Monday, November 28, 2016

SIDE SHOW at Southwark Playhouse - Side by Side Sisters....

Last week we saw SIDE SHOW, the latest in the commercially-risky musicals that have become the forté of the Southwark Playhouse and while enjoyable - particularly the two leading performances - there is one rather large elephant in the room.  Balanced on an inflatable ball.  And twirling a hoop with it's trunk.

ALLEGRO, THE TOXIC AVENGER, XANADU, GRAND HOTEL, GREY GARDENS and TITANIC are the six musicals we have seen there and they all share an air of risk which might give a West End producer pause.  While they all have potential selling-points: Rogers & Hammerstein, an ELO juke-box musical, known titles thanks to films, and award-winning and nominated Broadway scores; none of them are obvious hits and that's where the Southwark steps in...

...and they don't come any riskier than the musical SIDE SHOW, with lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger.  It is based on the real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hinton who were a side show and vaudeville attraction in the 1930s.  Now... can't you see THAT on Shaftesbury Avenue?  The show first opened on Broadway in 1997 and, although it received good reviews and some devoted fans, it closed less than three months later.

Fast forward nine years to the filming of DREAMGIRLS and director Bill Condon told composer Krieger that he was also a fan of SIDE SHOW and would like to have a go at reshaping Russell's book. After a revision with songs being dropped or re-shaped, Condon also directed this revival on Broadway in late 2014.  Again the reviews were very positive... but it closed after seven weeks!

SIDE SHOW is a show the critics admire but it cannot find an audience - will London be different?  I guess it helps that the Southwark Playhouse production is only running for two months but the night we went it wasn't sold out and despite committed performances and a solid production from director Hannah Chissick, the show is compromised by a frustrating book - the usual culprit when a show under-performs.

Russell and Condon's book aims to show us that the sisters were constantly taken advantage of and the musical ends with double betrayal in their personal and professional lives but even a cursory look at their real story shows that the writers have played fast and loose with them too.  First off, the twins were born and lived in Brighton until they were 8 so why have them played as American?

As the book suggests the sisters were controlled by a cruel 'owner' - the real-life case was even more bizarre than the musical suggests - but has them 'rescued' by two men who see them as their own meal-tickets, but these characters are so sketchily-drawn that at times it's hard to understand silly things like motivation or depth.

One of these characters is a gay dancer but his sexuality is so clumsily referenced you would think the book was written in the 1940s.  In reality, the sisters both married gay men at separate times but this all happened after the events of the musical, which culminates with the sisters belting out their killer 11 o'clock number "I Will Never Leave You" before setting off to Hollywood to co-star in Todd Browning's film FREAKS.  The book lamely suggests that this also exploited the girls but I doubt if they were ever under any illusions that they were going to be co-starring with Fred Astaire.

So the show ends in a vaguely upbeat way with the sisters setting out on their own to L.A.  But Russell and Condon are guilty of putting a Hollywood ending to the sisters' story which ended in a way that makes FREAKS look like a Disney film.  After 19 years, they made a second film, a b-movie called CHAINED FOR LIFE.  They were reduced again to doing exploitative personal appearances until 1961 when their manager left them destitute in Charlotte, North Carolina and they had to find work in a grocery store to make ends meet (no pun intended).

But life had one more cruel trick to play: in January 1969 their boss alerted the police that they had not come to work but they were found dead, victims of the American Hong Kong flu epidemic.  A gruesome fact was later revealed that Daisy died first, Violet dying a few days later.  I suppose we should be grateful Condon and Russell stopped short of ending the show with Violet singing "I Will Never Leave You" to her dead sister. but to neglect the tragedy of the sisters' lives feels like yet another betrayal - it's like doing a musical of Anne Frank and ending it with her listening to the D-Day landings.

But enough of reality, what about the show?  As I said Hannah Chissick drives her production on with a good momentum, it's only after you realize the book's many weaknesses.  She has elicited very fine performances from her two lead actresses: Louise Dearman makes Daisy the more dominant and ambitious sister while Laura Pitt-Pulford is a touching Violet, shy and showing the psychological wounds of her deprived upbringing.  Sadly Hannah Chissick should have found some way of possibly binding her two actresses physically together as more often than not it looked like they were only co-joined because they were wearing the same dress.

Jay Marsh is very good as Jake, a fake 'freak' in the side show who tries to protect the girls from all troubles but the rest of the cast barely make an impression.  Takis' standing set of the tawdry funfairs that the sisters' knew so well was also very atmospheric and evocative as was Howard Hudson's lighting design.    

What makes the musical memorable is Henry Krieger's score although frustratingly Bill Russell's lyrics never raise above the serviceable.  Krieger's music however is evocative: the opening number "Come Look At The Freaks" has a creepy spookiness and his pastiche songs for the sisters' onstage routines are very good.  As with his titanic "And I Tell You I'm Not Going" from DREAMGIRLS,  here he delivers with the climactic "I Will Never Leave You" which has been rattling about my head ever since.  As I said, it's a shame that Russell's lyrics sound so trite against his music.

It is thanks to the score that SIDE SHOW has built up a cult following and I can imagine that growing from it's London production - it's just a shame that the book is more sawdust than tinsel.  However, the production itself can be seen as yet another success for the Southwark Playhouse.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Rambert's THE CREATION at Sadler's Wells - Haydn meets Rambert

In our recent embrace of ballet, one company who have remained unseen was the Rambert Company but that was remedied a week ago when we went to Sadler's Wells to see the company in THE CREATION, a momentous work which celebrated 90 years of the company's existence.

It is remarkable to consider the impact of Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes on the history of British ballet.  Marie Rambert - who first became interested in dance after seeing Isadora Duncan - had danced and helped choreograph Ballet Russes productions between 1912-13 before leaving to set up her own ballet company - now the oldest company in Britain - and, as such, was able to offer fellow-Diaghilev dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin contracts when the Ballet Russes disbanded following the impresario's death in 1929.

At about the same time, another Diaghilev dancer Ninette de Valois was staging dances for Lilian Baylis, the owner of the Old Vic, for both her Shakespeare productions, and later full-length ballets both at the Vic and at Baylis' recently-acquired theatre, Sadler's Wells.  In 1931, Markova and Dolin moved to de Valois' company and four years later, left to set up their own company.  These four performers would have a profound effect on British ballet: Markova and Dolin's company was the basis for English National Ballet; Ninette de Valois's company grew into the Royal Ballet, while Rambert's kept her name front and centre, as Ballet Rambert and now just Rambert.

Several of Marie Rambert's ideas still drive the company - close collaboration between choreographer, composer and designer; the concept of perpetual movement, and also a real commitment to touring and bringing dance to those who might not ordinarily experience it through both productions and local workshops for both young and old.

The concept of perpetual movement was certainly alive on the stage of Sadler's Wells - constant waves of dancers swept across the stage either solos, in duets or as a company, it was all the more impressive as THE CREATION was a massive production: the Rambert performing company, the current students at the Rambert School of Contemporary Dance and Ballet, the Rambert Orchestra as well as three opera singers and the BBC Singers choir - it meant a curtain call for about 100 performers!

Mark Baldwin's choreography was certainly rigorous but I found it all rather uninvolving, one can admire the technique in the performers but it rarely connected emotionally.  Haydn's score was certainly sweeping and provided all the emotion that was rather lacking in the choreography - maybe a bit too much in the first act which found me nodding as the music swept around the auditorium.

The ensemble was undoubtedly talented but few stood out from the herd, Pierre Tappon being an exception to this rule.  The three opera singers were certainly in good voice and the Rambert orchestra sounded wonderful under the baton of Paul Hoskins.

Rambert is known for creating new work in close collaboration with composer, choreographer and designer - but I would dearly love to know how Pablo Bronstein arrived at the frankly bizarre costumes the dancers wore - the black leotard number with the white neck and wrist ruffs put me in mind of The Second Generation doing a featured spot on a 1970s BBC variety show dancing to a disco version of "Greensleeves".

The leotard also came in a grey material which also had tufts of the undershirt pulled through slits in the front suggesting that ol' classic Tudor style.  This also proved more distracting than evocative... even with the daisies on the ankles. Bronstein's standing set of a stone church ornamental inner arch was fascinating to look at but eventually it proved too monumental to lend itself to nuance. Mark Henderson's lighting design however was very evocative.

Well, that's the Rambert duck broken... here's to the next one...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

KING LEAR at the Old Vic - Glenda's Back and Shakespeare's Got Her...

If you are gonna go, go big. 

When Glenda Jackson stood down last year from being the Member of Parliament of Hampstead and Highgate after 23 years, it was assumed she might make a return to acting but in what?  Her first role was in a Zola radio adaptation but there are no great leading roles for an 80 year-old actress in the theatre.  Simple, take over a male role...

The result is a performance of mighty power and endurance and her casting really has no effect on the play, at times seemingly channeling Wilfred Brambell in STEPTOE AND SON, Jackson gave us a wily, querulous old man, capable of angry rages at all and sundry.

It was a magnificent achievement but it came with conditions: it's rare for me to not be moved at the end of the play with it's shattering final scene, no matter how awful Lear has behaved, but here it was only thanks to Shakespeare's words that a tear trickled.  Jackson might have given us a powerful Lear but it was one that was hard to feel any empathy for.

Appropriately, it was at the Old Vic I first saw Glenda Jackson on stage, 32 years ago as Phedra in Philip Prowse's remarkable production.  I subsequently saw her a few times more onstage and always found her to be easy to appreciate but hard to like.  I think it was/is largely due to her testy and abrasive vocal delivery, she has never had a particularly warm voice which is why she made a such a success in roles that called for a certain tart, sardonic quality.

Here she exploits that to the full, raging at Cordelia for her refusal to say how much she loves Lear, raging at Regen and Goneril who are so quick to undermine his attempts at being an independent retired King by refusing him a retinue of 100 knights, raging at the storm that dares to whip around him at his lowest ebb and raging at the sanity that is fast escaping him.  The moments of tenderness were less effective: the reunion with Cordelia felt thrown away and, as I said, the final scene seemed to be a missed moment.

This could very possibly be more of a result of Deborah Warner's over-imagined production.  It's like she read through my previous blogs, made a list of what I hate then based all her creative decisions on them.  I so wanted to enjoy the production but kept being confronted by the usual, dreary, look-at-me-look-at-me Director Theatre tropes.

My new bete noir is the nonsense of pretending the curtain is down when the audience enters the auditorium: we were treated to an interminable period of understudies wandering about, shifting the minimal flats that make up the scenery, talking into head-mikes, hoovering or carpet cleaning (very badly it would seem as they took ages on the same spots) or our leads sitting on chairs reading newspapers, talking to each other then wandering off to presumably get their make-up on.  Does Warner really think we buy all this cock - the audience saying to each other "Ooo look, that's what happens on the stage before the curtain goes up, aren't we lucky the Old Vic doesn't seem to own tabs?".

The only time I felt the minimalist design by Warner and Jean Kalman was effective was during the storm scene, seemingly done with black rubbish sacks sealed together that rippled, blew and flapped to show the ferocity of Lear's storm.  I did however like Kalman's atmospheric lighting.

Much was made of the starry cast that Warner has surrounded Jackson with but I felt they were all rather under-powered - if they feel drained by Warner's Brechtian approach then they are not to blame but I honestly was expecting more from Celia Imrie as Goneril and Jane Horrocks as Regen.  Imrie was bland and Horrocks seemed to make her high heels do most of her work for her although she did rouse herself briefly when she snarled her anger at Lear in their confrontation scene.  She also had the best piece of business too when she hurled Gloucester's eye out into the stalls!

Morfydd Clark's Cordelia was a bit more animated than I have usually seen her but it really is a thankless role: each time she appears she is different - rebellious daughter, forgiving daughter, liberating invader, corpse.  Danny Webb and Karl Johnson made an impression as Cornwall and Gloucester, William Chubb was a sympathetic cuckolded Albany and I liked Gary Sefton as the oily courtier Oswald.

Sefton would have made an excellent Edmund but we were stuck with the woeful Simon Manyonda who played the role like a Southwark estate 'yoof'.  Against such a ghastly performance, Harry Melling could only impress as the good brother Edgar even if he had a rather ill-starred nude scene.  Sargon Yelda also was an underwhelming Kent, especially when one remembers how Stanley Townsend mined the role for marvellous moments in Sam Mendes' National Theatre production.

Rhys Ifans I also found problematic as Lear's Fool; any momentum the first act developed came to a juddering halt whenever he appeared in his grubby Superman outfit as Warner has seemingly allowed him to add scene-stealing business but which just left me staring at him in dismay.  Warner also disposes with any idea as to the Fool's disappearance from the second act - he is left sitting in a shopping trolley at the end of act one!

I am sure I will remember this KING LEAR for Glenda Jackson's astonishing performance but probably not much else sadly.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Dvd/150: A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (Breathless, Jean Luc Godard, 1960)

Marking cinematographer Raoul Coutard's death and the late Jean Seberg's 78th anniversary, I watched again the film that influenced so many filmmakers, A BOUT DE SOUFFLE, and it's still exciting and provoking.

Dedicated to Monogram Pictures studios, the plot is pure film noir: small-time criminal Michel steals a car in Marseille and, while driving to Paris, shoots a policeman.  Once there, he unsuccessfully tries to borrow money while hiding out with sometime-girlfriend, American student Patricia.

Patricia has found out she is pregnant, maybe it's Michel's.  Over the course of a day, they chatter, make love, argue, but always with a strange disconnect because of language or attitude.

Fellow nouvelle vague directors Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut were involved in the script but Godard's shoot-and-run film captures the dizzying excitement of 1960s young European cinema personified by the ageless performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Shelf or charity shop? Jean will be selling the New York Herald Tribune on my shelf for some time to come..

Sunday, November 13, 2016

AMADEUS at the National Theatre - music to die for...

Peter Shaffer died four months before the opening of this revival of his 1979 masterpiece AMADEUS, I am sure he would have been thrilled to see it back on the National Theatre's mainstage 37 years later.  Sadly that production was before I got the theatre bug in that same theatre three years later with GUYS AND DOLLS, I would loved to have seen it as my dear friend John Normington played the fussy Emperor Joseph II.  As usual, I am used to seeing ghosts walk the Olivier stage....

I first saw AMADEUS on stage in 2014 in a revival at Chichester with a masterful, charismatic lead performance from Rupert Everett as Salieri, the 18th Century composer who found himself usurped in popularity by the young genius Mozart and schemes to ruin him.  Shaffer has a reclusive and dying Salieri narrate the story; he has made sure that all Vienna is awash with the rumours that he murdered Mozart but takes us back to their first meeting and the start of his enmity.

What angers Salieri is that God is seemingly mocking him; from a young age he dedicated his life to the service of enriching the world and serving God through his music and while it has brought him success he has yet to fully believe that the Lord is truly in his compositions.  He can sense the divine in Mozart's work but is appalled that the composer is a dissolute and obnoxious person.  Salieri decides to avenge himself on his uncaring God by seeking to destroy his chosen one.

The script bristles with Peter Shaffer's distinctive literary wit and phrasing but I felt that language did not seem to be uppermost in director Michael Longhurst's three hour production.  Once again we have a director who seems to follow the Emma Rice school of directing: namely distrust the words and go for the sensation - the choreographed movement, the modern anachronisms, the minimalist standing set, the gender and race-blind casting, the vague air of alienation theory.  It all smacks of attempts to jazz up the form but all one is left with are tropes, no substance.

As usual what gets lost in this approach is any genuine emotion in the piece - you watch the actors going through the motions but nothing they ever do seems to connect, or even attempt to.  I suspect it would be seen as old school to do that but if you are spending three hours staring at a production, something needs to have an effect surely.

Longhurst has the potentially inspiring idea of using the 21-strong Southbank Sinfonia acting as supernumeraries and also to create choreographed movement at times - all waving or pulsing to a certain strain of music.  I have to admit it did make for some memorable moments but that was what they were - moments.  At other times all you had were 21 people staring gormlessly about themselves and into the auditorium.

Despite the raves he has received from the critics I found Lucian Msamati ultimately wearying as Salieri; it's not entirely his fault, by the end of the play you do rather wish that Shaffer would speed up his musing on musical history and for the most part Msamati was strong enough to lead the production and give it a central focus, but his speech pattern did not really suit the writing and it became hectoring rather than insinuating.  Rupert Everett gave a much more nuanced performance at Chichester and as such made the character more resonant.  One applauds Msamati for the endurance but not the actual performance.

Adam Gillen as Mozart and Karla Crome as his wife Constanze also have the same affliction - both end the play as they started it; Gillen braying and whinnying and Crome like an 18th century character from Eastenders.  Both Amadeus and Constanze age ten years during the play as they dwindle into poverty but you really would have no idea from their performances.

Yes Gillen was supposed to be an annoying twat but in his final scene, dying while trying to finish his own requiem, he was just as squeaky and punchable.  Joshua Maguire played Amadeus in the Chichester production and at least varied the tone, finally winning some sympathy for the character.

One of the actors did however make a splash; Tom Edden - last seen gurning about in dirty underwear in the woeful DOCTOR FAUSTUS - was delightful as the petulant Emperor Joseph II.  Two actors who were good in the previous Olivier production THE THREEPENNY OPERA here play Salieri's gossiping Venticelli and gave such jarringly amateur performances that they shall remain nameless.

Chloe Lamford's production design managed to be both sparse and cluttered at the same time, mainly consisting of a movable stepped dais and projected gauze's and scrims while Jon Clark's lighting design did all the heavy lifting in setting moods and place.  However, there was no denying the excellent musical direction of Simon Slater who made the classical music sound wonderfully bravura.

The production is sold out until February but will continue in the repertoire further into 2017 and it will, of course, be screened in cinemas as part of the NT Live events.

Back to that original National Theatre production... AMADEUS won the Evening Standard award for Best New Play and Paul Scofield was filmed for the television coverage in the scene where Salieri hears Mozart's music for the first time; it's an acting masterclass in microcosm and is thrilling to watch and hear:

Sunday, November 06, 2016

ANASTASIA - The Royal Ballet's Romanov Revival

Looking back it's remarkable that, while Anna Anderson's identity was still being disputed in European courts, it also provoked books, plays and films, most notably ANASTASIA which marked Ingrid Bergman's Hollywood 'rehabilitation' after the scandal of her extra-marital affair with Roberto Rossellini, indeed the film led to the ultimate Hollywood acceptance, an Academy Award.  Anna Anderson and her persistent claim that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, believed killed with the rest of the Russian royal family in 1918, also inspired choreographer Kenneth McMillan to create his version of her story also called ANASTASIA which premiered in 1971.

MacMillan had originally staged ANASTASIA as a one-act ballet in 1967 while artistic director of Berlin's Deutsche Oper with his muse Lynn Seymour as Anna but he expanded the ballet to three acts in 1971 when he assumed creative control at Covent Garden, his original one-act becoming the third act.  It fitted perfectly into MacMillan's volte-face idea for the production; the first two acts, showing Anastasia's pre-revolution life, is danced to symphonic music by Tchaikovsky and the third act which illustrates the fractured mental state of Anna Anderson is danced to a dissonant symphony by Bohuslav Martinu and a specially recorded electronic soundscape.

At first, Anastasia is seen to be a vivacious and precocious girl, dancing with her sisters and with the sailors on the Royal yacht, watched by her parents Nicholas and Alexandra, her brother Alexey and the silent, ominous Rasputin.  The fun ends however when the hemophiliac Alexey falls and hurts himself and Tsar Nicholas receives news that WWI has been declared.  MacMillan's choreography was wonderfully joyous, Anastasia being almost slid across the stage in the arms of her dancing sailors and ultimately being spun over their heads to be caught by another row of sailors behind them.

The second act takes place during a court ball in 1917; in the ballroom the lords and ladies still dance their elegant dances unaware of the revolution growing outside until it overcomes them.  Meanwhile Anastasia becomes aware of strange tensions within her family as Rasputin's hold over the Tsarina grows more intense and Nicholas dances with a former lover, the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska.

This act featured some excellent ensemble work from the corps - the female dancers' beaded frocks audibly swishing round as they moved - and there were excellent featured performances from Sarah Lamb as Mathilde and Steven McRae as her partner, as well as a bigger spotlight on Itziar Mendizabel as the haughty but emotional Tsarina and the omnipresent Rasputin of Eric Underwood.

The third act shone it's harsh light on Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna; her Anastasia had shown a sunny happiness clouded with doubts but she was put through the physical mill with MacMillan's strenuous choreography for the mentally disturbed Anna.  It's quite a wrench for the audience too, confronted with the metallic score which starts the third act - overlaid with taped muttered conversations and grainy projections on the back of the set of the Romanov family which freeze-frame on the face of the real Anastasia - added to the stripped-down set and lighting.

Were the first two acts her real life or the imaginings of Anna's damaged mind?  She imagines the murder of the Royal family, marauding soldiers, the groups of eager onlookers who come to gawp, the man who became her husband as well as her nemesis Rasputin.  Did she really know them?  MacMillan secretly wished Anderson's story to be true and it was only after his and Anderson's death that DNA evidence ruled conclusively that she was a fraud.  But MacMillan ends the act with Anderson in regal parade around the stage on her moving bed, the figures from Anastasia's past looking on... Anna is certain of who she is.

It's not the easiest ballet to take in and I suspect it is one to be admired rather than liked but it is never less than thought-provoking and Gary Harris' revival is helped immeasurably by Bob Crowley's sets and costumes, John B. Reid's lighting and the committed (no pun intended) performances of all onstage.

The real star however is the choreography and genius of Kenneth MacMillan...