Thursday, 27 December 2012

Exhibition review: PreRaphaelites: Victorian AvantGarde - Tate Britain 21st December 2012

Driven from the house because I could no longer bear the upheaval created by the builders who are putting in a new bathroom (tentacles of chaos extended from the room itself through the hall, the kitchen and the spare room, leaving me trying to maintain some semblance of normality in either the living room or the bedroom) and feeling somewhat emotionally labile after a bad tussle with Mr. Novovirus and therefore unwilling to subject myself to the delights of the pre-Christmas scrum in the High Street, I decided to seek an oasis of light and calm at the Tate Gallery.  Because of the current chaos caused by the building works at Victoria, I couldn't find the right bus stop and ended up having to walk to Pimlico; not a great experience when you have to stop every couple of hundred yards to catch your breath.  Maybe I should have got a taxi because, Dear Reader, it turned out that I was going to need every last bit of energy to get round this huge exhibtion, the scale of which I completely underestimated. 
I have no objection to paying good money to see an exhibition; what I object to is museums' constant squawks of "please donate".  Yes, I will happily drop a couple of coins in a collecting box if it is parked discreetly to one side but its the in-your-face "PLEASE DONATE £4!" signs that rub me up the wrong way.  I think I had to pass eight or nine of them between the entrance and the actual exhibition.  Even the cloakroom counter was liberally festooned with "PLEASE DONATE £2!" signs.  I asked the staff member behind the counter whether a percentage of those donations made their way into his wallet each month and he shook his head regretfully, so I said cheerfully "Then the Tate can go hang" (no art gallery pun intended).  The financial assault wasn't over yet; within the space of 50 feet outside the exhibition itself I was practically wrestled to the floor by three staff members trying to foist the audioguide on me, one of whom was deeply engaged in a private conversation on his mobile phone at the time.  I generally like audioguides, but not for another tenner, thank you very much. 
The first room of the exhibition is quite small, but even this contains a couple of "biggies".  This would ultimately cause me enormous problems with the "Art Gallery Game", the rules of which I outlined in my review of Bronze.  Because familiar images scream at you from every wall, you can run the risk of making your choices simply because you happen to be familiar with an image rather than for more aesthetic reasons. Anyway, even in this first room, there are a couple of very famous paintings - Rosetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Holman Hunt's Lorenzo and Isabella.  I stood in front of the latter for quite some time deliberating whether it would be my "shortlist item" simply because of the beauty of the fold's of Isabella's dress, but decided to reject it because there was something about it, not previously noticed, that annoyed me.  The plants on the windowsill are cotton and passion flower, both of which are New World plants and therefore wouldnt have been in cultivation in Europe in the 14th Century when Bocaccio wrote The Decameron in which this story appears.  I did wonder whether the audioguide mentioned the incredibly phallic shadow which appears on the tablecloth behind the male figure in the white hose.  In the end, I settled on Ford Madox Brown's The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry for my Room 1 Shortlist Item; unfortunately none of the reproductions on the internet I could find do justice to its luminous quality, but its a lovely, glossy thing and I wondered why the Tate don't do a Christmas card of it. 

Room 2 has the nominal theme of "History" and there are some interesting pictures here - lots of Rosetti's rather over-pouty maidens, and quite a lot of Shakespeare-inspired Millais - although I struggle to see how The Two Gentlemen of Verona or The Tempest could be construed as "history". What I enjoyed about this room was that there was absolutely nothing to stop you getting as close to a picture as you wanted and peering intently at it - so often you are held back by a little wire barrier which is easy to forget about and catch your foot in as you turn around - do you hear the voice of experience here? After a brief flirtation with Rosetti's Wedding of St. George as my shortlisted picture (mainly because I think the dragon's head looks just like some daft mummer has been prancing around in a dragon costume and then bundled the head back into the dressing up box before sneaking off to quaff some mead, or whatever it is that mummers do for kicks), I picked his enigmatic Tune of Seven Towers because it was just so damned crackpot for a while before realising that I couldn't justify not picking Millais' superb Mariana (link to a very interesting YouTube documentary if you have five minutes to spare) simply because you can practically feel the velvet pile of the dress she is wearing (and I like the mouse which has obviously been hidng under her chair and which has just had to make a run for it after being disturbed).  In fact, tiny details would become an almost over-riding criterion for shortlist selection during this visit).

Absoultely no contest about the star item in Room 3 - my personal selection for the award of Greatest Picture of All Time.  The almost photographic rendering of the hands just blows me away every time I see it.  No dicussion needed, go straight to the head of the shortlist, do not pass GO.   Millais again.  Two out of three so far; not bad going given the competition on offer.  In fact, there has to be something pretty spectacular ahead for this not to be coming home with me as I leave the exhibition. 

Its a bit difficult to stand and gaze meditatively at Ophelia about to sink beneath the surface, as Room 3 is filling up and there is a bit of a crush.  Room 4 is roped off at the moment because someone has collapsed and is being tended to by anxious-looking staff members, although this does not stop some people refusing categorically to leave the room and  have their picture-viewing interrupted; in fact, a couple of feelingless idiots actually step OVER the poor prostrate figure on the floor in order to get a closer look at the canvasses she fell over in front of.  Room 4 starts to get a bit claustrophobic as no message seems to have been given to the idiots on the main doors  to stop more people coming in. Finally, with an almost audible sigh of relief, the ropes are removed and we can finally get into Room 4.  Almost as soon as I enter, someone shouts from Room 5 that someone has collapsed in there as well.  They are obviously falling like flies, although whether overcome with aesthetic transfiguration or Norovirus is hard to ascertain. 

Room 4  - "Salvation" -  is full of "big ticket paintings" - images whose fame stretches far and wide.  Holman Hunt's  The Scapegoat,, The Light of the World, and The Shadow of Death (a picture ruined for me because of Christ's resemblance to Russell Brand), Millais' controversial Christ in the House of His Parents and, strangely, Ford Madox Brown's Work (odd inclusion; is "work" the new salvation?)  which is so full of details that it makes me feel queasy looking at it.  It always looks to me like one of those paintings used in competitions - find 7 hats, 3 dogs, a baby, a picnic lunch and a blue spotted handkerchief.  The number of famous images screaming for attention from every wall starts to get bit overpowering, and I am just about to settle on Convent Thoughts for my shortlist and stagger from the room, when a quiet, almost rustic image that I have never seen before brings me to both a halt and my senses.  Its another Ford Madox Brown - Jesus washing Peter's Feet - and although I have no religious leanings whatsoever, it makes something inside me chime loudly.  It immediately becomes my shortlist item for Room 4.  I like the man on the left fiddling with his shoestrings.  Perhaps he is next.  At various points so far I have encountered a elderly lady using a portable stool sitting gazing up at paintings with a look of wonder on her face, and here she is again, explaining the significance of the act of washing someone's feet to her teenaged grand-daughter, who is hanging on her every word; they are clearly having a great time together and grandma is enjoying passing on her enthusiasm and knowledge.  I stand and listen quietly and wish that I had had someone to do that for me. 

I'm fading a bit by now as tiredness starts to set in but, in room 5,  I am briefly intrigued by the almost Art Deco feel of Rosetti's Lady Lillith.  I am held captivated once again by a detail - the shine on the watering can in the bottom right corner of Isabella and the Pot of Basil, and its reflection in the highly polished wood of the prie-dieu it is parked up against.  Again, it is a tiny detail that has won the larger image a place on the shortlist.  In fact, I wonder at this point whether I can bend the rules slightly and just have the watering can instead of the entire painting; having such a number of large canvasses under my arm is beginning to wear me out. 

Room 6 is full of odds and ends of slightly dinky furnishings, a spectacular carpet featuring some rather scary peacocks and four acrimonious parrots having a go at them, some of those odd William Morris wallhangings featuring effeminate knights searching for the Holy Grail and, tucked away in a corner, my shortlist item for this room - a Morris design for wallpaper.  I think an entire room decorated with this might be rather overpowering,(a criticism I have to level at most of Morris's wallpapers) but here its lightened considerably by only being coloured in the middle and surrounded by a deep border of unpainted pencil design (not entirely shown in the image below), as if in a frame.  So I take it off the wall and add it to my collection. 

Its called "Tulip and Willow" - and it crosses my mind that Morris must have been a bit tripped out that day, because they sure as heck don't look much like any tulips I know. 

The end is in sight with only the final room - "Mythologies" left.  My feet are starting to complain quite a lot and I feel slightly light-headed in that way you get when you have been staring at paintings for a couple of hours.  There's only one painting here that takes my interest: Burne-Jones' enigmatic Golden Stairs.  I can finally have a sit down and contemplate which of the paintings I have carried with me will be coming home on the train.  I sit on a seat in the middle of the room and suddenly I see IT.  THE ONE.  Because its hanging in a slightly out-of-the-way position relative to how you come into this room I haven't noticed it before. It is completely out of place in this particular room among all the distressed damozels and simpering heroes. I've never seen it before.  Its a simple landscape and I WANT IT and I WANT IT NOW.

Practically the last painting I see has carried all before it.  Its a Millais - Chill October.  Ophelia can return to her wall, vanquished by a simple, stunning landscape, that has little to do with PreRaphaelitism in the sense that most of us would describe it.  You can practically feel the stiff breeze blowing out of the frame towards you and making those dry grasses rattle, and those birds are calling to each other as they fly towards their roost for the night.  Just off canvas, perhaps a solitary heron wheels slowly towards its nest.   I could sit and look at it for hours. 

There's only one problem - it belongs to Andrew Lloyd Webber.  And I find in the gift shop that he has refused the Tate permission to reproduce it as a postcard.  Still, I can carry it home with me anyway. Its been an exhausting afternoon, and its time for a hot chocolate in the cafeteria before finding my way back to the station. . 

PreRaphaelites - Victorian Avant Garde ends in mid-January.  Still time to catch it - perhaps in the long, slow days between Christmas and New Year when there is little else to do but eat leftovers and slump in front of the TV.  Its well worth the effort.  Its a little overwhelming at times - there are so many famous paintings that it can feel disorientating, a bit like seeing a crowd of old friends at a party - but at this particular party, the crowds have suddenly parted and, from the other side of the room, a beautiful stranger has just smiled at me.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Aladdin - Richmond Theatre - Monday 10th December 2012

Slave of the Ring/Genie of the Lamp: Suzanne Shaw
Wishee Washee – Tim Vine
Princess Jasmine – Helena Dowling
Widow Twankey – Graham Hoadley
Aladdin – Gareth Leighton
Abanazar – Jonathan Ellis
Emperor of China – John Pennington
PC Pong – Yo Santhaveesuk
 Creative Team:
Director: Christopher Dunham
Script: Eric Potts
Choreographer: David Lee
Its that time of year again, folks – when Him Indoors starts reading the panto listings and digging out the batteries to put in the glow-in-the-dark wand to wave.  Plus we had to be out the house because the builders are in, destroying the bathroom.  So its off to sunny Richmond, boys and girls, mums and dads, for an exciting trip to Pantoland!  Mind you, sunny Richmond looks increasingly bleak – there  are more empty shops than last year and even the charity shops have put their prices up.  We’ve had to come out again today and are ensconced in the library, where I am tapping away at the laptop and Him Indoors is sitting opposite me writing Christmas cards and getting glitter all over the table.  He just said to me “I wonder if this is what it was like for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert?” and I glared at him and said “I doubt very much that Prince Albert kept interrupting Queen Victoria by throwing Christmas cards across the table for her to sign while she was trying to write a panto review”.  But you never know, I suppose, it could have happened. “Did India send us a card last year, Darling?”
Aanyway, my heart dropped through the floor when I realised that we were practically the only adults in the entire auditorium – there were three primary school parties there and the programme sellers were pale and quaking in their boots.  However, we needn’t have worried – this is Richmond after all, and the little darlings were all incredibly quiet (and probably incredibly cold – who would send little boys to school in weather like this in shorts?) and impeccably well behaved and, perhaps, just kept that little bit too much in check by teachers because there was NO waving about of glow in the dark novelties, NO screaming and shouting and demanding to be taken home to watch CBeebees, NO throwing of sweet packets (although biodegradable cartons of healthy, vitamin-rich juice were handed out in the interval) and practically NO laughing or shouting out whatsoever, which in essence put a real damper on the performance.  The script may not really have taken into account of the local demographic – I doubt very much that primary school children from Richmond have ever even heard of B&Q, Woolworths or EasyJet; afterwards I heard a snatch of conversation between one of the little darlings and their grandparents as they passed what to the uninitiated appeared to be a hairdressers; “Look Grannie!”, said little Tarquin, “that’s where Mummy gets her eyebrows plucked!”.    Him Indoors pontificated afterwards that it was the lack of adults in the audience that made it so quiet – there was nobody there to snort at the double entendres.  I did my best, but it was hard work.  There was no “It’s behiiiiiiiind yooooooou!” sequence and only a very brief burst of  “Oh yes it is/Oh no it isn’t” – maybe children in Richmond wouldn’t have understood that shouting out is actually ALLOWED at the panto.  “Don’t shout, Jocasta, only common people do that”.    We moved to a box very near the stage for the second half (very exciting for me - the first time I've been in a box.  I've been in a cardboard box, but its not quite the same.....) rather reinforcing the Queen Victoria and Prince Albert image – although perhaps Waldorf and Stadtler might be a more appropriate one.  By this time the laughs were coming thin and slow rather than thick and fast and there was more than a slight air of desperation about the entire performance – as we were so close I began to see a slightly haunted look appear in the eyes of a couple of the cast.  Mind you, only a couple of the cast were really trying anyway – I have never seen panto performers work so hard to get an audience reaction as Tim Vine and Graham Hoadley.  There was an awful lot of “phoning in” of performances by the younger members of the cast.   Gareth Leighton’s Aladdin wasn’t wearing any makeup whatsoever and looked physically as pale as his performance.  Jonathan Ellis’s Abanazer wasn’t nearly evil enough to register beyond the first couple of rows.  I grant you that the role of the Chinese Policeman isn’t exactly on a par with Hamlet as regards possibilities for character development or motivation but I am sure that Yo Santhaveesuk could have given it a little more wellie than he did at yesterday’s performance.  Rearrange the following words into a well know phrase or expression: The Going Motions Through.  And he can’t sing either. 
I don’t know whether to feel sorry for Suzanne Shaw or not.  Although a complete micro-celebrity (ex member of Hear Say, Dancing on Ice and a bit of Emmerdale and that’s it), she is headlining in this panto and therefore probably getting paid more than anyone else in the entire cast.  Mind you, she’s earning it – she has to double both the Slave of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp, which I think is really, really cheap of the producers.  There are even jokes about why the two Genies never appear on stage at the same time and why they look the same – which is just being arrogant about your stinginess. By the end of the performance she was letting the lack of audience reaction get to her big -time; you could see on her face that she really wasn't happy.  Perhaps children from Richmond have never watched commercial TV and don't know who she is/was.    Tim Vine works his socks off as WisheeWashee and I felt really sorry for him yesterday that he wasn’t getting anything like the reaction he deserved from a theatre full of slightly unnaturally well-behaved children.  It was a bit like watching The Stepford Panto – he even threw in a couple of ad libs for the cast about how difficult it was getting any kind of reaction out of them.  God help him he even had to have four of them up on the stage – this being Richmond they were called Mollie, Edwin, Archie and Benjamin – and I bet they were thrilled to go home afterwards with a plastic carrier bag stamped with the logo of the production company with a few cheap odds and ends in.  “Its called a plastic bag, Archie darling.  Poor people use them.  We can give it to the au pair as a Christmas present”.  Graham Hoadley was a fine Widow Twankey and I would have loved to have seen him spark off a more appreciative and interactive audience.
Costumes were great and had obviously had money spent on them, and there were lots of suitably sparkly backcloths (although I did wonder why The Cave of Wonders had a backdrop which had those pointy Siamese temple towers on and which looked more like “The King and I – Act one” than anything else).  The Palace Garden set was particularly nice – pale blues and pinks and greys; you could do a lovely Mikado on that. 
It all felt slightly sterile because of the lack of audience response.  I hope they get less well-behaved audiences for the rest of the run.   

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty - Sadler's Wells, Tuesday 4th December 2012


Not having been blessed with children, the King and Queen turn to the evil fairy Carabosse for help. She grants them a child, the Princess Aurora, but considers that they have been insufficiently grateful and decides to take her revenge. Unbeknown to them, Carabosse has a son of her own, Caradoc.

The Princess Aurora is beloved by all, although she leads her Nanny and the palace staff a merry dance. The night before her Christening, Aurora is visited by Count Lilac and his retinue of fairies. Each of the fairies present the infant with a gift. Count Lilac is about to bestow his gift when there is a clap of thunder and the evil fairy Carabosse appears, vowing that on the child’s 21st birthday, she will prick her finger on the thorn of a rose and die. The King and Queen are inconsolable, but Count Lilac then gives his gift; Aurora will not die, but fall into an enchanted sleep for 100 years until woken by love’s first kiss. Carabosse is arrested and banished from the kingdom to die in exile.

The entire court celebrates Aurora’s 21st birthday with a lavish picnic. Aurora is presented with a single red rose, a gift from Leo, the gardener’s boy, who loves her from afar. A mysterious suitor, wearing a black rose in his lapel, arrives and pays court to the Princess, who rejects his advances. He offers Aurora the black rose; fascinated, she takes it but pricks her finger on one of its thorns. The curse begins to take its hold, and Aurora faints in Leo’s arms. Caradoc (who is the mysterious suitor) points to the red rose which Leo has given her and lays the blame on him. Leo is chased from the scene. Aurora is carried to her bedchamber. Count Lilac appears and offers his protection but realises that Leo will be long dead before Aurora is due to wake. Biting the boy’s neck, Count Lilac confers immortality on Leo. A forest begins to grow up around the palace.

Leo has been camped outside the palace gates for 100 years, awaiting the opportunity to break the spell. Count Lilac appears, magically unlocks the gates and shows him a vision of Aurora who exists only in the Kingdom of the Sleeping. Leo battles his way through the forest, armed only with his red rose. In Aurora’s bedchamber, Caradoc has been keeping guard over the sleeping princess. Leo climbs in through the window, fights him and kisses Aurora. Held back by Caradoc’s minions, Leo is kept away from her; Caradoc claims her as his bride and leads her away. Count Lilac watches them leave and promises to help Leo reclaim her.

There is a party to celebrate Aurora and Caradoc’s wedding; after the ceremony, Caradoc will conduct a ritual sacrifice of virgin blood. The party is infiltrated by Leo and Count Lilac in disguise. At the last moment, Leo manages to stab Caradoc with the knife and the spell is finally broken.

Aurora and Leo present their firstborn child to the court. Like her father (and presumably by now her mother), she is a vampire – and thus they will live for all eternity – or as fairy tales would put it, happily ever after

Unfortunately, I cannot provide a list of who was dancing which role at this performance, due to the strange decision not to include a flyer in the programme detailing this. Its usual of ballet companies when several people may be covering a role during a run, to give a daily printed list in the programme of which performer is playing which role – but the only way this is communicated to the audience in this instance is a noticeboard in the main foyer. Whether this is due to the fact that the company may not know until the day who is playing what, this does prevent the audience from knowing who they are seeing at any given performance unless they traipse down to the foyer and take extensive notes. Which is a BAD THING.

Creative Team:
Again, unfortunately, I cannot give these details at the moment because Him Indoors has the programme in North London. If you are one of the people who like my reviews because I am the only blogger to give a nod to those backstage, my apologies. I will rectify as soon as I can.

Off on the tube to Sadler’s Wells for the first London performance of Matthew Bourne’s new ballet. Surprisingly, this seemed to be a very quiet opening, save all the hubbub from excited punters and a few token props and lighting effects in the dress circle bar for the rich nobs. In fact, audience reaction (until the very end) was strangely muted – possibly because people were watching in rapt attention to keep up with the re-jigged plot. This didn’t stop the usual Sadler’s Wells rustlers; one charming individual, obviously bored out of her tiny mind from the word “go” decided to open the biggest packet of crisps I have ever seen about three minutes before the curtain went up and proceeded to ram them into her gob in fistfuls (well, at least she used her hands; she was going at it so hard I was surprised she didn’t just force her head into the packet and suck). As the lights dimmed and the music started she showed no signs of giving up or even slowing down, so I nipped over the aisle and hissed “WILL you put those crisps DOWN!”. Temporarily chastened, there was silence for a while, although I did notice that the need for calories overwhelmed her after about half an hour and she was at it again, trying to do it surreptitiously which of course merely made it worse. My apologies to the gaggle of teenage girls across the aisle and a couple of rows behind whom I thought were going to be a source of constant irritation; I was all ready to let rip at you the second you made any kind of noise but you behaved perfectly the entire evening.

Aaaaaanyways, this is a brilliant retelling of what can be a fairly anodyne story. Bourne has cleverly overcome a couple of major problems with the ballet; usually, the heroine doesn’t appear until the second act, leaving you with a bit of an emotional void. In this production, Aurora is present from the word “go” – in baby form. She’s a puppet baby – looking a little like the slightly scary babies that you saw occasionally on The Muppets. And she’s obviously a handful, crawling away from Nanny (you get the distinct impression that this is the not the first time she has “made a break for it”) and making a spirited attempt to evade recapture by the harassed footmen by shinning up the curtains – cue the first big laugh of the evening and putting the audience firmly on Aurora’s side. Masterful. Bourne then takes a nod from the Disney film by having her fall in love before the curse comes into effect – in this way, we are not left having to believe in love at first sight after the spell-breaking kiss, which is clever, although there seems to be some confusion as to Leo’s exact status in life – at first he carries a shotgun and a couple of dead rabbits so is clearly the gamekeeper (bit of Lady Chatterley going on here, perhaps) but then ditches these and trundles on a wheelbarrow containing garden clippings and a pair of shears.

There is also a clever idea used to get over the problem that, having met her prince/gamekeeper/gardener, he will be long dead by the time Aurora wakes from her century-long kip. It did occur to me that perhaps the vampire motif is, these days, more than just a little bit over-used and that Bourne might well be accused of jumping on a particular bandwagon just as it rolls out of town. The masterstroke, however, is how the vampire theme nicely wraps up the very end of the story – being immortal, no wonder Aurora and Leo live “happily ever after”. Even more masterful, however, is turning what is usually quite a bland ending (there is a grand, formal march/fanfare during which Aurora and her prince basically walk to the edge of the stage for the final picture before the curtain falls) into something with a major emotional pull – in this version, the scene is a simple one of happy domesticity, with the couple holding between them a cute toddling baby; even more pertinent given that it was announced yesterday that there will soon be a real, cute, toddling royal baby. How Mr. Bourne must have rubbed his hands with glee!

The story does get a little muddled along the way – Carabosse is banished from court and apparently dies in exile (can a fairy die?), leaving her son, Caradoc, to take revenge. The tiny scene during the prologue in which this bit of the story is set up is awfully underlit and terribly brief – take your eyes from the stage for a second and its gone, even if you could see it through the gloom in the first place. Him Indoors missed it, even through his racing binoculars. The “birthday” act is dominated by a huge statue of a weeping angel draped over a sarcophagus, which is pretty but seemingly completely redundant – I thought it was going to open and Aurora be taken down into a crypt or something. And then its not exactly clear what Caradoc is going to do with Aurora after the wedding (or indeed why) until you sit and think about it afterwards. A synopsis of the story in the programme would have helped, I think, if only to fill in the bits that you miss along the way. Purists may shudder about this, but it does eliminate all the “Why did….?” and “”Who was…..?” questions that buzz annoyingly round your brain on the way home.

One thing I nearly always find missing from Bourne’s choreography is those moments of gobsmackingly breathtaking choreography that you get in classical ballet – the real show pieces. Yes, there is choreography in spades – the Rose Adagio, usually a showstopper, is here turned into a pas de deux full of the joys of first love, with lots of running about, flinging yourself into each other’s arms etc – but its all so dancey dancey; Bourne never seems to call a halt and say “OK, enough of the hopping about, stop and take a breath because now I am going to give you something REALLY special to watch”. Sometimes a dancer needs a grandstand, and invariably Bourne seems to deny them the opportunity. There is always, always too much busy-ness on stage, meaning you miss a lot of detail – sometimes important detail – by having your eye try to take in too much at once.

Another tiny criticism I have is that Bourne does not yet seem to have fully worked out where the some of the laughs are going to come from his audience for this show. There are a couple of occasions – notably right at the end of the “birthday” act where what was obviously planned as a dramatic moment gets a laugh and descends into bathos as a result. Things like this need to be watched carefully and shifted so that the laughs come in the “right place”, I think.

Costumes are stunning, scenery is lovely to look at in the main (although the night-club scene doesn’t wash somehow – it looks little like a louche early 21st century party venue but more than some hideously kitsch 80’s throwback with coloured fluorescent lighting strips and overstuffed banquettes) and some of it seems superfluous (the enormous angel statue referred to above being a case in point; it dominates the scene but adds nothing to the setting or indeed the story itself). Its all danced with incredible commitment, verve and energy and the first night audience lapped it up and rightly so. However, Bourne should ditch his egalitarian company bowing and allow his principals their individual moment of glory at the final curtain – and incidentally should have the entire company on stage; last night there seemed to be far fewer people on stage than the cast list would have you expect.

The rewrite of the story is very clever – teenagers saturated on Twilight and Buffy and so on will love it. Others may well mutter under their breath “Bloody vampires again” – pun intended by me, possibly unrecognised by the person muttering it.
9th December update: Reviews starting to come in. More will be posted as and when

(note: this has to be the most idiotic review I have read. It complains that people will feel "short changed" because the show is danced to recorded music. Does the reviewer not realise how much it costs to hire a reasonably sized orchestra and then pay all their touring costs? Bourne will have paid for someone to make changes to the score and reorchestrate, then would have paid a substantial amount of money to "session musicians" to record the music. More than likely, the Musician's Union will be getting repeat fees for their members for each performance. And touring an orchestra would mean that only those venues with an orchestra pit would have been able to host the production. Honestly, some professional reviewers really don't have a clue!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Exhibition review - "Bronze" - Royal Academy, Friday 30th November 2012

Bit of a departure from the norm today, fair readers. Its not often that I get to see an exhibition – Him Indoors doesn’t care for them (in fact, Him Indoors doesn’t really care for anything unless it is running at Chepstow or has curtains and footlights. In fact, I couldn’t even tempt him with the prospect of an exhibition about horses at the British Museum a while back; I thought I was onto a potential “something for everyone” winner there but no dice, apparently). So it was splendid to hear from an old friend that he would be in town to see this and would I like to go. As Him Indoors would be in full on Diva mode that day because of a concert in the evening in which he was singing, I decided that here was my opportunity to get out of the house and out of what is left of his hair.

Part of the pleasure I get out of exhibitions is people watching – each museum or gallery seems to have a definite “type” and the RA delivers this in spades. In fact, had it not been so bloody cold I think I could have happily just sat in the courtyard watching people in brightly coloured corduroy trousers and Puffa jackets going back and forth – if only to catch my breath; thanks to Southeastern Trains’ somewhat lax interpretation of the notion of timekeeping I was late and, because of the traffic along Piccadilly, I had run (for which read “clumped along in a pair of shoes that seemed to weigh more with every step”) more or less the entire length of the road trying to dodge clueless tourists all the way.

Strangely, for an exhibition that is finishing at the end of next week, the place seemed to be heaving with people and this would, in one sense, have a serious knock-on effect on my enjoyment, about which more shortly. Before that, I have to explain about my “exhibition game”, the rules of which were explained to me by a kindly teacher back in my distant past. The set up is this: as a reward for being such a wonderful person, the curators have decreed that you are allowed to take home one – and only one – item from the exhibition. This item has to be chosen from a shortlist of candidates; one item from each room in the exhibition. Regardless of the number of items in the room, as you leave the room you have to nominate one item for your shortlist, giving a short but coherent reason why. Whether or not your home would actually be able to accommodate the item is superfluous (I’ve “taken home” everything from items of domestic china to 80-feet frescoes in the past). As you leave the exhibition, you have to make the final choice from your shortlist. You are allowed to take home the same item as your companion/s if necessary. Hopefully your choice is rewarded by being able to buy a postcard of your item in the gift shop afterwards – again, about which more anon.

The first room of the exhibition is the easiest – because there is only one thing in it; the ancient Greek sculpture Dancing Satyr; a stunning piece which was apparently hauled up in a fishing net off the coast of Sicily in 1989. Its stunning because it has such a sense of movement; an instant of time caught in bronze. Is he dancing? Running away from someone? Running towards someone? Drunkenly reeling? We’ll never know for sure, so we can make up our own story around it. Its one of the few exhibits that you can walk all the way around and examine from all angles – but in order to read the explanatory notes about it, you have to plonk yourself directly in front of it (obscuring the piece for those coming through the entrance door behind you), bend down and peer myopically at the tiny piece of card printed in a relatively small font. As the piece stands in the centre of an enormous square plinth, you would have thought that the curators would have seen fit to have put a card at each corner, but there’s just one card, inconveniently and inconsiderately placed. This lack of thought and consideration is carried through practically every other exhibit – time and time again I had to go without any background information on something purely because the notes on it were poorly and inconveniently placed. On the few occasions when I did manage to struggle through the crowd looking at a particular exhibit to read the card, the information was generally sparse, terse and uninformative. Often the card itself was so inconveniently placed that I didn’t feel up to the struggle of getting to a position from where I could read it. I suppose this is so that you are forced to go and by the exhibition catalogue in order to understand what you have seen.

The second room (and in fact all the subsequent rooms) comes across as a bit of a mish mash. There is no chronology, so you don’t get to trace the development of ideas, techniques or cultures. After a while, it all becomes like rummaging through a vast attic – you never know quite what you are going to unearth next. This becomes tiring, as you are constantly having to reappraise, rethink, shift your focus – and in fact by the later rooms I was getting seriously “arted out” because of the mental effort required in sorting out the jumble of ideas, styles and themes into something vaguely coherent. There are some seriously wonderful things in this room, some of which surprised me by finding their way onto my shortlist. For a while, I dithered over a Giacometti called “La Cage” and which I wouldn’t normally have given more than a passing glance to but for some unfathomable reason I found it strangely beautiful. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s St. Stephen was momentarily arresting, until you turn through 180 degrees and find yourself looking at a Roman bronze from the Archaeological Museum in Naples which predates it by around 1500 years and which is a far superior work of art, both aesthetically and artistically. By contrast (and its obviously a deliberate juxtaposition by the curators), St. Stephen looks formulaic and dead, whereas the Roman senator seems vibrant and alive.

There is another interesting juxtaposition if you know where to look. In a small, cramped case stands Cellini’s “Modello for a statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa” – an exquisite piece, less than 2 feet tall but full of movement and life. The body of the dead Medusa lies on its back, arched over a deep cushion, while gore spills from the neck. Above, Perseus stands triumphant, one foot seemingly poised to kick the body away, the other planted firmly on the ground. It’s a lovely, lively thing. And yet above it towers a 19th century copy, at least three times life-size; and its crass and lumpy, with none of the freshness or vitality of the work that inspired it. The composition is different; Medusa now lies flat on the ground, Perseus holds her head at a completely different angle. His body seems awkward, out of proportion. Its horrible. Two “horsey-types” agree with me; I love nattering to strangers at exhibitions. There are some exhibits in this room that simply fail to register for some reason – Rustici’s “St John the Baptist preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee” in particular. The medieval “Weeper” figures don’t elicit much emotional response other than prompting a short discussion on how unflattering 15th century dress styles were to the fuller figure.

The third and fourth rooms– Animals – are full of exciting things – a wonderful horse’s head, a stylistically fascinating chimera, a wonderfully animated tiger attacking an alligator. “That’s Picasso” says one woman loudly, pointing to a hideous figure of an ape. “Picasso was fucking ugly then” I nearly respond out loud. Next to it is a wonderfully serene figure of the cat goddess Bastet from ancient Egypt and a turkey so lifelike that I cannot see why everyone isn’t raving about it. The horse’s head and the turkey go straight on my list, although it’s a tough decision between the horse’s head and the chimera.

The following rooms are a challenge – the exhibits are smaller, more stylistically diverse and rather less interesting (the comparison with an attic starts to fade and is replaced by a junk shop) and my interest starts to wane sharply at this point. The room of religious icons leaves both me and DBA completely cold, and though the final room contains some busts and masks which both of us would have found stimulating had they been placed in an earlier room, I think we’ve both had enough by this point. Anyway, my feet are getting tired and I need some coffee, so we wander in search of a seat and caffeine – and hopefully a postcard. Coming home with me is the tiny model of Perseus, after an intense mental struggle between that, the horse’s head and the chimera. The Dancing Satyr is going home on the train with DBA to St. Albans. But we are both stymied – neither of these wonderful pieces have been thought worthy by the RA to be the subject of a postcard. My choice is, I suppose, justifiable; it’s a small, relatively unimportant piece, and I could always settle for the horse’s head. But no Dancing Satyr postcard? Its arguably the most exciting piece in the entire exhibition. The postcard offering is, frankly, piss poor and ill advised. Some of them depict exhibits so lacklustre and insignificant that I can’t even remember having seen them. I often find this happens with exhibition postcards; I know that they are relatively expensive to produce in terms of what they actually are, and copyrights are difficult to obtain from museums anxious to preserve the exclusivity and integrity of their artefacts. But for an exhibition of some 700 pieces, I am sure that the RA could come up with more than 9 decent postcards – particularly of the major works, and the most exciting ones. As I turn to leave the shop, having been baulked of my Perseus, I mutter loudly “The world would be a much better place if I was in charge of it”. DBA, denied his satyr, agrees with me and we go in search of coffee and a sit down; these things are in our control even if the satyr wouldn’t have fitted in the luggage rack and Perseus would probably have been a terrible dust magnet.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Victor/Victoria - Southwark Playhouse, Tuesday 6th November 2012


A penniless English soprano, Victoria Grant, auditions unsuccessfully for Labisse, owner of Cafe Luis. Toddy tries to help, but Labisse rejects her and fires him. Toddy befriends Victoria, and offers her shelter from the wet wintry night in his tiny apartment.

Richard, the ex-boyfriend, arrives at Toddy's unexpectedly to collect his things. Victoria, her only dress having shrunk in the rain, is by now wearing his hat and suit. Victoria punches Richard and kicks him out. Toddy is impressed. Richard actually thought Victoria was a man! And at that moment The Inspired Idea strikes Toddy right between the eyes. Why not? Victoria could indeed be a man - Europe's greatest female impersonator!

Toddy dreams up “Count Victor Grazinsky” - a gay Polish aristocrat. Toddy drags the reluctant Victoria to meet Andre Cassell, Paris's leading impresario, who is dubious about "Count Victor Grazinsky" until he hears "him" hit a glass-shattering high G-flat. "Victor" is in business.

His show-stopping performance at once makes him the toast of Gay Paree. The only doubter of Victor's authenticity is a dashing American gangster, King Marchan, visiting Paris with his brassy girlfriend Norma and his loyal bodyguard Squash. King is convinced Victor is a woman, and determined to prove it, but starts to doubt himself. He finds Victor attractive as a woman...but what if he's a man?

King, Norma and Squash find themselves in the adjoining hotel suite to the newly successful Toddy and “Victor”. Norma tries to seduce King, but he can’t get it up because of his worry that he is gay. Victoria bemoans to Toddy that in King she thinks she has finally found the man of her dreams, but here she is trying to convince him that she is a man, too!

“Victor” continues to take Paris audiences by storm. Norma complains to Victor and Toddy that King is shipping her back to Chicago because he fancies Victor - a man! King confronts his doubts about himself and Victor Is it possible that he, King, is falling for a man? He invites Victor and Toddy to dinner to try and find out. Labisse also has his suspicions that Victor is a woman. He invites her/him to sing. Richard's group arrives noisily in mid-song. Victor trips Richard and starts a major brawl in the club.. Outside the club, King says he doesn't care if Victor is a man, and kisses him. Victoria admits she's not a man. King says he still doesn't care, and kisses her again.

Back in the hotel, Squash barges into King's bedroom and finds King and “Victor” in bed together and stuns his boss by revealing that he, too, is gay!

Back in Chicago, Norma informs King's gangster partner, Sal Andretti, that King has dumped her for another man - and is living with "a gay Polish fairy." Sal is aghast and sets off for Paris with Norman in tow.

Toddy and Squash have become happy partners. Not so for King and Victoria, unable to be seen together in public. Victoria tells Toddy she doesn't want to be a man anymore. Toddy understands. Neither does he. Sal and the spurned Norma arrive in Paris. King admits he loves "Victor," keeping the secret. Sal, disgusted, ends their business relationship. Victoria reveals herself to Norma as a woman and is witnessed by Labisse. At Victor's “farewell performance” Labisse tries to expose him/her as a fraud. Toddy, thrilled to be back in drag, replaces Victoria in a blink.  Victoria "comes out" as a woman, and is happy. 

Victoria Grant – Anna Francolini
Caroll Todd – Richard Dempsey
King Marchand – Matthew Cutts
Norma Cassidy – Kate Nelson
“Squash” Bernstein – Michael Cotton
Henri Labisse – Ashley Knight
Andre Cassell – Mark Curry

Creative Team
Book by Blake Edwards
Music by Henry Mancini
Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
Director – Thom Sutherland
Choreographer – Lee Proud
Set/Costumes – Martin Thomas
Lighting – Howard Hudson

The third in my trio of flu-ridden reviews. Happily for all concerned, by this time I was feeling much better, but if anyone would like to send me grapes anyway, please feel free. I was still a bit under the weather, which is why I was fanning myself with my handkerchief while waiting for the show to start (I was hot). Why the man sitting in the row behind felt it was necessary to tap me on the shoulder and say “Buy a programme for £2 and use that instead” is quite beyond me. I should have responded that I would love to see someone try and mop their forehead with a programme, but I was far too busy gawping at the audience members who seemed to think it was a fancy dress night; one chap appeared to be dressed as a toy solider and another looked like he had found Marie Antoinette’s lost necklace and had decided to wear it looped across the front of his jacket, fastening it with a large diamante cocktail glass-shaped brooch. Perhaps he’s one of the cast, opined Him Indoors. He wasn’t. Still, I suppose it is nice when people decide to dress up to go to the theatre. The woman sitting with the man with the programme fetish was wearing a fur coat. More about her later. But not that much later – in fact, now. Why do people seem to think that, once the music starts playing, it is still acceptable to carry on talking? Woman in Fur Coat sat there quite happily nattering away (actually, she was moaning) for at least five minutes and got a couple of my special Hard Stares. Unfortunately these had no effect whatsoever until I threw a “Will you be quiet!” in her direction, at which point she wisely decided to limit herself to the occasional sotto voce remark, but not sotto voce enough that I couldn’t hear every bloody word about how cold she was and how the theatre was grubby and it was making her fur dirty.

Anyway, rude audience members aside, I had quite a good time. The dank vaults of Southwark Playhouse aren’t exactly 1930s Paris, although there is a certain sympathetic seediness. This worked fine for a louche nightclub and cockroach-infested apartment buildings (the sound of the occasional train rumbling overhead was a nice counterpoint), but didn’t really cover the five star hotel. But vaults under a mainline railway station are going to take a bit of suspension of disbelief to overcome – they may be fine for A Christmas Carol but anything else is going to be a bit of work. News is that the theatre is moving to an abandoned 60s office block just down the road in Newington Causeway. That will be interesting….. The length of the performance space causes directorial issues – best to sit the middle and play “head tennis” than sit at one end and miss a lot of the action. If you do have to sit at one end, the end away from the orchestra is better. Sit at the pricey “nightclub tables” and you will miss a heck of a lot. Not all the direction works – Act 2 is ushered in by a woeful magic act (which I came perilously near to ruining by being too thorough in my inspection of Dafydd Gwyn Howell’s equipment (no sniggering at the back please – he may be a hairy Welshman but there is no truth in any rumours you may hear). Although the Playhouse obviously operates on a shoestring, there are 8 people in the orchestra (2 more than the production of 9 to 5 I recently saw and which has Dolly Partons’ megabucks behind it), all working like stink and deservedly getting their own on-stage bow at the end.

The shoestrings are apparent in the wig and costume departments. Decent wigs are shockingly expensive to hire, and bad wigs just as pricey. Several of those sported in this production look uncannily like they have not long before been scuttling round in the darkness; I imagine the Wig Mistress rushing off into the gloom with a torch and a big stick, hearing a loud thump and a squeal and then seeing her return triumphantly holding her prey at arm’s length and beaming “Another tenner saved from the budget, chaps”. Poor Anna Francolini often has to wear two at once – a bladder over her own hair, a “Victor” wig, a “night club routine” wig and often some sort of headdress perched on top just to add insult to injury. The things one puts up with to earn a crust. Practically everyone else wears their own hair – although I couldn’t work out whether Jean Perkins, who played several small parts had subjected her personal dead rat to ministrations with a wire brush and a can of Elle-Net or was just having a terrible hair day.

Costumes, in the main, looked similarly tired. The only properly fitting dinner suit in the entire production is obviously Mark Curry’s own, and his own properly polished black shoes stuck out like a sore thumb. Ms. Francolini’s dress shirt looked as if it had been used to wipe up a spillage out in the bar, and a judiciously applied damp sponge and hot iron wouldn’t go amiss on her dinner suit either. In the awful “Louis says” number (which was jettisoned for the film and no wonder, because its dire), poor Miss F has to wear what are meant to be Marie Antoinette’s expensive silks and satins but which actually look like a badly made-to measure sofa cover and a pile of slowly unravelling cotton wool. Yes, I know, I know. Costumes are expensive to hire or make. But frankly, if someone outside had been rattling a collection tin in aid of the Costume Department, I’d have gladly dropped some money in. Perhaps Mrs Fur Coat could have wafted her Platinum Card in their direction – she certainly moaned enough. About 20 minutes into the show, one character coughs several times and blames “the damp”. Mrs. Fur Coat chimed in “DUST!” very loudly. The closing number is woefully underdressed and Richard Dempsey has to wear a feather head-dress that looks like an ostrich with alopecia that has been savaged by an overly-protective mother meerkat.

Wigs, costumes and rude audience members aside (Mrs. Fur Coat and Mr. Programme left in the interval, thankfully), there is a good show going on here with some fine performances. Its just sad that they are fine performances seen in a production with lacklustre values; they deserve better. Anna Francolini works her tits off in the title roles, making the daft plot seem believable and bringing a warmth to the role that rather eluded Julie Andrews in the film. She has a lovely mellow speaking voice and a great vocal range. Richard Dempsey, although perhaps a little too young for the pivotal role of Toddy, is so sweet and charming that he just makes you want to ply him with nourishing chicken soup and organise his sock drawer. Basically, he is everyone’s Best Gay Friend – Dispenser of Good Advice, Shoulder to Cry On, Provider of Waspish One-Liners in a Crisis. I must remember the line “There is nothing so inconvenient as an old queen with a head cold” for future use. Kate Neilson rather lets the character of Norma Cassidy go begging, however – what could have been a great comic turn is rather thrown away. One wonders what Mark Curry is doing here at all – Cassell is a “nothing part”, and although Curry is not exactly “A List”, its still bizarre to see him on stage in this. The dancers all work their socks off and the choreography is wonderful. Again, they deserve to be in a show with higher production values. They certainly deserve better costumes. There’s not a soul on stage who isn’t pulling more than their weight – this company is the dictionary definition of the phrase “Teamwork”.

Anyway, this is a good little show. Buy a ticket well in advance (like air fares, the closer to the date of the performance you buy them, the more expensive they are), wrap up warm, don’t wear your fur coat, get there early (unreserved seats!) so you can sit in the middle of the row, don’t chatter to your companions once the music has started, enjoy the performances, don’t compare Ms. Francolini with Julie Andrews if you can help it, compare her favourably with Julie Andrews if you must, blank out the “Louis Says” number if you can, put a few coppers in the collecting tin for costumes if you see one, and try not to ruin any magic tricks if you are asked to rummage in a cloth bag. - Telegraph reviewer can’t count the number of people in the orchestra.

Not in the original production, but written for the film to replace "Louis Says". 

Sunday, 11 November 2012

9 to 5 - Wimbledon Theatre, Thursday 25th October 2012


As the clocks ring and the workers wake up, Violet, Doralee, and Judy prepare for another mundane and hellish day at work at Consolidated Industries . Judy Bernly is a naïve new employee, a recent divorcee whose husband, Dick, left her for his secretary. On her first day, Judy meets Violet Newstead, the supervisor of her department. Violet trains Judy and introduces her to Franklin Hart, Jr, the arrogant and sexist Head of Department. Judy soon learns that Violet, an employee for over 10 years, has been passed over consistently by those who could promote her.
The buxom Southern belle Doralee Rhodes is Hart's personal secretary. Despite the fact that Doralee is a happily married woman and Hart is married to a very emotionaly troubled woman who is never in town, Hart continually makes inappropriate advances toward Doralee, pushing her patience and tolerance to the limit. Hart has also been lying to his colleagues that he's been sleeping with her anyway, causing office gossip to go wild. The women in the office treat her rudely as a result
Violet is once again passed over for an important promotion, even though her ideas are good enough that Hart passes one off as his own and takes all the praise for it. When Violet protests to Hart that he passed her over for a promotion because she is a woman, Hart bluntly tells her that the company would rather have a man in the position, and Violet storms off on her own, but not before she reveals to Doralee that her “affair” with Hart is common knowledge. Doralee threatens to use her gun on him the next time he makes an indecent proposal. Judy is humiliated by Hart in front of the entire department. All three women go to Violet's house and smoke a joint which Violet has confiscated from her son, fantasizing about the ways in which they would take their revenge.
The next day, Violet accidentally and absent-mindedly puts rat poison in Hart's coffee, mistaking it for an artificial sweetener. Before Hart can drink it, he falls from his unstable desk chair and knocks himself unconscious in his office. He is rushed to hospital. The women discover that Hart wasn't harmed at all, but their discussion about the incident is overheard by Hart's nosy personal assistant, Roz, and Hart tries to use the information to blackmail Doralee into having an affair with him after all. Doralee loses her temper and ropes Hart with telephone wires, and Judy fires on Hart with Doralee's pistol when he escapes his bonds.
With Hart's wife away on a lengthy cruise, the women decide to kidnap Hart and imprison him in his own home until they can somehow get him to co-operate and forget the whole incident. But Hart refuses to listen to them and vows to kill them. Looking for a way to blackmail Hart to keep quiet, Violet discovers that Hart has been embezzling money from Consolidated by illegally selling inventory from a Consolidated-owed warehouse on the black market and keeping the profits for himself. The girls plan on using the information to blackmail Hart to keep quiet from calling the police, but have to tie Hart to his bed to prevent him from leaving the house and exposing them. Violet sends for an order of the warehouse inventories as proof of Hart's embezzlement scheme; because of a computer system change, the office will not send them the invoices for at least four weeks.
The three women work together to make Hart's absence from the office as inconspicuous as possible, and they send Roz to Europe on a ruse to learn a foreign language to keep her away from the office. During the weeks of Hart's confinement, the three ladies take a number of liberties in improving the workplace in ways that they see fit.
One night, Hart almost escapes. Judy, who is staying nights in Hart's house is surprised when her ex-husband shows up at the house after following her there after work and he asks to reconcile with her. But when Hart makes a noise, Judy is forced to restrain him, and her ex-husband, seeing the captive Hart tied up, mistakenly assumes that Judy is having an affair of her own with her boss and leaves, claiming that they are now over and will never get back together.
Hart is accidentally freed when his wife returns early from her cruise, and for three days, he quietly buys back all the items he sold on the black market and puts them back in the Consolidated warehouse.
After taking them to the office to meet with Violet, Hart plays his final card boasting that women never can defeat him. Just when it appears as if he is going to send the girls to jail, a sudden visit from the reclusive and ruthless Chairman of the Board, Russell Tinsworthy interrupts him. To the cold and unfeeling Hart's chargrin, he finally sees that Violet, Judy, and Doralee have made some radical changes in the office while keeping him imprisoned, and it seems as if the sudden surge in productivity has caught the attention of Tinsworthy.

Since the women did all of it under the false approval of Hart, they can take no credit for it, but fate seems to be on their side: Tinsworthy "rewards" Hart for his good work by immediately removing him from his position and sending him to work on a special project in Brazil, much to the amusement and delight of Violet, Doralee, and Judy as now they are free from Hart who will never try to destroy them without destroying his own career
Violet is promoted to Hart's place as vice president of Consolidated, Judy Judy is single and loving it and writes a bestselling book, Life Without Dick. and Doralee moves back to her Tennessee hometown where she became a country music singer. Hart is kidnapped by natives and is never seen or heard from again 

Violet Newstead: Jackie Clune
Doralee Rhodes: Amy Lennox
Judy Bernley: Natalie Casey
Franklyn J. Hart: Ben Richards
Roz Keith: Bonnie Langford
Joe: Mark Willshire
Dick/MrTinsworthy: Marlon Moore

Creative Team:
Music and lyrics: Dolly Parton
Book: Patricia Resnick
Director/Choreographer: Jeff Calhoun
Scenic Design: Kenneth Foy
Lighting: Ken Billingstone

Huddled in my jumper, coat, gloves and scarf when I should, by rights, have been wearing an 80s power suit with a nipped in waist and lots of padding in the shoulder area, I made my way to Wimbledon, heavily mucoid and streaming sweat from seemingly every pore, shocked to see what a dump Central Wimbledon has become since my last visit. Tatty and boarded up shops line the streets, and fast food wrappers and empty cans blow across the pavements. Where are the Wombles when you really need them? Yes, it seems that the recession has come to town – so what better to troll out and see than a musical about when times were so good that even the humblest secretary had a bulging filofax (mine had a red leather cover with a blue strap fastened by a natty yellow press stud) and mobile phones were so big they could be used to prop open a door. Nouvelle cuisine was just about to hit us, proving beyond all doubt that lunch was for wimps, and Reagan, Thatcher and Gordon Gekko were extolling the virtues of greed. Hair was big, the credit was unlimited, the working hours punishing but the good times were starting to roll. Cue the music!
Wimbledon Theatre seems to be carving itself out quite a nice niche in naff. So it seemed inevitable that, for a few short nights, it would become a Temple to Dolly. And my, did the audience come in their droves. Coach parties of Women of a Certain Age, well tanked up and ready to tell their boss where to shove his Tippex, along with quite a few Gentlemen of a Certain Age who had probably spent at least 10 minutes earlier that evening gyrating in front of the mirror holding a hairbrush and pretending to be Doralee Rhodes. The Chestily-Endowed one actually “appears” in the show to narrate, thanks to the wonders of technology – and as soon as she did, the whoops were so loud that several decades of dust fell off the proscenium arch’s reclining figures and I swear that at least one bat was dislodged from the ceiling. I do wish Wimbledon’s management would spend a bit more on cleaning – the entire place feels grubby and smells a bit like your grandma’s front room. Not that most people in the audience seemed to care. If the lyrics of the opening number had suddenly descended from the flies on a screen, I swear that people would have been ripping up the seats in their enthusiasm to join in. Everyone (save a few obviously unwilling husbands) seemed out for a good time. And, in the main, what people wanted was more or less what they got – a penny plain, tuppence coloured night of feel good entertainment. No Brechtian angst, no Chekovian misery, no soul-searching Ibsen – Dolly is in town! 9 to 5 is unsophisticated, brash, more than a little cheesy – but hey, bread and circuses, right?

In the main, the musical numbers aren’t all that great, even though they were penned by the Chestily-Endowed one, and I see from the Internewt that a lot of them don’t seem to have made it on the journey over from Broadway – several of them have been cut, including great swathes of the “dream sequence” numbers. Apart from the theme tune, not a single one can I hum a snatch of a couple of weeks afterwards. But they were delivered well enough for everyone to enjoy them – save one solo from Natalie Casey which was strangely underpowered and rather wobbly all the way through. Bonnie Langford (an exact contemporary of Him Indoors – one of them can don fishnets, suspenders and a basque and bring the show to a total halt by doing the splits upside down on a sofa while belting out a number, and it ain’t Him Indoors, although personally I wouldn’t put it past him to have a go) brought the show to a total halt by doing the splits upside down on a sofa while belting out a number and damn I just wrote myself into a corner didn’t I? Slightly scarily, the Langford Clan seem to be challenging the Redgraves for the title of Greatest Theatrical Dynasty – not only does Ms. Langford boast Summer Strallen and Scarlett Strallen as her kin but there’s another one in the chorus of this show, Sasi Strallen. Watch out for the forthcoming debuts of Samantha Strallen, Sarah Strallen, September Strallen, Singalong Strallen, their adopted sister from the Far East Sushi Strallen and their only brother Derek.

Auntie Bonnie makes the best of a “nothing” part that she can (although her solo is a gift and rightly stops the show, Amy Lennox makes a game stab at being Dolly Parton but doesn’t quite manage to bring it off, Ben Richards isn’t quite old enough to play Franklyn J. Hart - I forgive him because he’s got a buff bod and a hairy chest (neither of which unfortunately one gets to see until 2 minutes before the final curtain - but the acting honours are walked away with in their entirety by Jackie Clune as Violet Newstead, who plays the Lily Tomlin role better than Lily Tomlin played it in the film. As mentioned above, Dolly herself appears high above the stage, peering out from the face of an office clock and providing the role of narrator/greek chorus/fairy godmother, although until the colour levels were worked out, she looked so green that she looks like the lovechild of Kermit the Frog and Elphaba. I didn’t hear much of what she said because every time she popped up like the Genie of the Clock, she was completely drowned out by whooping.

A truly frightening amount of this show is clicktracked – pre-recorded and played as backing – mostly for the ensemble numbers, when there are 20 people on stage but apparently 60 people singing, which is a rotten cheat. Its glaringly obvious that fraud is being perpetrated when there are only principals on stage but still apparently 60 people belting out at full throttle. This is lazy costcutting and unfortunately more and more prevalent in the theatre, as is having a tiny orchestra sweating away in the pit playing 4 instruments each. Yes, having an electronic keyboard saves you from having to put an ad in The Stage looking for a sousaphone player, a second trombone and someone to who can play the harmonica and help sell ice-creams in the interval, but its putting people in the profession out of work, as is clicktracking. Both practices should be frowned upon, as should charging people £3 for a bottle of lukewarm water. Theatre management take note, and dust your allegorical figures please, Wimbledon.

This is not sophisticated entertainment in any way, shape or form. The unlikely “plot” is full of holes and the characters paper-thin. It is unashamedly trashy, no-brain, feel-good entertainment, perfect for a girl’s night out with the boys, even though comparing it with clips from the original Broadway production, a lot of bits and pieces seem to have been thrown overboard with the musical numbers en route across the Atlantic. Interestingly, there are some quite thought-provoking and intelligent articles in the programme, although I suspect most of the audience will be reading Dolly Parton’s three-page biography on the train home. As the production is going on tour, overbearing bosses should make sure that they employ a Taster to check their coffee for rat poison if any of their staff are going to see the show.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Twelfth Night - Shakespeare's Globe, Wednesday 3rd October 2012


Viola has been shipwrecked in a violent storm off the coast of Illyria; in the process she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian. She disguises herself as a boy and assumes the name Cesario for protection. Thus disguised, Viola becomes a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. It seems that Orsino is having little luck courting Olivia, who is in mourning for the death of her brother. As Orsino's proxy, Viola is sent to Olivia with love letters. Viola refuses to budge until she is let in to see Olivia; Olivia, intrigued by the impudent young "boy," contrives to get "Cesario" to return by sending her steward, Malvolio, after her with one of Olivia's rings. Viola realizes to her dismay that Olivia has fallen for her Cesario rather than Duke Orsino—further complicated by the fact that Viola has had stirrings herself for Orsino.
Sebastian (Viola's twin, presumed dead) comes ashore in Illyria thinking that Viola has drowned in the shipwreck. A man named Antonio rescued him from the surf, and continues to aid him—at some risk to himself, as Antonio fought against the Duke at one time. Meanwhile, in Olivia's house, Sir Toby Belch (her uncle) has hoodwinked a foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek into supporting him by convincing him that he could be a suitor to Olivia. There is a running feud between Malvolio , the House Steward, and Belch; with the help of Maria, Olivia's maid, and Feste, a clown, Belch plots to make a buffoon of the steward. Maria writes a love letter to Malvolio that will make him think Olivia has fallen for him. Malvolio falls entirely for the sport, which eventually leads to his confinement as a madman.
All the while, Belch is egging Sir Andrew into a duel with Viola's "Cesario" character as she departs from Olivia; Olivia is now entirely smitten with Cesario, even though Viola continues to press Orsino's cause. As Viola and Sir Andrew prepare for a duel that neither one wants, Antonio happens upon the scene. Believing Viola to be Sebastian, he intervenes and is arrested. Viola, of course, does not recognize Antonio. Later, Belch and Sir Andrew encounter Sebastian, who doesn't back down from Aguecheek when challenged and resoundingly beats him. Olivia intervenes in the matter, and - mistaking Sebastian for Viola/Cesario - presses her suit for him. A bemused Sebastian agrees to marry her. Antonio is brought before the Duke for questioning, and Viola relates the events of the duel. Antonio tells everyone how hedragged "this man" from the surf, saving his life. Then Olivia enters, searching for her new husband—who she thinks is Viola (as Cesario).
Adding to this confusion, Belch and Aguecheek enter claiming that Viola/Cesario has violently assaulted them. In the midst of Viola's denials, Sebastian appears. The brother and sister recognize one another and are reunited; Sebastian helps to clear the confusion as to who fought who and who married who. At the end, Orsino and Viola pledge their love, Olivia and Sebastian will remain satisfactorily wed, and Olivia rebukes Belch and Maria for their abuse of Malvolio, who vows his revenge upon the whole lot. Belch agrees to wed Maria to make up for getting her in trouble, and all—except the disgruntled Malvolio—will (apparently) live happily ever after
Sebastian – Sam Barnett
Orsino – Liam Brennan
Maria – Paul Chahidi
Antonio – John Paul Connelly
Viola – Johnny Flynn
Malvolio – Stephen Fry
Fabian – James Garnon
Feste – Peter Hamilton Dyer
Sir Toby Belch – Colin Hurley
Andrew Aguecheek – Roger Lloyd Pack
Olivia – Mark Rylance

Creative Team:
Director – Tim Carrol
Designer – Jeremy Tiramani
Choreographer – Sian Williams

Disclaimer: half this review was written before I went down with the flu. Not man-flu, you understand, but real “Oh my god I feel like I’m dying” flu, and which has laid me low ever since. In fact, at one point I coughed so long and so hard that it caused a problem that I soon have to go into hospital for. So there. So my apologies for the delay, and if some of the details of the performance are a bit sketchy in my memory by now. I’ve seen two more shows since then, and hopefully reviews of these will be winging their way to you soon. So…….

I wasn’t really sure I wanted to see this production. For at start, it was at the Globe, and I have issues with the Globe (mainly because I usually end up sitting behind a pillar so I can’t see, the acoustics can be terrible so I can’t hear, and the seats are hard and have no back so I can’t get comfortable and my bum hurts after about an hour). And it was raining. And I was coming down with a cold. And Stephen Fry was in it (I hate Stephen Fry). And Roger Lloyd Pack was in it (I loathe Roger Lloyd Pack). And although Twelfth Night is my fave Shakespeare play, I’ve seen it murdered many times, so I’m generally wary about seeing it again, just in case. Nothing is as unsatisfying as a bad Twelfth Night – unless it’s a cheese sandwich made with really cheap, miserable, white sliced bread. So, if anyone had cut open a fowl and examined the entrails, the omens probably wouldn’t have been that great for this outing.

The omens were wrong! I liked it! It was funny! I even laughed a couple of times, despite my aching back, snotty nose and numb bum. I even liked Stephen Fry in it! Of course, this wouldn’t be a review written by me if I couldn’t find fault somewhere, and I loathed Roger Lloyd Pack even more than usual, and there were a couple of things I didn’t like about the production but hey, in the main, that dead chicken was wrong! (Maybe I paid too much attention to its gizzard when I should have been examining the contents of its crop). Huzzah! OK, I was still sitting behind a pillar for the first half, so was ducking and weaving like a flamingo doing a mating dance, fully aware that David Attenborough is pointing a camera at it and thinking that here is its chance to get an audition for Strictly, so perhaps I had best cash in a savings policy and buy a really expensive seat next time – but hey, at least I wasn’t getting pissed on by the torrential rain like the Groundlings (the Globe Stewards, most of whom left the SS in disgust because it was too liberal for them) won’t let you put up an umbrella and one does tend to look a bit of a tit with a plastic bag on one’s head. And being a Groundling makes your feet hurt).

I did like the fact that you could hear Every. Last. Bloody. Syllable. of Liam Brennan’s Count Orsino. Perhaps not the greatest actor ever to have trodden the boards at the Globe, and perhaps not exactly the most lovelorn Orsino I’ve ever seen, but at least you could hear him. Perfect projection, even when right at the opposite side of the stage and facing away from me. But perhaps not the most flattering costume silk puffy trunks and glittery pumps are really not a good look, particularly when the actor sporting them has made no effort to give himself a period haircut or wear a wig. I didn’t initially take very kindly to the fact that Viola was being played by a man using a kind of throaty, irritating treble but I got used to it after a while. What really hacked me off was that there was no indication of there having been a shipwreck which would explain her presence on the coast of Illyria. In fact, if you weren’t familiar with the play, you could have been left mightily confused as to what she was doing there. Neither did Viola look like she had been thrown up on the beach by the waves – I was almost tempted to shout out “You don’t look very wet, love”. And I didn’t really like the way Mark Rylance played Olivia either, not for a long time. Rylance plays Olivia like one of those dolls children used to make out of wooden spoons, with a bit of circular material tied underneath the bowl for a dress, moving about the stage as if on wheels in the fashion of one Mrs. Honeyman of Camberwick Green. It got a laugh the first time he did it, but what is funny once and vaguely amusing twice is boring by the 17th time you see it. The kabuki make-up didn’t really help, and I really resented Olivia being played as an out-and-out comedy character, muttering darkly that it went against the spirit of the play. But I warmed to it and grudgingly admit that Twelfth Night is supposed to be a comedy after all, even though I still think Olivia is one of the few “real” people in the entire play and it cheapens the part to try and scene-steal by over-acting at every possible opportunity.

Paul Chahidi’s Maria was a revelation. On paper, a very minor character, with nothing much to say and very little to really do. But Chahidi plays her like a real person – stately and dignified, aware of her position but human enough to show the occasional spark of mischief. Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Feste was another revelation – if you’ve read this blog for a while you will know exactly what I think about Shakespeare’s fools, particularly the ones that do little but ponce around the stage being verbose – and usually as funny as haemorrhoids. But this Feste is played completely straight – to such an extent that the verbiage becomes a shield, used as protection against all the lunacy happening around him. In fact, the audience is left in no doubt that Feste is probably the one sane person left in Illyria. I can’t comment on Colin Hurley’s performance as Sir Toby because, to be perfectly honest, I cannot remember a single thing about it – not even what he looked like – from which, dear Reader, you must deduce that it’s a fairly underwhelming performance.

I hate Roger Lloyd Pack. Loathe him. Sorry, but I do. The man has about as much talent for comedy as a plate of rice pudding and what is worse cannot project his lines to save his life. Oh, he starts them OK, but halfway through his timbre gives out and the words just disappear into thin air like the morning mist. His Sir Andrew was possibly the dreariest and uninspired I have ever seen, and lines which should be funny or endearing are just thrown away for absolutely nothing. I hate Stephen Fry equally, but I was intrigued by the lack of histrionic over-acting that I expected, and eventually quite impressed by it. I was actually, genuinely sorry for this Malvolio when the revenge plot against him begins to take on a dark and vicious turn (another revelation – the prison scene is usually presented as Malvolio’s comeuppance, something deserved because he has been pompous, something for us to laugh at. But here I was left wondering whether things had gone too far, and if it was the three aggrieved plotters had become more vicious than was necessary – while bringing a candle for Malvolio’s prison beneath the stage Maria spitefully flicks a gob of hot wax down onto his head. It gets a laugh – it’s a clever directorial detail – but it made me wonder about such casual cruelty).
There were some other very nice directorial touches too – we get to see some of Malvolio’s stewarding duties as he sits next to Olivia and selects bills and invoices from a folder for her to sign during their first scene. Olivia’s increasingly risible attempts at “casual flirting” show a spot-on interpretation of the text (the gardening scene is particularly funny) and there is a horrible, awkward subtext of the fear of being thought homosexual in the scene where Orsino begins to feel attraction for “Cesario” which I have never seen done so well. And it’s the first time that the weather has played such an integral role in the play – far from being sun-drenched Arcadia, Illyria is more likely to be rain-drenched England than ever before. The poor groundlings groaned and applauded in equal measure Feste’s final lines “and the rain it raineth every day”.
So, why have you not heard more about this production in the press? Its all explained here:

- for some unknown reason, the Globe have decreed that there were to be no press reviews for the entire run, until the production re-opens in the West End later this month, presumably hoping that a blanket moratorium on reviews would whip up interest for the West End run. The cynic in me feels that perhaps they were unsure of what the critical reaction might be and were playing safe accordingly, not least because Mr. Fry apparently walked out of a production after a bad first night review, never to return. To me this is unsporting on many levels. But, of course, the bloggers have had their revenge on the whole pack of you, and, as the Telegraph review points out, not even the Globe can prevent paying punters from putting their thoughts online (if they happen to be a writer for a national newspaper during the day, that is the Globe’s tough luck).