30 December 2007

La Cage aux Folles - Menier Choclate Factory - Friday 26th December 2007


Georges and his lover Albin, who stars as Zaza at their St. Tropez drag nightclub, "La Cage aux Folles," have lived happily together for many years. Their apartment is also home to their black "maid" Jacob. Georges' son Jean-Michel (the offspring of a confused, youthful liaison with a woman named Sybil) arrives with the news that he is engaged to Anne Dindon. Unfortunately, her father is head of the "Tradition, Family and Morality Party," whose stated goal is to close the local drag clubs. Anne's parents want to meet their daughter's future in-laws. Jean-Michel has lied to his fiancée, describing Georges as a retired diplomat. Jean-Michel pleads with Albin to absent himself (and his flamboyantly gay behaviors) for the visit - and for Georges to redecorate the apartment in a more subdued fashion. He will invite Sybil--who has barely been involved with him since his birth--to dinner in Albin's stead. Albin's feelings are hurt – he has been a good "mother". He departs in a huff.

The next morning, Georges suggests to Albin that he dress up as macho "Uncle Al". Back at the chastely redesigned apartment, Georges receives a telegram that Jean-Michel's mother Sybil is not coming, and Anne's parents arrive. Hoping to save the day, Albin appears as Jean-Michel's buxom, forty-year-old mother. The nervous Jacob burns the dinner, so a trip to a local restaurant, Chez Jacqueline, belonging to an old friend of Albin and Georges, is quickly arranged. No one has briefed Jacqueline on the situation, and she asks Albin for a song. As Zaza, Albin yields to the frenzy of performance tears off his wig at the song's climax, revealing his true identity.

Back at the apartment, the Dindons plead with their daughter to abandon her fiancé. But she is in love with Jean-Michel and refuses to leave him. Jean-Michel, deeply ashamed of the way he has treated Albin, asks his forgiveness (which is, of course, lovingly granted). The Dindons prepare to depart, but their way is blocked by Jacqueline, who has arrived with the press, ready to photograph these notorious anti-homosexual activists with Zaza. Georges and Albin have a proposal: If Anne and Jean-Michel may marry (and really, the Dindons have no choice in that matter), George will help the Dindons escape through La Cage aux Folles next door. The Dindons do so, dressed in drag as members of the nightclub's revue, and all ends well.

Seemingly inexhaustible trips to the theatre to round off 2007! Our Boxing Day jaunt was back to the Menier Chocolate Theatre (fast becoming a favourite haunt of ours, it seems!).

One of the things I love about this place is how they are endlessly inventive with such a small space – never the same thing twice. This time we had a classic proscenium arch draped and swagged with pink curtains, with two rows of café tables in front of the usual block seating. We arrived rather late so had to take one of these tables – but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I gather that the seating behind was more than usually cramped and uncomfortable. It also meant that a certain Bloody Old Ham by the name of CBB managed to worm his way into the limelight, dammit, being flirted with, fed olives by and generally tarted around with by Philip Quast. Doors had to be widened to accommodate heads on the journey home, believe me.
What I don’t like about this place is its “unreserved seats” policy – this means that you’re all held together in the bar outside a pair of folding metal screen doors until they open, at which point there is a general rugby scrum with arms and legs flailing all over the place and lots of pushing and shoving and losing of scarves. If anyone fell, I think the poor bugger would end up as a small mushy heap on the floor. It created a lot of unpleasantness when it was appeared that they had sold slightly more tickets than there were seats and several muttered conversations with front-of-house staff seemed to be taking place. Not a good start. Neither do I like the fact that I got charged a tenner for two warm gin and tonics in the interval.

This was a generally smaller scale production of this show than is usually seen, which didn’t hurt it a bit – it gave it a sense of reality and rather homely warmth. The downside is that it therefore had a very small chorus of “Cagelles” – 8 guys in total – which meant that their numbers were a bit underpowered vocally. You had to listen really carefully to catch the words of the first number. Mind you, they looked great, in that slightly frightening way that young drag queens do –rather scarily smooth and plucked, a bit like clingfilmed chicken wings. I bet most of them are right bitches off stage. Still, I expect that young, slim, orally talented dancers are not that thick on the ground in the vicinity of XXL (in-joke there for us boys in the know).

Also somewhat offputting was the presence in the cast of one Una Stubbs (what do you mean, Who? She was in Summer Holiday with Cliff Richard, for godsake!) in a couple of tiny roles in Act I, each entry and exit accompanied by whispers of “ThatsUnaStubssThatsUnaStubbsThatsUnaStubbs” from older members of the audience to their bewildered offspring. As such, she did tend to stick out rather like a sore thumb on stage – shame.

It was obvious that Douglas Hodge was a little under-rehearsed. I did hear that he had been taken ill during early rehearsals, so perhaps this was the reason. A couple of times he looked distinctly at sea during dance numbers but this was really only apparent if you were looking closely. He gave a very cuddly, affectionate portrayal of Albin – looking a bit like your favourite auntie when she’s all dolled up for a night out; all Ell-nette and pearls. He was bested however by Philip Quast as Georges – urbane, witty, charming and all over CBB like a feckin’ rash. The only problem was (call me old fashioned) but his costume did look slightly grubby in the trouser department – Wardrobe please note that a damp sponge and a hot iron can do wonders. Neil McDermott was nicely clean cut as Jean-Michel and his costume was spot on for a 20 year old in 1970s Paris – all checked flares and sprigged cotton shirts with big collars. I thought Jason Pennycook as the “maid” Jacob was actually rather good but CBB didn’t think that he did all that was possible with the part, only all that was necessary. I can’t recall the name of the guy playing the Stage Manager but he was strangely sexy and he had a very nice butt!

All in all, a lovely warm cuddle of a show, one that sent us singing out into the night to brave the transport difficulties home. Remark heard on the way out – “Well, I think Emily understood most of it – but then she is nearly twelve……” Priceless.

27 December 2007

Les Patineurs/Tales of Beatrix Potter - Royal Opera House - 23rd December 2007

Two essentially plotless ballets for our Christmas visit to the Opera House, which was packed out with posh anklebiters called Jocasta and Jamie with their suited Daddies (still slightly hung over from the office Christmas bash) and their dressed-up-to-the-back-teeth mummies. How I do loathe the over-privileged little bleeders!

Les Patineurs (The IceSkaters) is a lovely little ballet about several groups of people iceskating. Nothing else - no plotline, no real story, just nice music and pretty dancing. And very charming I found it too - the set was lovely, with arched trellises hung with Chinese lanterns against a darkening and starry sky. All the various couples danced wonderfully and with a sense of humour appropriate to the lighthearted choreography. The one soloist - The Blue Skater - was fantastic and his final set of pirouettes (maintained as the curtain came down, went up again and came down for the final time) deservedly got a huge round of applause.

I had a bit of a problem with Tales of Beatrix Potter - and I think backstage had trouble with it too. The format is difficult - some of the stories are portrayed with considerable detail, others are reduced to mere vignettes. Peter Rabbit, for example, is reduced to doing a bit of a jig about in front of some cabbages, and thats it, Jeremy Fisher hops about, goes fishing and has a spot of bother and thats it - and then we get Pigling Bland trotting about the countryside for nearly 15 minutes, while Johnny TownMouse is reduced to a bit part in one dance. Bizarre. I concluded that you had to be far more familiar with some of Potter's more obscure characters to really know what the narrative thread was. There were several very dodgy lighting cues and Jeremy Fisher was desperately underlit throughout.

My favorite section "Two Bad Mice" was probably the best of the lot, but even this wasnt without its technical problems - the front of the dolls house rose, got stuck, stayed there for at least three minutes and then continued going up - only just in time. CBB thought afterwards that it might have been that the backstage can't really cope with a huge number of quick scene changes - if this is so, then they're all bloody well overpaid!

24 December 2007

Much Ado About Nothing – National Theatre - Saturday 15th December 2007


The war is over. Pedro Prince of Aragon, with his followers Benedick and Claudio, visits Leonato, Duke of Messina, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Claudio falls in love with Hero and their marriage is agreed upon. Beatrice and Benedick despise love and engage in comic banter. The others plot to make them fall in love with each other, by a trick in which Benedick will overhear his friends talking of Beatrice's supposed secret love for him, and vice versa. Meanwhile Don John, the prince's misanthropic illegitimate brother, contrives a more malicious plot with the assistance of his follower Borachio: Claudio is led to believe that he has witnessed Hero in a compromising situation on the night before her wedding day – in fact it is her maid Margaret with Borachio. Claudio denounces Hero during the marriage ceremony. She faints and on the advice of the Friar, who is convinced of her innocence, Leonato announces that she is dead. Beatrice demands that Benedick should kill Claudio. The foolish constable Dogberry and his watchmen overhear Borachio boasting of his exploit and the plot is exposed. Claudio promises to make amends to Leonato: he is required to marry a cousin of Hero's in her place. When unmasked, she is revealed as Hero. Beatrice agrees to marry Benedick.

I’ve seen a couple of bad productions of this – one so bad that I actually walked out during the interval, and a severely lacklustre production reviewed earlier on this blog. So it was nice to see this version in good hands – Zoe Wannamaker can do no wrong in my book and, although I’m not really that fussed about Simon Russell Beale (I find the way he constantly spits at people during his dialogue rather icky) I come down from my lofty ivory tower for a moment to admit that he’s half-decent if you catch him in the right thing. I did initially worry that both of them were... shall I say... rather too mature to be playing Beatrice and Benedick - but then, of course, if you actually listen to the words, the reasoning becomes obvious. These two have a Past - they've tangled in love with each other before, been hurt and retreated and are now taking refuge from the lists of love. In this production, Beatrice is seeking solace in the bottle, and Benedick in pretend bluster. But they both come to realise that they are staring into the abyss of lonely old age and that the person they have been waiting for to deliver a emotional rescue has been under their noses all along…..all credit to both of them for excellent performances throughout. I did think it rather pushing the envelope of credibility that Beatrice’s cold (caught after an unscheduled dip in the pond) and which was made rather a lot of, seemed to have completely disappeared by the wedding (in terms of the play, only a few hours later).

This is possibly Shakey’s sunniest play – it portrays a leisured, happy world where the next meal is only ever a couple of hours away, and until then there is time to sit in the shade with friends, drink wine and indulge in wordplay or just listen to the crickets sing. This was nicely portrayed by the set, which showed a back wall of slightly crumbly plaster, pierced by shuttered windows and iron balconies. Centre stage was a rather odd loggia on a broadly cruciform pattern, giving pathways and little nooks as well as larger, more public spaces, and this was nicely used for the most part, giving plenty of opportunity for all the overhearing (yet remaining visible to the audience) required by the plot. Leonarto’s garden is mentioned as a place “Where honeysuckles, ripened by the sun,/ Forbid the sun to enter, like favorites,/ Made proud by princes, that advance their pride” and it would have been nice to have had this hinted at by the set – but it was greenery-free. There could have been a stunning bouganvelia – or indeed honeysuckle - growing up the loggia but nary a one was there. In fact, the sense of smell was the only sense left unstimulated by this production – it needed the smell of plants like rosemary baking in the sun or the hot, scorched smell of late afternoon, or a waft of cooking from the kitchen. Maybe they could have put something in the airconditioning? Just a thought.

I did feel that the dark side of the play was subservient to the sunny side – there seemed to be far more emphasis on the latter. In fact, it felt like the director could have really cut all that silly business about Hero and Claudio and just gone straight for the comedy. At a remove of time (I’m a bit behind in my reviews!) I find that the happy side of the play is really all I can recall and that the darker side made very little impression. However, I do remember all that silly stuff with the Watch (Dogberry and Verges et al) which I rate as Shakespeare’s most unfunny comedy. He could never really write good comedy, I think, and this is some of his most laboured. It didn’t really help that Mark Addy (the fat guy from The Full Monty) didn’t really seem up to the role of Dogberry (I know its difficult being a Shakespeare “Clown” so you need a really good actor to pull it off) and Trevor Peacock was, frankly, naff as Verges. A couple of times he wandered from the text and I just got the impression that the whole audience was just waiting for his Vicar of Dibley “No, no, no, no, no….yes” routine. A missed opportunity for an (OK, admittedly cheap) laugh.

Costumes were nicely rustic yet non-period specific, again reinforcing the impression of a land where time stands still and each day is much like the last – long, faded skirts, straw hats, white shirts with dropped shoulders and floppy collars and so on. The music in the play was nicely thought out– the setting of “Sigh no more” was good and didn’t feel forced in unnaturally as it sometimes does. And it was really fab for the play to end with a rousing set of “play out” music from the onstage musicians – its rare that Shakespeare ends with the entire audience home clapping happily along in time with the band. I got the impression that everyone – cast and audience - had had a really good time. And how often do you get to say that about Shakespeare?
What the critics said:

19 December 2007

The Merry Widow – Budapest Operetta Theatre – 13th December 2007


Act I
In the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris, a great ball is being held in honour of the Grand Duke's birthday. Valencienne, the beautiful wife of Baron Zeta, the elderly ambassador, is flirting with a young French officer, Camille de Rosillon but her husband at the moment has a more serious problem. How can he save his country from impending bankruptcy? Anna Glawari the widow of a Pontevedrian banker, who has left her 50 million (of whatever currency they use in Pontevedria), has just arrived in Paris. If she marries a Frenchman, her millions will be lost to the Fatherland. The ambassador is determined that Anna, the Merry Widow, shall marry a Pontevedrian husband, and has selected the first secretary of the embassy, Count Danilo Danilovitch as the ideal bridegroom. But the ambassador is worried. The handsome Danilo has not yet appeared at the party. Anna Glawari arrives, escorted by a galaxy of hopefuls. The Merry Widow sweeps into the ballroom and, in the waltz that follows, reflects that she might be loved for her millions rather than for herself. The ambassador escorts her to supper, when Danilo, who has been found at Maxim's,
arrives. He hasn't slept for several nights, so he decides to have a rest.Anna appears and wakes the sleeping Danilo. The two meet -- again. Years ago Danilo had wanted to marry Anna, but she was the daughter of a small farmer, and his aristocratic family would not consent; thus Anna married the rich banker, Glawari. She reminds him of their old affair, but Danilo tells her that for all her money he will never propose. When ladies' choice is announced, all the men hope to dance with the widow, but she chooses Danilo.

Act II
The following evening, Anna gives a real Pontevedrian garden party at her house. She sings the famous "Vilia," about an alluring forest sprite. After various complications, including the misappropriation of Valencienne's fan on which Camille has written "I love you," Anna announces her engagement to Camille. Danilo, unable to disguise his grief, storms off to Maxim's, and Anna realizes at last that he still loves her.

Everybody meets at Maxim's, where the grisettes perform their famous can-can. By now, the ambassador, convinced that his wife is having an affair with Camille, decides to divorce her, and in the name of the Fatherland ask for Anna's hand. She tells him that unfortunately, by the will of her late husband, she loses all her money if she remarries. Danilo interrupts her: if she loses everything, he can now propose. And she, triumphant, explains to him that when marries, her money and property becomes the sole property of her husband. The finances of the Fatherland are saved, and Anna and Danilo are finally happy.

Our final theatrical trip of the holiday – and something very informal and relaxed and completely different in tone to the rather starchy formality of the Opera House. Even though the Operetta Theatre is a beautiful and rather grand building inside, there was still an air of happy expectation in the audience for this, the opening night of a new production of The Merry Widow. And what an event it was! There were no pre-opening photographs of the production available, not even in the programme, apart from one rather small and dark picture of what looked rather like a bridge of a ship and which made me feel slightly concerned about what was to come. The Merry Widow is a classic, and a show in which both CBB and I have performed more than once (and in CBB’s case directed as well) so we both, I think, feel slightly proprietorial towards it. I think we were both dreading that it was going to be “messed about with”, having initially assumed it would be a strictly “trad” version. But we needn’t have worried – we were in safer hands than we knew.

Instead of being set firmly in period (roughly 1900), the action was updated slightly to the mid to late 1920s. The “Pontevedrian Embassy” was not, as usual, all pillars and marble, but slightly Art Deco in feel, boxy and mahoganied, with a candlestick telephone and a quite severe staircase leading down from a balcony ringed with high arched windows and potted palms. The kind of embassy Hercule Poirot might conceivably be called to. It was a lovely set, but I think both CBB and I felt a slight prickle of consternation when the curtain rose. But the ensuing performance swept our doubts away (even though it was in Hungarian with German subtitles – more than slightly surreal!). So we couldn’t actually follow the dialogue, which was a pity as this production was a brand new version and it would have been nice to understand what everyone else in the audience was laughing about. And laugh they did – discreetly at first in that kind of “we’re not quite sure whether it’s the done thing to be laughing at The Merry Widow” way, but then more and more openly. There was lots of quite physical clowning and the interpretation of character was excellent, particularly from Baron Zeta (I don’t have the programme to hand so unfortunately can’t refer to the actors by name) and Negus – usually a rather stuffy Embassy factotum but in this case a bowler-hatted, bow-tied, trousers-are-too-short and rather inky clerk. The great “set piece” of Act 1 – the Widow’s entrance – was handled magnificently with at least 20 men in the chorus if not more – a truly enormous amount compared to some productions we’ve been in or seen. The Widow herself was not dressed in her traditional black sparkly hoped ballgown, but in a magnificent black and gold 20’s sheath dress and beaded cap, topped by one of those wonderful opera cloaks with huge fur collars that one sees in the fashion plates by Erte and the like. A long cigarette holder and a Chauffeur holding a tiny pampered pooch completed the impression that this Widow had drawn up outside the Embassy in a loooooooong, elegant motor car glistening with chrome and a real silver hood ornament. When she raised her cigarette holder and every man on stage whipped out a lighter, the image was complete, and any doubts that this was going to be a Widow to treasure were stilled. It helped that the actress had complete self-possession (the kind that serious money brings) and a gorgeous, slightly fruity voice, as well as great comedy timing – unusual in this role.

Only one possible stumbling block remained, and that was the casting of Count Danilo. This is often a problem – he’s got to be suave, sophisticated and urbane, yet slightly shady and even a little rough round the edges – the kind of man that makes women go all gaga, heterosexual men go slightly defensive and gay guys start slobbering. And this is exactly what we got – a superb actor portraying Danilo as an unshaven, rumpled and slightly dangerous “man about town”, with shirt untucked and open to the navel under his smart jacket. He may not have had the greatest voice in the show, but he overcame this with sheer acting ability and style. There was more than a slight hint of the “gypsy boy made good” about him.

It was good to see the rather twee and annoying Camille/Valencienne subplot more sidelined than in the traditional version, with more emphasis paid to the minor characters of the ambassadors St. Brioche and Cascada and their love interests. Cascada in particular was excellent, played with great energy and sexual spirit as a randy Spaniard by a small, dark and extremely athletic actor. There is not an awful lot for the ladies chorus to do in Act 1, but they were beautifully dressed and contained several “proper” dancers among their ranks and who were given exciting and quite challenging choreography.

Act II is usually set at a garden party at the Widow’s mansion, but in this production, the party was taking place on board the Widow’s yacht; the “Hanna Glawari” – obviously a gift from her late husband! It gave a completely different feel to the proceedings – as did the fact that the yacht was crewed by some extremely humpy Matelots!

Any production of Widow stands or falls by the “Vilja” number – and on this occasion, it was a true showstopper. Not only because of the incredibly beautiful, sensitive, virtuoso singing of the Widow but with the vignette that accompanied it. “Vilja” is about a wood nymph of the same name, who seduces a huntsman and then vanishes – and in traditional productions, the number is either sung with no action taking place on stage or by a dancing couple taking the parts of the nymph and the hunter. Here, the Vilja was a trapeze artist and ballet dancer, and cleverly portrayed the girl who was later to become the Widow Glawari, falling in love with the young Danilo. Here the hunter became the hunted, and the depiction of their whirlwind romance followed by the heartbreak of their parting was movingly and hauntingly portrayed. The audience stamped and roared and applauded their approval, and quite rightly so.

The Camille and Valencienne partnership was showed off to good effect later in the act, with the Camille effortlessly reaching his top notes. His slightly pudgy frame, clothed in a tight and shiny suit, did rather make him look like a Vegas nightclub host though, and I thought that Valencienne was portrayed as rather more dippy than usual and therefore did the part no justice. There was, again, some incredibly energetic dancing in this act by all on the stage. All credit to the costume designer for the Widow’s stunning gowns.

Act III, usually set at Maxim’s, was set again on the “Hanna Glawari” – and here again there was a departure from the norm. A new character – not one that appears in the established version. I had been paying attention to the German surtitles and some of the dialogue, and I think that the new character was Hanna’s mother who, it also seemed, had had a romance with Baron Zeta at some time in the past. Could Hanna possibly be their child? We will never know – but it certainly adds a different dimension to the plot! She was a slightly Ethel-Mermanish character – obviously an established favourite at this theatre – and she gave a wonderfully spirited performance, even getting up from her wheelchair and joining in the incredible can-can number, danced not only by Valencienne and the Grisettes, but also by 6 incredibly sexy men in open silk shirts and leather trousers. Something for everyone, one feels! And its not every Hanna Glawari that can do the splits in a tight and sparkly cocktail frock! Brava, madame!

Alas, the show was over all too soon, even though it had been running nearly 3 hours. The cast had to take several curtain calls and they earned every single one of them. This company came to London a year or so ago to perform Countess Maritza and if there is even the slightest chance that they will return to bring The Merry Widow to our shores, I will be the first in line to buy tickets. And I encourage you all to do the same. Truly a Widow to judge all subsequent Widows by.

17 December 2007

The Nutcracker - Hungarian State Opera House - 10th December 2007

Herr Stahlbaum and his wife are giving a Christmas Party. Clara and Fritz, their children, greet the guests. Suddenly, Dr. Drosselmeyer arrives and entertains the children with his magical tricks and wind-up dolls. Drosselmeyer brings a special gift for Clara - a wooden nutcracker. In a jealous fit, Fritz breaks it. Dr. Drosselmeyer quickly repairs it. The party ends, the guests leave, and the Stahlbaums retire for the night. Clara awakens as a mouse runs through her room. The clock strikes midnight. Suddenly, the room fills with giant mice who attack Clara. Life-size toy soldiers, led by her valiant Nutcracker, come to her rescue. The King Rat attacks the Nutcracker, but Clara hits him with her shoe and the Nutcracker wins the battle. After the battle, the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. The Nutcracker Prince turns the Stahlbaum’s house into the Land of Snow. Clara and the Nutcracker Prince dance with the Snowflakes, then depart for the Kingdom of Sweets in an enchanted sleigh.

Clara and the Nutcracker Prince continue their journey across the Lemonade Sea . They are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In Clara's honor, the Sugar Plum Fairy arranges for the inhabitants of her kingdom to entertain them while they eat: chocolate, a Spanish Dance; coffee, an Arabian Dance; and tea, a Chinese Dance. Clara is also entertained by the dance of the Mirlitons, a Russian dance, and the Waltz of the Flowers. Then, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince dance a grand pas de deux. As the celebration draws to a close, Clara drifts off to sleep. She awakens in bed, as the Nutcracker Prince salutes his princess Clara.

Our second visit to the opera house to see something! We managed to get tickets for this the previous day, having thought it was completely sold out beforehand, so there had been a bit of a flap. And it rather turned out to be a case of Much Ado About Not A Lot. Presented in such a “trad” way that you could almost taste the dust on the backdrops, I felt it was heavy with the weight of decades. OK, I’ve been spoilt by the fact that I’ve seen the Birmingham Royal Ballet production of this – possibly the best Nutcracker EVER and after which any production is going to be a disappointment. (If you’ve never seen the BRB production, go buy yourself a copy of the DVD now!)

The only saving grace of this production was its scenery, much like La Boheme the previous night. The curtain rose to show the outside of the Staulbaum’s house, covered in snow and with guests arriving for the party – truly beautiful. Then the scene changed to the drawing room, where things went rapidly to pot (those not familiar with the ballet need to know that this scene contains no ballet as such, merely a series of festive dances and the first threads of the plot). This scene is important because it gives opportunity for establishing characters such as the strange Dr. Drosselmyer, the heroine Clara and her relationship with the Nutcracker. But it was all flat as a leftover gin and tonic the day after a party. Choreography was at best stodgy, at worst completely glossed over or even missing. Drosselmyer’s magic tricks were uninspired and bland and there was little sense of him being a mysterious manipulator of the senses. At the point where the party ends, the act usually continues to show Clara’s midnight adventures with the Mouse King and the start of her journey through the snow to the Kingdom of Sweets. But in this production, the first act ends with the end of the party, leaving a curiously hollow feeling and the sense that not much has really been achieved in terms of the story.

The second act was also extremely disappointing – it should be full of magic, adventure, danger and darkness as Clara and the Nutrcracker join forces against the Mouse King, and of glitter, sparkle and light as they begin their journey through the snow. Instead, it was all again very stodgily danced and with very little sense of spectacle. The growing of the Christmas Tree, which should be darkly magical and slightly threatening, was deeply disappointing – this tree was just a flat painted cloth, half of which was obviously in folds on the floor, so just raising it up on string was supposed to make it appear to “grow”. Unfortunately, it “grew” so much that the base ended up being about 2 feet off the floor. There were several duff lighting cues and, again, the choreography was distinctly unexciting – never more so than in one of the great set pieces of the ballet – the snow storm in the wood. In the BRB version (and in other more traditional versions I’ve seen) this is glittery and exciting and wonderful and danced with verve and passion, echoing the way that the music mimics the sudden blustery squalls of a real snowstorm. In this production, however, the snowflakes were danced by lumpy looking ballerinas wearing cotton wool wigs and strings of bobbles on their arms. Making them look rather like one of those knitted dolly toilet roll covers that your gran used to knit. The choreography failed to do justice to the wonderful, wonderful set of a snowy, night time forest lit by shards of icy moonlight. A few unconvincing flakes of snow fell, making one think that the snow machine had gone badly wrong. What should have been a blizzard was just a damp squiggle.

In the Act III prologue, lighting was uniformly dim and didn’t show off the cave set to anything like its best advantage. I could, however, ramble on for hours about the beauty of the main Act III set – the Kingdom of Sweets. It quite literally got a gasp of admiration from the audience and deservedly so. Again, what spoilt it was the blandness and uninspired nature of the choreography. The Russian Dance was particularly bad. The by now “grown up” Clara (no Sugar Plum Fairy in this version) seemed uneasily partnered with her Nutcracker Prince – it seemed as if they had not rehearsed together enough and made an uneasy partnership with little interaction and very little emotion. This, coupled with the two intervals instead of the usual one, plus the appalling behaviour of several young children in the audience, made this Nutcracker feel like a stodgy, oversteamed Christmas Pudding soused in brandy butter that sits heavily in your stomach and makes you feel like an overstuffed sofa. Much better to enjoy the light, tangy zest of the BRB version.

16 December 2007

La Bohéme– Hungarian State Opera House, Budapest – 9th December 2007


Act I
A consumptive seamstress called Mimi, comes upstairs to get a light from the poet Rodolfo. They fall in love.
Act II
Everyone except Alcindoro has a good time at the Café Momus on Christmas Eve.
Mimi and Rodolfo don't separate.
Act IV
Mimi dies.

Its Holiday Time – and time for the annual endurance test; opera. It’s something I have to suffer for the sake of peace, quiet and maybe a historic garden to mooch round. (Last year, for instance, the annual endurance test was 4 ½ hours of Handel for chrissakes – but I traded that off for the Alhambra in early summer 2007) But, in Hungary in the middle of December, there’s not much happening on the horticultural front, so CBB won this trip hands down. To be honest we really only bought these tickets because we thought that we couldn’t get into The Nutcracker the following day. But then we found we could do both. So Bohéme it was – even though the Hungarian title of Bohémélet makes it sound either like a very small Bohéme or an omelette made with poverty stricken Parisian artists. “Two students or three, Monsieur, in your Bohémélet?” “Four please, and a pretty but consumptive needlewoman from the garret downstairs”.

I must admit that my interest was piqued by a tour of the opera house that afternoon, during which we managed to catch some of the set being installed for that night’s performance. The guide said that their set dated from 1936 and was the oldest in their collection. We were suitably impressed – but it wasn’t until we started looking at the pictures in the programme that we realised the whole production dated from 1936! From the set through the direction and lighting right down to the same costumes! Of course, it may be argued that “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” but come on! 70 years in the repertoire! That’s older than The Mousetrap! The thing only premiered in 1926! CBB settled down with that “I’m seeing an historic performance” look on his face and I knew I was in for a long night. The fact that it was in Italian with Hungarian surtitles just added to the surreal feeling. I comforted myself with the fact that I had bested CBB with the question “What is the name of the picture being painted as the curtain goes up?”. Answer came there none and I think he was a little pissed. Tee hee. Email me if you know the answer!

But you know, it was pretty. Like something off the lid of a chocolate box wrapped in sugar pink ribbons. Bohéme as you expect it to look. The first set, the garret, didn’t take up the entire stage like it so usually does (bloody big attic, you always think) but was a small “island set” against an enormous backdrop of the Paris rooftops. In fact, so small was it that the singers really had a lot of difficulty remembering their lines and not bumping into the furniture. And the costumes were pretty and Mimi (Klara Kolonits) wasn’t fat and past it, but slender and quite cherubic, even if her ginger wig did look a little like Shredded Wheat. And the diction was good and the sound wonderful……so why couldn’t I engage with it? Why did it leave me completely unmoved, even during the “Soave fanculia” duet? I have really no idea.

Again, the set for Act II was everything you expect – a small square, wrought ironwork, a red café awning, little bentwood chairs. Trouble is, there were so many peasants, hot chestnut sellers, soldiers, prostitutes and Parisians in General on stage they had barely room to move – and I was particularly amused to spot that practically everyone who drifted off stage, drifted back on again not more than 10 seconds later so that their numbers never decreased. There was also some spectacularly self-conscious “acting” going on – particularly from a couple of teenage girls who totally overdid the “We’re warming our hands over the chestnut brazier” bit for so long that I eventually couldn’t take my eyes off them. Everybody looked well nourished and clean, even if you did have to doubt their sanity for strolling about on Christmas Eve in their day clothes with just a scarf or shawl on. I also got a great deal of pleasure in this act from Cleo Mitilincou who played Musetta in the style of one. E. Whittlesea of my acquaintance and greatly resembled her too. She held the stage magnificently all through the act, but I thought it a great pity that she was dressed like an orange and yellow silk chicken (far too much marabou, darling) when something nonetheless flashy but more appropriate for the winter season would have been a better costume idea. Anyone dressed like that on Christmas Eve would have frozen her nipples off! But, apparently, that's what Musetta wore in their 1936 production, so.....

The set for Act III was the kind that makes the audience go “ooooooooh!” – a snowy street on a February morning, with a perspective of gas lamps winding into the distance, and all surrounded by bare and snowy boughed trees; a Parisian Narnia, almost. It was stunningly lit, and had obviously been created at the time when a set designer was a draftsman first and an artist second – so accurate was the perspective that it was an effort to “read” the set as two dimensional canvasses. It was easier just to sink into it visually. When the gentle flurries of snow started to fall, I felt a big lump in my throat. Call me old fashioned, but it was truly beautiful and the kind of stage set you just don’t see anymore.

Scene IV was the garret again, although “boxed in” on all sides and no backdrop. I thought Mimi’s pink winceyette frock was dreadful with her ginger wig, and she must have caught a form of consumption that left no visible trace because she looked just as chipper as before. But again, for some reason, I just didn’t engage with it. Her death left me relatively unemotional, even though her performance was superb. But then, its well known opera just ain’t my thang – even if it is this pretty.

24 November 2007

Women of Troy – National Theatre, Friday 24th November 2007


Their men killed and their city burning, the women of Troy are to be taken back to Greece as slaves. Queen Hecuba tries to find a footing amidst her sorrow, as one daughter is murdered and the other, the mad Cassandra is taken away. Hector's widow Andromache finds she will be the new wife of a king, but her only son will be put to death. Finally, Menelaus arrives to decide what to do with Helen, the Spartan temptress that the Trojan women hold responsible for all the carnage and suffering, and the loss of their empire. Troy burns around them all.

I long to see a period play done in the correct setting and costumes for once. Theatre snobs insist that putting actors into modern dress against a concrete set make the play more “relevant” to modern audiences, so that we can “empathise” more closely – emotion and ideas supposedly “transcend time”. Well, I think its just lazy. Shakespeare isn’t less “relevant” if its done in Elizabethan or Jacobean costume, Restoration comedy isn’t any less (or indeed any more) funny performed against a Queen Anne backdrop – and Greek drama isn’t any less dramatic if its performed in chitons and sandals. Although Greek drama is highly stylised (and can be quite indigestible in its purest form), I really don’t think that putting the cast in cocktail frocks and badly fitting suits make the drama any more powerful. I suppose that directors do this in order to gain some sense of “ownership” of the text, but traditional costumes and settings, when handled sensitively and confidently (or given a clever modern twist – see my review for “The Country Wife”), can add so much to a play. And I would very much have liked to see them here.

There is undoubted emotional power in this play. But it really pays to have done your homework first, otherwise you may find yourself (like the Grecian Fleet) completely at sea. Everybody vaguely knows bits of the story of Helen of Troy and the Wooden Horse (although putting those aspects together make the woman sound a bit like Catherine the Great). Some people know about the bits that happens beforehand – Paris, the three goddesses and the golden apple. But what happens after? No, I didn’t know either. So I admit that I found what little plot there is quite hard to follow (in fact, I had to have the context explained to me on the way home).

Of all the performances, only Kate Duchene seemed really in control of her material, playing Hecuba, Queen of the defeated Trojans, with folorn majesty and terrified, haughty grandeur. Sinead Matthews ought to be wooden-horsewhipped – her Cassandra was gabbled, inarticulate and at times completely inaudible. Yes, OK, she’s supposed to be a raving prophetess, and her ravings are not meant to make a whole lot of sense - but do your audience a favour, love, and let them hear what you’re actually saying. I don’t know what it is lately with young actresses – so few of them seem to leave drama school with any kind of projection skills. I just hope that her parents never go to see this play and see her standing up on a table in high heels with her minge on show to the paying public. Anastasia Hille was good as Andromache, although she’s obviously never held a live baby in her arms – if she held a real child like that, the poor little bugger would suffocate with a face full of tit. Mind you, I can think of worse ways to go, when the option is being thrown from the battlements. And Helen – isn’t she supposed to be stunningly beautiful - the one whose face launched a thousand ships? I can only assume that, when people saw Susie Trayling, they were sailing away from her. God, what a dog. And Sparta is obviously located just south of Belfast – Stephen Kennedy as King Menelaus gave Ian Paisley a run for his money in the accent stakes.

The director showed the arrogance usual to many of the breed by not thinking about the sightlines of the set. In some theatres, those up in the gods can’t see half the set because its placed too far back. And in this production, those in the front couldn’t see a lot of the action because we were faced with three long tables ranged across the stage, each with two chairs which had their backs towards us. In the visual clutter of legs, table tops, wastepaper bins and chair backs, a lot of the stage was obscured for those of us who sat in the cheap seats right at the front. But hey, what do us poor people matter? Fuck us – we only paid a tenner each; we don’t deserve the same view as those who paid £39.50.

The Sad Garden Historian in me was very pleased to see that the corpse of the child was dressed with flowers from the correct period of history. But what I didn’t understand was, if the women managed to climb the ladder, break the window of the internal corridor and smash their way into an office to find the plant, why didn’t they break out of the windows on the other side of the office and make their escape? Far better than being made a sexual slave by a rampant, muscular Spartan warrior ……hang on, that’s not such a bad idea as it goes – where do I sign up?
What the critics thought:

31 October 2007

The Country Wife – Theatre Royal Haymarket– Friday 26th October 2007

If the owners of this theatre ever read this review, I want them to know that £4 is an OUTRAGEOUS price for a programme. And additionally, I’m sick of their tiny seats, in which I have to sit with my knees up under my chin and get cramp. So there. And why is this theatre always so packed out with Merkins from Bediddlybong, Idaho (see my review for “The Lady of Dubuque”)? Is it because they have been unable, at the last minute, to get tickets for “Phantom” just across the road and have had to do a quick belt across the Haymarket to the Theatre Royal in order to avoid having to spend another long evening in the Angus Steak House on the corner of Lie-Chester Square?

Restoration “comedy” is an acquired taste. And I’m really not sure that I’ve got it. When the play is good, you don’t really notice it as you’re too busy enjoying it (see my review of “The Man of Mode”). When its bad, it can be a real uphill struggle. In fact, I was really quite relieved when this play was over – there are only so many “humorous” comings and goings, seductions, betrayals, “disguises” and reconciliations that I can take in one evening. And lordy, there were a lot of them in this play. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. My Bestest Friend in the Whole World (Hi Danni!) has oft commented that, not having a boyf obsessed with taking her to the theatre (there are drawbacks, Danni, believe me!), she misses out when reading these reviews because she’s not familiar with the play. So there will be a regular “Synopsis” section for each production from now on.

“The Country Wife tells the story of Horner, a notorious and lascivious man - about - town and his ingenious scheme for the rampant and mass seduction of the women of London society. By spreading the false rumour of his own impotence, he gains the sympathy of the husbands of the town and, more importantly, free access to their wives. Meanwhile the newly-married Pinchwife desperately attempts to keep his naïve country bride from the clutches of predatory London
bachelors. When she and Horner meet, events spiral out of his control…”

I think you get the idea.

I have to say that I enjoyed the production of this play a lot more than I enjoyed the play itself. It really was an uphill struggle by the end. Around me, people seemed to be pissing themselves with laughter but I just couldn’t see what they were laughing at. What seemed amusing in Act I was getting a bit tiresome by Act II. I think what put me off was that elements of this play come very close to farce – not my favourite genre of theatre. There is a lot of hiding in cupboards, disguises that really wouldn’t fool anyone, marital discord eventually resolved, substituted letters, frantic searches for people who have just gone offstage – you know the kind of stuff; all the usual elements of “Whoops, There Go My Trousers!” as performed by the West Wiggington on Sea Amateur Players, Every Night This Week (plus Saturday Matinee) in the Church Hall. But with “The Country Wife”, you get all this plus corsets, full bottomed wigs and people saying “Gadzooks, wench! Thou hast indeed a goodly pantouffle, or my name’s not Sir Spratlington Spyglass!” and trying to sound like they know what they are talking about. This kind of stuff floats the boat of a lot of people, but not me.

I did like what the costume designer did in this production. The oldest character of all was dressed in strict period costume with an appropriate wig. Middle-aged characters were dressed in costumes of appropriate period design, but clearly made of modern materials – Sir Jasper Fidget (groan!) was wearing a Restoration frock coat, waistcoat and knickerbockers, but these were made of pinstriped suiting, and he had on a modern collar and tie, and a pinstriped shirt with big baggy cuffs that flopped out from his sleeves, and his hair was vaguely “old fashioned” in style but not strictly period. And the younger characters had modern haircuts and wore costumes with an appropriate period silhouette, but with modern elements – the four young male leads all had on jazzy frock coats in peacock colours, teamed with modern shirts, baggy jeans and black lace up shoes. Clever!

I also liked most of the scenic elements – no attempt was made at realism and there was a deliberate “stage set” look to them. I loved the way that a green interior wall with a panel of painted foliage stayed on stage when the scene changed to an outdoor one and just became “part of the scenery” in Vauxhall Gardens – which was particularly pretty in a kind of “pantomime” kind of way. The “garden” set too was well realised – a rear wall with an iron gate and a pallisaded apple tree, a small rostrum centre stage covered in green felt with three large pots of roses and a watering can on it, and a steamer chair. Not realistic but hey – instant garden.

The interior sets were less well done - there seems to be a fashion in theatre design at the moment to have your set consist of one wall of an interior, sharply angled and with lots of doors and set into the wall, each of which is larger than the one upstage of it, so that the wall looks longer than it really is (ie the door nearest the audience is normally sized, and they get smaller as you go towards the back of the stage). This, of course, falls completely flat when actors have to come in through the door furthest upstage and have to duck their head so that they don’t bang it on the lintel. I’ve seen several productions use this type of set this year and its getting tiresome. There also seems to be a fashion to paint your set in virulent colours – so Horner’s house was all dark peacock blue and mauve in a kind of flock wallpaper design, and Pinchwife’s house shocking pink and covered in flamboyant roses, both of which got a bit difficult to take after a while. There was, however, to CBB’s delight, a real rabbit (white) in a hutch (pink) – he’s easily pleased, bless him; I think he could have watched it being fed lettuce (green) for hours.

Even given that I found the play heavy going, I enjoyed some of the performances. This must be the first time ever that I’ve seen Patricia Hodge not play Patricia Hodge and she showed her complete mastery of comic timing with her throwaway lines. Both Toby Stephens (Horner) and Jo Stone-Fewings (Sparkish) were doing what CBB calls “Thigh Acting” and the latter took the prize for both “Lantern Jaw with butch 5 o clock Shadow Acting” and “I’ve Got a Big Packet Tucked Into My Jeans Acting”. Wonderfully cocky – in all senses of the word. In fact, he seemed more in possession of the stage than Stephens, who is technically the lead. David Haig was a bit of a disappointment – much spluttering and frantic spewing out of lines while rushing round the stage, but I suppose the part of Pinchwife is written like that, so its hard to see what else he could have done really. For such an old trooper, Janet Brown was practically inaudible for much of her dialogue and I noticed that the quality of silence from the audience deepened whenever she spoke – it was quite obvious that people were having to strain to hear what she said. It’s a shame that the director couldn’t be persuaded to let her play the part as Maggie Thatcher. Fiona Glascott as Margery, the eponymous “Country Wife” seemed to be playing the part as Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous and I found her very heavy going – mostly because her accent was so thick (oh, I see! She’s playing a country bumpkin! ‘Ello moi Luvver!) that she’d finish saying a line long before I could work out exactly she’d said – goodness knows what the Merkins from Beddidlybong, Idaho must have thought. But then they probably think we all speak like that in this country. And drink warm beer and bicycle through the sunset to Evensong as well.

What the critics thought:




15 October 2007

Richard II - Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadlers Wells, Saturday 13th October 2007

All right - a joke's a joke, but why were the orchestra playing the score backwards? Well, that's what it sounded like. Apparently John McCabe is one of our "foremost composers" - but this sounded like the soundtrack to a very bad Tom and Jerry cartoon played on a collection of old tin cans, rusty saw and the odd bit of catgut. PomPompomPom weasel diddley diddley diddley wah wah pom weasel weasel pom Pom DAHHHHHH diddley. There was a point in act 2 where I really didnt think I could stand the noise any longer as it was making my head hurt. This "score" sounds like the composer had picked up a load of crotchets and minims in a second hand job lot from somewhere and tipped them all over a big sheet of paper marked "Score for Richard II". Sorry, call me old fashioned, but this wasn't music, just noise.

The cacophony coming from the pit was well matched by the utter rubbish being danced on stage. I know that ballet shouldnt be all about sequins and glitter but for crissakes, who commissioned this crap? It really was the sort of rubbish that people clap because they think doing so makes them sound educated and appreciative of dance's "cutting edge" rather than because they really like it. There is some semblance of a plot (whether or not based on historical fact or just the overheated imaginings of a fusty old academic who's not had any tang lately), but nothing very thrilling - even the "Red Hot Poker Up the Jacksie" bit failed to ignite any spark of interest with me. And a substantial reward will be offered for anyone able to rationally explain the sudden arrival on stage of a small troupe of strolling players - one dressed as a jester with a 2 foot phallus attached to the front of his costume, one dressed as a donkey, one as the Virgin Mary and the other as Death. Oh, its Symbolic, is it? More like shambolic, if you ask me. Talk about the Emperor's New Clothes.

Oh yes, the costumes. Lets talk about them. Jasper Conran, dahling. Apparently, shiny pastel lounge suits with matching ties and shoes were SO "in" in 13th century France. As was the punk look for the hoi polloi - black string vests and tatty trousers with loads of strategically placed rips and zips. And as for the Evil Barons - well, everyone knows that Evil Barons always wear sweaty black studded leather and have long greasy hair, don't they? Of course they do.

The audience was pretty thin at this performance - probably everyone was staying home to watch England v France (oh, there's an unexpectedly relevant metaphor) - but the applause was surprisingly loud and prolonged. Perhaps, like me, everyone was extremely relieved that the evening was over.

02 October 2007

Present Laughter – National Theatre, Saturday 29th September

I don’t know why it is that every time I see Alex Jennings perform, I’m ill. Or maybe its that I’m ill every time I see Alex Jennings perform. Maybe it’s the way he sprays spit all over his fellow actors all the time. Whatever it is, I had a stinking cold when I saw him in “The Alchemist” and I had a stinking cold when I saw this, so I had a hard time finding this production funny even though the people around me seemed to be shrieking their tits off with laughter. Lord only knows what they found to laugh at so much. Lets face it, this is not one of Coward’s “greats”. This is no “Private Lives”, no “Tonight at 8.30”. It tips the scales at almost three hours long and there seemed to me to be no particularly memorable lines, nor really any traceable story line. In fact, there seemed to be two different plays – one in the first half, one in the second. The play in the first half seems to be a rather bitter, savage diatribe about “the modern world and how neither I nor my plays fit into it any more” and the one in the second teeters on the brink of farce with various wives disappearing into offices and spare rooms so that their various husbands don’t realise they’ve spent the night with the lead character. There are also comedy foreign housekeepers, infatuated playwrights who want to worship at the feet of the master (and very possibly do other things to them as well) and devoted, dykey secretaries to add to the “fun” of the piece. Unfortunately no trouserless vicars or French maids with feather dusters.

I think I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that I don’t like Alex Jennings. He seems to me to be one of those actors – and there are several in each generation – who make a living out of playing themselves. Mr. Jennings seems to have gone to the “Jim Carrey School of Acting” – in order to express any kind of emotion, it is only necessary to screw your face up in some way. In this production we get “Alex Jennings doing the slightly faded but still devastatingly attractive to women and witty matinee idol” role – a role which Coward assumed during his time and one that most people get tired of very quickly; it just dates so badly. Actually, I think that is the main problem with this type of play – its just dated badly. Its not yet old enough to be accorded historical status – it just looks old and tired; the type of play that you could comfortably take Great Aunt Flossie to see on a wet Thursday afternoon in Frinton. There were a couple of very good performances here – Sarah Woodward was very funny as the devoted, brusque, slightly dykey secretary and Sara Stewart was spot on as Liz Essendine – both had the right “look” and “feel” for the period. Both were helped by wonderfully accurate costumes, beautifully cut. Simon Wilson and Tim McMullan as Henry and Morris proved once again that Coward could not write believable, fully rounded, supporting male roles, only little satellites that revolve around a central sun. I was fed up with Garry Essendine by the end, hoping desperately that he would hurry up and get on his wretched boat to Africa and take all his stupid friends with him.

On first sight, I thought the set design was wonderful – lots of forced perspectives, different levels etc. But the colour – a strident turquoise – was very hard on the eyes after three hours.

And nowhere in the programme can I find anything that tells me why the play is called “Present Laughter”. Is it a line from the play itself? Or a quote from something else. Answers on a postcard, please.
What the critics thought:

28 August 2007

Take Flight - Menier Chocolate Factory - Saturday 25th August 2007

Demonstrations about extra runways, baggage handlers losing X million cases a year, having to check in 2 hours before take-off, interminable queues at security and Passport Control, overcrowded facilities - do you REALLY want to fly? Well, these people do - but then they are the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Presented simply and sparingly, with a hard working cast of a dozen, the minimum of sets and props and a tiny (by West End standards) orchestra, this was a little gem of a show set in a time when flying was new, exciting and a cause for excitement rather than boredom.

The stories of four famous pioneers of flight (narrated by an obscure and failed - and already dead - fifth) may seem a bizarre subject for a brand-new musical - but then again, why not? There have been shows on stranger subjects. And this one presents its topic with a kind of wide-eyed wholesomeness that is very refreshing when so many productions these days seem to be struggling with cynical world-weariness. Trouble is, a lot of the reviews I've read of this seem unable to escape this world-weariness and miss the point, I think, of this show. They criticise the fact that this is not going to be another Chocolate Factory transfer to the West End, that the set is sparse and the props few. But who cares? Without complex sets to gaze on, you are forced to pay attention to the actors instead. As you are sitting uncompromisingly close to them anyway, this is surely no bad thing? These people are working hard to entertain you, and deserve your full attention The simplicity of the setting replicates the simplicity of the age - a time when life was slower, technology in its infancy, things more difficult to achieve and experiences all the more intense as a result. It shows that you don't need highly elaborate sets and tons of props in order to create an effective atmosphere. And - dare I say it - you come out having actually learned something along the way.

The problems faced by Wilbur and Orville Wright (Sam Kenyon and Eliot Levy – both hysterically deadpan) in actually getting their flying machine off the ground are woven in with the stories of the first solo flight across the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh (Michael Jibson) and the career of Amelia Earhart (Sally Ann Triplett), narrated by Otto Lillienthal (no, me either; apparently he was a pioneer of gliding pre-Wright brothers). All the stories proceed at different paces and through different timescales, so unless you have a nodding acquaintance with what is going on and who is who, you can get a little bogged down in the over-long first half. Its therefore a good idea to have a good shufti at the programme notes beforehand. All three stories are presented in an uncompromisingly spare way – the set is a length of windswept, sandy beach, the backdrop a bare brick wall. A few chairs, a traveling trunk, a couple of suitcases, a stepladder and a couple of model aircraft– and that’s all, folks. This spareness forces you to use your imagination in a way that more complex sets fail to do – by the end, you can feel the cockpits, rather than being shown them. Having said that, there are a few stunning (and stunningly simple) visual effects – the best probably being the representation of Earhart’s fateful round-the-world flight. Remember the red line which describes the path of the airplane in films like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”? Well, that’s what is being given to you here – except its not a computer-enhanced image, just a spool of red ribbon being unwound and held at differing heights by a line of actors ranged across the stage, silhouetted against the brightly lit sky. Very simple and incredibly effective. A network of tiny lights embedded in the sand dunes becomes the lights of night-time Paris, above which Lindbergh hovers, perched on a stepladder. You don’t need any more than this – these are flights of imagination, literally and figuratively.

Sure, there are moments when schmaltz manages to get in the way – most notably in the second half of the show, and mainly in Earhart’s sections of the story. Finding that her flying causes marital strife, Earhart promises to take “just one more flight – my last ever” – and you just KNOW that something is going to go wrong. One is left with the faint feeling that she commits suicide on the home stretch of her journey around the world, not wishing to return to her earthbound and uncompromising publisher husband. Maybe? Maybe not. Then the dead Earhart appears to Lindbergh as he approaches Paris on his momentous flight (odd, because she disappeared some years after this event) exhorting him to “Keep on flyin” – cue for sentimentality in bucketloads, syrupy lyrics and gooey lighting effects. But these moments are mercifully few and far between in a barnstorming, flying circus of a show that catches hold of your imagination, takes wing and flies into the wild blue beyond.

What the critics thought:



08 August 2007

Saint Joan- National Theatre, Friday 3rd August 2007

I’m finding it hard to write this review – I wasn’t feeling great, for various reasons, and a lot of it I saw “through a glass, darkly” as the saying goes. Its very long and, in parts, very wordy and static, and deals with quite a weighty subject – there is little of the light froth of, say, “Arms and the Man” or even “Pygmalion”. Its also the second play I’ve seen lately that indulges in Catholic-bashing! There’s also quite a lot of “England-bashing” – to greatly humorous effect, but each with a dark undertone that suggests in itself the gloom of forbidding castle walls. In fact, the only character that comes out unbashed is Joan herself - presented less as a visionary or mystic than an image on a fluttering banner around which a battered army re-forms, a secular Virgin inspiring her muddy and war-weary troops. Because, essentially, that’s all Joan of Arc was – a figurehead for a cause, a simple country girl who somehow managed to inspire an army and who was ultimately betrayed by her own side.

One of the faults of the play, I think, is that there is no examination of whether Joan’s “Voices” are the product of a deranged mind or whether she is really on the receiving end of Divine inspiration. Its almost as if Shaw was in love with his heroine and out of love with everyone else. What is also difficult to reconcile is the action-packed first half ending with a very long and static final scene, and then the almost entirely static second half which deals only with her trial. Still, that’s the fault of the text, rather than this production, which seems to be wowing audiences at the moment, mainly due to the incredible, gut wrenching performance by Anne-Marie Duff.

The “modernisation” of the trial scene in this production was very difficult to cope with – Joan sits practically alone on stage, with spotlights trained on her and using a microphone on a stand, almost as if the trial was some kind of Nazi interrogation – which I suppose essentially it was. I’ve seen this device used on stage before in trial scenes – I think in “Measure for Measure” - and it never fails to irritate me. Although the play is presented in a spare “non-period” way – no tabards, trumpets and fleur-de-lys here – it feels very jarring with the subject matter. A bit of period realism perhaps wouldn’t have come amiss – and I was looking forward to a good funeral pyre, with lots of hissing, crackling flames licking round. What I got was a shaft of white light and a lot of stage smoke. There was one odd touch of realism which jarred horribly because it was doubled up with imagery – a kingfisher is sighted on the banks of the river. When in flight, this was represented by some tattered strips of turquoise ribbon attached to the end of a long pole. However, we also got a “glove puppet” kingfisher for a few short moments, which was then replaced with the swirling ribbons. Very odd. What I did enjoy was the physicality of many of the scenes – particularly the “Stomp” inspired battle scene depicting the taking of Orleans; noisy, brutal and visually exciting.

All honours, of course, to the “Joan” although I did find her Irish accent somewhat difficult to reconcile with the character initially. How she can play that part 8 times a week and not be shaking and crying at the curtain call is completely beyond me. The trial scene was saved in its entirety by a masterful Oliver Ford Davies as the Inquisitor – every syllable and inflection perfectly placed and projected with supreme gravitas (and probably audible in the very back row, which contrasted unmercifully with the muddy consonants and poor delivery of some of the minor cast). Paul Ready played the Dauphin with just a hint too much sulky brattishness for my liking and I do wonder whether the heir to the throne of France ever wore purple football socks. Angus Wright was terrifyingly sardonic as the Earl of Warwick and displayed devastating comic timing, but I wish someone would tell Brendan O’Hea to stop swivelling his hips while speaking – I found the constant flexing of his pelvis and his seeming inability to put equal weight on both feet very irritating.

I just wish that I had been in a better frame of mind on the day as I think I would have enjoyed this production rather more than I did.

19 July 2007

The Last Confession - Haymarket Theatre, Wednesday 18th July 2007

Just the thing for a sultry Wednesday night in London – a bit of Catholic-bashing. And not just any old catholics either – this is real Pope on a Rope stuff. Set in the very recent past, this play looks at the backstabbing, deceit, blackmail and Byzantine machinations of the Conclave of Cardinals electing the successor to Pope John, the unexplained death of Pope John Paul I after only 33 turbulent days in office as God’s Vicar and the election to the Pontificate of the previously unheard of man who was crowned John Paul II. Along the way we get every stereotyped kind of cardinal there is – old and fusty, young and ambitious, slimy and deceitful - David Suchet stalking the corridors of power in his red robes, wrestling with his conscience and giving us a bit of his Poirot act thrown in for good measure, earnest young prebends and even a comedy nun (“Would you be wantin’ a cop of coffee Hooly Fadder? Oh go’wan, go’wan, go’wan!” OK, maybe she didn’t say it exactly like that, but she could have done).

Although I did find parts of this very heavy going – the subject matter isn’t frivolous, after all – I was really amazed to read in the programme that this is the author’s first play. You’d never believe it. It’s a little top-heavy at times, but the supporting roles are written very well and nicely integrated, there is just enough comedy to leaven the mix sufficiently to make the whole loaf rise and just enough blasphemy to affront all the good Catholics in the audience. Although there is sometimes some confusion about exactly what the play is – political thriller, murder mystery, heavyweight comedy – it unravels at just the right pace to leave you slightly unsure about where the next few minutes will be leading, with dialogue as intricate and complex as the tiled floor of the Sistine Chapel. There is a sense of discomfiture as well – after all this is the very recent past – and when the name of an obscure German cardinal called Ratzenberger is thrown in unexpectedly during the incessant in-fighting towards the end, this discomfiture slaps you round the face and leaves you with the impression of the Fisherman’s Ring outlined on your cheek (yes, its that Cardinal Ratzenberger); you can almost feel time unfurling and catching up with you. The play also feels astonishingly relevant as it’s about the appointment of a “liberal” pope and his unpopularity with the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, his subsequent “removal” and the enthronement of a Polish replacement whom they hope will be considerably more hard-line (but unfortunately who, as history shows, turns out to be just as liberal as his predecessor. So, when he dies, the Church brings in a Rottweiler who overturns everything that the two John Pauls have worked so hard to achieve. But hey, all for the Glory of Mother Church, eh?).

David Suchet seemed a little uncomfortable at times with his role and even (gasp!) actually fluffed a couple of his lines. There was, unfortunately, quite a lot of his Salieri and his Poirot on stage at times – in fact, in the investigation scene, where the Vatican doctor and various minor Vatican officials are being cross-examined (“Doctor, did you test the coffee in his cup? The sweets in the bowl?”) I half expected him to whip off his skullcap, straighten the ornaments on the table and mutter “But you see, ‘Astings, there was the motive, the method and the opportunity! In fact, the murderer is in zis very room!” In fact, the denouement turns out to be very sub-Christie – Suchet’s confessor turns out to be none other than JP2 himself, which is a bit too neat and tidy. Richard O’Callaghan was a worthy John Paul, with enough of the “son of a Venice bricklayer” about his portrayal to make it believable that he was a man promoted above his ability and outside his range of experience but determined to do what he thought was right, but I doubt very much that the Big JP would ever have participated in the following exchange: JP – “I’m sending you to Florence” Cardinal – “I’d rather go to hell!” JP – “That too can be arranged!”. I thought Maroussia Frank could have done a little more with her Nun than play it as Mrs. Doyle from “Father Ted” and I noticed that her accent slipped a couple of times.

Lighting was effective, if slightly badly sourced at times, leaving some of the actors’ faces in shadows. The set was very well done, representing (I suppose) rooms within rooms and doors within doors as a way of commenting on the endless political wangling going on inside them – or maybe it was “There are many mansions in my fathers house” (or whatever the quote is). I did think, however, that some of these doors ended up being practically superfluous as they didn’t seem to be used much. And I do very much doubt that they use chrysanthemums in the Vatican Gardens. The choice of music was rather odd – with 2000 years of Christian music to choose from, the use of what sounded like Enya seemed very strange.

All in all, an interesting and absorbing play about earthly power and its use and abuse, but showing the odd fault here and there. Not bad for a beginner though, even if he is 61 years old. But he’s not as old as some of the recent popes have been, so there’s time for him to work on his craft yet.

Interestingly, there were three Catholic priests in the audience. I’d give three Hail Mary’s and a Hello Dolly to know what they thought of the evening!

What the critics thought:



17 June 2007

The Inland Sea - Rose Bruford College at Greenwich Theatre - Friday 16th June 2007


Sometimes, you go to see a play which is so up its own arse that sitting through it becomes a chore in itself, at which point one’s critical “capabilities” switch off and it becomes impossible to see the performances because the play keeps getting in the way, so I offer my apologies should anyone connected with this production read this review. I also try and promise not to waffle on interminably about the many errors in the text in terms of the gardening history aspect of the play.

This was the final performance of the Rose Bruford College season of performances, so the house was full of talent (not all of it on the stage) and there was more than a hint of “end of term show” about the place – whooping and laughing and patting each other on the back, and filled with the slightly ribald type of laughter you get when people see their school chums on the stage doing naughty things – as well as the type when the audience know the performers and laugh at the performances rather than any inherent funniness of the play. We went to see this because, on the face of it, it seemed to be about the great 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown – one of my personal household gods. I think both of us were expecting a play like Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, but what we got was an interminable piece of pretentious wank (literally) which had me shifting in my seat and glancing at my watch every five minutes or so in case there was still time for a couple of cards of bingo if we left quickly enough.

The premise of the play (which sank practically without trace after its professional premiere – one wonders why?) is that “Capability” Brown helps his younger, randier brother gain a major landscaping commission, which involves relocating a village. The villagers object to this, leading to confrontations between the villagers themselves and the army cadets employed on the digging. During the excavations in the park, human bones are unearthed. The Gamekeeper who (it proves) did the dastardly deed, is constantly bothered by a strange girl running around the stage like a hyperactive Ophelia. She turns out to be the ghost of the sister of one of the villagers, whom her mother has told for many years that her father and sister suddenly decided to emigrate one night. The gamekeeper has (for some reason unexplained) kept the murdered girl’s skull and therefore she cannot rest until it has been interred with the rest of her bones. During all this, Asquith Brown is seduced by the murdered girl’s sister, taught how to wank effectively by his older brother and then comprehensively fingered up the arse by the girl. An irritating lady with an easel and palette wanders in and out, complaining that she cannot paint a landscape which is in a constant state of flux (the character is not actually called “Mrs. Blantantly Obvious Cypher” but she could well have been). Stretch all this out over 3 hours and you have exactly the kind of evening which ends with me coming out of the theatre “with that face on”. Hey, I could have been watching “Britain’s Got Talent” all night – that’s why I was pissed off. Really. Performing budgies and chavs from Erith and Wembley trying to prove they’re the next Celine Dion, all introduced by comedy geniuses (cough) Ant and Dec would have entertained me more.

Sure, there were some good performances on the stage. Jessica Brown was a wonderfully earthy (in every sense of the word – most of the cast looked as if they had just finished rolling around in the midden) Ellen. Laura Doherty maintained the difficult part of Hesp with style, although her accent was more Jane Horrocks than Jane Austen. Joseph Greenslade obviously has a great future ahead of him – primarily as a Baldrick stand-in (if at any point in the evening he had turned to the audience and said “My Lord, I have a cunning plan” then I suspect he would have been washed off the stage as the audience collectively pissed themselves with delighted hysterics). And Janice Burne was wonderfully detached as the exasperated lady painter. But the play kept getting in the way and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Until you actually fathom what is going on (its eventually spelled out for you so pointedly that it’s a wonder the text doesn’t call for a drum roll and cymbals at this point), Lena Kaur’s Bliss is just an irritating and baffling interruption. The juxtaposition of low comedy (think of some of Shakespeare’s most strained “hilarious moments”), high falutin’ sentiment and sheer “what the fuck is going on-ism” gets very wearying very quickly. And I’m sorry, but the constant references to sexual activity are either just the mark of a very jejune playwright trying to shock or one who needs a damned good screwing to release some tension. I’m no prude about sex, but when its presented gratuitously just for effect, then I start feeling a bit like Mary Whitehouse and go into spitting-feathers mode. If anyone can tell me exactly why Asquith Brown slips off his breeches and masturbates furiously (in accordance with the extremely graphic “rules of play” recounted by his elder brother) in the middle of a field,, then apparently willingly goes on his hands and knees in order to get comprehensively buggered by a woman using her fingers, or why a genteel lady painter in panniers suddenly feels it necessary to publicly lick the right nipple of a filthy villager actually achieves in terms of characterisation or plot, then please do jot it down on a postcard and let me know (thought: does she have nostalgie de a boué (dreams of the dirt) fantasies? No, she’s just been railing about how the extensive earthworks have turned her bucolic landscape into 11 acres of mud. Geddit? Has the author hit you hard enough with this metaphor yet?).

