Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Round Heeled Woman - Aldwych Theatre, Wednesday 14th December 2011


Based on a true story. In 1999, Jane Juska, a retired English teacher, placed an advert in the New York Times Review of Books:
“Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me”.

Sharon Gless (aka The-blonde-one-out-of-Cagney-and-Lacey) – Jane Juska
Beth Cordingley – Natalie/Miss Mackenzie
Barry McCarthy – Jonah/Sidney
Kenneth Jay – Eddie/Robert/John (understudying for Neil McCaul)
Gwyneth Strong – Celia/Jane’s Mother
Michael Thomson – Graham/Andy
Creative Team:
Set design – Ian Fisher
Costume – David Blight
Lighting – Nick Richings
Executive Producer – Andrew Welch
Producers – Sharon Gless (aka The-blonde-one-out-of-Cagney-and-Lacey), Brian Eastman

Do do do doooo, dah dah dahdah dada, doo doo do dooo – OK, it’s a tough job rendering the theme tune to Cagney and Lacey in print, but at least I made the attempt. If Ms. Gless had walked on to the stage and started humming that, I think the audience would have probably stormed the set and torn the poor woman to bits in a frenzy of adulation. Me included, most likely. Given the affection in which (apparently) the entire population hold Cagney and Lacey, this was going to be a success however bad it turned out to be. And honestly, it was better than I thought it would be – and then again not as good as I thought it would be. I honestly thought this was going to be a one-woman show along the lines of Shirley Valentine or Educating Rita- and lets face it, most of the audience would have come along to hear Detective Cagney of the 14th Precinct read from the telephone book. It would have worked very well as a monologue; even Him Indoors cooed “Oooh, there are other people in it” as we walked into the theatre. I’m not sure either of us really got what we were expecting. On the one hand, this is an interesting piece of theatre which explores female sexuality and ageing, nicely adapted for the stage and weaving in some obscure literature (Anthony Trollope’s little-known work Miss Mackenzie). Its slightly raunchy in places, a little melancholic in others, celebratory and life-affirming in others. And on the other hand its trite, hopelessly self-indulgent and created for groups of middle-aged women who feel the need for a girls night out and Ladies and Gentlemen in Sensible Shoes.

It’s a comforting little play, not likely to change the world other than making you feel that your life isn’t that bad and that you too could set of on a voyage of sexual adventure (if only you had the time and it wasn’t for the mortgage and Him/Her Indoors/The Kids. In fact, it’s the perfect “filler” show after Dirty Dancing (indeed, the auditorium looked more than a little bashed about, probably as a result of bottles being thrown by coach-parties of Essex Girls getting over-excited during the encore of “The Time of My Life”. We won’t mention the disaster that was Cool Hand Luke which followed it into the Aldwych and for which they literally couldn’t give tickets away). I just wish that Ms. Gless could have had better support from her fellow cast. She’s a great actress and she seemed surrounded by mediocrity, particularly from the two other women in the cast, who drifted on and off and occasionally forgot which accent they were using. Neither of them seemed particularly bothered, nor indeed talented. And it seemed particularly unfair that Neil McCaul’s understudy was so unlike him physically; from his programme pictures, Mr. McCaul looks tall, slim, quietly good looking and a bit of a catch – whereas his understudy is, well, short and rotund and a bit like yer UnkelArfur. As the other men in her life were being played by short, rotund and somewhat ferrety Barry McCarthy, Ms. Gless seemed to be dating an unending procession of short, rotund and somewhat seedy old men. One feels that a bit of glamour in the trouser department was sorely missing. In an ensemble piece like this, the “star” should be surrounded by a bit more talent, otherwise its all desperately uneven. Perhaps the bill for Ms. Gless is so high (she does, after all, according to the programme notes, have five homes to maintain, poor cow) that the producers didn’t have very much money left to play with.

I’m not entirely convinced that weaving in appearances from one of Trollope’s heroines really worked or was entirely necessary, nor that it was totally above board to give away the ending of the novel she appears in. Some of the writing seemed extremely clunky – there are several occasions when Gless addresses the audience directly, and there’s an excruciating “OK, it’s the interval now so lets all get a drink from the bar and I’ll see you in the second half” moment, which is truly cringeworthy. The show doesn’t really do Ms Juska many favours, as she often comes across as sounding spectacularly self-indulgent and occasionally self-obsessive (indeed, her programme biog reveals that she spent many years in psycho-analysis). I can’t remember from her original book whether this actually deals with her major issues with her mother and son, but these are the bits of the play that start feeling preachy and self-obsessive. The set is multifunctional and multi-levelled, but a bit too “unit set” for true comfort – the whole play is “on” the entire time, leaving one wondering why Ms. Gless has a tomb in her garden. Answer – she doesn’t; there are about 20 seconds in the second half where she visits a cemetery, but the demands of the “unit set” mean that the tomb sits just to the left hand side of the mailbox all night, which is odd and slightly disconcerting.

So, A Round Heeled Woman is OK. Its not a play that’s going to set the world alight, merely divert the audience for a couple of hours. But we both left the theatre feeling that it could have been so much better had Ms. Gless not been like the proverbial thoroughbred in the glue factory.




Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Pippin - Menier Chocolate Factory, Friday 23rd November 2011

Pippin is the story of the French Prince Pippin, son of King Charlemagne. The show begins with the Leading Player and the other players (an acting troupe) inviting the audience to watch their magic as they help to tell the story. They then introduce Pippin as a young man just out of a university. He tells us how he is searching for the meaning of his life, Pippin's father welcomes him home from school. Pippin tells his father he wants to go to war with him. His father eventually agrees with him and we soon see them and some soldiers learning their battle plan.The leading player goes on to tell the audience about the virtues of war and about King Charles’ victory. The soldiers join him in "saluting" their King. Next, the leading player sings a song about how people need some small amount of happiness in life that wealth and fame can't bring you. By now, Pippin has decided that being a war hero is not what he wants to do with his life. So, he goes to his grandmother, Bertha, and asks her what she thinks he should do. She tells him to just live life to the fullest and to enjoy his youth because time goes by so fast. Pippin next looks to women to see if they are the answer to his life. He experiments with sex - symbolically, of course. The act ends with Pippin deciding to lead a revolution against his father.
After this we see Pippin's step-mother, Fastrada, as she plots to get her son, Lewis, to be the heir to the throne instead of Pippin. Pippin is now trying out a political life, revolting against his father and considering assassinating him. When he does do this and becomes the new King he decides that a peaceful time, without war and slavery, is long overdue. When he realizes that this isn't the right job for him, he prays to have his father return. The leading player magically brings King Charles back to life.
Pippin is by now very distraught about his failing search for a meaning to his life. The leading player tells him not to worry, he's on the right road to finding what he is looking for. At the end of this number Pippin collapses to the floor and a pretty young woman, Catherine, finds him and brings him to her house with her small son. She tells him that she is just an "average" girl. Pippin comes to live in her house and do household chores which he finds degrading because he thinks he is above that kind of work. Pippin and Catherine fall in love but when Catherine asks Pippin to become "the head of the household,he runs away.
Pippin has come to the end of the road and has no idea what to do next. The leading player tells him that the only way that he will be remembered now is if he kills himself. Pippin is afraid to do this because he knows that if it is the wrong thing to do, then it will be too late for him to do anything else. The leading player, Fastrada, and all the other players urge Pippin to go ahead and burn himself until he dies. They tell him to think about his life and all of the things he wanted from it. Pippin is almost convinced when Catherine and her son show up. He decides that he will settle for love and not commit suicide.

Leading Player – Matt Rawle
Pippin – Harry Hepple
Charles – Ian Kelsey
Lewis – David Page
Estrada – Francis Ruffelle
Berthe – Louise Gold
Catherine – Carly Bawden

Creative Team:
Libretto: Roger Hirson
Music and Lyrics: Stephen “Wicked” Schwartz
Director/Choreographer – Mitch Sebastian
Design: Timothy Bird
Costumes: Jean-Marc Puissant
Anybody who has the unfortunate task of sitting next to me while I suffer through another production of (for example) Jesus Christ, Superstar will know just how much I loathe 70s rock musicals. They’re so irredeemably naff – showing their age but not yet dated enough to become “period” (such as the big Ivor Novello or Noel Coward shows of the 1950s). No doubt to people a generation younger than me, Jesus Christ, Superstar is shit-hot retro. But I think that 70s rock musicals are just shit. And anyone who has had the patience to read the synopsis above will probably be only too happy to agree with me that the plot of Pippin sounds naff to the nth degree. It doesn’t even sound cheerily naff like the plot of Blondel Pippin just sounds awful. So what would you think when you found that you were going to see Pippin and it had received an 80’s makeover? Reader, your worst nightmare is only just beginning.

