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.