Thursday, 16 May 2013

London Wall [on two crutches] - St. James Theatre, Friday 8th May 2013

The offices of Messrs. Walker, Windermere and Co., Solicitors, London Wall, 1931.  New secretary Miss Milligan is unsure about her relationship with Hector Hammond, who works in the shipping offices downstairs.  Miss Janus's 10 year courtship with a member of the Dutch Legation doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  Miss Bufton is managing to keep several suitors "on the go" at the same time" Miss Hooper is waiting for her (married) boyfriend to get a divorce - but will she be able to get him to pop the question once it is through?  Mr. Brewer, the office Lothario, is eyeing up Miss Milligan.  Miss Willesden, one of the firm's most troublesome clients, wants to change her Will (again).  Mr. Walker merely wonders whether any of his staff will manage to do some work today instead of trying to sort their personal lives out. 

For Miss Milligan, there is a surprise in store from an unexpected direction, while Miss Janus has little inkling that a surprise is coming her way too - but it won't be nearly so welcome....
Birkenshaw: Craig Vye
Mr. Brewer: Alex Robertson
Miss Hooper: Eleanor Yates
Miss Janus: Alix Dunmore
Miss Milligan: Maia Alexander
Miss Willesden: Marty Cruickshank
Hector Hammond: Timothy O'Hara
Miss Bufton: Mia Austen
Mr. Walker: David Whitworth

Creative Team:
Play by: John Van Druten
Director: Tricia Thorns
Set: Alex Marker
Costumes: Emily Stuart
Lighting: Duncan Coombe

I had no idea that it was so bloody exhausting hobbling round on crutches.  With a foot the size of a melon and an almost completely unbendable ankle, both jobbies had to be pressed into service to get me from Victoria Station to the St. James' Theatre, where this show has just transferred from the weird and wonderful Finborough Theatre in downtown Earl's Court.  I arrived exhausted and grouchy, and was in no mood to tackle the almost vertical stairs down into the auditorium, particularly when I noticed a most peculiar thing about the lighting in this place.  There are vertical yellow lights recessed into the wall, and they have the extremely disconcerting effect of leaving red "light smears"on your retina should you catch them out of the corner of your eye at any point.  This made my progress down the stairs somewhat more like a trip to a fairground Fun House than I would have liked; for anyone not that steady on their feet, this place is really dangerous.  Heaven knows what suffers of epilepsy make of the place.  But of course, no doubt the fashionable architects who designed the place never considered that.  It makes a strange counterpoint to the stripped back, minimalist, uber-fashionable St. James' Bar that you enter through, feeling like a poor relation and suddenly realising how shabby yours shoes look as The Trendy St. James' expense account clientele sip the latest designer cocktail up at the carrera marble bar. 

Anyway, I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to get. It turned out that I got a play which is sometimes so dated that it creaks audibly, and a play which is sometimes so relevant that it sparkles.  I got a play that has elements of high and low comedy, farce, drama. pathos and tension - so much so that I still can't work out in my head whether it could be classified as a straight play with comedy, a comedy with tragic interludes, a tragedy with elements of farce or a farce masquerading as a straight play.  At times you don't notice that you are watching a chimera, an  uneasy blending of several different dramatic styles and formats because you get caught up in the comedy (or the tragedy, or whatever other theatrical style is currently to the fore).  At other times the gear changes are very (and awkwardly) noticeable - its almost like you are watching an experimental play written by J. B. Priestly in one of his "messging about with time" modes, during the writing of which he thought "I'm going to put together a story and tell it from the point of the comedy in it, and then we're going to go back to the beginning and tell it again from the viewpoint of a different character and highlight the tragedy, then back to the beginning again and make it a straight play, and then again and make it a farce, and then at the end for one last time with all the elements blended together".  The plot is clunky and the end (or part of it) is given away completely just before the interval  in an exchange of dialogue so pointed that you almost expect a hooter to go off and the words "plot device" picked out in neon to flash on and off above the stage.  Its so obvious what is going to happen that it really is quite laughable. 

There are three superb performances, most notably by Alix Dunmore as the fading Miss Janus, wrestling with the thought that she is marrying a man she doesn't really love simply to escape the awful prospect of spending the rest of her life as the office spinster on £3 a week and caring for her elderly father.  She is ably assisted by Mia Austen as the blousy Miss Bufton (peroxide hair, dodgy vowel sound, a different man every night and the 6.10 from Liverpool Street) and Alex Robertson as the repulsive Mr. Brewer.  The side is very badly let down by Maia Alexander who cannot project her dialogue, despite having trained at RADA and who seems to drift aimlessly around the stage jellyfish-like and seemingly without any backbone whatsoever.  Her performance is so bland, so underplayed and so listless that it was only with the greatest difficultly that I managed to restrain myself from hobbling onto the stage and hitting her with my crutch. 

Some of the costumes are so accurate that they make the characters wearing them look as if they had just stepped out of a period photograph, while others look as if they had been pulled from the rag bags put out for the charity shop dustbins.  Likewise some of the hairstyles are spot on for the period, while others are at least a decade out - long, curly tresses were not fashionable duing the 1930s. The set is clever and the scene changes are slickly handled by the entire cast, elegantly and efficiently choreographed and carried out completely in character.  Elements of the direction bothered me slightly, most noticeably during the more farcical moments when seemingly everyone is sent the long way round the front of a desk rather than taking the more direct and logical route across the back of the stage.  There are some issues with badly placed chairs in the scenes in Mr Walker's office and both exits from the stage seem rather cramped, meaning that characters often appear to be sidling off through a door rather than exiting through it naturally. 

All in all a good evening, which would have been better if the play had been rather more sure of what it was trying to be.  It would have worked as a straight play, a tragi-comedy or a farce but not a blend of all three.  It's a period piece which hasn't been seen since its first run and I very much doubt whether it will ever surface again after this outing. 

Monday, 6 May 2013

Venus and Adonis {on a crutch] - Isango Ensemble@ Shakespeare's Globe, Friday 3rd May 2013


Venus, Goddess of Love, is playing with her son Cupid and is pricked by one of his arrows. Under its influence, she sees the beautiful mortal Adonis and is consumed with passion for him. She ambushes him while he is on his way to the hung and attempts to seduce him. She conjures a mare to captivate his horse and it follows the mare into the forest, leaving Adonis trapped with no means of leaving. All day long she tries to persuade him to make love to her, offering him freely all the delights of her divine body but he remains impervious.
As evening falls, he agrees to kiss her farewell hoping that this will satisfy her so that he can escape to his friends and prepare for the next day’s hunt. Driven to new heights of arousal by the kiss and frantic at the thought that he may be killed the following day, she once again attempts to force herself on him, but is again unsuccessful and he escapes.
The following day she hears the sound of the hunt and searches for Adonis. She follows the sounds of the horns and finds a boar at bay, tusks dripping with blood. She is confronted by Death, whom she berates. Hearing the horns, she apologises to Death for her mistake but at that moment sees Adonis with his side ripped open. As she watches, his body melts away and a white flower, speckled with the red of his blood, grows where he lay. She is distraught and fortells that all love will now be tainted with jealously; it will be fickle and false, making fools of both men and women. It will be the cause of war and from that day forth those that love the most shall enjoy it the least. She fades away into the forest.

Venus (in order of appearance):
Pauline Malefane
Busisiwe Ngejane
Noluthando Boqwana
Nobulumko Mngxekeza
Zokeka Mpotsha
Zanele Mbatha
Bongiwe Mapassa

Adonis: Mhlekazi Mosiea
Boar: Luvo Rasmeni
Death: Zebulon Mmusi
Cupid: Zamile Gantana

Creative Team:
Words: Will Shakespeare
Director: Mark Dornford-May
Conductor: Mandisi Dyantyis
Choreography: Lungelo Ngamlana
Costume: Gail Behr

Ah, spring. When a young man’s fancy turns to planting stuff on the allotment. Unfortunately, this young man managed to fall over and snap a ligament that day so it was with a crutch and a right foot looking like a black grapefruit that I managed to crawl to the Globe Theatre and review this through a red mist of pain. The things I put myself through for you lot. Having sounded off before about how bloody miserable the Globe Stewards can be, I have to (in the main) retract that statement and thank them for – more or less – putting themselves through hoops to help me get around, particularly a lovely lady called Francesca who took me up to my seat via the goods lift, allowing me a privileged look at the general backstage clutter and several cast members in their scanties. Wasn’t quite so keen on the woman afterwards who, when called upon to provide assistance in getting a taxi back to the station, said merely that there was a taxi rank at Southwark Tube Station (further away than London Bridge station itself and a long, painful hobble on one leg and a crutch). When this fact was pointed out, all we got was a telephone number scribbled on a post-it note and shoved in our general direction. So, Globe, still lots of PR training needed front of house please.

A while back, and with a different hat on, I waxed extremely lyrical of the Isango Ensemble's production of The Magic Flute at the Young Vic. In fact, it probably still stands as the most I have ever enjoyed an opera performance (there are many contenders for the least enjoyed, with a four-hour production of Ariodante in Barcelona probably taking the gong). So that’s why I staggered up to central London on public transport to see this company have a bash at an obscure Shakespeare poem and in the main, I wasn’t disappointed. It was performed with the same amount of obvious joy and conviction, even if the plot (if it can really be called such) doesn’t lend itself to quite the same level of creativity and sustained humour. Even though its presented in a mixture of languages (English, IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana and Afrikaans), there are laughs aplenty and nobody misses many of the subtleties of the dialogue because this production simply shows that you don’t need to know a language if the essentials of the plot are spelled out clearly enough for you through mime, facial expression, body language and the occasional bit of slapstick. Add the elemental, pounding rhythms of African music and amazing tribal choreography and you’re onto a winner. A pity that the audience was relatively thin and that this production was only showing for four performances but Bwana, I was close to throwing away my stick and getting on down with the best of them. Judging by the audience reaction, I wasn’t alone. There is something primeval about that music, those rhythms, something that transcends race, time and culture, something that just reaches inside and evokes a response from feelings and memories deep and dark and long suppressed.

The most interesting concept was to have the female lead played by seven women in rotation (and sometimes in combination or even all at once) in order to demonstrate that a goddess can show whichever face she pleases and can be mother, wife, lover or whore when attempting to capture her man, depending on the occasion (and the man). A simple length of white cloth, wound round the body in a variety of ways, starts off echoing the classical drapery that Venus traditionally wears but becomes skirt, scarf, brassiere, cloak, blindfold, rope, blanket and, eventually, shroud. There’s no need for scenery – you supply that, so you can set the story where you please, either in a sylvan glade or thornbushes and sand dunes. There is physical comedy aplenty – a seductive roll of a pair of ample hips, the batting of a pair of large brown eyes, the shooing away of an unwanted spectator. The masterstroke is having Cupid played by an enormously fat man in a skin-tight white T shirt with the word “Cupid” emblazoned across the paunch – it makes everyone laugh and gets the audience completely on your side by reassuring them that this isn’t going to be highbrow.

The paper-thin plot doesn’t really allow for much development, and the wordy bits seem to drag a little compared with the dancing and the physical action, but make no mistake, on a warm spring evening it was a pleasure to be there and feel the beat – even though some of this was the throbbing in my foot. I enjoyed it even through the pain.

What the critics thought: