Thursday, March 31, 2011

Did I mention that I have been in New York Constant Reader?

Well I have. I have been to New York.

Nyah nyah ny-nyah nyah.

I also surpassed all other trips by going to the theatre every night - and twice on Saturday. I will be quietly amazed if Owen EVER suggests going to New York again.

Our first visit was to see Alfred Uhry's DRIVING MISS DAISY playing at the Golden Theatre with the jaw-dropping double act of Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

This was the play that I was most looking forward to but I was left feeling that two fine actors are saddled with a less-than-roadworthy vehicle.

Surprisingly this production marks the play's Broadway debut, it originally premiered in 1987
off-Broadway where it remained for three years which lead to the Oscar-winning film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. The play appeared in the West End in 1988 with Dame Wendy Hiller in her last theatre role alongside Clarke Peters.
The Broadway production is directed by David Esbjornson who moves the play smoothly along it's short running time of 95 minutes with no interval and Redgrave, Jones and Boyd Gaines respond with performances of great subtlety and nuance - although there were moments when Jones was mumblingly incoherent and of course you really shouldn't ever give Vanessa an accent. And I'm her biggest fan!

It's just a shame Uhry's work is less of a play and more a series of short scenes that give these fine performers nothing really to build up to - an emotion is hit but then the scene is over and they have to move on another few years. It was a strangely fitful affair and riddled with the optimistic passivity one finds in so much American drama.Despite video projections on the back of the John Lee Beatty's rather distractedly sparse set, there was never any real feeling of the momentous times Daisy and Hoke are living through in Georgia.

It was left to the performers to suggest the passage of time. Vanessa in particular, brought a great physicality to the role - when first seen she is furiously beating eggs to make a cake and moving with a ramrod back and slowly you watch her getting more bent and slow. The final scenes have a poignancy that is, again, the result of the onstage chemistry of the three actors rather than the play itself.Although I was a bit disappointed in the play, I wouldn't have missed seeing it or them.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Last week Owen and I went to the Donmar to see their production of William Finn's musical THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE. Believe me, the title is the only memorable thing about it. Why the Donmar has felt the urge to put it on is anyone's business.

Maybe the team responsible for last year's wondrous PASSION - Jamie Lloyd (director), Christopher Oram (set) and Neil Austin (lighting) all felt the urge to do something a bit more lightweight - I don't mind lightweight but this is more soapy bubbleweight - and it didn't last long in my mind before it went *pop*

It typified the worst of recent off-Broadway musicals - a cute idea based on a piece of American life that probably coasted along on the original cast's charm and verve but simply refuses to be anything but filler - and of course have a score which sounds like something Sesame Street would reject as too bloody juvenile.

Here the premise of a High School spelling competition works within those parameters but I am so bloody OVER the idea that anything to do with American High School kids performing in their gymnasiums - be it staging a musical, forming a glee club or here spelling - is worth anything but a cursory glance.

Pepper your cast with geeky but lovable schoolkids and watch them triumph over adversity.

Yawn.There were good things - Steve Pemberton and Katherine Kingsley both had their moments to shine, particularly in their responses to the participants requests to using their given words in a sentence and Christopher Oram has gone to town turning the Donmar into the school gym.

In an idea which betrays it's tiny theatre beginnings, four members of the audience are onstage to take part in the competition.
Oddly enough I felt that as soon as the last one of our audience left the stage - after equipping himself more than well - the show nosedived in my interest as we were just left with the boringly predictable plot. I must say it damns DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and SPAMALOT that Rachel Sheinkin's book for this won the 2005 Tony Award.

As Miss Tallulah Bankhead said "There's less to this than meets the eye".
Constant Reader, I am returned from all points west so have a LOT of catching up to do... so I am pulling out my blogging finger and jumping in at the deep end...
Being a film fan in the 1970s means there are a clutch of American actresses that I have an affection for and two such performers are Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane. The news that they were to make their London stage debuts in the latest revival of Lilian Hellman's THE CHILDREN'S HOUR had me scurrying to book tickets.

The ticket prices however brought my scurrying to a skid with telephone number prices for 80% of the Comedy Theatre - presumably to match the costs of said actresses as well as the leads Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss. Ergo I could only afford tickets in the front row of the balcony - which wasn't too painful but for the safety bar that cut across one's view of the stage.
I must admit I went along to gaze at my screen divas and didn't expect to be involved by the play as I was underwhelmed by it at the National Theatre in 1994. However Ian Rickson has directed the play with a relentlessness that powers you through Hellman's rather old-fashioned melodramatics and the committed cast give it their all. If I have a criticism of this approach it is that it refuses to allow any of the characters a moment of humanity so the grim note of the plot becomes rather unrelenting.

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR shows the devastating effect of a child's lies on the lives of two of her teachers. Karen and Martha have pooled their resources to run a girl's boarding school in a New England farmhouse. Mary Tilford, is a wilful spoilt girl used to manipulating those around her and when punished for telling lies by Karen, she absconds to her doting grandmother Amelia. Mary tells her she is scared to return and that Karen and Martha are lovers. Mrs. Tilford spreads the news to other mothers who withdraw their children leaving Karen and Martha powerless to stop the whispering campaign. Their reputations ruined, their only ally is Karen's lover Joe. However the scandal has made Martha acknowledge feelings she had long denied...The biggest surprise for me was Keira Knightley as Karen who I have always found on screen to be an awkwardly overly-dramatic performer, all jawbone and elbows, with a clanging modernity at odds with the period roles she invariably plays. But here her tense, contained acting style is well-used particularly in the second act when she releases her pain in a savage speech to a now-penitent Amelia Tilford.

Elizabeth Moss has the tricky role of Martha, who Hellman does no favours to with a fairly sketchily-written character. Hellman builds up to Martha's big reveal of being a lesbian but it comes as no surprise as she has her react so obviously to Karen's lover Joe, another character that in Hellman's hands is little less than a cypher. It is a testament to Moss' tenacity as a performer that she manages to bring some light and shade to the character.
As I said earlier, I went to see my 70s screen queens and I wasn't disappointed. Ellen Burstyn was exquisite as the matriarch of Lancet - she has a particularly musical voice and so it was a pleasure to hear as well as see her. Her last scene as a woman weighed-down with her guilt was beautifully played and made one wish that her role was bigger.

Sadly she had to share most of her scenes with the staggeringly awful Bryony Hannah as Mary. I guess I might have been spoilt as at the National Theatre in 1994 Mary was played by a young Emily Watson who was sensational - here Hannah plays the role like a gibbering schizo making it incomprehensible why anyone would believe her as she is obviously a mental.

Carol Kane played Lily Mortar, Martha's irritating aunt with a hazy history as a successful touring actress who now teaches language and deportment. She was submerged in the first scene due to having to share the stage with some of the worst 'schoolgirl' acting I have yet to see but after that she was a delight - her fluffy exterior masking a self-centred heart.
Rickson's stark production is aided immeasurably by Mark Thompson's clapboard schoolroom set and the excellent subtle lighting of Neil Austin.

As I said I was more engaged than I expected to be by Hellman's melodrama which is thanks to Ian Rickson's vision for the play but within that vision, something akin to an emotional core was missing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Last week we went to the first night of THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING, a new ballet at Sadler's Wells which has a score by the Pet Shop Boys. Now when you call something by that title you better be ready for the most obvious rejoinder... as here it comes again!

It was announced at the top of the show that it was the first performance in front of an audience and if they needed to stop the show then bear with them. Luckily they didn't have to but I suspect that the announcement was made for us to go easy on it.

The source for the ballet is a Hans Christian Anderson short story - short enough to be reprinted in the programme! Leo works in a dreary factory but is inspired to enter a competition to design The Most Incredible Thing that the King announces will result in the winner being granted half his kingdom and the hand of the Princess.

However the nasty Karl has his eyes set on the Princess and when Leo wins the competition with his magical clock... no, CLOCK... Karl mash it up guy and wins the Princess as what can be more incredible than smashing The Most Incredible Thing? We get a happy ending of course but it's all a bit perfunctory.

I liked the PSB score but it possibly could have done with more light and shade to give the dancers something to interpret. Neil Tennant - who was sat in the row in front of us - said that one of the challenges was to tell a 'book' show through the medium of contemporary dance and I guess it succeeds but with no interest generated in the story or characters as such it's hard to say it's an overall success.

Javier de Frutos' choreography is interesting within it's structured limits but there was never a moment that totally swept me away and of the three principals - Aaron Sillis as Leo, Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess and Ivan Putrov as Karl - it was Putrov who was the star of the show with dazzling pirouettes and leaps as well as de Frutos' robotic moves.

The main problem with the show is that it was split between three acts and the second act - the demonstration of the clock's power and Karl's smashing thereof - was little more than a colour & light show - what dancing there was put me in mind of a specialist dance number you might get in the middle of a panto such as "The Spirit of The Ring". The show would have worked better if it was split between just two acts.

It is due to return next year and maybe it will be worth a re-visit to see if they have sorted out the shape of the show. The King's competition was presented as a BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT-style show with a Davina McCall-style presenter that got old very quickly.

It was well received at the curtain however and it was great to give Neil a cheer as he gave us all a smile and a wave!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

When a production has won every Best Play award going for the year - and you come late to it - you run the risk of leaving the theatre thinking "Well it wasn't all THAT". Remarkably Bruce Norris' CLYBOURNE PARK can not be included in that sentiment.
It's a play that is as savage as it's funny, as insightful as it is provocative, as tender as it is angry.

Norris has written it as a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking A RAISIN IN THE SUN which in 1959 was the first play performed on Broadway by a black female playwright. If like me you have never seen it then panic ye not, it will not spoil your enjoyment of CLYBOURNE PARK.

The subject of Hansberry's play is a black working-class family being given the opportunity to move to a house in the totally white neighbourhood of Clybourne Park. They are visited by Karl Lindner (the play's only white character) from the area's housing Improvement Committee who attempts to buy them off but they refuse. Norris' launchpad for his play is what was the reason for the house coming on the market so cheaply in the first place and what neighbourly disapproval did the seller face for accepting the offer and how the subject of race has echoed down the generations since then.The play opens in 1959, Russ and Bev are preparing for a move to a new house further out in the suburbs. Bev is a housewife who is kept afloat by her duties and her hyper-active packing is shared with Francine, the family maid. The whirlwind of preparing for the move is disrupted by two friends, Jim the local priest and Karl the head of the neighbourhood committee. Soon the real reason for the couple's decision to sell their house cheaply is revealed - their son returned from fighting in Korea charged with a village massacre and after being ostracised by the community, hung himself in his bedroom.

An explosive argument erupts over letting a black family into the neighbourhood which is witnessed by Francine's unassuming husband Albert and Karl's deaf wife Betsy. It was a powerful first act - the fury of Russ and Karl's standoff made all the uncomfortable by the discomfort of Francine and Albert, the blissfully unaware Betsy and Bev's hysterical breakdown - and is so compulsive that at the interval I was relieved to finally be able to breathe!The second act hurtles forward 50 years in time and the same house in 2009 is now in a sad state of disrepair. On a swelteringly hot day, young couple, Steve and Lindsey, are having a professional meeting with Kathy their lawyer, Tom the estate agent, and Lena and Kevin, another couple from the neighbourhood Improvement Committee over their plans to buy the property, knock the house down and rebuild a bigger one. Only this time the buyers are white, seeking to move to Clybourne Park which is now an all-black area.

The social niceties are wonderfully played out: the mundane chitchat while one person takes a call on their mobile, the effusiveness of the couple wanting to move to the area, one person's dogged attempt to say something to the group while others butt in or wander off topic.In discussing the area it soon emerges that Kathy is the daughter of Karl and Betsy while Lena is the niece of the family who bought the house in 1959 and is mindful of the historical significance of the house to the black neighbourhood. Lena's ice-cool intransigence leads to Steve's frustration exploding into anger and once again the gloves are off - an argument erupts where Steve rails against the curse of political correctness after being forced to retell a black joke he had been told - by a black workmate. It ends with everyone arguing with each other.

The scene is as brutal as it is hilarious - the audience's screams of laughter interspersed with sharp intakes of breath as again you found yourself begging a character "Please don't say what I think you are going to!!"Dominic Cooke's direction is powerfully nuanced and his committed cast who play two roles each rise to the occasion wonderfully. After the play there was a Q&A with Cooke and the company which was insightful for once as to their approaching the play's many challenges.

Lorna Brown is excellent in the roles of Francine / Lena - the maid's deference turned on a dime to clear-eyed annoyance when with her husband, and then the steely calm amusement of the academic who refuses to give an inch of ground - her landing of her joke about white women was the highlight of the evening! Sam Spruell and Lucian Msamati were both fine in the less showy roles as Jim / Tom and Albert / Kevin.

I liked Sarah Goldberg's performance in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION at the Old Vic last year and here she is excellent as the amiably deaf Betsy and as the buzzsaw-voiced Lindsey whose ambition for a dream home vanish along with her respect for her husband during the second act. Another SIX DEGREES cast member Michael Goldsmith has a small but telling role iin the play's coda.Stephen Campbell Moore stepped into the main roles of Karl / Steve at the last minute - taking over from Jason Watkins who was himself replacing Martin Freeman who played the role at the Royal Court - but you would never know as he gave both roles a tenacious anger. He was matched in the first scene by Stuart McQuarrie as Russ, a man worn down by the double standards of his community and who finally boils over. He had the more placid role of Dan the builder in the second act which counter-balanced his performance well.

Needless to say I couldn't wait to see the play as Sophie Thompson has had such acclaim for her performance as Bev / Kathy and she didn't disappoint.

Her performance of Bev was a masterclass of controlled hysteria, a housewife burying her grief in packing up her household things while blindly patronising both her maid and deaf friend. Sophie can play this out-front comedy with the best but her breakdown during the fight was chilling and in a tiny moment at the end of the act, when Russ assures her that all will be better when they move closer to his job, she asks "And what will I do while you're gone?" and she captured perfectly the desert of loneliness her character was in. In the second half, she found every laugh going with Kathy's nightmare trip to Europe. She was sublime.

If you have not seen it and want a challenging night in the theatre I urge you to go, if you have seen it before.. go again!

A final thought... at the Q&A afterwards, Matt Wolff asked the question as to why this production has had such a roaring success when the off-Broadway premiere production came and went after it's month-long run at Playwright's Horizons in early 2010.
Lucian Msamati answered the question with a question: would an English play that dealt with our racial fault lines have found a West End theatre so readily?


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Last week Owen and I visited Japan. Not for no tsunami business... no we went and stayed in the relative comfort of the London Coliseum - yes, confused reader, we went to see the English National Opera's THE MIKADO...and it's only taken me 25 years to see Jonathan Miller's production!

I'm not the world's biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan to be honest but Owen had a hankering to see a 'proper' production so away we went to take our place in the Dress Circle with what I suspect was a core G&S/Coliseum audience. More than once my attention was diverted from the action on stage by my neighbours singing along under their posh breaths.

It was all very odd to be in an audience that obviously knew the piece backwards and who laughed uproariously at every laugh line - even when it wasn't funny.

It was always watchable - thanks in no small part to the luxurious 1920s set design of the late Stefanos Lazaridis - a mixture of warm creams and white - the witty and stylish costumes designed by the wondrous Sue Blane and the ever-busy choreography of Anthony Van Laast, recreated here by Stephen Speed.

I didn't realise until I opened the programme that the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo was played by Alfie Boe who is this year's opera~pop crossover and who is about to start a short run in that graveyard of the musical spirit LES MISERABLES.

It is nice to report that he was very pleasing on stage with a nice baffled air and fine voice. He was partnered by Sophie Bevan as Yum-Yum who while a little colourless in acting sang a lovely version of what I know as "The Moon And I" but turns out to be called "The Sun Whose Rays".

The show was also graced with fine performances from ENO veteran Richard Angas as The Mikado and Richard Suart as Ko-Ko, both of whom have played the role countless times down the years. Suart's Groucho Marx posturings grew a bit stale by the final curtain but what he did do he did with great gusto.

His updated version of the "I have a little list" song which included such possible candidates for execution as the Bercows and Prince Andrew had members of the audience gasping with delight - some people really need to get out more.

But here we come to the reason I was gnawing my knuckles through most of the show. I foolishly assumed that with it being the English National Opera and all that the most basic requirement would be to sing clearly.

Wrong. More often than not great swaths of the score were rendered incomprehensible either down to singers who had neither the breath control for the patter numbers or who seemed more at ease just singing the note rather than the word. It wasn't long before I remembered why I can't abide opera singers.

Every time the awful Anne-Marie Owens started honking and twittering as Katisha I found myself replaying in my mind Louise Gold singing the role in Mike Leigh's film TOPSY TURVY and how she nailed it perfectly. Yes I *know* that was a film and this was live but it has taught me that if I go further in Gilbert & Sullivan's canon then I'll wait until they are presented with actors who can sing and not opera-trained voices trained to just make a noise along with the music.

In fact seeing the show has spurred me into buying TOPSY TURVY and here are Shirley Henderson, Dorothy Atkinson and Cathy Sara giving us a delicious version of "Three Little Maids From School Are We" - watch and learn ENOers....