Sunday, October 06, 2013

Craps Theatre... .. .

. .. Constant Reader, not crap theatre. Although I might revise that.  No, what I mean is... well, you just never know do you?  There you are, sitting in the theatre, the lights go down and you're off.  It's all a crapshoot.  What you *hope* for is that occurrence when cast and audience create a real alchemy - I have certainly been lucky enough to have had that true theatre experience happen - but I'm happy to settle for simply having an enjoyable time.

Now I will admit that I was in a mood when I arrived at the Adelphi Theatre to see THE BODYGUARD - bloody builders, bloody phone company, bloody bloody.  But surely if a show is good it will lift the spirits, whatever level it originally finds them at?

To be honest. THE BODYGUARD was a show I expected never to see.  I have never felt the urge to see the film as I am no Kevin Costner fan and I was no longer into Whitney Houston by the time it was released.  So there was no reason to see the show.  That was, until I heard that Beverley Knight was taking over the lead role.  Sigh, the things that woman has put me through e.g the BBC teach-a-celebrity-to-sing show.  But I am a fanboy so I really have no say in the matter.  So there I was, sitting in the 2nd row of the circle (at a reduced price I hasten to add)... and the lights went down...
OK, we all know the only reason it's there is to give the West End another jukebox musical - I mean they are so thin on the ground - and they don't even bother to hide it - every time there is a song the show stops dead.  The team behind this really need to understand that 'scene / song / scene / song' does not a musical make.
So not having seen the film I have to ask - is it as ropey as Alexander Dinelaris' book?  While watching it, I wondered whether he had set himself the challenge to make each scene work with as few words as possible.  He certainly succeeded.  I watched bemused as scene after scene consisted of actors coming together, saying a few lines... then walking off again.  No attempt at 'fleshing out', no time spent giving characters a context or history, no tension...  The director is Thea Sharrock who in the past has mined Terence Rattigan's plays - AFTER THE DANCE, CAUSE CELEBRE - for context and inner life but here she is more like a traffic policewoman, getting the traffic on and off the stage without too many snarl-ups.
A lot of time and effort has been spent making the big set-piece numbers so spectacular as to blind you from the baldness of the plot.  Flashing lights, ramped-up sound, raised platforms, video projections - but at the heart of the show, there is... no heart.  It's like a battery-operated toy with flashing lights, mechanical noises and heads that spin around but has too many sharp edges to hold too closely.  I will admit I liked watching Tim Hatley's sliding-panelled set give us any number of cinematic pans and sweeps.
In the middle of all this is Beverley Knight.  She's no actress but she is given nothing to work with by the various planks of wood she has to interact with onstage (Tristan Gemmill is from the B&Q school of performing art) and her character is thinly-drawn (diva whose heart thaws while in peril) but you know at any moment you're never far away from the real reason she is there - and when she sings, who cares about the bad acting surrounding her and joyless production she's in?  Because suddenly here is heart, here is passion, here is soul.  Beverley took ownership of songs that once belonged to she who said she would drown her children if they turned out like Madonna (!) and made them her own.  "I Have Nothing", "So Emotional", "All the Man I Need" and "I'm Every Woman" were Knightfied and made fresh and vital.  Of course there was always the threat of "that song", hanging over the night like Damocles' sword and just in case the audience didn't realise that this was the apogee of the evening, this thick-eared production has a couple of scrims dropped behind the performer with montages of 'moments' from the show projected on them - a sort of onstage pop video - which shows a shocking disbelief in said performer's ability to sell the song as a genuine emotional moment.  But Bev turned this absurd production choice into an irrelevance as she simply turned that song OUT.
Owen also pointed out that in RUN TO YOU, which is performed as a duet between Bev and Debbie Kurup as her resentful sister, there was a rather lop-sided example of someone who can sing a show tune and someone who can simply *sing*.
I gave Beverley a standing ovation as her singing more than deserved it and it was delightful to see how genuinely happy she was to get such a thunderous response.  Of course then it was time for the by-now obligatory 'hidden track' and a quick costume change found Bev back onstage to give us I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY.  It's almost like the production team is saying "Yes we know the last 2 hours were a dozy excuse of a thriller, Let's Dance!"  That was never really in doubt.
But a West End film-to-stage jukebox musical is an obvious trap of snares... less so the National Theatre doing a history play by Christopher Marlowe.  Safe as houses you might have thought, but sadly for the much put-upon king EDWARD II he is also suffering from the DTs... Director Theatre. Owen wanted to see this being a big Marlowe fan and as it tied in nicely with pals Sharon & Eamonn going, tickets were booked.  I happened to see a review of it which made my heart sink but I kept an open mind as we swung open the all-too-familiar and strangely comforting doors to the Olivier stalls.  This one action can almost serve as an overture for what you are going to see... the first view of what the standing set is can either thrill, intrigue or sink the heart.  EDWARD II was the latter.  It does have a great poster though.
A throne with a long carpet horizontally placed in front of it (which was being hoovered when we arrived by a luckless ASM), a suspended gold curtain, a wooden shed-like affair behind the throne and then behind that... nothing. Strip lights illuminating racks of costumes and props piled up on tables.  I guess it was nice to see the back wall of the backstage area.  I guess. 
