Thursday, December 26, 2013

New Shows For Old...

Three of the productions I have seen recently are shows that I have either seen before or seen in different productions and had intrigued or delighted me enough to see again.

The first one was Mary O'Malley's ONCE A CATHOLIC - first seen in a far-flung 1979 at the Wyndhams Theatre.  It struck a chord with me and I saw it a few times, enjoying the memories it stirred with my own Catholic secondary school as well as the dirty jokes. 

ONCE A CATHOLIC at the Wyndhams, along with the National Theatre's transfer of BEDROOM FARCE at the Prince of Wales, both started a burgeoning interest in theatre-going but I wasn't in the right place to fully appreciate what theatre could do - that would come three years later with the NT's GUYS AND DOLLS.  But here we are years later in 2013 in the oddly-shaped Tricycle Theatre auditorium, would the play hold up?

The first thing that struck me was how much I remembered of the text - time and again I was remembering lines *just* as they were about to be said so I guess the play did have a lasting effect on me!

This production was directed by Kathy Burke and while she elicited good performances from her cast, the pace felt a bit sluggish - not helped by several ungainly scene changes.  I will admit we saw one of the previews so maybe this was just teething troubles.

ONCE A CATHOLIC is set in 1957 in a Catholic girl's school in Willesden and it's sense of place is excellently evoked - it was hugely enjoyable to be seeing the play not far from where it was set!  Three girls are preparing not only for their final exams but also their launch into the big world and more importantly Life and by natural extension, boys.  They are hindered rather than helped by the religious diktats handed out by the nuns who teach them and the priest who oversees their spiritual wellbeing.

The three are the studious Mary Gallagher (Katherine Rose Morley), the hapless Mary Mooney (Molly Logan) and the brassy Mary McGinty (Amy Morgan).  Mary Mooney is a girl who asks the wrong questions and who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Good at heart and baffled by what the nuns insist is the truth, she constantly gets herself into trouble through no fault of her own.  Molly Logan played her with a delightful hangdog expression as if she seemed to expect to be in trouble all the time.  The odd thing is that she is the one who most wants to be devout but fate keeps tripping her up.  She oddly resembled a young Kathy Burke too!
After her scene-stealing performance in THE AMEN CORNER earlier this year, it was a joy to see Cecilia Noble again.  She was in excellent form as the three Marys' form teacher Mother Peter.  Whether she was ruling on the proper length of school knickers, enacting the miracle at Fatima or turning girlish in the presence of the priest she was a total joy.  Kate Lock played the dry and stern Mother Thomas Aquinas and Clare Cathcart was the scary science teacher Mother Basil.
There was also excellent support from Sean Campion as Father Mullarkey, the parish priest whose visits send the nuns a-twitter and the girls into boredom.  Campion was hilarious in his addresses to the class and gave the distinct impression of being one question away from cluelessness.  The know-it-all choirboy Cuthbert and horny teddy-boy Derek were played well by Oliver Coopersmith and Calum Callaghan.
It was good to see the show again and enjoy it's spiky, truthful humour once more.
I have seen the Leonard Bernstein musical CANDIDE twice before - but have never seen the same show twice as it's a piece that almost dares each director to make their production *the*  definitive version by adding dialogue, cutting songs or adding songs that other productions had previously dropped!  It's like everyone agrees the score is a jewel but the setting keeps getting hacked at, re-set and the jewel *still* looks wrong.

CANDIDE opened in 1956 with a book by Lillian Hellman (who originated the project), score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by John Latouche (who died before it opened), Dorothy Parker, the poet Richard Wilbur and Bernstein but it lasted only 73 performances.  However the original cast album grew in cult status - understandably so as it has fine performances from Robert Rounseville as Candide, Max Adrian as Dr. Pangloss and the wonderful Barbara Cook as Cunegonde singing the magnificent "Glitter And Be Gay".

Hal Prince directed a 1973 revival but Hellman refused to let her book be used so Hugh Wheeler provided a new one and Stephen Sondheim supplied a few new songs.  This version was a success but in 1988 Jonathan Miller's version for Scottish Opera added 30 minutes of music and in 1989 Bernstein had another go at the show, re-arranging the second act songs.  In 1999 John Caird rewrote the book *again* making it closer to Voltaire's original novel... and that's where the Menier comes in.
The Menier have based their production on the 1988 Scottish Opera version but the episodic nature of the show makes it still seem a ramshackle structure for Bernstein's great score so I really wouldn't be surprised if sometime down the line someone has another go at writing a definitive version.  Sigh.

Matthew White has bounced back from the pedestrian TOP HAT with a production that is ever inventive and eye-catching.  Played in the round you can bet there are always going to be moments that you don't catch as the cast are performing at the back of where you are sitting - and although I was seated on one of the inner aisles I managed to avoid the audience participation business... apart from getting pelted with torn-out pages from a book and getting sprayed with water when Candide's boat sank!

The premise is a troupe of players putting on CANDIDE, all elaborate gestures and patched costumes and Paul Farnsworth's designs were a delight as was his ramshackle set easily suggesting each of the locations where our hero shored up.

We follow the journeys and misadventures of Candide as he searches for his love, the beautiful but shallow Cunegonde, who he keeps finding but losing again as fate constantly intervenes.  Characters are seemingly killed only to pop up again in a different country, usually with a baffling reason for their survival but still Candide believes in the philosophy of his teacher Dr. Pangloss that "All's for the best in the best of all possible worlds", always optimistic despite what life throws at him.

The absurdly-named Fra Fee sang Candide well but was easy to forget when he shared the stage with the sensational Scarlett Strallen as Cunegonde and Jackie Clune as The Old Lady the eternal survivor (even with only one buttock).

The Old Lady gave Jackie Clune ample opportunities to display her considerable musical and comic talents while Scarlet Strallen followed up her energetic performance as 'Cassie' in A CHORUS LINE with a wonderful Cunegonde.

Both times I have seen the show before, the actresses playing the role had been too busy trying to sing the coloratura parts of "Glitter And Be Gay" to also bring out the humour in the lyrics but Strallen nailed it - while also making each word decipherable.  It was great to see her triumph in this particular song while also racing around snatching jewels not only from out of her treasure chest but also snatching the strings of diamonds from the chandelier too!

James Dreyfus was off  the night we went so the roles of Dr. Pangloss, Cacambo and Martin were played by Martin Cahill who rose to the occasion well.  A special mention as well for David Thaxton's Maximilian, it's a shame he was in such a small role as he sang it very well and had a commanding stage presence.

The show is also very well staged by Adam Cooper.  Oh and on the subject of Mr. Cooper...

The last show seen before Christmas was the one that made Cooper a star, yes it was time to return to Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE at Sadler's Wells.

This was the fourth time I had seen SWAN LAKE at Sadler's Wells - previous visits were in 2004, 2007 and 2009.  I can't believe it's four years since I saw it!  I have blogged about the 2007 production here and 2009 here so there is little more to be said about how much I love this production but suffice to say that it worked it's magic all over again as again I felt a tear or two trickle down my cheek at the heartbreaking climax.
What I will add is that we saw Jonathan Ollivier as The Swan / The Stranger who played the same role when we saw it in 2009!  He has a darkly charismatic presence on stage and was excellent.  Simon Williams was a tortured, troubled Prince - and we had seen him play the role in 2007.  Even more delightful is the fact that he was a mere swan ensemble member when we first saw it in 2004!!
The Christmas treat was that two other New Adventures favourites were on: the delightful Kerry Biggin was great as the clueless Girlfriend and Michela Meazza's Queen was imperiously cold.
This iconic production is on until 26 January 2014, you know you have to see it!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Designing Theatre...

My last two trips to the National Theatre this year have both been to see new plays adapted from children's literature and it was interesting to see the different ways that they were staged.  The one thing they both did was to give the production teams a free hand - but was it to the detriment of the shows?

First up off the rank was THE LIGHT PRINCESS, a new musical written by alternative pop singer Tori Amos and playwright Samuel Adamson that is based on a fairy tale by George MacDonald.  I honestly had no idea what to expect when we took our seats as I had stayed away from all the reviews.  Indeed I wasn't too sure why I had booked in the first place as I am not a big Amos fan - it just seemed a good show to see on an Autumn Sunday afternoon!  However we were both instantly onside as the front-cloth was a colourful and glittering map of the imaginary lands of Lagobel and Sealand.

The show has a major plus in that it's creative team of director Marianne Elliott, designer Rae Smith and lighting designer Paule Constable were responsible for WAR HORSE.  They have brought their collective excellence to this project too, the show is a visual treat and the somewhat twee story is told with a bold panache by Elliott.  What is truly odd however is that at no time do any of the humans in THE LIGHT PRINCESS ever make you care for them as much as you care for puppet Joey in WAR HORSE.

We follow the story of two motherless royals - Princess Althea (Rosalie Craig), the daughter of the King of Lagobel, has refused to ever cry again following the deaths of both her mother and brother and has become so deliberately light-hearted that she has lost her sense of gravity and floats instead of walking.  Her father (Clive Rowe) is at his wit's end so keeps her locked in a tower bedroom where she is tethered by her faithful servant Piper (Amy Booth-Steel).

Meanwhile in the neighbouring country of Sealand the young Prince Digby (Nick Hendrix) since the loss of his mother has lost all mirth and is continually down-hearted.  His wicked father (Hal Fowler a.k.a. Mr. Kim Wilde) actually had his wife killed and rules his country with an iron fist.  His disconsolate son's only friend is his brother Llewelyn (Kane Oliver Parry) and his only joy is with his mother's falcon.

Of course when the two countries resume their eternal war for each other's land, the two royals are bound somehow to meet and of course fall in love.  But their idyll by the lonely lake in The Wilderness which separates their countries cannot last and all seems lost for the young lovers.

The original story has been rewritten by Adamson to have a rather leaden feminist overtone which at times is bearable but at other times is thumpingly obvious as to appear to be a reworking of a Drill Hall feminist panto from the early 80s.  My other concern was the rather listless score by Adamson and Amos which carries enough of her standard introspection but not enough variation to give the musical it's all-important rise and fall. 

Indeed in the second act Clive Rowe had a ballad that was so one-note as to make you wonder if it would actually ever end - it was only the thought that at some point he must have gone to sleep the night before that gave me hope for it's conclusion.  Saying this I have to say that the meeting of Craig and Hendrix in the first act was one of the most lovely and lyrical falling-in-love pas-de-deux I have seen.

These things are all the more irritating because visually the show is a such a triumph.  Of course there is the possible argument that Elliott has stuffed the production with puppetry, physical theatre elements and good old fashioned stage magic to distract from these central weaknesses but these tend to slip your mind when you are keeping an eye out for the scene-stealing rodent that lives in Althea's bookshelf, marvelling at the swirling colourful birds that play key moments in the action and the amphibian creatures of Althea and Digby's lakeside home.

Rosalie Craig's performance was all the more impressive for the physicality that is involved in it.  Whether she is soaring on her wire or being passed around the stage by the onstage acrobats she never dropped the level of her singing and made Althea a passionate and vital presence - if a touch too much of a bluestocking.  Nick Hendrix - last seen as the under-achieving older brother in THE WINSLOW BOY - brought more to Prince Digby than was on the page.

In a sometimes solid, sometimes stolid supporting cast, I particularly enjoyed Malinda Parris as the Serjeant-at-Arms and Laura Pitt-Pulford as the Falconer.  By the fairy-tale finale I must admit I had been swept along by Elliott's mis-en-scene and have booked to see the show again before New Year's Eve so I guess I liked it after all.

The second show which was an even more blatant example of design over content was this year's Christmas production in the Olivier, EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES, adapted for the stage by Carl Miller from the famous novel by Erich K√§stner.

The National has a history of interesting Christmas shows based on 'intelligent' kid's books - HIS DARK MATERIALS, CORAM BOY, NATION and - yes that show again - WAR HORSE.
I have never read EMIL nor seen any of the five film versions so this was all new to me. 
Um.. I'm still not too sure what it's all in aid of as we were 20 minutes late due to a mix-up over the start time.  Sigh, sadly this is where my theatrical autism kicks in - if I don't see a show from the lights going down then all I see are people walking around a stage saying words, I just cannot give myself over to it.
Anyhoo here we are in 1929 Germany and Emil is a young lad who journeys to Berlin from his small town with money saved by his mother from her job that he has to deliver to his grandmother.  On the train journey he shares a carriage with the mysterious Mr. Snow who on learning of Emil's reason for travelling, drugs him and steals the money.  Emil wakes up and chases after the slippery Mr. Snow but where can a young boy who's alone in the city turn to for help in catching an adult?
To the 'Detectives' of course.  A rag-tag group of Berliner children who befriend Emil and using their network of friends across the city seek out the nasty Mr. Snow.  Led by the know-it-all Toots and incorporating Emil's girl cousin Pony The Hat (shrugs) Mr. Snow doesn't stand a chance.
It's a charming tale that tells a good story of friendship helping to triumph over the baddy but it also seemed to be stretched terribly thin across the huge Olivier stage.  Enter Bunny Christie to distract us all with a set that echoed the era of German expressionism with wonky angled sets allied with film and projections to render the stage alive with movement at all times.  As much as I liked the design, it totally engulfed the production - when you are more interested in what the set is going to do rather than what happens to your hero you know something is awry.
Out of a fairly non-descript cast, the younger actors impressed the most.  I am fairly certain our Emil was Toby Murray and he had a nice stillness to his performance which made him stand-out from the clamour onstage, Izzy Lee was good as the bolshy daredevil Pony on her bike and Georgie Farmer impressed as the ringleader Toots who is not half as self-assured as he seems.  Ryan Quarterly was also good as Petzoid, one of the gang who all too soon reveals a hatred for all things non-German and turns the play momentarily toward what was to happen soon.
I'm not sure whether this character exists in the book or whether he has been written that way by Carl Miller but for the rest of the play, after he is ostracised by the group, I wondered what would have happened to our scrappy bunch of crime-busters when the real Nazty men took over.  The slightly uneven and woozy feeling of Bijan Sheibani's production is probably down to a feeling that it's time-setting is too close to an impeding nightmare that one cannot readily put out of one's mind in retrospect.
Or maybe I just feel that because I was not totally immersed in the production?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Vivien at 100

To celebrate Vivien Leigh's centenary the British Film Institute have had a season of her films showing at the National Film Theatre and I have finally caught up with two of her harder-to-find films.

