29 December 2006

The Sound of Music – London Palladium, Tuesday 26th December 2006


Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear oh dear……..

Its as hard writing a balanced review of a show that you’ve felt bitterly disappointed with as it is to write one about one you’ve thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, its harder, because I just don’t know where to start.

Lloyd Webber’s much-hyped production is neither fish nor fowl. He states in the programme that he wasn’t interested in staging a copy of the film, but wanted to resurrect the original stage production – and then proceeds to put elements of the film into it. Numbers are moved around, added in from the film, taken out, nods to the film are made where they are not needed, where nods from the film are needed they are missed out……

I really don’t know where all the money thrown at this production went. It certainly wasn’t in the scenery. The show opens with Maria apparently being seen from above as she lays on her mountainside – unfortunately in the same “window” of the stage cloth which for a couple of minutes has held a figure of the Madonna and Child in Glory as the stage slowly fills with singing nuns. Fade out Madonna, fade in Maria. Unfortunately, this juxtaposition achieves nothing but making Maria look like she is spreadeagled on the cross. Up goes the cloth, to reveal that she is actually lying on a huge green and grey flying saucer which revolves in the air and tilts forward and turns into a mountain to run up and down. Is Maria a friendly alien in the mould of ET, we wonder? Cut to the Abbey, where Mother Abbess’s chair and desk seem to be standing in the corridor – well, perhaps she had the decorators in. Maria’s cell then makes a brief and pointless appearance – space is obviously tight at Nonberg Abbey because she appears to be sharing it with two other nuns. Well, why else are there three beds? Then to the Villa Von Trapp, which flies in piecemeal and assembles itself in front of Maria’s eyes – but not the exterior, as one would expect, but the interior. And what a cheap and nasty interior it is – an ice blue semicircular ballroom, devoid of furniture, with a flimsy, one-person-wide gantry staircase running up one wall. This set is used far too much, even though it lacks visual impact to start with and doesn’t gain any with repetition. For the garden set, the house splits into two quarter circles and heads off to huddle in the two upstage corners – why??? And two extremely naff, viridian green topiary hedges do not a garden make. These aren’t even those plastic hedges which try to pass themselves off as the real thing – these look like they are foam rubber over a wooden frame. A drinks trolley (never used), two large rattan loungers (never used) and three rather tired looking garden chairs “complete” the set, which just sits there and PLEADS for the much-loved Seahorse Gates which appear in the film. As a backdrop for most of this we get magenta skies and candy-floss pink mountains looking like piles of whipped cream. Another bit of the Abbey appears briefly, followed by the ballroom, followed by the garden, followed by the ballroom….a brief visit to the concert hall (rather more effective, but I swear that those swastikas were round the wrong way) and then the flying saucer lands again (this time vaguely disguised as the Abbey cemetery) giving Maria, the Captain and the kids something to cower under briefly until they all climb up on it and it takes off to carry them over the mountains to freedom, Maria appearing at the highest edge of the disc in a burst of light just as the chorus swells into “….’til you find……..YOUR…… DREAM!” If this isn’t a nod to the TV show “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” I don’t know what it is.

Neither was the money spent on choreography – or, more precisely, the Production team completely failed to get value for whatever amount they paid. Arlene Phillips should be bullwhipped for such (frankly) piss poor work. How the woman has the nerve to bollock off contestants on “Strictly Come Dancing” and then offer such a crock of shit herself is beyond me. The dance break in “Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” was completely and utterly wasted – the entire audience was gagging for the show’s first big dance number and never got it. Instead, Arlene went for “natural” – and “natural” just don’t work, girl, when there are 20 people in the orchestra pit working their nuts off pumping out high octane dance music. Mind you, Rolf spent the entire number obviously far too concerned with the broomstick shoved up his arse to bother about doing any dancing. The Viennese Waltz was just PITIFUL. You need sweep, you need elegance, you need the stage filled with lovely costumes – and you need more than 8 bloody bars of it! Another great opportunity for spectacle just flushed down the pan.

When faced with dire scenery and choreography, you look to the book to provide some interest. And this was lacking in all respects. Much of the dialogue is gruel-thin – surely some of the great bantering and verbal swordfighting which is in the film could have been flown in to help? Much of what there was in the way of lines was simply thrown away – either through lack of skill or, more probably (or so it appeared) complete lack of interest or conviction.

So, expensive performances then? Maybe, but again Lloyd Webber and his team got little value for their money in most counts. Lesley Garrett – well, how do you solve a problem like Lesley Garrett? True, the role shows off her vocal chords very well, but they’re in the wrong body and the wrong mind. The Mother Abbess should be a woman who has maturity, experience and the courage to face down the crap which life throws our way. Instead, this Mother Abbess is a jolly, apple cheeked Yorkshire Lass who doesn’t seem to have faced any problems more troubling than a few burnt Barm Cakes and the odd badly-pulled pint of John Smith’s. “I was born up in those mountains”, she says at one point. Where? Ilkley? Its amazing that for a trained classical opera singer who produces such glorious tones when singing hasn’t managed to iron out the flat Yorkshire vowels in her speaking voice. Dialogue coach for Ms. Garrett please! During the performance, while taking something from the top of a cabinet, something fell to the floor. Anyone with any sense of the dignity of this role would have left it there and gestured for Maria to pick it up for her – it wouldn’t have taken much. Instead, this Mother Abbess got down on her haunches and started scrabbling for it. Totally out of character.

Alexander Hanson wrestles manfully with the difficult role of Captain von Trapp, but just ends up looking like Action Man – all stiff and plastic. This man should be solid ice, until Maria shatters the covering round his heart so that the warmth can come flooding out – but Hanson just goes for the lukewarm puddle. Baroness Shraeder should also be an Ice Maiden – but Lauren Ward just goes for “Musical Comedy Ingenue”. Nicola Sloane manages to make something out of nothing as Frau Schmidt but Paul Kemble lays on the “creepy Nazi” with a trowel as Franz. Neil McDermott was useless as Rolf, the telegram delivery boy. He plays the role with little conviction, has no stage presence and really doesn’t know what to do with his hands. And come on, we were all expecting a Nazi blond boy – so why isn’t he one? It’s an expected stereotype that someone who joins the Hitler Youth is going to be an Aryan. Work with us, Lloyd Webber, not against us. Sophie Bould has just that bit too much of Anne Frank about her to pull Liesl off convincingly – there is no feisty little madam here, and she fails miserably to bring the dancing off either.

And Maria? The propelled-to-fame Miss Fisher? What of her? Well, she wasn’t all bad – but she wasn’t all good either. The role of Maria is a huge, important one – and Connie just hasn’t got the stage experience to pull it off. You can see her inexperience in her gawky, slightly hunched body shape as she tries to bring herself down to the level of the von Trapp children. You can see it in her slightly panicky hand movements, almost as if she is trying just that little bit too hard and cannot fully relax into her dialogue or movements but is finding her mind running over what is to come rather than what she is doing now. You can hear it in her slightly gabbled delivery sometimes – she may be whipping up a storm but there is no calm centre to this storm. She has a slight reminiscence of Joyce Grenfell in the “St. Trinians” films – bouncy, jolly and absolutely DESPERATE to please – and this desperation shows through. There should be a point in the show when the Ugly Duckling sheds its feathers and turns into the Swan Princess – but this never happens and the Ugly Duckling simply dons a wedding dress and carries on, hoping that nobody will notice she is not really a swan (Lord – that wedding dress! SO wrong! Completely and utterly in the wrong style – it should be simple, elegant and of the period, yet this one looks like a Disney Princess cast-off). Connie may become a Swan Princess with a couple of years stage experience behind her, but at the moment her raw edges are still all too apparent. Yes, she is on her way to becoming a star, but being pushed into the limelight in such a way is going to be a hindrance to her, rather than a help.

