Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Last week it was time to meet again the tortured and torturing inhabitants of Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD showing up again at the National's Olivier Theatre, ten years after Trevor Nunn's production starring Vanessa Redgrave.

The production reunites the team behind last year's re-discovery of Gorky's THE WHITE GUARD, director Howard Davies, adapter Andrew Upton, designer Bunny Christie, lighting designer Neil Austin and actor Conleth Hill. The production certainly has it's merits but for once Howard Davies' signature painstaking thoroughness doesn't quite suit this play.

Andrew Upton's version keeps poking you in the ribs with clunking modern terms - it certainly was a surprise for Lopakhin to blurt out "Oh bollocks" - but he didn't seem to bring much by way of insight.I have seen THE CHERRY ORCHARD a few times although it's not my favourite of Chekhov's handful of classic plays. All the components are there and there are certainly a remarkable number of roles for actors to get their teeth into, but somehow it doesn't quite engage me fully - although it features enough great Chekhov moments to make one seek it out again.

For me the problem is the dreaded second act when after a number of expositional conversations between characters, the act comes to a juddering halt when Trofimov, the eternal student, rails at the family and hangers on of Madame Ranyevskaya for their indolence and willful ignorance of the lives of the lower classes. It just goes on and on and on. And on.It's a production that probably would have worked better in the Lyttleton - there seemed to be an awful lot of stage to cover for the cast getting around Bunny Christie's faded dacha and this expanse of stage rather dissipated the tension that should grow during the third act party which culminates in Lopakhin's drunken appearance to announce to the stunned Ranveyskaya that he now owns her beloved Cherry Orchard. However despite these mis-steps, the great moments of the show worked their magic.

Most of these involved the heartbreaking character of Varya - in a lovely performance by Claudie Blakely - Ranyevskaya's older, practical daughter who has run the family home while it's fortunes have dwindled to zero and who has a wary but quiet affection for the equally shy Lopakhin. The painful fourth act scene when these two potential lovers attempt to voice their true feelings under the guise of small talk only to let the moment vanish for ever was profoundly moving. Their were fine supporting performances from Sarah Woodward as Charlotta - of the family, but not one of it - whose loss of security and home makes her one of Chekhov's most haunting figures, Kenneth Cranham's decrepit, tragic Firs, Tim McMullan's cadging friend of the family Simyonov-Pishchik and James Laurenson's permanently bewildered Gaev.

Conleth Hill and Zoe Wanamaker were both potentially exciting choices for Lopakhin and Ranyevskaya and while they both gave interesting performances neither banished memories of Roger Allam and Vanessa Redgrave in the 2001 production. In particular Zoe Wanamaker, so adept at playing clear-eyed, practical characters, seemed at times an odd fit for Ranyevskaya who simply refuses to see the woods for her cherry trees.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Last Thursday Owen took me to see the Open Air Regent's Park's production of THE BEGGAR'S OPERA - and it didn't rain, hurrah!Now Constant Reader as you might or not know, I have history with John Gay's ballad opera.

Back in 1982 at the National Theatre, Richard Eyre staged a version of BEGGAR'S in the Cottesloe while in repertory with his legendary production of GUYS AND DOLLS and SCHWEYK IN THE 2ND WORLD WAR at the Olivier. If I wasn't in my favorite front-row seat for GUYS I would be in the Cottesloe enjoying the remarkable company take on this famous satire of morality and justice, brought forward to the Victorian era.

Headed by Paul Jones' swaggering Gorbals Macheath, he was superbly matched by Harry Towb's Belfast Mr. Peachum, June Watson's Una O'Connor-ish Mrs. Peachum, David Ryall's Mr. Lockit, Kevin Williams' scene-stealing Filch, Belinda Sinclair's lovelorn Polly Peachum and, above all, Imelda Staunton's terrier-like Lucy Lockit - spitting venom one minute, tremulous with love the next. Her version of "I, like the fox, shall grieve" will never be bettered.Oddly enough when the production was filmed for Channel Four, it seemed to lose a lot of it's uniqueness in the translation.

