Sunday, 23 May 2010

Paradise Found - Menier Chocolate Factory, Sunday 23rd May 2010


The Shah of Persia is feeling low. So to lift his spirits he’s off to Vienna with his Eunuch in tow for some new adventures. He promptly falls in love with the Empress of the Empire, much to the dismay of her husband, so a resident of the local brothel – who is a double for the Empress – is substituted for a night of passion. But she’s in love with a Baron, who’s having an affair with the Soap Manufactuer’s Wife….


Colonel/Trummer – Herndon Lackey
Shah – John McMartin
Eunuch – Mandy Patinkin
Vizier/Soap Manufacturer – George Lee Andrews
Baron – Shuler Hensley
Mizzi – Kate Baldwin
Frau Matzner – Judy Kaye
Soap Manufacturer’s Wife – Nancy Opel
Mayor – Daniel Marcus
Creative Team:
Director – Harold Prince
Co –director/Choreographer – Susan Stroman
Music – Strauss (arrangements by Jonathan Tunick)
Scenic Design – Beowulf Borrit
Lighting – Howell Binkley
Costume – Judith Dolan
And so ends a long run of Menier Theatre hits with the sound of a dead duck falling very heavily on the stage. I did wonder beforehand about the advisability of going to the theatre on a boiling hot Sunday (when one really should have been In the Park With George), but with seemingly the entire theatre-reviewing community of London also en route (even those of us who had paid for our tickets) I was obviously going to be in august company, especially since the Broadway transfer of this show has already been announced, following hot on the heels of 15 or so Tony nominations for other Menier productions which have already crossed the pond. But its important to note that this isn’t a Menier production in the same sense as A Little Night Music or La Cage aux Folles (both currently wowing the yanks) as it hasn’t been produced in-house – although it will probably have “direct from the Menier Chocolate Factory, London” plastered all over it in New York to give it some added cachet – and by god it will need every ounce of cachet it can get. Despite an awesome array of talent both in front of the curtain and backstage, this is a real stinker of the kind I haven’t seen since Too Close to the Sun last year.

The insurmountable problem here is the sheer awfulness of the book, which is essentially operetta of a kind that went out of fashion about 30 years ago. It starts by trying to be something vaguely 1001 Nights, tries desperately to reference The King and I in that its framing device is the clash of culture between east and west (or in this case the Middle East and Mittel-Europa) and then mixes in Strauss’ Vienna and Die Fledermaus (there’s a louche club called – with extreme heavy-handedness - “The Bat”, the baron makes a pass at someone’s wife’s maid, there's a "comedy" deception when a whore masquerades as an Empress) with dollops of Ivor Novello (soubrettes called Mizzi, chorines in dirndls and so on). It then gets all realistic and grim for a while in Act 2 and then goes back to 1001 Nights with an implausibly “happy ever after in the harem” ending. The set-up is dire, the story daft beyond words, the characters unsympathetic and badly drawn and the execution perilously close to farce. If it were parodying operetta, it would be just about allowable, but its not – its played straight and its bloody awful. The songs are uninspired, set to not-very-well-known Strauss, although the Blue Danube is referenced and the Kaiser Waltz features a couple of times. The dialogue is risible and, although it tries hard to be funny, just isn’t. The audienece is practically silent for the entire performance, although there is the occasional titter from someone low on oxygen in the dark heat of the auditorium. I laugh once, when one of the characters asks for a slice of a Viennese pastry called a gugelhupf – and the only reason I laughed at that is because it’s a private joke (look at me in a particular way and say profiteroles or sachertorte and I’ll collapse in hysteria). The costumes are occasionally unbelievably tatty, despite being from Angels, and the wigs, which could be beautiful if dressed properly, don’t look as if they’ve seen a perruquier’s loving hand or a quick blast of Elle-Net for ages. And then there’s Mandy Patinkin, warbling and sweating and attempting to sing falsetto (he is playing a eunuch after all) and looking and sounding like he’s channelling Yoda from the star wars films.

Truly, this is really, really bad, to the point of my feeling embarrassed for some of the people sweating their tits off on stage. I predict they will be giving tickets away for nothing by the end of the run. Which should at least please some people.