I have been accused of being overly critical in this blog when I am disappointed with what I have seen, and no doubt I have been overly critical in this particular review. But seeing this show was like being given a wonderfully wrapped box of chocolates, opening it up and finding that all your favourites are already gone and that someone else has started on the second layer. What made this show even worse was the fact that everybody else in the theatre seemed to be eating from a completely different box of chocolates. I just wanted to stand up and shout “Can’t you see? Have you all been completely blinded by the hype?” But nobody would have heard. Everyone was so desperate for the show to be a belter and for Connie to succeed (both as Connie and as Maria) that they had stuffed the chocolates in their eyes and ears and were happily standing in the road as the Sound of Music juggernaut rolled towards them with Connie Fisher at the helm, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their critical faculties were going to be crushed under its wheels. Where’s Julie Andrews when you really need her?

Little Shop of Horrors – Menier Chocolate Factory, Friday 22nd December 2006

Once in a while, as you rummage round in the rubbish, you occasionally find a pearl. Sure, it might not be a flawless one, but under the coffee grounds and the orange peel it remains an unexpected delight. In this case, the coffee grounds are the fuss and cattle-truck experience you need to go through to actually get into the theatre – herded into a small bar, you wait with about 80 other people until the staff decide to pull back the grille and start the stampede for seats. The orange peel is a major piece of miscasting - but we still have a pearl.

Maybe I should stop going to see shows I already know from the film – it gives the show an almost impossible hurdle to surmount right from the start. And it took this show an almighty struggle to clear the first fence – but once it was across, I had a really good time. This really did prove that the best things often come in small packages.

The set was simple but extremely effective and put the scenery for my Boxing Day theatre jaunt into very sharp perspective (see review for The Sound of Music) – a rough street with two simple box sets representing the florist and the dental surgery. Nice use of a small walk up balcony at one end and an entrance stoop at the other. The small orchestra were tucked away at first floor level behind a row of windows – shame they weren’t given slightly more prominence.

It was good to see the singing trio of Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette (fab voices all, and it made good sense to have two skinny black girls and a dumpy white one – on Skid Row, you get your friends wherever you can) integrated into the story rather than their being just a Greek Chorus, narrating but not touching the story. Great Mr. Mushnik from Barry James – just the right amount of exasperated and seedy Jewishness, maybe just a little too rat-like by the end. I was initially disappointed with Sheridan Smith’s Audrey (nobody can take on Ellen Green and win) as I thought she was too small-voiced (nobody can take on Ellen….) and not possessed of enough skill to hold the required accent (nobody can take…….) and general ditsiness (nobody…..) but she really revved up in Act 2 and bought a level of sentimentality to “Suddenly Semour” that I didn’t expect. Paul Keating was splendid as Seymour and reminded me at times of a very young Anthony Perkins (particularly facially) – just enough of the outsider to make him slightly creepy in his geekiness. His barely controlled body movements made his clumsiness appealing but there was enough intelligence behind the eyes to make his cleverness realistic. Mike McShane was not quite spot on as the voice of Audrey II as his accent wandered a lot, and I wonder at the necessity of his cameo in Act I – did he do this just to reassure the audience that he was actually present and that his voiceover wasn’t a recording? Inside Audrey II, Andy Heath wiggled away wonderfully – having seen him at the end, I wouldn’t mind a wriggle with him myself. Nice design of Audrey II – looked like a big Pitcher Plant). Big disappointment of the evening was Jasper Britton as Orin Scrivello – a complete failure of casting. Scrivello should be butch and sexy, with barely controlled sexuality, perversity and madness all bubbling away inside his head – the kind of man who knows he looks shit hot in a leather jacket, gets a sexual buzz out of snorting nitrous oxide and can make your head spin at the thought of a ride on his big greasy motorbike…… *cough*. (Big missed visual gag – when Scrivello is leering at the centrefold in “Pain Magazine”, he should have rubbed his groin). However, Keating is physically more the lab technician than the mad scientist and was completely unable to convince me. A big flaw in an otherwise fantastic pearl.

28 December 2006

Coram Boy – National Theatre, 20th December 2006

Well, I don’t know what I was expecting – but this wasn’t it! In retrospect, I think I was expecting a fairly “Dickensian” type play about a long lost, golden haired orphan suffering all sorts of misery until, 10 minutes before the final curtain, being saved from the orphanage by his hitherto unrecognised parents. What I got was a dark, brooding “18th century” story of infanticide, betrayal, child slavery, corruption, greed and lust – with a bit of kiddy-fiddling thrown in for good measure. Everything you wanted for Christmas - and all set to the music of Handel, ye gods.

Its difficult to write a balanced review of something which has left one gasping for breath with its sweep – rather like I would have about the National’s “His Dark Materials” a couple of years back – another wonderful NT production based on a book for young adults. I can only say that authors are obviously producing far, far better stuff for teenagers these days than anything I ever got. The one failing of the production is really the fault of the original story in that the second act is somewhat over-reliant on “lucky co-incidences” but then I suppose that Georgian literature of the time is very similar.

Among an incredibly strong cast, Abby Ford gave such a credible portrayal of the young Alexander Ashbrook that, for most of the first act, I was sure I was watching a 15 year old boy. William Scott-Mason was totally convincing as a brutish Sir William. Justine Mitchell took a while to get into her stride but, in the second half as her character reaches womanhood, gave a very touching performance. Perhaps it’s a mark of Tim McMullan’s skill that I failed to recognise him in Act 2 as the same character as in Act 1 – he changed both physically and vocally from a dark, swaggering, sweaty monster to a slightly effeminate and mincing one – both equally dangerous in their way. There was perhaps slightly too much of Connie Booth about Ruth Gemmell’s physical appearance of Mrs Lynch for comfort, but she made a rip-roaring vilanness when the text got darker – just the type of classic, doublecrossing sidekick that a villan should watch his back around. Nicholas Tizzard was very effective as a slightly grumpy Handel – just how I always imagined Handel would have been in real life – and his last lines, effectively drawing a knife of reality through the butter of sentimentality in the closing scene were delivered with devastating comic timing.

Some great staging – I particularly liked the dramatic“underwater” scene at the height of Act 2 – and found myself wondering why the particular effect had never been used in “Twelfth Night” or “The Tempest”. It was – quite frankly – smashing. I will pass comment (please feel free to roll your eyes here) that the flowers used to decorate the Ashbrook’s ball were completely wrong for the period. It would have been slightly more convincing had the harpsichord used in the Ashbrook’s drawing room not been the same one as that in the children’s playhouse, nor had it reappeared in the drawing room after being smashed in the playhouse, or had Lady Ashbrook appeared in just the one costume all the way through. But, nitpicking aside. This was great. It was intelligent enough to make me think, funny enough to make me laugh, moving enough to make the woman in the next seat cry, and it even made Clive announce that he wanted to read the book. And if there’s higher praise than that, I don’t know what it is.

