Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Prince of The Pagodas

A few weeks ago Owen and I went to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of THE PRINCE OF THE PAGODAS, the only ballet that Benjamin Britten wrote the score for.

It was created in 1957 by the Royal Ballet but has had a checkered past with choreographer John Cranko's libretto coming in for most of the criticism.  Here it was presented in a new version by choreographer David Bintley.  Once I found out it was Britten I was doubtful if I would manage to stay the course as I have never understood the appeal but I found it the best part of the evening - apart from the ice-cream of course.

The plot still needs work: a princess is grieving for her brother who died mysteriously some years before and whose stepmother has taken control of the court while the emperor pines for his lost son.  A parade of possible suitors includes a mysterious Salamander prince who the princess escapes with.  They journey to his kingdom through water and fire and eventually she discovers that the prince is her assumed-dead brother and together they journey back to over-throw the wicked Empress.

The critics have a point, the plot felt like it was stitched together from many different stories and ultimately was only there to give a framework to the bouncing about.  The problem was I just didn't engage with it despite Rae Smith's visually exuberant sets and Peter Teigen's lush lighting.

I have never been a classical ballet fan.  While sitting in the Coliseum my mind went back to the 1980s when the late Martin Taylor took me to see Natalya Makarova in ONEGIN and saying in the interval that he hoped I was aware I was seeing a great performance.  Actually I thought she had already given a great performance in the Rodgers & Hart musical ON YOUR TOES a couple of years before especially when she played the cabaret dancer in the exhilarating "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" number.

I also think that I was a fan of Isadora Duncan from an impressionable age and agreed with her quote that it was "a school of affected grace and toe walking".  So I can never be swept away by classical ballet, all I see is the court entertainment and piss-elegance of the extended curtain calls.

I am not a fan of opera either, primarily because I find it hard to engage with the distilled forms - the voice with opera, the body with ballet.  One cannot doubt the expertise of the dancers but give me the excitement of Matthew Bourne's productions any day.

I did like the sea horses though!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

100 x 2

That's an odd title isn't it?  But it ties in with the revival of OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR at Stratford East, the theatre where this groundbreaking show was born.

In case you haven't noticed, this year is the Centenary of the start of World War I but at Stratford East they are also celebrating the Centenary of the birth of the theatre's unique former artistic director Joan Littlewood.  Ironically, Littlewood came close to not even doing the show in 1963.

Her partner Gerry Raffles heard Charles Chilton's radio programme "The Long, Long Road" in 1962 which interspersed soldier's reminiscences with the songs they sang among themselves.  Raffles told Littlewood about it and suggested it might make a good show for her company Theatre Workshop but she turned the idea down as she was an avowed pacifist.  Undeterred, Raffles invited Chilton to the theatre and while going through the songs, Littlewood began to see the potential in making a show that was a critique of the war and the warmongers but to also celebrate the lives of the ordinary people swept up in their power-games.  Her idea to present the company as a Pierrot troupe gave the show a suitably Brechtian twist and featured such characterful actors as Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy, Murray Melvin, Larry Dann and Fanny Carby.  The show was a huge popular success and moved on to both the West End and Broadway.  Richard Attenborough then went on to make a leaden, joyless screen version in 1969.

I have seen two revivals of the show and was looking forward to seeing this one on the stage where it was created.

There are several scenes in the show that always start the silent waterworks and again this production hit those moments with a quiet power - the Christmas Eve, 1914 scene on the western front when the English and German soldiers stop fighting and meet each other in no man's land to share makeshift Christmas presents always sets me off and the powerful scene of the French soldiers baa-ing their way towards the guns, literally 'lambs to the slaughter' is still unsettling.  The production uses the original trops of slides of contemporary photographs and a moving display that rolls out the awful casualty totals for the battles but the micro-sign that is in the current production uses too large text which makes it difficult to follow what is being scrolled.

