the stage. There was a large, shallow trough across the width of the stage at the back, filled with water and enough wooden chairs to start a small furniture store (“Hello? DFS Prospero’s Island branch. How may we help you?”) on which any member of the cast not currently performing had to go and sit and await their next entrance. Pity the poor bugger playing the Boatswain who gets about 10 lines in the first act and then nothing until 2 pages from the very end who had to sit there all night in full view, rather than being able to return to the dressing room, take his sea boots off, catch up with Coronation Street for two hours and have a good scratch. I hope that everyone had been issued with waterproof footwear, or there will be a run on treatment for Foot Rot at Boots in Waterloo Road by the end of the run. The casting director had also seemingly balked at using the full company – when the Goddesses conjured up the Nymphs and Shepherds for the wedding masque, nary a Nymph nor indeed Shepherd responded to their call and so they had to do the best they could with assorted castaways, which made for a rather rum pastoral sequence, especially as a lot of it was accompanied by back-projected old home movies of what I think we were meant to understand to be Miranda's early childhood.

On the subject of rum, this being a tropical island (that's a joke btw), the other inhabitants were extremely odd indeed. Ariel was played as a very fey, palefaced cross between Edward Scissorhands and one of the sparkly vampires from the Twilight series – less Ariel than Emo (still, I suppose we were lucky it wasn't Elmo). Quite why, when commanded to disguise himself as a water sprite, he decided to don a long green sleeveless cocktail dress is beyond me, and I found the characterisation of Caliban somewhat tasteless; yes, OK, have Caliban played by a black actor in order to emphasise his difference from the rest of the characters (and make a political point about slavery), but is it not somewhat crass to then have him “white up” in Caucasian-toned body paint? Other characters seemed to have grabbed their costumes from the nearest hamper marked “Dressing Up” and were representative of no particular era or location. Whether this was making about point about the “timeless” quality of Shakepeare’s play I don’t know but I do know that having no interval makes you very aware of every passing minute when you need to go to the toilet.

What the critics thought: