Friday, May 27, 2011

Well I suppose I have to blog about A DELICATE BALANCE... it's been over two weeks since I saw it in the awgoosed company of Andrew & Phil West-End Whinger (of the Vauxhall West-End Whinger clan). I was fully expecting, when we entered the Almeida auditorium, a sudden outbreak of whispering and fluttering of programmes-substituting-for-fans as usually seen when the fallen woman attends the Opera in films like CAMILLE or ANNA KARENINA... but no. Damn the chattering classes of Islington and their unflappable hauteur.

But all good things must come to an end... because the play had to start.

I had seen the play previously in 1998 at the Haymarket when the Battle of the Dames took place between Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins. I suspect I was too busy experiencing these two blazing divas to concentrate much on the play itself so retained only a vague imprint of it as I watched this revival, it was like watching something on a worn video and seeing vague shadows flickering of what had already been on it.

What I remember most of it was that in Agnes' opening speech she talks about her fear of losing her mind... and Eileen Atkins promptly forgot her words. She apologised to the audience and asked an amused John Standing playing her husband to start the scene again. He did this and as soon as she uttered the words "...losing my mind" she got an enormous laugh and cheer from the audience which she slyly acknowledged.

Needless to say Maggie came on all guns blazing to get the audience back with her and soon you could not see the set for cocked shoulders and flapping wrists. They were both utterly magnificent.

Here Penelope Wilton got through this speech without any problems - her stumbled line-readings came later - and away we went into Edward Albee's intriguing but in equal measure infuriating play. Well it wouldn't be Albee I guess...

Tobias and Agnes live a well-heeled WASP life in their tastefully dull large house in the suburbs where they spend their days drinking from an array of decanters and sharing polished, superior dialogue about the possible break-up of their daughter Julia's fourth marriage and what to do with Claire, Agnes' alcoholic sister who, of course, lives with them for the only discernible reason that it breaks up the days fighting with your dipso sister.After sibling verbal battles that echo George and Martha in his - ahem - superior play WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? the threesome's evening is interrupted by first the arrival of Julia seeking a return to the family nest - although one suspects it was never that much of a sanctuary and the sudden arrival of their best friends Edna and Harry who suddenly do a dog's hind leg and take the play down the ever-shadowy Pinter Alley by announcing they too have come seeking shelter as they have suddenly both developed a sickening terror of... something.

Far from being docile and invisible presences in the house, soon Edna and Harry are seemi
ngly laying down the law in the house and take great delight in turning on Julia - especially as they make a quick dash back to their house to pack more belongs for their lengthy stay at Agnes and Tobias' House of Fun.In further echo's of WAOVW - one of the characters appears in the living room waggling a gun about and Agnes reveals to us that they had a son who died at an early age, an event that was the turning point from which the family have never recovered.

After another act of polished yakking Edna and Harry come to the conclusion that they would never have let Agnes and Tobias stay with them if the roles were reversed and return home, leaving Tobias bereft of speech as he had just asked them to stay... because that's what friends do.One cannot doubt that Albee is a fine writer and the play occasionally comes to life but in James Macdonald's hermetically-sealed production, seemingly as airless as the mahogany-crammed living room, it is just too dreary and strives for a profundity that resolutely refuses to appear. After the first Act I staggered out into the Almeida foyer never in my life wanting so much to hear some Gangsta Rap. I felt smothered by the interminable yak of insufferable middle-class angst played to an Islington white, middle-class audience. And me. And The Brothers Whinger. And Sian Phillips. It was all I could do to shout out "Who the fuck CARES??" The audience also had that really irritating habit of braying loudly and eagerly at any line that had even the whiff of humour, collectively WILLING it to be a comedy.

Imelda Staunton plays Claire, the alcoholic sister who can blister the varnish with her viperous wit and damn, was she missed when not onstage. She gave it her usual abrasive turn, grasping every opportunity she could in her diatribes against the world, her sister and her family, or a snotty sales woman who she teases mercilessly. I must admit that I was fixated on her, not only for her performance but the odd shape of her bust. No doubt an old Playtex Discontinued was pressed into action but it looked like she had a bumper Arctic log under her jumper.Tim Pigott-Smith as Tobias seemed to be giving us an impression of Corin Redgrave - and made me realise how great Redgrave would have been in it and how Pigott-Smith seems to be theatre's answer to Mogadon, his speeches more often than not had me admiring the interesting thing the woman in front of me had done with her hair.

Penelope Wilton has over the past few years proved herself time and again as being an actress of great power but here - wearing Jill Clayburgh's old hair with a glazed, bland air - she whisked me back to the early 1980s when I would walk a mile in tight shoes to avoid her. The fact she stumbled occasionally on her line-readings really suggested the Duse of the Donmar's heart really wasn't in it.
It's certainly not the part - when Eileen played it she won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.
Lucy Cohu as the desperately needy Julia gave another uphill performance which again made me blanch that one day she will probably be giving us her Hedda Gabler. However the biggest surprise was the performance by Diana Hardcastle as Edna. Her rapid transformation from victim to tormentor was very well done from this actress who I have always found a bit mumsy.