What remains the success of the show is the use of the contemporary tunes as well as the snatches of song that the soldiers would sing while marching or in the trenches which constantly reach down the years and jolt you with their jaundiced and savagely ironical lyrics.  The chilling detachment of their words curdle the pretty melodies that they appropriated and are put across by the present company with both gusto and despair.

Sadly for me the show is now hampered by the too-frequent scenes where those who hold the strings - the Generals, the politicians, the businessmen - disrupt the more interesting ones with the soldiers.  What makes it all the more frustrating is that these are the real legacy of the Littlewood agit-prop style but now they are too blatant, too obvious and ultimately too damn long.  At the start of the second act, there is an interminable scene between American, English, German, French and Dutch businessman comparing the fortunes they have made off their munition-trading while on a Grouse shoot (geddit?).  It's so heavy-handed and obvious that it outstays it's welcome very quickly.  You want to shout at the stage "Yes we get it!!"  A re-write of these scenes could easily be done to make these scenes more effective for a modern audience but I'm guessing the show is frozen in deference to Littlewood's wishes.

The show seemed to take an awful long time to get going - namely down to the interminable "War Game" scenes setting out how the war started but start it did with the first real appearance of Caroline Quentin as the Music Hall star singing the recruitment song "I'll Make A Man Of You".  She shook the production awake by the scruff of the neck with her galvanising rendition and her two other major scenes were very effective - speed-singing "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts" and also as Mrs. Pankhurst being hectored and pelted as she tries to deliver a pacifist speech to an angry street crowd.  It's actually refreshing that Littlewood included this scene as it showed how most of the general public refused to believe there could be any other way forward apart from through killing.

Among a generally good cast, Ian Bartholomew was particularly fine as General Haig, Shaun Prendergast had a good Max Miller-like quality as the MC of the evening and I liked the contributions of Oliver J. Hembrough, who I remembered as the put-upon husband Edgar in last year's TITANIC.  Terry Johnson has directed the show with a sure but possibly a too-reverential hand and I liked the Lez Brotherston's stage design which copied the theatre's proscenium arch and stage boxes in metal scaffolding and filigree.

Constant Reader, as we are on the subject of revisiting shows, I went to see Richard Eyre's pressure-cooker production of GHOSTS again which has now transferred from the Almeida to the Trafalgar Studios (my blog from the original Almeida production is here) and I am happy (?) to report that it is still holds you in a vice-like grip of increasing despair and again I found myself breathless at the power and intensity of Lesley Manville as Mrs. Alving.

It was a pleasure to see her performance again and to see how she subtly shades the reactions and actions of her character and how ultimately she descends into her own living Hell.  She is magnificent and it's amazing she has kept up this remarkable performance with all that is asked of her during the course of it's 90 minutes when she is rarely offstage.

Run to see GHOSTS before it closes on March 23nd, OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR ended it's run on the 15th.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Interpreting Shakespeare

How to interpret a Shakespearean character?  I have had two opportunities to find out recently...

For the second time in as many years, there is a production that has been heavily anticipated so much you can feel the cognoscenti holding their breath.  Last year it was the combination of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in OTHELLO and now this year we have Simon Russell Beale as KING LEAR, directed by long-time collaborator Sam Mendes.

I felt OTHELLO was less than was expected and at times KING LEAR was a bit disappointing too but on the whole it fulfilled the expectation raised.  It certainly was a huge production which opens with a huge flaming sun being slowly eclipsed and then gives us big open spaces on the Olivier stage, big statues, a big cast, torture by water-boarding - and even a big dead stag - but at times I yearned for the claustrophobic Cottesloe production from 1997 which was directed by Richard Eyre with a landmark performance by Ian Holm.
Mendes has set his production in a 20th Century totalitarian state that is ruled over by the hunched and shaven-headed Lear who calls a summit conference to ask his three daughters the famous question of which one of them loves him the most.
Interestingly this was the first production I have seen where the dual plot device was really apparent to me.  Lear isn't the only one who fatally makes a wrong decision regarding his children, Gloucester also chooses to believe his bastard son Edmund's lie that his legal son Edgar is plotting to kill him, his eager belief in the lie echoes Lear's banishing of his favourite daughter Cordelia for her perceived lack of love for him.  Both actions are catastrophic but, as I said this is the first production where I noticed the obvious parallel lines of the plot.
I think this is mostly down to the exceptional performance of Stephen Boxer as Gloucester, a career politician who realises too late, and at a terrible cost, his miscalculation.  The performances of Sam Troughton as the venal Edmund was very good, played like a faceless Special Advisor who seizes his chance in the power vacuum.  Troughton had good fun with his soliloquies where Edmund shares his delight in his machinations.  Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare suggests that the same actor would have played Iago in OTHELLO and I believe this to be the case as they both share a delight in their villany,  Sadly Tom Brooke's Edgar was a trifle anonymous, even with his old boy flapping about as 'Poor Tom'.

Stanley Townsend, not a performer I usually warm to, was excellent as Kent.  Gruff and burly and quick to anger, yet he could touch the heart especially with his dignified final lines "I have a journey, sir, shortly to go / My master calls me, I must not say no."

Adrian Scarborough was also very good as The Fool, becoming more and more despondent as his truisms fall more an more on deaf ears.  How do you solve a problem like the Fool?  He vanishes halfway through the play and there is a good reason put forward in the Ackroyd book that possibly the boy actor who played Cordelia also played The Fool which explains the character's disappearance as Cordelia comes back into the action. 
Mendes solves the problem the same way that Adrian Noble's 1982 production did, namely that during the trial scene Lear, in the depth of his derangement, kills the Fool in place of an imagined Goneril.  Here the violent act springs from nowhere and as such, was doubly shocking.

Sadly the daughters didn't do it for me at all.  Kate Fleetwood's Wallis Simpson lookalike Goneril seemed too under-charged while Anna Maxwell Martin was overly-screechy and too obvious as an over-sexed Regen.  Mendes has also chopped and changed the text in areas so in this production, the sisters die on stage: Maxwell Martin poisoned and dying huddled under a table while Fleetwood cuts her own throat.  It certainly moves the characters a bit more into the limelight but it all looks badly staged and not organic to the play's flow.
The good news was that I quite liked Olivia Vinall as Cordelia who showed a lot more presence than she did as Desdemona in last year's OTHELLO.
I have seen five Lears on stage and they have been inching up in ages: Michael Gambon (1983, aged 43), Richard Briars (1990, aged 56), Robert Stephens (1994, aged 63), Ian Holm (1997, aged 66) and Derek Jacobi (2010, aged 72).  Simon Russell Beale drops the scale back down as he is 53 but he gives a consummate performance, maybe just missing greatness.
Playing an obviously dictatorial Lear, Beale in the first scene gives a clue to his encroaching incapacity with a trembling hand that twitches behind him, and with each subsequent downturn in his fortunes the twitch becomes more pronounced.  Despite his fearful whispered "O let me not be mad" to the Fool, by the heath scene - oddly staged on a levitating ramp - he is deranged, even stripping down to a pair of baggy underpants in sympathy with the naked Poor Tom.
Beale appears in the Dover scene as an escapee from his hospital bed, wearing his hospital smock, the Fool's hat and a carrier bag of his meagre possessions.  The subsequent scene where he is reunited with Cordelia was also finely played as a man slowly recovering his memory of his daughter from a fit of anger.
The final scene was beautifully played and you could hear a pin drop when he said "Thou'lt come no more / Never, never, never, never, never!" each repetition pitched differently.  I am not sure why on reflection I feel he missed greatness, maybe a feeling that he missed the pathos that Ian Holm and Derek Jacobi brought to the final moments.
With this production so fresh in my mind, it was fascinating to then see ELLEN TERRY WITH EILEEN ATKINS at the new Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe's companion theatre.  Built to replicate a Jacobean indoor theatre, it's tiny auditorium would feel claustrophobic if you were seeing a production the length of KING LEAR but this show's running time of 80 minutes was fine.
In 1910 the great 19th Century actress Ellen Terry was 63 and after failing as an actor/manager of her own theatre, she decided to do lecture tours on Shakespeare, especially his women.  Eileen Atkins has adapted these latter ones into a one-woman show which has her become Terry to tell us her thoughts on Shakespeare, stories from her career playing his heroines and also perform speeches and scenes from them.  In 1989 Eileen Atkins adapted Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN into a one-woman play with much success and she has triumphed again with Ellen Terry.  I was transfixed by her.
As Ellen Terry she takes us back to when she played Puck in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM aged 9 years old and how in the final scene one night, her bare toe was caught in the trap-door.  As she wailed and sobbed, the producer of the show ran on stage and freeing her whispered "Finish the show and I'll double your salary".  Needless to say the always-practical Terry finished the show,

Through her insights into the roles she played, Terry shares her unique standpoint as the person who had to bring those characters to life.  She also includes Rosalind which she never got to appear in due to the fact that Henry Irving would not let her play the role at the Lyceum as there was no good role for him!

Eileen Atkins said in an interview that she would not attempt to act the scenes in Terry's style: "She was extremely clever and passionate, but we all know that acting is subject to fashion. You’re in, then you’re out. It makes me sad that even some of Laurence Olivier’s performances look old-fashioned now. So I’m pretty well Eileen Atkins when it comes to the actual parts" - and how wonderful for that as it's when Atkins plays the scenes that the true magic happens.

With no props or costumes - or even lighting cues - she became Rosalind, Portia, Mistress Page, Beatrice, Viola, Juliet, Desdemona and Emilia as well as Othello, Cordelia as well as King Lear, and finally Ophelia.

Several times, this most under-rated and astonishing actress brought tears to my eyes.  Her Juliet, trembling and afraid of having to swallow the potion that will make her appear dead; her Emilia, righteous in her fury at Othello's killing of Desdemona; Portia's 'The quality of mercy' speech; Ophelia's mad scene, and most poignant of all, Cordelia and King Lear's reconciliation.  Coming so soon after seeing the full production along the river, I know which one I would kill to see again.
It was an evening that will stay with me for a long time, it was living proof of that alchemy that true acting genius can achieve. 

Friday, February 28, 2014


Two productions have recently given me the chance to reappraise two works that I had seen before, one on stage and one on film.

I saw THE WEIR in 1999 when it had already been running for nearly two years in various theatres that had been commandeered by the Royal Court while it was being renovated,  It won the Olivier Award for Best Play and has since been named as one of the 100 Most Significant Plays of the 20th Century - it shared the 40th place with Beckett's ENDGAME, Coward's THE VORTEX, Miller's VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH.  Heady competition for a relatively recent work.

To be honest, for all it's acclaim I had retained only a dim memory of the play.  I remembered the Irish backwater pub setting and it's story of the male locals telling spooky stories to a female newcomer from Dublin.
But here it is revived in a vibrant new production directed by Josie Rourke that originated at the Donmar (and ergo, sold out immediately) and has now transferred to the Wyndhams and it was a pleasure to be reacquainted with it's dense, naturalistic prose and this one has stayed with me.

Tom Scutt's set design places us firmly in the small pub in a remote village in Ireland, we even get the waft of peat burning in the onstage stove,  Brendan runs the pub although you can tell his heart isn't really in it and he is being pressured by his offstage sisters who have invested in it,  His regulars include Jack who runs the town's garage, Jim who is an odd-job man who lives with his aged mother and Finbar who is viewed with some suspicion by the others as he owns property and is a bit 'flash'.  Finbar is also the odd-one-out among them as he is the only one who is married.
The play's first third sets up Finbar's arrival with his new tenant Valerie, a young woman who has just arrived in the village from Dublin.  Her presence in the bar has a vaguely unsettling effect on the regulars, straining to be on their best behaviour and adapting to her 'cosmopolitan' ways - her request for a glass of wine throws Brendan completely but luckily he has a bottle in his adjoining house which was given to him as a present!  One wonders how long the wine has sat in his cupboard as he pours Valerie a beer glass full of it.
They all attempt to trump Finbar's local knowledge with stories of their youth and the characters that are long gone, including the old woman who used to live in Valerie's house.  This leads to Jack recounting a spooky story that the old woman told him from when she was a girl which leads to Finbar and Jim also sharing similar ghostly tales that they were involved in. 
These scenes could stop the show in a bad way but Josie Rourke has by this point created a real world onstage with the cast playing as if they really have known each other all their lives.  These stories have an effect on Valerie and she tells the men her own experience that has lead her to the village.  Her haunting story has a radical effect on the men and at the close of the play Jack shares a story from his past that has no supernatural overtones but which has haunted his life ever after.

A remarkable ensemble cast is lead by Brian Cox as Jack, his black suit looking suitably lived-in. I suspect his performance has grown somewhat larger since the move as his bits of business seemed to be very spotlighted but his performance grows richer during the course of the play and his final monologue was wonderfully played, making you fully realise the loneliness that lives behind his blarney.

Ardol O'Hanlon was very interestingly cast, Jim being very close to his slightly daft television persona but he too managed to show the aching loneliness in his aimless life, again his baggy jumper suggesting character.  Risteárd Cooper had the showy role as jack-the-lad Finbar and he too gave us a fully-rounded character, chafing at his marital ties and all too aware of his friends wariness about him.

Peter McDonald was always watchable as Brendan, he suggests a life in the doldrums, of opening and closing his pub every night while hearing the same stories time and again.  The undercurrent between him and Dervla Kirwan's Valerie was nicely played, you hope that her arrival might give them both a new chance.  Kirwan was excellent as the woman fleeing her recent trauma and her big monologue was beautifully played, holding the emotions in check until the end.  As usual, Neil Austin's lighting was impeccable.
It's a wonderful experience to see this cast playing with such a unity of purpose and I recommend you race to see it before it's April 19th final curtain.  And yes, it does deserve it's place on the that list of great 20th Century plays.

Also on the Significant Plays of the 20th Century list - this time at number 50 along with 8 other plays - is Shelagh Delaney's A TASTE OF HONEY which has just been revived at the Lyttelton Theatre.

I have only ever seen Tony Richardson's 1961 film version which immortalised Rita Tushingham as Jo, the fantasising and gobby schoolgirl, yearning to break away from her overbearing mother and that film certainly casts a long shadow as it is so of it's time and it's trops seem fresh and original.
The play, which like THE WEIR only requires five performers, was Delaney's only real success.  In an excellent piece in the programme, Jeanette Winterson puts her in the context of her times and shows how, as a teenager of 19 when the play was finally produced, Delaney was a unique but lonely voice with no other female writer around her to bounce ideas off.  She had been spurred on to write A TASTE OF HONEY after enduring a production of a Terence Rattigan play and decided that she could write about life better than this writer could - to paraphrase Delaney fan Morrissey it said nothing to her about her life.  She wrote the play in a fortnight and sent it to Joan Littlewood at Theatre Royal Stratford East who seized on it's immediacy and put it into production.
Teenage Jo and her flighty mother Helen have moved into a rundown flat in a dingy part of Salford in the late 1950s after having done a flit from their last home.  With no money coming in apart from what Helen gets from her 'admirers', Jo is looking forward to leaving school and starting work in a shop.  She is also seeking escape from her mother who treats her as her unpaid servant but you also sense that their life together has made them inter-dependant and that Jo will probably never really escape,
Helen starts up with the flashy Peter who asks her to marry him.  What she doesn't realise is that Jo has started her first relationship with Jimmie, a young black sailor who is soon to depart on a new ship.  Left alone over Christmas when her mother leaves her to be with her new lover, Jo invites the sailor over and they have sex.  A couple of days later, while dressing on her wedding day, Helen notices Jo wearing Jimmie's ring on a chain around her neck,  They quarrel and Helen leaves the house, possibly for the last time.
A few months later and Jo is pregnant.  She meets art student Geoff (whose homosexuality is only inferred) who is looking for somewhere to stay, and invites him to share the flat.  He needs a place to stay and she needs a friend and someone to share her life with.  Together they look forward to the birth of her baby and plan for their unconventional life together, although not before an ominous visit from Helen, tipped off by the well-meaning Geoff about her daughter's condition.
In the months nearer the birth Geoff is coping with Jo's erratic behaviour well but all is interrupted when Helen reappears, her marriage apparently over before it began.  Helen immediately starts undermining Peter and while Jo sleeps, he realises he is out of his depth with the fearsome mother and leaves for good.  Helen's triumph is short-lived when she realises Jo's child might be black and leaves while Jo starts her labour, waiting for Geoff's return which we know will never happen.
I really wish I liked the production more but I found Bijan Sheibani's direction to be erratic and a bit all over the place.  What totally ruined most of the show were the profoundly irritating scene changes which has cast members doing little dance routines around the set to the cool jazz music playing.  It put me in mind of those fist-making routines that end Miranda Hart's tv shows and *no one* wants to be reminded of that.  Hildegarde Bechtler's design doesn't really inspire either with it's single-room set seemingly up on bricks over at one side of the stage with a Salford street cyclorama behind it.

I also found Kate O'Flynn to be too strident as Jo, seemingly playing her character like an audition for "Coronation Street".  It made it very difficult to like or sympathise with her character at all.  In her first scene with Jimmie the sailor she hit the right level of gaucheness, saying phrases in a style you knew she had seen in films or heard her mother using, but overall her high-pitched, over-pitched phrasing annoyed.

I did like Harry Hepple as Geoff who suggested an inner life that needed nurturing as much as Jo's did but doomed to be confronted by the prejudices of landladies, bigots and harridans.  His crushed acceptance of being no match for the manipulative Helen was touchingly played,
The show however belongs to Lesley Sharp as Helen.  Changeable as a Salford breeze, she was infuriating but intriguing - yes she was a monster but she also gave clues along the way to what made her that way.  A crippling loneliness and need to be loved has driven her to manipulation and emotional blackmail and the action noticeably sagged when she was offstage.
At times she reminded me of Ruth Ellis, with her tight clothes, love of the bottle and peroxide blonde hair - maybe it's because I had in the back of my mind that Shelagh Delaney had a success in the 1980s with her script for DANCE WITH A STRANGER,
I wish I had liked it more but sadly the combination of iffy direction and an original work being made to seem unoriginal by a production trading on what has come after it made it a missed opportunity.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Union Man...

Back in the 1990s and into the 2000s I used to frequent the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street.  It was a converted theatre space as it used to be a swimming pool and laundry yet!  To be honest no one ever went to the Bridewell to see great performances - I certainly saw some good ones but they were always a delightful surprise.  No, what one went to the Bridewell to see were productions of musicals that were too expensive and/or risky to ever appear in the West End.  The Bridewell closed to these productions in 2005.

I thought of the Bridewell last night on my way home from the Union Theatre as it seems to have taken it's place.  In almost as many weeks I have now seen two productions there and again both shows were ones that you would have to wait a long time to see in the West End.

