Saturday, December 31, 2011

Luckily the National Theatre has highlighted the word COMEDY on the programme cover for their new production of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. You would be hard-pressed to know it was one from Dominic Cooke's production.

Oh Mr. Cooke... your production of CLYBOURNE PARK was one of the best of last year - by turns hilarious and thought-provoking. Here all one can marvel at is why such a such a dreary 'concept' has been clamped down over this play.

I can't say I am the biggest fan of Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity as it plays into my infamous irritation at farce but here any potential for interest is stymied by an ugly production in which the action is needlessly transported to current day South London.
I knew I was in for trouble within a few minutes during the opening scene of the merchant from Syracuse explaining to the Duke of Ephesus why he is in the country when it is forbidden. It is played as a gangland kidnapping with ex-work colleague Ian Burfield playing the Duke like a long-lost brother of The Krays. It was totally disorientating as well as being poorly acted. I felt for veteran actor Joseph Mydell as his speech about the shipwreck that cost him his wife. one of his twin sons and their allotted servant being totally upstaged by a needless reenactment of it including an on-stage airlift.

After that I sat watching the action with a diminishing interest which was only fully engaged oddly enough when Bunny Christie's overly-elaborate set refused to work! Lenny Henry is cast as the Antipholus and gives a nice enough performance but why does he have to use an unnecessary African accent? He could just as well as used his natural Brummie accent to highlight the fact that he is a visitor to Ephesus/Peckham? Even regular favorites like Claudie Blakely and Michelle Terry failed to impress.

It goes without saying that the verse speaking is beyond bad and it was lucky that I had a knowledge of the play beforehand - truly the nadir of the evening was a farting competition via intercom between the Dromios.

I saw Ian Charleson's Hamlet on that stage.

Just as the final scene started - and I was grasping under the seat for my bag to high-tail it out of there - something extraordinary happened. Cooke just let Pamela Nomvete as the long-lost Aemilia perform her speech without any distracting business going on and she stole the show in those few minutes. How odd to sit through a show for about 2 hours and only become fully engaged in the last scene.

I left the Olivier thinking that if the National had wanted to stage THE COMEDY OF ERRORS but in a radical new way all they had to do was stage the Rodgers & Hart musical version THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE, at least then we would have had a good laugh *and* also have got FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE, THIS CAN'T BE LOVE and SING FOR YOUR SUPPER.
I suspect that the continued success of WICKED in the West End has played it's part in the Menier Chocolate Factory staging of Stephen Schwartz' 1972 musical PIPPIN. The Menier has now an established success with reviving musicals that deserve being revisited in different production styles from their originals - A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEET CHARITY, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and most famously of all SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Timothy Bird's video-based production design, which made SUNDAY such a gloriously visual experience, features again in this production but sadly the effect is not as successful in the hands of director Mitch Sebastian.

PIPPIN was first seen on Broadway in 1972 in an acclaimed production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. It was Fosse's golden year which also saw the release of his iconic screen version of CABARET and within a year he became the only person to win the Best Director Academy Award, Best Director Tony Award and Best Director Emmy Award (for the tv special LIZA WITH A Z).

John Rubenstein played Pippin, the questioning, drop-out son of Emperor Charlemagne, whose CANDIDE-like journey through his life was told by a 70s' style Comedia dell'Arte troupe of strolling players and narrated by the charismatic Leading Player which provided a perfect vehicle (and Tony Award) for the wonderful Ben Vereen.

The cast also included
BEVERLY HILLBILLIES star Irene Ryan as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, Leland Palmer as Pippin's scheming stepmother Fastrada, Jill Clayburgh as the widow Catherine - a role understudied by the young Ann Reinking who was also in the chorus, in only her third Broadway role.

The show's pop/rock score - released on Motown of all labels - and Fosse's signature style caught the time's anti-establishment vibe and the show ran for a remarkable five years.

In London it ran a mere 85 performances when Fosse brought it to the Her Majesty's Theatre in 1973 despite a great cast of Paul Jones (Pippin), Elisabeth Welch (Berthe), Diane Langton (Fastrada) and Patricia Hodge (Catherine).

I saw the show when it was revived at the Bridewell Theatre in 1996 by Mitch Sebastian which starred David Burt, Michael Jibson, Mazz Murray and Juliette Caton which highlighted the troublesome book by Roger O. Hirson which strives for a Brechtian approach to telling Pippin's story but without a director like Fosse's ultra-theatrical style, it looks pretty threadbare.

So Mitch Sebastian is having another crack at it at the Menier, only now he has rehauled the show to give it the appearance of a computer game which, while intriguing to watch, can do nothing to hide the limited range of the book - indeed by the end of it it the show can't help but collapse under the weight of the concept.
Retaining some of Fosse's original choreography only highlights the slight desperation of other part's of the concept - and sadly that's all it remains: a concept, not a thought through production. The show's structure of Pippin going through various different adventures can certainly lend themselves to the idea of going through computer game levels but it only serves to make the piece darker (in all ways) than it needs to be - the Leading Player's final twist to Pippin's tale comes as no surprise as we are now used to Sebastian's heavy-hand.

There are hidden gems lurking within the production however. Harry Hepple is an engaging Pippin with a fine singing voice, a charming playing style and it made you wish he was in a better production. Carly Bawden was a delight as Catherine, bringing a freshness to the show's jadedness.Ian Kelsey was anonymous as Charlemagne and Matt Rawle over-played the Leading Player to such an extent that he was practically unwatchable by the end. However Frances Ruffelle made the most of the scheming Fastrada and, in the performance of the show, Louise Gold made Berthe's solo number "Time To Start Living" into a real wake-up number, performing it in a Gracie Fields style. I have always had a fondness for Schwartz's score and the original Broadway score is a much-played cd - the songs just about came through unscathed in this production but the score's Broadway roots constantly strained against Sebastian's TRON effects.
And still they come...

The West End listings are fast resembling IMDB as there are so many film-to-stage versions playing and Owen and I went to see one of the more individual, Graham Linehan's take on the classic Ealing comedy THE LADYKILLERS at the Gielgud.

Constant Reader, it's admissions time - I have not seen the original Alexander Mackendrick film from 1955 which is the play's source. Wiliiam Rose's oddball idea of a little old lady foiling the plans of a gang of criminals who are using her home as cover for a robbery adapts well to a stage treatment with all it's action taking place within Mrs. Wilberforce's Kings Cross house.

The original cast of Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Herbert Lom and Katie Johnson would make anyone think long and hard about recreating them on stage as they were all such memorable performers but here the production is well-served by the casting of Peter Capaldi, James Fleet, Stephen Wight, Clive Rowe, Ben Miller and Marcia Warren.

Capaldi is a sheer delight as Professor Marcus, the criminal mastermind who runs his criminal network under the guise of being a music professor from Mrs. Wilberforce's spare room. With his loping gait, trailing scarf and wheedling voice he has the right mix of inspired lunacy with the undertow of genuine menace. He galvanises the production and keeps up the energy which has a tendency to flag occasionally.

Director Sean Foley also elicits nice performances from James Fleet as a secret cross-dressing ex-major, Stephen Wight as the young wired Harry and Clive Rowe as the punch-drunk ex-boxer One Round. Sadly I was less impressed with Ben Miller as Louis, the lethal crook from Romania. He seemed very muted on stage which I can only suspect is down to his inexperience as a stage actor apart from his Edinburgh stand-up shows. It was a pity as I had been looking forward to seeing him.

The production's secret weapon is the ever-glorious Marcia Warren as Mrs. Wilberforce who more than matches the flashier performances of the criminals. The role could almost have been written for her as it plays to all her onstage strengths - the sweet, daffy and smiling persona that hides a moral core of steel.

Marcia's sneaky stage craft stole the show from her thieves co-stars. It doesn't seem 27 years since I first saw her onstage in her Olivier-award winning role as the impossibly nouveau rich Vera in the original production of Ayckbourn's STEPPING OUT.

Michael Taylor's set is also a potential scene stealer - all crooked and wonky angles and playing surfaces which must be a difficult space to act on so well done again to the cast. In a fun little segue, the set rotates to reveal the building's front where the robbery is enacted on the wall with little cars racing all over it.So despite all this why were there times when I was less than gripped and found my attention easily wandered? There seemed at times to be an overly cosy atmosphere which seemed to make the action simply coast along, the scene changes seemed to last forever and despite the play's second half being primarily about the gang's internecine killing spree, there was little genuine menace apart from the final scene between Marcus and Louis played in the gloomy darkness of James Farncombe's inventive lighting design.

The production was rapturously received by my fellow audience members so go figure, maybe it was me.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Last month Owen and I went to the Hampstead Theatre - um... my first visit since it moved to it's new home 8 years ago! But finally something was on that I was eager to see. I mean... the combination of Richard Eyre directing a play about the Duchess of Windsor starring Sheila Hancock - bring it!!

The Hampstead Theatre is actually quite a nice space which I should make an effort to revisit more but the main excitement was the play itself (which is how it should be eh?)
Nicolas Wright's play THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS is the latest of his works that takes it's inspiration from a real life person such as Melanie Klein, Vincent van Gogh and Terence Rattigan only here he takes on three larger than life women - and another invisible one.

The play is based on Lady Caroline Blackwood's book which she wrote after her experiences trying to obtain an interview with The Duchess of Windsor in 1980. The Duchess, a virtual recluse in her home in Paris after the death of the Duke, was the hoped-for subject of a Sunday Times article by Caroline Blackwood who found her every approach blocked by the Duchess' lawyer Maitre Suzanne Blum. Blum proves such a fascinating but secretive character that Caroline soon realises that she is the more worthy subject for an article and even arranges for Lord Snowden to take her photograph. The article however causes more arguments and a final showdown.
Nicholas Wright's play managed to keep you thoroughly entertained with the character's barbed dialogue but it also quietly raised subjects such as loyalty, loneliness, marriage and honour that stayed with you long after.

Richard Eyre directed with his customary lightness of touch that suited the gossamer atmosphere of the play and he elicited full-bodied memorable performances from his three leading ladies.

Sheila Hancock was at her vinegary, caustic best as Suzanne Blum, the watchful and secretive keeper of the Duchess of Windsor's secrets and if Caroline Blackwood's suspicions are realised, her possible jailer. Hancock once again proved she is an actress who has been under-valued for too long.

I must say I have never been a big Anna Chancellor fan, I always seem to have seen performances that echoed her jolly hockeysticks character in FOUR WEDDINGS but here she was a quiet revelation. Effusive and outspoken, her Lady Caroline was the perfect foil to the buttoned-down Blum with her hands forever trying to calm her unruly mane and knocking back another drink.As Wright points out , it's one of the quirks of the aristocracy that their relatives can turn up in the oddest places and such was the case when Carolyn turned for help to one of the Duchess' oldest friends Lady Diana Mosley - a distant relative thanks to her mother being one of the Guinness family as was Diana's first husband! Angela Thorne was wonderful as Diana, nailing the ultra-posh Mitford drawl, deaf as a post in one ear and still unrepentant in her support of Sir Oswald despite his failing health. It's a rare play that can pull off having Diana Mosley as the comic relief but this managed it.

With excellent work from designer Anthony Ward and lighting designer Peter Mumford, THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS was one of the best nights in the theatre this year.