Thursday, June 25, 2015

The PIRATES OF PENZANCE - a rollicking band of pirates, we!

Although it is my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan score, I have not seen THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE too often.  I last saw it in 2001 at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park and, before that oddly enough, in 1985 I saw the second half (!) of a touring production which starred Paul Nicholas, Bonnie Langford and Michael Ball.  Both of these productions were based on the 1980 New York production which originated at Joseph Papp's Public Theater and was a runaway success with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt among others.

But on Saturday we saw the new English National Opera production at the London Coliseum which is directed by film director and G&S fan Mike Leigh in a surprisingly pleasant production.  It would be silly to expect his G&S production to be as forensic in detail as his own films and plays but I think I was expecting something a little more personal in tone.

It offers it's biggest surprise in it's look:  Alison Chitty has given it an eye-popping, brightly-coloured set design of various geometric shapes all seen through a large, moving round port-hole which opens up to let the chorus take their place on the expansive Coliseum stage.

The other most obvious Leigh-ism I could spot was the the character of Ruth, the nursery maid of hero Frederic who was the cause of him being apprenticed to a band of pirates.  I had to double-check my programme to see who was playing the role as Rebecca de Pont Davies looks very much like Ruth Sheen, the delightfully-gawky actress who played major roles in LIFE IS SWEET and ANOTHER YEAR.  I guess it was another Leigh-ism to have Ruth be the only one who does not join in the exuberant finale but sits dejected and alone on a grave, forgotten about while the Pirates and the Major-General's daughters all pair up.

Otherwise it felt like a very traditional production with little bits of comedy business given to The Pirate King and The Major-General.  I suppose if I had seen other previous traditional productions I might have spotted more additions.

What took me most by surprise was the vocal weakness of the women.  Luckily there was surtitles displaying the lyrics otherwise I would not have been aware what de Pont Davies or Claudia Boyle as Mabel were singing.  The men all had stronger voices, in particular I enjoyed the barnstorming Joshua Bloom as The Pirate King and Andrew Shore had a ball as the conniving Major-General.  Alexander Robin Baker was also a strong vocal presence as Samuel, the Pirate King's lieutenant.

By and large, I felt all the ENO voices were not on a par with the 1980 Public Theater cast recording - I guess an opera singer will always sing the note rather than putting any character into it, it all sounded a bit colourless to my ears.  There was a peculiarly sombre version of "A Policeman's Lot Is Not A Happy One" which just came over as rather drab by Jonathan Lemalu as the Police Sergeant.

Frederic was well sung by Robert Murray but his tubbyness made it hard to believe that Mabel and her sisters would all swoon while singing "how rare his beauty"!

It was odd that I noticed in this production how much Gilbert's story is so taken with things not being as they seem: Ruth leads Frederic to believe she is beautiful until he sees the fair Mabel, the Major-General weeps over the tombs of his ancestors but it turns out he bought the chapel a year before so they are not actually his relatives, Frederic may think he is 21 but as he was born in a leap year he is only 9 if his age is judged by birthdays and finally the Pirates are revealed to all be peers of the realm who have 'gone wrong' so are forgiven everything.

On the whole I liked the production and it was a fun way to spend an evening, I just wish it had felt a bit more idiosyncratic in performance rather than in it's design.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

THE ELEPHANT MAN at the Haymarket Theatre: Roll up, Roll up...

...see the West End's Main Acting Attraction!

That is very much how it felt when entering the Haymarket Theatre with more merchandise on sale than you might expect at a straight play: two different t-shirts, posters, mugs, etc.  You don't get that for everyone, Simon Russell Beale would plotz to have such merch on sale!

No, the reason for such buying opportunities is because the titular hero is being played by Bradley Cooper, three-time Academy Award nominee for acting (plus one for producing) and, as I have been informed, a hunk.  Personally, he doesn't do a lot for me - he looks like Barry Manilow's better-looking brother but how was he onstage?

