Sunday, January 26, 2014

From Shakespeare to Sondheim...'s not too far.  Not in the West End anyway.

Two productions bracketed last week and their only link was that I enjoyed them both!  Oddly enough it's always harder to praise than to critique but I will give it a go for you Constant Reader.

First off the rank was HENRY V, Michael Grandage's final production in his season at the Noel Coward Theatre (it will always be the Albery to me) which has proved successful by having plenty of lower-price seats allied to the wattage of theatre 'names' starring in the shows.

I was under-impressed by the first production PRIVATES ON PARADE despite Simon Russell Beale's star turn and haven't felt sad to have missed PETER AND ALICE (Ben Wishaw & Judi Dench), THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN (Daniel Radcliffe) or A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Sheridan Smith & David Walliams) but the thought of Jude Law giving us HENRY V proved too tempting.

Although I am not a fan of Law's screen work - he always seems too lightweight for any role - HENRY V marks the fifth time I have seen him onstage and he should be applauded for returning to the stage when he could be making money doing negligible films.  I feel he has got better each time I have seen him, LES PARENTS TERRIBLES (National Theatre), TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE (Young Vic), HAMLET (Wyndhams), ANNA CHRISTIE (Donmar) and now HENRY V, but there is still the occasional choice that pulls the focus a bit - a certain way of delivering a speech, the way he stands (he couldn't stop a pig in a passage) and, in some respects, sharing the impression I always had when I saw Kenneth Branagh - good enough, but come back in a few years and he will be better.

But despite these moments, I enjoyed his performance very much and he rose to the challenge of Henry's big speeches with ease - the St. Crispin's Day speech was excellent.  Henry is a mercurial character with flashes of anger that show he is no longer the playboy prince that the French think they will be facing on the battlefield and Law encompassed all these moods very well.  The only time it faltered for me was the final wooing scene with Princess Katherine which was played so much for laughs that it broke the through-line of the performance up to that point but I suspect Grandage being at fault there.
The production was very Grandage - well-paced, non-flashy, nothing distracting from the text.  They are always slightly under-cast - so no one upstages the lead? - the worst offenders being Ben Lloyd-Hughes' Dauphin who was a bit am-dram and Matt Ryan's Fluellen outstayed his welcome every time he appeared.  Richard Clifford also seemed to let his costume's fluttery sleeves do all his acting for him as the King of France.
However there was also Grandage stalwart Ron Cook who was a delightful Pistol, conniving and making sure he saved his own skin in battle, and he was expertly partnered in the Eastcheap scene with Noma Dumezweni's Mistress Quickley.  Her richly-voiced description of the death of Falstaff was one of the highlights of the show and her palpable sadness as she watched Pistol and the ragtag army recruits leave for war was beautifully judged.  She also was delightful as Alice, the French princess' knowledgeable maid.    
Another fine performance was given by Ashley Zhanghazha as the Chorus who guides the audience through the plot.  Shakespeare's use of the Chorus to remind the audience they are watching a play on a stage is remarkable - his exhortations to the audience to use their imagination to see castles, the channel, ships, horses is to pinpoint the joy of theatre.  I had also forgot that the Chorus provides a sombre end to the play undercutting the humour of the wooing scene with the fact that Henry was dead within two years and that his son's ineffectual rule led to The War of The Roses - "so many had the managing, that they lost France, and made his England bleed".

Christopher Oram's standing set of wooden painted slats was fine but he really needs a new 'look' and Neil Austin's lighting was as evocative as always.
Despite all the petty peeves I think this was the best production of HENRY V I have seen.  Click here if you can get to see it before it closes on February 15th.

Then later in the week it was time to finally get to go to the St. James Theatre which opened on the site of the old Westminster Theatre in 2012 - it took a Sondheim show to lure me through the doors!

Let's get the kvetch out of the way - Foster Wilson Architects who designed the theatre should be booted up the arse.  Entering an L-shaped space with a garish marble staircase taking up the axis, attempting to get to the bar is hampered by not only three rows of tables taking up the space but by the waiters squeezing past you with full or empty plates. I wouldn't have minded but said staircase leads up to a restaurant!  They could at least take out one of the rows of tables to give people space to move.  Then you go into a theatre which is too steeply angled to the playing area with minimal leg room - I felt like I was going to be watching an anatomy lecture.

I think I was so thrown by the theatre's ugliness that it took me a while to get into what we had come to see, PUTTING IT TOGETHER a Sondheim revue that was originally conceived in 1992.

In 1992, eighteen years after SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, it was suggested that a sequel was due as in those years he had written SWEENEY TODD, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, INTO THE WOODS and ASSASSINS!  So Sondheim and Julia McKenzie devised PUTTING IT TOGETHER, it's limited engagement premiere cast including Diana Rigg and Clarke Peters.  The next year Julia McKenzie directed the show off-Broadway which marked the return to New York theatre of Julie Andrews.  Five years later the show finally made it to Broadway (briefly) with Carol Burnett, George Hearn, John Barrowman, Ruthie Henshall and Bronson Pinchot.

So 22 years after it's Oxford premiere it finally makes the West End.  The premise suggests a cocktail party given by an older couple for a younger pair with an intermediate servant type floating about.  It vaguely works as a construct but we know and they know that it's a device to have them sing all the different songs at each other, some fitting the concept better than others.

As I said, it took me a while to settle in to the show possibly because I know the songs so well from their original settings but luckily the cast had the charm and the talent to ease me into the show - although at one point the three men were lined up singing and I thought "George Clooney, Daniel Craig and John McEnroe have gone off haven't they"?

Janie Dee was the true star of the show, easy to do when you have the 'bitter woman' songs such as "The Ladies Who Lunch", "Could I Leave You", "Not Getting Married Today"and "Like It Was" but she also had her marvellous comic timing and unalloyed charisma.  Caroline Sheen was o.k. as the ingénue and scored best with Madonna's songs from DICK TRACY "Sooner or Later" and "More".

David Bedella has always had "something of the night" about him so as the lecherous older man came easy to him with songs like "Have I Got A Girl For You" and "Good Thing Going" while Damian Humbley, who I last saw mugging away as Charley in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, here was much more restrained and therefore more affecting singing "Unworthy of Your Love", "Live Alone and Like It" and "Marry Me A Little".  I haven't seen Daniel Crossley in a lead role before but here he had ample opportunity to shine during "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid" and "Buddy's Blues".

A delightful show with a delightful cast, PUTTING IT TOGETHER is playing at the St. James until 1st February.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Well I would, wouldn't I?

My first theatre visit of the year is one that might surprise you Constant Reader, but then no one is more surprised than me either!

An Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?  The last time I saw a Lloyd Webber show in it's premiere run was SUNSET BOULEVARD, a mere 21 years ago!  WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, THE BEAUTIFUL GAME, THE WOMAN IN WHITE and LOVE NEVER DIES have come and gone in that time and much is being made of this show being smaller in size and more of a standard book musical than is usual with his love of the dreaded recitative.  Yes it's smaller in scale and has definite book scenes but the show is a curate's egg that leaves an odd taste in the mouth.

I have always been fascinated by the whole Profumo scandal, that very English Molotov cocktail of showgirls, mendacity, politics, sex, deference, espionage, black drug-dealers, film stars, stately homes, mews flats, rich men in masks, police harassment and chequebook journalism, all exploding just as social attitudes were changing in 1963.  How many fall-from-grace stories in the past 50 years have referenced "Profumo" without quite coming close to the uniqueness of it all.

The case has any number of permutations with which to tell the story but Lloyd Webber has focused on the perceived patsy of the case, his titular anti-hero Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who was charged with living off immoral earnings but killed himself the night before sentencing.
Yes, Ward was hung out to dry by those who he thought he could rely on and the case against him was based on tainted evidence, but while John Hurt made him a sadly pathetic figure in SCANDAL yet the queasy nature of the musical can be traced to that despite all this, he is too obscure a character to be the focal point for the show.  For all his patsydom - and given his sympathetic treatment by book-writers Christopher Hampton and Don Black - Ward remains a frustratingly unlikeable and unknowable character.  He wasn't the pimp that the trial painted him to be but his vaguely unsavoury nature and slavish devotion to "his betters" means that the musical's attempts to make him a tragic hero slide off like Teflon.

I felt sorry for the ever-urbane Alexander Hanson who plays Ward as a charming social butterfly in the first act but who seems to fade away in the second act and become almost a supporting character in his own musical.  His eleven o'clock number - sung while sitting on a low couch upstage while gulping down sleeping pills - is a curiously bloodless affair which climaxes with the famous press photograph of Ward, being stretchered out of his flat in a coma, projected onto Rob Howell's curtained set.  This moment was held for an eternity as if to make the audience fully understand the tragedy of his suicide but as Ward has remained a slippery, opaque character that it has been impossible to understand, it just makes for a rather obvious stage 'moment'.
With such a large group of characters to introduce, some suffer more than others.  Daniel Flynn's Profumo barely registers and his fall from grace, after lying to the House of Parliament over his relationship with Christine Keeler, is quickly glossed over.  Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson also contributes to the show's imbalance.  Riding is a fine musical performer but is given nothing to do but waft through several brief scenes then in the middle of the second act she is given a huge ballad called "I'm Hopeless When It Comes To You".  Yes she sings it well but it went on & on and as no time had been invested in her as a character, it simply hung around for a while signalling to us "Big Love Song That Has To Be In A Musical".
Other casualties are Anthony Calf who has next-to-nothing to do as Lord Astor but does it with charm and a deftness of touch and while Ian Conningham plays the Russian attaché Ivanov like the Russian Meerkat from the ads he comes into his own as the thuggish police Inspector Herbert.  Something the show does spotlight is the way the prostitutes Ronna Ricard and Vickie Barrett were forced into making confessions by Herbert corroborating the Crown's case against Ward which gives Kate Coysten and Amy Griffiths respectively nice moments to shine in the court scene.
Of course the show should be titled CHRISTINE KEELER as she really is the catalyst for the events of the play and the show certainly showcases two Charlottes.  Charlotte Spencer has the right look for Christine and gives an eye-catching and wilful performance.  I wasn't too keen on her high-pitched singing which occasionally jarred but then she also suffers from not having a defining song for the character.
Charlotte Blackledge was excellent as Mandy Rice-Davies, but then she is the best character in any retelling of the story!  One of nature's survivors, Mandy was the original good-time-girl and of course set her own indelible stamp on the events when giving evidence at the Old Bailey.  Her statement saying she had not only had sex with Lord Astor but that he had given her money was read back to her by the Prosecuting Council who added that Astor had denied all knowledge of knowing her, to which the 18 year-old Mandy coolly replied "Well he would, wouldn't he?"  The sheer sarcastic cheekiness in the face of the might of the establishment is to be applauded.
I have made references to Lloyd Webber's score and I was surprised that for most of the first act I liked it.  Three good songs for Ward and Keeler get the show moving although "This Side of The Sky" is really only there because it's time for a Falling In Love song, which doesn't ring true for these characters.  These are followed by a slinky tango called "Manipulation" and then Keeler's "He Sees Something In Me".  Then it takes an embarrassing turn with a faux "Ascot Gavotte"-style ensemble number which takes place during Mariella Novotna's notorious orgy.  It's coy, juvenile and twee style is horribly old-fashioned and, for me, the score never recovers it's earlier promise.  Symptomatic of this is the first act closer "1963" which is sung by an exuberant Christine and Mandy - it's the only time the actual time period is referenced with a couple of desultory Beatles-style "Yeah yeah yeahs" thrown in.
The direction by Richard Eyre is certainly brisk and I can honestly say that for most of the show I wasn't bored but two long scenes rather stop the show dead: the police grilling their innumerable suspects which is followed by the lengthy courtroom scene.  Rob Howell's noticeably modest set was interesting to watch with it's use of semi-circular curtains that suggested the secret and shrouded world lived in by the onstage characters and Peter Mumford's lighting was as atmospheric as usual.
The muted response at the end was echoed by a seemingly hesitant curtain call from the cast, all symptomatic of a show that doesn't seem to know what it actually wants to say or how to say it.
What niggles me though is that while Lloyd Webber clamours his insistence of Stephen Ward being a victim of the establishment, he is also a vocal supporter of the self-same Conservative Party that sought revenge on his titular anti-hero.

Another thought that occurred to me after leaving the theatre was that none of the songs in Lloyd Webber's score were as evocative or as haunting as NOTHING HAS BEEN PROVED written by the Pet Shop Boys for the film SCANDAL and sung by Dusty Springfield.


Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Theatre Chrissies are here!

Now for the best part of my Chrissies: the Theatre Awards!


GHOSTS by Henrik Ibsen at the Almeida Theatre

Nominees: The AMEN CORNER (Olivier, NT); The AUDIENCE (Gielgud);
THE JUDAS KISS (Duke of Yorks); OTHELLO (Olivier, NT)


Nominees: The BOOK OF MORMON (Prince of Wales); A CHORUS LINE (London Palladium); The COLOR PURPLE (Menier Chocolate Factory); SWAN LAKE (Sadler's Wells)


RUPERT EVERETT (The Judas Kiss,  Duke of Yorks)
Nominees: John Heffernan (Edward II); Rory Kinnear (Othello);
Adrian Lester (Othello); Simon Russell Beale (Privates on Parade)

BEST ACTOR (Musical)
GAVIN CREEL (The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales)
Nominees:  Bertie Carvel (Matilda: The Musical); Jared Gertner (The Book of Mormon);
Jonathan Ollivier (Swan Lake); Kyle Scatliffe (The Scottsboro Boys)

LESLEY MANVILLE (Ghosts, Almeida)
Nominees: Frances de la Tour (People); Anne-Marie Duff (Strange Interlude);
Marianne Jean-Baptiste (The Amen Corner); Helen Mirren (The Audience)

CYNTHIA ERRIVO (The Color Purple, Menier Chocolate Factory)

 Nominees: Betty Buckley (Dear World); Rosalie Craig (The Light Princess);
Beverley Knight (The Bodyguard); Scarlett Strallen (Candide)

CHARLES EDWARDS (Strange Interlude, Lyttelton, NT)
Nominees: Will Keen (Ghosts); Richard McCabe (The Audience);
Paul Ritter (The Audience);  Peter Sullivan (The Winslow Boy)
STEPHEN ASHFIELD (The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales)
Nominees: Christian Dante White (The Scottsboro Boys); Colman Domingo (The Scottsboro Boys); James T. Lane (The Scottsboro Boys); Gary Wood (A Chorus Line)

CECILIA NOBLE (The Amen Corner, Olivier, NT)
Nominees:  Charlene McKenna (Ghosts); Sharon D. Clarke (The Amen Corner);
Haydn Gwynn (The Audience); Cecilia Noble (Once A Catholic)


LEIGH ZIMMERMAN (A Chorus Line, London Palladium)
Nominees: Jackie Clune (Candide); Nicola Hughes (A Color Purple);
Michela Meazza (Swan Lake); Scarlett Strallen (A Chorus Line)

RICHARD EYRE (Ghosts, Almeida)
Nominees: Stephen Daldrey (The Audience); Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time); Rufus Norris (The Amen Corner); Susan Stroman (The Scottsboro Boys)


LEZ BROTHERSTON (Sleeping Beauty, Richmond)
Nominees: Bunny Christie (The Curious Incident of The Dog In the Night Time);
John Doyle (The Color Purple); Tim Hatley (Ghosts); Rae Smith (The Light Princess)

PETER MUMFORD (Ghosts, Almeida)
Nominees: Ken Billington (The Scottsboro Boys);
Paule Constable (The Light Princess); Paule Constable (Sleeping Beauty);
Paule Constable (The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night Time)

SUSAN STROMAN (The Scottsboro Boys, Young Vic)
Nominees: Baayork Lee/Bob Avian/Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line); 
Matthew Bourne (Sleeping Beauty); Matthew Bourne (Swan Lake);
Peter Darling (Matilda: The Musical)

The Chrissies... Art, Music, Cinema, Events

It's the start of a new year so tradition must be upheld to look back on what I enjoyed in the previous 12 months.  After a year of little sensory pleasures 2013 gave me much to savour and enjoy, very little to ignore.
From the unknown artists of the Ice Age to the pop age of Roy Lichtenstein, from the 1901 paintings of Picasso to the Profumo scandal of 1963 via George Catlin's paintings of native Americans, it has been a varied and fascinating year for exhibitions.

The Hayward Gallery's LIGHT SHOW collated installations including Ivan Navarro's mirrored, neon-lit telephone box, Carlos Cruz-Diez's chromatic series of single-colour rooms, Leo Villareal's shimmering cascade of white neon on silver and Olafur Eliasson's dizzying Model For A Timeless Garden (fountains of water seemingly frozen in time by neon light);  the National Portrait Gallery's MAN RAY: PORTRAITS showed his astounding experiments in photography; the Victoria & Albert's DAVID BOWIE IS took you on a journey through the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes of the first artist to fully understand how late 20th Century pop would be a real marriage of Sound and Vision while the Royal Academy's exhibition MODERN AMERICAN LIFE opened my eyes to the work of American painter and printmaker George Bellows.

But the Art Chrissie goes to A CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which linked the artists Paul Nash, Christopher R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg who all attended the Slade Art School in the years 1908 -1912.  Although not a large exhibition, there was plenty to spark a curiosity in artists I had been too quick to overlook in the past, in particular Nevinson.  It also gave me an opportunity to commune with one of my favourite paintings, Carrington's portrait of Lytton Strachey.

It was an inspiring exhibition that was exhilarating but also moving as for most of the featured artists the 'crisis of brilliance' that their Slade Professor Henry Tonks accused them of having was never fully resolved.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank Stuart Kirk-Spriggs who has given me a new appreciation of some of the trickier areas of 20th Century art thanks to his inspired teaching. 

It's been a good year for gigs, mostly a string of awesome shows under the auspices of Yoko Ono's Meltdown festival on the South Bank.  Somehow - I'm still sure how - Owen managed to get tickets for both of the Siouxsie shows that were much sought after.  It made me remember how good Patti Smith's Meltdown festival had been in 2005.  Maybe all Meltdowns in future should be curated by female singers in their over-50s?

This year I've seen Boy George twice (thinner and bursting with confidence), Liza Minnelli (with the remnants of her voice and hips but glowing with pure star wattage), Petula Clark at 81 dominating the barn of Theatre Royal Drury Lane with class and showmanship, two alternative music queens Sinéad O'Connor and Viv Albertine wowing with passion and humour and an incandescent Pet Shop Boys show that lit up the O2.  Hopefully 2014 will see them back again now we are familiar with the new material.

For her Meltdown show, Marianne Faithfull turned the Queen Elizabeth Hall into an intimate club as she strolled through her back catalogue with guitarist Bill Frisell (she will back in November to celebrate 50 years in music); The B-52s brought their unique lunatic genius to the IndigO2 while, back at Meltdown, Patti Smith brought along the kids Jackson and Jessie to accompany her in an evening of prose and music where she was wonderfully goofy, caustic and relaxed!  And in the afore-mentioned shows, Siouxsie was quite magnificent, encased in a white PVC ensemble as she showcased the entire Banshees KALEIDOSCOPE album from 1980 then plunging into songs from their back catalogue as well as from her solo career.  They were her first shows in 5 years and she owned the stage - as some hapless oaf found out when he foolishly attempted to climb up.

But my Music Chrissie, and I am a bit surprised by this, goes to Amanda Palmer at the Roundhouse.  With her new band the Grand Theft Orchestra she showcased most of her 2012 album THEATRE IS EVIL (sez she) as well as older and some unrecorded songs.  As with the four acts mentioned above, Amanda creates her own unique world when she performs and this time was just as memorable.  What makes each show different is that she is unique in being able to take whatever is happening to her at that precise moment in her life and spin the show around it, making each one moment-specific.

The two great moments were when she sang BIGGER ON THE INSIDE a painfully honest examination of her recent spell of depression and DEAR DAILY MAIL in which she lambasted that ridiculous paper for highlighting her recent Glastonbury gig when her breast popped out of her bra.  She was, quite simply, her.


In rediscovered cinema I am grateful for the National Film Theatre (nope, still can't call it BFI Southbank) in giving me the chance to see three favourite actresses - Jean Seberg, Vivien Leigh, Vanessa Redgrave - on the big screen with screenings of BONJOUR TRISTESSE (in a sparkling new print), THE DEEP BLUE SEA (I've finally seen it!!) and an advance screening of the BBC film THE THIRTEENTH TALE in which Vanessa was excellently paired with Olivia Colman in Christopher Hampton's atmospheric version of Diane Setterfield's novel.  The same cinema also provided the cinematic highspot during Yoko's Meltdown festival when it showed Eisenstein's BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN with the score by the Pet Shop Boys (with Neil on hand to introduce it) - yes comrades, the revolution WILL have a Disco Beat!

I've seen more recent films this year but nothing that totally knocked me out - the most enjoyable being the two Broadway documentaries I saw at the London Film Festival, Dori Berinstein's MARVIN HAMLISCH and Chiemi Karasawa's ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME - equally enjoyable in different variations in the documentary form.

In the course of any year there are those shows that you can't quite fit into other categories and I had a few of them in 2013.
I saw the remarkable Rita Moreno give an insightful talk at the covert racism she faced in the Hollywood of the 50s & 60s while also rubbishing the film she was there to introduce - now that takes guts.  David McAlmont was in the audience to ask her about THE RITZ and I also saw him giving a talk at the National Portrait Gallery.  Tracey Thorn, Derek Jacobi and Ray Davies gave us idiosyncratic glimpses into the process of writing their autobiographies and Simon Russell Beale gave us his memories on working at the National Theatre.

In particular I enjoyed a reading of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Griff Rhys Jones as Dickens and an excellently cast Bill Paterson as Scrooge.  The supporing cast included Tim Pigott-Smith as Marley and Janine Duvitski as Mrs. Dibber and as I watched them I wished they could be playing it for real at the National next door.  At the same venue earlier in the year Rupert Everett gave a hugely entertaining and insightful talk about his autobiography VANISHED YEARS while at the Leicester Square Theatre, Patti LuPone gave an odd combination of concert & talk (with Seth Rudetsky) which covered all areas of her acting career.  It gave her ample opportunity to bury a few axes in appropriate backs but the high points were when she simply sang songs from EVITA, THE BAKER'S WIFE, LES MISERABLES, GYPSY and most surprisingly "With One Look" from SUNSET BOULEVARD, the first time she had performed it since being so ingraciously fired from the London production.  The biggest surprise came when at the climax of her final song - "The Ladies Who Lunch" from COMPANY - she punctuated the final "RISE!" with hurling her drink into the first few rows. Guess who got splooshed?  A dryer but wonderful 45 minutes were spent in the company of Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter as they reminisced about their experiences working at the National Theatre which of course included memories of my beloved 1982 production of GUYS AND DOLLS, which was were they first met.

But the Chrissie for Best Event goes to the similar National Histories talk with actress Julie Walters and director Richard Eyre.  A delightful 45 minutes sped by as these two favourite people showed a delightful chemistry as they reminisced about their NT memories.  Of course I would love it as Richard Eyre talked at length about his 1982 production of GUYS AND DOLLS but it was also an emotional moment too when they both talked about Ian Charleson with Eyre obviously moved when talking about how he came to cast Ian as HAMLET in 1989 when they both knew he was dying. 

The lovely thing is by clicking here you can watch the Walters & Eyre talk and here you will find Carter & Staunton's talk.

As an intermission act I will leave you in the capable hands of Amanda Palmer and her riotous song DEAR DAILY MAIL from the Roundhouse gig.  After the interval?  The Theatre Chrissies...