Tuesday, September 18, 2018

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my only visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.  Why the long delay in returning?  Well, my reason for going in 1988 was to see Barbara Cook in CARRIE: THE MUSICAL.  That left a deep mental scar which has turned me hysterical whenever a trip to Stratford has been mentioned since.  Even the pleasure of meeting a rueful Cook afterward was not enough to wipe out memories of that show... see, bad musicals based on films aren't a recent thing.

But the decision was made to visit Stratford last week during my two-week holiday from work so we tied it in with a visit to the theatre to see the RSC's latest revival of Shakespeare's comedy THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.

I had only seen the play before when the National Theatre staged it's one-and-only production of it in 1995, with a cast including Denis Quilley as Falstaff and Brenda Bruce as Mistress Quickly.  The production was directed by Terry Hands... who had also directed CARRIE.  How cyclical theatre can be eh?  By the way - speaking of WIVES - Terry Hands shares with his fellow-RSC artistic and associate directors Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and John Caird the staggering number of 15 wives!  Shaggers.

But here we were, in the unfriendly surroundings of the RST with it's warren-like stairs and passageways - not to mention the ghastly high-stool seats we were in - to see Fiona Laird's revival of Shakespeare's comedy of circa 1597 which included an extended introduction of it's supposed origins: allegedly Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare for another play featuring Sir John Falstaff, preferably a comedy of him in love.

Indeed the play feels like a star vehicle for the actor playing Sir John, and here he was wonderfully brought to life by David Troughton in true rambunctious fashion. Thanks to a very good fat suit he is truly larger-than-life and gave a performance that rattled the rafters.  Thank goodness too because he was surrounded by cartoonish portrayals that tipped the play into CARRY ON STRATFORD!

The action is transplanted to the garish world of Essex in it's awful collective lack of taste.  Sir John Falstaff has found himself financially embarrassed so hits upon the idea of romancing the two wealthiest wives of the town; what he doesn't know is that they are best friends and, when they show each other his identical letters of love, decide to get their revenge on him.

Throw into the dizzying mix that Mistress Page's daughter is being chased by various suitors that her parents approve of but she secretly loves the sweet but bumbling young Fenton and that Mistress Ford's husband is sure she is unfaithful to him so disguises himself to ask Falstaff to seduce his wife for a fee.

Although most of the attempts of desperate gag-cracking left me cold, I will admit that the production was not without a pleasant charm and there were nice performances from the Merry Wives themselves - Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Ford and Beth Cordingley as Mistress Page - Jonathan Cullen as the English-mangling French doctor Dr. Caius and Luke Newberry as the accident-prone Fenton.

But there were two calamitous performances from Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickley and Katy Brittain as a gender-swapped Hostess of The Garter Inn, screeching and clattering around in leopardskin coats and dresses: the unholy spawn of a gene pool consisting of Barbara Windsor and Lesley Joseph.

Fiona Laird left no bargain-basement gag untouched and we got Brexit, wheelie-bins, viral YouTube videos - "FENTON!!" - audience singalongs of "Bread of Heaven", and knob and bum jokes galore.  I felt that the grafting of the The Only Way Is Essex onto Shakespeare's comedy drowned it; rather than laughing with Shakespeare's characters, the thinly-veiled snobbery of the approach made you laugh *at* them instead.

As I said there were some nice performances to lighten the load and Lez Brotherston's designs were an eye-popping delight and luckily there was David Troughton to bring a whiff of real bawdy Bard realness to give us some genuine laughs.  I will not soon forget his roaring disdain of having an egg in his goblet of Sack: "I'll have no pullet-sperm in my brewage!"

The good news is that I was so taken with Stratford that hopefully it won't be 30 years till I return again. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Dvd/150: THRILLER (various directors, 1973-76, tv)

A favourite 70s series, Brian Clemen's THRILLER had 43 episodes and covered the whole 'Scream Queen' (and some scared men too) genre: murderous spouses, Satanists, psychopaths... all filmed on Elstree soundstages.

Not all have aged well but even the ropey ones have the delights of 70s fashions and decor, famous actors in early roles and Laurie Holloway's discordant theme music.

American actors were cast for the US market but were Alexandra Hay or Robyn Millan ever 'names'?!

Favourites?  Donna Mills and Judy Carne in a Satanic boarding house, psychopath Norman Eshley stumbling on a murder plot, blind students Sinead Cusack and Dennis Waterman foiling assassins, 'perfect' murderer Patrick O'Neal is blackmailed, Satanic nurse Diana Dors, and wife-killer Michael Jayston romances Helen Mirren.

The best remains I'M THE GIRL HE WANTS TO KILL, where murder witness Julie Sommars is trapped in an empty office building by killer Robert Lang.

Shelf or charity shop?  On the shelf... saying "Behind yooooooou"

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

DVD/150: TACONES LEJANOS (High Heels) (Pedro Almodóvar, 1991)

After Almodóvar's initial success in the 1980s, the 1990s saw him move into more sombre storytelling with a more studied feel to the look and tone of his films as he explored melodrama, such as the family drama in TACONES LEJANOS.

Newsreader Rebeca is overjoyed to have her singer mother Becky back in Madrid after 15 years working in Mexico but is still resentful at being rejected for Becky's career and lovers.

Further problems arise because Rebeca married Manuel, one of Becky's previous lovers, and while seeing her friend Letal's drag tribute to her mother, Manuel tells Becky that he wants a divorce; meanwhile backstage, Letal has sex with Rebeca...

A month later, Manuel is murdered...Rebeca confesses but did she do it?

Colourless performances from Victoria Abril and Miguel Bosé are eclipsed by Marisa Paredes as glamorous Becky, a dry run for TODO SOBRE MI MADRE eight years later.

Shelf or charity shop?  It's worth keeping for Marisa Paredes, suffering in Armani, and the flashback to 1980s Pedro with a sudden dance routine in a women's prison led by the statuesque trans actress Bibi Andersen!

Sunday, September 09, 2018

THE HUMANS at Hampstead Theatre: Unhappy Families

In 2014 playwright Stephen Karam had started writing a thriller but found himself wanting to delve further into the characters as he was writing them so the thriller aspect was dialed down allowing Karam to reveal more of the his small family's real fears.  While the American family drama in itself is a genre, his play brings a directness and fresh contemporary-inspired nightmares to it.

The working-class Irish-American Blake family are gathering for Thanksgiving dinner at the newly-acquired home of the youngest daughter Brigid and her partner Richard in Manhattan's run-down Chinatown area.  Brigid and Richard are happy to have finally secured their fragile toe-hold on the rare NY property ladder, even if it's a gloomy ground floor and basement duplex with dodgy electrics.  They are also having to put up with the noises around them, primarily the unexplained and violent thuds from their upstairs neighbour, quite incongruous as she is an old Chinese woman.

While they await the bulk of their furniture, Brigid and Richard welcome her parents Deidre and Erik, her older sister Aimee, and Erik's mother Fiona known affectionately as 'Momo'.  She is now living with Erik and Deirdre as she succumbs to Alzheimer's. Almost brought on by the ear-crashing thuds from above, strains and cracks soon appear in the family.

Aimee reveals two related fears: she confides to Brigid that the Colitis she has been ill with is going to require expensive surgery and she tells the wider family that she suspects she will soon be fired from her law firm for her lengthy absences.  She is also trying to hide the distress of her partner abruptly ending their relationship.  But it's her revelation of a possible loss of income that sets off a series of seemingly-random revelations that, piece by piece, chip away at their benign exterior.

Deirdre is frustrated that the office she works in has constantly hired others rather than promote her but she continues to selflessly care for 'Momo' and volunteers for a church-run immigrants charity, while Brigid feels her attempts to be employed as a musician are being hampered by her professor's iffy character references.  Karam subtly shifts the focus within the family: the sisters have a moment alone to bemoan their parents, Deirdre and Erik snipe at Brigid's new-age lifestyle which seems too expensive to offer much peace of mind, the daughters question what their parents abiding faith has ever really given them while, all the time, 'Momo' has to be pacified and cared for during the dinner.  In a glorious moment for the family, she joins in with the Thanksgiving toast but when they ask her a question, she disappears again within.

As the electricity fails and the bottles pile up, Erik gets more abrasive and taunts Richard when Brigid reveals that he will inherit a small family trust fund in a few years time.  All the unsettling fears - betrayal, poverty, illness, unemployment - finally erupt when school maintenance man Erik reveals to his daughters that he has been sacked when his affair with a teacher was discovered and, because he had a morality clause in his contract, he has lost his pension.  His assertion that Deirdre and he have discussed it and are still fine rings hollow with the daughters and with the audience.

The final moments of his play allows Karam to return to his original idea as the apartment is plunged into darkness and an air of unsettling eeriness pervades the stage through what is seen and unseen.  Has Erik, with the bad dreams that have haunted him since witnessing the September 11th attacks, manifested the atmosphere or is it just the world around us, now viewed as frightening by a society assailed by fear.

Karam's play leaves you hanging but it certainly provokes debate and conjecture into the lives of his six characters, the moves from comedy to tension flow smoothly within the dynamic that he builds between his characters, as jokes are shared, family memories are remembered and needling grudges are aired.  With a real-time running time of 90 minutes, Karam certainly packs much in and yet leaves air for the characters to settle in, and all have their moments to shine.

Joe Mantello's direction is wonderfully fluid and pervasive, each small moment contributes to the whole, even if they seem unimportant at the time.  Mantello also keeps the tension running underneath the mundane family dinner so you find yourself watching each corner of David Zinn's fantastic split-level set, even if it is in shadow and unpopulated.

Special mentions too for Justin Townsend's lighting which really comes into it's own at the end of the play as the one spot of light is the dull yellowish strip-lighting of the basement, and also to Fitz Patton for his soundscape of ordinary NY apartment sounds which seem to take on a chilling life of their own.

The Hampstead Theatre have had the wonderful good fortune to bring over the original off-Broadway then on-Broadway ensemble and they show the wonderful rapport and trust in each others' performances that has developed over their three years together.

Reed Birney is excellent as Erik, a seemingly ordinary man who is quietly collapsing within from the external pressures of keeping his head above water in today's world and he is matched by Jayne Houdyshell as Deirdre.  It was said of Laurette Taylor's legendary performance in the Broadway premiere of THE GLASS MENAGERIE that she seemed like an ordinary woman who had wandered through the stage door onto the stage and Houdyshell brought that essence to THE HUMANS; a woman who just plows on, no matter what: worrying about her now-grown daughters - the first thing she does when she arrives is upbraid Brigid for not opening the care package she sent her during Hurricane Sandy, caring for her mother-in-law with the same attention she gives to the migrants at her church charity, and warily watchful of her struggling husband.  There is a wonderful moment when Deirdre stands in darkness above overhearing her daughters in the basement make fun of the constant 'informative' e-mails that she forwards to them and, by just her body language, Houdyshell tells you all about her character's pain for that fleeting moment.

Cassie Beck as Aimee and Sarah Steele as Brigid possess the natural affinity of sisters who have quietly striven to escape their Catholic home, Beck wonderfully plays the scene where she calls her ex-lover, attempting to sound neutral in wishing her a happy holiday but struggling with her feelings as her ex-partner obviously wants to end the call while Steele manages to invest Brigid with enough brio to counter-balance the character's faddish obsessions with health foods and living the 'right' way.  Arian Moayed navigates the slightly colourless role of Richard well, his well-meaning attempts at trying to make polite conversation with the formidable Erik and Deirdre are squirm-inducing and he does elicit sympathy when they seemingly snipe at him about his access to the wealth that they don't have; while Lauren Klein is a memorable 'Momo' in what must be a physically demanding role of seemingly doing little but being a powder-keg of emotions which burst out of her, particularly when she explodes in a rage towards the end of the play.

