Tuesday, October 27, 2015

XANADU at Southwark Playhouse - You Have To Believe This Is Magic!

Let me spirit you back in time Constant Reader....

While in New York in April 2008, Owen and I saw the stage musical XANADU at the Helen Hayes Theater.  We got last minute tickets the night before online but really had no idea what we were going to see.... but it was fabulous!  Played with no interval, XANADU blasted off the stage with laughs, campness, great songs, a delightful cast and more mirror-balls than you could shake a stick at.

Seven years later XANADU has finally made an appearance in London, I was beginning to give up hope!  Shite jukebox and/or screen-to-stage adaptations have come and gone but no XANADU but now it's here at the Southwark Playhouse, which is quickly becoming the home for risky Broadway musicals IN THE HEIGHTS, GRAND HOTEL, CARRIE, TITANIC and the coming soon GREY GARDENS.  

I had been very nervous about the show.  I enjoyed it so much on Broadway - and the cast recording was one of the albums that kept me going through the dark days of working in Borehamwood - so was very worried that the production would not deliver the goods.  But luckily, apart from some slightly clunky playing, the production worked it's pink and glittery magic.

Writer Douglas Carter Beane was in the audience and he must have been blown away by the rapturous reception it received - it was also nice to see GREY GARDENS star Jenna Russell clapping away like mad in the back row.

Beane's XANADU is a delirious take on the woeful 1980 film of the same name which finished Olivia Newton-John's screen career and was the reason that the Hollywood Razzies were created to honour it's sheer rubbishness.  But looking back can be a good thing and Beane has great delight in skewering the play's inane plot, the 1980s and the whole meta musical thing works wonderfully.  I think this is becomes Beane's script is very generous of spirit and he realises that the enemy is not the dumb little film but the  crassness of the 1980s and the absurdities of the current Broadway musical scene.

Beane has hung onto the show's daft plot - Sonny a street artist is visited by Clio, one of Zeus' artistic muses, who decides to make him achieve his goal of opening a roller disco (!) while realising she is in danger of falling in love with a mortal.

What drives the show along too is the wonderful score of Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar songs - although the film was a massive flop, it's soundtrack album was a huge hit and the thumping pop-disco hits of ELO and the winsome pop songs written by Farrar for Newton-John combine to get you clapping and singing along!

Director Paul Warwick Griffin scoots the action along with great glee although an unnecessary interval does break the mood, Morgan Large's set slowly unfolds during the show to culminate in the ultimate disco - although sadly there is no room for the Mirror-Balls From Heaven which appeared from nowhere on Broadway.  Nathan M Wright's choreography whizzes and whirls the actors around the set on their roller skates and Ben Cracknell's lighting dazzled.

Still in previews, a couple of the cast were too strident and lost out on laughs because of it - Lizzy Connolly as Caliope, one of Clio's bad sisters, squawked away while pushing too hard for laughs and Samuel Edwards has not yet found the lack of guile that Cheyenne Jackson brought so effortlessly to the role.  There's an important difference between laughing at a character's stupidity and laughing with it.

No such problems with Alison Jiear who brings all her experience to make Melpomene, the baddest sister of them all, a huge success and Carly Anderson is a sheer delight as Clio, she sings like a dream and has a nice comic style.  The other performers all have their moments to shine and have a real happy ensemble vibe.

XANADU is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 21st November - get your skates on and enjoy one of the most joyous shows in town!

Monday, October 26, 2015

THE HAIRY APE at the Old Vic - more misery for Carvel

I was in two minds whether to see the new production of Eugene O'Neill's THE HAIRY APE.  The Old Vic for some reason always seems to be more expensive than most but Matthew Warchus' tenure as Artistic Director has kicked off with a new initiative with half the preview seats being available for £10 each - so I went!

Of course one must always allow that if it's still in preview then the actors are still feeling their way into the production before an audience.  But a paying audience is still a paying audience... 

Eugene O'Neill's play was written two years after THE EMPEROR JONES and both told a non-naturalistic, nightmarish story of an egotistical man, the self-made king of his world, brought down by hubris.  Although only Jones was written for a black performer, iconic black actor Paul Robeson had a huge success playing both the roles on the London stage.

In this production, Bertie Carvel is 'Yank', the bull-headed 'leader' of the stokers aboard a transatlantic liner, whose brooding intensity keeps his fellow multi-national workers in check. His brutalist life comes crashing down when the spoilt daughter of a steel magnet ridicules him in front of the co-workers by calling him a filthy beast.

This sets Yank on a tailspin through New York, he starts a fight but is beaten by the police and thrown in jail where he learns of the Wobblies, a Communist group striving for the overthrow of Capitalism.  When he is released he seeks them out but they too turn on him when they mistake his eagerness for him being a spy.  Rejected by all levels of society and with his ship long since sailed, Yank finds himself in front of an ape's cage at the Zoo...

The annoying thing was that underneath Richard Jones' pretentious production values, you could catch glimpses of what has fascinated directors about this play down the years - the stripped-down tale of an archetypal brute reduced to staring his destruction in the face - but Jones' distancing post-modernist production makes it difficult to engage with it.

It is all the usual shtick from this most annoying of directors, who imposes his design-led style on everything so that he presents you with productions where you just sit and watch, they are productions that don't reach out to the audience - they might as well play it with the safety curtain down.

It seems to me that Bertie Carvel, after gaining success playing the outrageous Miss Trunchbull in the RSC musical MATILDA, is accepting every miserable job that comes along to distance him from that performance.  After his role earlier this year in the Almeida's production of BAKKAI as the doomed King Penthius he follows it up here with the surly Yank who comes to a crushing end.  Bertie - lighten up for fucks sake!

The American accents on display here are shockingly bad too, for a while I really couldn't get where Yank was from - THAT was an American accent??  In a cast of 15 not one, apart from Carvel, deliver a performance in any way memorable.  That's a fib actually, Rosie Sheedy as the spoilt little madam delivers a performance that makes you wish she wanders into the ape cage.

At no point did you feel any sense of menace during Yank's downward spiral as the situations are designed by Stewart Laing with no nightmare quality at all but in a half-arsed post modernist way.  I did like Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting however.

To say I was disappointed by this production is an understatement but as I said, underneath it all, I could see O'Neill's play still exerting a spell.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


On Friday we continued this year's journey into dance by seeing Birmingham Royal Ballet's triple bill of one-act pieces at Sadler's Wells.  It was down to Owen being a bit curious that we booked to see it - and I'm glad we did as I thought it was a perfectly-judged evening, each act being very different from the others.  The good thing was that I had no idea what I was going to see - apart from some ballet!

The first act was choreographer George Balanchine's THEME AND VARIATIONS, danced to the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Suite no. 3. Balanchine, the 'father' of American ballet, trained at the Russian Imperial school and was Diaghilev's last choreographer for the Ballets Russes.  THEME AND VARIATIONS is his tribute to the Imperial ballet style: romantic, formal and precise.

Comprising two principals, eight featured dancers and a corps of twelve, it was a sumptuous visual treat but also fascinating to watch as Balanchine's choreography showcased twisting turns and athletic prowess, echoing the 19th Century style with the elasticity of contemporary dance.

The principals - Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley - were very charismatic and Peter Teigen's lighting and Peter Farmer's set design added to the lavish feel of the piece.

Sadly a long day at work, the Edwardian weight of Elgar's ENIGMA VARIATIONS and the sepia, autumnal set had me nodding away.  Frederick Ashton's choreography looked very elegiac but I am afraid I didn't see too much of it.

After a bracing lemon sorbet though I was fully awake for the last act which luckily enough just happened to be the best!

David Bintley's hypnotic THE KING DANCES slowly drew one in and echoed the earlier Balanchine of referencing past dance history to point the way to contemporary dance. THE KING DANCES takes us back to 23 February 1653 when the French King Louis XIV - aged only 15 - danced as Apollo in the ballet "Le Ballet de la Nuit" which gave him his historical name The Sun King and during his life, through his patronage, turned ballet from a court entertainment into a major art form.

Wonderfully realised by Katrina Lindsay's black and gold design and Peter Mumford's lighting, David Bintley's darkly thrilling work has four movements to celebrate the quarters of a single night: a threatening soloist appears on a darkened stage with eight dancers holding flaming torches, in the second movement the King dances with his court ladies and also with the elusive woman in the moon.

The third movement finds the King haunted by a nightmare populated by demons, magicians and hounds from Hell (though they looked quite fun!) until the mysterious, sinister soloist is revealed to be his powerful First Minister Cardinal Mazarin who intones a serious introduction to the King who suddenly appears as a burst of golden light, the dark backdrop splitting apart to reveal The Sun King in a glittering gold-sequined costume as Stephen Montague's score reaches a frenzied apotheosis.