Yes, a particularly naff 70s rock musical has been reworked, rewritten and made “contemporary” by being updated to the early 1980s – the decade when every pubescent boy wanted a Atari Games Console in his Christmas stocking. Preferably with a “quest”-type computer-game – slow to load and even slower to play, with heavy, byte-eating graphics and, by today’s standards, laughably ponderous plotlines. Pippin, dear reader, is that quest game. The character of Pippin is now an 80s geek who is magically zapped into his Games Console (“Tron” is referenced not only in the new libretto but also in many of the production’s costumes). The “players” are now no longer of the type described as the “troupe of strolling” kind but that of the “games console character” type. The blank walls of the theatre are covered in projected 80’s games console-style graphics in order to provide scenery etc. Problem is, all the electrical wizardry necessary to achieve this aim, plus banks of enormous stage lights, plus the heat coming off a large audience packed very tightly together heats the small, fairly cramped auditorium to “High Noon on a Midsummer Day in the Kalahari Desert” temperatures. Lord only knows what the actual temperature was, but outside in the interval one can find large groups of sweaty, whey-faced people gulping down the cool night air while they fan each other with programmes and cling to the walls. As it was a fairly chilly night, I’d almost gone to the theatre wearing a jumper over my shirt and a T-shirt under it, but thank god I didn’t otherwise I might just have evaporated – or combusted – completely. As it was, I had galloping indigestion thanks to Him Indoors thinking that its possible to meet friends, eat a two course dinner in a popular restaurant in central London on a Friday night and then get to the theatre in a total of an hour and 15 minutes (I do like Taz as a restaurant and I’m really looking forward to finishing a meal there one day). So I was horribly, horribly uncomfortable.The Menier really need to review the space they allocate to each seat and increase this – they really do love to pack people in until one cannot shift slightly in one’s seat without incurring an accusation of inappropriate intimacy from one’s neighbour. If you’re on the end of the row, forget getting both your buttocks on the seat. You heard it here first.

If you want your plots to be cohesive and make sense, forget it. Updating the story has had no effect on this and it is crazily disjointed and incoherent. The only time you hear groups of previously unknown-to-each-other people actually making conversation is when they have all been involved in some kind of disaster; train derailment, earthquake or on the way out after a show is if its been so dire it beggars belief or nobody has understood a single word of what they have been watching – I heard lots of “What the Fuck was That All About?”-type conversations springing up, punctuated by shrieks of slightly hysterical laughter. Updating the production itself has merely managed to overlay 70s naff with early 80s naff, making it doubly indigestible (or maybe that was just the broad bean salad). Add an attempt at incorporating loads of Fosse-esque choreography (Bob Fosse choreographed the original production, and if you haven’t a clue who Bob Fosse was, he also choreographed Cabaret, so think bentwood chairs, bowler hats, “jazz hands” and cross-kicks) and you really have got a mess on your hands. The graphics are inventive and fun to watch for a while if you like that kind of thing but rapidly become tedious, and when webcam’d “chatroom” heads pop up and start conversations, they are incongruous, distracting, anachronistic (heavily Noughties) and just bloody irritating. God only knows what happens when the computers refuse to co-operate or someone inadvertently hits Ctrl Alt Dlt backstage – no show, presumably. Its bound to happen at least once in the run. Most of the costumes are standard “computer game character” style – a heavy and bewildering mishmash range of Shogun/Monghal/Harem Girl/Medieval European, with a bit of Tron/bag lady/Star Wars thrown in. The supporting chorus are all wearing skin tight grey body suits making them look like your standard computer game avatar in the preparation stage of the game before you get to choose its clothing. I bet the dressing room stinks already – Christ only knows what its going to smell like by the end of the run; the only way of getting rid of the smell would probably be to firebomb the theatre and rebuild.

Its difficult to pick performances out of the mess. Matt Rawle plays the Leading Player as a kind of megalomaniacal Tim Curry lookalike, all greasy black hair and teeth like a cross between Red Riding Hood’s Wolf and a piano keyboard. His diction is at times so bad that regardless of the fact that he’s miked and no more than 15 feet away, a lot of his words sound like he’s got a feather pillow over his face. The dialogue is so toe-curlingly naff (particularly towards the end) that I’m quite relieved that I can’t hear most of it. Harry Hepple is likeable enough as the ingĂ©nue-in-Wonderland title character looks uncomfortable and more than slightly embarrassed at what he has having to do to get himself through until another job comes up in the spring. Frances Ruffelle tries to turn the thankless role of Fastrada into a comedy turn from TOWIE but it falls pancake-flat against the high twaddle factor of the libretto. Nobody can really come out with any honours when the material is so excruciatingly bad. You’ll either love this or loathe it, and personally I think that the Menier has a dead duck on its hands of Paradise Found proportions. I’ve been wrong before and not afraid to admit it, but Pippin is a seriously rotten apple.

What the critics thought




Friday, 25 November 2011

Ruddigore - Opera North @ Barbican Theatre, Wednesday 23rd November 2011

A remarkable feature of the Cornish village of Rederring is that it possesses a corps of professional bridesmaids, whose services are much underused of late. They suggest to Dame Hannah that she might marry, but Hannah, the victim of an unhappy girlish romance, is pledged to eternal spinsterhood. She had fallen in love with a young man who courted her under an assumed name but who, on their wedding day, she discovered to be no other than Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, one of the bad Baronets of Ruddigore (and the uncle of the current baronet), on whom there is a strange curse. Madly as she loved him she left him there and then. Dame Hannah tells the chorus about the legend – the first Baronet was a witch-hunter, and while being burned at the stake, one of his victims vowed that he and all his male heirs must commit at least one crime a day or perish in agony.

Rose Maybud arrives. Rose is a foundling. She was discovered on the steps of the workhouse with a book of etiquette tucked into the basket. She has kept this book ever since and lives by its instructions. She is fond of a young farmer, Robin Oakapple (who is in reality Ruthven Murgatroyd. In dread of the terrible curse, he fled from home, while his younger brother, Despard, believing him to be dead, succeeded to the family title and the curse). Robin is greatly attracted to Rose, but he is too shy to tell her that he loves her.

A stir in the village heralds the arrival of Richard Dauntless, a sailor, on leave. Robin enlists his services to propose to Rose on his behalf. In doing so, however, Richard falls in love with Rose himself, proposes on his own account and is accepted. But when Rose learns the true state of affairs she transfers her affections to the shy and modest Robin, and Richard in revenge reveals the identity of Robin to Sir Despard Murgatroyd; in consequence Robin has to re-assume his family title with its terrible curse. Sir Despard, now free, proposes to Mad Margaret, a poor, crazed creature whose brain has been turned by his previous heartless conduct; while Rose, in horror of the dreadful curse, once more bestows her affections on Richard.

In the picture-gallery of Castle Ruddigore hang portraits of the baronets from Sir Rupert, the witch-hunter, to Sir Roderic, the most recent. Robin is now in residence with his faithful servant, old Adam Goodheart. They are discussing what the crime of today is to be. Alone before the portraits of his ancestors, Robin confides to them his detestation of the curse and begs to be released from it. His ghostly ancestors come down from their frames, making it clear to Robin that their patience is running thin with his pathetic attempts at crime. He is ordered for his next crime to carry off a lady, and after Robin has promised to be obedient in the future, the ancestors change back into pictures. Adam sets off to capture a lady from the village.

Robin receives a visit from his brother Despard and Mad Margaret, who are now married and devoted to good works.. Despard points out to Robin that he must realize that he is morally responsible for all crimes committed during Despard's occupation of his place, and Robin is more than ever determined to find some means of freeing himself from the conditions of this dreadful curse.

Old Adam returns to Ruddigore Castle having abducted Dame Hannah. She is in a rage at the treatment she has received. Robin in alarm calls to his uncle Roderic for help, and once again he descends from his picture-frame. He denounces Robin for carrying off the lady who was once engaged to him. Seeing their happiness in their reunion, Robin has a brilliant idea. He puts it to Sir Roderic that a Baronet of Ruddigore can only die by refusing to commit a crime and that is tantamount to suicide. But suicide itself is a crime [or it was when the operetta was originally written]. They ought therefore never to have died at all. Consequently they are all alive. It is obviously impossible to contradict this sound logic and there are finally plenty of weddings for the Bridesmaids to attend.
Rose Maybud – Amy Freston
Dame Hannah – Anne-Marie Owens
Robin Oakapple – Grant Doyle
Old Adam – Richard Angas
Richard Dauntless – Hal Cazalet
Mad Margaret – Heather Shipp
Sir Despard – Richard Burkhard
Sir Roderic – Steven Page

Creative Team
Words – W. S. Gilbert
Music – Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director – Jo Davies
Set – Richard Hudson
Costumes – Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting – Anna Watson

How lovely to see that one of G&S’s relative failures can still pack out an entire theatre, and how wonderful to hear Sulliivan’s score played by upwards of 30 musicians (with a second trombone, yet!). How splendid to see a creatively directed production that had had shedloads of money chucked at it. And how disappointing that the singing wasn’t up to anything like scratch. Opera North should be able to field some better principals than this – perhaps they were saving their Big Guns for their production of The Queen of Spades? Whatever the reason, the somewhat limited vocal talent on display serves this production very ill. I’ve actually heard better amateur voices. Amy Freston got quieter and quieter the higher up the stave she climbed, and there were very few – if any – occasions when you heard any of Rose Maybud’s top notes sailing high over the chorus. Hal Cazalet sounded similarly underpowered as Richard Dauntless – in the trio “When Sailing O’er Life’s Ocean Wide” both Freston and Cazalet were roundly trumped by Grant Doyle’s Robin Oakapple. The greatest disappointment was Steven Page’s Sir Roderic – the character only has one song (When the Night Wind Howls) which should be delivered in the kind of deep, fruity bass-baritone that makes the floorboards vibrate. His somewhat reedy baritone totally failed to make the grade for me. Only Heather Shipp’s Mad Margaret and Richard Angas’ Old Adam sounded like they were being sung by members of a well-regarded opera company.

I enjoyed the central conceit of updating the action to the early 30’s, (although this did tend to make a bit of a nonsense of the libretto’s slightly affected early 19th century style) and it was clever and interesting to present the show as an old, faded movie of the kind you get on Sunday afternoons on TV. What didn’t work well was the mixing of this style with the attempt at taking Ruddigore back to its roots in 19th century stage melodrama – there were prominent footlights across the stage of the kind seen in an old “palace of varieties” and several of the numbers were given in a vaudeville style in front of a dropped frontcloth. Use of the footlights and tracking spotlights reinforced this feel, and I began to feel as if I were being dragged backwards and forwards in time constantly while the production tried to settle into a particular period. The design on the drop cloth, while pretty and well realised, was inappropriate to the given location of the operetta being a Cornish fishing village, as it showed a romantically overgrown garden with steps and crumbling columns. Again, fine for “The Good Old Days” variety hall but out of synch with both the 30’s and the supposed village setting. The problem with making everything fit with the “old sepia-toned film” is that the set and costumes had to follow a very proscribed colour range of whites, creams, blacks, browns and pinks – pretty enough in itself but visually quite dull; after a while one’s eyes start to crave the sharp contrast of a splash of sharp blue or green; proof of which came in the form of Mr. Punch (in cherry red) and the bright green crocodile who appeared during the Punch and Judy show. Immediately the eyes of the entire audience were focussing only on them – which was probably deliberate because its probably the funniest bit of the entire show. One of the ghosts was dressed in a dark red Elizabethan costume and, again, the sudden visual contrast meant that my eyes, hungry for colour, immediately focussed on him alone.

What I particularly enjoyed was the “back story” of young Hannah and her relationship with Sir Roderic being presented as a silent film during the overture – if you’ve never seen the show, this “back story” is easy to miss as its explained in a very brief exchange of dialogue, and, if you do miss it, it can leave you wondering what the hell is going on, with serious consequences for your enjoyment of the piece. I also loved the fact that a great deal of thought had gone into scene changes during Act 1 – for the finale, we find ourselves suddenly inside the village church, which fits perfectly with both plot and music.

The chorus of professional bridesmaids were given plenty to do, with lots of highly inventive business and each seemed to have been given a distinct character. If I am going to be really, really picky (and believe me, I am) I would say that the waistlines of their dresses were in completely the wrong place for the 1930s – waistlines were at the natural waist and therefore insufficiently low to give the correct period line.

The technical demands of the second act were extremely well handled, although the sightlines from my seat didn’t enable me to see the entire stage and therefore I missed a fair bit. The “trial” scene was a very good idea and I anticipate this being pinched by at least one amateur director of my acquaintance. The “disappearance” of Sir Roderic could have been a real coup de theatre but I think a lot of people didn’t register it because his cloak was more or less the same colour as the set and so the “trick” was very easily missed if you happened to be looking elsewhere at the time, which was an incredible shame as it should have been a real “oooooooh!” moment. And the director in me was praying that something was going to be done with the polar bear rug – someone should have tripped over it or wrestled with it, or perhaps its eyes should have lit up.

Yes, I have really picked this production to bits rather. But only because it was thought-provoking and enjoyable. Had I loathed it, then I really wouldn’t have invested the time and effort into being quite so pernickety. It can be a tough life being a theatre critic sometimes – your critical judgement gets sharpened to the point where it becomes practically impossible to just sit back and enjoy things on their own terms. So a big round of applause for Opera North for having the guts to revive a lesser-known G&S work and for doing a damned good job with it.

What the critics thought:



Sunday, 13 November 2011

Death and the Maiden - Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre), Friday 11th November 2011


Years have passed since political prisoner Paulina suffered at the hands of her captor: A man whose face she never saw, but whose voice she can still recall with terrifying clarity.

Tonight, by chance, a stranger arrives at the secluded beach house she shares with her husband Gerardo, a human rights lawyer. a stranger Paulina is convinced was her tormentor and must now be held to account…
Paulina: Thandie Newton
Gerardo – Tom Goodman-Hill
Roberto – Anthony Calf

Creative Team:
Written by Areil Dorfman
Director – Jeremy Herrin
Set and Costume design – Peter McIntosh
Lighting – Neil Austin
Sound – Fergus O’Hare

Its not often that I am sitting at my PC when an offer of cheap tickets drops into my inbox. Sure, it wasn’t for anything that I was desperate to see, but there was a certain “why not?” feeling about my decision – it was either that or sit and stare at the TV all Friday night until my eyes started to bleed. And Him Indoors sounded vaguely amenable to coming. So we went. And rapidly realized that we probably should have stayed at home.

There was a moment of high comedy as we went to the theatre to collect the tickets before heading off for an extortionately priced cup of coffee round the corner. I’d literally put my foot on the first of the steps leading up to the entrance when I was accosted by a slightly over-enthusiastic chap with one of those little earpieces sticking out of his lug. “Are you here to collect your tickets?” I paused for a second or two, wondering why on earth I would be entering a theatre an hour before curtain up otherwise. Perhaps he thought I was a terrorist? “Er….. yes”, I replied. “You’ll be able to get them from the Box Office”, he said, “which is over there”. He pointed to the small window about 8 foot away from me across the nastily patterned carpet. The window had the words “Box Office” painted over it in big gold letters. Perhaps he thought I was a stupid terrorist? “I think I could have worked both those things out for myself, thanks”, I replied, rolling my eyes mentally, “I have done this kind of thing before”, desperately wanting to say “Oh thanks! I had intended to wander about aimlessly in your very small foyer for 20 minutes trying desperately to work out where to collect my ticket” instead. Possibly there have been an influx of people going to the theatre recently (probably to see Ghost or Rock of Ages) who don’t realize that one collects one’s tickets from the box office, people who can’t read or work out the directions to the Box Office even though its quite literally in spitting distance, has “Box Office” painted up over it and is in plain view from the door. Or possibly the guy with the little earpiece worked for the Department of The Bleeding Obvious? Is theatre dumbing down that much? Honestly.

Anyway, it rapidly became clear that the success of the entire play rests very firmly on the shoulders of whoever is playing Paulina. And that when she is being played by someone who has never set foot on the stage before, it isn’t going to work. Sure, the woman may be an experienced film actress but honeychile, they is two completely different things, an’ jus’ cos you is good at the one, doan mean that you is goin’ to be any good at the other. Sure, the role of Paulina is a difficult one; you need not only vulnerability but a core of hardened steel that makes the audience agonise over what you are doing and why. You need to be a frightened woman capable of suddenly turning the tables on both the man you think repeatedly raped you 15 years ago and the entire audience. Juliet Stephenson created the role in London and I bet the atmosphere in the theatre back then was electric. It wasn’t last night. You need an actress with balls of steel and a hell of a lot of stage expertise. This, however, was a horribly, embarrassingly misguided choice of role for someone making their stage debut, someone who should have listened to that irritating voice inside the head that we all have; the one that, however much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, is always bloody right. If Newton had pulled this one off, it would have made her a star overnight. But my advice to her would now be “Stick to films love”.

Ironically, this then throws a more intense light on the two male actors who then have to carry the play. Ordinarily, you would hardly notice their performances because you would be so wrapped up in the action. But here, it becomes rapidly obvious that they are both bloody good actors who have learned their trade well. Tom Goodman-Hill comes out of this particularly well – his character is one of those irritating “Shall I, shan’t I? type of men that would usually just come across as vacillating and a bit wet. Against Newton, you can see that he is actually doing a very good job with a very poorly written part.

Stupidly, the producers seem to have incorporated an interval in the play. Not only is there no natural place for this (reflected in the fact that, during the first part of the run – and very possibly other productions - it was a straight-through, one act, 100 minute play), but the interval means that any tension built up during the first half drains away from the auditorium completely and then struggles – and fails – to build up again in the second. So the second half is an almost complete flop. Lets face it, with the current fashion for no-interval plays, 100 minutes is nothing much anyway – I’ve sat there for 2 ½ hours without an interval in the past. With a decent actress the play would fly by, becoming almost unbearably tense; I have a sneaky suspicion that the lack of interval was having an effect on bar takings at the theatre. The piece would run much better without a break. As it is, most people seem to use the extra time to discuss the shortcomings of both the piece and the leading lady. Or perhaps they are struggling with Ordnance Survey maps and Kendal Mint Cake in the foyer trying to find their way back to the Box Office.

What the critics said:




Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas - Union Theatre, 19th October 2011

It is the late 1970s, a brothel that has been operating outside of fictional Gilbert, Texas for more than a century. It is under the proprietorship of Miss Mona Stangley, having been left to her by the original owner. While taking care of her girls, she is also on good terms with the local sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd. When crusading television reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (based on real-life Houston news personality Marvin Zindler) decides to make the illegal activity an issue, political ramifications cause the place to be closed down.

Sarah Lark as Miss Mona.
James Parkes as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd
Leon Craig as Melvin P.Thorpe
Nancy Sullivan as Shy
Frankie Jenna as Angel
Stephanie Tavernier as Jewel
Lindsay Scigliano as Doatsey Mae
Tony Longhurst as Senator Wingwoah

Creative Team:
Directed by: Paul Taylor-Mills
Musical Director: Tom Turner
Choreography & Musical Staging by: Richard Jones
Production Designer: Kingsley Hall
Lighting Design: Howard Hudson

TBLWIT is an odd show. Plot lines run nowhere, some characters seem superfluous, the things you expect to develop into a story don’t. The two halves don’t seem to fit together properly – in Act 2 you seem to be watching a different show with a different plotline from Act 1. Your human sympathy is milked hard for characters which emerge, then fade away completely. Other characters take more prominence in the plot than would seem entirely necessary. The book is dated - stuck firmly in the 70s which, as far as most of the audience is concerned, might just as well be the late Cretaceous era. It doesn’t help anything to play this piece over the top – it needs simplicity, delicacy and a certain touch of realism to paper over the glaring inadequacies of the script. It needs to be sung and acted with clarity, and above all it needs a gentle hand from the director. Well, we didn’t get it. Paul Taylor-Mills directs with all the finesse of a sledgehammer in the nuts, too many people give us accents so over-broad in their attempt at authenticity that they become completely inaudible and a major character over-plays his role to such an extent – perhaps ill-advisedly trying desperately to inject some life into the show - that it becomes a) impossible to understand what he is saying and b) a total relief when he is not on stage.

At some points there is so much schtick going on that the entire piece grinds completely to a halt. A couple of performances are not being given to the back wall as much as given to Southwark Tube Station and possibly further. In a small, confined space, it is extremely badly judged to hit your audience in the face with a sledgehammer where a certain amount of restraint would serve so much better. This is partly the fault of the book – there is none of the coy tenderness of Dames at Sea, just over-gagging and too many badly drawn characters, leavened with attempts at cutesy-pie, homespun wisdom – and partly the fault of the production; think Country and Western music mixed with the excesses of Jerry Springer The Opera.

The entire production failed to gel together for me. It was too loud, too top-heavy, too brash. I could have done without Leon Craig playing Melvin P. Thorpe as a cross between Mr. Toad on speed and a 3rd-rate panto dame with a blonde mullet and dialogue delivered with all the precision and subtlety of a breezeblock (I don’t think I heard a single consonant from him all night). In fact his constant, frantic mugging and melodrama-baddy over-acting just irritated me from the word go. Some chap in the back row seemed to be having a great time guffawing loudly at every gag, and I began to think that Craig was milking the role just for him. I could have done without Tony Longhurst’s risible diction as Senator Wingwoah (couldn’t understand a single, sodding word) and I could have done with the band not playing so goddamned loudly that it made drowned most of the lyrics and made my head hurt into the bargain. I could have done with Miss Mona being played by someone rather more mature and world-weary, rather than the odd mix of a young Dolly Parton and an extremely young Prunella Scales. Here’s a role that should be comforting and motherly, but wasn’t. There was no chemistry between Lark’s Miss Mona and Parkes’ Sheriff Dodd , nor did there look like there had ever been any. In fact, if Parkes had spent a bit less time looking soulful and given his character a bit of backbone (or indeed some mental acuity) then the relationship might have sparked more.

In terms of the manifold failings of the book, I could have done with the Doatsey Mae character being explored more fully - either that or got rid of completely; the role goes nowhere and, depending on how you feel at the time, is either a missed opportunity for character exploration or a complete irrelevance - and I could have done with the characters of Shy (small town girl new to prostitution) and Angel (weary tart with a heart) not disappearing into the chorus 15 minutes after we are first introduced to them and then barely appearing until the final curtain.  These are sympathetic characters and you want to know more about them, but the script just dumps them while careering away with other storylines. 

I've no idea why the Union decided to put this show on.  Its dated and desperately flawed as a show, and the production values were, in my opinion (lets just get this straight before you all start leaving rude messages; IN MY OPINION) very low indeed.  The evening fell flat with a resounding splat and with so many good shows to choose from, I'm sure that the Union could have come up with a more inspired choice.  75% of the Union shows have been fantastic - this one is a turkey. 

What the critics thought:

Friday, 21 October 2011

Anna Bolena - Metropolitan Opera House, Saturday 15th October 2011

England, 1536. At Richmond Castle, courtiers discuss the state of royal affairs: Queen Anne’s star is sinking since King Henry VIII has fallen in love with another woman. Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting, appears, followed by the queen, who admits to Jane that she is troubled. Anne asks her page Smeaton to sing a song to cheer everyone. His words remind her of the happiness of her first love, which she gave up to marry the king.

Alone in her bedchamber, Jane — who is in fact the king’s new lover— is conscious-stricken about her betrayal. Henry appears and passionately declares his love, promising Jane marriage and glory. She is disturbed by his threats about Anne’s future but realizes that it is too late for her to turn back

Anne’s brother, Lord Rochefort, meets Lord Richard Percy, the queen’s former lover, in Richmond Park. Percy, who has been called back from exile by the king, admits that his own life has been miserable since he and Anne have been apart. The king arrives with a hunting party. He coolly greets his wife, then tells Percy that he has the queen to thank for his pardon. In fact, he has arranged Percy’s return as a trap for Anne. He orders one of his officers to spy on the couple. Smeaton, who is in love with the queen, is on his way to her apartments to return a miniature portrait of her that he had stolen. He hides when Anne appears with Rochefort, who persuades his sister to admit Percy. Anne admits that the king hates her, but she remains firm and pleads with Percy to find another woman worthy of his affection. Just as he draws his sword and threatens to kill himself, Henry bursts in. Smeaton proclaims the queen’s innocence and in the process the furious king seizes the miniature, providing him with welcome proof of his wife’s seeming infidelity. Anne, Percy, and Smeaton are arrested

Anne has been imprisoned in her London apartments. Jane arrives to tell her that she can avoid execution by pleading guilty and confessing her love for Percy, thereby allowing the king to remarry. Anne refuses, cursing the woman who will be her successor. Jane admits that she is that woman. Shocked, Anne dismisses her . Smeaton has falsely testified to being the queen’s lover, believing that his confession would save Anne’s life, but in fact he has sealed her fate. Anne tells the king that she is ready to die but begs him to spare her the humiliation of a trial. Percy claims that he and Anne were married before she became the king’s wife. Even though he thinks this is a lie, Henry triumphantly replies that another, worthier woman will ascend the throne. Jane pleads with Henry for Anne’s life, but he dismisses her. News arrives of the council’s verdict: The royal marriage is dissolved and Anne and her accomplices are to be executed.

Her fellow prisoners are brought in and Smeaton blames himself for having caused Anne’s impending death. When bells and cannon fire are heard, announcing the king’s new marriage, Anne suddenly comes to her senses. She furiously curses the royal couple and goes off to face her execution.
Anne Boleyn - Anna Netrebko
Jane Seymour - Ekaterina Gubanova
Smeaton - Tamara Mumford
Richard Percy - Stephen Costello
Henry VIII - Ildar Abdrazakov

Creative team:
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Production: David McVicar
Set design: Robert Jones
Costumes: Jenny Tiramani
Lighting: Paule Constable

No, I haven’t suddenly decided to take a short break in New York – this was the first in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 “Live Transmission” series, which I saw from a very comfortable seat at Greenwich Picturehouse. Sure, I wasn’t there in person, but feel that a live relay entitles me to write a review as if I was. And hey, its either write a review of Anna Bolena or do the washing up, and I know which I’d rather do, frankly. The main reason we went was that Anna Netrebko was starring in the title role – and as regular readers will know, the woman is practically the House Goddess around here. I have to admit that on paper, she’s not the first person you would think of when casting this role – Boleyn was in her late 20’s when she was scheming and screwing her way to the top, and Netrebko is now 40 and, frankly, rather matronly. If anyone’s writing an opera about the life of Catherine of Aragon, Netrebko is definitely your diva. Seeing her as Anne Boleyn is admittedly a stretch, although perhaps not quite so much a stretch as seeing Ekaterina Gubanova as Jane Seymour, resembling as she did more resemblance to an animated sofa than to the pale and submissive teenage Queen-in-Waiting. Anyhoo, Anna Bolena takes a shedload of historical liberties with the story anyway so I suppose this was just one more liberty the audience had to swallow. Mind you, the audience in Greenwich was so old and doddery the majority of them were probably at Court when Anne Boleyn was still in nappies – one old cove a couple of rows behind us could be heard pontificating that “the entire intelligentsia of SE13 are here this afternoon”, obviously failing to realise that some of the said intelligentsia had travelled all the way from the cultural deserts of SE9 to be there. I do love opera audiences; they’re always so entirely convinced of their own superiority over other people. It’s a pleasure to listen to them sort their world into “opera lovers” and “scum”. Fortunately, if I get “Opera Snob DTs” I can always listen to my own personal Opera Snob waffling on about “the vocal instrument”. and "snatching at the top D in "Visi tui".  

The problem with this opera is that you cannot do anything with it. It has a specific setting in a specific historical period and this means it can’t be fiddled with. Allied to this problem is that it’s very much a “stand there and sing” piece – lots of declaiming, very little action. There are no choruses of jolly villagers to leaven the mix and bring a bit of light relief. There’s no humorous mistaken identities, nobody dressing up as someone else and not being recognised until the final scene. Everyone is angst-ridden and watching their neck, the story is set in a particular groove and all that the performers can do is get through it as best they can. This is old-fashioned opera – everyone standing around singing at each other wringing their hands and emoting like crazy. So it does make for a fairly static production even at the best of times, and the Met’s stab at it is no exception. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes do little to leaven the gloom – for the most part everyone is dressed in sombre colours so there’s little to look at when the going gets heavy. Tiramani was interviewed backstage in the interval – she bears more than a passing resemblance to Edna Modes from The Invincibles – and gave a spirited defence of her designs, saying that she had used Holbein portraits as her inspiration, so they were historically accurate. That’s all well and good, but this is opera, for pete’s sake – you can get away with murder if you want to; people will swallow big lies in opera but choke on the little ones. I don’t see any reason why things couldn’t have been brightened up a bit. I had a major problem with the female cast’s headdresses – Anne Boleyn was educated at the French court, and popularised French fashions in England when she became queen. Anna Bolena herself only appeared in the French hood once when she should have been wearing it constantly and every other woman on stage wore the Gable hood, a by then very old fashioned style; Netrebko later appeared wearing a type of headdress more associated with Anne of Cleves and which was not fashionable in England at the time.  Every woman at court during Anne’s reign would have followed the fashion set by the Queen. What is worse, the Gable hood doesn’t suit women with large features, and Gubanova looked like somebody had dropped a small house on her head. So much for authenticity of research – it was simply wrong. Another major historical inaccuracy was having Netrebko make her first entrance accompanied by a young girl with long red hair – presumably this was meant to be her daughter, the future Elizabeth I – yet Elizabeth was barely 3 years old when Boleyn died.

Anyway, I have digressed and found myself stuck in a slight backwater here. Meanwhile, in another room in the castle……One thing I did enjoy about the production was that the set allowed for a great deal of listening at doors or processing along shadowy corridors while the principals slugged it out centre stage, which really brought home just how dangerous a place Henry’s court was – you were never alone, even when you thought you were. There was always someone sneaking around picking up little snippets of information to be stored away and used against someone at a later date. And I enjoyed Netrebko’s performance thoroughly – crikey, that woman can act. She can switch from fury to terror in the click of a finger, and I thought she brought Donizetti’s somewhat two-dimensional heroine fully to life (charmingly, in her pre-performance interview, she confessed to having watched several episodes of The Tudors as research). Ildar Abdrazakov (a name which sounds more like a sneeze every time I say it) left his audience in no doubt that his Henry was a man used to being obeyed instantly and constantly frustrated that his Queen refused to be brought to heel. Henry VIII is somewhat of a cardboard king anyway – we all know (or think we know) what Henry was like because of the way he is portrayed in portraits, in films and on TV, and Mr. Sneezy managed to flesh out his portrayal excellently. Gubanova was awful – far too old, far too fat, far too wooden; a really unlikely choice of shag for the King of England when he’s got Netrebko’s Boleyn to get jiggy with.

So it was an interesting evening – an interesting experience to see a live transmission and what could be done to make a really boring, static opera more accessible (answer: not that much). It was hilarious to hear Renee Fleming, hosting the transmission, make an appeal for donations to the Met (probably the richest opera house in the entire world) when they get corporate sponsorship by Bloomberg, a deeply nasty corporation devoted to the evils of Capitalism and with trillions in the bank and Toll Brothers, “America’s luxury home builders” who design “trophy homes” for America’s most evil Capitalists. But it was not so much fun sitting next to one particular old cow in the audience. I’d been running the tail end of a bad cold during the week and had just reached the “oh god I can’t stop coughing” stage. I’d managed not to cough at all during the first three hours or so, but the dry air in the cinema caught up with me by the final act. Its not like I was coughing up blood like some tubercular heroine or something, and I did have a handkerchief with me that I used to muffle the sound as much as I could. But the more I tried to relax my throat, the more persistent the tickle got and inevitably, the coughs came. I left my seat at the end, wriggled out past said old cow and then stood to one side to let other people pass while Him Indoors gathered up his opera glasses and his fur stole. Old Cow obviously thought I had left, because she boomed out to her companion “I could have walloped that fool who ruined everything by coughing all the way through”. The red mist descended and I told her in no uncertain terms that I’d done my best a) not to cough to start with and b) be as quiet as I could and that coughing was a human function with no laws against it in public places. Unfortunately for Old Cow, she decided to counter this by telling me “You should have stayed at home”. I was sorely tempted to ask her if I she'd rather I wasted my ticket and stood in the broom cupboard at home instead, but contended myself by telling her to hurry home in case someone dropped a house on her too. Silly old bitch.

What the critics said:




Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Madness of King George III - Richmond Theatre, Saturday 10th September 2011


The story begins nearly three decades into George's reign, in 1788, as the unstable king begins to show signs of increasing dementia, from violent fits of foul language to bouts of forgetfulness. This weakness seems like the perfect chance to overthrow the unpopular George, whom many blame for the loss of the American colonies, in favour of the Prince of Wales but the King's Prime Minister William Pitt and his wife Queen Charlotte are determined to protect the throne. Doctors are brought in, but the archaic treatments of the time prove of little value. In desperation, they turn to Dr. Willis, a harsh, unconventional specialist Willis struggles to break through to the mad king, treating him with an anger and haughtiness George has never before experienced.
George III – David Haig
Queen Charlotte – Beatie Edney
George, Prince of Wales – Christopher Keegan
Frederick, Duke of York – William Belchambers
Lady Pembroke – Charlotte Asprey
Captain Fitzroy – Ed Cooper Clarke
Captain Greville- Orlando James
William Pitt – Nicholas Rowe
Charles James Fox – Gary Oliver
Sheridan – Patrick Moy
Sir George Baker – Peter Pacey
Francis Willis – Clive Francis

Creative Team:
Written by Alan Bennett
Director – Christopher Luscombe
Designer – Janet Bird
Lighting – Oliver Fenwick
Costumes – Hilary Lewis

Ah, leafy Richmond, home of designer boutiques for adults and spoilt children, trendy homewares stores and designer cupcake shops empty shops, the final days of Habitat’s closing down sale (£95 lampshades on offer for a fiver) and …erm…more empty shops. Looks like the recession is biting hard when Jocasta and Sebastian’s favourite outlets are all going tits up. Leafy Richmond, where you can eavesdrop on conversations in one of the many charity shops about how “no, we don’t sell knitting wool, can’t get it dearie, nobody round here buys it anyway, there’s a shop near Teddington station that sells it”. Looks like the Richmond Mummies’ Knitting Circle are having to import supplies for their “Chat and Knit Sessions” in Starbucks then. Things must be getting bad. In fact, things are so bad in Richmond that even the theatre has stopped selling programmes. Apparently they weren’t selling enough (probably because they were too bloody expensive in the first place) and they told their printers to reduce the print runs. “Bugger off” said the printers (I paraphrase here), “You can have 500 less per show”. “Not enough”, says the Theatre, “we need less”. “Well you can take your business elsewhere then” said the printers and put the phone down. Now, is that the right attitude to take during a recession? Telling your customers what they can have and what they can’t for their money? Shouldn’t they be grateful for the business, even if the customer wants less than before? So, Dear Reader, if you know a local printers that’s looking for work, tell them to give Richmond Theatre a call, because at the moment their customers are having to make do with photocopied cast lists – which is a big bummer because if there’s one kind of show that needs programme notes on the historical background, it’s “The Madness of King George III”, as evidenced by the idiotic American tourist in the row behind me asking his mother what the show was about. I longed to turn round and say “The clue’s in the title, you colonial fool”.

The lack of a programme didn’t seem to be preventing Fat Boy sitting next to us from hoovering up an entire bag of Opal Fruits during the first half (you know, Opal Fruits, those sweets in the really crackly bag and even more crackly wrappings round each one). Fat Boy was so excited by the prospect of consuming about 18,000 calories during the performance that at one point he was actually lining the sweets up on his leg in clumps of individual flavours, pausing only to wipe copious amounts of drool from his front and completely ignoring his father in the next seat along who was doing equally serious damage to a Value Pack of Revels (in an equally crackly bag). The clock was running so each was pushing in entire handfuls at a time in an attempt to reach Sugar Overload before the final curtain; according to the Box Office, “the performance finishes at 10:06pm – if its any later it will be because of human error”. I swear I don’t make these things up.

Anyway, I digress. This is a touring production so its leaving Richmond as we speak and heading for pastures new (details below). Catch it while you can because its worth every penny of the ticket price. Its necessarily pared down in terms of scenery (the play is notorious difficult to stage because of its many changes of scene), costumes (they could have invested in a few more costumes and had better quality ones, I think – I can cope with a sparse set but I think scrimping on costumes and wigs really makes a production look cheap, particularly for a historical play. Poor Queen Charlotte had to wear the same frock for the entire 9 years of the play’s action and the same awful wig which made her look like she had a bedraggled tabby cat sitting on her head. Mind you, some of those Royal palaces were notorious draughty. Perhaps British Gas should adopt a new slogan. “Save gas – get a cat to sit on your head”) as well as in length (in the original production, it ran nearly three hours. Here, Act I is advertised as “1 hour 38 minutes” and Act 2 “43 minutes”. Obviously Richmond are strict on timing – I had visions of people acting with an eye on the clock and frantically ripping pages out of the prompt copy while the woman in the Box Office checks her watch and jots down notes under the heading “Human Timing Irregularities during Performance”. So it looks a bit scrimped, and feels a bit rushed in places. Walls slide on, doors slide off and actors rush to keep up with them.

Fortunately, David Haig is completely in control as George III and would only need to fix his beady eyes on a retreating wall and shout “Stay still Sir! What what!” and it would creep back on its runners looking shamefaced. The play is, necessarily, almost entirely his and by heck does he work. It must be an exhausting part to play every night. He has an incredibly deft hand for comedy and also for pathos – his scenes with Queen Charlotte were almost unbearably touching in their domestic simplicity. It is a superb performance. Beatie Edney makes a wonderful foil for him as the homely and fat Queen Charlotte, worn out by 15 pregnancies yet clearly still besotted with her husband. Her accent is impeccable – she manages to sound exactly like a German matron speaking heavily accented yet formally correct English. If it wasn’t for that bedraggled tabby cat on her head…..Christopher Keegan was perfect as the Prince Regent – like an empty-headed Augustus Gloop obsessed with waistcoats and rococo furniture instead of chocolate. If I have one criticism about the performance of Clive Francis as Dr.Willis it is that he seemed to me to have modelled it far too closely on that of Ian Holm in the film version, right down to the facial expressions. This also seemed to be casting to type – there is absolutely no reason why Dr. Willis cannot be played by someone tall.

What could have a been an overpowering set is kept light and airy by Janet Bird’s pale wood designs, scored across in diagonal parallel lines to suggest the sheen of dark varnish on doors and panelling. Three enormous pairs of double doors are cleverly mixed and matched with rows of empty picture frames suspended above wainscoting to suggest a variety of rooms and corridors, and the pale wood flooring manages to suggest all sorts of open spaces and interiors given a few bits of furniture. Costumes, as pointed out above, were adequate and could have done with having a bit more money spent on them.

Appropriately for a play dealing with the Monarchy, there were no “communist bows” as Him Indoors calls bows for the entire company only. There seems to be a creeping egalitarianism in theatre curtain calls of late, as if directors think that it would be demeaning for those in smaller parts to have a proper “walk down” at the end. I don’t agree - yes, theatre is teamwork, but the audience should be given the opportunity to reward individual actors with applause if they deserve it. I “bravo’d” for Beatie Edney’s performance and was glad to see that she heard this and appreciated it. And by jehosaphat did Mr. Haig deserve his standing ovation from the majority of the audience. In fact, I’d got so caught up in the story of this unhappy monarch that I confess to having contributed a “God Save Your Majesty!” in the middle of it.

See this if you can. It deserves your support and you’ll come away having been thoroughly entertained, Which is, as they say, A Good Thing.

The production tours to:
Newcastle Theatre Royal Sept 12–17;
Norwich Theatre Royal Sept 19–24;
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham Sept 26–Oct 1;
Nottingham Theatre Royal Oct 3–8;
Cambridge Arts Theatre Oct 10–15;
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury Oct 17–22;
Milton Keynes Theatre Oct 24–29;
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford Oct 31–Nov 5;
Hall for Cornwall, Truro Nov 7–12;
Chichester Festival Theatre Nov 14–19.

What the reviews said:

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Road Show - Menier Chocolate Theatre, Wednesday 17th August 2011


After the death of Addison Mizner, people who knew him, including his estranged lover Hollis Bessemer, comment on his life and the way he squandered his talents. Addisonclaims that his brother Wilson was the cause of all his failures.

On his deathbed, Papa Mizner charges his sons with the task of using their gifts to shape America. Mama Mizner tells the brothers that their family's wealth has been eaten away by Papa's long illness and advises them to seek gold in Alaska; Addison is reluctant, but goes along with Wilson anyway.
In Alaska, Wilson leaves to get supplies while Addison works the claim: Wilson is lured into a game of poker, which he is initially bad at but masters quickly. Addison comes to find him, and is shocked to discover that his brother has become a gambler. Wilson stakes their gold claim in a poker game and wins the saloon in which the game is taking place.
Addison leaves in disgust with his share of winnings and travels around the world searching for business opportunities and a sense of purpose . All of his ventures fail due to bad luck, and he is left with nothing but a collection of souvenirs - but the souvenirs inspire him to take up architecture so that he can design a house in which to show them off. Meanwhile, Wilson's businesses in Alaska have failed, and he comes south in the hopes of getting help from Addison. Addison has only just begun to practice as an architect, and Wilson seduces and marries his first client, a rich widow, and fritters away her money on various flashy endeavours. Mama Mizner, who is being looked after by Addison and never receives any visits from Wilson, enjoys reading about Wilson's exploits.. Only Addison remains uncharmed by Wilson, and when Wilson finally comes back, his resources exhausted, he finds that Mama has died in his absence. Addison angrily throws Wilson out of the house.
Later, there is a land boom in Florida. Addison travels to Palm Beach to take advantage of the many rich people settling there. On the train he meets Hollis Bessemer, with whom he is instantly smitten. Hollis explains his situation: he is the son of a wealthy industrialist, but he has been cut off by his father for refusing to enter the family business. His real passion is art, and although he is not himself talented enough to become an artist, he dreams of creating an artists' colony in Palm Beach.
Hollis and Addison arrive at Palm Beach, and Addison shows Hollis's aunt a plan for a house he proposes to build for her. Impressed, she agrees and offers to sponsor the artists' colony. However, Hollis and Addison, now lovers, are too busy designing resort homes for the rich and enjoying each other's company - until Wilson arrives destitute and sick. Addison reluctantly takes him in, and when Wilson has recovered he begins to work on Hollis, persuading him to be a patron to his newest scheme: to build a brand-new city in Boca Raton with Wilson as promoter and Addison as chief architect.

But Wilson's conman instincts resurge, and he promotes the Boca Raton real estate scheme with increasingly extravagant and eventually fraudulent claims, Addison goes along with this, and it is Hollis who finally puts a stop to both the real estate scheme and his relationship with Addison. Brought to a state of desperation by all that has happened, Addison tells Wilson to get out of his life

Returning to the first scene, Wilson realises that he, too, has died. Their differences no longer mattering enough to keep them apart, the brothers set out together on the road to eternity.
Addison Mizner – Michael Jibson
Wilson Mizner – David Bedella
Mama Mizner – Gillian Bevan
Papa Mizner – Glyn Kerslake
Hollis Bessemer – Jon Robyns

Creative team:
Music and Lyrics- Stephen Sondheim
Director/set design – John Doyle
Costume – Matthew Wright
Lighting – Jane Cox

First, it is necessary to go back in time a bit. A couple of years ago, Him Indoors was muttering on about a gap in his collection of Sondheim CD. Something called Bounce. I hunted around on the internet, found a recording, bought it, wrapped it up. It was opened, duly listened to (while I was out) and more or less dismissed as “not that good – you can see why it never made it on Broadway”. The CD went into the rack and was more or less forgotten about; I don’t think it ever came off the shelf again. So much for birthday presents. Nothing more was said about it, And then about 6 weeks or so ago, a friend rang up and started gushing about something called Road Show. I didn’t think anything more about it, until Him Indoors announced that “The Menier are doing that new Sondheim show”. What new Sondheim show? “It was originally called Bounce and its now called Road Show. I suppose we’d better go see it, even though its dreadful”. If its that dreadful, why are we going? “I got cheap tickets”. Aha. We know its going to be dreadful but The Great God of Cheap Tickets has deemed that we go anyway. So I started planning the review in my mind – something about deformed offspring and the story of how this particular child been locked up in the attic by Papa Stephen and had now been let loose to horrify London’s Sondheim fans when it should really have been drowned in a barrel of rainwater at birth. You know, kind of a cross between Jane Eyre and Frankenstein, with a few touches of Rebecca. Reader, never let someone else’s opinion colour your judgement. go unlock the attic, turn on the light and take a look – and THEN make up your mind. For Road Show is (to further mangle the literary analogy) more like The Elephant Man than Frankenstein. Its unwieldy and somewhat misshapen sure; but underneath its perfectly sound and has not a certain lumpy charm all its own. Its not a Follies, Night Music or Into the Woods to be sure but, you know, all families have their black sheep. And to quote The Sound of Music: “the wool of a black sheep is just as warm”. I’ve have liked to have seen some information in the programme about the show’s genesis – were the Menier expecting all the Sondheimites to have this information at their expensively manicured fingertips?
What the Menier have done is work their own kind of magic on this ugly duckling (more mangling of analogies) and have managed to turn it into a reasonably respectable goose. There are a few golden eggs because people will go see anything that’s got “Stephen Sondheim” written all over it, and certainly one currently has to budge up quite a lot in the Menier’s rather cramped seats. If you’re not careful, you might have to sit next to a West End Whinger. Be warned though – 1) there is no interval (what it is with directors specifying “no interval” at the moment? 2) don’t be late and 3) once you’re in, you’re in for the duration – the way the show is presented means that you and your dicky bladder are just going to have to cross your legs and hope.

Various items of furniture are heaped along the two short ends of the performance space (with the audience sit in rows along the long ends) – this means that the very noisy air conditioning unit is at least partially hidden - and these are moved around and clambered all over in a fashion that reminded me very much of a previous Menier Gem (Flight, which should have got more recognition). In fact, its difficult to see how it could be presented otherwise – there are so many scenes and world locations that it would be practically impossible to perform the piece as a conventional production. Its still slightly unwieldy – there are some parts that seem far too long (the extended travelogue sequence), things that are under-developed (Sondheim’s first ever gay lovers), things that could have been jettisoned, things that could have been added (an interval – an hour and three quarters may not sound that long, but believe me, its too long). What makes it feel slightly hackneyed, I think is the fact that it’s a bit of a conventional plot for Sondheim – the life story of two brothers, neither of whom are without their faults, dealing with whatever cards Fate happens to deal them and trying to make the best of it in their own particular way. The “biography show” is a slightly old-fashioned concept, and I’m not entirely sure why Sondheim decided to use it. What is even more hackneyed is that Sondheim falls right into the expected trap of making one brother much more sympathetic and likeable than the other. Its almost as if the audience is being asked to cheer the hero and hiss the baddy at some points. So the evening is not without its faults, but neither is it without its good points. What disappointed me was that I had to jettison the review that was forming in my head before seeing it and realising that I would have to start from scratch, rather than it bursting from my forehead fully formed onto the page. Instead, as usual, I have had to sit here chewing a pencil and staring into space as usual, having to delete whole paragraphs because they were going nowhere and utilising “cut and paste” far too much to get this review born. So I feel sorry for Mr. Sondheim and his attempts to rehabilitate his deformed child. It can be difficult being a genius (and if you think that sounded pompous, I had intended to write something about incubating ideas for a long time and then finding that they hatched out all ugly. I even tried to lever in a witty play on the words oeuf and oeuvre but believe me, it didn’t fly).

What the reviews said:



http://www.fourthwallmagazine.co.uk/2011/07/review-road-show-menier-chocolate-factory/ (by heck, this is pompous)

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Dame at Sea - Union Theatre, Sunday 14th August 2011

In the early 1930s, a Broadway musical is in rehearsal. Mona Kent is its temperamental diva star, Joan a wise-cracking chorus girl, and Hennesy the producer/manager/director. The naive Ruby arrives from Utah, with "nothing but tap shoes in her suitcase and a prayer in her heart" determined to be a Broadway star. Having not eaten for three days, she promptly faints into the arms of Dick, a sailor and aspiring song writer. Ruby gets a job in the chorus, but Hennesy informs the cast that the theater must be torn down, and they must find another place for the show. Joan and Lucky, another sailor and her former boyfriend, renew their romance while Ruby admits her feelings for Dick. Dick and Lucky persuade their Captain to volunteer the use of their ship. Mona recognizes the Captain as a former boyfriend. When Mona kisses Dick, to persuade him to give her one of his songs, Ruby sees and is despondent. Dick explains the misunderstanding and the couple make up. While rehearsing on the actual ship, Mona becomes sea sick; Ruby steps in to save the show and becomes a star The three couples decide to marry.
Mona Kent – Rosemary Ashe
Joan – Catriana Sandison
Harry – Anthony Wise
Ruby – Gemma Sutton
Dick – Daniel Bartlett
Lucky – Alan Hunter
Captain Courageous – Ian Mowat

Creative Team:
Book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller
Music by James Wise
Director – Kirk Jamieson
Choregrapher – Drew McOnie
Design – Kingsley Hall

Dammit, I must stop putting off writing reviews and then realising I’m so far behind that the show has actually closed. It doesn’t give you a chance to get to go see something I liked. Because you should have seen this, you really should.

Although I’ve seen a couple of productions that have started here at the Union and then moved to Wilton’s Music Hall, I’ve never actually made it here to the Union itself. We almost walked right past it – if you don’t know its there, you’ll never really see it, its so tucked away. And it doesn’t really look that prepossessing, let’s be frank. It was apparently a completely empty space until it was taken over by one of those far-sighted and highly driven souls who can look at coal and see the potential for diamonds. Not that there are many obvious diamonds out front – the guy who takes your ticket also serves you at the bar and the toilets – well, the thought still makes me shudder and go ick, frankly. There was something from Quatermass growing on the wall by the hand towel and another bit that looked like the Before bit in the ads for anything that kills 99.9% of all known germs DEAD. I suspect that anyone expecting glamour in the auditorium would run screaming from the room unless they found out beforehand that the seats were Glyndebourne chuckouts (totally true, and very comfy they were too, thank you). This is Functional Theatre, my friend.
But Functional doesn’t necessarily mean Bad Show. And in this case, far from it. I confess that I had been in a foul mood for most of the day beforehand, but even I managed to come out smiling at the end, having spent a couple of hours enjoying probably the silliest show ever written. For Dames at Sea, my friends, is a parody of those "Leading Lady Falls Ill On Opening Night, New Kid In Town Goes Out There A Chorus Girl And Comes Back A Star" movies that  were going out of fashion even while Dick Powell was still doing his darndest to convince us he could play the Juve at 56. They don’t write ‘em like that any more – shame! But in the absence of the original, parody will do me just dandy, thanks. Make it a really good parody and I’m even happier. If its performed with gusto by a troupe of talented singers and dancers then hey, I might even crack a smile. Yes, the performance space was cramped to the point where those in the first row were in danger of being decapitated by a chorine’s kick; yes, Rosemary Ashe’s make up seemed to have been put on by a blind man with a trowel (still not quite sure whether this was deliberate or not) and yes; tall people need to duck in case they take out one of the spotlights but when there is clever choreography and a cast who know just how far to push parody before it becomes ridiculous, who cares?

Usually played with a cast of just six, the Union have managed to stretch their budget to accommodate three chorines of each sex, which I was very glad of; I think it would have looked a bit thin otherwise. As it is, all 12 on stage work their asses off. And they can all sing, and they can all act and they can all dance and dammit they can all do all three at the same effing time and I hate their guts for being so talented. The redoubtable Rosemary Ashe gives keeping up her very best shot and who can blame her if she sometimes looks knackered and in desperate need of a fag, a stiff drink, 10 minutes’ sit down and a good cough. Even her wig looks like it would appreciate a nice bowl of cold water by the second half but she keeps on hoofin’ while rivers of perspiration make slabs of makeup run down her face. I’m not going to pick out any of the principals for special mention, but a chorine, Meg Gallagher, for what I think used to be called “moxie”. Jesus that girl can hoof it. And for the very first time I think I began to understand what people mean when they say a girl has legs up to her armpits.

Even the interval was entertaining – as me and Him Indoors grabbed some fresh air outside, a specimen of the type known as My Wonderful Urban Life minced past. Cropped vest showing carefully trained abdomen muscles and carefully cultivated tan, shorts and expensive trainers, Victoria Beckham-esque shades, iPod, a couple of those big paper bags with string handles you get when you buy expensive clothes and Something From the Designer Deli Around The Corner For Dinner. A Walking ClichĂ©, in fact. I laughed almost as much as I’d been doing during the first half of the show.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Don Quixote - Marinsky Ballet @ ROH, Wednesday 3rd August 2011

Driven by the vision of his ideal woman Dulcinea, the aging knight Don Quixote begins his adventures with his trusty squire Sancho Panza in tow.

Kitri, only daughter of Lorenzo, the village innkeeper, is in love with Basilio, the village barber.  Much to her chagrin, she learns of her father's plans to marry her to Gamache, a foppish nobleman. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza enter the village, causing great commotion. Noticing Kitri, Don Quixote wonders if he has, at last, found his Dulcinea. At the height of merriment, Kitri and Basilio, aided by their friends, Espada the toreador and Mercedes, sneak off followed by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Gamache and Lorenzo attempt to pursue the young couple.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discover the fleeing couple hiding in a friendly gypsy camp. All are inspired by the romance of the night. As the vision of Dulcinea appears to him, Don Quixote realizes Kitri is not his "ideal", but indeed belongs with Basilio. Suddenly the wind gains momentum. Don Quixote foolishly attacks a windmill, believing it to be a giant threatening Dulcinea's safety. Caught up by one of its sails, he is thrown to the ground. Near death, Don Quixote has an enchanted dream of beautiful maidens in which the image of Kitri symbolizes his Dulcinea.

At sunrise, Lorenzo and Gamache manage to revive Don Quixtote. Sympathetic to the plight of the young lovers, the attempts to lead Lorenzo and Gamache astray.
Finally discovered, Kitri is forced by Lorenzo to accept the attentions of Gamache. The thwarted Basilio pretends to stab himself and Kitri implores Don Quixote to persuade Lorenzo to wed her to the "dying man” Instantly Basilio is restored to health! Triumphantly, Kitri leaves to prepare for marriage while Don Quixote and Basilio salute Lorenzo and Gamache for stoically accepting the inevitable.
The village celebrates the marriage. Don Quixote congratulates the couple, bids them a warm farewell, and resumes his ever-lasting adventures.
Don Quixote – Vladimir Ponomarev
Sancho Panza – Stansilav Burov
Kitri – Yevgenia Obratztsova
Basil – Andrei Timofeev
Gamache – Solslan Kulave
Espada – Karen Ioanissiyan
Mercedes – Anastasia Petushkova
Queen of the Dryads – Ekaterina Kondaurova

Creative Team:
Music – Ludwig Minkus
Choreography – Alexander Gorsky, Nina Anisimova, Fyodor Lopukov
Design – Alexander Golovin, Konstantin Korovin
Sets recreated by – Mikhail Shishlinanikov
Costumes – Konstantin Korovin

Again, this review is being written a while after the event for various reasons, so its necessarily cobbled together from memory. Apologies for this!

As other reviewers have pointed out, Don Quixote is, more or less, a plotless ballet, so there’s not much to do as regards concentrating on a plot. You just have to sit there and let it all wash over you. Basically, the ballet is just a bit of an excuse for pretty costumes and a lot of enthusiastic dancing in a vaguely Spanish style. We “saw” the Marinsky perform this version of the ballet a few years back, but thanks to some rather strange seats in the slips (at stage level but tucked off right at the side, could only actually see about a third of the actual stage) so it was nice to see what we had missed last time! We actually managed to see a lot more this time round, thanks to Him Indoors’ impulsive purchase of a pair of binoculars in Suffolk a couple of weeks ago – even from the very back row of the upper circle, I was able to see costumes, facial expressions and footwork in incredible detail and it was just like having your own private performance as a result. Nice – we must do it more often.

There is a slight air of somewhat faded elegance about the Marinksy productions, I find – almost as if the weight of history presses heavily on the company. This was most evident in the scenery, which was scrappy and thin, and really didn’t do the production any justice at all. I suppose that when you are touring 10 individual ballets, the costumes take priority in the cargo containers and the scenery has to be whittled down as a result. Some of it seemed to have been left behind on the jetty completely – the prologue to this ballet is usually set in Don Quixote’s cottage but here it was simply played out against a black backdrop. There is, however, no excuse for paring down the ballet itself – other productions I’ve seen have been far more detailed in the storytelling and characterisation, and I desperately missed all those little touches that would have fleshed the story out a bit. I also thought there was far too much “panto” – characters such as Sancho Panza and Lorenzo were overplayed well past the point of caricature. I suppose when you have to get the essence of a character over to the poor buggers sitting right at the back of an enormous theatre, some overplaying is acceptable, but I am convinced that Sancho Panza went right through the back wall and out into Covent Garden itself, if not Trafalgar Square.
I felt particularly sorry for the “hired in extras” who had been brought in to decorate the set and do nothing else but sit there all evening at the back of the stage. On second thoughts, however, perhaps I should feel envious of them – not only did they have a ringside seat but they were getting paid for it! And I suppose they could put on their CV that they “…played Don Estelle in the Marinsky Ballet’s production of Don Quixote”. Their placing on set was a bit strange; although for most of the evening they were reasonably well incorporated into the scene, in the final scene they were all plonked in a straight line right in the middle of the set where they looked very uncomfortable indeed, having to do “ballet arms” every time one of the principals approached. Watch old productions of something like Swan Lake and you’ll see many examples of this awfully outdated practice in the castle scenes – every time someone approaches, all the corps have to raise an arm in the direction of their approach and it looks very silly, very dated and very, very artificial.

Andrei Timofeev seemed rather miscast as Basil – when did you last see a blonde Spanish man? He also seemed somewhat slightly built and was completely outdanced by Yevgenia Obratzsova’s spirited and passionate Kitri. ”. I also thought Karen Ioannissiyan’s Espada was a little underpowered – it’s the plum role of the sexy, hypermasculine matador and needs to burn up the stage. But it didn’t. I completely failed to see the point of Maria Shevyakova’s Eastern Dance (which basically consisted of a lot of sinuous arm waving and not very much else) – it looked horribly like she had got her dates mixed up and had been expecting to do La Bayadere instead. By the time someone had thought to tell her, she must have thought “Bugger it – I’ve spent an hour warming up my arms and I’ve put all this make-up on so I might just as well go on and be a “Spesh Act”, because there’s nothing on the TV tonight and I can sit in the dressing room and bum some fags off the corps de ballet afterwards”.

Anyway, it was an enthusiastically received performance, the auditorium was bulging at the seams and everyone had a good time. I enjoyed peering through the binoculars at the costumes (unusually, all the corps costumes were individually designed, rather than being uniform, and this extra effort really paid off well visually, making it a treat to look at), but didn’t really see quite how £25 a seat could be justified when, on a dockside somewhere in Russia there are some enormous boxes marked “Scenery for Don Quixote”.