Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Review: Showstopper! The Improvised Musical

Showstopper! the improvised musical is a highly entertaining show which promises a brand new musical every night, improvised on the spot by its company. The premise is simple: a theatre producer has just 70 minutes to produce a musical on the spot and invites the audience to make suggestions for the theme of the show, its title and a number of musical styles to be incoporated into the show.
On this night at the Leicester Square Theatre, we were treated to T-Rexctasy, a tale of love and dinosaurs, featuring songs in Disney, Sondheim and country and western styles amongst others. It was extremely silly, and lots of fun, and you soon realise that the story, such at it is, really isn't that important and the joy of this is in watching the performers interact and bounce off each other in entertaining and often hilarious ways. Lucy Trodd was the star of this particular show, but Ruth Bratt and Adam Meggido as a double act and Pippa Evans made a very funny group of villagers and all of the performers were on fine form. NB: If you do go, do make lots of suggestions as it makes it more fun, and they thrive off responding to the curveballs people throw at them, plus you only get to make suggestions at the beginning.

This is the third time I have seen this show and can vouch that it has been different each time. It really is an impressive spectacle and one comes away from the show with great respect for all of the performers. You can catch the show at a variety of venues across London on different days, details on their website, although my recommendation would be to see it at the Kings Head in Islington, the intimate theatre pub there being perfectly suited to this kind of performance.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Review: Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues is the second play by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell to open in recent months in London, following the Almeida's production of When The Rain Stops Falling. That play was well-received, rapturously so by yours truly, and this play was made into a film in 2001 called Lantana which happens to be one of my all-time favourite films, so safe to say I was somewhat looking forward to this production opening in the West End at the Duke of York's theatre.

Ostensibly, this play is centred around the disappearance of a woman and the subsequent police investigation, but in reality it is much more about the fragility of human relationships and the ways in which we betray each other. Nine characters feature in Speaking in Tongues in a tangle of adulterous liaisons, betrayals, unexpected connections, confessions and interviews. These are all presented in a variety of formats which may take the viewer by surprise especially with a big shift as the second half starts, but stick with it as it does all become clear.

The first act opens with two couples committing adultery with each others' partners but is delivered with a breathless display of technical acting unlike anything I've seen before. The two scenes are played simultaneously but separately on the same stage and much of the dialogue is actually shared by the characters, but delivered at the same time by two or more of the actors in perfect synchronicity, it really does have to be seen to be believed as it does go on for some considerable length as well. I was very impressed by it, my companion less so, but I'm usually right about these things ;-)

After having broken my heart most effectively in the most recent series of Torchwood, I was most excited to see Lucy Cohu on the stage and I am pleased to say that she did not disappoint. She looked stunning dancing her way through the first act in her blue dress, and brought some real heartbreaking intensity to her scenes in the second half after the switcheroo. Kerry Fox was also good, with a great soliloquy at the end of the first act, but her accent (she is a Kiwi by birth) was somewhat inconsistent which perplexed me a bit. Of the male performances, John Simm impressed me the most in the first half exuding a great blokiness which left me in no doubt about all the women wanted to sleep with him and the men wanted to be friends with him. Ian Hart came into his own in the devastating final scene, but was slightly hampered by having the less interesting of the characters in both halves.

The staging of this play is largely very well done given the limited space that they have to work with. Different layers of the set are periodically peeled back giving an almost split-screen effect which gives great energy to the production. The lighting is very atmospheric and the use of video projections in the second act was particularly effective in helping to evoke the strong emotions of the piece. This did however conversely also highlight the weakness of the very cheap looking fake views out of the windows that popped up in the first half, they really were naff and could easily have just been replaced with a bright light to a much better effect.

Despite my previous knowledge of the source material, I do believe that this is a strongly plotted play that despite the shift midway through, hangs together coherently. As with When The Rain..., it rewards paying close attention and being made to work perhaps a little harder than elsewhere in the West End, but those rewards are rich, especially with the performance of Cohu.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Review: Gina Murray & Anna-Jane Casey, Late Night Cabaret at the Delfont Room

I had to think a while before posting about my experience here on Saturday night, but ultimately I have been convinced that it is the right thing to do. The late night cabaret shows have been a semi-regular feature at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales theatre for a while now, and have starred other such luminaries as Janie Dee, Hannah Waddingham and the cast of Avenue Q. This Saturday saw the turn of Gina Murray and Anna-Jane Casey to take the stage, but it was not to be an enjoyable evening for me.