It was utterly thrilling to watch and Bintley's excellent contemporary choreography was danced wonderfully by William Bracewell as the young King and Tyrone Singleton was the sinister soloist.

This triple bill was an utter delight, perfectly judged and a fitting tribute to the three choreographers.  If you ever get a chance to see it I would fully recommend it.

Friday, October 16, 2015

MR FOOTE'S OTHER LEG at Hampstead - Beale strides to glory!

There is no stopping Simon Russell Beale. 

After delivering a sensitive, subtle performance earlier this year in the Donmar's TEMPLE, Beale is now firing on all cylinders and giving a larger-than-life performance at the Hampstead Theatre in actor/playwright Ian Kelly's MR. FOOTE'S OTHER LEG, based on his biography of the Georgian actor and comedian Samuel Foote.

Ian Kelly has resurrected Samuel Foote from the historical shadows and what a dazzling personality he was.  As David Garrick was re-inventing the dramatic theatre to a more naturalistic style of performance and production, Samuel Foote was establishing himself as a gifted comedic actor who subversively flouted the censorship laws by staging his productions in the early evening and calling them "tea parties". His productions were filled with sly satires on public figures and in what must have been a glorious moment in theatre, he appeared as Othello in a production that played as a comedy - now THAT I would liked to have seen!

For such a savage satiric player as Foote, it was remarkable that he became a friend of both the future George III when he was Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York.  Indeed it was the Duke of York who was instrumental in the first major crisis in Foote's life.  Attending a royal house party, Foote accepted a wager to race the Duke's horse which ended in disaster when he was thrown from the horse resulting in his left leg being crushed and an immediate amputation.

Astonishingly Samuel Foote was back on stage within months of the accident and retained his popularity in roles which were written to feature his disability. However, what was undiagnosed at his accident was a head trauma which led to spells of troubling personality disorders.  He parlayed the Royals' guilt in his accident by getting them to grant a Royal charter for his theatre, the Theatre Royal Haymarket.  One wonders whether his brain injury may have led him to his second disaster?  He wrote a play satirising the Duchess of Kingston who had been involved in a salacious divorce case and she retaliated by seeking out reports from former-employees of his that he had made homosexual advances to them.

The following year the Duchess was tried for bigamy and Foote could not resist staging his play again just as the press reported another allegation of sodomy against him.  Foot's luck ran out and he was sent to trial, although he was released on a technicality, with the King's veiled assistance in asking Foote to stage a Command Performance.  It says a lot for Foote's bravery that he still faced an audience at the Haymarket even while he was being traduced in the papers.  The trial robbed him of his career and his health and he died the following year in Dover, waiting for a boat to take him to exile in France.  He was 57 and had lived life to the brim.

Kelly's play could be accused of trying to cram too much in and the play sometimes wanders off to show Foote's connections with the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin who was a keen London theatregoer and his friend surgeon John Hunter who explored the subject of neuro-science.  Where Kelly excels is in the backstage world of the 18th Century West End with actors bitching about each other, the helter-skelter staging of productions and the glowering indifference of the grumpy stage manager.

Ian Kelly has also written himself a tasty supporting part of the Prince of Wales and very funny he is too as the foppish twit destined to become George III who of course had his own flirtations with mental instability.  There are also excellent supporting performances from the always-dependable Jenny Galloway as the dyspeptic stage manager, Micah Balfour as Foote's black servant Frank and Joseph Millson is very effective as David Garrick, changing from a thick-tongued northern theatrical newcomer to a pompous Shakespearean star actor who nevertheless can forgive Foote his excesses.

First seen as a heavily-brogued Irish ingenue, Dervla Kerwin gives a delightful performance as the 18th Century actress Peg Woffington, who worked often with both Foote and Garrick and was the latter's mistress for a while.  She suggests the star quality that Woffington must have had which made her adept at both comedy and drama, and equally switches from being a brassy and hard-living actress to the reflective woman who learns she has cancer.  It's the best performance I have seen Kerwin give.

Richard Eyre's direction elicits these fine performance and his delight in the theatrical material is palpable.  He has found his perfect leading man in Simon Russell Beale who brings Samuel Foote to such vivid life.  It's remarkable how each new portrayal one sees of his show an even deeper versatility from this actor who should be even more feted than he is.  He truly is the successor to Ralph Richardson, an actor who can play a wide-ranging array of characters - both dramatic, tragic or comical - but always retain a real humanity.

He is given ample opportunity to show all these sides as Samuel Foote and creates such a warm, likable, 'human' personality that it is a relief that Kelly ends the play with Foote down - threatened with public humiliation - but not out - his bravery in going out onstage before his audience.  Whether as the eager new actor, the bitchy star of his own comedies, writhing in agony as he is operated on, flying into frightening rages or begging for affection, Beale is never less than stunning.

Eyre has reunited his design team from GHOSTS and again they deliver: Peter Mumford's lighting is fluid and evocative while Tim Hatley's set and costumes are a constant delight.  The Hampstead Theatre run sold out very quickly and the very exciting news is that MR FOOTE'S OTHER LEG will transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 28th October to 23rd January.  Somewhere there will be a one-legged ghost very happy although the current Haymarket theatre building is to the right of where Foote's Haymarket stood.  Either way, run - or hop - to see it!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

CASA VALENTINA at Southwark Playhouse - Harvey's Hideaway...

Harvey Fierstein, unofficial Mayor of Broadway, has had two long-running successes over the last few years in New York with his books for two big film-based musicals NEWSIES and KINKY BOOTS, but there was no long run for his latest play CASA VALENTINA which ran for two months.  The play has now opened at London's Southwark Playhouse, a venue which seems to have now become the London conduit for Broadway musicals: IN THE HEIGHTS, CARRIE, TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL, DOGFIGHT and the soon-to-come XANADU and GREY GARDENS.

As odd as CASA VALENTINA sounds, it is actually based on a reality.  In the late 1950s a married couple, Tito and Marie Valenti, set up the Chevalier d'Eon holiday resort in the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY which was also called by the more quaint Casa Susana.  Tito was a transvestite and wanted a place where he and his 'sisters' could relax as their feminine personas.  The intriguing thing is that the resort catered exclusively - or as much as could be claimed - for hetrosexual men who were secret transvestites.

Harvey Fierstein's play introduces us to fictionalised versions of the Valentis, George aka Valentina and his wife Rita, and several of their most regular clientele: large and sassy Bessie aka Albert, glamorous Gloria aka Michael, ageing Terry aka Theodore and Amy aka the Judge.  Joining them over a momentous 24 hours are nervous first-timer Jonathan aka Miranda and, much to George's pride, Charlotte aka Isadore, a well-known writer who runs a transvestite publication and who is also an activist for wider acceptance.

Slowly Charlotte is revealed to be the villainess of the play - 'she' knows that George has been interrogated by his Post Office bosses about an intercepted parcel which contained amateur photographs of a gay sex session and also that the Casa is losing money.  The offer of a loan from Charlotte comes with conditions: that the clientele come forward publicly to wider the 'awareness' of transexuals.

The trump card Charlotte holds is she knows that one of the guests was involved in the gay sex photos which forces George into the position of having to betray one of his oldest friends as, tellingly, Charlotte is adamant that in identifying themselves to the world that there can be no homosexuals involved, their cause will be better received if it only involves hetrosexuals.

Fierstein certainly gives us an entertaining play which in the first half lulls you into expecting almost a situation comedy with larger-than-life personalities and waspish, camp dialogue.  However once Charlotte reveals her true colours, the play takes on a more sombre atmosphere and ends with hitherto dependable and understanding Rita slowly realising that her compliance in her husband's secret life has always benefited his needs and that the moment she has secretly been dreading might have arrived - the day that George goes upstairs to change into Valentina and never returns again.

The problem I had was that with scenes like the second act confrontation between the nasty villain and the tragic gay victim, it seemed a very old-fashioned play, almost like a drag-retelling of "The Children's Hour".  There is even an 11 o'clock appearance of the gay man's daughter whose castigation of the set-up leads to Rita's realisation of her doormat status in the marriage.  

Despite the rather formulaic structure there was much to enjoy in Luke Sheppard's in-the-round production with good performances from all the cast: Tamsin Carroll as Rita, Ben Deery as shy first-timer Jonathan/Miranda, Edward Wolstenholme as George/Valentina, Gareth Snook as the hissable villainess Charlotte, Matt Rixon as the larger-than-life Bessie, Ashley Robinson channeling Rhonda Fleming as Gloria, Bruce Montague (yes, from "Butterflies") as the old dear Terry, Robert Morgan as the Judge/Amy and Charlie Hayes as the disdainful daughter.

I also liked the atmospheric lighting by Howard Hudson and the silvery knotty branches of the trees in Justin Nardella's simple set.

the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort