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!

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