One or two numbers into the show, Anna-Jane Casey launched into a joke about country & western music and a group of deaf men, which was accompanied by I assume what she considered to be an amusing impersonation of how deaf people talk, which was then repeated several times. Ironically, I don't even know what the punchline of the joke was since Ms Casey's delivery was not sufficiently good to reach the side of the room, and the laughs that were being generated as much from her impersonations as the content drowned her out.

As a deaf man, I know that this was only really a sensitive issue for myself (and perhaps any other deaf people in attendance) but I was severely disappointed and upset to have paid for an evening's entertainment only to find myself having to confront the prejudices and mocking that form a part of many disabled people's everyday life. Perhaps Ms Casey wasn’t to know that her impersonation was just like one of the ways that I was bullied when I was younger, but quite frankly that is beside the point. At best it was highly insensitive, at worst it was downright offensive, it ruined my evening and left me extremely upset. I should probably have left at that point, but wanted to let my companion enjoy the rest of the evening, before letting him know how upset I was as we left.

I hope that Ms Casey realises how her lack of sensitivity can be interpreted by the very people she is poking fun at, no matter how innocently, and I would hope that she would refrain from using such behaviour in future.

In terms of the actual cabaret, I found it hard to enjoy it, given my state of mind but regardless, I did feel that it was somewhat underpowered. Everything was well sung, but Casey’s diction was really quite poor in most of her songs, and I felt Murray’s song choices were disappointingly pedestrian, veering heavily towards MOR pop songs whereas I would have preferred some more theatrical curiosities. I realise that shows like this come on top of the performers’ regular schedules and are meant to be informal, but given that there is a paying audience, I would have liked a little more of a professional and imaginative feel to it.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Review: Prick Up Your Ears

Despite its name, Prick Up Your Ears is actually billed as a new play by Simon Bent, which uses Joe Orton's diaries and John Lahr's biography to take a closer look at the private lives of the playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Starting in 1962, the play follows the journey of the two men who dreamt of dominating the literary world together and how their paths took wildly differing turns, culminating in a brutal and tragic end.

The action here takes place solely in the Islington apartment that Orton and Halliwell shared, with occasional interjections from their landlady Mrs Corden. Bent's take on the story is that as Orton's star rose he was more than ably helped by Halliwell, indeed his success was dependent on him, and that formed the crux of their relationship, giving extra meaning to Halliwell's subsequent depression and Orton's treatment of him. I'm not sure that this interpretation worked for me and to be honest, I remain to be convinced.

Matt Lucas has a difficult job here in managing the balancing act of rehabilitating Halliwell's character, given the well-known bloody ending to the story. There are shades of previous performances in his comedic earlier scenes, but given the sheer number of characters covered in his shows, this is perhaps inevitable and did not really detract from the show here. I felt Lucas was ironically much better at portraying the darker shades of Halliwell psyche, his descent into madness is convincingly played, but I did end up feeling a little uneasy about how the audience was being asked to feel sorry for a murderer which was how I felt the show was leading me.

As Joe Orton, Chris New is excellent. His performance exudes a great physicality and sexuality which goes a long to explaining th hold Orton had over Halliwell, and he did a great job in showing the increasing disillusionment felt towards his partner. Gwen Taylor as the landlady Mrs Corder has most of the funny lines of the play, but her quality shines over and above the writing as her comic timing is pure class: she is mercilessly funny with her every word and movement and basically steals every scene she is in.

The set is quite ingenious: as the play progresses, we see the collage encroach ever further over the apartment, creating a darker, more ominous atmosphere mirroring Halliwell's mood. Scenes are punctuated with short blackouts, during which panels are slid back to reveal more of the collage and this was so smoothly done, it was hard to see how they had managed it, impressive!

The play speeds by quite niftily, the three actors have good chemistry together, and there is a great sense of claustrophobic foreboding about the whole production, but for some reason I have to say it just didn't click with me. Given its proximity to other material with a similar name, for me it just didn't offer any new, convincing food for thought.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Review: Our Class

Our Class is a blistering look at the Polish collusion in the atrocities of the Second World War from Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek, presented here in a new version by Ryan Craig (although given this is a world premiere and someone else is credited with the literal translation, I'm not quite sure what 'version' actually means). Taking the Jedwabne massacre as its focal point, a massacre of the entire Jewish population of a village long thought to have been carried out by the Nazis but recently discovered to have actually been the actions of the local Polish people, the play is an attempt to try and understand how the villagers could have turned on each other in such a way and subsequently kept the terrible secret. It does this by following a class of Polish schoolchildren, some Catholic, some Jewish, starting in 1925 and working its way through to the modern day.

