Wednesday, 29 January 2014

American Psycho - Almeida Theatre, Tuesday 28th January 2014


Living the high life in 1980s Manhattan, Patrick Bateman has it all – looks, money, style and status.  He and his entourage buy the most expensive designer clothes, eat at the most exclusive restaurants and party at the hottest clubs.  But privately, Patrick indulges in another kind of transgression. And people - including those closest to him - keep disappearing.

Patrick Bateman – Matt Smith
Paul Owen – Ben Aldridge
Craig McDermott – Charlie Anson
Jean – Cassandra Compton
Courtney – Katie Brayben
Evelyn – Susannah Fielding
Detective Kimball – Simon Gregor

Creative team:
Director – Rupert Goold
Set – Es Devlin
Costume – Katrina Lindsay
Choreography – Lynne Page

Well, what an odd choice of material for a musical.  I enjoyed both the film and the original book, and was really interested to see how this would be turned into a stage production.  The answer was that technology has been thrown at it in buckets – and tonight that technology proved unreliable.  10 minutes in, just as the threads of the spell were being woven and starting to come together, I noticed something had gone wrong with the lighting.  The cast carried on – and then a techie appeared from nowhere and announced that the performance would have to be suspended until it had been sorted.  And then Matt Smith (who should know a lot better) did something completely unbelievable and totally unprofessional.  He “broke the fourth wall” and addressed the audience direct.  And what is worse, he cracked a couple of jokes and started clowning around.  This amused the audience – but it broke the spell completely.  The threads fell apart, reality entered in and it gave the audience permission to laugh.  And then, when the show resumed, Mr. Smith carried on with the clowning, interspersing his dialogue with a couple of comments about déjà vu, giving the audience permission to carry on laughing.  And that is what they carried on doing, almost to the very end of the show, interpreting the show as some kind of comedy, which completely destroyed both the spell and any tension.  I got irritated with the laughter, and with the audience, and ultimately with the show itself.  What the cast should have done is just left the stage quietly, and then returned after the tech problems were sorted out and carried on weaving the spell.  But at least two of them took the opportunity to clown about.  It was Unprofessional with a capital U.

The script of this is very, very strange. It’s a psychological thriller, but there are too many lines which could be interpreted as funny. And when your audience has been given permission to laugh (by your clowning), they will laugh at them, and turn your thriller into something humorous.  And then they will actively look for other things to laugh at, and laugh at them, and unfortunately there are too many things in the production that could be seen (by someone looking for something to laugh at) as funny; someone doing a silly accent, someone wearing a funny wig, four people standing with their heads through those boards you used to see at the seaside when having a comedy photograph taken, even (and these are very cheap laughs indeed) someone camping it up when playing a gay character.  I did wonder why the writer thought it would be appropriate to make this a musical, when it would have functioned rather better as a straightforward play with music.  It certainly would have increased the tension, and made the production feel somewhat less superficial.  It is certainly far more superficial than the book or the film – there is an empty kind of gloss about it all.  Now, this could be a very clever aspect – the lives of most of the characters are very, very glossy and very, very empty.  But I don’t think that this is how the production was planned. 

There is certainly not a great deal of blood.  The first death doesn’t come until almost at the interval. The tension has taken just that bit too long to build to a decent level; until then, we’ve just been watching a musical play about some fairly repellent people being repellent to other people.  In fact, there really isn’t a decent “Silence” until 15 – 20 minutes from the end.  Here I have to digress for a second and explain the term “Silence” (note, capital S).  I’ve used the term before but not for a long while, and new readers may welcome some explanation.  Silence is the absence of noise, but a “Silence” is one of those moments in the theatre when the entire audience is holding its collective breath and concentrating really, really hard – nobody coughs, nobody fidgets in their seat, all eyes are on the stage and everyone is more or less holding their breath, because there’s something deeply dramatic going on and everyone is focussing totally.  I’ve defined “Silence” in the past as “the noise that black velvet makes”.  And we get a “Silence” in the scene where Bateman takes his secretary Jean back to his apartment – and none of the audience are completely sure what is going to happen.  Is he going to murder her with the nail gun or will she get away?  But its too late – there should have been more of them, and they should have come earlier.  The tension has taken too long to build up, and much of it has been dissipated by the jolly musical numbers and the opportunities for humour. 

I also think that the show is too overladen with technology for its own good; the slightly thin story gets rather overwhelmed by it.  Not that the technology isn’t wonderful in its own right – it certainly adds an extra dimension.  But does the script warrant it, or even need it?  With horror, simpler is usually better.  You have only got to go see a performance of The Woman in Black to prove this – you’ll be scared out of your wits by a production that uses only one set and some odds and ends of furniture.  Your imagination will provide the rest.  The film version of American Psycho is so bloody, so visceral, that the stage cannot compete with it.  It attempts to become a psychological drama – and in the main fails badly. 

Not that there isn’t a great performance going on here.  Matt Smith really shows his craft– you need considerable talent to pull off the role of Patrick Bateman and in less competent hands the role would be a write-off and just wouldn’t work.  The problem is that most people aren’t here to see Matt Smith’s talent – they’re here to see the man who played Doctor Who, and probably wouldn’t recognise decent stagecraft if it came and sat on their face.  In the second act, Smith gives a performance that is increasingly spellbinding and is totally riveting by the final scene.  But the rest of the cast are hampered by the comedy, the role of Detective Kimball is under-written and Cassandra Compton’s attempts at winsomeness are scuppered by her inconsistent accent and insistence on using a voice that even Minnie Mouse would find irritating.

Despite the stunning central performance, despite the incredible technical aspects of the show, I have to give it a resounding “meh”.  
What the critics said:


Saturday, 18 January 2014

From Here to Eternity- Shaftesbury Theatre, Wednesday 15th January 2014

In 1941, bugler Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt transfers to G Company on the island of Oahu. Captain Holmes has heard he is a talented middleweight boxer and wants him to join his regimental boxing team. Prewitt refuses, having stopped fighting after blinding his sparring partner. Holmes is adamant, but so is Prewitt. Holmes makes life as miserable as possible for Prewitt, hoping he will give in and orders First Sergeant Milton Warden to prepare court martial papers after Sergeant Galovitch insults Prewitt to goad him, then gives an unreasonable order which Prewitt refuses to obey. Warden, however, suggests that he try to get Prewitt to change his mind by doubling up on company punishment. The other non-commissioned officers assist in the conspiracy. Prewitt is supported only by his friend, Private Maggio.  
Warden begins an affair with Holmes' neglected wife Karen. As their relationship develops, Warden asks Karen about her affairs to test her sincerity. She says that has been unfaithful to her husband for most of their marriage having had to undergo hysterectomy as a result of being infected with an STD by her husband after he had visited a prostitute. Prewitt and Maggio spend their liberty at the New Congress Club, where Prewitt falls for one of the whores, Lorene, who is saving all she earns in pursuit of a respectable life back on the mainland.  
Maggio and Staff Sergeant Judson nearly come to blows at the club. Judson warns Maggio that sooner or later he will end up in the stockade, where he is the Sergeant of the Guard. Karen tells Warden that if he became an officer, she could divorce Holmes and marry him. Warden reluctantly agrees to consider it. Warden starts to fall in love with Lorene. Both men, broke, try and make some extra cash by flirting with men at a local gay club, where they spot Bloom, another member of the company. The military police arrest Maggio, and he is sentenced to six months in the stockade, where he is beaten to death. Their friendship is mocked by Judson. Prewitt tracks Judson down and kills him with the same switchblade Judson pulled on Maggio earlier, but sustains a serious stomach wound and goes into hiding at Lorene's house.  
The Japanese attack Pearl Harbour. Prewitt attempts to rejoin his company under cover of darkness but is shot dead by a patrol. Warden realises that he cannot leave his men. Lorene leaves for the mainland, accompanied by Karen. 

Private Robert Prewitt – Robert Lonsdale
Private Angelo Maggio – Ryan Simpson 
First Sergeant Milt Warden – Darius Campbell
Captain Holmes – Martin Marquez
Karen Holmes – Rebecca Thornhill
Lorene – Siubhan Harrison

Creative Team

Music – Stuart Brayson
Lyrics – Tim Rice
Script – Bill Oakes
Director – Tamara Harve
Sets and Costume – Soutra Gilmour
Choreography – Javier de Frutos

The power of contrast, ladies and germs. Late last year we had the joyous enthusiasm that was Candide followed by the awfulness 24 hours later that was The Duck House. Yesterday we had Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – an expensive, hyped up, slick load of emptiness - and today we have From Here to Eternity, an intelligent, well crafted, solid piece of musical theatre. The power of contrast.

I admit that I went in expecting very little. The Shaftesbury has nearly always been a graveyard for productions – apart from Follies and They’re Playing Our Song in the early 80s and Hairspray, there have been few major success stories here. Notable among disasters was the Michael Barrymore “comeback show” that sold about 17 tickets in total and closed the day after it opened, a musical called Napoleon (no, me neither) and a musical version of The Far Pavilions (no, me neither). So I wasn’t expecting much. I had only the very vaguest idea of what the story might be about (the only bit of the film I’ve seen is the clip where Burt Lancaster rolls around in the surf with Deborah Kerr, the little minx). I wasn’t even aware that it was based on a book. The only clues I had came from the foyer display – I got the vague idea that it was set sometime during WW2 and possibly somewhere like Hawaii. I knew Darius Campbell was in it – he was in Carmen at the O2 but I didn’t manage to spot him because the direction was so poor and we were sitting about 2/3 of a mile away from the stage, and I lusted after him in Gone With The Wind but frankly, my dear, he didn’t give a damn. I knew it was a musical, so I was more or less expecting a slightly different version of South Pacific. You know, something lightweight and a little vacuous. Trite is the word I think I used. I came out shaking with emotion and wiping tears from my eyes, having sat through 2 ¾ hours that whizzed past like a bullet. There was so much talent on display that frankly, my dear, I don’t really know where to start

How about starting with the music then? Well, the composer and lyricist make those of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory look like total, utter amateurs. Granted that the lyrics are by Tim Rice. The score is amazing, full of solid, tuneful numbers that stick in the brain (I am still humming a couple of them – always the sign of decent music, whereas if you asked me to give you a couple of bars from Charlie then I would have to look at you blankly and sidle away in embarrassment). The harmonies are powerful and sung with gusto. The lyrics are meaningful and never schmaltzy. I did have a moment’s concern that the show’s title number was going to be a big power ballad with “From Here to Eternity” repeated ad nauseam, but the expression is used once and once only. You’re not bashed around the head with it. There is a touching love duet (Love Me Forever Today), a great Blues number, a rousing finish to Act One and an Act Two finale that sticks a hand down your throat, grabs your heart and twists it until it cries. There are 18 (18!) musicians in the pit – and not a bar of it clicktracked, dammit. It sounds like a Hollywood Blockbuster

And the story? You know, I can tell why this show isn’t doing the big business that it deserves; its because its well written, serious and intelligent, and that ain’t what is selling in the West End at the moment. Fluff is what is selling. And that is a real shame. Also, this is a show that you could quite happily take practically anyone to. Your Auntie Doreen will like it (she’s seen the film and she likes a bit of romance) and so will your Uncle Fred (its got soldiers in it, it has a butch storyline and it won’t insult his intelligence). But the kid’s won’t enjoy it – and that’s why it isn’t selling. Because this is a show for grown up people. Adults who can follow a storyline and think for themselves. Chantelle and Tracy are best sent to go see The Bodyguard, because this isn’t for them, either. They will be missing out on a bloody good night at the theatre, though

The sets are simple and aren’t intrusive and don’t get in the way of the action. The choreography is, simply, stunning. Athletic, perfectly drilled and stunning. The sheer muscularity of the men’s routines is amazing. Nobody puts a foot wrong, everything is done with parade-ground precision. If anyone you know is still of the opinion that dancers are camp, this show will disabuse them of that. These are MEN, and they ain’t gonna let you forget it.

The cast (one of the biggest I’ve seen on a stage in some considerable time) are all absolutely top notch. Robert Lonsdale is amazing – he sings like a rock tenor, acts like his life depends on it, plays the guitar like a professional – and displays serious talent, all the more amazing in that according to his biog in the programme he doesn’t have a background in musical theatre. There is a nicely observed performance from Darius Campbell as Milt Warden – nothing flashy, nothing “starry luvvie”, but quiet, restrained and intelligent. I was half expecting him to get the final bow at the curtain because of his “star status” but no, even this is well handled and the final call is Lonsdale’s, which is as it should be. Shiubhan Harrison gives an intelligent performance, sings like a blackbird, dances with grace and charm and wisely avoids the stereotypical “tart with a heart” portrayal that her role could so easily become in less talented hands. There is moving support from Ryan Sampson as Maggio and a performance of quiet restraint that Deborah Kerr would have been proud of from Rebecca Thornhill as Karen

All in all, it’s an evening that the entire cast should be proud of. Its not your average lightweight night out in the West End and certainly none the worse for that. It’s the type of show that there should be more of. And its closing in April. Go and see it. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Buy a ticket (in fact, buy two, because I want to see it again and I’ll happily come with you). Take a gamble – because believe me, this time it will pay off.

What the critics said:

Friday, 17 January 2014

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Theatre Royal Drury Lane - Tuesday 14th January 2014

A poor but virtuous boy, Charlie lives in a tiny house with his parents and all four of his grandparents. His grandparents share the only bed in the house, located in the only bedroom. Once a year, on his birthday, Charlie gets one bar of Wonka chocolate, which he savours over many months.
Mr. Willy Wonka, the eccentric owner of the greatest chocolate factory in the world, has decided to open the doors of his factory to five lucky children and their parents. In order to choose who will enter the factory, Mr. Wonka devises a plan to hide five golden tickets beneath the wrappers of his famous chocolate bars. The search for the five golden tickets is fast and furious. Augustus Gloop, a whose only hobby is eating, unwraps the first ticket, for which his town throws him a parade. Veruca Salt, an insufferable brat, receives the next ticket from her father, who had employed his entire factory of peanut shellers to unwrap chocolate bars until they found a ticket. Violet Beauregarde discovers the third ticket while taking a break from setting a world record in gum chewing. The fourth ticket goes to Mike Teavee, who  cares only about television.
a tremendous stroke of luck befalls Charlie when he spots a cob buried in the snow. He decides to use a little of the money to buy himself some chocolate before turning the rest over to his mother. After eating his first bar of chocolate, Charlie decides to buy just one more and within the wrapping finds the fifth golden ticket. He is not a moment too soon: the next day is the date Mr. Wonka has set for his guests to enter the factory.
Charlie’s oldest and most beloved grandparent, Grandpa Joe, springs out of bed for the first time in decades and the pair go off to the factory.
 Augustus Gloop falls into the hot chocolate river while attempting to drink it and is sucked up by one of the many pipes. Violet Beauregarde steals  a stick of experimental chewing gum and turns into a giant blueberry.  Veruca Salt demands one of Mr Wonka’s nut sorting squirrels to take home but is attacked by them and thrown down a rubbish chute.   Mike Teevea disobeys instructions and is miniaturised. Only Charlie remains and Willy Wonka congratulates him for winning. The entire day has been another contest, the prize for which is the entire chocolate factory, which Charlie has just won.
Willy Wonka – Douglas Hodge
Charlie (at this performance) – Troy Tipple
Grandpa Joe – Nigel Planer
Grandma Josephine – Roni Page
Grandpa George – Billy Boyle
Grandma Georgina – Myra Sands
Mr. Bucket – Jack Shalloo
Mrs. Bucket – Alex Clathworthy
Mrs Gloop – Jasna Iver
Mr Salt – Clive Carter
Mr. Beauregarde – Paul Medford
Mrs. Teavee – Iris Roberts

Creative Team:
Director – Sam Mendes
Choreographer – Peter Darling
Sets and Costumes – Mark Thompson
Music and Lyrics – Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Script - David Greig


Imagine – an expensive, beautifully wrapped chocolate bar.  The packaging oozes quality and hints at the delights beneath.  This is none of your Dairy Milk rubbish, struggling to reach 10% cocoa solids and laden with sugar.  This is Drury Lane, the latest invention from the Wonka Chocolate Factory.  It subtly promises to make you happy, to entertain you royally (for this is, indeed, a singing and dancing chocolate bar). Expensive, but oh – so worth it.   It whispers that it is a talisman against the cold, the dark and the rain, as well as that miserable feeling of emptiness that has been nagging you.  Come, it says, peel away the wrapper and run your hands over the foil, which clings seductively to the delights beneath, hinting at the solidity of the pleasures to come, the lingering sweetness melting across the surface of your tongue, come and taste.  You know that not only chocolate lies beneath the foil, for this is indeed a very special bar of Drury Lane.  Hidden under that crinkly, crackly foil there is a sheet of pure gold , hammered as thin as the promise on a politician’s lips.  A sheet of pure gold that provides the means of entrance to a world of enchantment.  A Golden Ticket.  Slowly you pull aside the foil……

 and what lies beneath is merely a bar of workaday chocolate.  There is no golden ticket.  No treasure.  No prize.  Nothing.  And, now you look at it, even the chocolate seems less rich and dark than you expected.  Its pale, almost sweaty in consistency, and there is no comforting snap as it breaks, merely a slightly flabby dampness.  You’ve been (as they say in the trade) well and truly had.  Welcome, my friend, welcome to Drury Lane

Just like the chocolate bar, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory promises a lot on the wrapper.  There is a list of quality ingredients – Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, Nigel Planer as Grandpa Joe.  Sam Mendez (one of the big shots) is directing.  There will be technology and theatrical magic blended with a story written by one of the most beloved and enduring of children’s authors.  A chance to watch the images that were once inside your head pass before your very eyes.  A chance to relive your childhood. A chance to share that childhood with your children.  “Act One” might almost be printed on the wrapper, and it’s a pleasurable enough experience taking the wrapper off.  At the finale when that wrapper is gone, the foil underneath is printed with the words “Act Two” and promises even more – the interval comes right at the most exciting moment possible as the doors to Willy Wonka’s wonderful factory swing open and we are invited inside by the trickster, the charlatan, the madman, the inventor – Mr. Willy Wonka himself, decked out in clothes with the colour and shine of Quality Street wrappers (the pale green triangular one and the big purple one shaped like a brazil nut, in case you ask). The curtain falls and we are left literally on the edge of our seats – hurrah, after the interval we are going inside!  The magic is about to begin! We start to peel off the foil that is Act Two – and find just an ordinary chocolate bar underneath.  The anticipated magic isn’t there.  Its just a chocolate bar – and not a very good chocolate bar either.  And there’s no Golden Ticket either.  All the money seems to have been spent on the outer wrapper and the list of ingredients.  All the excitement and promise that built up during Act One and the interval goes ppppppppppppppttttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… and you come back to earth with the kind of bump experienced after drinking Fizzy Lifting Lemonade. 

Largely this disappointment is due to the paucity of the musical numbers.  There is nothing remarkable, nothing really memorable, nothing you can leave the theatre humming – except, of course, one musical number patched into the recipe right at the last minute.  In a dazzling show of laziness, Shaiman and Whittmany throw “Pure Imagination” at you – the song sung in the 1971 film by Gene Wilder as WW.  Its almost as if the writers have either been too lazy to come up with something decent or have tacitly admitted defeat at the final fence -  given the lack of a good tune to send you out humming, they’ve thought “Everyone knows and loves this song – lets give them that”.  Particularly poor are the numbers which open Act One (“Almost Nearly Perfect” – is this a nod to “Practically Perfect in Every Way” from Mary Poppins?) and Act Two (the instantly forgettable “Simply Second Nature”).  The other musical numbers are wildly diverse in style to the point of incomprehensibility – from the rap of “The Double Bubble Duchess” via the yearning ballad of “If Your Mother Were Here” to  the techno of “Vidiots”.  All the big ensemble numbers are clicktracked – recorded beforehand and mimed to.  This is a real rip-off when this happens – its just a way of fooling the punters.  Nobody on stage is actually singing.  What is truly amazing is that Really Useful Group have actuall had the audacity to release a YouTube video (see below) showing the recording sessions actually in progress.  “Hey look everyone!  We’re fooling you and are arrogant enough to show you how you’re being fooled!”.  The libretto isn’t that great either – there is little of Dahl’s witty wordplay, and what does exist is gabbled or muttered in a way that suggests the cast (particularly Hodge) are embarrassed at how bad it is. 

And what makes it all the more frustrating is that the first half is really good, full of slightly hokey charm, nicely paced and with the promise of even better things ahead.  The roles of Grandpa George, Grandma Georgina and Grandma Josephine are expanded so that each develops their own personality (one thing you don’t actually get in the book, where Grandpa Joe is the only one of the four to take on a real character).  Mrs. Bucket – Alex Clatworthy; last seen in the notorious Kiss Me, Kate at the Guildhall School – is turned into a living, breathing person and is well supported by the role of Mr. Bucket (another almost invisible role in the book).  There are some genuinely funny moments (most of which involve Augustus Gloop) and some genuinely moving ones (both me and Him Indoors thought, during the interval, that these were leading to handkerchiefs being required at the end of Act Two – but the emotional twist we both anticipated never came).  The story is updated gently and appropriately (in the book, Charlie is able to buy two chocolate bars with 50p he finds in the snow and the family read of the discovery of the Golden Tickets in old newspapers; here Charlie finds a discarded £1 note and they watch the announcements on television) to make it more “relevant” to today’s children and this is done sympathetically to retain the tales’ original charm  (although this is inconsistently done; Violet Beauregarde is a mini-rapper, Mike Teavee an Atari addict.  There is a strange attempt at making it “transatlantic” – both TV anchors are unmistakably working for an American news channel.  Are the producers looking for a Broadway transfer?).  There is so much promise in that first act – its not perfect, but with a bit of tweaking and some better musical numbers, it could be really good – but all that promise simply fades away in the second half.    The costumes are inventive, the Oompah Loompahs are portrayed in a variety of clever ways, the sets are impressive – but the music is dire, the dialogue thin, and the emotional promise of Act One is never realised.  The flight of the Great Glass Elevator, which could be a great coup de theatre in the manner of Mary Poppins sailing up through the auditorium, is a bit of a damp squib.  I expected the Elevator to go sailing up and out across the audience (how fantastic would that be?), but it simply rises up about 8 feet, moves about the stage a bit and then plonks back down, while we are treated to the song made famous by Gene Wilder. 

There are a couple of notable performances.  Troy Tipple (great name that!) was perfect as Charlie, even though he has an Oop North Accent while his stage parents remain resolutely Home Counties.  I’m no great fan of Nigel Planer but he was an excellent Grandpa Joe.  Iris Roberts gives a pitch-perfect performance of the manic Mrs. Teavee, and Jasna Iver as Mrs. Gloop just takes over the entire stage whenever she appears. Jenson Steele is a perfect Augustus Gloop, and Alex Clatworthy a warm and believable Mrs. Bucket.  Douglas Hodge’s performance as Willy Wonka does leave rather a lot to be desired – he mutters a lot, gabbles a lot, elides over the occasional word and often appears physically uncomfortable when dealing with his badly written dialogue.  Give the man a better script and better music and he would probably bring the house down. There is a strange “framing device” where Wonka appears at beginning and end as a tramp, and I could see little point for this.  It adds nothing to the story and is just superfluous and odd.   Neither of the children playing Violet Beauregarde or Mike Teavee (I couldn’t work out from the programme exactly which child sharing the roles were playing this performance) had intelligible diction, but granted that neither were helped by the speed of their musical numbers.  The dialogue written for the role of Mike Teavee is dire, and that for Violet Beauregarde not much better.  Tia Noakes played Veruca Salt with a seemingly permanent gurn that simply made me want to slap the child, and in a fashion that recalled the puppet version of Fergie in Spitting Image. 

I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so let down by a theatrical performance.  It promised so much, looked initially as if it were going to hit every single one of its marks and then singularly failed to deliver.  It is, after all, just an ordinary bar of chocolate in very fancy and expensive wrapping.  

What the critics thought:

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Le Corsair - English National Ballet @ The Coliseum, Saturday 11th January 2014

A pirate shipsails across the high seas, captained by Conrad and his faithful pirate crew as they navigate towards the Ottoman Empire. They are on a mission to rescue Medora, Conrad’s love, from the hands of the slave trader Lankendem. Conrad and the other pirates enter the bazaar where Lankendem is selling his slave girls. Conrad is looking for Medora and sees her peering from a balcony. She throws him a rose as proof of her love. 
The Pasha arrives and Lankendem presents three young women he wants to sell to him. When all are rejected, he presents the young slave girl Gulnare and the Pasha buys her immediately. Medora is freed by Ali, Conrad’s slave and tries to escape but is prevented by the Pasha, who faints at the sight of her beauty and insists she must dance for him - , unable to resist such beauty, he buys her as well. Conrad instructs Ali to steal Medora from the Pasha, and also kidnaps Lankendem. 
Conrad shows his hideout to Medora, and promises her all his treasures and possessions. Birbanto, his lieutenant  objects and tells Conrad that the riches are not his to give.  
Conrad summons the pirates to bring their stolen bounty into the cave including the slave girls and the kidnapped Lankendem. Medora pleads with Conrad to free all the slave girls. Conrad agrees but Birbanto rebels and persuades the pirates to mutiny, but Conrad quells them.   
Birbanto devises another plan. Spraying a rose with a sleeping potion he forces Lankendem to help him give the flower to Medora, who unaware of the poison, hands the rose to Conrad.  He smells the flower and falls into a drugged sleep. The pirates return to the cave, see Conrad unconscious and decide to kidnap Medora. In the struggle  she cuts Birbanto’s arm.  Lankendem steals Medora back and escapes. Birbanto is about to kill the comatose Conrad when Ali interrupts him. Conrad awakes to discover his beloved Medora is missing once again, the evil Birbanto feigns ignorance and swears his loyalty to Conrad.  
Gulnare is entertaining the Pasha by dancing and teasing the Vizier, but they are interrupted by Lankendem bringing back Medora. The Pasha is delighted Medora has been recaptured and declares he will make her his most treasured wife. Conrad, Birbanto and the pirates arrive disguised as merchants. Conrad and Birbanto distract the Pasha as the pirates kill his guards. They reveal their true identities and chaos erupts within the palace. Birbanto chases Gulnare and  they collide with Conrad and Medora. Medora exposes Birbanto as a traitor and Conrad shoots him. Ali helps Medora, Gulnare and Conrad escape and they flee to the ship chased by Lankendem. They set sail but suddenly a fierce storm breaks and the ship sinks.  Ali and Gulnare are drowned.  Conrad and Medora, having survived the shipwreck, desperately cling onto a rock. Conrad pulls out the symbolic rose that Medora gave him when they first met and hands it to her declaring his undying love. As she takes the flower into her hands Conrad collapses and dies. 


Medora – Tamara Rojo
Conrad – Matthew Golding
Gulnare – Lauretta Summerscales
Ali – Vadim Muntagirov
Birbanto – Fabian Reimair
Pasha – Michael Coleman
Pasha’s Assistant – Juan Rodriguez

Creative Team:
Choreography – Anna-Marie Holmes (after Marius Petipa)
Music: Adolphe Adam, Cesare Pugni, Leo Delibes, Ricardo Drigo, Pyoty van Oldenbourg, Ludwig Minkus, Yuly Gerber, Boris Fitinhof-Schnell, Albert Zabel and Uncle Tom Cobley and all!
Sets and Costumes – Bob Ringwood
Lighting – Neil Austin

Well, I hope you’re still all with me after reading the synopsis (believe me, I edited it down by at least half and its still bewildering unless you concentrate).  There isn’t really any real necessity for it to be so bloody complicated – once you boil it down to the essentials, its fairly straightforward.  What makes it complicated is the constant repetition of people’s names.  And actually, once the ballet is in progress, it all seems so much easier.  You can just sit there and let it wash over you, to a large extent.  There is so much padding of the story that if you miss anything, you can work it out for yourself in the next bit of padding. There are a few little bits where you have to be looking out for details like a bit of mime (the poisoning of the rose, for example) and if you miss those you are slightly sunk.  But on the whole, as someone once said to me “With Corsair you don’t need to bother about the plot – you can just sit there and enjoy the dancing”.  And by and large I did.  I was aided in this by the quality of the dancing itself – Tamara Rojo has recently taken as Artistic Director and seems to be pulling it up by its collective jockstraps.  Standards have been pretty ropy the last couple of times I’ve seen ENB (although appeared to be rising with their new production of Nutcracker a year or so ago), and now that Alina Cojocaru is now a member of the company as well, things seem to be looking up quite a bit.  The fact that ENB have now invested in a new production of Corsair (a surprising choice, given that its quite an obscure ballet – although perhaps that is why they have done so, because practically nobody else has got a decent production of it in their repertoire) is a good indication that things are on the up.  Perhaps they are about to invest in a new production of something else soon – perhaps a new Bayadere?  That would be interesting to see – anything would be better than the Royal Ballet’s tired old production.  But please – no more Swan Lakes!

Visually the production is stunning.  Bucketloads of lovely new sets and some stunning costumes – some so covered in glittery bits that they could almost walk around the stage themselves.  I expect shareholders in Swarovski are rubbing their wrinkly old hands in glee.  The Pasha, for instance, was so lit up that at times I had difficulty actually seeing his face through the glare.  And that was just his first costume – his second one probably needs a pair of big stagehands to lift it out of the cupboard and I doubt very much that it will have been hanging in that cupboard on one of those bendy wire coathangers.   I have a mental image of the Head of Wardrobe looking sadly at a pile of mangled metal and shouting over her shoulder “Doreen!  The Pasha’s costume’s eaten another coathanger!” Meanwhile, a pile of bejewelled fabric slips round the corner and cackles quietly, burps and settles down for a nap.

Lovely too are the sets – the whole production looks like a pantechnicon full of backcloths for Aladdin has mated with one full of scenery for La Bayadere, with a touch of The Mikado for good measure.  The first act cloth showing the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul wouldn’t disgrace the world’s most expensive box of Turkish Delight. The Pirate Cave is a bit worrying – there seem to be strange bits of Moorish architecture sticking up all over the place which are so large and loud that under no circumstances could the cave be described as a “hideaway” – you could give directions to it by saying “Sail Southwest for 20 minutes until you see the big yellow and red horseshoe arch sticking out of the rocks”.  Even more worrying (but still very pretty) is the set for the enchanted garden – from Istanbul we seem to have arrived in Agra because there is a dead ringer for the Taj Mahal in the background.  I know the Pasha is meant to be under the influence of his hubbly-bubbly pipe when he sees the flowers dancing in the garden  - but India??  It is, however, in its cool mint green a refreshing contrast to the strong reds and oranges of the other sets and nicely wispy (as if seen through a slight mist) for a dream scene.  The palace set is your standard pillar box red/emerald green/fretwork fencing jobbie. 

Dance-wise (because this is, of course, what we have come for), Rojo seemed on top form as Medora, nicely contrasting with Lauretta Somerscales in the smaller (but just as technically difficult) role of Gulnare.  Matthew Golding seems a bit anodyne to be playing the dashing pirate captain, Conrad – the role is very much a “penny plain, tuppence coloured” one and we seemed to be getting the “penny plain” version here.  A certain lack of bravura, perhaps?  Or just uninspiring choreography?  Fabian Reimar seemed to be giving rather more oomph to the “bad guy” role of Birbanto.  The part of the slave – here called Ali – is a showpiece role for your company Nureyev as it needs a jumper and spinner of considerable technical skill and this is demonstrated in buckets.  It’s a shame that it’s such a weak part – for the most, you run around in a pair of silky pyjama bottoms (sometimes you get a feather to wear on your head) doing vaguely Middle Eastern salaams all over the place, then you do your big set piece in the Pirate Cave and everyone goes bananas, then you spend the rest of the show more or less running about the stage chasing people until you fall overboard in the closing minutes and drown.  What a thankless life. 

Anyhoo, ENB’s new Corsair is a joyful, colourful romp and makes for a good, undemanding night out (unless you read the synopsis in the programme, in which case you may have to sit there with your head wrapped in wet towels for a couple of hours until the pain stops). 

What the critics said:


Friday, 3 January 2014

The Duck House - Vaudeville Theatre, Monday 23rd December 2013


The play is set in May 2009, one year before the General Election, Gordon Brown's Labour government is unpopular. Robert Houston is a Labour backbencher seeking to defect to the Conservatives to keep his seat, when the expenses scandal hits the papers the day before his interview with Sir Norman Cavendish to complete the switch. Houston, having claimed practically everything on expenses (including hanging baskets, massage chair, elephant lamps, sparkly toilet seat and duck house) is in trouble and so are his family and staff, and somehow Seb's girlfriend Holly is involved with Sir Norman….

Robert Houston, MP – Ben Miller
Felicity, his wife – Nancy Carroll
Ludmilla, his maid – Debbie Chazen
Seb, his son – James Musgrave
Sir Norman Cavendish, MP – Simon Shepherd
Holly, Seb’s girlfriend – Diana Vickers

Creative Team:
Written by: Dan Patterson and Colin Swash
Director: Terry Johnson
Set and costume design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Mark Henderson

Well, last night I was entertained and entranced by a superb production of Candide, which was worth every penny of the ticket price.  Today I have been blown away in a different sense, by the appalling and excruciating idiocy of one of the worst things I have seen as a paying customer at the theatre in a very long time.  Now, if you are a regular reader you will know that I have very little time for farce; I rate it only slightly higher as an art form than Last of the Summer Wine (something I would willingly undergo a haemorrhoidectomy with blunt spoons and no anaesthetic to avoid).  I vaguely expressed an interest in seeing this because of its subject matter; like you, I lapped up every column inch of the expenses scandal and chuntered away into my coffee (which I paid for myself).  The fact that it was written by the stalwart scripters of Mock the Week and HIGNFY only increased my interest. Slightly.  Well readers, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it”.  We got dirt-cheap tickets (always a sign that the box office is falling off) and I have to say it was worth exactly what we paid for it.

The early part of the first half is not without promise – there are lots of funny throwaway lines in the vein of HIGNFY; comments that are funny with the benefit of hindsight about how our elected representatives stole huge sums of money from the electorate in the name of “expenses”.  There are also digs at Peter Mandelson, how well Chris Huhne drives and how devoted he is to his wife, “Teflon Tony”, Andrew Mitchell (“nice chap, rides a bike”) and so on and so forth, and they come thick and fast.  But then the elements of farce start to creep in alongside an improbable story about how Houston has “flipped” his centrally located flat in order to furnish his constituency home and vice versa.  Doors start to bang, trousers are dropped, things fall out of cupboards and a ridiculous subplot based around cock-fighting debts emerges, and its at this point that things start to get a lot less funny. The farcical element starts to feel as if it has been rammed head on with political satire in a desperate attempt to get them to meld together and the result is a complete and utter chimera; identifiably neither one thing nor the other.  Eggs are secreted in pockets (and you just know that, in a couple of minutes, someone is going to slap those pockets by mistake) and then a bowl of custard is hidden on the seat of the massage chair (and you just know that, in a couple of minutes, someone is going to sit on the chair by mistake) and so on and so forth.  There is a lot of running around hiding things in cupboards (and you just know that, in a couple of minutes, they are going to fall out of the cupboard at compromising moments…….).  Its all utterly, utterly predictable. 

An element of farce even crept into the interval.  I went to the toilet and found that the floor was an inch deep in water. Bear in mind that The Vaudeville Theatre is owned and operated by Nimax Theatres, the same group who own the Apollo Theatre (where the ceiling fell in recently).  I searched around to try and find a member of front of house staff to report this to and the only person I could find was selling ice cream.  Someone was despatched with a mop and bucket.  At this point, Him Indoors decided that he too needed a piddle and headed for the same toilets. A flunky monkey in a badly fitting suit was on guard duty outside the door and announced that the toilets were now closed due to flooding, so Him Indoors was directed upstairs to another toilet, outside of which there was now a long queue of gentlemen wishing to relieve themselves.  When, I ask you, did you ever see a queue outside the Gents?  There were so many in the queue that Him Indoors was forced to choose between going to the toilet and getting back to his seat for the second half.  He should have chosen the former….

The second half died on its feet.  Died a horrible, lingering death. Slowly.  The story ran completely out of any kind of creative steam and descended into hiding in wardrobes, low rent prostitutes, MPs dressing up in nappies and being spanked with a copy of the Lisbon Treaty, some ‘Allo ‘Allo caricatures of various European heads of state, stolen trousers, people smearing themselves with cheese, a can of aerosol glue, lots more slamming doors and a panda costume. Yes, it sounds ghastly and believe me, it was.  The laughter from the auditorium ebbed quickly away and turned into the kind of embarrassed, uncomfortable silence that greets a resounding fart at a formal dinner party.  Him Indoors sat there with a busting bladder and I got more and more uncomfortable that I had actually expressed an interest in the show and dragged him to it.  Never have I felt so guilty.  The “jokes” were puerile, the plot as thin as an MPs excuse, the frenetic activity on stage only serving to highlight the paucity of the writing.  How this drivel ever made it to the stage I will never know.

Actually, I do know.  Someone somewhere sensed a bandwagon stashed high with money and jumped on it as it rattled past.  This is the kind of show you get when the £ signs pop up in the eyes of someone high up in Nimax Theatres and they think “Fuck art, this is going to make me so much money that it will make the claim for moat cleaning look like peanuts”.  What makes it worse is that some slimy apologist for MPs has actually contributed an article to the programme about how what good value for money our elected representatives are, how hard they work and how much more we should be paying them so that they aren’t tempted to commit fraud.  In a display of chutzpah so blatantly misplaced that it makes Margaret Moran’s claim that she was “too depressed” to stand trial look like a scene from Oliver Twist, the company that makes the duck house that Sir Peter Viggers “bought” with our money has actually taken an advert in the programme.  Is there no beginning to these peoples’ shame?

Nancy Carroll, a stunning Viola a couple of years ago in Twelfth Night, demeans her craft by appearing in such drivel. And what bright spark cast Diana Vickers, X-Factor reject and all round talentless slapper, in this?  Did they think she could act?  Well, they will be disabused of this opinion should they care to witness her witless attempts at performance. 

Really, take some advice.  Stay at home.  Save your money. Use your own toilet.  This duck’s goose is well and truly cooked.  Painfully unfunny.