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.