12 December 2006

Much Ado About Nothing – Novello Theatre Friday 8th December 2006

I think I once read a book called “The Land of Lost Opportunity”. This production could have been wonderful, but was completely botched by the director and cast, and I don’t recall ever being quite so unmoved by a production of a Shakespeare play (although I have walked out of a couple).

Casting was pretty dire. I thought Tamsin Craig made a good effort (for a non-Shakespearian actress) at Beatrice (she was apparently cast because of her “comedy actress” status) but she obviously couldn’t make up her mind whether she was playing it as Holly Golightly or Rizzo from “Grease”. Putting her in shades for her first scene really didn’t help the character establish herself – much of this first scene (the “baiting” of Benedick) should be played with the eyes as well as the dialogue. Morven Christie was DIRE as Hero – both her diction and projection were appalling and most of her dialogue was either inaudible, incomprehensible or both as a result. Heck – she’s playing Juliet later in the season – there’s one to miss if you can. Adam Rayner was similarly dire as Claudio – no passion, no courtliness and no perceptible passage of thought behind the eyes. OK, Claudio is one of those dreadful “Ferdinand” roles (the kind which, in opera or operetta would be played by the principal tenor) in which little is really required other than the ability to deliver the lines correctly and look pretty. The role is a mould, and it would have been good to see an actor break out of it! The singer Yvette Rochester-Dougan made an unlikely Balthasar and I can’t really say that the setting of “Sigh no more, Ladies” passed any kind of muster. OK, you force me – it was grim. And, for a production set in Cuba (nice opportunity for the RSC to showcase some of its ethnic actors), why were she and Don Pedro the only non-white inhabitants? Or were we supposed to assume that Leonardo and all his family were members of the colonial elite? Even the members of the local Watch were white to a man.

Which brings me nicely on to Bette Bourne, who struggled with what is probably Shakey’s unfunniest “comedy” role. I’ve often sat and watched some poor bastard playing Dogberry desperately flogging his lines in order to try and raise a laugh, and even an actor of Bourne’s calibre made it very heavy going. It must be very trying for gay actors to be constantly given gay roles (poor James Dreyfuss, for instance) but Bourne would have been far funnier and far more watchable if the director had decided whether he should play the role as Arthur or Martha. In this case, Martha would have been funnier – Bourne is a master of camp timing and comic putdowns – but Bourne inhabited this “on the fence” role very uneasily. Sexuality wasn’t explicit, but there was a suggestion of a relationship with Verges and some vague caressing of the Muscle Boy Watch Member – so, was he or wasn’t he? It would have been fun to see Dogberry being true to himself amidst all the macho posturing by the other male characters – this is, after all, a play about facades and masks, some of which we use in order to hide from others, some of which we use in order to hide from ourselves.

The only real acting credits go to Jonny Weir in the thankless role of Don John. This character is a minor one and it is never adequately explained why he does what he does (he’s just “All purpose evil Shakespearean disaffected with his lot in life and therefore out to get revenge on absolutely anyone who appears vaguely happy” I suppose). But at least you could hear what he was saying. With such a good voice, why wasn’t he playing Benedick?

Ah, Benedick. Sorry, but Branagh was much better (but Joseph Wilson did look shaggable wearing that beard).

The one set (a “Messinan/Cuban Courtyard”) looked pretty enough to begin with but became rather tiring when used for the entire production without change. Very little, if any use was made of the balcony which was a shame as there might well have been some good comic possibilities in using it. Good use was made of the Vespa – but a) why were its wheels mounted on boxes and b) why on earth was it on the set for the entirety of the first half? Could not one of the characters have arrived on it, parked it and then perhaps driven off on it again? And that bloody potted plant – surely the director could have come up with some better way of having Benedick eavesdrop in the garden scene? Behind you love! There’s a balcony! I saw the Renaissance Theatre Company do “Twelfth Night” once in which the “box tree” was a decorated Christmas tree. And the “hiding behind” this was just as contrived, stupid and irritating as in this production. OK, OK, suspension of disbelief is sometimes necessary, but this was just plain boring.

And what a strange ending! “Ado” is like “Dream” – needs ending with a good, jolly dance with which to shake away all the traces of the unpleasantness which has gone before. But in this production, the dance died away and Don Pedro was left marooned in a cold white spotlight. Bizarre. Points will be given to any of my readers able to explain this.

Actually, its just come to me that the story I referred to at the beginning is actually the title of a chapter in Agatha Christie’s autobiography and should be “The Land of Lost Content”. But this is still pertinent to this review, and in fact fits it rather better, because as I made my way home along a cold and windy Strand that evening, I was pretty discontent myself.

There are no actual deaths in “Ado”. The only death which occurred in this production was that of the production itself – a long, slow, painfully drawn out affair, which I observed taking place during 3¾ hours in an overheated theatre while watching second and third rate actors and a poor director murdering one of Shakepeare’s best loved plays.

27 November 2006

Titanic! – West Wickham Operatic Society, Churchill Theatre Bromley – Saturday 25th November 2006

I enjoyed this, I really, really did! I was expecting quite a lot and WWOS didn’t disappoint me. In fact, I got more pleasure out of this than I have from a lot of professional productions in the West End recently. Sure, there was the odd little thing which marked this out as an amateur production, but in the main it was very well presented and I am glad that WWOS took a risk to present what must be a difficult show to market given that all amateur productions these days must be box-office led.

In retrospect, some of the direction was perhaps rather uninspired and flat (showing that directing a show and playing a principal part in it at the same time is really not to be recommended), and there were several missed opportunities as regards choreography. The lovely waltz “Autumn” which is being played as the ship approaches its fatal collision with the iceberg cried out for a stage full of couples waltzing their way towards disaster, which would have pointed up nicely the arrogance of the upper classes on board. The First Class Dining Room scene looked cramped on stage, with many of the diners at the Captain’s Table having their backs to the audience. I know that the director must have been going for realism at this point, but artistic licence in these situations is allowed, and it would have been much easier for the audience to hear the conversations taking place had the cast been arranged around three sides of the table.

I also have a couple of gripes over some of the costumes. For a show so firmly set in its period (1912), there were an awful lot of costumes from the 1930s – several of the ladies in the chorus were wearing clothes in a style which just wouldn’t have existed in 1912. Many evening gowns were also far too modern. These errors were made worse by the appearance of many of the female cast in silk pajamas in Act 2, when they should all have been wearing long nightdresses. There was at least one chorus lady wearing a costume which was identifiably from “HMS Pinafore”. I spotted several modern suitcases being taken aboard when they should all have been period leather ones.

However, these are minor gripes. The chorus were well drilled, animated and interested in what was going on around them at all times. They were, however, not really helped by the sound imbalance caused by miking all the principals; on many occasions choruses which should have filled the theatre with sound were completely overshadowed and drowned out by the principals singing at the front of the stage. This was a real shame as the show contains a lot of opportunities for the chorus to really shine. Chorus discipline was excellent though and when they were really given their head, the sound was wonderful.

In general, scenery was fairly sparse (probably because the show demands so many quick changes of scene) but effective. The one scene where complete realism was attempted (the First Class Dining Room) looked a little awkward and was spoiled by the chandelier hanging completely off kilter.

Of the principals, Terry Gauntless and Pauline Gregoire take the honours as Isidor and Ida Strauss – they brought true poignancy to all their scenes and their song in Act 2, in which they reflect on a long and happy married life together as the final lifeboat floats away was almost unbearable – and I mean that in a complimentary sense. I found Jonathan French a little wooden as Captain Smith, but I suppose that was in character. However, had he trimmed his beard slightly, it would have helped his diction somewhat. David Hodgson was completely unable to sustain his notes as First Officer Murdoch and was embarrassingly flat on occasion. Luke Birchenough as the Lookout was excellent – fresh voiced and clear. Paul Mount was brilliant as Steward Edges and, although the singing required of him was sometimes out of his range, I feel his acting abilities overcame any of these shortcomings. Nat Hook displayed an impressive pair of biceps as the Stoker, and was excellent throughout his long and difficult solo (so can be excused for sounding somewhat vocally tired by the end of it). Bob Faint, as Major Butt, was obviously doing his best “Lionel Jeffries in Chitty Bang Bang” impression all night and I found this rather wearing, although this may well have been the fault of the script rather than the actor. Down in Second Class, Amanda Farrant was slightly over the top as Alice Beane (although cannot be faulted on her singing – especially the horrendously difficult “Embarkation” section in which she identifies many of the First Class passengers) but Chris Arden was vocally out of his depth as her long suffering husband. In Steerage, the honours were taken by Nicola Henderson as Kate McGowan – she had an amazing voice and wasn’t afraid to put it to good use when it was needed.

Despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed the entire evening aboard Titanic and am glad to have seen such a good production of this very rarely seen show.

12 November 2006

Peter Pan on Ice – Crystal Palace Arena, Sunday 12th November 2006

Dreadful. Absolutely effing dreadful. A terrible script, barely coherent to even those of us familiar with the story, and full of unnecessary “we must find something for the chorus to do” sections. Dire, uninspired, unimaginative choreography by Robin Cousins. Unimaginative costumes and some truly horrendous wigs. BAD music – there are only so many times one can reprise “Reach for the Stars” before it becomes irritating, even for S Club 7 fans (Im sure there are still some). Lugubrious narration in the forced “Hewwo, kiddiwinkies! Isn’t dis wuvvley!” style – which fools nobody, particularly not sassy and streetwise kids - by Smiley Smiley Carole Smiley. Dreadful voice-overs by Bonnie Langford (as the Oldest Wendy In Town) and Brian Blessed (reprising his famous “Play Every Part As Brian Blessed” role). Tinkerbell dressed in a ghastly red costume wearing a red fright wig that made her look like Ruby Wax crossed with Cleo Rocos (from Hot Gossip). Extra special touch – red sparkly top hat perched at a “jaunty angle”. (In the famous “Clap your hands if you believe in fairies to save Tinkerbell from dying” scene, I gladly and willingly withheld my applause just to be rid of the talentless old cow). Extremely badly staged aerial fight scene at the end between Pan and Hook – most of which was obscured by the sails of the “Jolly Roger”. Couldn’t get home fast enough.

Couple of good points – dance of Tiger Lily and the Indian Brave (obviously the “Spesh Act” – the choreography of this put all the rest to shame and showed up just how bad the rest of it was). Cute little Peter Pan, ideally cast and with a costume that showed off his flat stomach and pert butt to perfection – would certainly not have minded giving him a Jolly Roger, even if he was French.

Tickets for this crock of shit would normally have been £27.50 each. If we’d paid that, I would have been pig sick, and probably would have lugged half a dozen of the seats home in an attempt to get some value for money out of the evening. As it was, we paid £5.50 each and I still feel ripped off.

But it wasn’t an entirely wasted evening – I found a plastic-wrapped cucumber on the path on the walk back to the bus stop, which I will slice up and put in my sandwiches next week. And that, dear readers, was the high point of the evening.

Thérèse Raquin – National Theatre, Friday 10th November 2006

Curtain up. Scene – a large, gloomy apartment above a shop, Paris, sometime in the very early 20th century. 2 chairs, an artists easel, a small round dining table, a mantle mirror. Four people on stage – a young man (seated), dressed in a black suit and high collared shirt, a young woman (seated in an attitude of deepest boredom) in a long white dress, an elderly woman dressed in dark grey, a middle-aged man (standing at the easel) in brown corduroy trousers, white shirt and waistcoat. “Oh lord”, thought I, “this looks like its going to be grim”. Well, in a way I was right (the play is not the jolliest one I have ever seen, although there were a few laughs here and there), and in another way I was wrong.

Told simply, the eponymous Thérèse Raquin is unhappily married. She and her lover, whom she pretends to despise for the sake of appearance, plot to kill the husband so that they can marry and shag like bunnies under mother-in-law’s nose. Husband is drowned in a boating “accident”, Thérèse and lover marry but find that guilt pursues them from beyond the grave and they slowly go mad. Mother in law discovers their plot, has a stroke. Thérèse and lover commit suicide. Subplot – female friend deliberately invents fascinating lover, weaves complicated stories about same, finally admits that he is merely a figment of her imaginings. So, as I said, not the jolliest evening ahead. But for some reason the story and the predicaments of the characters caught my imagination and I actually found myself rather enjoying the subtle twists of the plot. It was a shame that the second act rather failed to live up to what the first act promised – I fully expected wheelchair bound mother-in-law to be rather nastily done in – she is, after all, the only other person alive who knows of the couple’s guilt, and being somewhat of an afficianado of those wonderful black and white films from the 40 and 50s like “Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte” where the heroine is either blind, deaf, dumb, wheelchair bound or all four, thought I could see a particular plot device rearing its head. But no – mother-in-law nearly manages to unmask the gruesome details but fails, having her ultimate revenge in the sight of the two culprits going slowly mad and finally drinking poisoned wine.

Tautly directed, there were some very nice moments of stagecraft in this production. Thérèse’s long, slow strip wash in an alcove (director having gone for a Degas moment), over which was played a haunting French song, intercut with voice overs and sound effects representing the murder of the hapless husband on the boating lake was very clever, and also cleverly represented time passing, enabling Thérèse to change from a white frock to Widow’s Weeds. The very unexpected segment in Act II in which the apartment wall split open to reveal the love interest staggering down a rainsoaked alleyway, racked with guilt, was unexpected and incredibly clever. And it was a very clever stroke to have the husband’s portrait malevolently glaring down – firstly from the wall of the main room, then from the mother’s bedroom) on the goings on after his death (shades of a fantastic production of “Dangerous Corner” I saw many years ago). The one thing I didn’t like was the “photograph” effects – lights up, murderer and murderess strike pose indicated guilt/decline into madness, lights down, actors change position, lights up again…… as this jarred with the style of the rest of the production. Lighting was very effective, although the light from the open fire in Act II was wrongly sourced and was flat, rather than flickering, which would have added another dimension of chill.

Good strong acting all round from the small cast – particularly from Judy Parfitt as Madame Raquin. I initially found her rather shrill and small voiced, and irritating in the manner of the actress who played Ronnie Corbett’s mother in “Sorry”. But, as she fleshed out her character, I thought “Aha! She’s MEANT to be shrill and irritating!” And it can’t be easy to play a stroke victim for an entire act, wheelchair bound and communicating only in grunts. But she held the entire stage with the expressions of malevolence and hatred shining out from her eyes. Mark Hadfield was very good as the set-in-his-ways friend, doomed to spend every Thursday night playing dominoes with his neighbours.

A couple of small gripes – during the scene in which Thérèse is washing and changing her dress, the rest of the stage is in darkness, the lights having gone down on the rest of the cast playing dominoes at the dining table. Please, Stage Manager, devise a way for the dominoes to be removed from the table without clattering as this completely spoils the effect of the dimly lit bathing scene going on at the back of the stage. And Wardrobe Manager – when a character clearly says to another that she is having trouble undoing the hooks and eyes on the back of her dress, make sure that the dress actually HAS hooks and eyes rather than a zip!

An interesting evening, not what I expected at all.

25 October 2006

Coppelia, Royal Opera House, 24th October 2006

I often say that seeing certain productions are like eating an entire box of liqueur chocolates in one go – very little substance and you find yourself rather overwhelmed with goo at the end. “Die Fledermaus” is one of them, and “Coppelia” the other. When the production is the tired old warhorse designed by Osbert Lancaster, which the Royal Ballet have been trotting out for the past 45 years or so, the goo factor is so high that its like wading through a vat of golden syrup and trying to fight off attacks by hordes of marshmallows. Lancaster’s set designs and costumes always veer towards the stickily sentimental, and this production is no exception. Set in a gingerbread “mittel-European” village (the kind where everyone suddenly decides to wear matching outfits for the day – this is “Ballet-ville” after all) Lancaster piles on the whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles until one is left feeling more than slightly nauseous. Maybe he was having a slightly colour-blind day when he chose to team cherry red blouses with pale olive skirts, or acid yellow blouses (with green spots) with white skirts, or forest green tights with burgundy waistcoats, so I did feel really sorry for many of the corps de ballet. But their dancing really could not be faulted – it was brisk, crisp and workmanlike, and can't have been easy in cherry red calf high boots (the lucky outfitters must have thought Christmas had come early when the call from the Costume Deparment came - "We want 50 pairs of cherry red, calf high boots and we want them NOW". Some nice cameo performances as well – the Burgomaster’s daughter managed to convey pride and haughtiness in a lovely pas de deux with Franz. However, the same could not be said for “Dawn”, who was underpowered and rather stiff when she should have completely held the stage and sparkled, and “Prayer” who was extremely wobbly and, I think, put her foot down to steady herself on several occasions. All three of the “Hours of the Day”, “Work” and “Hours of the Night” vignettes were very well performed and extremely prettily and effectively costumed – the tiaras made out of ears of corn for “Work” were a nice touch, as were the star-sparkled overskirts and jet black bodices of “Night”.

I had a problem to with Marianela Nunez’s “Swanhilda”. She seemed to be dancing in a very brittle fashion, with little sense of line or feeling. Although no doubt technically correct in every way, her performance appeared to me to be all technique and very little feeling. The fixed rictus of a smile displayed on her face rarely made it as far as her eyes – only in the small solo in Act 1 where Swanhilda is chasing a butterfly did she really seem to be inhabiting the role. Thiago Soares was suitably cocky as Franz and displayed an impressive pair of thighs. Full marks to the chap playing the thankless (and largely non-dancing) role of Dr. Copellius with nice touches of slightly dotty evil intent. I do loathe it when a gaggle of hyperactive Royal Ballet School pupils storm the stage, especially when their tutors have failed to instruct them not to gurn constantly at the audience – someone should tell them that its pointless squinting into the auditorium looking for Mummie and Deddie. One of the boys forgot to take his hat off for “Prayer” – it’s the salt mines for you, chum, when you get back to class.

Not really much more to be said about this dry heave of a production other than that its time that the Royal Ballet ditched it and launched a new version.
I always feel sorry for the poor cow playing Coppelia. Although she gets the title role, the character is no more than a cipher in the plot, having nothing to do except sit in the window of Dr. Coppelius’ house (which looked rather like the “Hammer House of Horror” stuck in the middle of acres of gingerbread) and wave her arms about a bit, then get dragged on (literally) at the end of Act 2 dressed in a bodysuit. Still, at least Swanhilda’s friend didn’t drop the key to the door and kick it into the pit this time. Oh, and note for Ms. Nunez – try acting “unlocking the door” next time, rather than just pushing it open!

17 October 2006

Ken Dodd's Happiness Show, Grand Theatre Blackpool, 15th October6

The First Rule of Show Business, known as a mantra by everyone in The Business all the way from those at the very top down to the rankest, starry-eyed amateur performing in their local church hall is Always Leave Your Audience Wanting More.

So it seems very strange indeed that Ken Dodd, veteran entertainer celebrating 50 years in The Business this year, seems not to know this cardinal rule. The evening began at 7.30pm, and the final curtain came down at 1.00am, by which time my ears were bleeding and my bladder had been beaten into complete submission. Had the performance been trimmed by a couple of hours, then I would be writing that this was a pleasant enough evening out watching classic British Seaside Entertainment of a type very rarely seen these days, but instead it was a gruelling slog – which is really not what you want after a full day of wandering round the shops looking at seaside tat and cute rough boys. Apparently Mr. Dodd is (in)famous for the length of his performances, but really, was it necessary?

OK, its not many entertainers who can stretch their material to nearly six hours, but that’s probably because, with comedy, Less is More. Three hours of the likes of the great modern comedians such Victoria Wood, Ricky Gervais or Eddie Izzard is as much as most people want, desire or actually need. If they carried on for double that period, not only would they use up a huge percentage of their material, but they would also lose a huge percentage of their audience. Most people are not capable of being entertained for that long, particularly when the material is SO OLD! Many of Dodd’s “jokes” had probably already been repeated to death when Noah told them during the long winter nights on the Ark. This didn’t seem to spoil the enjoyment of many of the audience, most of who were already quite old when God was a boy. Ironically, when Dodd is being up to date, he is actually very funny – some of his jokes about mobile phones and other aspects of modern life were spot on and wouldn’t have been out of place as part of an Eddie Izzard routine. And his self-deprecating routines about his well-documented tussles with the taxman were very funny as well. But they were lost in a welter of old and tired material – a lot of which was inaudible due to poor diction - including a couple of homophobic jokes about Dale Winton and Elton John of the old “backs to the wall, lads” type. On this basis, I suppose we were lucky to have been spared any “nigger” jokes because, of course, pensioners find these SO funny.

The evening was not best served by its “variety” format. What was already shaping up to be a very long evening was interminably lengthened by three appearances of a small gaggle of simpering children from the local stage school doing “cute” routines dressed as the Diddy Men, service personnel from WW2 and ancient, long dead “comedians” like Tommy Trinder and Arthur Askey. Apparently, Doddy’s core audience find such performances endearing. I just find them nauseating. Dodd was further “supported” by a run of the mill singer/pianist dressed in a spangly frock and pink Stetson (“Hmmmmm, what can I wear on stage to give my act that Country and Western feel? I know – a pink Stetson from one of the novelty shops on the pier! The very thing!”) whose routine consisted of such ‘classics’ as “Yesterday Once More” (i.e. the kind of song that your mother likes to have on the radio while doing the washing up) and the world’s most disorganised magician – a chap who was not untalented but whose stagecraft could do with a good tightening up - or at the very least a “glamorous assistant” to move his equipment around, make sure that the chickens don’t get over-excited and wander off into the wings (“Doves? Nah, everyone does doves. I’m gonna do chickens! And ducks! And maybe a goose or two!”), and take the hems of his trouser legs up by about 9 inches. I’m sure that he could have found some more exciting music for his act than the theme to Hawaii Five-O – music like that turns even the best magic act into cliché.

Anyway, back to the plot. What was profoundly irritating about Ken Dodd is the way in which he seemed to be constantly taunting his audience with the length of his act. Time and time again we heard comments of the “You’ve been a wonderful audience” type, at which people’s ears tend to prick up and think “Aha, its nearly over” but then on plunged Doddy into yet another “set”. I could almost hear many of the audience quietly losing the will to live at these points, and indeed many people decided that enough was enough and quietly crept out at various points. The four people sitting in front of me actually left at the interval – obviously feeling that four hours of Ken Dodd was quite enough for one evening. Goodness knows how those staying in hotels that didn’t provide late keys, those who had to work the next day, or anyone reliant on public transport or with a weak bladder must have felt. It’s a mark of great inconsideration to one’s audience to take your ego on a trip down memory lane for quite so long – a fact which Ken Dodd would be well advised to remember.
The show was called "Ken Dodd's Happiness Show" - or maybe I heard wrong. Perhaps it was actually "Ken Dodd's A Penis", which just about summed up my feelings as I staggered out of the theatre into the quietly sleeping streets of Blackpool after six hours of Hell. They say that Variety is dead - presumably it went to see this show and lost the will to live. I know I did.

25 September 2006

Wicked, Apollo Victoria, 26th September 2006

Warning – contains plot spoilers!

Occasionally, I get to see a show which makes up for all the dross. Was this good? Was this superb? Was this magnificent? No! It was WICKED! The vibe before curtain up was indicative of the fact that the audience (as over-excited as a coachload of flying monkeys and with a very high PPSI - poofs per square inch- ratio) knew we were in for a good time.

Even before the curtain went up, the scenery surrounding the stage promised much. Those of my readers familiar with the book upon which the show is based will know that The Dragon Clock is a major presence in the early chapters, with peoples’ futures being foretold by puppets which appear in niches in the clock. Well, this is exactly what we got – with the stage being surrounded by clockwork and a fab winged dragon peering down from the top, the action of the show was presented just as if it were one of the fortune-telling vignettes. Each time Fate showed her hand in characters’ lives, the dragon sprang to life and the cogs and pinwheels turned to spin the wheels of fortune. Fab idea!

The libretto had been skilfully and sensitively adapted from the book text, leaving out none of the action but much of the political tub-thumping which makes Maguire’s book rather heavy going on occasion. There were a few occasions when I could have done with fewer laughs and more tension – when the story of “Wicked” catches up with that of “The Wizard of Oz” in the second act, Winnie Holzman (librettist) goes for broad comedy which touches on panto. Glinda, having waved (the unseen) Dorothy off from Munchkinland, calls after her “Keep straight on! Its just the one road all the way!” and then asides to the audience “I do hope that’s right. I always was so bad at giving directions!” In the Castle of the Wicked Witch of the West (in the show called Elphaba), the Witch calls down to Dorothy through a trap door “If you want to see your Auntie Em and Uncle Whats-his-name again, I suggest you get those damned shoes off!” When such lines come, as they do, at very dramatic moments in the plot, the laugh they get from the audience completely diffuses any sense of dramatic tension. And I’m sorry, but the very tidy “happy” ending was a little more than I could stomach. The Witch is supposed to die, we all know that. She does so in the film, and in Maguire’s book – a martyr to “Truth” and “Public Opinion”. (The famous “bucket of water” death scene was extremely disappointingly staged, played out in silhouette behind a rather manky curtain – always an easy option.) But in the stage version, the death of one’s leading character is not to be countenanced and Elphaba, having faked her own death with the help of a convenient trapdoor, is spared to disappear off into a happy exile with Fiyero. To make this ending even tidier, Elphaba has changed Fiyero into the Scarecrow Without a Brain in order to save him from the Wizard’s militia. Too neat, too tidy, too Happy Ever After.

The venue for all this is the Apollo Victoria, recently restored to much of its 1930s Art Deco glory. Interesting that much of the décor is apple green, a colour which suits this show right down to the ground. And walking into the auditorium is just like walking into the Hollywood version of the Emerald City. I doubt the Emerald City was ever so cold though – the air conditioning was on so high that I sat and shivered through most of the first act. Theatre Manager please note!

Incidentally – one minor point. Baum’s story makes it perfectly clear that the Emerald City isn’t actually green, but only appears to be so because its residents are forced to wear spectacles with green lenses. But the Emerald City we got on stage was definitely green, even though both Galinda and Elphaba donned the requisite specs (briefly) – nobody else did, I noticed.

Anyway, enough of carping. Let’s talk performances!

The Wizard was played by Nigel Planer, who did all that was necessary with the role if not all that was possible. His attempts at dancing were faintly embarrassing, as were his attempts at singing two songs in the inimitable and rather risible style of Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”. It was strange to see such a capable and well-seasoned performer as Miriam Margolyes take on such a “non part” as Madame Morrible, but I enjoyed her “take” on the part as a slightly eccentric Mrs. Slocombe. Margloyes is well known for her “fat lady” parts, but was hardly helped by a series of unflattering costumes which obviously limited her movement. Her final costume made her look like an over-upholstered sofa – the kind you dare not sit on comfortably for fear that all the stuffing will pop out. On the rare occasions when Morrible’s true nature is allowed out of its protective padding, Margolyes was truly scary. Katie Rowley Jones made the best of a thankless part as Nessarose, and Adam Garcia was suitably decorative as a strapping Fiyero.

Helen Dallimore’s Galinda was extremely disappointing. Galinda is a young lady of considerable means with rich, influential parents, and it was a shame that Dallimore’s performance failed to reflect this. Her occasionally strangulated vowel sounds and slippery accent made her come across as more of an Essex Girl Made Good, rather than a sleek and sophisticated Sloane Ranger. Expecting a young Billie Burke who, as Glinda in the film of WOZ, epitomised the daffiness of the inbred upper classes, I got a Jade Goody. And vocally, I’m afraid she was Just Not Good(y) Enough. It’s a difficulty and very high soprano role, needing the ability to almost yodel notes in “Popular” and Dallimore just couldn’t cut these. In fact, “Popular” was by far the most disappointingly sung number in the whole show.

Star of the evening, without any shadow of a doubt, was the fantastic Idina Menzel as Elphaba. So confident that we were going to be wowed by her, the audience broke into applause on her first entrance and before she had said a word or sung a note – which is an accolade the public reserve only for the BIGGEST stars. And by golly, this girl is going to be BIG. Elphaba is an extremely difficult part – it can’t be easy playing a role which all of us have associated from childhood with pure evil. Elphaba has to change the audience’s perception of the Wicked Witch of the West and make her credible and sympathetic. Obviously Menzel is helped here by the fantastically written libretto, but her performance skilfully avoided the temptation to play it “penny plain, tuppence coloured”. And my lord – what a voice this woman has. Her Act One finale number – “Defying Gravity” is still ringing round in my head. Not a wobble, not a catch, just pure, sustained notes of incredible power and intensity. How she can manage to turn in such a fantastic performance 8 times a week is beyond me. If she doesn’t get wheelbarrow loads of awards for WICKED, then I’ll eat my black pointy hat. I can only say that this was a WWW that would have made Margaret Hamilton glow green with pride.

I could heap praise on this show for hours, but let the final accolade come from Him Indoors. Miss Menzel – Clive wants to come and see the show again. Crikey! How WICKED is that!

16 September 2006

Marlon Brando's Corset, Greenwich Theatre, 15th September 2006

At one point in this so-called comedy, Les Dennis’ character is reading “Hello!” magazine and says “I can’t help but feel that the beautiful, oxygen producing trees that died in order to print this pile of shit got a raw deal”. One could say exactly the same about the trees that died in order to print the script for this pile of shit. Billed as “Direct from the Edinburgh Festival” (a phrase that should ring warning bells anyway), this pretentious piece of rubbish tries vainly to be a satiric look at fame and its price, and the lengths that “celebrities” are prepared to go to in order to maintain their image in their adoring public’s eye. Obviously whoever wrote it has been overdosing on episodes of Holby City and Big Brother, and has recently seen “Shallow Grave” because its unlikely premise is that the pretty-boy star of a popular hospital drama is going to kill the scriptwriter who is threatening to “out” him by writing an exposé which he is going to sell to a national newspaper in order to pay a mafia thug £105,000. Pretty-boy’s colleagues in the cast discover the body, and then they chop it up, pack it into bags and dispose of it by burying it.

Presented on a tiny set which looks marooned on the large thrust stage at Greenwich, the piece tries vainly to hit too many points, and succeeds only in missing all of them, to the bewilderment of the audience. Is this a comedy thriller? Is this a satire on the price of fame? Is this just the rambling of an untalented playwright who has tried their hand at stand up comedy and then shoe-horned the genre into a stage play? We never find out. Interspersed with the play proper, there are “cut scenes” in which the cast members of “Healing Hands” purport to be giving interviews in a documentary about the making of the programme. These are irritating and jejune, but give the cast time to be “profound”.

Funnily enough, the casting of this play turns out to be cleverer than the actual script. Mike McShane plays the hyperactive American director of “Healing Hands in a style very reminiscent of Mike McShane performing in “Who’s Line is it Anyway?”. Jeremy Edwards plays a micro-talented, pretty boy Surgeon (“the kind of man who gets hung up on teenage girls’ bedroom walls”), who is contractually obliged to take his shirt off at least once in every episode, who turns down offers from Hollywood because he wants to ‘maintain his artistic integrity’ and who is so worried that being outed as a “big butt fairy” will stop those offers coming in that he is willing to murder Les Dennis (who wouldn’t want to murder Les Dennis?). Les Dennis plays the put upon, struggling writer who longs to turn out “art” but has become a hack soap opera scriptwriter in order to pay his bills. He also complains at one point that "People should be saving the planet, not voting some retard out of the Big Brother House". Hang on - isn't this the same Les Dennis who was a guest of Davina McCall a couple of years back and who reacted to his unceremonious booting out with less than perfect grace? All three actors are therefore, basically, parodying their real-life persona. Interestingly, Dennis doesn’t play his own murdered corpse, therefore allowing him to resurrect exactly in the way that the real Les Dennis did after famously appearing in “Extras” as a struggling actor who longs to appear in “art” but has to take jobs in panto in order to pay the bills.

To say that this was played in the manner called “broad” is like saying Wagner’s operas go on a bit. Maybe the cast were trying to cover up the inherent paucity of the material being performed, but it only served to highlight it. To be fair, it was pointed out to me later that they were doing their best with a rotten script.

Oh, and we never DID find out why it was called “Marlon Brando’s Corset”. At one point, several characters comment on the fact that one of them has seen “The Godfather” 17 times. “Ive seen “The Godfather” 17 times”. “What? You’ve seen “The Godfather” 17 times?”. “Yes, I’ve seen “The Godfather” 17 times”. If we were expected to be picking up on a reference here, unfortunately the point was being hammered home so hard that I couldn’t hear it.

13 September 2006

The Alchemist, National Theatre, 9th September 2006

Maybe I was just in the wrong frame of mind. I was tired and feeling crabby and ill. I tried to like this, I really did. Maybe the problem was that I found it difficult to reconcile the Jacobean language with the modern dress and set, which were obviously there to point up the fact that the thoughts, feelings and emotions of the characters and the situations in which they found themselves are universal and belong to every period.

Maybe it was the dawning realisation that Jonson had written what, in centuries to come, would have been called a farce. Lots of “humorous” comings and goings, changes of costumes, openings of doors not knowing who might be coming through them. Farce grates on me. And this could well have been one.

Maybe it was the fact that I lost my grip on the plot quite quickly - diction during the first 20 minutes didn’t help – its very difficult to follow a plot when you can’t hear what is being said. And so I think I gave up trying to follow it. And I do find the way that Simon Russell Beale spits all over people while shouting at them very irritating. Im surprised that Alex Jennings didn’t need to wipe off with a towel during the interval.

In the end, I amused myself by admiring the set, which was a rotating cube missing two walls. The set design exploited lots of levels with stairs, doors and cupboards, and was visually interesting in itself. Shame that such a lovely, well thought out set didn’t get a better play. Costumes were well thought out and completely and utterly appropriate to each character – even down to socks and underwear. The “Fairy Queen” dress made out of a duvet was particularly good.

I think I laughed once all the evening. And this is supposed to be the hottest ticket in town.

As I said, maybe I was just in the wrong frame of mind. But no more Jacobean “comedy” for me, thanks.

Don Quixote, Ballet Nacionale de Cuba, Sadlers Wells, 8th Septeber 2006

Oh dear. What a disappointing evening. I saw Ballet Nacionale de Cuba’s stunning (in every sense) Giselle last year and was expecting this to be as good, if not better. But no. I suppose that’s the problem with high expectations – they are invariably disappointed.

Sets were dismal. A few hung cloths (iron please!) and the odd chair and table – really guys – these would have disgraced an amateur production of Gilbert and Sullivan in the local church hall. I know that the company are a long, long way from home, and that it costs good money to transport sets – but these?

Costumes were, frankly, not a lot better. In Act 1, the corps de ballet looked like they had been given the keys to the local branch of Brentford Nylons and told “do what you can”. They had obviously majored on flannel nightdresses and net curtains. Pale and washed out looking, they showed none of the glamour which could have been on show. Note for costume designers: a palette of brown, beige, cream, white and pastel pink looks VERY tired. In retrospect, I suppose they did convey the dustiness of small town life. But even the best clothes of poor people show some colour to them. At least the matadors injected some decent shades – red and yellow, the colours of the Spanish flag; nice touch. Costumes for the gypsies were slightly better – but why was this troupe of gypsies all dressed identically? The Vision scene costumes were slightly more grand, but the Wedding costumes reverted to flannel nighties and net curtains. And some truly horrid wigs.

I’m no ballet critic, and I know far too little to be able to comment on the techniques of the performers. But having seen this company’s stunning production of Giselle last year, in which the technical ability of all the performers was indisputable, I expected a lot better. The male corps were particularly ropy at times. And everyone seemed to be hogging the back of the stage instead of making use of the entire depth. Basil and Kitri (sorry, programme not to hand so performer’s names not available) were very nicely matched in terms of ability and stagecraft), and Espada the Bullfighter showed considerable braggadocio in his movements. Kitri especially showed that the mark of true balletic ability is to make it look as easy as falling off a log. Rarely have I seen fouettes so secure.

The evening wasn’t a complete disaster. I spotted some nice touches – the implication that Kitri’s father used to be a matador himself (was he injured in the bullring and had to retire, I found myself wondering?) and the vision scene made perfect sense staged as an out of body experience instead of the usual “dream”. There was a very crafty link between Acts 1 and 2; in the former, Kitri gave her shawl to a girl who obviously admired it. In the latter, the girl turns out to be one of the band of brigands, and saves Kitri from a nasty duffing up by recognising her as the generous donor of the shawl. Apparently its unusual to have the mock suicide in Act 3 – personally I thought this the most apposite place for it – at least placing it there means that Act 3 has some relevance to the plot instead of just being endless divertissments.

As I said, I saw their production of Giselle last year and was completely blown away. I even thought it superior to the Royal Ballet production (at least their Myrtha didn’t fall over!). But far from being a blast of hot, dust laden wind from the hills of Catalonia, this production was more like a beautiful day dawning then being obscured by a damp and soggy cloud. Occasionally there was a glimpse of the sun through those clouds, but for most of the evening, the outlook was very dull indeed.

10 July 2006

Images of Dance, Peacock Theatre, 9th July 2006

OK, OK, I only went because I wanted to see Pineapple Poll, I admit it.

This was obviously a "Mums and Dads go to see their kids in a show and reassure themselves that all that money spent on dance training wasn't wasted" evening.

Pas de six from "Laurentia" - shame that the recorded music also included the scrapes of the orchestra's chairs and applause from the audience (at one point there was even clapping in time to the music!). And shame that the cute dark boy with the big thighs and the nice arse fell over. Girl doing the fouettes was excellent - very crisp and didn't travel all over the stage while doing them, which is a skill that eludes many professional ballerinas. One to watch out for in the future, I think.

Openings (?) - it was called something like this but I can't really remember. And it was what I call "Oppin' abaht to plinky plonky music". Modern stuff. Discordant "music" and odd lighting effects. Clive seemed to like it. I switched off and twiddled the hair on my arm for 20 minutes. I thought there was rather more applause than was justified.

Othello - Clive sneered when I said that I had found this confusing because the dancer playing Othello was a blond. Interesting piece though, nicely danced. The girl playing Desdemona was very good. The cute dark boy with the big thighs and the nice arse played Iago in a costume that brought back horrible memories of "Ariodante" in Barcelona.

Pineapple Poll - the highlight of the evening for me, and the only reason I went, really. Shame that the music was taped and not live, but then I think that all the performances at the Peacock have taped music. I can't recall ever seeing anything there with a live orchestra. But it was very, very good. I do find Osbert Lancaster's set designs very fussy, too highly coloured and prissy though, and thought that these detracted from the performance a little. It was interesting to see how well Sullivan's music had been used to indicate specific emotions, and even cleverer that Gilbert's unheard lyrics pointed these up even further ("Twenty lovesick maidens we" being used for when the girls of the town are mooning over Captain Belaye, for example, and "The world is but a broken toy" for when Poll realises her love for him is in vain). Dancing very good throughout, with Jasper (the cute dark boy with the big thighs and the nice arse) and Captain Belaye both excellent - the former in his dockside solo when he thinks Poll has drowned herself and the latter in his opening solo (excellent footwork) particularly. Some of the male corps de ballet looked uncomfortable and perhaps under rehearsed - or maybe they were just bad dancers. Some nice costumes - although Poll looked grim in a lime green dress and ginger wig. Particularly liked the business with the cannon. Would certainly like to see this piece again sometime.

The Seagull, National Theatre - 7th July 2006

Oh lord, what an evening. I know that Chekov is all about doomy Russians falling out of love with themselves and each other, but this really was an uphill struggle all the way.

The first problem is the new translation. Martin Crimp has stripped the text down to the "bare essentials" (which is reflected in the very minimalist stage designs). The trouble is, he's stripped too much out. Supporting characters are reduced to cyphers, and their relationships pared down even further. For those of us unfamiliar with the play, this leaves us wondering "what on earth is happening?" or, more importantly "what has happened?". We are left guessing who is who, who is related to who, who has married who, who's had an affair with who...... Its a good job that Clive has seen it before, so could fill me in. Key incidents are left completely uncommented on - Konstantin apparently attempts suicide in the second act, but we hear nothing about this. We are expected to infer this from the fact that he appears with a bandage round his head in act three.

Another problem with the translation is that Crimp updates the language far too much and thus makes a mockery of the play's original period feel. From pre-revolutionary Russia (and therefore an examination of a class in decline), Crimp has taken the text into a time machine which has dumped it somewhere vaguely in the 30s or 40s. I'm sure phrases like "I've made a complete balls up of my life" and ""Why don't you just piss off?" are fun to say on stage but they really don't fit in with the rest of the text. There is a passing reference to Munch's "The Scream".

The play is further isolated from its origins by the costumes. Characters appear in modern black costumes at the start, donning shiny 1980s look suits or vaguely 40's style frocks with plunging necklines and complicated gores, sport modern hairstyles and beatnik glasses...... Moscow was never like this! At least Vicki Mortimer's sets - all flaky plaster and bare boards - reflect the empty lives and crumbling relationships taking place within them. But even they start to pall after a while. Particularly when Arkadina's servants spend most of the first half rushing in and out banging doors behind them, taking plates in and out (each servant carrying two plates - have they never heard of trays? - and soup should be served from a tureen on the table, not brought from the kitchen already in individual bowls), picking up cases, taking them out, bringing them back.......this household is obviously overstaffed! In the end, it starts to look like there are two plays happening on the same stage - a farce in the background and a tragicomedy in the front. And all that door banging and clumping across the stage masks a lot of important dialogue (well, what is left of it).

Juliet Stephenson makes a fine Arkadina. But she's far too young to play someone who is meant to be a fading actress, clinging on to past glories (both professional and sexual) in the manner of Desiree Armfeldt in "A Little Night Music". And there's too little of the "Grande Dame" of the theatre and too much of the "silly little me" girlishness. Ben Wishaw plays Konstantin as a petulant, sulky and camp little bratling, so its very difficult to sympathise or empathise with him, and his transformation to "serious literary type" in the second half fails to wash. Sandy McDade is incredibly irritating as Masha - obviously from a little known suburb of St. Petersburg called Tobermory. Apparently Masha is the housekeeper, but in this production she vamps around the stage in her little black frock, sporting cropped hair and waving incessant cigarettes like Hazel the MacWitch from Rentaghost crossed with a refugee from the KitKat Club ("Och, aye'm in mourrrrrrning for ma life!"). And I know one is supposed to suspend disbelief at the theatre, but she's referred to in the dialogue as being 22. She's at least double that, by the looks of her. Hattie Morahan plays Nina as a breathless, well scrubbed, gangling ingenue and this makes her elopement and illegitimate pregnancy rather hard to believe. In the first act, she is apparently desperately worried that her overbearing father will find out she's appearing in Konstantin's play. That doesn't stop her from stripping down to her scanties and high heels and staggering around the stage with a large lightbulb attached to her back.

And the seagull itself? In the first half, it was reduced to being tacked onto the inside of the lid of a leather box - I half expected it to bounce out on a spring to the accompaniment of "Pop Goes the Seagull". How much more realistic it would have been if it had been carried in, a tattered bundle of feathers and blood. And in the second half, it has (apparently) been stuffed and mounted inside a large glass box the size of a travelling trunk, but we don't see this as its placed on stage in such a way that nobody in the audience can see inside the box, which rather misses the point of having it, don't you think? If the seagull is a metaphor (and a very heavy handed one at that), it makes it rather absurd to have it metaphorically on stage.

Having seen Katie Mitchell's superb "Three Sisters" a couple of years ago, I expected much more from this evening than I eventually got. The rather lukewarm applause from the rest of the audience makes me think that my view was shared by others. Maybe, like me, they had put their hand up to their head and found that "The Seagull" had crapped all over them.