Thursday, December 31, 2015

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Noel Coward Theatre - a Christmas Present from the Past?

As we inched closer to The Big Day it seemed very timely to see Patrick Barlow's new stage version of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Noel Coward Theatre.  I must admit that I primarily went to finally have the opportunity to see Jim Broadbent onstage.

It was all a bit of a curate's egg but it was worth it for Broadbent and Samantha Spiro who played several small roles.

Barlow has adapted a fairly traditional retelling of the Dickens classic but his Scrooge when we first see him is not the usual dessicated old misery but a hearty and overbearing money-lender, in line with the now-received idea of heartless bankers.  The play starts with him putting a woman through the mill before she agrees to his exorbitant interest rates.

With that we get to the main story when Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead business partner Jacob Marley warning him to change his ways or he too will spend the afterlife in misery.  His visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future see to it that by Christmas morning he is a changed man.

The whole play takes place within a large toy theatre proscenium arch with two stagehands trundling props into place for the play to continue with the supporting cast of two actors and two actresses playing all the other parts, meeting themselves going off as they are coming on.

Broadbent was as good as I expected him to be and was particularly fine at the end of the play when his bluff and terror gave way to a sweet humility and as I said, of the supporting cast, the standouts were Amelia Bullmore as the ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs Cratchitt but in particular Samantha Spiro commanded the stage as the Babs Windsor-style Ghost of Christmas Present among others.  She also gave a very good curtain speech for the St. Martin-In-The-Fields homeless charity.

But the overwhelming cutesy tweeness of the production was a bit unrelenting and the jokey script happily ignored the story's more haunting aspects towards the end which would have helped to vary the tone.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

GUYS AND DOLLS - Following GYPSY from Chichester to London...

You can almost hear the owners of the Savoy Theatre when they realised that Imelda Staunton in GYPSY was such a massive success, calling up the Chichester Festival Theatre and saying "Um.. you don't have any more like that do you?"  Luckily for them they did, namely their 2014 revival of GUYS AND DOLLS - which is now playing the Savoy until next March.

There might still be someone in Buttkick, Idaho that does not know that the 1982 National Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre was the production that turned me into a huge theatre fan but it's true.  That production captured me and made me it's own, and while I have seen a few revivals since that have seemed almost cowed by the status of both the musical itself and the NT production, the good news is that I enjoyed Gordon Greenberg's Chichester production enough to want to see it again in it's London transfer.

Yes there are still times that I wonder how such an obvious laughline can be overlooked or mis-handled, yes I can wonder why the orchestrations are sometimes seeming to rush through the songs almost as if embarrassed at the score's riches and yes, sometimes I wonder why the performers sometimes attack the roles like a rugby prop-forward when if they could just relax into it the laughs will come, they just need to trust the material more.

In the transfer to London a key cast change has given the production a new lease of life, namely David Haig as Nathan Detroit.  He has invigorated it and given the scenes involving Nathan and Adelaide a new weight where as in Chichester the show was seemingly all about Jamie Parker's Sky Masterson.

Haig gives his man-nearing-the-end-of-his-tether routine a new shake of the dice and presents us with a Nathan that we can care for and he has a perfect foil in Sophie Thompson's Miss Adelaide. Although still not showing the vulnerable heart of the character, Sophie's performance prompted a huge ovation again at the curtain call which was lovely to witness!

Jamie Parker is still ruling the roost as Sky Masterson and he is now partnered by Siubhan Harrison who certainly captures the steel in Sister Sarah but - like Clare Foster in Chichester - doesn't quite show the girl beneath the Missionary uniform.

The supporting cast all work well with Neil McCaul excelling as a Gorbals Arvide Abernathy and Gavin Spokes certainly seizes his big moment in "Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat" which now also pops up at the curtain call for a tambourine-friendly encore.

A major component of the show is Peter McKintosh's bright and colourful set of shards of Times Square billboards and Tim Mitchell's lighting design.  I must admit that I again found Carlos Acosta's much-vaunted choreography to be fairly uninspiring and lacking focus.