Actually he gave a perfectly fine performance as did the imported American cast but as I left the theatre I found myself feeling oddly unmoved and slightly dissatisfied.

I think the fault is with Bernard Pomerance's play as well as Scott Ellis by-the-numbers production.  At no time during this production did I feel engaged by Ellis' direction, it felt as if he just followed the stage directions.

Pomerance's play calls for the - usually handsome - actor playing the disfigured Joseph Merrick to perform the role without prosthetics, to suggest the disfigurement through his contorting face and body into the bizarre shape Merrick took.  Cooper certainly succeeded in this admirably and he is probably grateful that Pomerance's sadly thin play only lasts two hours - with an interval to unbend in.

Despite sounding at times like David Walliams "I'm a lady" transvestite character from LITTLE BRITAIN, he also captured the humble and sweet nature of the unloved young man who yearned to be educated and liked but here's the rub.  The only moment of real audience frisson was when, after a few hidden teases, Cooper was finally revealed in all his buff glory in a pair of grotty pants - I was sitting next to about six 30-something office-worker-women-types who all swooned at him and the one next to me even murmured "Oooo it's HIM".  But a couple of seconds later, he morphed into his Merrick gait and the air of disappointment as they realised he was going to stay like that til the curtain call was palpable.

It is certainly a showcase for an actor showing he is more than just a pretty face but that's about it for Pomerance's play.  I was shocked at it's thinness, as Peggy Lee might sing "Is That All There Is?"  The playwright strives to get us to register that Dr Frederick Treves' attempt to rehabilitate Merrick into his own room at the London Hospital in Whitechapel while having him receive visits from the rich and famous for donations to the Hospital was exploiting Merrick just as his fairground manager had, just to a higher income.

But after a while you want to shake Pomerance and say "Yes we get it, now give me something more!" but we just get more of the same.  Scott Ellis's direction seemed to echo the surface appeal of the text and at best got the actors on and off the stage with a pleasing regularity.  It mostly seemed to coast along with no real tempo to the later scenes and even the climactic scene of Merrick's decision to sleep lying down knowing this would kill him seemed to have the same uninterested feel.

For all Cooper's contorted perambulations, for me the performances most worth seeing were Alessandro Nivola's as Frederick Treves and Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Madge Kendall, the famous actress who befriends Merrick.  Nivola gave a quietly intense performance as Treves, a good man troubled that he is morally wrong in exploiting Merrick and confronting his growing ambivalent feelings towards his charge.

By far the most engaging performance was Patricia Clarkson's as Mrs Kendall, one of the Victorian era's most popular actresses, as adept at Shakespeare as at comedies - indeed she often appeared on the very stage were she was being recreated.  Pomerance gives her a couple of funny lines, usually sympathising with Merrick on the pressures of playing a role for a paying public but in a scene that had me quietly squirming in my seat, also had her taking off her blouse to show Merrick his first glimpse of a woman's body.  It felt totally gratuitous, especially as they are interrupted by Treves who then acts like a wronged husband.  Clarkson transcended the obvious writing to give a light, nuanced performance.

In the all-American company, it was good to see Anthony Heald in his contrasting roles of the censorious Bishop and as Ross, Merrick's fairground manager (even with a dodgy accent): he had a nice scene towards the end when Ross realised his hold over his former money-magnet had gone, and there was a steady performance from Henry Stram as Francis Carr Gomm, chairman of the London Hospital.

There was no chance for over-ovating as Cooper joined the company for ensemble curtain calls at the end which is oddly at variance with the merch onsale out front and I felt a definite air of frustration in the audience - yes, he wants to be just one of the company but it is him that most of the audience have come to see so at least spare them the chance to cheer and whoop him - especially standing up straight and smiling.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Some theatre visits you look forward to more than others and ever since I booked to see the three Samuel Beckett monologues NOT I, FOOTFALLS and ROCKABY I had been getting more and more excited as the day got nearer.