To start the season there was a talk by Richard Stirling which considered "the three iconic roles of an actress who still fascinates modern audiences.  Three iconic roles comprise the legend of Vivien Leigh: Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche DuBois and ‘Lady Olivier’ (that is, her public image during her famous relationship with Laurence Oliver)"

Sadly it was all rather dull with Stirling looking and sounding like he had stepped out of a bad Rattigan touring production from the 1950s.  Soon after he started I found myself staring at the back of the head of the person in the row in front of me, just waiting for the lights to go down for the next film clip.

The first film I saw was A YANK AT OXFORD (1938) starring Robert Taylor and directed by Jack Conway in which Vivien was fourth-billed, playing the flirtatious Elsa Craddock, forever on the prowl for handsome new students.  She sets her cap at the newly-arrived Lee Sheridan (Taylor) while also being paid attention by Paul Beaumont (Griffith Jones) who dislikes the brash Sheridan.  Needless to say there is a 'nice' girl on hand for Sheridan to pursue, namely Beaumont's sister Molly (Maureen O'Sullivan).

It is the sort of film that weekend afternoons are made for and, apart from treading water about two-thirds of the way in, was a delightful 30s MGM star vehicle - among it's many writers was an unbilled contribution from F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Robert Taylor was perfect for the role of Lee, brash and engaging with an easy charm.  In the supporting cast there were noticeable contributions from Edmund Gwynn as the exasperated head of the College and Griffith Jones, it was also nice to spot Richard Wattis and Ronald Shiner in unbilled acting roles.

Vivien was a delicious minx, her star quality making it impossible to watch anyone else when she was onscreen and happily, she was not given a judgemental comeuppance, but moved by her disapproving husband (Noel Howlett) to a new life - near the Colchester army barracks!  Her flighty, calculating Elsa certainly paves the way to her role in the coming year, Scarlett O'Hara.

By the time of THE DEEP BLUE SEA (1955), Vivien had won 2 Academy Awards, had mastered Shakespeare, Sheridan, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder on stage and married Laurence Olivier.  However the marriage was under strain due to her fluctuating health issues, both physical and mental.

Bearing all this in mind, in hindsight, it was a brave decision to take on the role of the suicidal Hester Collyer in the film version of Rattigan's 1953 play.  It wasn't a happy set seemingly with Kenneth More, reprising his stage role as her feckless lover Freddie, unhappy that Peggy Ashcroft was not reprising her stage role and director Anatole Litvak taking Vivien to task to get her where he felt was the right mind-set.

I have waited for YEARS to see this.  For reasons that are still obscure - despite the introductions by the woman who put the season together and the producer of the Terence Davies version - the film has lapsed into obscurity with no company claiming ownership.  We are not talking a little known film: it was the UK's first Cinemascope production, a co-production between 20th Century Fox and the Korda's London Films, More won the Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor and apart from Leigh, it co-starred Eric Portman as the mysterious Mr. Miller and Emlyn Williams as the husband Hester left for her ex-RAF lover.  But I have had to wait until now to see it.

It was worth the wait.  Vivien was heart-breaking as a woman at her wit's end, unable to cope with the loss of a lover who she has given everything up for.  Over the course of a day we follow Hester recover from a desperate suicide attempt to acceptance of what life has in store.

Interestingly More's performance is the one that has not aged well.  He gives his usual slightly hammy and over-ingratiating performance, only in the final scene throwing some shade.  Emlyn Williams was sympathetic as Sir William but the performance that really shone was Eric Portman's as Miller, the enigmatic doctor, struck-off and jailed for a year for an un-named misdemeanour.  His modernity of acting style made the audience sit up when he appeared.

As usual there was great fun to be had with the supporting cast: Dandy Nichols as Mrs. Elton the concierge of the house, Arthur Hill as Freddie's pilot friend and Miriam Karlin as a Soho barmaid.  Sid James popped up as an aggressive Soho pimp and Moira Lister was an odd casting choice as Hester's tarty neighbour.
But more importantly....I've finally seen it!
There is still time to see the digital remastering of GONE WITH THE WIND... shall I go Constant Reader?