Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Theatre of War: WAR HORSE at the Lyttelton Theatre; THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER Mixed Programme at Covent Garden

As was expected, the theatre also marked the Centenary of the end of Word War I in November and I saw two of the productions that marked the event.

First off was the more obvious one, the National Theatre's game-changing production of WAR HORSE which had been on manoeuvres around the country before reaching the Lyttelton Theatre stable for an extended stay until the start of January.

As Mr and Mrs World know by now, WAR HORSE is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo about Albert Narracott who, although under-age, joins up to find his beloved horse Joey who has been sold to the army and is somewhere on the Western Front; while there boy and horse both experience the carnage of war at first hand.  I was lucky to see both the original 2007 production and the 2008 revival, both at the Olivier Theatre and both were very moving, involving productions - just ask Stephen Sondheim who was a blubbing wreck in 2007 on the night we went!

It then moved to the New London Theatre where it had an amazing run from 2009 to 2016.  Joey has since become a mainstay of many Remembrance celebrations, a genuine iconic presence.  I had such vivid memories of the show that it was a surprise that it was nearly ten years since I had seen it last so another visit was definitely on the cards.

The good news is that Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris' production - here re-directed by Katie Henry - still delivers the emotional crescendo which had the Lyttelton audience sobbing and sniffing and there are certain images that are indelible once you have seen them, however...  it is a given that no one really goes to see WAR HORSE for the cast's performances - Nick Dear's adaptation is more weighted towards Joey, his equine rival Topthorn and the Narracott's family goose - but even by these standards the anonymity of the performances was quite astonishing.

Thomas Dennis as Albert hardly registered and, as his irascible father Ted, Gwilym Lloyd huffed and puffed to very little effect.  There is also a very odd performance from Ben Ingles as the supposedly-sympathetic officer Lt. Nicholls who promises to care for Joey - it was nothing I could really pinpoint but I wouldn't trust him with a My Little Pony toy, let alone our plucky Joey.  Even the usual laugh-generator role of the f-ing Sgt Thunder went for nothing in Jason Furnival's hands.

However I would like to praise Peter Becker as the caring German officer Friedrich Muller who helps Joey and Topthorn when they are captured on the wrong side of No Man's Land, he at least convinced that Muller was a three-dimensional character.  Jo Castelton as Rose Narracott also found some depth as Albert's careworn but worried mother and the John Tams' songs were well sung by Bob Fox.

The best performances were unsurprisingly by the Handspring life-size puppets of Joey, both foal and horse, Topthorn and - yes - the goose.  The puppeteers invested them all with character and emotions which made it very easy to forget the actors and concentrate on them.  In particular, the scenes where  Joey and Topthorn were commandeered by the German army as pack-horses were full of unspoken pathos, none more so than Joey's gentle nuzzling of Topthorn as he dies, exhausted and broken.  The excellent touch of Topthorn's demise being made real by having his puppeteers slowly emerge from the puppet and slowly walking offstage is incredibly effective.

I did feel something was lost in the transfer to the proscenium stage but Rae Smith's spare design, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler's remarkable puppet design and Paule Constable's lighting still delivered, as did Adrian Sutton's score.  I am glad I experienced WAR HORSE again, but just wish that most of the human cast had invested their roles with the passion that the puppeteers did.

A few days later we saw a more intriguing response to the Centenary, the Royal Ballet's premiere of THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, which was part of a mixed programme with Wayne McGregor's INFRA and the late George Balanchine's SYMPHONY IN C.

The ballet took as it's inspiration the recorded memories of WWI veteran Wally Patch and a contemporary of his, Florence Billington, who in voice-over remember the quiet and lonely devastation they felt at the deaths of friends and a boyfriend respectively.  These spoken memories are interwoven with the lush, sombre score by film composer Dario Marianelli to create an absorbing soundscape to Alastair Marriott's choreography which illustrates the story of Florence and her beau Ted Feltham; from their meeting at a social dance before the war to his enlisting and subsequent death on the battlefield, cradled by Patch as he dies, to Florence receiving the news by telegram to Ted viewing it all from another place.

The ballet was visually stunning with a fractured, broken video playing on the scrim of contemporary footage of the call to arms in 1914 to the solemn procession of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, which eventually raised to reveal Es Devlin's minimalist design of rotating flat panels which were played upon by Bruno Poet's stark lighting to create sweeping changes of tone across the stage while the reminiscences of Patch and Billington were heard.

There were good performances from William Bracewell as Ted and Anna Rose O'Sullivan as Florence but in the cold light of day the ballet failed to move; Marriott's choreography was nice to watch but detracted from the pathos of the spoken testimony of individual loss.  There was no profundity in the thoughts behind the movements but more importantly the very real disconnect between the spoken remembrances of the Western Front's living Hell and the precision and athleticism of the male dancers was too strong to ignore.  The piece ultimately felt like there was no real artistic need for being there, it was a commission to fill a brief in the programming.  I also read somewhere the jibe that he can't be THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER if we know his name was Ted Feltham!

The three ballets in the mixed programme seemed to have been selected to counter-point each other, there was no linear connection between them other than to show off the versatility of the Royal ballet company.  McGregor's INFRA from 2008 had twelve dancers hyper-extending in solos and groups to McGregor's signature taxing choreography while above them Julien Opie's illuminated silhouettes walked in solipsistic silence left and right.  It's an obvious leap to get what McGregor is illustrating - the tortured souls underneath those anonymous walkers - but after a while you long for a resolution.  But always good to hear Max Richter's music...

But then the mood was turned on it's head again with George Balanchine's glorious SYMPHONY IN C, danced to the music of Georges Bizet.  Premiered in 1947 in Paris but extensively re-thought for New York City Ballet the following year, Balanchine drew on his extensive knowledge of the Russian classical tradition from his teenage years with the Imperial Ballet and from his years with the Ballet Russes in the 1920s.

Broken down into four movements with new performers for each, SYMPHONY IN C is a whirlwind extravaganza of pure classical technique: it's like every classical ballet finale with the narrative and named characters removed so you can just concentrate on solos, pas de deux and ensemble routines.  With over 50 dancers onstage as it reaches it's conclusion, it felt so impossibly sumptuous and showy that I almost expected a camera crane to swoop in and a director to yell "cut", such is it's feel of a Hollywood musical idea of a big ballet number.

The four couples were excellently danced by Natalia Osipova, Sarah Lamb, Reece Clarke, Marcelino Sambé, William Bracewell, Anna Rose O'Sullivan, Yuhue Choe and Luca Acri.  It was by far the most memorable piece of the evening and rather put the others in their place.

I would definitely see SYMPHONY IN C again, I am happy to have seen THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER and INFRA but think I would pass on seeing them again.  However as I said earlier, the mixed programme was a wonderful showcase for the talents of the whole Royal Ballet company.

Friday, November 23, 2018

HADESTOWN at Olivier, National Theatre - Fire Down Below....

Every so often the ominous words "prior to it's Broadway opening" appear on a National Theatre production which always strikes me as slightly irksome: should the National Theatre stages and resources be used for a production's out-of-town tryout when there is a whole canon of drama that it is the National's remit to stage as no one else will?

The latest to get this treatment is a new musical written by Anáis Mitchell, a folk singer who is hitherto unknown to me,  The really bizarre thing is that the show has already played Off-Broadway in 2016 so it is being road-tested here before transferring to Broadway (allegedly).  It is a very convoluted journey and I am not sure what the National is getting out of the deal - although it does fill the Olivier repertoire which has frequently been a béte noire for Rufus Norris.  However, with no preconceptions on what I was about to see, I was very impressed with a lot of what I saw and heard.

Mitchell released the original concept album in 2010, retelling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a pair of young lovers in the Great Depression played out in a hybrid of blues, New Orleans jazz, country and rhythm 'n' blues.  She met director Rachel Chavkin in 2012 and after several years of working on it, the stage show debuted in 2016 in New York, it was again staged Off-Broadway last year where it was nominated for and won several fringe awards.  And now it's here...

Hermes, our narrator, introduces us to Orpheus, a down-and-out singer with his guitar slung over his back. One day he meets the homeless Eurydice, they fall instantly in love and attempt to set up home together but things go awry as Eurydice struggles to find work while Orpheus spends all his time writing songs.  In the meantime, summer arrives with the appearance of the exuberant goddess Persephone who is visiting for her allotted six months on earth bringing warm weather, joy and prosperity.  When her time is up she sadly returns back to her husband Hades in his underworld factory, but this time she is followed by Eurydice in search of a better life.  Orpheus is broken-hearted at her departure and follows her down to the underworld to bring her back, which no mortal has ever done before.

The lovers are reunited but Hades refuses to let Eurydice leave, however Persephone intercedes on the couple's behalf and Hades allows Orpheus to sing for him.  Moved by the song, Hades dances with Persephone and let's the couple leave the underworld but with conditions attached: Orpheus must lead the way with Eurydice following but if he turns to look at her, she will vanish into the underworld forever...

 I had deliberately not read any of the reviews as I wanted to experience the show with no preconceived ideas and I am glad I did, as I said there was a lot to enjoy.  Anáis Mitchell's score is an intriguingly dense affair, at no time can you guess where the show is going to go musically.  Her combination of country blues, New Orleans jazz, Southern rhythm 'n' blues and pop is a heady mix, the only thing it is missing is a memorable song.  They sound great in the auditorium but by the time I had got home I couldn't remember one of them.  It would also have been possibly better to have a separate lyricist, her's are the weakest part of the score.

Rachel Chavkin's production is big and bold with all energy focused on the performers however as the show reached it's double climax - first with Hades and Orpheus and then with Orpheus and Eurydice's flight from the underworld - the tension slackened and no real crescendo was reached, it all felt played at the same pace; indeed when the show ended, it felt to have been a long time coming.

In case anyone was wondering, there is life after the Broadway debacle SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK as two of it's leads Reeve Carney and Patrick Page have turned up here: Carney is an impassioned though not terribly charismatic Orpheus and Patrick Page is a marvellous Hades, with a deep bass voice echoing out like coming from the underworld itself.

As Eurydice, Eva Noblezada - the star of the recent revival of MISS SAIGON - has a powerful voice and a nice stage presence, while Amber Gray was a wild and rollicking Persephone - as indeed she should be as she has played the role since 2016 in all the previous productions.  With her crazy hair and bright green dress she was huge fun.

Musicals veteran André De Shields was an elegant, sinister, slippery Hermes and there was fine support from the three sassy, mean Fates: Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri, and a special mention too for the excellent, hardworking ensemble.

David Neumann's choreography is inventive and striking, Rachel Hauck's large wooden set design is impressive but ultimately one wishes for something more striking for the underworld, and Bradley King's lighting is atmospheric and suits the ominous tone of the work.  The seven onstage musicians are excellent and fully deserved the large ovation at the curtain.

Owen and I agreed that it might be good to see the show again before it finishes it's run in January to see how they have settled into the Olivier and hopefully ironed out some of the longueurs of the second act.

It certainly deserves to be seen...


Sunday, November 18, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 33: SWEET CHARITY (1966) (Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1966, Palace Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 2009, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Productions seen: one

Score: Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields
Book: Neil Simon
Plot:  Charity Hope Valentine is an unlucky-in-love but ever-optimistic taxi dancer in a run-down Manhattan dance hall. One day she gets trapped in a stalled lift with a shy but panicky tax advisor called Oscar.  Slowly a romance blossoms... is this Charity's moment?   


Two female characters dominated the 1965/66 Broadway season, Auntie Mame Dennis and Charity Hope Valentine, two indomitable survivors of life's vicissitudes, but neither MAME or SWEET CHARITY ultimately claimed the Best Musical award which went to doughty old MAN OF LA MANCHA; a decision that in retrospect seems odd.  Indeed out of it's nine Tony nominations it only won Best Choreography for Bob Fosse's memorable work.  Going by the film versions alone - I've not seen MAME OF LA MANCHA on stage! - SWEET CHARITY wins hands down.  It's Overture blares out like a traffic jam of NY cabs, showcasing the contemporary and brassy feel of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields' score with it's remarkable collection of songs: cynical and hard-edged numbers that cover the heroine's sadness with a noisy bravado.  Blessed with a wisecracking but sympathetic book by the then-King of Broadway comedy Neil Simon, the story is based on Federico Fellini's NIGHTS OF CABIRIA - the first of three musicals based on his films, the others being Lionel Bart's flop LA STRADA and Maury Yeston's hit NINE.  Simon also creates great supporting characters like Nickie and Helene, Charity's comrades in the dance hall, Herman the grouchy manager and Oscar, Charity's latest chance at happiness.  Bob Fosse - who conceived the show for his muse Gwen Verdon as well as directing it - choreographed memorable routines and these moments stud the plot like zircon buttons.  With it's glorious score and memorable characters, SWEET CHARITY has been regularly revived and, although it flopped on release, Fosse's film version keeps delivering down the years.

There are plenty of videos of SWEET CHARITY but I thought I'd stick with the trailer for the Menier production - it's a nice reminder of the winning performances of Tamzin Outhwaite, Marc Umbers and Josefina Gabrielle, as well as the excellent pairing of Ebony Molina and Paul J Medford who made THE RICH MAN'S FRUG such a thrilling experience.

Monday, November 12, 2018

THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM at Wyndhams Theatre - Squall in the family...

When it was announced that Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins were to appear onstage in a new play by French writer Florian Zeller, adapted by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jonathan Kent, I knew it was going to be something to see.  Then I saw the prices...  nothing in the stalls for under £74 - and it only lasts 80 minutes!  Luckily Owen nabbed some Upper Circle tix though of course they were restricted view with the edge of the stage obscured.  And the play?  Well...

This is the first play I have seen by Florian Zeller but I know of his work - all translated by Christopher Hampton in the UK.  While I appreciate what he is trying to do with the form, bending narrative structures and giving you characters who might not be the most trustworthy of narrators, however THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM feels annoyingly slight, like a writer cruising on his tricks, thinking "Oh I can do the same to this situation" rather than it feeling in anyway new and revelatory; just narrative guessing games for the sake of it.

Andre and Madeleine have been married for over 50 years and have two daughters.  Andre is beginning to show signs of confusion and although both daughters have arrived at the family home at the same time, he is vague as to why.  Marianne wanders in and out speaking to the family as she busies herself with dinner but the emphasis is on Andre who listens but doesn't really take in what his daughters are saying about a house that they have seen which might suit him better.  They even bring home a woman who vaguely knows Andre and Marianne - much to the latter's consternation as she has always thought she had been in an affair with Andre once - to talk about the house.  An appearance from the younger daughter's latest boyfriend who is a estate agent only makes the situation clearer to all but Andre.

It very soon becomes apparent (through the play and knowledge of Zeller's past work) that one of the couple has died - but which one?  I will not be the spoilsport and reveal who but it's all quite obvious really.  So in actual fact, I left thinking that the play could have been shorter, there seemed to be a lot of re-stating what was fairly obvious before, so much so that at times I felt like saying "Yes we get it, that person is dead!!"

Yes the play reverberates once the curtain has come down, but I think that has more to do with Jonathan Kent's taut direction - despite the several 'interludes' to show time passing - and of course his remarkable lead performers.  That said, credit is due to the fine supporting performances from Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley as the concerned daughters but Lucy Cohu is, as per, a trifle over-ripe as the mysterious friend of the family.

Needless to say there was enough coughing for the duration of the play to make it seem like Scutari Hospital on a wet Wednesday, but as a tribute to Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins you could hear a pin drop in their scenes together, especially the final scene when all the threads come together.  To be honest, it is this final scene that has stayed with me as it was so beautifully pitched and played.

Jonathan Pryce was remarkable and heartbreaking as Andre, a man slowly losing himself in his own mind, given to panicked confusion as he gets stuck in painful repetitions of a sentence, not able to comprehend recent events despite the clues in front of him.  Onstage for most of it's running time, Pryce radiated an intense charisma.  Eileen Atkins was frustratingly under-used, drifting in and out of the action to drop some withering lines but as I said, the last scene was breathtaking as she took flight with a warm delicacy as Madeleine reminded Andre that she once said she would never leave him.

I'm glad I got the see these two favorite performers again on stage, it was just a shame the play was so maddeningly slight.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

DVD/150: REGENERATION (Gillies MacKinnon, 1997)

1n 1917, The Times printed a letter from decorated soldier / poet Siegfried Sassoon opposing the continuation of WWI by those who could end it; a war of defence was now one of aggression.  He was sent to Edinburgh's Craiglockhart Hospital to be treated by psychiatrist William Rivers; the inference being he was mentally-ill.  This event inspired Pat Barker's 1991 novel REGENERATION and this film adaptation.

The subdued film highlights the emotional conflict felt by both men: Rivers is a caring man healing the shattered psyches of his patients but knows that it will mean they are returned to war, while Sassoon wants to return to his platoon but knows to do so will be to continue the madness.

Sassoon meets fellow soldier / poet Wilfred Owen who he pursuades to start writing about his war experiences, also included is Barker's fictional character Billy Prior who openly challenges Rivers' probing analysis.

Shelf or charity shop? A keeper for the performances of Jonny Lee Miller as Billy Prior, Stuart Bunce as a warmly sympathetic Wilfred Owen (a performance which should have led to greater fame) and, in particular, Jonathan Pryce's heartfelt performance as Dr William Rivers.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 34: SHE LOVES ME (1963) (Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life:

First performed: 1963, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 2016, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Productions seen: one

Score: Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick
Book: Joe Masteroff
Plot:  In 1930s Budapest, Georg and Amalia work together in a perfumery and dislike each other intensely - what they don't know is they are each other's pen-pal who they are falling in love with through their letters.  As Christmas approaches, they agree to meet...   


It's an untrusted word, heartwarming... one mis-step and it can lead to cloying sentimentality and no one wants to sit through two-and-a-half hours of that.  So it is always a delight to find a show that is genuinely heartwarming without any of it's concomitant pitfalls - step up Bock and Harnick's SHE LOVES ME, for me a much more enjoyable musical than their more famous FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.  Miklós László's original play has been the gift that just keeps giving since 1937: no less than three Hollywood films - THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME and YOU'VE GOT MAIL - have been based on the plotline and can be added to Bock and Harnick's version.  After a nod to the show's Hungarian location with the keening violins that open the overture, their score is packed with choon-ful tunes - and with 25 songs listed in the programme I mean packed!  Joe Masteroff's delightful book also keeps the plot moving with warm, sympathetic characters.  A delightful chocolate-box of a production at the Menier two years ago has stayed with me but it's the original cast recording that made me love the show immortalizing the performances of Barbara Baxley as lovelorn Ilona, Jack Cassidy as womanizing Kodaly, Daniel Massey as Georg and, above all, the glorious Barbara Cook as Amalia, one of the key roles of her Broadway career which provided several songs to add to her repertoire for her second career as a solo artist, namely the soaring VANILLA ICE CREAM. An interesting sidenote: MGM bought the film rights and after a few years of delay were set to make it with Julie Andrews as Amalia, possibly reuniting with Dick Van Dyke as Georg but a change of management led to a restructuring for more contemporary subjects and SHE LOVED ME was dropped.  The show lives on however so if it pops up near you do see it...

Sadly there is no original footage of Barbara Cook singing one of her signature songs but here she is during her second career as a solo singer in concert in Melbourne, acting and singing VANILLA ICE CREAM to perfection; it really gives you a flavour of Bock and Harnick's delightful score

Monday, November 05, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 35: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (1962) (Stephen Sondheim)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life: 

First performed: 1962, Alvin Theatre, NY
First seen by me: 1999, Open Air Regents Park, London
Productions seen: two

Score: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart
Plot:  Pseudolus, a slave in Ancient Rome, agrees to help his master's son get the girl of his dreams in exchange for his freedom - but the road to liberty never runs smooth...   


The original 1962 FORUM won an impressive six Tony Awards, but one contributor got nothing... composer Stephen Sondheim.  Yes, it won Best Musical but that is for the overall production: Shevelove and Gelbart won for their riotous book, George Abbott won for his direction, Zero Mostel and David Burns won for their performances, Harold Prince won Best Musical producer... but the score? Nothing.  It can be argued that it was a crowded field that year: nominations went to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh for LITTLE ME, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for STOP THE WORLD - I WANT TO GET OFF and, the eventual winner, Lionel Bart for OLIVER! - but a nomination for BRAVO GIOVANNI, a vehicle for opera singer Cesare Siepi?  You would think that Sondheim could comfort himself with his Best Score awards for WEST SIDE STORY or GYPSY - wrong!  The Score Award was discontinued from 1952 to 1962.  He would finally be nominated for Best Score with his next show DO I HEAR A WALTZ?, small comfort for what had been a difficult process writing with Richard Rodgers.  Not that FORUM was a breeze either; rewrites, recasting and the baffling out-of-town lukewarm response.  But Sondheim concentrated on the form of the piece and ditched most of his generic musical comedy songs and, in particular, changed the opening song from the whimsical LOVE IS IN THE AIR to the barnstorming COMEDY TONIGHT and hey presto, a hit was born.  The adage that you can't have a good musical without a good book is proved by Gelbart and Shevelove's excellent writing - based on plays by Plautus - which provides a solid base for the capering, light-hearted songs and the farcical characters.  The role of 'Pseudolus' is a Tony Award magnet on Broadway: Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane have all played it and have all won Best Actor in a Musical.  No such luck for London productions but the two revivals I have seen have had barnstorming performances from Roy Hudd at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre in 1999 and Desmond Barrit at the Olivier Theatre in 2004   About time for another revival I reckon...

I was going to choose a clip from Richard Lester's 1966 film version but it is woefully dated despite the involvement of original stars Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, so instead here is a glorious version of EVERYBODY OUGHT TO HAVE A MAID from the 2010 Proms tribute to Sondheim with a perfect imaginary revival cast of Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans, Julian Ovendon and Bryn Terfel - I love this!