Most American plays which do well on Broadway - THE HUMANS won four Tony Awards including Best Play - tend to not fare well in London; like THE HUMANS they usually go to fringe theatres and rarely transfer.  It will be interesting to see the fate of this wonderfully-crafted and acted play which lingers on in the memory afterward and deserves a wider audience.

Dvd/150: AN AGE OF KINGS (Michael Hayes, 1960, tv)

With current Shakespeare productions full of gender-fluid casting, set in abattoirs or Carnaby Street, it's a pleasure to see the BBC's landmark 1960 fifteen-part series of The History Plays, from RICHARD II to RICHARD III, all the more remarkable for being broadcast live.

Yes, the performances are declamatory but at least the verse is spoken correctly.  In those pre-NT / RSC days, the cast were drawn from companies like Birmingham Rep, OUDS and The Old Vic; remarkably they are used as a proper rep company, playing different roles throughout the series - that would never happen now.

Particularly memorable are Sean Connery (Hotspur), Angela Baddeley (Mistress Quickly), Hermione Baddeley (Doll Tearsheet), Robert Hardy (Henry V), Judi Dench (Princess Katherine), Eileen Atkins (Joan d'Arc), Mary Morris (Queen Margaret), Julian Glover (Edward IV) and Paul Daneman (Richard III)... and a shock seeing Violet Carson (pre-CORONATION STREET) as Richard III's mum!

Shelf or charity shop?  I can see myself stepping back in time to experience the nervy, live-action performances again - i'faith.


Monday, September 03, 2018

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at the Lyttelton, National Theatre - Brother Bankers

What had I let myself in for, I thought, as I sat in the Lyttelton to watch nearly three and a half hours of Italian-translated drama about the banking firm Lehman Brothers who were one of the biggest casualties of the 2008 financial crisis?  I had let myself in for a wonderful night of pure theatre.

Everything about the production purrs along like a Rolls-Royce, making the ride smooth as silk: Sam Mendes direction, Es Devlin's set and the three masterly performances of Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles.  Apart from a few noddy moments in the first of three acts, I was fully drawn into the Lehman's world of finance, their rise in power and influence almost symbiotically matched by the growth of America as a country of risk, investment and money.  Luckily the play's adapter Ben Power has reduced the original Italian playing time of five hours!

In a huge, sleek glass-walled office, a cleaner goes about his work in between cardboard archive boxes which are piled up along the windows looking out into a dark Manhattan night; slowly three figures in formal 19th Century frock coats appear from nowhere: they introduce themselves as Henry, Emmanuel and Mayer Lehman.  Henry arrived in New York from Bavaria in 1844, just another Jewish immigrant from old Europe seeking a new life in the New World.  He travelled down to Alabama and opened a store where he was joined by his brother Emmanuel three years later, and the youngest brother Mayer three years after that.  Their store started buying and re-selling raw cotton and, so quietly and unobtrusively, an empire was born.

And so they rose in prominence and influence, every major setback in the country seemingly to play to their advantage especially during the Civil War when they shifted their offices to New York and, when the War proved cotton an unstable product, moved onto coffee and oil.  When the War ended, they deftly became a bank, better to aid the South's reconstruction through Alabama State funds. Soon after the beginning of the 20th Century, the original three brothers were dead.  Emmanuel's son Phillip headed up the company until his son Robert took over: by then they had helped in setting up Woolworth, Macy's, Sears & Roebuck, Pan Am, Studebaker, RCA, Haliburton and Compaq.

Robert managed to successfully steer the company through the Stock Market crash and following Great Depression but with no family to hand the firm onto at Robert's death, disruptive leadership battles in the boardroom led to the business being sold to American Express.  By the time of it's regained Independence in the 1990s it was heavily involved in the shadier, more risky banking practises.  Eventually it's doctored balance sheets and disastrous subprime mortgage loans forced the company into bankruptcy.

The crash is dealt with relatively swiftly as the climax of the play, it's almost like writer Stefano Massini and adapter Ben Powers felt that it didn't need too much time spent on it, they are more interested in the journey of the family to that moment and how the intentions of the three original brothers were changed into the greed and sharp practises 164 years later.  Through the use of careful symbolism the play slowly takes hold, I loved the constant thread (no pun intended) running through the middle section of a tightrope walker who performed on Wall Street in the 1920s (illustrated by Simon Russell Beale!) until the day he fell off the wire in 1929, almost presaging the Crash.

Massini's play has previously been staged with large casts of actors playing all the members of the Lehman family and their associates but in Sam Mendes' marvellous stroke of genius he has just his three actors play all the roles which affords countless lightning-fast impressions of characters - some of whom you definitely wish to see more of.  Of course Simon Russell Beale is pure joy, as the oldest brother Henry whose early demise from Yellow Fever gives him free rein to appear as flirty maids, Southern belles, an old rabbi, the obsessive Phillip Lehman and as Robert Lehman's hard-as-nails wife Ruth - an incidental but never-to-be-forgotten image is of him doing a very prim and demure twist to "The Beat Goes On"!

Adam Godley also triumphs in various roles but mostly as Robert Lehman, whose love of speed and recklessness almost mirrors the eventual downturn in his family's business under his watch, he also hilariously plays all the women that Philip Lehman methodically dates and rejects following a mathematical rating system and the eventual bride Carrie - he also was born to play a screaming baby!

Ben Miles loses out on the showier roles but is very good as Herbert Lehman, the censorious son of Mayer Lehman who avoided the family business and became a powerful Democratic New York politician, as well as the nasty Lewis Glucksman who rises from being a trader to running the business off the rails and into American Express' domain.

Es Devlin's large glass box set slowly revolves at each new scene to open up a new vista and is a wonderful place to stage the Lehman saga, it also manages a cunning reveal in the final scene when the three actors vanish as a crowd of supernumeraries - and what a shock after living with the three lead actors for over three hours it is to see a large group of people - as the 2008 employees crowded into the office with their cardboard boxes waiting for the bankruptcy phone call.

Jon Clark's lighting is exemplary but the real visual coup is Luke Halls' video cyclorama at the back which seamlessly moves the locations from early New York to the cotton fields and rolling rivers of the South back again to the growing, unstoppable skyline of Manhattan, as Robert Lehman's mania for hanging onto life is illustrated by Godley, Russell Beale and Miles twisting on boxes to Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On" - an inspired choice - Halls' dense downtown skyline spins faster and faster out of control; a remarkable stage image.  A special mention too for the musical underscoring by Candida Caldicot on a piano by the side of the stage.

In a year that has already been full of delights, THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is one of the most unexpectedly powerful; it shows again what only theatre can do: to conjure a world and a span of time by allowing your imagination to fly.

Monday, August 27, 2018

FUN HOME at the Young Vic - Drawing out the past...

I had never heard of Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic novel/memoir FUN HOME until it's musical adaptation transferred to Broadway in 2015 where it won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book.  I can't say I was particularly interested in it until the Young Vic announced it was going to stage it's London premiere and I thought "Uh-oh, that will sell out there so I had better go - just in case".  I am glad I did because I enjoyed it a lot.

The Young Vic production is staged by the Broadway creative team - directed by Sam Gold, choreographed by Danny Mefford, designed by David Zinn, lighting by Ben Stanton - so it's a rare opportunity to get the full intention behind the original musical over here.  To be honest, I can't say I totally loved the score but allied to the excellent performances, I was won over at the end.

Alison Bechdel wrote (and drew) FUN HOME to come to terms with her upbringing in a Funeral Home (FUNeral HOME) in Pennsylvania.  If that wasn't odd enough, it was only when she went to University - and came out - that she realized she had been unknowingly living in an emotional pressure-cooker: her father - full-time teacher, part-time funeral director - was a closet homosexual who had indulged in risky encounters throughout his marriage, even leading to police involvement.  After a visit from Alison to the now-bleak family home, her father walks in front of a speeding lorry.  Her father might have been destroyed by his sexuality but Alison is liberated by hers...

Lisa Kron's book slides back and forwards in time as Alison reviews her life: from Small Alison first realizing that she might be different to Medium Alison's coming out while confronting her family's secrets.  Indeed I felt that Kron's book is better than her lyrics, I am sure she would say that repeating a line three times reflects Small Alison's limited vocabulary but after a while it got wearing "I wanna play airplanes / I wanna play airplanes / I wanna play airplanes..."  Really Lisa?

Jeanine Tesori is on a bit of a UK roll at the moment: THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE has just toured (cancelled abruptly by shady producers), CAROLINE OR CHANGE is due to open later this year in the West End after a sold-out run at Hampstead and now FUN HOME is sold out at the Young Vic.  Her score was certainly soaring at times and had her usual pastiche numbers - a Jackson 5-style number when Alison and her brothers pretend to be in a tv ad for their Fun Home, and a Partridge Family pastiche about living in a loving family - but they stay in my mind while I am in the theatre, none of them have stayed with me since.  However within the show they worked very well, I really liked the scene where Small Alison and her brothers are visiting New York with their father, and when she catches him leaving them alone at night-time, he sings her a lullaby, almost whispered and a capella, you could hear a pin drop as we watch a moment of tenderness while knowing he wants her to sleep so he can leave them to have sex.  

Sam Gold's direction is excellent however - you can believe all characters have an inner history and motivation - and he brings out performances which draw you in to the story (apart from one).  David Zinn and Ben Stanton's contributions also make this show a surprisingly visual delight - there was a reveal in the second act which even elicited an 'ooooo' from the audience.  The music also sounded rich and full under Nigel Lilley's musicians, hidden away at the back of the stage.

As I said, one of the nine performers, for me, stood out for the wrong reasons: Zubin Varla as Bruce, Alison's father, gave a jangling, odd performance that was resolutely charmless.  As written, Bruce is an unsympathetic character so the actor playing him has to have some spark of charisma and humanity to understand him but Varla remains a cold fish throughout so his desperate suicide makes no impact.

No such problems with Jenna Russell as Helen, Alison's schoolteacher mother, hers is a performance that, from the start, is intriguing.  Tense and stoic, Helen's life is spent watching for signs of Bruce's infidelity and this finally cracks when she tells Alison of her unhappy life; Russell's singing of the angry "Days and Days" was one of the show's highlights.

Kaisa Hammerlund was very good as Alison, hardly ever offstage and totally sympathetic; she also had one of the best musical moments: riding in the car with her father on her last visit home, they struggle to speak to each other and the moment to connect is lost while Alison watches the telephone lines stretching out into the night.  Eleanor Kane also created a sympathetic Medium Alison, stumbling bashfully into her lesbianism.  She was partnered with the delightful Cherrelle Skeete as her fellow-college student lover Joan.

Playing Small Alison was Harriet Turnbull, she was remarkably charismatic and shone with a directness that totally swept you along with her; none more so than in her solo "Ring of Keys" where for the first time, while sitting in a diner with her unobservant father, she notices a butch lesbian delivering a parcel and immediately feels a connection.  Hers was the performance of the evening. She also had a good onstage partnership with Archie Smith and Eddie Martin as her siblings.

Who knows if FUN HOME will transfer, it certainly deserves a chance for it's remarkable originality, production and performances but would it find an audience?  Watch this space...