Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The THREEPENNY OPERA at the Olivier, National Theatre: Macheath's Back In Town...

Back in 1982 Richard Eyre's National Theatre company - when not owning the Olivier stage in GUYS AND DOLLS - also appeared in the Cottesloe in John Gay's THE BEGGAR'S OPERA and, again on the Olivier stage, they also appeared in Bertolt Brecht's SCHWEYK IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR.  Now add Bertolt Brecht to John Gay and you get THE THREEPENNY OPERA, now being revived on the Olivier stage - how cyclical is theatre life!

I last saw Brecht and Kurt Weill's savage musical in 1989 on Broadway in a Victorian-themed production directed by John Dexter with a lacklustre Sting as Macheath and it also marked the last time I saw Georgia Brown on stage as she played Mrs Peachum with her usual full-throated singing (Georgia had played Lucy Brown in a 1956 Royal Court production).  However I know the show best through the 1976 New York cast recording with Raul Julia as Macheath, Caroline Kava as Polly Peachum and Ellen Greene as Jenny Diver.

After the disaster that was WONDER.LAND I was worried what director Rufus Norris would do with another musical on the Olivier stage but we are on firmer ground here and I enjoyed his inventive and surprising production very much.  We saw it in preview and certain longueurs will hopefully tighten up.

The big surprise in the casting was that Rory Kinnear is playing Macheath. the murderous anti-hero at loose as London readies itself for a coronation parade.  I knew he would be able to play the part with ease but I was surprised how well he sang it too, although his way of hitting the consonants in the lyrics got a bit wearing.  However he was an excellent Macheath, a darkly evil focus for the show's action.

What Norris' production proved beyond all else is that the best roles go to the women in the cast - the poor men didn't stand a chance.  Like his namesake in THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, Brecht's Macheath may love the women but they constantly betray him or leave him confounded and here Kinnear has his hands full with four full-on performances from Haydn Gwynne as the vengeful Mrs Peachum, Rosalie Craig as her lovelorn but shrewd daughter Polly, Sharon Small as a very Scottish Jenny Diver and Debbie Kurup as Lucy Brown.

I blow hot and cold with Rosalie Craig as a performer - I found her a rather anonymous Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT on the same stage - but here she gave a sparky performance as Macheath's latest conquest Polly Peachum and was also in excellent voice with great renditions of "Pirate Jenny" and "Barbara Song".  She was also nicely bitchy in her "Jealousy Duet" with Debbie Kurup's Lucy Brown, her rival for Macheath.

Sharon Small was also very good as the prostitute Jenny Diver whose lust for Macheath doesn't stop her betraying him to the Peachums and Haydn Gwynne was almost unrecognizable as the tottering, unfaithful wife of the crime boss Peachum who runs all the beggars in London and who reveals that she too has been Macheath's mistress in the past.  Her whole look appears to be based on Otto Dix' famous portrait of the notorious Weimar German cabaret dancer Anita Berber.

Despite these heavy-hitting actresses, there was much to enjoy in Nick Holder's bulky but brutal Peachum - especially when he appears in a Louise Brooks bobbed wig - and there was excellent supporting performances from Matt Cross' wonky policeman Officer Smith and George Ikediashi - better known as the cabaret singer Le Gateau Chocolat - was in resonant voice as The Balladeer who ushers the show in with "The Ballad of Mack The Knife".

Simon Stephen's adaptation promised filthy language along with immoral behaviour but I was very disappointed in the swearing to be honest - I could have done with more!  Shepherd gives a particular gay spin to Macheath's relationship with the police chief Tiger Brown which actually worked within the dynamic of Brecht's original - Macheath will do *anything* to get away with his crimes - but Shepherd also changes the final moments of the play which sits less successfully.

Rufus Norris' production constantly surprised and used the bare Olivier stage well.  Vicki Mortimer's set mainly consisted of wooden frames and sheets of brown paper to be slashed or burst through - Norris said he wanted a set that looked cheap to stage - and the irony is it probably cost a fortune!  Paule Constable's lighting design is also hugely effective.

Kurt Weill's score might have been written in 1928 but it still sounds as cutting-edge as Macheath's machete, and is wonderfully vibrant under the musical direction of David Shrubsole and the seven other onstage musicians.

We are seeing it again in two weeks - what better recommendation can you have than that?  The production is currently booking up until October.

Friday, May 27, 2016

JEKYLL & HYDE at the Old Vic - dancing into danger....

After the ghastly DOCTOR FAUSTUS it was with some trepidation that I went to the Old Vic to see Drew McOnie's JEKYLL & HYDE, the first ballet to be staged there in awhile.  The theatre holds a very special place in British ballet history as in 1925 Lilian Baylis, the legendary owner of the Old Vic, offered the Irish-born dancer Ninette de Valois the chance to not only choreograph their straight plays but also to stage ballets there and in her other theatre, Sadler's Wells.  This eventually led to the formation of what would become the Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet School and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Drew McOnie has become an award-winning choreographer after a career as a dancer and with JEKYLL & HYDE is staking a claim as 'the new' Matthew Bourne, who McOnie is a former company member.  Like Bourne, McOnie is dividing his work between choreographing musicals and his own narrative ballets and JEKYLL & HYDE resembles Bourne's work in that it sifts it's dramatic moments with dashes of humour.

McOnie has updated Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale to the 1950s and Grant Olding matches this in his score which has echoes of the cool jazz style of Dave Brubeck.  McOnie has also done an odd rewrite so the gentlemanly Jekyll works as a florist by the day and a geek scientist at night.  All this did was make it feel at times like it was a ballet version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

Jekyll falls in love with the willowy Dahlia who is also loved by the thuggish Charlie but all this changes when the suave and dangerous Hyde appears.  Also falling under Hyde's spell are a sexy couple he meets in a club - McOnie tends to let the 50s vibe slip in these scenes which seem to be set in a very contemporary world.  However while Jekyll chases Dahlia, he fails to notice his shop assistant Daisy who is quietly pining away for him.  Needless to say by the end of the piece the body count almost matches HAMLET.

I enjoyed JEKYLL & HYDE but there were times when it's swinging, breezy jazz score allied to a curdling whimsy tended to swamp the more sombre moments of the story.  It's 1950s setting gives McOnie the chance to draw from the MGM musical era for his Jekyll-Dahlia choreography and at times his 'homages' were a bit too obvious.  I really felt on reflection that we needed to see more of Mr Hyde than was allotted in the scenario, the story should feel like a seesaw between good and evil and we seemed to spend too much time in the sun.

What is most exciting about the production is the marvellous company that McOnie has assembled and who all deliver fine individual performances while at the same time working as a dynamic ensemble.  The excellent Danny Collins - late of SHOW BOAT - shines as Jekyll as he bounces and boings all over the stage, seemingly going in two places at the same time and deploying a warm, winning charm that makes you want Jekyll to win his schizophrenic battle with his alter ego.  Hyde was danced by Jason Winter in an imposing manner but without much personality or real sense of danger.

There was excellent work from Barnaby Thompson and Ebony Molina as the couple who sexually tangle with Hyde, Molina in particular was wonderfully seductive and exuded a earthy sensuality.  The two women in Jekyll's life were danced by the elegant Rachel Muldoon as his dream date Dahlia while Alexzandra Sarmiento was a delight as shopgirl Daisy.

After bemoaning the cramped and ugly set she designed for DOCTOR FAUSTUS, here Soutra Gilmour gave McOnie's production a simple but very clever metal central frame with four mesh walls which quickly and effectively rotated to transform the scene from shop to workroom to club.  Richard Howell's lighting design was excellent, suggesting the changing moods within the story with style.

With a running time of an hour 50 minutes it didn't outstay it's welcome and I would be happy to see it again should it return to the West End.  If the cheers that greeted the company at their curtain call prove anything it's that Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus should find room for it in his coming season and possibly give it a longer run than it's current week-long residency.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

DOCTOR FAUSTUS at the Duke of Yorks Theatre: "Why this is Hell..."

I mean, Constant Reader, where to start?  And having started, where to bloody end?