Coming away from the show I felt very proud that I had the good fortune to start my real theatre-going life with such a bona fide Broadway classic.  33 years on, it is a measure of Richard Eyre's production that while watching this revival, I can still half-close my eyes and see Ian Charleson, Julie Covington, Bob Hoskins, Julia McKenzie, David Healy, John Normington, Bill Paterson, Jim Carter, Harry Towb, Belinda Sinclair, Rachel Izen and that new doll to the London stage, Imelda Staunton.

However, even without those ghosts in the memory, you will have a great time at the Savoy...

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The NUTCRACKER at Covent Garden - Christmas can start officially now!

How better to end the year of New Cultural Events (namely opera and ballet) than with a visit to Covent Garden to see a classic Royal Ballet production of Tchaikovsky's perennial favourite THE NUTCRACKER.

Warning to any diabetics - this production could endanger your health as the Sugar Plums rule!  My only previous experience of the piece is through Matthew Bourne's own take on it NUTCRACKER! which i have always enjoyed but now I am more au fait with dance it was time to be able to put that production in context next to the original.  Step forward the Royal Ballet with their 1999 production choreographed by Peter Wright after Lev Ivanov's original 1892 choreography.

As I have said before, it's remarkable that ballet companies can have productions that hark back to the original production of the piece.  How many theatre directors would like to direct UNCLE VANYA that was modelled on Stanislavski's original?  However there is certainly something in having a lineage to draw on and this production, here staged by Christopher Carr, is already in it's eleventh revival.

The production is simply enchanting, radiating warmth and goodwill like a particularly large glass of mulled wine.  Helped immeasurably by the late Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs, Wright's take on the story has the magician Drosselmeyer mourning that his nephew has been transformed by an enemy into a nutcracker, as you do!  His chance to undo the spell comes with a Christmas invitation to a family where he gives the nutcracker to the young daughter Clara.

Her love for the nutcracker releases the spell but not before Clara and the nephew defeat the nasty mouse king and his army after being shrunk by the magician.  He could have made it easier surely by keeping them human-sized!  Their reward is to be spirited away to the Kingdom of Sweets to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince and be entertained by divertissements organised by Drosselmeyer.  On their return to the real world, Clara runs out of her house and bumps into a young man who looks strangely familiar, he in turn, hurries to Drosselmeyer's house where he is happily reunited with his uncle.

Peter Wright's spin on the story makes for a delightful fairy tale and Christopher Carr's staging made it as light as spun sugar on whipped cream.  It whizzed along like a top and this was in no small measure due to the excellent cast.  It was a particular delight to see a proper corps in the impossibly lovely Dance of the Snowflakes.

Gary Avis was very good as the magician Drosselmeyer, he has played it for a few years now and he twirled his vivid blue cape with panache.  Francesca Hayward was delightful as Clara, dancing with a sweet elegance and she was well partnered by Alexander Campbell as her energetic beloved nutcracker-made-real.  A special mention too for Olivia Cowley as the sinuous lead dancer in the Arabic speciality number.

The biggest treat of all was to see the show on the night that the Sugar Plum royalty were being danced by Iana Salenko and Steven McRae who we have seen previously as the lovers in THE TWO PIGEONS and as ROMEO AND JULIET.  In their solos and in their pas de deux both were excellent, elegant, graceful and with innate musicality but also dazzling in their speed around the stage and their controlled strength.

As I said, in a year of discovering the Royal Ballet in particular, what a delight to end on the magical high with this production of the NUTCRACKER and as I said, finally having a mental companion piece to Matthew Bourne's version.

Monday, December 28, 2015

WONDER.LAND at the Olivier Theatre - Damon Albarn's musical is God.Awful...

Where to begin?  And more importantly, where to end?  I guess I should just dive in...