I have to admit to initially having my doubts as the play opened with adults pretending to be schoolchildren which is never nice to see, but there was enough humour present to see the scene through as they all talked about what they wanted to be in the future. The cast of ten actually play their characters throughout their lifespan and so my doubts were quickly dispelled as the classmates grew up throughout the 1930s with the twin shadows of Soviet and Nazi invasions shattering their childhood dreams and ultimately setting them against each other to brutal effect.
This is powerful, moving, unflinching stuff that will stay with me for a long time. It is so easy with hindsight to say what one would have done in the face of the evils of fascism and war, and what this play does brilliantly is to highlight the difficult decisions and unimaginable sacrifices that many had to make just to even survive to the next day, and then their struggles to reconcile those choices after the fact. Each of the ten characters is given their moment to shine, and so whilst this had an impact on the running time (3 hours with interval), it meant that one was fully engaged with the entire piece and everyone in it. As one by one they passed away, they took seats on the edge of the stage on the chairs that had previously been used in the schoolroom scenes, and they too watched the rest of the events unfold. I really liked the use of chants to punctuate the scenes, they added an urgency to the proceedings which maintained the heightened sense of tension.

The Cottesloe has been reconfigured into the round (or more accurately the rectangle) and this setting worked perfectly: sat on the front row I almost felt part of the action and completely immersed into the intimate atmosphere with the barest of sets and minimal effects. I would very much like to see more productions here use this staging format as it really enhanced the experience and it was the first time I had seen it used this way. It seems unfair to single out any of the cast as they were all excellent, delivering strong, honest performances which always felt truthful, no matter how horrific: that said, Lee Ingleby was just terrific as the manipulative Zygmunt, and Amanda Hale and Tamzin Griffin both impressed, particularly with their struggles to deal with life as survivors after the war. But the quality of the ensemble really was excellent throughout, and given this was a preview, all the more impressive.

Haunting, brutal and sometimes painful though this may be, this is important, powerful work and I could not recommend it more.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Review: Enron

Premiered this summer in Chichester and now making the move to Sloane Square's Royal Court, Lucy Prebble's second play Enron has achieved a quite astonishing level of success. Bolstered by four- and five-star reviews earlier this year, the entire run at the Royal Court sold out before opening and a West-End transfer has already been announced. Fortunately, the play lived up to its billing and provided a highly entertaining and educational evening.

Telling the story of Enron, a much-feted energy corporation whose surprise collapse in 2001 leaving billions of dollars of debt, Prebble has done a fantastic job in making the subject of financial manoeuvring very accessible and engaging, whilst never patronising her audience, and her work is given extra strength due to the current state of the economy and our subsequent realisation that this was not an isolated incident as first believed.

One of the main strengths of this play is its unerring plausibility, and this is perfectly exemplified by the well-drawn characters and the performances of each of the leads. There are no pantomime villains here, no evil chuckling over bags of swag, but rather 3 businessmen making increasingly bad decisions. Tim Pigott-Smith as Enron's wily founder Ken Lay is full of backslapping southern bonhomie which belies his ruthlessness and complicity as the share price soars; Tom Goodman-Hill was highly impressive as the financial officer Andy Fastow whose inventive schemes to hide the debts are brilliantly explained in a key scene with a Russian doll-like collection of boxes; and finally Samuel West is just superb as Jeffrey Skilling, the chairman who led Enron on its merry dance. We follow him on his tumultuous journey from the overweight, gauche Harvard ingenue on his arrival, through his ruthless climb to the presidency (shafting his rival, the ever-excellent Amanda Drew), losing weight and morals as he rises to the top and then desperately trying to maintain the untenable position through ever-increasingly outlandish schemes. West imbues his performance with enough humanity so that one does end up sympathising somewhat with him, yet all-the-while remaining a thoroughly unlikeable chap.

The rest of the company also deserve a mention though, as they work extremely hard and do an excellent job: singing, dancing, playing at dinosaurs, fighting with lightsabres, all and more are carried out with aplomb and fantastic energy, the scene changes in particular were admirably swift.

Rupert Goold's direction here, particularly in the first half, is simply dazzling. Bringing together elements of song, movement and video, and weaving in highly effective lighting, sound design and a visually arresting set, the combined effect is often breathtaking. There's a strong vein of dark comedy which highlights the absurdity of what Enron was able to get away with, and whilst the energy of the play subsides slightly in the second half with the shift to a more traditional story-telling and less of the Gooldisms, the sheer quality of the acting carries it through.

This is a great play, which at any other time would have been well-received anyway due to the inventiveness of the direction and clarity in demystifying the murky pool of financial nefariousness, but its timing now and the light it sheds on the reasons for the state of the world today elevates it to outstanding. Thought-provoking and educational, but above all, highly educational: do not miss!

Cast of Enron continued

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Review: Mother Courage and her Children

Mother Courage and her Children sees Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner reunited once again at the National Theatre as part of the Travelex £10 season. Brecht's play of a woman who is determined to make a profit from the war that surrounds her, even as that same war takes her children from her one by one, has been freshly translated by Tony Kushner and Warner has utilised the vast space of the Olivier to great effect to create something quite unique.

It is a fairly lengthy beast, the first half alone is two hours long, but neither I nor my companion felt that it dragged at all, I found the songs kept it quite pacey, and felt much the same during the second half (a mere hour long). There wasn't that high a level of dropout after the interval which was quite nice to see and there was a strong reception for the players at the end. Much has been made of the introduction of Duke Special and his band but I have to say I thought by and large it worked. Personally, I was not as keen on the rockier numbers, despite Shaw gamely rocking out, but was genuinely moved by some of the slower numbers, especially when he was duetting with other characters.

Cast of Mother Courage continued

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Review: Breakfast At Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's is the latest film adaptation to hit London's West End, taking up residence in the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Not having seen the film, I had to be informed that this adaptation is actually much closer to the original Truman Capote novella than the Hollywood version, so namely there is much less coyness about how the leads make their money and the timeframe is restored back to 1943. A young writer, Fred, makes his way to New York City where he meets Holly Golightly "a charming, vivacious and utterly elusive good-time girl" who lives in his building and we follow their developing relationship for a year, in the shadow of World War II and her need for a rich sugar daddy.

Events did not start off well by the first main scene seriously evoking the recent corpse of Too Close To The Sun with some pointlessly fast revolving sets, followed by a metal lampshade that lost control and clanged endlessly against a bit of the set, and then by a cringeworthy dance routine which left most of my party helpless with the giggles. This triple threat should have warned us to leave then and there: the evening did not get any better.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Review: Hello, Dolly!

Ending this year's run of shows at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park is a revival of the Jerry Herman musical Hello, Dolly! It is a classic piece, and its presentation here is respectful of that and delivers a straight up rendition mercifully free of irony. Hello, Dolly! is not for people who claim that they don't like musicals. It is old-school Broadway singing and dancing through and through and about as much fun on a stage as you could imagine: there is no place for cynicism here.

Admittedly, I did not see it in the heights of summer when one might expect a slightly better chance of sunshine, but one did start to question the methods of the Open Air Theatre on rainy days, as the stagehands were made to work extremely hard, wiping down the stage diligently four times in 45 minutes before the actual start of the show. One began to feel so sorry for them as it seemed every time they finished a new shower would begin. Fortunately, the sheer joy of the production meant that the conditions were soon forgotten.

The plot concerns Dolly Levi, a widowed matchmaker from New York, who is well known for her well-intentioned interventions, who has set her eye on Horace Vandergelder and in order to prove her love for him, has to neogotiate the lovelives of at least three other couples around them. Samantha Spiro is just superb as the titular Dolly. Her singing and dancing may not necessarily be of the highest order, but her performance transcends this as she carries the whole show on a wave of warmth and ebullience. Her meddling only ever seems to come from a place of love, and this is shown by the genuine affection shown to her by the entire cast.
Vandergelder was played by an understudy on the night I saw it, and he could probably have done a little more to show us some of the underlying kindness beneath the gruffness, to show us what it is that attracts Dolly so. Of the supporting roles, Josefina Gabrielle as the flirty milliner Irene Molloy, and Daniel Crossley as Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder's hard-done-by employee were both excellent, investing their sub-plot with much humour and pathos (Crossley's dancing in particular was a sight to behold), so much so that I cared as much about this relationship as I did about Dolly's, which is most probably want Dolly would want us to feel anyway.

Staging-wise it looks good, the wooden set showing some flexibility as each of the key locations and with some imaginative use of flags and material to add some real vibrancy to some numbers, but it was the choreography that really set this production above the rest in terms of sheer quality. The two set pieces for 'Waiters' Gallop' and 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes' have to rank as amongst my favourite things seen on stage this year and were worth the entrance fee alone. The group numbers are performed with infectious happiness that I constantly found myself just beaming at the spectacle.

This production really does deserve a West End transfer, and I thoroughly expect Spiro to receive at least some nominations, if not awards, at the end of the year. Finally, another reason why I loved it so much. Hello, Dolly! is the only film that the adorable robot Wall-E is able to watch and it informs his whole perspective on love: walking out of this performance, I thought what a wonderful MGM world that would be to live in.

Cast of Hello, Dolly! continued

Friday, 11 September 2009

Review: The Shawl

With the lure of an Oscar-nominated actress and within walking distance of my flat, it did not take much to convince me to go and see The Shawl, a short but punchy play by American playwright David Mamet. The venue was the Arcola Theatre, the innovative Hackney venue which is pioneering a wide range of sustainable activities including the attempt to become the world's first carbon neutral theatre.

The play is about a conman-like psychic John, played by Matthew Marsh, who is attempting to fleece Miss A out of a large inheritance, whilst teaching his young protégé Charles the tricks of his trade. Miss A has her own agenda in visiting the psychic though and Charles is less interested in real learning than just making a quick buck. Over four short acts, the issues of trust and betrayal in the shadow of greed are examined and the question is asked "is there such thing as an honest charlatan?"

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Review: Punk Rock

Marking the beginning of Sean Holmes' artistic directorship of the Lyric Hammersmith, Punk Rock is a new play written by Simon Stephens. It looks at the experiences of seven teenagers as they negotiate their final years of private school in Stockport, with the pressure of imminent mock exams looming on top of their regular adolescent trials and tribulations. The punk rock of the title is limited to short bursts which mark the scene changes, which i have to say was a blessing for me!

The company is made up of young people (thankfully there's no 30 year olds dressing up embarassingly as schoolboys) with a combination of some experienced actors and some debutantes. This definitely adds to the freshness of the production, which is handsomely mounted, the library set looking very convincing. The action opens with new girl Lily meeting the somewhat kooky Will who is keen to impress the newcomer but finds his plans skewered by the arrival of other schoolmates into the library. 

As a wryly observed comedy, the opening few scenes do really well at setting the scene of fractious teenage relations and are well-written, with some genuine laugh out loud moments. Appearing to not take itself too seriously, the almost Dawson's Creek-like speechifying is amusing, especially since it is mostly delivered to the audience with little interaction from the fellow cast members. But with the shift into drama midway through, the weaknesses of the play are sadly highlighted, as it becomes apparent that it is meant to be a realistic portrayal of teenage angst. One find it very hard to buy the sudden brutality of the villain, especially given the foppishness of his nature earlier on, and the passiveness of the other characters in this key scene was also hard to believe. For me, the main problem was the sheer disparity of the group of characters: without a real device to bring them together (c.f. detention in the Breakfast Club) it somewhat stretched the imagination to have this group meet time and time again, especially given the vileness of much of their behaviour towards each other.

And whilst I am a fan of good plays running without intervals, the final coda felt like a very misguided addition, managing to both dissipate all the tension that had been built up in the preceding scene and add precisely nothing to the message of the play. A shame really as finishing 10 minutes earlier could have left a much greater impression.

Acting wise, Tom Sturridge impressed as Will, reeling off some incredibly verbose passages with ease and benefitting from the one really well-drawn character in the play. Jessica Raine as the object of his affection Lily started off brightly with a superb performance, but soon finds her character sidelined and somewhat reduced to stereotype which was a shame. The rest of the cast did well, but due to their almost caricature-like statuses, struggled to make any real impact, since we are asked to stretch the imagination too much to really invest in any of them.

One final note about the audience: the Lyric is very good at attracting a much younger crowd to its shows, but tonight's lot were quite appallingly behaved. Laughing raucously at every swear word I could live with (just), but when this extended to random outbursts at just casual remarks, it really became intrusive. Had I greater strength of character, I would have said something to the main offenders as they were seated but two places to my left, but I wimped out. Maybe there is something to be said about the middle-aged middle-England mediocrity of the National's regular audience after all!