Then the penny dropped... ah! Although director Joe Hill-Gibbons was directing Christopher Marlowe's text he really wanted to be doing Bertolt Brecht's 1924 adaptation - and so it transpired with excessive use of alienation techniques such as using hand-held cameras to film scenes out of view of the audience which were shown on screens on either side of the stage - which of course also showed the ubiquitous scene announcements: THE EXECUTION OF GAVESTON, THE DEPOSITION OF THE KING, QUEEN ISABELLA HAS A BRAZILIAN WAX etc.
We also had an outbreak of gender confusion among the cast: actresses played Edward's brother Kent, the Earl of Pembroke and the young Prince of Wales.  But here's the thing: while Pembroke's gender was never mentioned (that I can recall), the Prince of Wales remained a boy in school uniform all the way through the 20 year span of the play - imagine Wee Jimmy Krankie in line for the throne - but Kent became the King's sister rather than his brother.  Why?  Did Penny Layden, Bettrys Jones or Kirsty Bushell bring anything unique to the roles that no male actor could?  No.  Kirsty Bushell, in fact, had difficulty walking in her high heels so a drag queen could easily have played that role if Hill-Gibbons was determined to have it played as a woman.
Time and again through this infuriating production I wanted to pull the director out from behind the throne, ANNIE HALL-like, to ask why he had done the latest in any number of bizarre directorial conceits, not because I dislike new ways of thinking but I do if they deliberately stand in the way of enjoying and understanding the piece.
  • Why have the Hokey-Cokey played by the on-stage pianist at one moment?
  • Why have so many scenes played out-of-sight of the audience and relayed to us on the screens?
  • Why have the costume dept. design what looks like a heavy brocade cloak for Edward only to have it flutter with every movement - could you not have had a whip-round for some 50ps to weigh it's hem down?
  • Why have the cast wear such ugly and obvious head mics?
  • Why have such clunkers interpolated in the text like "He's an arsehole" and "I'll call you back" (the last one causing a huge unintended laugh in the audience)
  • Why introduce Spencer and Baldock on film standing on the roof of the National Theatre which then sped up like something out of Benny Hill?
As I said, what was so infuriating was that these annoying tricks kept breaking the flow of what was a fast-paced and fascinating play, it certainly makes me want to read Marlowe's play.  What cannot be faulted were several of the central performances.
I liked Kyle Soller as the King's amour fou Piers Gaveston, even having to play the role as a 'rough trade' yob.  He certainly has great stage presence which he also showed in 2011 as The Gentleman Caller in the Young Vic's THE GLASS MENAGERIE (also directed by Hill-Gibbons).  He made a memorable first appearance as Gaveston returned from exile: sitting in the side raised stalls and slowly making his way to the stage, clambering over the railing and inching along the wall balancing on the handrail, declaiming all the time.  It's groaningly obvious to have him play Gaveston in his natural American accent - yes we GET he's an outsider because Marlowe has *actually* written it into the text.
Needless to say the gay aspect has been ramped up but this too does a disservice to the play as this is not why the lords rebel against the King, it's not Gaveston's sexuality that enrages them, it's because the King bestows titles on him despite his low-born status.  It's also obvious that Soller would also play Edward's killer Lightborn as it could be said that he as well as Gaveston were the death of the King.
I had just finished reading Helen Castor's excellent SHE-WOLVES on the early Queens of England, one of whom was Queen Isabella.  Vanessa Kirby was always interesting as the young French Queen, frustrated at being made to look foolish by Edward's preference for Gaveston and slowly turning monstrous in her revenge.  But she too was hampered by Hill-Gibbon's tricks.  In the first act she is dressed in a long satin gown; in the second act as the mistress of the King's usurper Mortimer, she is dressed like an extra from THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX in leggings, a white baggy t-shirt and bulky fake-fur jacket.
In this year of the National's 50th anniversary, thoughts have turned to previous productions seen.  What one has got used to is a certain standard of performance in the supporting roles which wasn't particularly on display here.  Three stood out: Ben Addis as Baldock (giddy at the thought of being so close to power), Bettrys Jones who morphed from being his/her mother's silent shadow. refilling her glass or lighting her cigarettes, to an all-too-vocal new King eager to revenge his/her dead father, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Mortimer, hiding his real ambition as he overthrows his King.
Despite all the directorial trappings going on around him, John Heffernan was a marvellous Edward.  He held the attention throughout, by turns humorous, angry, captivating, triumphant, doubting and finally all-too human, brought low by his own blindness to the bigger picture.  All these emotions were on display in the scene where he is expected to renounce his crown, which was all the more effecting for Hill-Gibbons stopping the wanky excesses.
His performance shines out from the cack-handedness of most of the production and, after seeing him in supporting performances up until now (THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS, SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER) this marks him out as a real star for the future.
I hope to see another production of the play - it has survived this long so I am sure Joe Hill-Gibbons won't kill it off.
“But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?


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