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.

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