Thursday, January 19, 2017

THE RED BARN at the Lyttelton Theatre - dead behind the eyes...

After what has seemed an interminable wait - 19 DAYS! - I have broken my 2017 theatrical duck.  By the way Constant Reader, don't you think 2017 is a very ugly number?  Hopefully that doesn't influence the next 50-odd weeks.  I also hope THE RED BARN does not prove an omen for my theatre-going this year... oops, showed my hand there eh?

David Hare grew up reading the novels of George Simenon and found himself drawn to the writer's stand-alone psychological thrillers more than his Maigret crime novels and now he has adapted the little-known novel "La Main" (The Hand) for the National Theatre stage.  I know what he means.. give me the stand-alone novels of Ruth Rendell of a seemingly normal person going wrong over the neatly-packaged Inspector Wexford books. 

THE RED BARN is the National Theatre debut of director Robert Icke who is the new *hot* director at the Almeida and his production shows all the signs of a director being given all the opportunities the National Theatre can offer - video projections, elaborate scenery possibilities and lighting, special effects...  The trouble is when these are what one remembers of the piece itself...

THE RED BARN is set in a Connecticut town in 1969, the seemingly unflappable community hides a jittery, nervous feeling of unwanted change in the country while on the verge of Richard Nixon's presidency.  Two married couples - Donald and Ingrid Dodd, Ray and Mona Sanders - attend a dinner party which takes an embarrassing turn when Donald stumbles unseen upon Ray having sex with the host's wife.  They all leave the party early due to a flash snowstorm but Ray vanishes when they all have to walk the last mile back to the Dodd's home.

Donald braves the storm again but returns after an hour without Ray and, so Mona will not be alone, Ingrid arranges that they all sleep on mattresses by the fire.  Days later, the snow is cleared and Ray is found dead.  However in the Dodd's nearby barn, the Police also discover a number of cigarette butts which lead to Donald confessing to be his - rather than hunt for Ray during the storm he sheltered in the barn for over an hour smoking.

His motives for this are possibly shown when, while visiting Mona in her Manhattan apartment to offer his professional help, they start a sexual relationship.  However it's not long before Donald starts to slowly become engulfed by his emotions and secrets and when, Mona casually tells him that she is going to marry another man, he suspects that somehow Ingrid is behind it all...

It certainly sounds like a well-told tale; the plot feels very old-fashioned for such a prestige production which might explain the flashy look of Icke's production.  The stars of the show are actually Bunny Christie's set design and Paule Constable's moody, atmospheric lighting - a massive shout-out too for the Lyttelton's tech crew who make the filmic quality of Icke's production work.

But - and it's a very big but - it feels like the one thing Icke is reticent to do is give us a thriller.  Oh no... that's too obvious, too common - no this, is an existential, slow-moving story of the destruction of a dull man's psyche.  The fact that the play features two deaths hardly registers in the frigid air atmosphere.   It all felt like one of those independent films where acting is dialed down to a minimum, the score is usually 'ironic' use of pop songs and the cinematography tends to linger on 'artistic' static set-ups just a little too long. 

The actors do not pull focus under this poe-faced concept (imagine Pinter meets Dennis Lehane): Mark Strong is obvious casting for Donald bearing in mind his last stage role was as the equally obsessed Eddie Carbone in VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and with his unprepossessing brown wig and nerdy glasses he hardly seems equipped for the passion that allegedly grips him in his desire for his dead friend's wife.  But Strong is playing him on such a low light that his despair rarely registers, apart from an overly dramatic STAGGER SLUMP as he leaves Mona for the last time.

Hope Davis as Donald's emotionally controlled wife Ingrid certainly gives her an icy exterior but again is played in such a colourless way that you cannot care for her.  However she does make some impression, which is more than can be said for Elizabeth Debicki as the recently widowed Mona.  Her banal performance leaves you utterly clueless as to why Donald would throw up his life to be with her - he would surely be equally at home with a showroom mannequin.  I am sure she is supposed to be a blank canvas that Donald projects all his fantasies on but any interior life is totally missing from her phoned-in performance.

As I said the real star of the show is it's design; Bunny Christie has utilized black screens that move up and down, left and right to create a theatrical version of film pans and zooms which makes it enjoyable to watch - although this technique for making a show more filmic is not original - and has also designed the set to change in an instant: from the long and low cabin of the Dodds, to the Sanders' wide open and expansive Manhattan apartment.

Paule Constable's moody and atmospheric lighting is almost too much at times - in the final scene you are squinting at the stage to make out what is going on in the log cabin - but she does deliver, and Tom Gibbons' soundscape comes into it's own at the end, sounding louder and more discordant to signal to you that something shocking is about to happen.... and it does. If it had not been for this you would hardly be aware there was about to be a violent conclusion as Icke's production is played at such a glacial rate.

Something which only struck me later was how insidiously misogynistic it was - Donald is seemingly trapped between the primly efficient Ingrid (who looked astonishingly like Hilary Clinton at times from where I was sitting) and the icy beanpole Mona.  The drama is all his and after the offstage afternoon sex scene between Mona and Donald it is of course Debicki who enters topless... why?  What did that possibly add to the scene bearing in mind Strong was fully clothed.  Added to the violence of the climactic act it really did make me wonder on whether this crossed Hare or Icke's mind at all.

Thursday, January 05, 2017


Don't be put off by the monumental size of Lahr's biography of the landmark playwright, this truly is a magnificently involving and engrossing read.

Lahr opens with the opening night of THE GLASS MENAGERIE on Broadway which launched Williams as the most promising post-war American playwright, and through detailed analysis of his subsequent successes and, in later years, increasing failures, also reveals the troubled man behind the work.

Lahr draws fascinating parallels between the private life and public writing showing Williams to be the most autobiographical of playwrights, wrestling with family and lovers through his fictional characters.

Williams emerges as a troubled man whose self-destructive relationships with their closest to him - lover Frank Merlo, director Elia Kazan, agent Audrey Wood - make him hard to admire but under Lahr's forensic gaze easier to understand.

With unprecedented access to archives of letters and diaries, Lahr has written an unforgettable biography.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The 10th Annual Chrissie Awards - the red carpet awaits...

Time to dig out that old Balenciaga and the dinner jacket with the shiny lapels (and backside) - it's only the 10th Annual Chrissies... the award that all the West End wants...

BEST DRAMA (Original/Revival)
RICHARD III - William Shakespeare (Almeida)

THE DEEP BLUE SEA - Rattigan (Lyttelton) / ELLEN TERRY WITH EILEEN ATKINS - Atkins/Shakespeare (Sam Wanamaker) / KENNY MILLER - Poulson (Arcola) / THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS - O'Casey (Lyttelton)
BEST MUSICAL (Original/Revival)
SHOW BOAT - Jerome Kern / Oscar Hammerstein II (Sheffield & New London)
RAGTIME - Flaherty / Ahrens / McNally (Charing Cross Theatre) / SHE LOVES ME - Bock / Harnick / Masteroff (Menier) / THE THREEPENNY OPERA - Brecht / Weill / Stephens (Olivier) / TITANIC - Yeston (Charing Cross Road)
THE RED SHOES - Matthew Bourne (Sadler's Wells)
LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE - Ashton (Covent Garden) / TOSCA - Puccini (London Coliseum) / LA TRAVIATA - Verdi (Covent Garden) / THE WINTER'S TALE - Wheeldon (Covent Garden)
  RALPH FIENNES - Richard III (Almeida)
O-T FAGBENLE (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) / DAVID MORRISSEY (Hangman) / LUCIAN MSAMATI (Amadeus) / LUCIAN MSAMANTI (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom)
HELEN McCRORY - The Deep Blue Sea (Lyttelton)

EILEEN ATKINS (Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins) / SHARON D. CLARKE (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) / LISA DWAN (No's Knife) / GLENDA JACKSON (King Lear)
BEST ACTOR (Musical)
RORY KINNEAR - The Threepenny Opera (Olivier)

PAUL AYRES (Kinky Boots) / EUAN GARRETT (Billy Elliot) / HARRY HEPPLE (Into The Woods) / MICHAEL XAVIER (Show Boat)
  SCARLETT STRALLEN - She Loves Me (Menier)


STEVE PEMBERTON - Dead Funny (Savoy)

FINBAR LYNCH (Richard III) / ANDY NYMAN (Hangman) / DOMINIC ROWAN (The Tempest) / PETER SULLIVAN (The Deep Blue Sea)

VANESSA REDGRAVE - Richard III (Almeida)

LINDA BASSETT (Escaped Alone) / SUSAN ENGEL (Richard III) / BRONWYN JAMES (Hangmen) / GRÁINNE KEENAN (The Plough and The Stars)

ADAM J. BERNARD - Dreamgirls (Savoy)

ALLAN CORDUNER (Show Boat) / NICK HOLDER (The Threepenny Opera) / EMMANUEL KOJO (Show Boat) / MALCOLM SINCLAIR (Show Boat)

REBECCA TREHEARN - Show Boat (Sheffield & New London)


DANIEL COLLINS - Jekyll & Hyde (Old Vic)

BENNET GARTSIDE (The Winter's Tale) / STEVEN McRAE (La Fille Mal Gardee) / EDWARD WATSON (Strapless) / THOMAS WHITEHEAD (The Invitation)

CORDELIA BRAITHWAITE - The Red Shoes (Sadler's Wells)
KERI ALKEMA (Tosca) / MARIANELA NUNEZ (Giselle) / MARIANELA NUNEZ (The Winter's Tale) / NATALIA OSIPOVA (La Fille Mal Gardee)

RUPERT GOOLD - Richard III (Almeida)

MATTHEW BOURNE (The Red Shoes) / CARRIE CRACKNELL (The Deep Blue Sea) / CASEY NICOLAW (Dreamgirls) / MATTHEW WHITE (She Loves Me)

  LEZ BROTHERSTON - The Red Shoes (Sadler's Wells)

HILDEGARD BECHTLER (Richard III) / BOB CROWLEY (La Traviata) / BOB CROWLEY (The Winter's Tale) / PAUL FARNSWORTH (She Loves Me)

 PAULE CONSTABLE - The Red Shoes (Sadler's Wells)

JON CLARKE (Richard III) / JEAN KALMAN (La Traviata) / NATASHA KATZ (The Winter's Tale) / HUGH VANSTONE (Dreamgirls)

CASEY NICHOLAW - Dreamgirls (Savoy)


CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON - The Winter's Tale (Sadler's Wells)
FREDERICK ASHTON (La Fille Mal Gardée) / MATTHEW BOURNE (The Red Shoes) / KENNETH McMILLAN (Anastasia) / PETER WRIGHT (Giselle)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

DREAMGIRLS at the Savoy - "Every man has his own special dream..."

...and that dream has finally come true.

Back in 1982 when I was queueing up overnight for front-row seats for GUYS AND DOLLS at the National Theatre (yes Constant Reader, ALL roads lead back to that life-changing production) a conversation was started with an American chap who had heard that this was not only *the* production to see in London but that Julia McKenzie was giving *the* performance to see.  He likened this to DREAMGIRLS in New York and Jennifer Holiday playing the role of 'Effie White'.

The more he talked the more I thought "Oh wow" I need to see this" and figured that it would probably pop up in London by 1983.  But no... there was no transfer - could it have been that although it won 6 Tony Awards it didn't win for the all-important Best Musical, Best Score or Best Director?  Later in the 1990s I would find out possibly the real reason.  I worked for an actor's agent named Ann Molloy and she attempted to secure the rights for a one-off performance for AIDS charities but to no avail.  Eventually she was told that the rights holders felt there was no comparable talent in the UK to do the show justice.  So there you go...