Cut to the day of the show and I was excited - even sitting in the Pit Theatre at the Barbican waiting for it to start in the blacked-out auditorium which is the setting for NOT I, I was genuinely, butterflies-in-stomach excited... and I have not felt that for a production in quite a while.  I was not disappointed.

So what had made me get in such a tremulous state?  It was the fact that this was the first time I have ever experienced these monologues live.  I had seen Billie Whitelaw's filmed versions from the 1980s but to see them live is the best way to experience them although, with the sad news of Billie's death in December still fresh in my mind, it was always going to be emotional, especially as the actress Lisa Dwan had been coached by Billie when she first started the trilogy - Billie almost conducting her in rehearsals just as Beckett had done with her.

With the exit signs covered up and with all the house lights off we were plunged into pitch blackness and the tension that had been building up as the house manager read us 'the rules' for watching the plays suddenly ratcheted up.  Straining to hear something, anything, soon we heard the black curtains swish apart and slowly a single spotlight revealed a pair of vivid red lips hovering high above the stage.

The mouth started the monologue with it's lightning-fast delivery -  Beckett wanted to suggest the speed of thought aloud - and it was one of the most thrilling, dazzling things I have ever experienced.  I am aware that I am saying 'experienced' a lot but that is exactly what it felt like, not simply observing a performance passively but watching in awe and some slight feeling of terror.

The mouth - surely the inspiration for the opening of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW! - jabbers away for nearly ten minutes, moving forever onwards deeper into oblique memories but repeating, words, phrases again and again only to be admonish itself with the shouted statement "What.... who.... no..... SHE!"  Remarkably for what it is, there was every opportunity for the odd laugh as Lisa Dwan found the humour in Mouth's rattling prattling.

Slowly the music and the poetry take you over and you begin to formulate an idea - a woman is unloved from her premature birth and at a certain point while in a field she found herself lying on the ground with a relentless buzzing in her ears.  An illusion to a courtroom is there too but your mind races to make sense of what you are hearing and just as soon as you feel submerged by it all, the light fades and the voice is stilled.

It was quite, quite breathtaking, a theatre experience like none other.  The power of theatre to make an indelible visual image,  the playwright's words as sonic overload while also you are aware of the humanity of the performer who is having to deliver it.  Billie Whitelaw in her autobiography writes of the physical endurance of performing NOT I, the first time she was left an emotional wreck during the dress rehearsal, so much so that Beckett left the Royal Court and didn't return for several days to relieve some of the pressure that his presence had added to and she admits that although she did it two years later, again at the Court, that the experience changed her forever.

The physical endurance for Whitelaw included being strapped into a chair to perform it with clamps on either side of her head to hold it steady for the spotlight.  Lisa Dwan goes through a similar ordeal, standing with her head held in place by straps and with her arms pressed behind a bar to keep the tension going through her.

Back to the blackness for a short pause - broken by low, ominous rumblings - and the curtains swished aside again for the lights to dimly reveal Dwan in a long white dress, her arms held in a locked embrace in front of her, walking to and fro, nine steps back and forth, with the dull clumping of her heels on the wooden platform announcing the arrival of FOOTFALLS.  Dwan, shimmered pearl-grey in the dim light.

A woman, May, walks back and forwards outside the room of her mother who we assume is dying but May walks and walks as the mother's voice tells us that her daughter has walked back and forwards like that since a child.  A single hollow bell announces a break in the monologue and each time it starts May gets slower and more deliberate in her pacing. The mother addresses us, then May telling the story of a woman called Amy.  Is the mother dead?  Is May dead?  Does her ghost walk the house where they both died?  In the last 'stanza' the dim light comes up to reveal that May has vanished.

After the explosive NOT I, the deliberate pacing (no pun intended) of FOOTFALLS did mean that it felt excessively long and I found myself drifting once or twice.

Billie Whitelaw says in her book that while in rehearsals for FOOTFALLS in 1976, again at the Royal Court, she asked Beckett the only question she ever asked him about his plays, "Am I dead?"  He slowly replied "Well, let's just say you are not quite there".

After being consumed by the darkness again the curtains swished apart for the last time to reveal Dwan, this time as the old woman who inhabits ROCKABY, slowly rocking away in her rocking chair, dressed in her ornately embroidered Edwardian-style black dress.  It is similar in tone to FOOTFALLS as we watch a faded figure of a woman slowly edging towards death, perfectly still apart from the rocking of the chair and the circling thoughts in her head "close of a long day" and "time she stopped, time she stopped".

Every so often, at the beginning of a new 'stanza', the woman will open her eyes and implore for "More...", for what?  More time? More memories?  Slowly the rocking chair comes to a halt and the woman slowly stops too.  Again, Beckett gives us an arresting visual image but unlike the longer FOOTFALLS, ROCKABY feels just right, the perfect length for the profound poetry.

I wondered whether Lisa Dwan would actually take a curtain call, would that break the spell that had been woven through the three plays?  But she did and as she bowed and smiled it was like we were all congratulating having come through the pure existance of Beckett's women into the light - literally so as it was very disconcerting to leave the Barbican and walk out into warm sunny weather.

Thank you Sam, thank you Billie, thank you Lisa.

"And the end came.  Close of a long day...".

Saturday, June 13, 2015

My Top 30 Female Singers Q&A

...and now for some serious diva time... 

1. How did I get into Madonna?   By opening my rebel heart...

2. What was the first song I ever heard by Dusty Springfield?  I ONLY WANT TO BE WITH YOU

3. How many albums by Barbara Cook do I own?   16 (not counting the cast recordings)

4. What is my favourite song by Kirsty MacColl?   THEY DON'T KNOW

5. What is my favourite album by Mary J. Blige?   GROWING PAINS

6. Is there a song by Aretha Franklin that makes me happy?   YOU SEND ME

7. What was the first song I ever heard by Carole King?   IT MIGHT AS WELL RAIN UNTIL SEPTEMBER

8. What is a good memory I have involving Beverley Knight?   Bumping into her on Great Marlborough Street in the early 00s and telling her how much I loved her music

9. Is there a song by Marianne Faithfull that makes you happy?   Um... SOMETHING BETTER maybe

10. How many times have I see Chris Clark live?   Twice, and I count myself very lucky as she's a shy soul

11. What is the first song I ever heard by Lulu?   SHOUT

12. How many albums by Brenda Holloway do I own?   Three, all compilations (and all signed!)

13.Do I have a good memory involving Bessie Smith?   Hearing there was going to be a 10 cd series of all her recordings

14. Have I ever seen Barbra Streisand live?   Yes, once at Wembley Arena.

15. What is a good memory involving Amanda Palmer? Seeing her a few days ago and getting a big hug and kiss

16. How did I get into Peggy Lee?   Through LADY AND THE TRAMP

17. What is my favourite album by Cher?   My VERY BEST OF double compilation

18. What is my favourite song by Angie Stone?   I AIN'T HEARIN' U.

19. What is the first song I ever heard by Grace Jones?   LA VIE EN ROSE

20. What is my favourite album by Diana Ross?   I'M STILL WAITING (SURRENDER in the US)

21. What is my favourite song by Bjork?   BIG TIME SENSUALITY.

22. How did I get into Shelby Lynne?   Through the reviews for the album I AM SHELBY LYNNE

23. How many times did I see Tammi Terrell live?   Never, wipes tear away...

24. What is my favourite album by Alicia Keys?   THE DIARY OF ALICIA KEYS

25. What was the first song I ever heard by Laura Nyro?   WEDDING BELL BLUES

26. What is my favourite song by Mary Wells?   YOU LOST THE SWEETEST BOY

27. What is my favourite song by Bernadette Peters?   FAITHLESS LOVE.

28. Is there a song by Buffy Sainte-Marie that makes you happy?   INDIAN COWBOY AT THE RODEO

29. What is my favourite album by SinĂ©ad O'Connor?   THROW DOWN YOUR ARMS

30. How many albums do I own by Dinah Washington?  4 cds

My Top 30 Male Singers Q&A

I noticed I haven't done this Q&A for 5 years so will have another go.

So... questions about my 30 most listened to male artists according my page.

What it shows is that male singers are not my favourite listening choices as the artists in the lower reaches are ones I don't go out of my way to listen to...

1. How did I get into Boy George?   Through Culture Club silly!....

2. What was the first song I ever heard by Morrissey?  As a solo artist SUEDEHEAD

3. How many albums by Prince do I own?   27 cds!

4. What is my favourite song by David McAlmont?   SNOW

5. What is my favourite album by Marvin Gaye?   WHAT'S GOIN' ON

6. Is there a song by David Bowie that makes me happy?   YOUNG AMERICANS

7. What was the first song I ever heard by Luther Vandross?   NEVER TOO MUCH

8. What is a good memory I have involving Bobby Darin?   The first time I heard BEYOND THE SEA

9. Is there a song by Jimmy Cliff that makes you happy?   THE HARDER THEY COME

10. How many times did I see Ronnie Dyson live?   Twice, supporting The Supremes and then supporting The Four  Tops

11. What is the first song I ever heard by John Legend?   NUMBER ONE

12. How many albums by Dennis Brown do I own?   One, MONEY IN MY POCKET...

13.Do I have a good memory involving Ne-Yo?   Um, nope...

14. Have I ever seen Linton Kwesi Johnson live?   Yes, once at Barbican Hall.

15. What is a good memory involving Sylvester?   That first time seeing him erupt off the screen on Top Of The Pops in the video of MIGHTY REAL

16. How did I get into Kanye West?   Through the song TOUCH THE SKY...

17. What is my favourite album by Barrett Strong?   Don't have one...

18. What is my favourite song by Eminem?   THE REAL SLIM SHADY.

19. What is the first song I ever heard by Alexander O'Neal?   IF YOU WERE HERE TONIGHT

20. What is my favourite album by Chuck Jackson?   Just have one, THE MOTOWN ANTHOLOGY

21. What is my favourite song by Noel Coward?   SOMEDAY I'LL FIND YOU.

22. How did I get into Raphael Saadiq?   Through the album LUCY PEARL

23. How many times did I see Ray Davies live?   Maybe 5 times

24. What is my favourite album by Barry White?   Just have the one, THE COLLECTION

25. What was the first song I ever heard by Edwin Starr?   WAR

26. What is my favourite song by Malcolm McLaren?   WALTZ DARLING

27. What is my favourite song by Will.I.Am?   HEARTBREAKER.

28. Is there a song by David Ruffin that makes you happy?   WALK AWAY FROM LOVE

29. What is my favourite album by Dennis Bovell?   ALL OVER THE WORLD.

30. How many albums do I own by Stevie Wonder?   Just the one Greatest Hits collection

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

AMERICAN BUFFALO at Wyndhams Theatre: In for a penny...

I have now seen David Mamet's AMERICAN BUFFALO in four different productions.  I wouldn't call it one of my favourite plays but as it features a flashy, kinetic star role it is one that usually attracts interesting actors, and that usually attracts me!

Well I have been drawn back into the seedy, conniving, occasionally touching, world of small time crooks in 1970s Chicago with this new production at the Wyndhams Theatre, directed by Daniel Evans.

This time around, the lead role of the gambling chancer 'Teach' is played by Damian Lewis in a return to the West End after six years away in which he became an award-winning tv star in the US with the gripping thriller series HOMELAND.  Joining him is the one and only John Goodman as Don, owner of a rundown junk shop where the action is centred and coming actor Tom Sturridge as the flaky junkie Bobby.

Lewis joins my gallery of former 'Teach's: Al Pacino at the Duke of Yorks in 1984, Douglas Henshall at the Young Vic in 1997 and William H. Macy at the Donmar in 2000.  So now it's a straight split between UK and US actors and I must admit (unsurprisingly) that the US actors were the most convincing.  Pacino was mesmerising, a human dynamo of itchy anger while Macy was a more rundown and venal 'Teach'.

This production marks the 40th anniversary of the play's first performance and Mamet's idiosyncratic, pungent, salty dialogue, heavily indebted to Pinter, is still a delight to hear.  The plot seems simple enough: Don (Goodman) owns an untidy junk shop where he occasionally also holds after-hours poker-nights.  He keeps a warily protective eye on recovering heroin addict Bobby (Sturridge) who is his unpaid go-fer. 

Don is rattled by the sale of an old nickel (showing the titular American Buffalo) to a coin collector for $90 and, feeling it is obviously worth more, he plans a robbery of the collector's flat to get it back.  The unpredictable chancer 'Teach' appears and shoehorns himself into the burglary plot, persuading Don that Bobby would probably mess up.  When another friend who is recruited for the burglary fails to show up at the appointed time, paranoia and anger lead to an explosion of recriminations and violence.

Snaking around and through the plot however is an exploration of the power struggle between men, the constant shifts in power among so-called friends.  While Daniel Evans certainly keeps the verbal volleys firing across Paul Wills' over-the-top cluttered set, the pace sometimes dipped during it's quieter moments which loosened the tension within the play.  What he certainly did highlight was the underlying care that Don feels for the damaged Bob which Goodman played with gruff tenderness.

John Goodman gave the performance of the evening, catching the rhythm of the prose perfectly, every pause, shrugged response and sudden burst of anger hit the money every time, his stillness being a bedrock of the production.  Whirling around Goodman was Damain Lewis who, while getting the slick self-centredness of 'Teach' well, came across more more like a fly than a mosquito.  It was a very showy star performance which is what most of the audience were happy to see but after one has seen Pacino and Macy really shake the life out of the part, it felt a bit thin.  It was almost like he was letting his 70s pornstar facial hair and brown two-piece do all the work, which was a pity as he is a very likable actor.

I liked Tom Sturridge's Bob as well, you could almost feel the character's itchy clamminess.  Bobby has a brief moment when he senses he is in control of the powerplay and Sturridge played his preening importance well just before being literally felled by a vindictive 'Teach'.

As I said, Paul Wills' junkshop set was certainly eye-catching if over-powering and as with nearly every play in the West End, the lighting was up to Mark Henderson's usual standard.  If you have not seen AMERICAN BUFFALO before I would recommend grabbing one of the few seats left before the end of it's limited run at the end of this month.


Monday, June 08, 2015

Dvd/150: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Brian Kirk, 2011, tv)

An excellent BBC adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Charles Dickens' tale of advancement and misjudgement.

Orphaned Pip lives a deprived life on the Kent marshes but two encounters change his life: with escaped convict Magwich who Pip shows kindness to, and then being invited into the neglected home of Miss Havisham to play with her adopted daughter Estella, who has been raised to be haughty and unloving.  Despite this, Pip is besotted with her.

Seven years later Pip is informed by the lawyer Jaggers that he has a benefactor who will pay for Pip to live in London as a gentleman.  Pip relishes his new life but discovers the past has ways of reclaiming him.

Sarah Phelps' adaptation highlights the unhappy lives of the women in the story and the strong performances include Douglas Booth, Vanessa Kirby, David Suchet, Paul Ritter, Harry Lloyd, Ray Winstone and Gillian Anderson's ethereal Miss Haversham.

Shelf or charity shop?  I have great expectations that this will stay on the shelf!

Saturday, June 06, 2015

HIGH SOCIETY at the Old Vic... Flat Fizz

The irritating proliferation of films-turned-into-stage-musicals in recent years had several forerunners.  In 1987 Richard Eyre, five years after his magnificent production of GUYS AND DOLLS at the National Theatre, gave musicals another go - only this time in the West End - with his own stage adaptation of the 1956 film HIGH SOCIETY at the Victoria Palace.

It proved a disappointing affair despite the luminous Natasha Richardson as Tracy, she wore a Sue Blane-designed yellow dress in the second act that has stayed long in the memory.

Another adaptation, this time by US playwright Arthur Kopit, opened and closed on Broadway in 1998 and this version appeared in 2005 at the Open Air Regents Park which then unsuccessfully transferred to the Shaftesbury.

And now the Kopit version is revived at the Old Vic, rather puzzlingly ending Kevin Spacey's tenure as Artistic Director.  In his first season, Spacey revived the musical's source play THE PHILADELPHIA STORY so he obviously has some affection for the piece but not enough to appear in the musical version.

It is on for a rather ambitious four month run but from the look of the Dress Circle on the night we went it will be interesting to see if it stays the course.  As I watched the show something niggled away at me, a thought that had come to me when blogging about another show - but what show? What niggle?  Luckily for you, Constant Reader, I remembered.

Last December we saw the stage adaptation of WHITE CHRISTMAS - oddly enough another film-to-stage version of a Bing Crosby musical.  I have always thought HIGH SOCIETY a fairly innocuous film musical but one that seems to be held in high regard.  Along with WHITE CHRISTMAS, what the film succeeds in is being a star vehicle with the performers all playing up to their persona's: Crosby is witty and wise, Frank Sinatra is cynical and wisecracking, Celeste Holm is a friendly sidekick, Louis Armstrong is all grins and eye-popping and Grace Kelly... well, she's just Grace Kelly.

And here is the troubling thing when films like these are transplanted to the stage... where are the Star performers needed to make them work - genuine stars with comparable persona's to make you forget the originals who we all know?  You can cast perfectly fine actors but if they do not have that pure star wattage how will they ever eclipse the originals and if they cannot do that, what is the point in staging it in the first place?

Both the Eyre and the current version go the fine actor route: Eyre cast Trevor Eve, Richardson, Stephen Rea and Angela Richards as the four leads while here director Maria Friedman has picked the lesser-wattage of Rupert Young, Kate Fleetwood, Jamie Parker and Annabel Scholey.

But both productions have seemed to be in denial, they want to stage HIGH SOCIETY but too often what they really want to do is THE PHILADELPHIA STORY with songs which are too different things completely.

Of the ten songs in Cole Porter's film score, Richard Eyre used eight adding five other Porter compositions while Friedman uses only seven from the film with a whacking twelve others interpolated.  It all smacks of not being sure of their source doesn't it?  As Eyre did with Richardson, Maria Friedman has directed Kate Fleetwood to play it as Katharine Hepburn but Fleetwood's strangled attempt at a Bryn Mawr accent at times made her sound retarded which was a shame because when she sang she had a very strong voice.

Friedman directed the last revival of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG in 2012 which had critics raving but I found to be horribly over-pitched and she has done the same thing here - what should be champagne fizz is more like Iron Bru.  By and large loud and over-stated, it all smacks of Friedman's own over-emphatic singing style where consonants are hit like a cow's arse with a banjo.

Fleetwood playing effervescent comes across as a loud woman waving her arms over her head and there is horrible over-playing from Richard Grieve as Tracy's soon-to-be husband and Ellie Bamber as the know-it-all younger sister.  The impossibly tall Rupert Young is personable in the Crosby role but little more and the best performances come from Barbara Flynn as Mrs Lord and the double act of Jamie Parker and Annabel Scholey as the gossip magazine journalists gate-crashing the wedding.  But again Parker who is usually so reliable, had moments when he over-pitched the performance not only to the back of the theatre but to Waterloo Station up the road.

In lieu of Louis Armstrong Friedman has jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe appear occasionally and like his father Richard, a little of him goes a long way.  Friedman's over-emphasis stretches to the dance numbers too, they seem so set on being showstopping that they go on and on and on, losing the shape of the actual song and one claps more out of relief that they have stopped than anything else.  The very long second act opener at least showcased the excellent tapping of dancer Omari Douglas.

There is no reason I can think of for this production to be staged in the round unless it was to cram more people in to their hoped-for money-spinner but Peter Mumford's lighting helps set some atmosphere.

Can we now please put this show to bed as non-workable and stick to the original film?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare's Globe

Yep, back again!  After years of ignoring the Globe Theatre - even Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero couldn't tempt me through the gates - I am on my second visit this year with several more to come in the summer!  But then this promised to be a memorable production wherever it was staged...

The Globe doesn't always go in for name-casting, preferring usually to cast actors who have worked there before but for Shakespeare's perennial but troublesome THE MERCHANT OF VENICE they have gone to the very top as Jonathan Pryce is giving us his Shylock in Jonathan Munby's new production - and he is not to be missed.

Let others argue about the rights and wrongs of the text - it is surely up to the director and actors to find a way through to make Shylock a believable and finally tragic figure.  It's very hard to find sympathy for any of the Venetian characters - even Portia is a crashing snob - whereas, although he is blindly foolish enough to walk into the trap set by the Christians for him at the climax of the play, it is Shylock who remains the character that it is the easiest to feel sorry for.

It's a play I have only twice on stage - Peter Hall's production in 1989 with Dustin Hoffman and Trevor Nunn's NT production ten years later with a magnificent central performance from Henry Goodman - but I have also seen the 1972 BBC TV version with Maggie Smith as Portia and Frank Finlay as Shylock as well as the 2004 film version with Al Pacino.

It's a play where usually Shylock is the star attraction and, unsurprisingly, Jonathan Pryce dazzles in the role.  Put-upon but proud, his money-lender is a wary, solitary figure whose brusque treatment of his daughter and servant sow the seeds for later troubles but his defiance at all attempts to mollify his seeking the completion of his bond with Antonio is understandable as Pryce also suggests the weariness of the oft-insulted outsider.  It also made a nice change to see an actor on the Globe stage whose delivery was not inaudible when faced away from you.   I must admit that as Pryce swept onto the stage during the play, it occurred to me that he had acted opposite three of my favorite women - Emma Thompson in CARRINGTON, Madonna in EVITA and with Vanessa Redgrave onstage in THE SEA GULL!  What a guy.

Munby has added a coda to the play to end it rightly with Shylock - here we witness his hitherto unseen forced baptism, ending the production on a sombre note as it was accompanied by the sorrowful Jessica singing a Hebrew lament as we watched her father's humiliation of being stripped of his religion.

Indeed the news that Pryce's daughter Phoebe was playing his onstage daughter had me raising a cynical eyebrow but she gave a spirited performance as Jessica, a role that usually feels lightweight, suggesting that her character's marriage into the Christian world might not be a happy ending after all.

As good as Pryce was, luckily this was not a top-heavy star vehicle as Munby's production is also full of other fine performances.  Another noted actor's daughter, Rachel Pickup, was very good as an imperious Portia who gave as good as she got from Pryce in the trial scene and smoothly played the 'quality of mercy' speech so it sprung out of the character and did not have the pointed playing alerting us to This Is A Famous Speech.  She was well-partnered by Dorothea Myer-Bennett (how's that for a handle?) as a tart Nerissa.

The women actually came off best in this production as I felt Dominic Mafham's Antonio and Daniel Lapaine's Bassanio could have been a bit more weighty but there was scene-stealing performances from Stefan Adegbola's rowdy Launcelot Gobbo - even pulling two groundlings onstage to help demonstrate a quandry - and David Sturzaker as jack-the-lad Gratiano.  Nerissa will her work cut out for her getting married to him!

Equally impressive - and seizing their individual scenes like a Hatton Garden robber - were Scott Karim and Christopher Logan as, respectively, the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, Portia's unlucky suitors.  They were a hoot.

There were excellent contributions from Mike Britton's set and costume design as well as Jules Maxwell's evocative music while Jonathan Munby's direction balanced the play's serious and light-hearted moments well while also highlighting aspects of the characters I had not noticed before. 

It is one of the best Shakespeare productions I have seen in a while and if you cannot catch one of it's last performances the good news is that it was being filmed on the night I went so hopefully it will be available for future viewing.