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.