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.