The dead-hand direction of James MacDonald was disappointing after his masterly spare production of JUDGEMENT DAY. Laura Hopkins' design probably impressed some but I had to agree with Les Fréres Whinger that it suggested more a funeral parlour than a suburban household.

Needless to say the play has had raves so go know.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Memorable Theatre Performances #7:
Clare Higgins as 'Stella Kowalski' in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (Mermaid, 1984)

"Sheila Gish's
scenes with Clare Higgins as her sister Stella became the nexus of the evening, which, especially in the heart-wrenching closing scene, became, fascinatingly, a tragedy of two women." - Alan Strachan , Independant

"excellent support from Duncan Preston and a great Stella from a young Clare Higgins." - me, ChrisNThat blog

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On Friday Owen and I went to the austere Cadogan Hall to see Shelby Lynne who was engaged in a mini-European tour. It's a rare performer that can make that place feel intimate but Shelby certainly did.

We last saw her in the autumn of 2008 when she was promoting her album of Dusty Springfield covers JUST A LITTLE LOVIN' and in my blog for that show I hoped she would come back soon - well two & a half years is better than seven years which was the gap before the Festival Hall gig!

For once at the Cadogan Hall, we had good seats in the centre of the third row which had me more than somewhat excited. The tour was just Shelby performing with her fellow-guitarist John Jackson but that only added to the quiet intensity of the show.

Shelby came on with her best tousled blonde, bed-head thing going on and wearing a grey tunic-style jacket that was soon disposed off and for nearly two hours played an overview of her six albums, from her 1999 breakthrough I AM SHELBY LYNNE to last year's TEARS, LIES AND ALIBIS.

She is a totally no-frills performer - her songs are best heard in this stripped-down style, emphasising her sometimes bleak, sometimes loving lyrics and similarly her persona is one of less-is-more, not for her the gushing nonsense of the standard American singer to London. She gives off the air of being watchful and guarded, for the first few songs I wondered was she going to speak at all!

But as the audience greeted each song louder than the last - and after she asked the lighting guy to turn the lights down "feels like I'm giving a piano recital up here", Shelby too started to open up, telling us the background to the songs or how soused or high she was at the time of writing it. Towards the end she said she truly appreciated how we were responding to her playing the songs acoustically as that was how they were written to be heard.
She even confided to us that she was not the only daughter of Alabama in the house as her sister Allison Moorer, a singer in her own right, was in the audience too which led into a tender version of her bayou lullaby WHERE I'M FROM. It was nice that she said it was a night she would remember for a long time.

Other highlights for me was the majestic YOUR LIES (the song that made me a fan), LEAVIN', KILLIN' KIND, ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU DISAPPEARED, WHY DIDN'T YOU CALL ME, IF I WERE SMART (was ecstatic she played this), WHERE AM I NOW, the exquisite JOHNNY MET JUNE and two thrilling covers of Dusty's I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT ANYMORE and YOU DON'T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME. A special mention must go to the subtle playing of John Jackson.

She finished her encore with a tender version of ICED TEA and with a big wave and a smile she was gone. I guess she won't be back anytime soon but I will definitely be there when she does.
The moody concert shots are by Shelby's fellow Facebook fan Anthony Burtenshaw.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Memorable Theatre Performances #6:
David Haig in LOOT (Tricycle, 2009)

hat makes this a first-rate farce performance is Haig's suggestion that Truscott is a madman in the grip of an idée fixe" - The Guardian

t was a joy to watch him prowl the stage drop-kicking Orton's outrageous one-liners into the audience with expert timing" - me, ChrisNThat

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Congratulations to Vanessa Redgrave who has received her third Best Actress Tony Award nomination for her performance in DRIVING MISS DAISY. She has previously been nominated in 2003 for LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (won) and in 2007 for THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (lost to Julie White for THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED).

I suspect she will lose out again this year but it's good that she was nominated as her co-stars James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines were not.

As usual the British have some good representation: Jez Butterworth and Nick Stafford are both nominated in the Best Play category for JERUSALEM and WAR HORSE respectively ~ Brian Bedford (THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST) and Mark Rylance (JERUSALEM) are both Best Actor nominees ~ Hannah Yelland is nominated alongside Vanessa in the Best Actress category for BRIEF ENCOUNTER ~ Mackenzie Crook is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for JERUSALEM ~ Joanna Lumley is a surprise nominee for Best Supporting Actress as LA BETE flopped ~ Adam Godley is nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for ANYTHING GOES ~ Ultz (JERUSALEM) and Rae Smith (WAR HORSE) are nominated for Best Designer ~ Mark Thompson is nominated for Best Costume Design for LA BETE ~ Paule Constable is nominated for Best Lighting for WAR HORSE ~ Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris share a Best Director nomination for WAR HORSE.

In addition the Handspring Puppet Company will receive a special Tony Award for their remarkable work on WAR HORSE.

However there is no nomination for Daniel Radcliffe for his performance in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING although his co-stars John Larroquette and Tammy Blanchard picked up nominations in the Supporting categories.

It's a shame as his performance was one of the reasons for the show's undeniable success and charm.