WONDER.LAND (the dot is so important) is a collaboration (or unholy alliance) between Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini and Rufus Norris based on ALICE IN WONDERLAND which launched at the Manchester International Festival - and that should set off the warning klaxons: the Manchester International Festival... words to chill the blood eh?

After not-terribly good reviews there, it has supposedly been "looked at again" for it's London debut.  I would suggest they all check in with their opticians very quickly as their is something very wrong with their collective sight.

It didn't take long before the sinking feeling started that we were watching a misfire of major proportions.  Again and again, with no attempts to cover them, the woeful Buffini script ticks off the important (to her) points: 'Bullied Schoolchild' = TICK, 'Gay Best Friend' = TICK, 'Single Mother' = TICK, 'Abuse of Social Media' = TICK, 'Gender Role' = TICK and on and on and on with the relentlessness of a Politically Correct Joyless Machine.

Aly is a teenager in a new school, suffering from the recent separation of her parents - her dad is a 'lovable' gambler - but she escapes her life of boredom and bullying through her mobile phone.  She starts a new game called Wonder.Land, picking as her avatar a cutesy Alice figure, but soon finds the gaming world swamping her real life - especially when her nasty headteacher confiscates Aly's phone and signs on as her into the Wonder.Land turning Alice into a nasty character instead...

They could have all been sitting on each other's faces for all I cared about them.  So to find something positive to say... the video designs were impressive I suppose, in particular the scary Cheshire cat slinking about, with a grinning mouth of fangs.  But the costume designs by Katrina Lindsey were ugly in the extreme - Carly Bawden as the Alice figure has the bad luck to wear the worst offender of all and Rae Smith's sets do little to inspire.

The performances also barely registered above the embarrassing.  Carly Bawden makes the most of her fictional Alice but she never registers above a blip of interest.  Lois Chimimba does at least make an impression as Aly but her character is so resoundingly chippy that again it's hard to get emotionally involved with her.  Anna Francolini, a stalwart of many a musical ensemble, plays the nasty head-mistress - MATILDA anyone? - but sings in such a harsh, grating tone that it's little wonder she rarely plays a lead.

I won't mention any of the other cast... oh ok then, Hal Fowler as the MC of the whole proceedings is profoundly annoying, none more so than bellowing out "" usually following it with "bubblewoobubblewoobubblewoo. bumberboo.bong" or some such shite.  I am sure Mrs Hal Fowler aka Kim Wilde was happy when he wasn't singing it around the house. 

Damon Albarn?  Don't get me started.  The man could not write a show tune if his preening life depended on it.  Hopefully WONDER.LAND will expose this musical charlatan of his much-vaunted prowess.  The broadsheets fall over themselves to praise his littlest fart as another ground-breaking sonic sound - write an opera Mr Albarn? Oh yes why not.  Write a musical Mr Albarn? Oh yes why not.  Only here his tunes are lightweight to say the least... halfhearted Lionel Bart rip-offs.  It truly is a ghastly score.

Afterwards I was sunk into the deepest depression.  It was the sheer ghastliness of the whole event, polluting the stage that once was home to Richard Eyre's production of GUYS AND DOLLS, that sent me into such a state.  That and the fact that it obviously cost the earth which could have been spent on a production that at least set out to provide genuine joy for the audience. 

As usual, I was left wondering when director Rufus Norris looked at this resounding load of cock and thought, "Yes this is ready to set before a paying audience".  I saw him walking through the Lyttelton bar afterwards where I had gone to have a strong drink.  If he wasn't moving so fast I would have thrown my empty glass at him.

At one point, as the air of confusion settled over the family audience, a child wailed loudly.  I genuinely thought of shouting out "You and me both bitch".

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

PERICLES aka Shakespeare's Round-The-Med Revue at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This year saw quite a few visits to the Globe Theatre to see several of the productions under their Justice & Mercy season and, now that it's colder, we are booked to see their four late Shakespeare productions in their atmospheric Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

First off the rank was the departing Globe artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's production of PERICLES, a lesser Shakespeare which he co-wrote with the little-known George Wilkins.  It's disjointed feel is probably down to this partnership, scholars suspect that they split the play down the middle with Wilkins taking the first few acts and Shakespeare picking it up towards the end - which would explain why the play feels more involving towards the end but it's still not a play I would go out of my way for.

