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 jetĂ© 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 GymnopĂ©dies" 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.

Monday, November 16, 2015

WASTE at the National Theatre: private morality made public

Included in the wonderful John Singer Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this year was a chalk drawing from 1900 of a handsome young man, matching Sargent's gaze with a knowing smile as if to say "Make sure you capture *all* of my handsome looks won't you?"  The subject was 23 year-old Harley Granville Barker.

1900 was an important year for the young actor, not only did he become a lead player with the forward-thinking Stage Society but he also wrote his first play "The Marrying of Ann Leete".

It was through the Stage Society that Barker made two particularly close friends, George Bernard Shaw and the critic William Archer.  Shaw's use of language and dialogue-heavy style of drama influenced Barker in his playwriting and that is very evident in his play WASTE which is now revived at the Lyttelton.

It is fitting that the play should be staged at the National Theatre as it was written in the same year that Barker and Archer wrote "A Scheme and Estimates For The National Theatre", a costed document for the establishment of a UK national theatre, listing everything from staff wages to an idea of the repertoire.  Nothing came of it immediately but the idea refused to go away and long after Barker and Archer's passing, the National Theatre launched in 1963 under the direction of Laurence Olivier.  

For an architect of the concept behind the place, Barker has hardly been well-served by his dreamchild: THE MADRAS HOUSE was staged in 1977 with Paul Scofield and THE VOYSEY INHERITANCE appeared in 1989 and 2006.  Now we have his controversial play WASTE, directed by Roger Michell.  Initially banned by the official Censor in 1907, Barker gave several private productions of it under the auspices of the Stage Society to gain it a copyright - in the first one he even played the lead - but it was not professionally produced until 1936.

To be honest, WASTE is a play that can be admired rather than liked, Barker's scenes can sometimes trip over into being too prolix for their own good - especially if there are more than one character onstage - but usually the scenes involving just two characters create biting argument and tension.

Henry Trebell is an independent MP who is invited by the Conservative Government to head up a bll that he is passionate about, to dis-establish the Church of England.  Trebell is an ambitious politician who need not worry about home distractions as his adoring sister Frances runs that for him.  However at a country house weekend party Henry starts a dalliance with Amy O'Connell, a 'modern', opinionated, separated wife of an Irish freedom agitator.

Although popular with the men, Amy is quietly disliked by the women of the party including Frances for her free-spiritedness, but she suits Henry's teflon life.  All of that is turned upside down when Amy appears in his office in a frantic state after finding out she is pregnant and is determined to have an abortion despite Treball's insistance that she have it.  Days later Amy is dead from a back street abortion that went wrong and Trebell is suddenly facing disgrace with his former political colleagues willing to throw him under the bus.

As I said, my trouble with the play is that while individual scenes are gripping - Amy and Henry confronting each other over the pregnancy, Frances trying to give Henry a reason to live, Frances denouncing her former friend - his scenes with a group of characters soon become a static talking shop with little to animate them.

Roger Michell sadly doesn't really speed the play along, this is really material for a forensic director like Peter Gill or Howard Davies and while Hildegard Bechtler's design can be seen as a tribute to Barker's wish for non-specific theatre design, I suspect the grey & earth tones of her sliding panel set and costumes would suit something a little less site-specific than Edwardian parliamentary London.  I did enjoy watching the pretty patterns during the scene changes.

If you want someone to be put-upon and upper-class then Charles Edwards is your go-to guy.  Henry Trebell follows his roles of Richard II, Charles Condomine in BLITHE SPIRIT and Charles Marsden in STRANGE INTERLUDE and while he again delivers a very fine performance, he cannot make Trebell's singularly callous approach to anyone outside his House of Commons colleagues particularly understandable.

There are good performances from others in the cast but I felt the best came from Trebell's put-upon women.  Olivia Williams has never really bleeped my radar before but here in her climactic scene, she was electrifying: Amy's terror at being pregnant and her panic at the closing down of her opportunities leapt off the stage and swept away the verbose scenes that had gone before.

Sylvestra Le Touzel also gave a very fine performance as Frances, Trebell's protective sister who comes into her own at the end when she realises that her brother is determined on a course of action that she tries desperately to change.  The final scene that finds Frances with a blank canvas for a life gave her ample scope to scrape away at the poised veneer her character has hitherto presented.

All of this is rather swamped by a bizarre design trick just for the curtain call.  Any thoughts about what Barker was referring to by his title: the waste of Treball's life, of Amy's life, of Frances' happiness, of a career, of ideals, is defeated when the cast take their bows on a bare stage apart from a larger-than-life tipped-over wastepaper basket which featured in the final scene when Trebell's secretary was throwing away his post into it.  This clunky, "do-you-get-it?" motif throws the air of quiet desperation that the final scenes suggest into a cocked hat.  Or an upturned, giant wastepaper bin.

Oddly enough, some might say that the title might be pinned on Barker himself who, with his second marriage to the American writer Helen Huntingdon, turned his back on the British theatre for good as she had little time for it.  Shaw could never forgive him for this or for the marriage and they were never reconciled as Barker moved to Paris.  Although never actively involved in theatre again he did translate several plays with his wife as well as writing his "Prefaces To Shakespeare" where for the first time, several key plays were investigated not by a critic or academic but by someone who had directed or acted in them.  This once and future king of British theatre died in 1946.

Monday, November 09, 2015

ROMEO AND JULIET at Covent Garden: a 50 year old love affair...

On February 9th 1965 the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan premiered his ballet of ROMEO AND JULIET with the iconic pairing of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev playing Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers but it wasn't meant to be them.

MacMillan had originally planned - and indeed collaborated - with the younger dancers Christopher Gable and Lynn Seymour in the roles but they were relegated to the second cast, they even had to help teach the more famous pair their roles due to time constraints in rehearsals. 

It was all due to the promoter of the American tour that was scheduled after the London opening who wanted guaranteed box-office names to sell tickets.  The production was filmed for cinema release the following year and since then the production has been staged countless times in the Royal Ballet's repertoire and here it is back again in it's 50th anniversary year.

Just in time to fit into our year of New Cultural Things (aka ballet and opera).  It's interesting how ballet and opera companies will keep a production going year after year; where are the National Theatre productions from the 1960s directed by John Dexter or Laurence Olivier or the RSC productions by Peter Hall or Peter Brook in the company's repertoires?  Not to be seen.

But what did I think of this year's production which has been recreated by Julie Lincoln and Christopher Saunders?  Well Constant Reader, I thought it was excellent, thanks for asking.

Prokofiev's almost filmic score sounded big and bold under the baton of Koen Kessels and MacMillan's choreography was still thrilling in it's sweep, lyricism and sheer story-telling bravura.

The cast we saw were all very good: Steven McRae was a vital, virile Romeo (despite his lute-playing) and Iana Salenko was excellent in Juliet's short journey from innocent rapture at her first love to her desperate anguish in the tomb.

Alexander Campbell was a quicksilver Mercutio and was well-partnered with Thomas Whitehead (an ex-Matthew Bourne Swan King) as Tybalt.  The co-stager Christopher Saunders was an imperious Lord Capulet and Genesia Rosato made the most of Lady Capulet's anguish over the death of Tybalt.  A special mention too for Itziar Mendizabal, Olivia Cowley and Helen Crawford who were feisty and spirited as the three tarts of Verona!

Nicholas Georgiadis' evocative set is a timeless design which allows for both grandeur and intimacy and I am sure the production will last for many years to come in the repertoire.

I think our adventures into the more rarefied arts this year have been interesting but for me the dance productions are out in front so far.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE at English National Opera - a short back and sides blog...

Last week was another of our New Cultural Doings In 2015 with a visit to the always pretty London Coliseum to see the English National Opera's production of Rossini's comic opera THE BARBER OF SEVILLE.

I had been quite busy all week and, come Friday, I was looking forward to seeing the opera but sadly it all caught up with me and I drifted in and out of snooze despite the best efforts of the loud and lively ENO orchestra and the singers.

The production actually dates from 1987 and Jonathan Miller's direction is here recreated by Peter Relton and while it is usually the case that if it ain't broke don't fix it, I felt that what was funny in 1987 might not still be true today, even when reviving an early 19th Century opera.  And the set was mainly beige... beige!  Tanya McCallin, what was going on with your colour palate back then?

It is quite rollicking and certainly raced through the plot of Figaro, the barber of the title, helping Count Almaviva to woo and win pretty Rosina away from Dr. Bartolo, her crotchety guardian who wants her for his own.  Just typing that makes me think of Sweeney Todd!

There's nice work being done by Morgan Pearse as Figaro, a cheeky chappy on the make, Kathryn Rudge as Rosina (no wilting ingenue she, she gave as good as she got!) and Andrew Shore made the most of the foolish Dr Bartolo, in very much the same way that he milked the role of The Major General in THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE which we saw earlier this year.  Among the ensemble, Katherine Broderick was a feisty and full-throated Berta, servant to Bartolo.

All in all it was a nice way to spend the evening, drowsing along to Rossini's delightful score.  I'm sure it will still be around in a year or so if I feel the urge to see it again.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

AS YOU LIKE IT at the Olivier, National Theatre... well, did I?

Although it's often produced, I have only ever seen AS YOU LIKE IT once when in 1990 Sophie Thompson played the role of Rosalind for the RSC with a cast including Gillian Bevan, Jerome Flynn, Hugh Ross and Mark Williams.  For some reason I just never get round to seeing it when it is performed... maybe I am in mourning for the fact that I can never see Vanessa Redgrave's legendary star-making performance, again for the RSC in 1962.

But that was then and this is now and 36 years after it's last appearance on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre it has now returned in a production directed by Polly Findlay and designed by Lizzie Clachan, the same team behind last year's TREASURE ISLAND.

The star of that show Patsy Ferran is here returned as Celia, the gentle cousin of the heroine Rosalind who was due to be played by Andrea Riseborough who, when she pulled out citing 'personal reasons', was replaced by Rosalie Craig, an actress more known for musicals.

Now all opinions here must reflect the fact that the production was still in preview so is still feeling it's way through the play with a paying audience.  But as I have oft said before, a paying audience is a paying audience.  Did I like it, AS YOU LIKE IT?  Ummm.... not really if honest.  I found it a superficial production where the set and cast were all surface with no real insight offered or found.

Although she gave a perfectly acceptable performance, there was nothing particularly eye-catching about Craig's Rosalind.  Here one of Shakespeare's most memorable female characters seemed on a powered by a fairly neutral star wattage.  Patsy Ferran is also showing signs of becoming an eccentric stage actress which works well for most of the production but eventually you can have enough of her gauche line readings and dizzy perambulations around the stage, like a pixilated unicyclist who has come off her bike.

It can't be often that one leaves AS YOU LIKE IT thinking that the actor playing Orlando gave the best performance but Joe Bannister was a strong presence onstage but also giving a light comic shading to galumphing but loving Orlando.

I didn't find either Mark Benton as Touchstone of Paul Chahidi as Jaques to be as particularly funny as they should have been, Chahidi underplaying to such an extent that I felt in some scenes that his suit had been send out with him not in it.

However I did like Patrick Godfrey's feisty retainer Adam, John Ramm's exiled Duke and Gemma Lawrence's headstrong Phebe.  There was however a truly ghastly performance from Leo Wringer as the usurping Duke Frederick, it was real Amateur Hour in the Duchy.

As with TREASURE ISLAND, Clachan provides a big OOOOOOH moment when her set transforms itself totally.  The set for the Duchy is a presumably deliberately ugly open-plan, low ceilinged office which did not so much suggest the Court of the Duchy than the IT room of a Las Vegas gambling casino.  When Rosalind, Celia and Touchstone escape from the nasty Duke's court into the forest of Arden, the whole metal set is lifted from the back to noisily clang and clank itself up to the full height of the Olivier stage - tables, chairs, light-fittings etc. all hang down like an industrialised forest.  All terribly impressive but once it's done we are stuck with it and apart from the odd pretty lighting effect through the dangling metal it ultimately again strikes one as a fairly shallow experience.  Christina Cunningham's costumes are also quite ugly.

So, more a case of AS YOU DIDN'T LIKE IT.  Owen enjoyed it much more than I did and I might be willing to give it another go after they have all settled into the run but it was all a bit disappointing on the first visit.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

HEY, OLD FRIENDS! Sondheim's 85th Birthday Gala at Drury Lane

Now here is a something you don't see often these days... a Sunday all-star gala charity event.  Last Sunday we went to see HEY, OLD FRIENDS! an 85th birthday gala celebrating the career of Stephen Sondheim at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s it seemed there was one every other weekend, mostly fundraisers for AIDS charities.  The same faces usually were in the cast and one got used to the curate's egg quality of the shows but there were some that live long in the memory: the all-day THING-A-THON, the Ray Cook memorial concert A COOK'S TOUR which ended with Angela Lansbury and Beatrice Arthur singing their "Bosom Buddies" duet from MAME and SUNDAY WITH SONDHEIM, directed by Julia McKenzie at the Shaftesbury.

The good old days of charity events seem to have died out so it was fun to step back in time to see this one.  26 years before I had seen another Sondheim tribute show at the same theatre - and a couple of charity gala stalwarts were also in this one!  Step forward Bonnie Langford, Lorna Dallas and Robert Meadmore.  I am sure Ned Sherrin, Elaine Stritch, Denis Quilley, Martin Smith, Dursley McLindon and Eartha Kitt would like to have appeared again had they been able to.

But back to 2015... the show was well staged by Bill Deamer who also choreographed in his lively if slightly generic style and apart from the longueurs that always happen when Nicholas Parsons appears on stage, the show moved along at a good pace.  Unlike some of the old concerts there didn't appear to be a through-line, songs were dropped in next to others from all across Sondheim's career, only towards the end was there an obvious trio of comedy numbers followed by Julia McKenzie introducing the final selection of 11 o'clock numbers (although the Sondheimite in me noted that FOLLIES' "Broadway Baby" and "I'm Still Here" are more like 8.25 and 9.30 numbers).

Ah, Julia.  The woman who helped to make me a theatre fan thanks to her performance as 'Miss Adelaide' in GUYS AND DOLLS and whose status as one of the great West End leading ladies seems to be diminishing in some people's minds in favour of her television appearances.  She was one of the show's comperes tonight, teamed with her friend and SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM co-star Millicent Martin, and although Millie gamely picked her way through "I Never Do Anything Twice", Julia didn't sing.  I fear those days are gone now which is quite a sad thing to contemplate.  Deamer tweeted this rehearsal picture of him, Julia and Millie side by side, by side.

So... highlights?  Quite a few actually.  There was a rousing version from Joseph Shovelton of "Beautiful Girls" featuring a walk-down of the night's female stars but as we were in the vertiginous balcony seats I couldn't make out who half of them were!  Anita Harris used her tremulous tone to good effect singing the wistful "Take Me To The World" from EVENING PRIMROSE - it made me wonder if any theatre director would ever have the mad / brilliant idea of adapting this Sondheim tv musical to the stage as a one-act musical?  There was a surprising inclusion of INTO THE WOODS' "The Last Midnight" which was belted out to the chandelier by Rosemary Ashe who also had great fun with Laura Pitt-Pulford in the camp duet that is "There's Always A Woman" cut from ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.

There were other good pairings with Daniel Evans, Simon Green and Michael Peavoy singing "Pretty Lady" from PACIFIC OVERTURES and Evans was then joined by Anna Francolini for "Move On" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE which was topped by them being joined by the Arts Educational students to sing a wonderful choral "Sunday".   I wasn't the only one a-blub as Julia McKenzie sounded very emotional after it too.  Inexplicably this did not end the first act but McKenzie introduced Sally Ann Triplet (who played the younger Julia in the '87 FOLLIES) for a lengthy "Lucy and Jessie" from the same show.  It outstayed it's welcome as did Triplett's slashed gown - I kept being reminded of the Forbidden Broadway lyric: "flashing some guy / with my Stubby Kaye thigh".

The second act highlights included Bonnie Langford - yes Bonnie Langford - dancing up a storm with Anton Du Beke from "Strictly Come Dancing" wherein she did the splits and hung upside down from him. Ms Langford is 51!  Charity gala veteran Lorna Dallas gave us a lovely version of "In Buddy's Eyes", she had been introduced by Anita Dobson who said Dallas had been off the scene for a while with personal issues, illness maybe?  She seemed genuinely touched by her ovation.

As I said earlier Millicent Martin sparkled in her solo number "I Never Do Anything Twice" which she first sang nearly 40 years ago in SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM and she radiated pure star quality.  Her number was only topped by Julia McKenzie watching her exit into the wings before saying "And she can still walk unaided" which brought the house down!  After that it was time for the afore-mentioned 11 O'Clock Number section - Tracie Bennett and Charlotte Page oversung "Broadway Baby" and "Losing My Mind" to an alarming degree but luckily Haydn Gwynne (supported by Daniel Evans) sang a lovely, rueful "Send In The Clowns" while Kim Criswell socked over "I'm Still Here".  Finally it was left to the marvellous Michael Xavier to give us an impassioned "Being Alive", all the better for being sung as in COMPANY with the rest of the cast chipping in little asides during the song's build-up.

All in all it was an enjoyable night which also raised money for the Silver Line charity and the Stephen Sondheim Society.