Monday, August 03, 2015

CUBANÍA at Covent Garden - Carlos goes back to his roots...

Another trip to the ever-posh Covent Garden?  I will be getting invited to the staff dance at this rate.  This time it was to go with several work colleagues to see CUBANÍA which is a show by Carlos Acosta, showcasing the best of Cuban dance talent - and himself of course!

There is no doubting his versatility and star power - it is difficult to focus on any others when he is onstage - but I found his compilation show at times tending to underwhelm.  It seemed to have no real through-line or consistency of tone.

The show started with four contemporary pieces which possibly might have been a bit much.  Acosta featured in the first piece "Derrumbe" which was choreographed by Miguel Altunaga, dancing with Pieter Symonds in a typical love you-hate you duet which seemed to involve a lot of jacket-work.

Alexander Varona danced an excellent solo "Flux" choreographed by Russell Maliphant, dancing in and around pools of light and that was followed by George Céspedes' "Ecuación" where four dancers from Danza Contemporánea de Cuba danced in and out of a steel cube frame.  During a seemingly-lengthy intro each of the dancers danced for a while to silence - broken only by the usual coughings.

The first act closed with Edwaard Liang's "Sight Unseen" a pas-de-deux danced by Acosta and Zenaida Yanowsky which was lovely to watch but seemed to miss a certain fire.

Act 2 was the "Tocororo Suite" adapted by Acosta from his longer 2003 ballet.  A loving tribute to the spirit and music of Cuba, it's content was a bit obvious: country boy comes to town, falls in love with the pretty girl and learns to out-dance the local Mr Big.  It was all a bit "Gene Kelly goes to Havana" but it was enlivened by Acosta's seamless performance supported by nice turns by Verónica Corveas and nice shimmies from Varona, as well as a lively onstage band of Cuban musicians.

It was surprising that Acosta took no solo bow, it was him the show was compiled by and he was the real reason the audience was there.  But it shows a dedication to his company and his willingness to be seen as showing an overall flavour of Cuban dance expertise.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

EVERYMAN at the National Theatre: The hits keep on comin'...

I was very worried when I first heard the line-up for Rufus Norris' opening season at the National Theatre but the more I am seeing the more I am liking.  THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT, THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM and THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY were all much more enjoyable than I was expecting and that feeling continues with EVERYMAN, directed by Norris in the Olivier.

The play, by an unknown author, was first performed as a Morality Play in English in the early 1500s to show the audience the error of it's ways and to fear the wrath of God.  Not exactly DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS then.  Mind you, anyone who sees that deserves eternal damnation.

It's a vibrant, full-on production with our hero descending from the flies on a wire, a huge wind machine that sprays money into the audience (I think someone must have been to see SLAVA'S SNOW SHOW), thumping music... oh and Donna Summer's I FEEL LOVE which, as Owen said, is an obvious musical shorthand for hedonistic, club culture. Not bad for a track nearly 40 years old!

Yes the medieval tale has been updated - to the streets of Hoxton it would appear - where Everyman, a sharp city wheeler-dealer has taken over a club for his 40th birthday.  Chitwetel Ejiofor makes a spectacular entrance, falling slowly from the flies, suited and booted while falling through space.  It looked very spectacular but what could it mean?

After a coke-fuelled rave which has the regulation fights, snogs and unspoken tensions Everyman ends up passed-out on a table.  We then meet a careworn cockney cleaner, resigned to her lot of cleaning up the mess of an ugly world only to begin again the next day.  But is she all she appears to be?

Actually she turns out to be none other than God and she decides to make Everyman an example of all that is wrong with human existence and she summons her colleague Death to deal with him.

But Everyman puts up a spirited fight to prove he has worth in the world and turns with increasing desperation to his neglected family, to his personal goods, to his good deeds, to anything that will prove he deserves more time.  But all he finds is a down-and-out called Knowledge.  Can Everyman make a justification to be allowed more time on a world whose sickness he has contributed?

The production is not a total success as it starts off with the extended, theatrical debauchery of Ev's birthday blow-out which seems never-ending, and there are other longuers that seem to tread water rather than move the action on.

But as the play reaches it's conclusion the theatrical trops fall away and Carol Ann Duffy's adaptation reaches a profound plateau that is as moving as it is simple.  Her script is wonderfully dense with ideas and certain lines leap out and strike a real chord.

Norris' production although sometimes overloaded with distractions does have a core energy that draws us nearer and nearer to the final confrontation between Everyman and his two judges.  As the latter Norris' production is blessed by two spiky, scene-stealing performances by Kate Duchene as the world-weary God and Dermot Crowley as a jokey and teasing Irish Death.

Norris also reunites with his AMEN CORNER actress Sharon D. Clarke who is great as Ev's loving but despairing mother and she also provides some soaring singing during other scenes.  She was well-partnered in the 'home' scene by Philip Martin Brown's confused father and Michelle Butterly's angry cousin, forced to stay at home and look after ailing relatives.

The heart of the play is Chiwetel Ejiofor's Everyman, onstage throughout, who goes on a journey of ever-decreasing circles from the boastful, morally corrupt city boy to the humble, scared but resigned man facing up to his fate with a learnt stoicism.  He is an actor of great power but he also has a subtle, quicksilver quality of thought and expression.  It's such a shame his stage performances are so rare.

Although they sometimes threaten to pull the attention from Duffy's script, the production team of Ian MacNeil (design), Javier De Frutos (movement), Paul Anderson (lighting) and Tal Rosner (video design) provide memorable stage moments and they are held together by the atmospheric music score of William Lyons.

I had not intended to see EVERYMAN thinking it sounded like a dour evening out but I am glad that Owen persuaded me to come along and experience it.

Dvd/150: I AM DIVINE (Jeffrey Schwarz, 2013)

I AM DIVINE is an evocative documentary which tells the life of "the most beautiful woman in the world" Divine.

A real rags to riches story, we follow the story of how fat, gay and unhappy teenager Glenn Milstead became underground filmstar Divine through the films of school friend John Waters which led to becoming a real celebrity and recording star.  John Waters' surprising crossover hit HAIRSPRAY garnered him his best reviews and he was just breaking through in other mainstream roles when he tragically died aged only 42 from a cardiac arrest.

Interviewees include Waters (of course) and costars Sue Lowe, Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, Tab Hunter and Mary Vivian Pearce along with production teamers Vincent Peranio and Pat Moran.

Also interviewed are fellow drag stars Holly Woodlawn, John Epperson and Joshua Grannell as well as his mother Frances who the film is dedicated to.

Gone but not forgotten.

Shelf or charity shop? She is Divine and she's on the shelf!

Friday, July 31, 2015

PETER PAN: Welsh National Opera murder The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up

Every so often I see a production that reminds me that it is all a crapshoot.  You blow on the dice and give them a shake, throw them and see what comes out.

Last week I blew on the dice and gave them a shake = I went to the theatre and sat down
I threw them = the lights went down and the curtain went up
and saw what came out = watched in horror as a shiteous opera of PETER PAN took place.

I will name the guilty: Richard Ayres provided the bizarre, vaguely dissonant score while Lavinia Greenlaw provided the arid libretto and lyrics and the show was directed by Keith Warner in a breathtakingly cack-handed way.  It made me so angry I couldn't even sleep through it... just stare at it as if it had dropped off the ceiling.

It was a production without the slightest glimmer of wonder or magic, squashed onto an ugly set of two tunnels linked by a semi-circle of railway track which every so often will be used to send something along the track, most notably when the Darling children fly off to Neverland.

At the very end of the production, a train rolls along the tracks.  I can only presume it's a reference to Peter Llewellyn-Davies, one of the three little brothers who so enchanted J.M. Barrie, who threw himself in front of one at Sloane Square Station in 1960 aged only 63.  I can only surmise he saw an early version of this load of old cock.

Yes the real life story behind the writing of PETER PAN is strange and tragic but this was so inept it could only make only this specious reference to it.

The only performer of any merit was Marie Arnet as Wendy whose pure soprano voice made one sit up and listen during the odd aria but that was it.

Luckily they allowed me to tell them what I thought because in the famous "clap if you believe in fairies" scene which was here made more twatty by Peter saying to the audience make a noise if you believe in them I happily blew the biggest raspberry I could.

I guess a positive was that it was just about 2 hours, but sadly I will never get them back.  I guess I can complement the programme which has interesting articles on Barrie and the psychology of his writing.

This was so woeful I even pined for Bonnie Langford in PETER PAN: THE MUSICAL, now *that*s saying something.  By the way, the first time I saw PETER PAN on stage was when I saw Hayley Mills play it in 1969 at the Victoria Palace.  I must try and find a programme for that somewhere.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY: Marber can't stay for the month

Much has been made of Patrick Marber's 'writer's block' which has meant that his new play THE RED LION is his first since 2006.  Well it would appear the genie is out of the bottle now and residing at the National Theatre.

His play about semi-professional football THE RED LION is currently playing at the Dorfman auditorium, he had a hand in sprucing up Farquhar's THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM at the Olivier and now he is featured at the Lyttelton with his adaptation of Turgenyev's 'A Month In The Country' here re-named THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY.  Marber obviously is too busy to write a whole month!

I had seen a production before back in 1988 with Celia Imrie, Helen Fraser, Faith Kent and Sophie Thompson but could remember little about it but that it featured silly people falling in love with all the wrong people but this production (directed also by Marber) peels back layers to reveal the sad, lonely people behind the comic situations.

Natalya is married to Arkadi, a rich landowner, and they have a loving son Kolya but she longs for something more, something out of touch, a secret, exciting experience.  She flirts with the family friend Rakitin who hangs around primarily in the hope that she will finally take him seriously but Natalya's dream of excitement arrives in the shape of Belyaev, a young tutor for Natalya's pretty ward Vera.  But of course, he is also the object of affection for Vera too...

The initial frivolous nature turns more serious as Natalya tries to make her wishes become reality and her actions start to impact on those around her.  Sometimes you shouldn't wish too hard...

I must admit that after a stressful day at work the first act rather floored me and I found myself drifting but then found that the effect of Owen drifting too made me concentrate and focus, and I like what I saw very much.  Marber's adaptation is crisp and clean, the relationships quickly established among the large cast of characters and at times it was obvious that this was the same writer as CLOSER as the characters found it very easy to say what they hated about those who they are supposed to love.

The real surprise of the show is the abstract set by Mark Thompson, a bare stage - and the Lyttelton is a large stage - with a set that mostly consists of see-through plastic walls and a free-floating red door with the cast seated around the back of the stage, ready to make their entrances if and when.  Neil Austin's subtle lighting also contributes towards the overall delicate feel of the production.

The big casting coup of the show is to have tv names John Simm as Rakitin and Mark Gatiss as snobbish local doctor Shpigelsky who becomes embroiled in Natalya's attempts to steer Vera away from her tutor.

Simm usually leaves me cold but here he was excellent, giving a vinegary performance as Rakitin, knowing he will get nowhere with Natalya but hanging around just in case.  Gatiss also gave a delightfully characterful performance as the disdainful doctor, all too aware of his shortcomings, who after careful consideration proposes marriage to Lizaveta, the plain companion of Arkadi's mother.

This delightful scene was superbly played by Gatiss and Debra Gillett, a comedy of embarrassment as painful to endure as anything Mike Leigh could have thought up - especially when Gatiss' back gives out making him hobble and crawl around the stage while proposing!  The cast also bristles with marvellous performances: Lily Sacofsky is a real find as Vera who finds her first vision of love is flawed, Gawn Grainger as a gruff German tutor, Cherrelle Skeete as Katya, the family maid also on the lookout for love and escape and it was nice to see Lynn Farleigh as Arkadi's disapproving mother.

But for me the performance of the evening was Amanda Drew as Natalya.  This is a role that could easily have been given to a starrier name but Drew effortlessly pinpoints the character's restlessness, wanting more out of life than just being a wife or mother and in particular, her final scenes of distress in the face of the collapse of her dreams was wonderfully judged and more effective for seemingly coming out of nowhere.

Despite being a bit noddy at the start of the play, I was won over by the exquisite performances and Marber's back-to-basics production.  I am thinking a second visit may just be on the cards....  It is highly recommended for anyone who would like an intelligent but moving evening.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Matthew Bourne's THE CAR MAN: Desire and Diesel

Can it really be eight years since I last saw Matthew Bourne's THE CAR MAN at Sadler's Wells, his inspired cut & shunt of CARMEN and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE?  Yep and almost to the day.  It was wonderful to experience it's potent power again.

Bourne is my favourite choreographer and his productions always excite and delight by the intriguing combination of stark Laban dance techniques but mixed with a musical theatre knack for story-telling and character.  Sometimes productions can veer to opposite sides of the spectrum such as the overly-characterised EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or the po-faced DORIAN GRAY but when the combination is right there is no-one to touch him and THE CAR MAN is an excellent example.

Premiering in 2000, the show is Bourne's own tribute to the film noir genre of sexy, dangerous sirens being unfaithful to patsy husbands with bruised, brooding blue-collar men which inevitably leads to murder.  Bourne had been asked to take on Bizet's CARMEN which he resisted but when he heard Rodion Schedrin's 40 minute version of the score for the Bolshoi ballet he was intrigued by it.  He turned to composer and arranger Terry Davies to re-orchestrate parts of the score that Scherin hadn't used in a similar style which gave him a complete ballet.

Set in the fictional desert town of Harmony, the action takes place around Dino's Diner and Garage where the slovenly owner runs a troupe of tough mechanics who relentlessly pick on the secretly gay hired help Angelo.  Add to all this the Diner's waitress Rita, who harbours a longing for Angelo and Dino's sexy and bored wife Lana and you know trouble's a-comin' - and it arrives in the lean, mean shape of Luca, a drifter who appears in the town and answers Lana's Man Wanted sign in every way.

Soon Lana and Angelo have both succumbed to Luca and the pressure-cooker finally blows when Dino is killed by Lana and Luca who frame Angelo as the killer.  Finally together, Lana and Luca have to face the consequences of their actions when Angelo escapes....

Bizet's eternally-thrilling, choon-packed score zings along, the ominous Fate Motif appearing every so often to signal that a dangerous corner lies ahead for our principals and although I had seen it before, I was gripped by the excellent performances and Bourne's propulsive, muscular choreography driving the story along to it's inevitable conclusion.

As always, Lez Brotherston's set and costume design makes the show dazzling to see as does Chris Davey's lighting design.  The ensemble were as excellent as any Bourne production has been, thrilling in their company routines and individually when given the opportunity, like Pia Driver as the slinky hostess of a nightclub and Kate Lyons, Andrew Monaghan and Dan Wright as the club's beatnik dance act.

It was a particular joy to see Alan Vincent as garage-owner Dino as when we first saw the show in 2007, Vincent played the title role of Luca.  As well as the beatnik club dancer, Kate Lyons also played innocent Rita the lovelorn waitress and it was again a delight to see another Bourne favourite Dominic North as the hapless Angelo.  North played Edward Scissorhands both times I have seen it as well as the hero Leo in SLEEPING BEAUTY and The Prince in the 2009 revival of SWAN LAKE and in the 2007 CAR MAN he was in the ensemble.  Now in the featured role of Angelo he was excellent.

In the roles of the dangerous lovers Luca and Lana were Christopher Trenfield and Zizi Strallen and they brought a tortured, sexy elegance to the roles.  But they did not quite equal the propulsive chemistry of Alan Vincent and Michaela Meazza in the 2007 production.

I loved having the chance to see this great production again and, as it was being filmed the night I went, hopefully it won't be long before possibly seeing it again.

Here is a nice interview with Matthew Bourne explaining about his production, enjoy!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The BEAUX' STRATAGEM at the Olivier Theatre: Love On The Run

In the early 1700s, Derry-born George Farquhar was one of the most successful comic playwrights, his writing reaching it's peak in 1706 with THE RECRUITING OFFICER and in 1707 with THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM.  Tragically, he was dead two months after the latter opened, aged only 30.

Farquhar always struggled financially - in 1703 he even married an older woman who had led him to believe was wealthy only to discover the reverse after the ceremony.  His friend, the Irish actor Robert Wilkes, visited him at the start of 1707 and found him again in penury and badly ill.  Wilks gave him money and suggested writing a play, the result was THE BEAUX' STRATAGEM, it's success being even more remarkable bearing in mind the condition it was written under.

I had never seen it before so was looking forward to the new production at the Olivier.  I ultimately found it a little too wearing for it's own good but Farquhar's imagination and sense of fun shine through.  Bearing in mind Farquhar's personal troubles, the main plot could not have been more relevant to him but equally topical to us 308 years later.

Two London friends Aimwell and Archer are in a jam.  They are down to their last £200 and have fled to the provinces to escape the shame of their near penury.  However they have a plan: they will tour provincial cities, in each new one swapping roles as master and servant, until they each find a wealthy woman to marry so they can return to London again and use her money to live on.

They arrive in Lichfield and quickly discover that up at 'the big house' lives wealthy (and unmarried) Dorinda along with her mother Lady Bountiful, her brother the dissolute Squire Sullen and her sister-in-law Kate.  Mrs Sullen is originally from London and is discovering her marriage to a boorish husband is an unhappy trap.

A glimpse of Aimwell at church gets Dorinda interested so Mrs Sullen invites 'servant' Archer to their house to find out who his master is.  They don't get much out of him but the visit results in an instant attraction between Kate and Archer.  Add into the mix the two Londoners being mistaken for highwaymen which leads to a real highwayman threatening them, a French officer held prisoner in the Londoner's Inn, an Irish priest in disguise as a French priest, a miserable servant and a swaggering barmaid and you have the makings of a 'romp'.

Farquahar's text has been re-jigged by playwright Patrick Marber to make it punchier and to also include several folk music moments.  Director Simon Godwin has ramped up the farcical runnings around but this is sadly to the detriment of the wordplay which is sometimes thrown away hurriedly to run up and down another flight of stairs.

What the production does get right is Lizzie Clachan's ingenious standing set which cleverly transforms from the tatty Lichfield Inn to the refined decorations to the country home of Lady Bountiful and the Sullens.  Michael Bruce's folky musical interludes are fun and usually include a musician popping up somewhere on the multi-level set, Archer's 'trifle' song in particular is annoyingly catchy!

The performances were mostly good but I found Pippa Bennett-Warner's Dorinda badly performed, her amateurish strangled twittering of the lines driving me to distraction.  It was all the more pronounced next to the delightful Mrs Sullen of Susannah Fielding.

Fielding is an actress who I have not always liked before but here she sparkled, her high spirits and teasing sense of humour mitigated by her sadness in being trapped in a loveless marriage.  It was a role that Maggie Smith made a huge success in when the National Theatre was based at the Old Vic and while Fielding was not in that class, she captured well the tears behind the joy.

As Aimwell, Samuel Barnett seemed oddly muted but that could possibly be that he was playing opposite the human-Catherine-Wheel that was Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer.  Fresh from his triumph as the outrageous Daniel in MY NIGHT WITH REG, Streatfeild was a sheer delight as Archer,a dynamo of physical energy, be it running up and down stairs, dancing, sliding across the stage and his delivery of his saucy lines was as frantic but paced well enough to get the best laughs.

He was complemented by fine supporting performances from Lloyd Hutchinson as Boniface the grubby landlord of the Inn, Amy Morgan as his feisty daughter Cherry and Richard Henders was needlingly nasty as the appropriately named Sullen.  But the best supporting performance was the always reliable Pearce Quigley as the depressed servant Scrub.  Pining for the capricious maid Gypsy and hating himself for it, Quigley was a comic delight.

On the whole I did enjoy the production which was shot through with good humour but finding space for Farquhar's plea for common sense in relationships as illustrated in the final scene when Sullen and Kate state their unhappiness with each other and both agree to go their separate ways.

Here is the trailer which includes the catchy trifle song!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

CINDERELLA - Dutch National Ballet at the Coliseum

Over a week ago we continued our investigation into seeing new things with another visit to the matchless Matcham-designed London Coliseum.

Last time it was to see operetta with Mike Leigh's PIRATES OF PENZANCE but now it was to see Prokofiev's CINDERELLA performed by the Dutch National Ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.  The production was first performed in Holland in 2012 and this was it's UK premiere.

It was odd to think I was listening to the same score that inspired Matthew Bourne's re-imagined version a few years ago that updated it to WWII London which was bold, imaginative and visually striking.  This was... pretty, and occasionally visually striking.

It was certainly sweepingly romantic but as usual with this style of ballet,  I found it's form to be a barrier stopping any enjoyment on my part.  Call it the Isadora Duncan in me.  I can appreciate the technique but not the emotion, I can appreciate the production but see no passion. 

I certainly could appreciate Julian Crouch's set and costume design, in particular the ball scene where the corps' costumes were various shades of blue, lilac and violet - Cinderella singularly flouting the dress code by wearing a little gold number. The settings were suitably palatial and pastoral for the scenes around the massive tree that grows by the grave of Cinderella's mother.  I also liked Natasha Katz' atmospheric lighting.

Basil Twist should also be mentioned for his clever - if slightly too long - transformation scene which closed the first act, Cinderella vanishing into the truck of the tree as a collection of nymphs, bird people and tree gnomes cavorted before she reappeared with a billowing white silk train which became the coach.

I can't say any of the dancers stood out as exceptional but they were all good at what they did.  Christopher Wheeldon's choreography was fluid and suitably traditional for this to stay in repertoires for a long time and I have to admit the big romantic pas de deux was very good.  He has just won a Tony award for his choreography for the Broadway production of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and I can certainly see how his romantic style would fit that production.

One moment which sticks out - more as an image than for any specific choreography - was the start of the third act when a row of palace chairs were placed along the front of the stage for various characters - including a wood gnome and the Prince's equerry - to sit out their turn at trying on the glass slipper.  When they all fled at the Prince's exasperation the chairs were all whisked upwards to hang in a surreal fashion over the rest of the scene.  It didn't add much to the story but was certainly visually arresting.

The Prince was featured a lot in this production, showing him growing up unhappy in the rigidity of court life, but it struck me that this seemed to borrow from Bourne's SWAN LAKE scenario and also that, in truth, the least interesting character in CINDERELLA is actually the Prince!

I'm glad I saw it as an experiment in dance but ultimately found that I had more of an emotional connection to Bourne's version of the ballet.

Sad to report yet another twat audience member in the row in front of us forgot he was sitting in a theatre when about 10 minutes into the production he turned on his mobile phone and proceeded to turn it on and off intemittently.  That is until a woman a few seats down from us gave him a swift jab in the shoulder.  He did turn it off but then was so enthralled in the action that, by the second interval, he and his two children were fast asleep as his wife sat and glowered at the stage.

And again, where were the bloody ushers to do the job they are paid to do?  Probably bitching about the Wicked Stepmother's port de bras on the stairs outside and picking their teeth with the used ticket stubs.