The first show we saw there this year was the "Song By Song By Kander & Ebb" show THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND, the perfect show for a Sunday afternoon.
The show originated in 1991 when director Scott Ellis, choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist David Thompson (who would all later collaborate on the Kander & Ebb show STEEL PIER) put together the show to run off-Broadway where it won several awards but it never moved either to Broadway or London as by the next year the duo had their new show KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN staged.  The bizarre thing is that what we saw in 2014 was the 1991 show despite the fact they have since written STEEL PIER, THE VISIT, CURTAINS and THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.  I think it would have been wiser to do a new show that could take in songs from these later productions.
So, once more into the CABARET and CHICAGO songbooks, dear friends, once more... The Union's set-up makes for a convoluted journey to your seat.  It is another 'reclaimed' space - once a paper warehouse - so after walking through it's narrow café (they call it a café, it's more like a passage with shelves on either side) you go into the bar at the back where you are given your numbered laminated tickets. They call numbers out in batches of ten so you can take your seats and give them back their laminated tickets!  I wonder - as I always do - why they can't just number their seats?  There was nearly a Queeny fight the afternoon we went to see the Kander & Ebb show over a disputed seat.  Oh and a handy tip... pee before you go otherwise you have to use the barnacled urinal.
But despite that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the show?  Hey what's not to love?  They are lovely songs and they were sung by a good cast - Susan Fay, Simon Green, Gareth Snook, Lisa Stokke and Emma Francis.  There was also a supporting company of five dancers (aka possible understudies) who clumped around the concrete floor charmingly.  The leads all had their moments to shine and were clapped enthusiastically by us, the small but happy audience.
Kirk Jameson directed and designed the show (it couldn't have taken long as it was only 5 chairs and some mirrors) and Sam Spencer Lane was responsible for the moves.  Enjoyable but it wasn't a patch on HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET! which was a Kander & Ebb compilation which played at the Donmar (before it became "The Donmar") in 1988 with the astonishing cast of Diane Langton, Josephine Blake, Angela Richards and the late Martin Smith.  The set list was roughly the same but damn it was one to remember.
Which brings me to the problem I have with most shows these days, where are the real musical comedy performers who can elevate a show from adequate to memorable?  Most shows these days usually feel like you are watching an understudy call - and yes, I'm talking West End too.
Show after show seems to be cast from an endless pool of tour choruses, understudies and cruise ship dancers.  Not a bad thing if these can then be built on but the level stays the same - acres of anonymous performers who can smile and nod but who are incapable of throwing shade on a characterisation.  So, on to FINIAN'S RAINBOW...
All though it's a well-known name I suspect that's due to the lame film version, it's certainly not down to production history, the Union Theatre's production is it's first in London since 1947 - and that one only lasted 22 performances!!
The original book has been rewritten by Charlotte Moore who is the artistic director of the USA's Irish Repertory Theatre who revived it ten years ago.  The whimsy-fuelled story centred on Finian, an Irish immigrant, and his daughter Sharon arriving in the imagined state of Missitucky - although a major part of the plot is about living near Kentucky's Fort Knox.  Finian wants to bury a crock of gold near Fort Knox so it will grow (I know, I know) but is unaware that Og, the leprechaun he stole it from, is on his trail.  Sharon falls in love with a local lad but the community is being threatened by a racist senator who wants to buy up their land.
Plenty there to rewrite I agree but what is the actual reason?  Because Sharon makes a wish that the senator would understand what it's like to be hated while accidently holding the magic crock which grants wishes and the Senator turns black.  The original - and well-meaning - book-writers meant for this to show the Senator exactly what it's like to be poor and black - but no, it is now taken to mean that to be black is to be 'wrong'. 
So political correctness decrees the character now disappears only to turn up as a poor white man!  So no, don't rewrite the Leprechaun character, don't rewrite the idea that burying gold will make it grow out of the ground - don't even rewrite the profoundly irritating character of the ingénue who can't speak but dances her answers!
So as has happened so often before, we have an under-par book supporting a delightful score.  In an odd turn of events, the three break-out numbers from the score - "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?", "Look To The Rainbow", "Old Devil Moon" - follow one another at the start of the show and are of such a high quality that it's hard for the score to keep up that standard but it constantly surprises and enchants.  It's no wonder that Sondheim is a fan of E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg, his lyrics are always on the money and genuinely inspired - the second act opener "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich" is great fun.
There are nice performances from James Horne as 'Finian', Christina Bennington as 'Sharon', Raymond Walsh as 'Og' and Joseph Peters as 'Woody' but the playing area is too cramped to fully contain the cast of 23 so it gives an uneven feeling when they all cram in together and start bellowing at the three rows of humble punters.  Believe me, there is nowhere to hide - apropos my earlier point, although the chorus all gave energetic and 'up' performances there wasn't much variation to their playing and in such a confined space their "teeth, tits and tonsils" approach was quite claustrophobic.
I guess if it's the fault of director Phil Willmott it's because he's such a fan of the show. So, despite all my ruminations, the bottom line is you are not going to see FINIAN'S RAINBOW on any West End stage anytime soon and for the score alone - and the named performers above - I suggest you get along to the Union Theatre where it is playing until 15th March.
I guess - to paraphrase Og's second act number - when I'm not near the show I love, I love the show I'm near.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Popcorn Play

A week or so ago I had a totally new theatrical experience.  Constant Reader I hear your cry "But what can that be?"  Well, I have finally been to see a NT Live screening.  And what a strange experience it was.

NT Live has been running for nearly five years but I have put off seeing one as the previous broadcasts have either been productions I have seen previously onstage or wasn't interested.  But here we had an interesting cast - Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus, Deborah Findlay as Volumnia and Mark Gatiss as Menenius - in a play that I had wanted to see again after having seen Ralph Fiennes' film version in 2012.  I was curious as to how to classify this: film or theatre?  But I boiled it down to the question "Would I chomp popcorn during a play?" So, film it is.
The Brixton Ritzy was packed with an interesting mix of older punters with glasses of wine and younger, media-types with bottles of wine.  Can you see a connection?  You could see we were the first-timers as we had bottles of Pepsi-Max.  There was an odd, jittery atmosphere in the auditorium as the screen showed us the Donmar audience taking their seats interspersed with 'trailers' for upcoming screenings (Owen shut his eyes during KING LEAR as we are seeing it actually onstage this week) and an introduction from Emma Freud.

To be honest I'm not sure what I should be talking about: the screen experience or the stage production. As a screen experience, the first thing that struck me was how strange it was to be seeing what the theatre audience was experiencing but with none of the inherent atmosphere you get, especially in such a small auditorium as the Donmar.  It was also odd at the end to have the actors take their bows to rapturous applause while we sat gawping.  My friends Sharon and Eamonn were seeing it in a cinema in West London and, again, it was odd to text her in the interval to chat about the theatre production we were watching but be miles apart!
The actual production was interesting but by the middle of the second act I had started to weary of it's sameness.  Was it because I was not actually there that I felt that?  Maybe.  Tom Hiddleston certainly gave an excellent performance, charismatic and nicely shaded.  During the play you feel Shakespeare becoming more and more fascinated with his lead character to the detriment of others and to be honest there were some very dodgy supporting performances here.  There is a real dearth of good supporting performers these days but I enjoyed Elliot Levey's duplicitous politician Brutus, happily engineering Coriolanus' downfall with his cohort Sicinia.  Oh yes, Sicinius has been given a sex change and is played by Katherine Schlesinger for no real reason but to up the actress rate and for the two nasty senators to share a snog.  Schlesinger actually was good but it reared unhappy memories of the transgender casting in the National's EDWARD II.
Hiddleston was better matched by Mark Gatiss' Menenius and Deborah Findlay's Volumnia.  Gatiss gave a fine performance as the peace-making senator who runs out of excuses for Coriolanus' behaviour and is ultimately let down by his friend while Findlay was in excellent form as Caius' mother Volumnia. 

A woman who has channelled all her ambition into her son, Volumnia is the one person Coriolanus cannot refuse and constantly pushes him: to become a senator, to suck up to the crowd and with the Senators, but who also seals his fate when she convinces him to turn back from over-running his native city of Rome.  Frustratingly, this climactic scene came across as flat and one-note, again leaving me to wonder was that the fault of Josie Rourke's direction or for the fact that the tension was dissipated by not being in the same room as the actors.  It certainly didn't have the power or the subtlety of playing that Vanessa Redgrave brought to the role of Volumnia in Fiennes' film.  The role of Virgilia, Coriolanus' wife is one of the least interesting of Shakespeare's women especially as she is over-shadowed by the character of Volumnia, but I liked the weary sadness of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.
I'm not sure the NT Live thing is something I would do too often but it is an excellent initiative to make these theatre productions truly national events.