Lucy Bailey's production places the action back in 1728 when it was first staged and is aided immeasurably by William Dudley's clever design - framing the action under two large Tyburn gibbets and utilising two large tumbrels fashioned into various settings.Sadly I suspect I have been spoiled by being introduced to the show by such a wonderful company as this production, although good in parts, could not find an even footing.

Maybe it was the surroundings, I didn't feel the park setting helped the grimy and Olde London atmosphere that this show demands. The tone also seemed to strain too hard with it's acknowledged Hogarth inspiration being laid on with a very heavy trowel in the first half. The show settled down in the second half with the appearance of the First Family of Newgate, the Lockits.Both Phil Daniels as the snarling Lockit and Beverly Rudd as a powerhouse Lucy, mixing both the thwarted mistress' conniving and bruised tenderness to good effect, were outstanding. Rudd was a very funny Red Riding Hood in the Open Air's INTO THE WOODS last year so it was great to see her again.
Jasper Britton was a venal Peachum although the over-the-top performance of Janet Fullerlove as Mrs. Peachum was a disappointment. Flora Spencer-Longhurst was a winning Polly Peachum and while David Caves was an energetic Macheath - and played his comedy scenes with his warring lovers well - he was a bit lacking in the charisma stakes - his Macheath also liked to show off his physique which proves there *were* gyms in the 18th Century!
A couple of weeks ago Owen and I went to see the new film-to-stage musical version of GHOST at the Piccadilly Theatre.I can't say I am a big fan of the film which always seemed to me to be a perfectly amiable if unbalanced star-vehicle which somehow seemed to hit a nerve with the public and gave a whole new lease of life to the lugubrious UNCHAINED MELODY by The Righteous Brothers. Unsurprisingly, this is also the only memorable song out of the stage show.

I have just read the chapter on DO I HEAR A WALTZ in Stephen Sondheim's book of collected lyrics "Finishing The Hat" and he writes about the problematic "why" musical. DO I HEAR A WALTZ was a musical he co-wrote with Richard Rodgers based on Arthur Laurents play "The Time of The Cuckoo" (Laurents also wrote the book of the musical). It is Sondheim's contention that the musical failed as it had no real reason to be written as the original play had done all that was needed in that form. If they had an original take on the material it might have been worthwhile but no - they presented a play interrupted by songs. The same problem is inherent in practically all the recent film-to-stage productions - apart from XANADU which had the good sense to lampoon the whole premise.The book by Bruce Joel Rubin (who won an Oscar for his original film script) sticks doggedly to the already meagre plot - there are only five main roles - so if you have seen the film you will know the outcome from the get-go - yep, it's still *him*.

The score by Dave (Eurythmics) Stewart and Glen (Alanis Morissette) Ballard is ever-present but isn't memorable - the nearest song that breaks the generic pop theatre-score sound is the 2nd act belter for Sharon D. Clarke's Oda Mae which sounds like it could have come from the Eurythmics album "The King and Queen of America" with it's faux Big American sound.The male cast members are ok but not inspiring, the show's strength lies in the two female performers. In the role which won Whoopi Goldberg an Academy Award, Sharon D. Clarke is certainly in good voice as the sham spiritualist but she is not an inherently funny performer so the comedy scenes are played with a slightly forced air.

For me, the main reason to see the show is Caissie Levy as Molly, the widow who refuses to stop believing. As she proved in last year's HAIR revival, Caissie has a delightful stage presence and a powerful voice, she sprinkles her effortless quality on all her numbers, in particular her sad ballad "With You".The choreography of Ashley Wallen relies a little too much on the stuttering slow-motion movement so beloved of pop videos and stadium pop choreography but it fills the stage well and the combined visuals of Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Jon Driscoll's video projections always make the show arresting to watch.

So for the most part I sat watching the show, letting it all wash over me like a classy firework show - and then something most peculiar happened. In the last scene of the show it suddenly all came together! Director Matthew Warchus finally pulled off a genuine, emotionally affecting theatrical moment which had the audience snuffling and prompting a huge ovation - and sending the audience out on an emotional high.I guess that in itself will ensure a successful run - it's just a shame the whole show could not have been infused with the genuine magic of that final scene.

Friday, July 08, 2011

On Sunday I made it to the Globe Theatre for only my second visit - the first time was... um... 7 years ago. What can I say... I obviously don't like alfresco theatre! However both Owen and Sharon's keenness on seeing Christopher Marlowe's DOCTOR FAUSTUS found me risking the elements - to say nothing of the bum-numbing bench and lack of leg-room... it's a known fact that they were of a smaller stature in the Elizabethan era - is there to be NO progress?After a good chomp at the Anchor pub, Owen, Sharon, Eamonn and I made our way to our front row gallery ledge then it was eyes down, here comes Faustus!

Surprisingly this was my first ever Christopher Marlowe play although I had seen the 1967 film of DOCTOR FAUSTUS co-directed and starring Richard Burton, based on the production he appeared in with the Oxford University Dramatic Society with a cameo from one E. Taylor as Helen of Troy. To be honest it's her several wordless appearances that I remember from the film.

I must admit my heart sank when Felix Scott spoke the opening prologue as I could not make out horned head nor pointed tail of what was being said but before long I was hooked by Marlowe's oft-told tale of Faustus, an intellectual who has become frustrated by the limits of knowledge and turns to the lure of magic. He offers to sell his soul to the Devil for the possibility of 24 years of limitless possibility and we follow him through the years as he becomes debased by his own power, relying constantly on the Devil's emissary Mephistopheles, and he becomes all too aware of his day of reckoning.Faustus' story is, of course, mirrored with a 'rude mechanical' tale of a couple of thickos who use the magic book for their own means and as usual it was in these scenes that the production pushed too hard on the button that blares "See, it's rude this bit... see, this is like Carry On". This was at variance with the delightfully subtle performance of Pearce Quigley as Robin who reacted to the most frightening apparitions from Hell with a baleful indifference.

Matthew Dunster's production moved along at a good even pace - the only mis-steps being the grating burlesque moments and also what I assume is an in-house tradition of having a musical coda which here jolts you from the dramatic ending of the play to a jolly jig-about onstage with stick puppets. Again, I am sure the Elizabethan audiences needed something to sugar the pill but we don't need it anymore. There was also a worrying touch of modern dance at the start that, as usual, was a bit of a worry.Have a haunted, lead character who doesn't get many laughs? Call for Paul Hilton! I have seen him in the past as the haunted Orestes in THE ORESTEIA, Eugene O'Neill's version of Orestes as the haunted Orin in MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, the haunted Hjalmar in Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK... you get the deal. Needless to say the role of Faustus was a good fit for him and he charted Faustus' hubris with ease, making his descent from scholar to court 'turn' a fascinating one.

Hilton was well partnered by Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles. I assume Darvill accounted for the enthusiastic younger strain to the audience numbers thanks to his tv role as Doctor Who's sidekick and he gave a leisurely performance which finally caught fire when Mephistopheles shows his true nature when Faustus turns to him in his final hour. I only wish he had more presence in the role, more often than not I found myself concentrating on the more charismatic Hilton.In the busy supporting cast who doubled and tripled roles I found much to enjoy in the performances of Felix Scott as Faustus' servant Wagner as well as his aristo foppery as the Emperor Charles, Jonathan Cullen as the deposed Pope Bruno, Nigel Cooke as a dessicated Lucifer and Michael Camp, appropriately playing an obviously bubbly bi Duke.

It certainly made me keen to see more of Marlowe's canon.
Production photographs by Keith Pattison.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Last week we had a double dollop of none other than Owen's favorite singer Buffy Sainte-Marie. For the first time he didn't get a hand-shake afterwards but more of that later...

The first helping was at a BBC4 recording for their series SONGWRITER CIRCLE which gathers together singer/songwriters of note (no pun intended) to play some of their best songs and chat about their process of creation. Joining Buffy was her contemporary folkie Donovan and Blue Mink creator Roger Cook.

You soon learn that these recordings - like signing sessions - only include punters to provide a backdrop, one is stickered, moved around and marshalled like so much condemned veal.

However once the actual show started a good time was had by all. The running order was Donovan then Buffy then Roger taking turns to sing a song, chat a bit and help their amies out with the odd harmony. Owen rightly surmised that it was a good idea to put Roger Cook at the end as he usually lightened the mood after Donovan and Buffy's occasional serious songs.

Buffy gave us 'Until It's Time For You To Go', 'Piney Wood Hills', 'Cod'ine', 'Little Wheel Spin And Spin', 'I'm Gonna Be A Country Girl Again', 'Up Where We Belong', 'Universal Soldier' and 'Still This Love Goes On' and all were delightfully performed and "Universal Soldier" in particular, was given the biggest ovation of the evening. It was also very noticeable that of the three, Buffy is the one who is still current and making music.
The next night we took our pew places at the Union Chapel in Islington for her concert backed by her fine, rocky band of three big lads all from Winnipeg.

First however we had to suffer a 30 minute set by some winsome, dreary, Dido-esque singer dressed in her best Ophelia-ish long white floaty frock. Dear lord, she sucked donkeys... at one point she informed us that she was going to do a song "that's a bit more up-tempo". Thanks for the heads up love, but it still meandered itself up a musical cul-de-sac. What ultimately annoyed me the most was that Buffy played a curtailed set - just over an hour - so why did this dreary bleating mare get a full 30 minutes?

As I said, Buffy played a curtailed set - about halfway through I was aware she was checking her watch more than somewhat and after an enjoyable but raggedy ending with a taped pow-wow song playing while they did their best reservation dance to it, they left the stage to a massive standing ovation. We clapped and clapped but the little backstage door remained shut and after an announcement that the show was over, we were hustled out of the chapel with undue haste. It turns out that Buffy had a photo session booked on the stage, it's a shame she couldn't have done a quick acoustic number and ended the show properly.

It was great to see her again though in these two different shows.

Friday, July 01, 2011

After providing the emotional climax to the READY STEADY GO! show a week or so back, David McAlmont was back on stage to dazzle us (literally) again in a special event.It was only recently that I made the connection that two of my favorite singers, David and Kirsty MacColl, are children of Croydon and while Kirsty couldn't wait to get away, David is proud to come from the birthplace of David Lean and Roy Hudd and here he was playing a homecoming gig in the smaller space at the Fairfield Halls. Sadly even a Homecoming King such as David garnered a smaller audience than I would have expected. Still me and a few fellow McAlmonteers were front and centre to give him loud cheers - and we were greeted by name from the stage by him!
David and his collaborator Guy Davies have been working on new material and they debuted three new songs which all sounded very fine indeed. They have also finished their tour to launch his LIVE FROM LEICESTER SQUARE cd and dvd so of course we had a smattering of the tracks included on it which have now become like breathing for them and their fine band of musical brothers: "Blues in The Night", "Snow" (which I knew the mystery co-writer of!), "Isn't it A Pity", "Lose My Faith", "Never, Never, Never" (in a sublime duet with 'Level' Neville Malcolm on double bass) and his two McAlmont & Butler anthems "Yes" and "Falling" which sounded wonderfully loud and vivid - much better than at Leicester Square.
David announced that he and Guy were off to Ireland for another session of writing songs for their upcoming album as McAlmont & Davies. I was a little surprised that their musical partnership is now being formalised as an official duo - if only because David has had problems in the past being part of a team - but it says much about his trust and security with Guy to take this step. I can't wait to hear what they have in store for us!

As you can see Owen took some fab pictures of David onstage and it was nice to see him afterwards to thank him for a great show.