Sunday, September 13, 2009

Yes Constant Reader, I have been a bit of a gadabout this week.

I'll quickly mention we went to see Roger Allam and Philip Quast in their last week of playing Albin and George in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the Playhouse. The spotlight will swing back to the show next week with the arrival of John Barrowman as Albin so it was good to see it without the inherent over-balancing that he will no doubt bring.

We had seen Quast in the original Menier production and he was as good as he had been there - maybe better as he no longer had to contend with the more barnstorming performance of Douglas Hodge to play opposite. I had no idea what to expect from Roger Allam but he gave a fine, subtle performance, suggesting the middle-aged vulnerability of Albin and had a real "Dockyard Doris" flavour to his appearances as 'Zaza'!

If someone had told me a year or so back that I would have seen a production of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES three times I would never have believed them! Memories of the elephantine production at the London Palladium in the 1980s had swamped any enjoyment had. Terry Johnson's stripped-down, more earthy version is coming up to celebrating a year at the Playhouse and one wishes it continued success and especially in it's coals-to Newcastle journey to Broadway next year with Douglas Hodge.

As Owen was seeing Amanda Palmer's extra Friday show at the Union Chapel in Islington I decided to take the opportunity to pay one of my infrequent trips to the Almeida Theatre. Either through my lethargy or their programming I don't seem to go there often but I was rewarded this time with James MacDonald's excellent production of JUDGMENT DAY.My main reason for going was because it was adapted by Christopher Hampton from the original play by the Hungarian writer Odon von Horvath. Hampton has a particular affinity for his work and I was first introduced to both writers through Peter Gill's fantastic National Theatre production of Hampton's TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD which imagined Horvath in WWII Hollywood with the other German emigre writers. The production made me an instant fan of Christopher Hampton and so this combination of the two writers had me hooked.

Odon von Horvath was a playwright in Germany in the 1920s and 30s whose work was constantly under threat from the Nazis but he stayed, observing the growing chaos and using it as inspiration. He left for a year in 1933 - marrying a Jewish opera singer in Budapest so she could have a passport - but returned in 1934 and went so far as to join the Nazi Writers' Union so he could work on film scripts under an assumed name. However in 1936 he was given 24 hours to leave Germany. He moved to Austria and continued to write. It was here he wrote JUDGMENT DAY.

He also wrote an acclaimed novel "Youth Without God" which was put on the Nazi Banned Books. In 1938 the emigre director Robert Siodmak invited him to Paris to discuss a possible film of it. After their lunch, Siodmak urged him to see SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. Caught in a violent storm while walking home, he sheltered under a tree. A branch snapped off and fell, killing Horvath instantly. Somehow you suspect it's absurdity and randomness would have appealed to him.

His work makes an interesting comparison to his contemporary Brecht: whereas Brecht showed the people doing bad things to each other as some parable for the evils of Capitalism, Horvath shows people doing bad things to each other because that's just what people do! No political framework trapping people, just human beings trapping themselves.

JUDGMENT DAY is set in a small Austrian town where the local stationmaster Thomas Hudetz is universally admired by all for his friendliness and attention to duty running the station and signals single-handedly. His distant and suspicious wife who is 15 years older is universally despised as is her brother who is the local chemist.

One night Hudetz is left alone on the platform with Anna, the young daughter of the town bar after she sees her fiancee off on his train. She taunts him with the knowledge that he is under his wife's thumb and, aware that Frau Hudetz is probably watching them from the flat above the station, she passionately kisses him. As she does, a train thunders through the station which Hudetz realises is an express train - and he hasn't changed the signal. The train crashes and a large number of people are killed.When questioned later in front of the rubbernecking townsfolk Hudetz lies that he changed the signal and blames the driver, although the stoker has survived the crash and says this was not the case. Anna is questioned and she corroborates the lie. Mrs. Hudetz appears and tells the Prosecutor that her husband is guilty as she saw him with Anna. The crowd protest violently that she is a jealous shrew and obviously not to be believed.Four months later, Hudetz returns to a hero's homecoming when all charges are dropped. Hudetz's despised brother-in-law Alfons is nearly lynched when he arrives during the party but he tells them all that he believes his sister to be a liar and is immediately welcomed into the loving embrace of the town. Anna however has been consumed with the knowledge of her lie and asks Hudetz to meet her later that night. When a body is found three days later, the town and the murderer has to face the truth at last.

MacDonald's brooding but swift production - 75 minutes no interval - was perfectly complemented by Miriam Buether's spare set with it's curved wall of vertical wooden planks which hid various sliding panels and a movable wooden platform - economic but effective, the design did not impede the momentum of the play but proved to be constantly surprising. Neil Austin again came up with an excellent lighting design which again never drew attention away from the play but lived in the memory after.

David MacDonald has also drawn an excellent ensemble together, you can imagine these people having lived together for years. Joseph Millson was perfect as Hudetz, deftly turning into a shadow of the morally certain man he was at the start. Laura Donnelly was also great as Anna - one is so used to seeing young actresses give merely adequate performances nowadays that her wilful then haunted portrayal really stood out. Tom Georgeson gave yet another fine supporting performance as her inn-keeper father and Suzanne Burdon was an excellent dour and unforgiving Frau Hudetz. Special praise must also go to Sarah Woodward, in blistering form as the town's venal, spiteful gossip and Julie Riley as the long-suffering barmaid Leni.

It's a play that lives on in the mind, in particular for Horvarth's understanding of human nature - in 1937 he was already able to identify the danger of a community basing it's judgment on it's bias towards an individual and the mitigating plea that because someone always followed the rules it made them innocent.Then last night it was my turn to accompany Owen to the Union Chapel to see Amanda Palmer. It was an interesting show as she had tailored the setlist to be site specific... mind you that didn't stop her saying fuck on stage!From what I can remember she sang AMPERSAND (very well done), THE POINT OF IT ALL, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, ASTRONAUT, OASIS and from her Dresden Dolls years we got SEX CHANGES and BOSTON.

She invited Neil Gaiman on stage to sing Derek & Clive (!), auctioned off a painting that had been done on stage during the two shows - it went for £450! - she played a Bach prelude, she answered audience members' questions in two 'Ask Amanda' segments, she sang a lovely version of Dillie Keane's LOOK MUMMY, NO HANDS as well as acapella versions of a doom-laden folk song and Tori Amos' ME AND A GUN which had her quickly wiping tears away after she finished. You never really know what you are going to get at an Amanda show - but that's what makes it fun!
She appeared after the show by the sparse (for her) merch stand to sign autographs with Neil Gaiman - and when Owen and I stepped up to the table he remembered straight off that we were the fans from the foyer of the Alan Cumming show! She was all smiles and thanked us for coming to see her again though we had to upset her with the news that we were not going to be at her midnight Camden show on Sunday. I hope she doesn't take it personally.

I have Owen's snap to illustrate the happy couple!

1 comment:

redhairedqueer said...

Oooh! Judgment Day sounds good - I've booked a seat!