Last week, with the visual splendors of the Royal Ballet's FRANKENSTEIN still in mind, we saw the much-hyped DOCTOR FAUSTUS directed by the ubiquitous Jamie Lloyd and starring GAME OF THRONES star Kit Harington.  And all I can say is that I was so happy to have seen Christopher Marlowe's play at the Globe five years ago so I at least had a clue as to what was going on in Lloyd's profoundly ugly production.  Oops, showed my hand there a little early...

The sinking feeling started when I saw that it was DOCTOR FAUSTUS by Christopher Marlowe *and* Colin Teevan - not 'adapted by' or 'in a version by' - no, this was a joint venture between Marlowe and Teevan, the author of a play called THE WALLS which was one of the worst things I have ever seen at the National Theatre.  But here he is, writing alongside Marlowe which must have been a solitary experience bearing in mind Kit Marlowe was killed 423 years ago.

(The above picture by the way shows the subtlety of Lloyd's vision)

Dishearteningly the facile nature of the enterprise starts even before the show starts with songs playing that have been picked because the words Hell or Devil are in the title - geddit?  Because you see, Faustus sells his soul to the Devil and as you probably won't get that out of the production it has to be pointed out to you...  Do you see?  Elvis Presley singing "You're The Devil In Disguise"?  Do you?  I could always draw you a diagram?

So as you are listening to this grindingly obvious setlist you can also soak up Soutra Gilmour's depressingly ugly set of a motel-style apartment - like something out of a "Twin Peaks" nightmare - as Faustus (the curly mop-top that is Kit Harington) sitting on the toilet then walking into the set to watch his portable tv while drooling.  Yes, drooling.

I guess it had to start... and start it did.  For a reason that really wasn't ever made totally clear, the supporting cast all were in baggy, greying underwear - apart from Valdes and Cornelius who are the magicians that Faustus how to summon the Devil - they, Constant Reader, are naked.  On reflection it appears that the supporting cast were picked for their pot-bellies, scrawny bodies, slack tits and greasy hair.  Owen hit it on the head nicely that it's better to have a misfit cast when you have a pretty-boy lead so they don't pull focus.  Oh yes and Craig Stein as The Evil Angel wears a girdle petticoat.  Why?  You tell me.

So despite the confusing action on stage it could be ascertained that Faustus had summoned up both Lucifer (Forbes Masson in his most thick-ear Glasgae accent) and the permanently pissed-off Mephistopheles (Jenna Russell, the sole reason to see the show).  So far so irritating but then it took a downturn...

Out went Marlowe's poetry and in came Teevan's modern-day dialogue to show us the cheap, shallow world of celebrity - because Teevan has hit upon the whizzer idea of making Faustus a rock 'n' roll magician - cue endless air guitar poses with power chords blaring out.  Marlowe's Faustus wishes to change the world through his magic only to debase his gift entertaining the crown heads of Europe as a court entertainer, Teevan's becomes an arena act who end up doing a gig for Obama and featuring in Hello.  Needless to say not one of Teevan's lines stay in the mind.

After the endless gurning and fart jokes - we return back to Marlowe's poetry for Faustus' last night on earth before being dragged to Hell (or waltzing on his own as in the end of this production) but oh no, Lloyd and Teevan have another trick up their sleeve to make it more 'real'.  Faustus' servant Wagner is here turned into his girlfriend but for the famous scene when Faustus conjures up Helen of Troy, Lucifer ushers in Wagner bound and gagged and while Faustus speaks the famous lines "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium..." Lloyd has Faustus rape Wagner and stab her to death.

And that Constant Reader, was when I lost all interest in this meretricious nonsense and the director and writer's absurd presumption that Marlowe's play - which has survived quite happily for as long as he has been dead - needs their aggrieves kicking.

Jamie Lloyd - fashionable for his Trafalgar Studios revivals - is in fact the worst contributor to the ghastly "director theatre" concept - everything is stripped down to the lowest common denominator because of a belief that the audience are really quite stupid and cannot understand what the text is saying because it's, like, not in twitterspeak?  There is also the juvenile attempts at 'shocking' their perceived middle class audience but the best/worst they can come up with - a rich woman eating the Devil's shit thinking it's truffles - leaves you shaking your head at the sheer bloody obvious thinking behind it all.

It is an artistic view that is becoming increasingly ugly and jejune. Jamie Lloyd, judging from his anal fixation shown here, is fast disappearing up his own arse.

I would happily sell my soul to the Devil to avoid seeing this again.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

FRANKENSTEIN at Covent Garden - Frankenstein's at it again... this time on point!

Surely ice-skating is the only area of story-telling that has not been utilized to re-tell Mary Shelley's classic horror novel FRANKENSTEIN.  Since it's publication in 1818 it has been revisited, re-imagined, re-written, re-filmed... all a testament to Shelley's original idea of how man can be brought down through hubris and by his refusal to face the consequences of his actions.

However there is so much going on in her novel that any part of it can be picked on as a way to view the material.  And now it's latest incarnation is in a full-length production by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and I saw it's 5th performance last week - always nice to be able to say that, with Royal Ballet productions it's usually the 305th!

Liam Scarlett is the Royal Ballet's artist-in-residence and this is his first full-length production for the company and it was marvellous to watch due to Scarlett's firm grasp on the narrative allied to a genuinely thrilling score by American composer Lowell Liebermann.

Scarlett stays mostly true to Shelley's story, dropping the framing device of Victor Frankenstein recounting his tale to the captain of a ship that rescues him and also the abortive creation of a mate for the creature but adds his own new spin as a finale which works within the spirit of the text.

The genesis of the story is almost as famous as the novel itself.  In 1816, aged only 19, Mary Godwin, her lover Percy Shelley and Mary's half-sister Claire Claremont travelled across Europe to visit Claire's lover Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori in the rented Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva.  Bad weather kept them indoors and Byron suggested they all try writing scary stories.  Mary struggled with hers but a later talk about experiments in galvanization gave her the idea of a man attempting to revive a corpse - the fact that she was still grieving for her baby who had died only two months before must have influenced this idea.

The story both reflected and foreshadowed Mary's life which was shrouded with death: her mother Mary Woolstonecraft died a month after giving birth to her, three of her children with Shelley died young, her step-sister Fanny killed herself as did Shelley's abandoned wife Harriet, Shelley drowned at sea in 1822 and Mary herself died aged only 53 in 1851 from a suspected brain tumor.

Liam Scarlett's production also utilizes a moody set design from John Macfarlane and David Finn's exceptional lighting design, along with a mood-setting front cloth of a skull seen in profile which at the start of the second act turned to face the audience - wooo!  As I said it was all marvellous to watch but, on reflection, the most negligible thing about the show was Scarlett's choreography.

I am no balletomane but time and again I found myself wondering how many scenes of prancing maids and servants does the story of FRANKENSTEIN need?  There was also a puzzling tavern routine which sat in between the anatomy lecture-room scenes which did nothing to forward the story and seemed to be there only to give the female members of the corps a chance to whore it up. 

I can appreciate that Liam Scarlett wanted to make the character of Elizabeth more than just a typical horror story heroine but again, when you realize that you are watching yet another interminable pas-de-deux for her and Victor, then you know something is off-kilter.  I must say however that Sarah Lamb as Elizabeth danced the role well, full of grace and humanity.

What made me brew on this so strongly was that the final confrontation between Victor and his Creature must surely be the emotional climax of the show but here it just did not spark - was it because we had the Male Team B of Tristan Dyer as Victor and Ryoichi Hirano as the Creature?  The only thing I could compare it to was the end of Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE which, no matter the dancers, always delivers an emotional punch.

There were fine performances from Ethan Bailey as William, Victor's young brother who plays a fatal game of blind-man's-bluff with the Creature in one of the more suspenseful scenes, James Hay was good as Frankenstein's friend Clerval, the always good Itziar Mendizabel did what she could with the minimal opportunities she had as the housekeeper Madame Moritz while her tragic daughter Justine was danced well by Francesca Hayward.

Despite my issues with the choreography I am glad we saw the show and more than enjoyed living through the story - which is more than 8 of the main 10 characters do!  It's few remaining shows are sold out but hopefully it will rejoin the repertoire - maybe in 2018 to mark the novel's 200th anniversary?

In the same week, by some odd stroke of luck, we found we had booked a Horror Triple Bill at the theatre: FRANKENSTEIN, DOCTOR FAUSTUS at the Duke of Yorks and JEKYLL & HYDE at the Old Vic - who came out the winner?  Constant Reader, read on...

Friday, May 20, 2016

150 word review: LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE by Nancy Mitford

Published in 1949, Nancy Mitford's sequel to THE PURSUIT OF LOVE fizzes with her biting wit and it was a deep pleasure to re-read.

Again our narrator is Fanny, a daughter of divorced parents who is brought up in the eccentric home of her Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew Alconleigh (based on Mitford's own family).  Fanny meets an old childhood friend Polly who has returned from India where her father was Viceroy. Polly is dazzlingly beautiful but has very little else going for her and Lady Montdore, her imperious mother, despairs for Polly's lack of interest in getting married.

When Polly announces she will marry 'Boy', a recently-widowed, sexually experienced older man (and crashing snob), her angry parents disinherit her and announce that Cedric, a distant Canadian relative living in Paris, is the new heir.  When the outrageously gay Cedric arrives, all lives change...

An enduring glorious comic novel.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The TOXIC AVENGER at Southwark Playhouse - Vote Green!!

I am very surprised that the Southwark Playhouse's production of THE TOXIC AVENGER did not fall foul of the right-wing press last week - here we were in the week of the London Mayoral elections and we are presented with the ultimate Green eco-warrior who is eventually voted to high office.  I mean to say - where were the Daily Mail headlines?  God knows they have kvetched about less...

To be honest I was quietly dreading going to see this. When I worked in the film poster shop we had piles of stuff on the TOXIC AVENGER exploitation films from the perennially-annoying Lloyd Kaufman's Troma Studios and I built up an aversion to it.  Added to that it was written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan who gave us the crashing bore that was MEMPHIS.  And then it started - and within a few minutes I thought "This is from the guys who wrote MEMPHIS??"  It has a hoot!

Although the show and score strive too often to be the new LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS it actually survives on it's own insane brio and is greatly helped by the committed cast - they certainly act at times like they should be - ha!  See it's catching...

Benji Sperring's production rattles along on it's daft premise - corrupt mayor tries to silence an eco-geek who gets too close to the truth about his New Jersey town's pollution and has him thrown into a vat of toxic waste which turns him into an avenging monster (not a million miles away from The Incredible Hulk) putting his blind librarian girlfriend at risk - and along the way crams in more refreshingly non-pc stereotypes than the librarian can shake her stick at!

The thumping score, while not very memorable, is good fun while you are there and "My Big French Boyfriend" sung by the blind librarian when she mistakes Toxie's mumbling for French is great fun and Owen was still happily singing the first act closer "Bitch Slut Liar Whore" when we went out for our interval drinks.  Luckily he had pre-ordered them so he wasn't singing it to the woman behind the bar!

I found Mark Anderson's Melvin Ferd III/Toxie to be a bit underwhelming but I think that is because he cannot help but be overshadowed by his other cast members - all four of them!  Hannah Grover is great fun as Sarah the blind librarian who seems to fall over a lot and needs guidance to find her stick - eventually admitting to the audience it's because a cast member has to change costume.  She was huge fun as was Lizzii Hills in the dual role of the corrupt mayor and Melvin's mother, none more so than in the afore-mentioned "Bitch Slut Liar Whore" number which is a duet - with herself!

But by far the winners of the hardest-working actors currently on stage are Ashley Samuels and Marc Pickering who play everyone else in the show and get through more quick changes in as few seconds as you will ever see.  Businessmen, punks, old ladies, folk singers, professors, cops... they do it all, and a lot of the fun of the show is seeing what these very funny performers will turn up in next.  My favourite has to be Sarah's New Jersey girlfriends Shinequa and Diane, two low-rent skanks!

THE TOXIC AVENGER is on until the 21st May and if you want a fun night of filthy pollution and even filthier jokes then head on down to the Southwark Playhouse - it's a monster!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

FUNNY GIRL at the Savoy Theatre - The Greatest Star?

With every year there is a fondness for looking back to 50 year anniversaries so here is another one - it is 50 years since the Bob Merrill and Jule Styne musical FUNNY GIRL opened in London at the Prince of Wales Theatre.  It starred a certain actress who had played it on Broadway two years before...

Four months after it opened, it was gone after Streisand discovered she was pregnant.  Nice timing Babs.  Almost a year after it closed, she started filming the movie version which went on to win her an Academy Award - and she has never acted on stage since.

The common belief is that the show has never been revived due to Streisand's indelible stamp on it but there is another more basic problem which is shown up in the new revival which has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Savoy, recently the home of another Jule Styne revival GYPSY.

As Mr and Mrs World know, the show stars our very own Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, the gangly, rubber-faced Jewish New Yorker who, in the Ziegfeld Follies between 1910 and 1923, made herself an audience sweetheart with her clowning but also with her ability to sing torch songs that broke your heart.  She is all but forgotten now, her memory kept alive by the show.

Sheridan Smith is one of the select few actresses who can guarantee an audience for a West End show and for good reason - she has real star wattage on stage and a natural bond with her audience.  Her voice isn't the most distinctive but she knows how to use it and, as she proved with the famous numbers here, she also knows how to belt out a long last note.

Of course a star will always be a star but not for one second did I feel that Sheridan Smith lost herself in the character of Fanny Brice, she was always Sheridan Smith in a black wig.  Director Michael Meyer has her playing up the face-mugging, knock-kneed klutz but it's an uneven fit.  Her most telling moments are when she is in a more reflective moments, singing lovely versions of "People", "His Is The Only Music That Makes Me Dance" and the interpolated title song which was written for the film.

Despite Harvey Fierstein rejigging the script and swapping some songs around, the biggest problem is the show itself.  I suspect one reason it has not been revived more often is because it all feels so desperately thin. The whole focus is on Fanny - and even her character is hardly layered - the other characters are so paper-thin they could almost blow over.  Fierstein should probably have dropped a couple of the more generic numbers and in particular, the endless "Rat-A-Tat-Tat".  A song which highlights Brice's usual shtick, it's an endless song about a Yiddish soldier in World War 1 that had me biting my knuckles in pain.

Darius Campbell was surprisingly effective as the gambling man-about-town Nicky Arnstein who was Brice's first husband but again he is only there for Fanny to react off of so the sudden rush of exposition about his downfall in the second act - and an added solo number - come to late to make him at all interesting.  His height also made for an odd fit with the diminutive Sheridan.

Bruce Montague wanders on and off occasionally as Florenz Ziegfeld without ever suggesting how important he was either on early 20th Century Broadway or in Fanny's professional life, Joel Montague has some nice moments as her friend Eddie Ryan but the award for making bricks from straw goes to Marilyn Cutts as Mrs Brice, always watchable and a performance of loving steeliness.

FUNNY GIRL had a torturous birth: Fanny Brice's son-in-law, producer Ray Stark, decided against the publication of a biography and wanted to make it into a film, only to be told by Mary Martin that it should be a stage show.  It then was offered to or passed on by, among others, writer Ben Hecht, lyricists Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Fields, producer David Merrick, directors Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse and performers Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft, Edye Gorme and Carol Burnett.  When the show finally made it to the stage it was nominated for 8 Tony Awards but didn't win anything, 5 of them ironically lost to HELLO, DOLLY! which was turned into a film starring... Barbra Streisand!

Back at the Savoy, Lynne Page's choreography is busy but unmemorable while Michael Pavelka's skewed set of Ziegfeld's New Amsterdam stage only offers the occasional 'wow' image - really only the very last moment to be honest.  Ultimately I felt that the show needed a larger-than-life personality to swamp the stage and to distract you from the rickety star vehicle - Sheridan Smith is not that kind of star yet.

Thanks to Sheridan Smith's popularity the show is in for a long run until October - unless she does a Streisand and gets pregnant - I just wished I liked it more.