Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I would like to give you, Constant Reader, A Tale Of Two Ricksons.

A couple of weeks back Owen and I *finally* caught up with Ian Rickson's production of JERUSALEM which is now back on in the West End. After opening at the Royal Court to tumultuous reviews for Jez Butterworth's play and Mark Rylance's lead performance, it transferred to the Apollo Theatre then onto Broadway winning in close succession the Olivier Award and the Tony Award for Best Actor. Now the production has returned to the Apollo for one last hurrah.

Rylance - in a performance that threatens to eat you alive - plays Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, a drop-out who lives in a caravan deep in a forest in Wiltshere that borders a small town. Byron, although hated by the town's community as a supplier of drugs, is a natural focus for the town's bored and restless youth who party the night away with Johnny and his slacker mate Ginger (Mackenzie Cook).
As the play opens, Lee, one of Rooster's clique, is travelling to Australia and as his friends try to put him off, Rooster faces his own life-changing events - the local council are going to enforce an overdue eviction notice; his ex-lover threatens to stop him seeing his young son and the father of an absconded girl threatens to lynch Rooster if the father finds out Rooster is involved. All this and it's St. George's Day too.

The last point is quite salient as Jez Butterworth's play is a comment on the state of late 2000s England. Butterworth has Rooster represent the anarchic, subversive and pagan side of England becoming more and more threatened by the advance of the dull grey stupidity of the modern world. Butterworth and Rylance have stated in interview that the character of Rooser was further worked on during the preview period at the Royal Court and it shows. Rooster almost seems to have grown beyond the play and all the characters opposing him are made as unsympathetic as possible.Rickson directs the piece with a surety of hand which makes the running time of three hours hardly noticeable and the play's heady combination of scatter-gun scatology, dangerous undertow and ruminations on the English soul are socked over the footlights by the remarkable ensemble.

Particularly impressive were Alan David as a ruminating English professor out of step with the modern world, Geraldine Hughes as Rooster's ex- Dawn and Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, Rooster's slacker friend. A special mention to Ultz' forest setting which in the closing moments takes on a life of it's own.But bestriding the stage and play was Rylance, it's impossible to think of another actor playing the role as it seems to come as natural to him as breathing. He was quite extraordinary.

Fast forward a few weeks and along with Sharon and Eamonn we found ourselves schlepping around the side of the Young Vic auditorium to enter the soulless, authoritarian, high security asylum which was the setting for Ian Rickson's production of HAMLET.
The big selling-point of this production was the chance to see Michael Sheen give us his melancholy Dane - how I wish he had been doing it as a one-man show.

Everything that seemed so right with Rickson's direction in JERUSALEM seemed so wrong here, his first Shakespeare production. The whole thing seemed trapped in the all-encompassing 'concept'. Nicholas Hytner's version at the National Theatre last year was set in an Elsinore that was rife with surveillance cameras and ever-watchful courtiers but at least the production had room within it to live and breath - here any life is drained away by the heavy-handed concept clamped down over the text. It's view of Elsinore as a maximum security nuthouse is strained and simply ugly.What purchase can there be in Hamlet's feigned and Ophelia's genuine flights of madness if they are outdone by Sally Dexter's jittery, scratchy Gertrude, all wild hair and exposed nerves. I was greatly disappointed in her performance but at least she made an impression which is more than can be said for James Clyde's woeful Claudius. He is not helped by having his one big scene - Claudius' speech as he attempts to pray - performed in a glassed-in office, his speech relayed to the audience by intercom.

All through the play, Rickson's annoying tricks kept shouting "look at this - you never expected to see a Hamlet like THIS eh?" It all smacked of a 1970s theatre collective production - is there to be NO progress? It also didn't help that I missed the final coup-de-theatre by having a bloody actor standing in my eye line. Allegedly Fortinbrass removes his helmet and swipe me, it's Hamlet. Ooops. Spoiler alert.Every so often a performance sparked interest - Hayley Carmichael briefly shone in the last minutes as a female Horatio, Pip Donaghy's gravedigger seized his moment, Michael Gould was occasionally effective as Polonius (played in the usual office bore style) and Vinette Robinson was the latest in quietly effective Ophelias but the casting of light-skinned black actresses in this role is becoming depressingly obvious. Again she was saddled with annoying business - handing out pills instead of flowers during her mad scene - did no one realise this leads to the background to her suicide? - and P.J. Harvey's tunes for Ophelia's snatches of song merely dragged out the playing length.

I also have to say that the idea of having the stage resembling a large open grave from Ophelia's burial scene to the end of the play worked excellently when Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and Hamlet were piled in next to Ophelia and Polonious, really bringing home the sense of two families laid waste.All of which means that Michael Sheen will be needing some serious chiropractor sessions after carrying this damn show for nearly three months.

He was certainly charismatic, switching from Hamlet's soliloquies to his gallows humour in the bat of an eye, and investing the role with moments of real humanity. Sadly the one thing I didn't feel for him was any empathy and when Hamlet is left alone with Horatio facing his encroaching mortality, surely you need to have empathy for him. I also felt I was sometimes watching "the wheels go round" during some of his line readings - by trying to speak the text as naturally as possible I was... aware of... the... odd pauses... during his... lines.

Poor Michael Sheen... Ian Rickson done rained on your parade.

Oh and so did I when I sneezed LOUDLY towards the end of "To Be Or Not To Be"


Monday, November 21, 2011

A couple of Saturdays ago Owen and I ventured once again out of the Smoke to see a show in the provinces. This time it was to the leafy sleepiness of Chichester to see one of my favorite musicals, Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.

It has since been announced that it will transfer to the Adelphi next year but I am glad we saw it in it's original thrust stage setting.

The last production we saw of SWEENEY was John Doyle's at the Ambassadors which started my antipathy for shows with actor-musicians and was really no way to introduce Owen to the show but no such problems here: Jonathan Kent's production is as it should be seen.

Sondheim himself is very keen on it - he stayed on in Chichester after seeing it to see it a second time.
Jonathan Kent's vision for the show is to bring it visually forward in time to a gloomy, shadowy Patrick Hamilton-esque late 1920s/early 1930s London, suggesting backstreet warehouses with smashed windows, metal grills and clattering roll-down shutters. A semi-circular gallery topped off Anthony Ward's set giving a good vantage point for members of the chorus to watch the proceedings.

Kent's direction is clean and sharp, giving the action in Hugh Wheeler's marvellous book a real momentum which builds to the show's shattering final act. I have long said that the last section of SWEENEY TODD. if handled well, can be one of the most thrilling theatrical pleasures and so it was here.

The big news around the production has been the casting of Mr. Show Business himself, Michael Ball, as the wronged barber out for bloody revenge. Not the most obvious casting but on the whole I think he succeeded in giving a fine, unexpected performance.

However to give this performance, he underplayed to such a degree that it rendered his Sweeney a trifle colourless and monotone.

Sweeney is a role that does demand a quality of disconnectedness and muffled rage but other actors I have seen play the part have managed to thread though the pea soup fog of his character a glittering dark humour which was hard to find with Ball as he was too busy downplaying. However it cannot be denied that the show probably would not have been staged had he not agreed to play the role.

His banked-down performance was all the more noticeable compared to the tsunami of Imelda Staunton's Mrs. Lovett. Imelda gave the performance I was expecting but that didn't detract from it's pure pleasure.Imelda's Nellie Lovett was the engine for the show, constantly scuttling about in her fur-lined ankle boots. She easily handled the changes from humour to horror while all the time keeping the undertow to Nellie's character strong, her passion for the former lodger who has now re-entered her life.

It was this multi-layered, naturalistic approach which stood out so against Ball's performance - in particular with the dramatic shift in the final act when Nellie's deception is fully revealed. It's almost 30 years on from first seeing her as one of the "Hot Box Girls" in Richard Eyre's landmark National Theatre production of GUYS AND DOLLS and her career has been a joy to follow.

In mentioning GUYS, it is interesting to compare her performance with Julia McKenzie's award-winning one at the National in 1993. Julia's was a gin-soaked harridan straight out of a Penny Dreadful illustration where as Imelda's is played more naturalistic. Both valid, both excellent. The show also benefited from two very hissable villains in John Bowe's venal Judge Turpin and, in particular, Peter Polycarpou's deliciously odious, bowler-hatted Beadle Bamford. The juves were a bit colourless sadly but James McConville was very good as Tobias as was Robert Burt's Pirelli - it was a delightful touch that Pirelli's travelling vehicle should look like a converted ice-cream van! Sondheim's glorious score was well played by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Skilbeck and Mark Henderson's lighting design was wonderfully atmospheric.The show is due in at the Adelphi in March 2012 and I urge you to see it. It would be a bloody crime if you missed it!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A few weeks back Owen and I braved the wilds of Waterloo to see the Old Vic's production of one of the classics of Irish theatre, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD by J.M. Synge.

Owen was particularly excited as he has long wanted to see a production of the play which he studied once. I had only seen the play once before when Fiona Buffini directed it at the National Theatre in 2001 which I mostly remember as being lit very murkily and featuring a fine performance by Derbhle Crotty as Pegeen, so I was curious to jog my memory of the piece.

The theatre was very busy in the peanut gallery, due to the production starring Robert Sheehan of Channel 4's MISFITS. Hey... if it takes a tv star who can also act well enough to get an impressionable audience into the theatre then that's fine by me - as Malcolm X said "By any means necessary"!Synge's freewheeling black comedy shows the effect on the locals of a small coastal town in County Mayo when, into their midst, stumbles Christy Mahon. Christy is a young man who tells them that he is fleeing from the police after killing his father during an argument on their farm.

Instead of turning him in, Christy becomes the most popular man in the village and in particular, is pursued by Pegeen, the daughter of the town's publican, and the Widow Quin, a tough old broad who is actually chasing Christy because Pegeen's boorish fiancee has asked her to steer him away from his intended. When Christy wins the local donkey race he truly can do no wrong in the eyes of his adoring public but in the middle of the celebrations, another stranger appears... Christy's father who he in fact only wounded.The villagers now turn on Christy, collectively embarrassed at their lionising a 'nobody' - Christy out of desperation attacks his father again but this only inflames the crowd more, even Pegeen denounces him as a liar and a charlatan. It's only the appearance of Christy's seemingly indestructible father that stops them lynching him!

Christy realises that his one chance for fame has passed him by and he dejectedly leaves the village with his father to resume his miserable life on the farm. It is only when he leaves that Pegeen too becomes aware that she has lost her one chance of true happiness as she dejectedly cries "Oh my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World."
Synge's dialogue still twists and turns through the plot, time and again a line of dialogue leaps straight into the mind making it hard to believe it was written 104 years ago!

Sheehan makes a brave stab at the title role - it's his stage debut - but he is more a bumbling eejit rather than the master of his fate that Christy needs to project and he was easily out-matched by Niamh Cusack as the voluptuous Widow Quin and the luminous Ruth Negga as Pegeen. In the past year Cusack was excellent in CAUSE CELEBRE also at the Vic and Negga was a sympathetic Ophelia at the National so it was great to see them both again.

Special mention to Diarmuid de Faoite as the permanently woozy Jimmy Farrell, his second act slapstick pratfall was worth the price of admission alone! Also eye-catching were Kevin Traynor as Pegeen's insufferable fiancee Shawn and Frank Laverty as Pegeen's publican father.

Scott Pask's set design for Flaherty's bar was a revolving delight and wasn't overly-set dressed to detract from Synge's verbal fireworks.

Famously the 1907 premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin saw rioting in the auditorium by those shocked at Synge's portrayal of small town Ireland but while Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh have reworked his themes of the glamour of violent young men and the venality in the Irish character, Synge's play still rightly holds it's place as one of the most entertaining of early 20th Century classics as well as a lasting tribute to a writer who tragically died aged 38 of Hodgkin's Disease only two years after PLAYBOY was premiered.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A few weeks ago Owen and I made a rare visit to the Strand Theatre as was, the Novello Theatre as is, to see the Regents Park Open Air transfer of it's summertime hit CRAZY FOR YOU.

The Open Air Theatre's artistic director Timothy Sheader has hit upon a winning streak with his musicals: HELLO, DOLLY! won them the Evening Standard award for Best Musical as well as 3 Olivier Awards and last year's INTO THE WOODS won the Best Musical Revival Olivier Award and CRAZY FOR YOU has gone one better than those by moving into the West End.

I must admit that looking back on the experience I am a little surprised as, although enjoyable, I found the show a little under-powered with choreography which seemed to echo 42ND STREET a little too strongly.I think my problem with the show is Ken Ludwig's rather one-note book: it has enough stock musical comedy characters such as the energetic leading man and spunky leading lady; the high-class unwanted girlfriend and the rough-and-ready joe she sets her sights on; the waspish grande dame and the egomaniac theatre director et al but none of them seem particularly well-developed and their actions are dictated by the needs of the cobbled together Gershwin songs.

Peter McKintosh's standing set which would have filled the Open Air's stage seems oddly forlorn within the proscenium stage at the Novello and rather than looking tastefully elegant tends to just look a bit cheap.It doesn't seem like I enjoyed it much does it? I did actually and my enjoyment had a lot to do with the delightful performances by the leads.

Sean Palmer gave a winning performance as Bobby, the banker who has a secret desire to dance on Broadway - I know, ONLY in musical comedy. After failing in an audition with the over-the-top Broadway producer Bela Zangler his imperious mother packs him off to foreclose a failing theatre in Nevada. Needless to say Bobby turns this to his advantage and persuades the townsfolk that he is in fact Bela Zangler and he has come to give their theatre a boost. Palmer is a real find, a likable personality who can carry a tune, and more importantly, dance up a storm!

One reason that Bobby is determined to stay is the go-getting charms of Clare Foster's theatre-owning Polly and she too, gave a performance of great charmth and warmth (to quote Sam Goldwyn said). They were a delightful couple on stage - a rarity these days.

The supporting company were a bit more uphill in the charm department but the show gave David Burt a marvellous opportunity to shine as the over-the-top Zangler. His bewildered fish-out-of-Broadway-water when he unexpectedly pops up in the town was a great comedy showcase for him and his double-takes and pratfalls were a real joy.Needless to say any show that boasts a score including SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, EMBRACEABLE YOU, I GOT RHYTHM and THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME is a must-see and there are enough lesser-known Gershwin songs to keep the show bouncing along - whatever the drawbacks of the book you know there is going to be an enjoyable song along in a while.

CRAZY FOR YOU has no obvious star performers, is not based on a film (although a few have been made from it's source show GIRL CRAZY) and is not a pop/rock songbook musical - so to transfer it into the West End which is dominated by all the above is a brave venture - and for that alone it deserves to succeed.