The trouble is the plot which piles on thinly plotted characters and absurd situations which mostly happen offstage but are relayed to the audience by the show's narrator Gower (the name of the author who wrote the story the play is based on) but who here is played by the ever-twinkling Sheila Reid.  Since her National Theatre days at the Old Vic under Olivier's direction, Reid has been giving constantly good performances but she can sometimes play cutesy and she does that here, almost distracting the audience from the melodramatic plot twists she tells us about.

Was there ever a more tiresome lead role than Pericles?  Up and down the Mediterranean coastline he wanders bringing chaos and misery wherever he goes... he arrives in Antioch to marry the King's daughter but discovers their secret incestuous relationship so he flees, pursued by the King's assassin, back to his home city of Tyre but the assassin turns up there so he is off again to Tarsus where he relieves the city of it's famine but, feeling unsafe, sets off again where he - and us - endure the first of two storms at sea...

One is reminded of Thelma Ritter's caustic line in ALL ABOUT EVE "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at your rear end"!  One feels Pericles really needs his life set to a oh-why-me song a la Travis but he is washed up on the shores of Pentapolis where, with the King's eager help, he marries the princess Thaisa.  You would think that would make him stay in one place - but then he hears that the incestuous King and his daughter have been killed by a lightning bolt (they really don't write 'em like this anymore) and he journeys back to Tyre in safety.

But safety isn't Pericles' top quality and low and behold, another storm at sea happens just as Thaisa is giving birth - come on, you just KNOW she dies and is buried at sea where she is washed up at Ephesus and revived by a physician wherein she goes off to be a high priestess of Diana while Pericles leaves Marina, his baby girl, with the King and Queen of Tarsus while he wanders off again.  Pericles is not a good role model for single parenting as the Queen starts to develop a psychotic hatred for Marina for getting more acclaim than her own child.  So she hires an assassin...

Yes this *could* be where you came in but one starts to discern the occasional insight in the writing and you know that Shakespeare is on the scene. I can imagine him thinking "What has Wilkins done here?" and throws in a dollop of sex straight out of MEASURE FOR MEASURE when Marina is kidnapped by pirates and sold to a brothel.  Finally it gets going with a few decent laughs!!

What makes PERICLES worth the climb is how Shakespeare uses his part of the play to shift the play away from the dreary title character's perambulations and leads us more into explorations of fathers and daughters, magic, reconciliations, humorous supporting characters and a feeling of tragedy averted.  A prime example is Marina's reuniting with Pericles after so many years apart; only a year or so before Shakespeare had given us a similar scene in KING LEAR which ended in nihilist brutality, here all is forgiveness and harmony.

For all it's absurdity, Dominic Dromgoole certainly kept the action moving on the bare Wanamaker stage with Jonathan Fensom's spare design.  I had seen the play once before at the National Theatre in 1994 which was pretty irritating but I think this one will tide me over for a while.  A major problem with this production was the dull performance by James Garnon as the titular Prince of Tyre.  He's not an actor I particularly care for and his gurning delivery of his speeches failed to move.  Sadly it appears he is beloved at the Globe (so I presume he's cheap).

Much more eye-catching were Jessica Baglow as the tyrannically virginal Marina, Dennis Herdman as the randy pimp Bolt and Dorothea Myer-Bennett as both the put-upon Thaisa and the inexplicably murderous Queen Dionyza.

I am looking forward to seeing THE WINTER'S TALE, CYMBELINE and THE TEMPEST at the Wanamaker Playhouse in the coming months as they are all stronger plays than this Greek's Own adventure.  Oh and no thanks at all to former Globe artistic director Mark Rylance who occasionally kneed me in the back on the Playhouse's absurdly cramped backless seating.  You would also think someone so versed in the theatre would remove his hat in the auditorium too.

Friday, December 18, 2015

IN THE HEIGHTS - Latino Manhattan comes to Kings Cross!

The Southwark Playhouse's acclaimed production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS has shimmied itself across London to the site-specific theatre that is also where the stage version of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN is playing... well you know how much I love visiting a new theatre!

IN THE HEIGHTS was a big hit on Broadway with much being made of it's urban-influenced, hip-hop score, it ran for nearly three years and after being nominated for 13 Tony Awards it went on to win 4 including Best Musical and Best Score.

Miranda is Broadway's darling but I suspect there is an element of people falling over themselves to praise him to show how inclusive they are.  I did enjoy the show as it has a good heart and is particularly strong on vibrant female characters.  Sadly the most obvious part of the show is Quiara Alegría Hudes' book with it's ultimate conclusion that "happiness is found in your own back yard".  How revolutionary.

The musical shows 24 hours in the lives of the inhabitants of a street in the Washington Heights area of New York in summertime - for some life goes on as it always has done but for a few life is changed.  Usnavi runs a small bodega which doles out coffee to all and sundry who either live or work near-by: Kevin and Camila run a cab firm employing Benny who is learning his Spanish from the drivers (badly), Usnavi employs his nephew Sonny to work in his store while also looking out for Abuela Claudia, the elderly woman who raised him when his parents died, and Daniela is the gossipy owner of the local beauty salon who employs Vanessa, an ambitious girl who is trying to get out of the barrio who Usnavi secretly loves.

Kevin and Camila's daughter Nina unexpectedly arrives from her university in California and after countless enquiries about how she is doing, confesses that she has dropped out, unable to focus on her work while bearing her parent's aspirations for her success.  Benny asks her out, Sonny gets Vanessa to agree to go out with Usnavi and they all head for a club where a fight erupts just as the barrio's electricity goes down due to the summer heat.  In the morning realities are faced, some end happily, some bittersweet.

So... no great shakes storywise but Miranda has written a score that includes lightweight rap and hip-hop beats along with more standard fare.  As I said the score definitely favours the female characters and while they are fairly obviously drawn they were well performed by the cast with verve and personality plus!  The most eye-catching was Victoria Hamilton-Barrett as Daniela, she was actually heavily pregnant and her participation in the dance numbers had me on the edge of my seat!  She didn't get as many laughs as she possibly could have but maybe her energy was expended in just getting on.

I had a raised eyebrow over the casting of Jade Ewan (the last member of the Sugababes) but she was actually very effective and sang very well as did Josie Benson as the fearsome Camila, Queen of the cab office.  Lily Frazer as Nina also had a fine singing voice but was hampered by having such a drippy character to play.  Eve Polycarpou certainly belted out her numbers as the ageing matriarch but the character was quite cloying as she was only there as a plot device in a mu-mu.

I enjoyed Sam Mackay as the big-hearted Usnavi who had a likable presence although he seemed to be imitating Eminem in his raps.  David Bedella was absent without leave so Vas Constanti played Kevin, the put-upon owner of the cab office and he sang well.  I also liked Joe Aaron Reid as the ambitious Benny, trusted by Kevin and Camila but only so far much to his anger.

The ensemble were also very hardworking and contributed greatly to the main success of the show which was the exciting urban choreography of Drew McOnie.  The dance numbers tend to stop the show rather than add to it's flow but that doesn't stop them being quite thrilling.  Luke Sheppard (who directed the recent CASA VALENTINA) does a workman-like job, keeping the action flowing from song-to-song, from dance routine to dance routine.

I am glad I saw it and would recommend it to anyone who wants a colourful, brash show that ultimately is all quite safe.  The show has been extended but the house wasn't full on the night we went.

I would also recommend a visit to the Kings Cross Theatre which, although feels like quite a temporary space, had the most smiley, happy front-of-house staff I have encountered for a while.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Well wouldn't you know?  After sitting bored and irritated through the  Branagh production of HARLEQUINADE that made me see how John Osbourne and his contemporaries could view Terence Rattigan as a middle-class, non-relevant writer, my next theatre visit was to see the play that catapulted the then-25 year old Rattigan to fame, FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond.

Not the best time to see the play but actually I enjoyed it very much and Mr Rattigan is suitably re-established in my sympathies.  Maybe I should blame Branagh and Rob Ashford for HARLEQUINADE...

FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS is a souffle of a play that is whipped into shape nicely by the Orange Tree's artistic director Paul Miller who also did a fine job last year with Shaw's WIDOWERS HOUSES and the play sat nicely with the Orange Tree's cosy audience who laughed uproariously at strangled attempts of the terribly English characters to speak French.

(By the way in the picture above you can see where our seats were, in the second row next to the green French windows!)  Four young men have come to a finishing school in the south of France to perfect their knowledge of the language before they sit their final year exams for the diplomatic corps. 

However what they all struggle with is the presence of the seductive Diana, an English seductress who flits from man to man sussing out which is the best prospect for a wealthy life.  In the wings waits Jacqueline, the daughter of the school's strict Professor who quietly nurses a love for one of them.

Diana is the sister of Ken, a younger pupil at the school, and as much as the men fear her animal magnetism but are irresistibly drawn to it they all seem to treat him with a genuine love, as far as Rattigan could show male love in 1936 possibly.

It is all very irresistible and disappears like a popped bubble minutes after you leave the theatre but while I was there I enjoyed it very much although the Orange Tree really must invest in some better wardrobe technicians as Holly Rose Henshaw's costumes were badly tailored - at times it was difficult to imagine Diana as an irresistible femme fatale with some very dodgy bust lines and hems.

There were rewarding performances from the oddly named William Belchambers as Commander Rogers, the new pupil who temporarily is Diana's latest target much to the other men's discontent, Tom Hanson had great fun as Brian, a diffident chap who enjoys the pleasures of the local bar and it's tarts than his French grammar. 

In two professional debuts, Alex Bhat as Alan who wishes to be a writer more than a diplomat and Genevieve Gaunt as the captivating Diana - although Rattigan has her looking foolish in the final moments of the play I am sure that was a sop to the morals of the time as I suspect he enjoyed her character enormously.

 All in all another hugely enjoyable revival from the cramped confines of the Orange Tree theatre.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

THE WINTER'S TALE / HARLEQUINADE / ALL ON HER OWN - Branagh's bunch at The Garrick

It has been much anticipated but now Kenneth Branagh's year-long season at the Garrick Theatre has started in an eclectic season which includes two Shakespeares and those old enemies Terence Rattigan and John Osborne sharing the Branagh banner too.  Oddly enough, Osborne was much on my mind when I saw the Rattigan but more of that later.

Let us start with the positives - for the most part THE WINTER'S TALE is a successful production which is co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford.  I last saw it in the rather under-par Sam Mendes/Old Vic 2009 production which, although boasting excellent performances from Simon Russell Beale as Leontes and Sinead Cusack as Paulina, disappointed in the large yokel scene which takes up most of the second act.

And guess what?  Again I found the Bohemia scenes to be wearing - the scenes of Autolycus gulling the shepherds just seems to go on and on plus the wimpy romance of Florizel and Perdita - yeesh, get me back to the tortured halls of Leontes' miserable Sicilian castle any time.  Not that there is anything particularly Italian about Christopher Oram's Edwardian court set.

Leontes' sudden, creeping jealousy of his pregnant wife Hermione and his lifelong friend Polixenes should seemingly swell out of nowhere and Kenneth Branagh certainly did that.  I have seen him several times onstage since the 1980s and I constantly felt he was somewhat over-praised.  Yes he was good but always felt that maybe in a few years he would be the real deal.  Maybe now he has arrived (for Shakespeare at least).

Leontes' jealousy lasts as long as he tells himself he is jealous, when confronted with the sudden death of his son he collapses under the weight of his own guilt which is compounded when he is told that his wife has died.  Instrumental in this news is Paulina, Hermione's devoted companion played here with blazing conviction by Dame Judi Dench.

The character of Paulina fits Dench like a glove: she is fiercely loyal, fiercely compassionate, and in denouncing Leontes, just plain fierce.  Her authority blazes onstage and she also demonstrates her command of Shakespeare's language by making every line ring true.  The final scene is affecting precisely because Dench judges each reveal just right and her late-moment betrothal to John Shrapnel's Camillo is a small jewel of a moment.

Shrapnel and Michael Pennington's luckless Antigonus add their considerable experience to these smaller roles but I found Miranda Raison to be fairly colourless as Hermione, particularly when surrounded with the afore-mentioned actors, probably a reflection on her being younger than her colleagues . It would also be nice to see a Hermione who was angry at Leontes' accusations rather than a doe-eyed victim.

John Dagleish made an impression as the wideboy Autolycus but even he couldn't lift the deadly Bohemian scenes which here featured two clunky dance routines.  However the production was always lovely to look at thanks to Oram's seasonal designs and Neil Austin's atmospheric lighting design.

The production is currently playing in repertory with a Terence Rattigan double bill - a short solo piece ALL ON HER OWN which features a spiky Zoe Wanamaker as a widow hitting the bottle over her possible-guilt in her husband's suicide, and also HARLEQUINADE a one-act play which Rattigan had paired with the darker, more famous THE BROWNING VERSION.

With that play I can see it possibly working as a divertissment but as a stand-alone piece it outstayed it's welcome.  Branagh is never the most accomplished of comedy actors, he is too knowing and deliberate to just cut loose and his performance as a vain actor-manager touring the provinces with a production of ROMEO AND JULIET shows that.  Luckily Wanamaker popped up again as a tippling grand dame of the stage who chewed the scenery with gay abandon.  One feels HARLEQUINADE is only there because Branagh is presenting ROMEO AND JULIET later in this season - oh and HARLEQUINADE's actor-manager is interviewing girls for his upcoming production of A Winter's Tale.

Maybe in 1948 it had something to say about the theatre companies who kept touring during the war but the shambolic touring company idea has been done to death by Michael Frayn's NOISES OFF and similar works, and there were times when I sat there, surrounded by guffawing audience members, clueless as to what they found so funny.  Although I have admired Rattigan plays in the past, this actually made me side with the writers such as John Osborne in hating the safe, middle-class, old-world attitude of his work.

How odd then that my next theatre visit was to see a revival of Terence Rattigan's 1936 debut success...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Royal Ballet presents Frederick Ashton's MONOTONES I + II / THE TWO PIGEONS....

Constant Reader, as you are probably fed up of hearing, this is the year of new cultural doings; namely ballet and opera!  Last Thursday we had an extra night out at Covent Garden as a few days before I had an email offering reduced price seats only 5 rows back in the amphitheatre centre-block.  As it was a double-bill of Sir Frederick Ashton's work showcasing contemporary in the first half and more traditional in the second act, I leaped at the chance.  A grand jeté even...

Like our last visit to Covent Garden when we saw MacMillan's ROMEO AND JULIET, here were revivals of productions that have had huge success in the past - indeed the programme listed that MONOTONES are currently on the 69th production since it's 1966 debut of both pieces, while THE TWO PIGEONS outstrips that with it's 102nd production since 1961.  A nice touch is to have the original artists of THE TWO PIGEONS, Christopher Gable and Lynn Seymour, on this revival's poster.

The evening shows to dazzling effect the range of Ashton's choreography: the long, sinuous lines of the abstract MONOTONES, the stripped-down choreography matching the spareness of Erik Satie's 1888 compositions "The Gymnopédies" through to the more traditional 'girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again' of THE TWO PIGEONS.  However the choreography for MONOTONES is not distancing, it's vibrant and hypnotic while THE TWO PIGEONS' story-telling includes moments of characterful humour and vibrant ensemble work.

The initial green-clad trio of MONOTONES I (conversely enough, the second of the two to be premiered) were fine but the brilliantly-white trio of MONOTONES II - Christina Arestis, Ryoichi Hirano, Nehemiah Kish - were wonderfully fluid and seamless.  Ashton's production is here staged by Lyn Wallis and John B. Read's lighting was also noteworthy.

THE TWO PIGEONS revival was staged by Christopher Carr and he did Sir Fredrick proud.  A nice surprise was that our ROMEO AND JULIET, Steven McRae and Iana Salenko, were reunited as the PIGEONS hero and heroine - a temperamental artist and his irreverent, lovelorn model.  They were delightful together and as in ROMEO made a great onstage partnership.

There was also fine work from Fumi Kaneko as the seductive Gypsy Girl while her male counterparts Fernando Montano and Luca Acri were fiery and tempestuous - as they do.  A special shout-out to the corps de ballet in the gypsy encampment who whirled around the stage with thrilling vivacity.  But the real stars of the show were the titular characters - two real live pigeons who flew around the stage and hit their marks (and behaved) like the pros they invariably are.  I presume an argument over who should take the final bow robbed them of their curtain call.

A wonderful double-bill which was all the more delightful for having been a bit of an unexpected visit.  I must admit that our year of new cultural events is being won by the dance productions.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

ANITA AND ME at Stratford East - Meera Syal's novel comes to the stage

In 1996 ANITA AND ME was published and was an immediate success for first-time novelist Meera Syal.  Since then it has won the Betty Trask Award for first-time novelists, Syal adapted it for a 2002 film version as well as appearing it and has also become a set book n English Literature exams.

Syal's semi-autobiographical novel has now been turned into a stage show at the perfect home for it, the Theatre Royal Stratford East.  The stage version is adapted by Tanika Gupta and is an uneasy mix of music and drama but it is one that Stratford East's legendary figurehead Joan Littlewood would probably have approved of it's mix of music and politics within a raggedy production.

The story takes place in the 1970s in a fictional midlands town and centres on the teenage Meena who straddles two worlds: her traditional Indian home life where her parents have great ambitions for her future and the outside world of Tollington where she yearns to fit in with her contemporaries, in particular the local tearaway Anita.

Meena and Anita have an uneasy relationship, their friendship is not one that can last but they fascinate each other, the one jealous of what they think the other have: Meena wants Anita's freedom, Anita wants Meena's loving family background.

Meena's father Shyam and mother Daljit cannot understand why their daughter is so enamoured with the gobby, sluttish teenager but are also facing their own problem's when Daljit is overwhelmed by having a new baby but the family dynamic takes an interesting turn when they arrange for her mother to fly to the UK to help her with the baby.

Meena slowly grows to appreciate her Nanima and her renewed connection to her family makes her to reevaluate her relationship with her increasingly wayward best friend, especially as Anita is now the girlfriend of Sam, a former friend of Meena who is now a right-wing skinhead.  It was an enjoyable enough show but apart from the occasional sharp insight into Anita's miserable family home or the slow creep of the racist right that surrounded Meena and her family, it was all a bit too reverentially cute.

The performances were mostly all drawn slightly too large but subtlety is rarely the Stratford East way.  There were however nice performances from Yasmin Wilde as the long-suffering Nanima, Kiren Jogi as Meena's middle-class aunt Shaila and Ayesha Dharker as Daljit.  Mandeep Dhillon as Meena and Jalleh Alizadeh as Anita were both effective but at times were obviously too old for their roles.

Roxana Silbert's direction kept the pace swift and breezy but the score by Ben & Max Ringham and Tanika Gupta felt intrusive and stalled the action rather than moving it forward.

The show ended in a celebratory bhangra dance with a final shower of confetti that successfully wiped a lot of the show's niggles out of mind.  So... a nice show but lacking the sharp insight of Syal's original.