What the critics thought:

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Carmen - 02, Friday 21st May 2010

In a square in Seville, soldiers and townspeople are gathered when a young peasant girl name Micaela questions the soldiers about her love, Don Jose. The soldiers try to persuade the young girl to stay with them until Don Jose returns, but she declines and leaves. Don Jose arrives moments before the cigarette factory bell rings and a group of women, including the beautiful gypsy, Carmen, exit the building. The soldiers flirt with the girls and asks Carmen when she will love them. Don Jose becomes enchanted by the beautiful Carmen. Micaela returns with a letter sent to Don Jose by his mother. In the letter, Don Jose's mother has asked him to marry Micaela. Don Jose promises his fidelity and love. A fight breaks out at the cigarette factory between Carmen and another woman. Carmen injures the woman before she is captured by Officer Zuniga. Zuniga commands Don Jose to escort Carmen to prison. However, Carmen charms Don Jose into letting her escape. When Don Jose is discovered for letting Carmen escape, he is thrown into jail.

At Lilas Pastia's inn, Carmen and her friends Mercedes and Frasquitam are socializing with the soldiers when the victorious bullfighter, Escamillo, arrives with a celebrating entourage and attempts to capture Carmen's heart. However, his attempts are unsuccessful, as are Officer Zuniga's, who tells Carmen that he will return to the inn later to meet with her - Carmen's heart waits for Don Jose's release from prison. The smugglers Dancairo and Remendado ask for help from Carmen and her two friends. Mercedes and Frasquita agree to help, but Carmen refuses as she knows that Don Jose will be released from prison that day. When he finally arrives, Carmen dances for him. Her dance is cut short when a bugle sounds in the distance, signaling Don Jose to return home. Carmen mocks his obedience and tries to persuade him to remain with her and live the gypsy life. Don Jose does not give in until Zuniga arrives at the inn searching for Carmen. Zuniga orders Don Jose to leave, but in a fit of jealousy, he defies his commander’s orders. Dancairo and Remendado tackle Zuniga and take him away from the inn. Don Jose stays at the inn with Carmen.

Don Jose, now at the smuggler's hideout in the mountains, begins to reminisce about his former home and his mother and starts missing them dearly. Carmen, who has decided she no longer loves him, takes notice and starts taunting him to leave, but he does not. Mercedes and Frasquita tell their fortunes with a deck of cards. For the two girls, the cards The smugglers and the girls leave, while Don Jose watches over the hideout. Micaela, comes to the mountain hideout and hides behind a mound of rocks when she hears a gunshot fired by Escamillo. Escamillo enters the hideout and begins telling Don Jose about his love for Carmen. He also tells Don Jose about her relationship with a soldier, not knowing the story is about Don Jose, who starts fighting Escamillo. The smugglers return before the fight gets worse. Escamillo invites Carmen and the others to his upcoming bullfight as he leaves the hideout. Micaela finally emerges from her hiding spot, and tries to convince Don Jose to return home. After several unsuccessful attempts, she finally persuades him to leave by telling him his beloved mother is dying. He promises his return to Carmen and leaves with Micaela.

During the procession of the toreadors, Carmen and Escamillo are seen arriving together. Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don Jose is lurking around the crowd plotting to kill her. While Escamillo enters the bullfighting ring, a desperate Don Jose meets Carmen outside the arena. She explains that she no longer loves him and throws the ring he gave her on the ground. Now completely mad, Don Jose stabs Carmen in the heart with a dagger.

Carmen: Cristina Nassil
Don Jose: John Hudson
Micaela: Elizabeth Atherton
Escamillo: Kevin Greenlaw
Frasquita: Kate Ladner
Mercedes: Susan Atherton
Dancairo: Quentin Hayes
Remendado: Aled Hall
Creative Team:
Director: David Freeman
Musical Director: Gareth Hancock
Designer: David Roger
Choreographer: Robert North
Lighting: Andrew Bridge

First things first: the publicity for this says “A cast of over 200”. Well, having counted all the names in the programme, I can tell you that there are actually 124 – unless one counts the orchestra, of course. It isn’t usual to include the orchestra in the cast count – in fact, I’ve never known it done. I contacted the promoters for their explanation and will report back.
Him Indoors often criticises my reviews for not mentioning the direction enough. Well, I’m about to change all that.
The whole point of theatre “in the round” is to make sure that everyone in the auditorium can see what’s going on. So you direct accordingly. Its not easy, granted, but with a performance space the size of the 02, when a crowd scene is necessary, you use your directorial skill and spread your cast (all 124 of them) out to fill the space, making sure that the sightlines are clear and that the principals can be seen by the audience. You get them to exaggerate their movements so that their performance can be “read” by people sitting in the cheap seats at the back (this is opera, remember, so you’ve got carte blanche to go completely over the top). You get your costume designer to put principals in bright costumes so that they can be identified, and you get your lighting designer to pick out important people and bits of action in bright spotlights. You pay a great deal of attention to spacing and you avoid having your chorus stand in straight lines wherever possible so that no section of the audience is presented with a row of backs. You use all the available space, making sure that important bits of the plot aren’t obscured by the cast or tucked away in corners where the sightlines might be dodgy, and you certainly shouldn’t fall into the trap of setting the really important bits exclusively in front of the most expensive seats in the house to the detriment of those people sitting in the cheaper seats. This is what you should do. This is not what happens in this production.
The vast, soulless and impersonal space of the O2 ("the world's most popular venue") probably isn’t the best place for opera anyway, most of which relies on an emotive connection between the cast and the audience member. The acting area for this production, marooned in the middle of the arena and putting further physical space between performers and viewers, is a single strip of sand-coloured rostra. It has a long windy tail section, a couple of slightly wider sections about 2/3 of the way along and then curves round through about 4/5 of a circle. From where we are sitting, it looks vaguely like an enormous sperm – quite appropriate seeing as how the direction is a load of wank, frankly. Much of the performance takes place at the “head” of the sperm shape (right in front of the expensive seats), leaving those of us marooned at its tail trying desperately to pick out what is going on. I would have seen more of the action by staying home and renting a DVD as most of the cast are so far away for so much of the time that they would appear larger on my TV screen. In this we are not helped by constant “clumping” of chorus and supernumerary cast around the principals – for most of the evening, all I can see is backs, making it impossible to judge what is going on, who is singing what to whom and whether any acting of any kind is taking place (I’m vaguely embarrassed to state that I don’t really know the story of Carmen, so do find it necessary to be able to see what is going on so that I can understand the plot). Carmen, having made her entrance in a red skirt so that she can be picked out from the chorus who are all wearing white, takes her skirt off so that she disappears into the throng of clumped chorus. When its not the chorus who are clumped, it’s the furniture – the inn scene takes place on one of the small “blobs”, making the performing area so cramped with rustic tables that the cast are, most of the time, in grave danger of tripping over each other while jigging about being a chorus of happy customers. Escamillo, wearing a black costume, simply disappears into the throng of other people wearing black costumes. No use is made of the space around the walkway - everyone is simply herded onto one of its "blobs, so they are all at the same physical level - until the end of Escamillo's second verse, at which point he stands on one of the tables so he can FINALLY be seen.. The principals, quite simply, disappear in the throng. The throng disappears quite a lot too, into the haze at the other end of the arena. Nothing is staged at our end of the walkway. Act 3, set in and around the smugglers' den, is staged in such stygian gloom throughout that not even the people in the expensive seats can see what is happening. Someone is apparently hiding in the rocks outside the den but I can't see who it is. Whoever it is sings that she hasn't seen Don Jose for ages. I can understand why.
The orchestra are at the tail end of the sperm, right at the other end from where the performance is happening. There are, however, 18 relay screens located round the arena so that the performers can see the conductor and the conductor can see the performers. This doesn’t stop a lot of the chorus and a fair few principals drifting badly away from the beat on several occasions. I find myself wishing that the relay screens were relaying the actual performance so that I can see what is going on. A lot of people in the audience (those who aren't constantly traipsing up and down the stairs in order to buy wildly overpriced drinks and pungent fast food from the food booths which remain open all the way through the performance- how the stink of chips adds to the Spanish atmosphere!) walk out and never return.
I can't comment on any of the individual performances as I didn't see any of them - they were either too far away or hidden by the chorus or both. The only person whose diction is good enough to be heard consistently is Elizabeth Atherton's Michaela, demonstrated by the fact that she got the biggest round of applause at the end, very possibly for being the only cast member who could be bothered to project her acting to the entire arena. Honestly, if the director had come on at the end I would have stood up and booed extremely loudly. Despite the vastness of the arena, most of this production is directed for a performance space the size of the stage in a village hall. No effort whatsoever went into using the space effectively, or even properly. The director should be ashamed of himself - he seems to have directed other arena productions on a similarly vast scale and there was no excuse for the schoolboy errors he has made for this show. Disgusting. If you go to see this (and I highly recommend you don't) then remember to take very powerful binoculars with you. You might be able to spot 76 people lurking round the auditorium who should be up on the stage.