What I did have however was the original cast recording, a recording so stupendous that it is the highest placed Broadway Cast Recording on the Billboard 200 chart in recent years and won two Grammy Awards, for Best Cast Recording and for Jennifer Holliday's titanic vocal on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going".  This incendiary performance still bursts out of the recording, taking no prisoners in it's wake.  My DREAMGIRLS fix was added to when also in the 1990s I heard a sound-desk copy of the actual show and realized how much of the score was missing from the album.

Of course my addiction was mostly fulfilled when Bill Condon's screen version was released in 2006, I had suspected that it would never be as good as I wanted but of course it triumphed on all counts and now finally... a theatre production arrives in London, directed by in-demand director Casey Nicholaw and produced by the equally in-demand producer Sonia Friedman. 

I booked as soon as the box office opened for the Wednesday after Christmas, just before they announced that the role of 'Effie' would be played by GLEE star Amber Riley who would not be playing on Wednesdays.  Oh how I smiled during the confrontation scene when Effie is sacked when the accusation is hurled that she is a diva who can't sustain...

Our 'Effie' was Karen Mav in what appears to be her acting debut having become famous in last year's "The X Factor".  Needless to say that gave me worries but she was actually quite good and sang the hell out of her songs.

What must be said is that Casey Nicolaw has directed a wonderful show; deliciously fluid and slick, his production moved at a faster rate than even the film managed.  Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's score sounded wonderful and it was great to see how their songs really do move the action forward while illuminating the character singing it.  I found it interesting too that with four new songs written for the film, only one has been interpolated into the show.  There is a rewritten version of LISTEN which had been Beyoncé's big solo for the film but here it is used as a duet for Effie and Deena when they meet again and reaffirm their friendship.

The show looks excellent too thanks to Tim Hatley's set design, Gregg Barnes' costumes and Hugh Vanstone's lighting while Nicholaw's choreography was slinky for the girls, muscular for the lads.  Unlike the film which really overdid the Motown connection by slavishly copying album covers and famous photo sessions for both The Supremes and Diana Ross, Barnes' costumes were more generic.

But something stopped me LOVING the show as much as I feel I should have done.  Maybe the film really has stolen it's thunder as in retrospect I can see how faithful it was to Tom Eyen's original book - the film's obvious building up of James 'Thunder' Early, Curtis Taylor and Deena Jones' roles for Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé's roles are the only noticeable changes - but I think what really put a break on my enjoyment was seeing the Menier's SHE LOVES ME five days before; it's a show that has real warmth in it's book and score whereas DREAMGIRLS ultimately felt like a glorious firework display; spectacular to experience but a bit hollow at heart.

What I also found surprising was the 'meh' quality of the cast - all very nice but where were the fireworks?  Even if it is cast down to build up the Amber Riley, could we not have given Effie a more effective counterpoint than Liisi LaFontaine as Deena?  She has little personalty and no real heft vocally.  The intriguingly-named Ibinabo Jack had more fun with Lorrell, getting laughs and applause for her big number.

The stand-out in the cast was Adam J Bernard as James 'Thunder' Early who had just the right volcanic energy to make him steal whatever scenes he was in.  Joe Aaron Reid was imposing in height as the devilish Curtis Taylor Jr. but was still a bit lightweight sadly.

As we left, Owen suggested maybe a return visit might be in order to see if Amber Riley can maybe ignite the show properly but the news that there is now a THIRD alternate for 'Effie' been cast - the American actress Marisha Wallace who has already played the role in a Dallas production - means it would be now even more of a crapshoot to see her.

It sounds like Martine McCutcheon and MY FAIR LADY all over again...  turn up for the press-night, get the reviews then no doubt have lengthy wrestles with laryngitis.  Not that the audience minded on the night we went - they came prepared to scream at anything and everything.

Despite all this I am glad to finally have seen it onstage, it only took 34 years!