Mix all this in with coco-roju samba music interspersed with “didley deedly didelly dee dee de doo” sub-Riverdance vocals and scenes which are over in less than a minute involving hysterical girls a la Mad Margaret, comedy yokels with alarming facial hair dressed in costumes so obviously and regularly sponge-printed all over with grey-green “mud” by the costume department that they begin to appear like the worst stencilling excesses of Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen ("don’t turn the sponge round, girls! Otherwise your “mud” won’t look like a repeating pattern!”) and you have an evening which would give any self-respecting landscape architect the screaming ab-dabs. There must be better plays than this for young actors to be in, surely?

And “Capability” Brown never worked with any of his family on landscape projects. And didn’t have a brother called Asquith. He designed 200 or so estates, not 50. “Alnick” is pronounced “Annick” not “All-nick”. The "rare pine trees" you were planting were wretched Cupressus leylandii from B&Q's garden centre. And William Chambers’ “Dissertation on Oriental Gardening” wasn’t published until 1772, and was not a critique on the landscape movement. So there.
What the critics thought: not a lot, as I couldn't find a single review other than mine - not even in the local paper!

16 June 2007

Into The Woods – Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Friday 15th June 2007

This has to be my favourite Stephen Sondheim show ever, so it really can’t fail to tick all the boxes with me. And yet….and yet…. there seemed to be something lacking from this production. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was –a certain lack of “sparkle” perhaps, or a sense of magic. OK, it was the first preview and maybe the cast hadn’t really got into their stride, but parts of this felt very pedestrian and somewhat laboured. Maybe the production is a bit too reverent – with something like this, I think you can get away with playing around and having fun, poking fun at the fairy-tale genre and sending it up, a bit like a really good panto. Certainly I expected something more from the director, Will Tuckett – an established choreographer and dancer with the Royal Ballet. Perhaps that’s what it is – sometimes these people just can’t “cross over” from one discipline to another. Maybe Tuckett should stick with what he knows best – choreography rather than direction. There were many opportunities for dance and “movement” which went completely for nothing. Certainly Tuckett can’t group people effectively, preferring the straight line, the semi-circle and the amorphous “clump”. Halfway through I thought of the great fairytale illustrator Arthur Rackham and how well he grouped characters in his wonderful drawings – perhaps I’ll send Mr. Tuckett a book of his illustrations. Lots of opportunities for “business” were missed completely, and although I loved the mechanical hen running across the stage, loathed the inclusion of a guide dog for Clorinda and Florinda, thought the fact that Cinderella’s birds came down the chimney while there was a lighted fire in the grate absurd and didn’t think much of either Milky-White splitting in half or Cinderella’s Prince galumphing around with a horse’s armoured headpiece held in front of him to represent his steed. In order for the potion to work, Red Riding Hood’s cape MUST be fed to the cow (and wasn’t), and neither should Jack be carrying his sack of coins when he says to the Baker “I will go and get more money”. Mr. Tuckett obviously hadn’t paid enough attention to the details of the script, and I thought that the changes required to the characters’ houses between the acts were not nearly marked enough. Jack’s mother would have spent money on gaudy stuff from the fairytale equivalent of the Argos catalogue when becoming rich rather than just buying a tasteful cuckoo clock and some dangly ear-rings and Cinderella’s house became Cinderella’s castle with the very lazy addition of a carved royal crest above the fireplace.

Lighting was rather unsure throughout the entire evening – much seemed very underlit and a lot of the singers seemed to be either singing completely out of their spot or unsure of where it was going to be. The stage was framed with mirrors and only once did I see these being used – Cinderella’s Prince used one to check his hair. Mirrors reflect the unvarnished truth and Tuckett could have made a nice point here – a lot of characters in this show are self-deluded and only find truth and reality in the second act. And mirrors do feature in a lot of fairy stories, either as a plot device or a character (or both). And only once did I catch the mirrors being used to enhance the lighting – and that I think by mistake – when a spot beam seemed angled precisely to catch on the edge of one of the mirrors and bounce to a different angle on the floor of the stage.

Gary Waldhorn seemed rather to be going through the motions as the Narrator and would sometimes appear right in the middle of the action – surely the point of having a Narrator is that he takes a role completely outside the story (even though in this show he does eventually get dragged almost literally into the story he is telling). Certainly I think he could have been given a rather better costume – he looked like he’d just strolled in off the street in an unpressed jacket and trousers that had obviously been bought in his slightly slimmer days. And please, makeup designer, get someone to put some powder on his bald bonce so that he doesn’t look like a big pink shiny easter egg wandering around the stage.

Gillian Kirkpatrick seemed somehow better as the scullerymaid Cinderella than Princess Cinderella, lacking innocence and a certain emotional warmth and certainly not singing with the brilliance that Cinders should possess. “On The Steps of the Palace” is incredibly difficult to sing but I have heard other actresses manage this far better. I thought Peter Caulfield made a splendid Jack, although his diction was sometimes a little muddy. The director, however, should point out to him that when holding a chicken, its head should face the audience, not its arse, even if it does lay golden eggs. Anne Reid did her best with the small part of Jack’s Mother, although I did think it might have been somewhat lazy casting. It’s a difficult role – there’s not much singing but what there is, is quite tricky and wordy and Im not totally convinced Ms. Reid could get her teeth round some of it. Cinderella’s Stepmother is another of these roles and Elizabeth Brice failed on all counts. No projection to her dialogue, muddy diction in the music and generally not nearly wicked enough. Louise Bowden and Lara Pulver did their best with the roles of her awful daughters and certainly looked and sang the parts, but again came over as just too much on the silly side rather than being genuinely spiteful. When the script says “slap”, girls, it means “slap” and not “dab at ineffectually”. Martin Nelson was practically inaudible during the Mysterious Man’s dialogue but then pulled an astonishingly splendid voice out of thin air for his one duet. If he’d bought this out from under his hat during his dialogue, it would have made the role seem much more prominent.

Suzanne Toase was a wonderful Little Red Riding Hood straight from the Ridings of East Yorkshire, even though she is obviously well over the playing age of the part. Great line delivery and a nice awareness of the latent sexuality that the story of Red Riding Hood and the wolf is really all about. Linda Hibberd, taking the three small parts of Cinderella’s Mother, Granny and the giantess was disappointing in all of them. She failed to appear on stage in the first (when a ghostly presence is really required, was all but inaudible in her dialogue and not nearly bloodthirsty enough in the second and voiced the latter without any real feeling. Also disappointing was Christina Haldane as Rapunzel – sure she can sing the coloratura proficiently enough but seemed physically uncomfortable with the acting and failed to bring any kind of projection to her dialogue. What bits I could hear were so overlaid with Indiana accent as to make them impenetrable.

Byron Watson should have been playing the Steward but there were apparently some last minute problems with casting and he took the role of Cinderella’s Prince instead – and showed that he wasn’t really capable of doing so, showing no panache whatsoever, little charm, minimal sex appeal and absolutely no feeling for dialogue. He also made a rather effete Wolf. The chap who took the role of the Steward (didn’t catch his name) did an incredibly good job with a very minor part and made far more impression than this character ever does – he’s probably the best Steward I’ve ever seen. I’ve always thought that the role of Rapunzel’s Prince is the inferior of the two princes, but I’ve seen a couple of good amateur performers make this role one of the funniest in the show and Nic Greenshields also managed this with a great feeling for the throwaway dialogue, impeccable comedy timing and mugging about the stage wonderfully.

Clive Rowe as the Baker was singularly unimpressive in the role and seemed incapable of bringing any kind of vocal strength to his part. He also showed a very annoying tendency to flap his hands about when any kind of emoting was required. Beverley Kline was fabulous as the Witch, scuttling about the stage like a bedraggled old hen in Act One but seemed somehow to lose her focus on the part both in terms of characterisation and delivery of dialogue after her transformation back into a glamorous woman. Much of the time, her singing was rather too “Opera” than the role actually demanded and her delivery of “The Last Midnight”, which should be a bravura showstopper and wasn’t, meant that I was left with the impression of a slightly defective firework – sometimes giving out a loud “phut” and a damp puff of smoke rather than expected shower of pyrotechics. The problem is that Bernadette Peters, who created the role on Broadway, remains the definitive Witch for me and nobody has ever even come close to the perfection of her portrayal. Yay Bernie!

All the honours of the evening go to Anna Francolini’s stunning and practically faultless portrayal of The Baker’s Wife. Her dialogue was spot on throughout the entire show, her diction impeccable, her characterisation brilliant, her comedy timing perfect and her musical delivery without peer – much as it pains me to say this, she was an even better Baker’s Wife than Imelda Staunton, which is compliment indeed. The role could have been written for her, in fact.

A rather uneven evening, in summary, with some surprisingly poor casting for the Opera House. And for pity’s sake – this is a brand new performance space and STILL there was insufficient leg room!
What the critics thought: