27 April 2007

OLIVER! - a post script

My review of this seems to have touched raw nerves of at least two of the company, by the sound of the comments left on this posting. Can I just refer those two people back to the header at the top of the main blog page? These comments are "my uninformed opinions". I am not a professional critic and merely say what I think. I could be sharp and say something like "If you're not prepared to take criticism, then don't pursue a leisure activity which invites same" but I won't. As a performer myself, I've had criticism levelled at some of my performances, some of which has hurt a great deal. But the first rule of responding to criticism is: DON'T.

26 April 2007

The Lady from Dubuque - Haymarket Theatre, Wednesday 25th April 2007

Enter theatre and run into Tory sleazebag and ex-con Jeffrey Archer, presumably paying for his stalls seat with used notes in a brown envelope and who probably then denies that he has ever met the woman in the ticket office. Pick up discounted tickets (£11 buys you two £50 tickets with the right connections as this play is selling SO badly, even with Maggie Smith in the cast). Shell out £4 (FOUR POUNDS!) for a programme (for £4 I want Maggie Smith to bring a copy personally to my seat and slip me Justin Timberlake's phone number into the bargain). Take seat in stalls in an auditorium that has had about £500K spent on its refurbishment and in which you still have to sit in seats designed for Victorian Munchkins. Result by end of show - cramp in one knee, one buttock completely numb and right shoulder aching as have had to hunch it up to avoid knocking off the glasses worn by the man in the next Very Small but Expensive Seat. Realise with sinking stomach that am surrounded by rich Americans from Bediddlybong, Idaho, who have come to see play by "Merka's Greaddest Living Playwright". They have failed to see this play on Broadway because for some reason it closed after only 12 performances. Note that auditorium is only 2/3 full. House lights down. Curtain up.

Act One
Interior: Living Room. Evening. Three well heeled, middle aged Merkin couples are smoking too many cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol and playing that well known staple game of Edward Albee plays called "Get Pissed and Slag Off The Guests to Their Faces". Cracks (in fact, veritable chasms) are appearing in all three relationships. Witty Badinage Descends Quickly into Slanging Match. Tears, recriminations. Vile people being vile to other vile people. Familiar Albee territory - this is obviously "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Part Two". Shock horror - one of the women is in the advanced stages of cancer. Bitterness, disillusionment and rancour all round. Actors address audience directly at several points. Several slammed doors. More alcohol. Exit omnes. Pause. Enter Maggie Smith in wig resembling roadkill guinea pig. Smattering of applause. She addresses audience (in Maggie Smith voice): "Are we in time? Is she still alive?" Curtain. Muted and bewildered applause from audience.

Ask fat, unkempt, unshaven, straggle haired usher in creased trousers where the toilets are. "The men's toilets sir?" For possibly the first time in my entire life am rendered completely unable to reply. Push through bar full of bemused Merkins from Bediddlybong, Idaho muttering to each other about how they don't understand this play. Am tempted to agree with them.

Act Two
Interior: Living Room. Morning. Maggie Smith in wig resembling roadkill guinea pig now assumes (bad) Bediddlybong, Idaho accent and swaps witty badinage with tall black man in three piece suit and nightshirt-clad husband of Woman Dying of Cancer. Merkins from Bediddlybong, Idaho convulse with laughter at lines such as "This is Oliver. He's Black". Black man does karate chop on Husband of Woman Dying of Cancer, knocking him unconscious, and ties him to staircase with his "Black Belt in Karate". Howls of laughter from Merkins. Have obviously taken wrong turn on way back from toilet, found my way into neighbouring theatre and am now watching Act 2 of "Whoops, There Go My Trousers". Woman Dying of Cancer totters downstairs to greet Maggie Smith, falls into her arms and Lo, Becomes Reconciled to Her Fate and Suddenly Starts Seeing Good in "Friends" who have mysteriously reunited in the house from which they were unceremoniously ejected the night before. Exeunt all except Husband of Woman Dying of Cancer, Maggie Smith and roadkill guineapig wig. Pointed and mysterious dialogue. Who is Maggie Smith Character? Who Am I? Who Are You? Do You Know Who You Are? Do I Know You Know Who I Am? Do You Understand This Crock of Shit? Do You? Curtain falls.

Well, dear Readers, that was the précis of possibly the most confusing, frustrating and bizarre evening I have ever spent in the theatre. Having learned in the afternoon that the play was written by Edward Albee, I admit that I went in the evening with a sinking heart (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is the ONLY play I have ever actually fallen asleep while watching). And the first act really did live up to my expectations of Vile People Being Vile To Other Vile People. There were a couple of things which made it very heavy going – the first being that the characters in the play have a nasty habit of “ignoring the fourth wall” and addressing the audience direct, in what we assume are stylised “asides” to draw us "into the dwama". This is irritating, acheives nothing and gives the entire proceedings a rather pantomime-ish air. The second is that one of the characters is approaching the final stages of a cancerous illness which makes her scream in pain and generally take that pain out on her husband and friends. Having had an acquaintance recently die of cancer, both CBB and I found what is in fact a very well-realised portrayal of terminal pain quite hard to watch. Then The Big Name appears on the stage – but only speaks eight words before the curtain comes down on the end of Act I, to the bemusement of the entire audience. After having rolled my eyes at CBB, he then puts forward the theory (in his “Its an homage to the genre” voice”) that the play represents the current state of confusion and bewilderment in the USA, where a dying nation seems to be ameliorating its terminal agony by turning on its overseas friends and generally pushing its luck. One of the main characters is called "Sam" after all and he starts the play with a game of "Who am I?", which would fit the theory. OK, fair enough. Pompous but credible. Then the tensions built up in Act I are literally thrown away in Act II when the whole thing seems to be from a completely different play, spiralling towards farce, with lots of witty sardonic bantering, a black character who makes constant ironic jokes about his own race at the expense of the white characters and a karate chop which renders the victim unconscious, allowing him to be tied to the newel post of the staircase with a belt for much of the remainder of the act. The intensely drawn character of Jo (the woman with cancer) goes for nothing and becomes a cipher and the mysterious Lady of the title (Maggie Smith mugging and simpering and ultimately becoming very irritating) is just….. mysterious. Who is she? The Angel of Death, come to ease Jo’s painful descent into the dark? If so, who is her companion Oscar (Peter Francis James – witty, urbane and able to act most of the cast off the stage)? Or is she truly Jo’s mother, as she claims? In that case, why has Jo lied to her husband and “friends” that her mother was born on a farm, lives in New Jersey and has pink hair? None of these questions are ever answered and this leaves you completely unsatisfied after the curtain comes down. I felt like storming the Stage Door and shouting “I want ANSWERS!”

I suspect, however, that even the writer wouldn’t be able to help. Perhaps he was revelling in his own “experimentalism” when writing this, or trying to out-Pinter Pinter by having his characters address the audience – attempting to chum up with them, perhaps and make it all seem "We're all in this together". Or perhaps its just a badly constructed, badly written play by a depressed, alcoholic old queer struggling to find something fresh to say when, like Lady Bracknell "Everybody has said everything they were going to say, which in most cases was probably not very much anyway".

Whatever the answers, it seems clear that the producers were of the opinion that, in order to secure a London run of a dreadfully confused, inaccessible and ultimately unsatisfactory piece, they had to have a “big name” in the cast. Had it been a cast full of unknowns, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as this. I suspect that this production will close soon when the Maggie Smith fans realise that they have been duped into paying extortionate prices (cheapest seat £25 thankyouverymuchJerry) to see her acting in “default Maggie Smith mode” and obviously trying to distance herself from a play she knows is a real turkey. No wonder it only lasted for 12 performances on Broadway. Albee broke all the established rules of playwriting with this and leaves his audience confused, disorientated and bewildered – even those of us not from Bediddlybong, Idaho.

23 April 2007

The Rose Tattoo - National Theatre, Friday 20th April 2007

I read a review of one of Tennessee Williams' other plays currently showing in London in the theatre bookshop before going in and it read "Lock away the paracetamol and hide all the sharp knives - the dirgemaster is back in town" - presumably relating to the fact that nobody could ever accuse Williams of being a "laugh a minute" experience, so I was pleasantly suprised by the end of the play to find that The Rose Tattoo is actually quite amusing, if only in a bitter sweet kind of way. All the heavy-handed harbingers of doom are placed early on in the show, leading me (and apparently several other members of the audience) to think "here we go, happy for five minutes, miserable for the next two hours". It does, I suppose, depend on your perception of "miserable". Certainly the Widow delle Rose is perfectly placed to be miserable (and doesnt escape unscathed by the end). But the whole thing is gently optimistic and by the time the final curtain falls, you're left hoping that more good things are going to come her way.

Zoe Wannamaker is fantastic as Serafina, although she does tend to go for the broadbrush, caricature approach to "Italian" - tempestous, sulky, earthy and with lots of big hand gestures. But at least she can maintain a convincing Italian accent all the way through what must be a physically and emotionally exhausting part to play - she's rarely "off" the entire evening. That can't really be said for Susannah Fielding as her daughter Rosa, whose accent wanders from Italy to America via South Africa and back again all through the performance. Nor can Andrew Langtree as the sailor Jack Hunter, although in fairness a New Orleans accent is a real bugger to maintain. His costume showed, however, why the director had picked him for this part. Wannamaker's character exasperatedly asks at one point why the navy makes sailors' trousers so tight and by gum does Mr. Langtree fill them. I did vaguely hope that they might split up the rear seam at one point, but no joy, alas. Maggie McCarthy gave a well rounded (in all senses) portrayal of the elderly Assunta. The gaggle of kids in the production were great too, pottering happily round the set without being too intrusive, and making a complete carnival of the escaping goat episodes (why is it that you can put on a great production with a fantastic set and fantastic performances and still get the biggest reaction of the night by bringing a live animal on? I've seen this so many times - you only have to have Cinderella's coach pulled by a cute little pony or for Toto to bark at the Wicked Witch for the entire auditorium to be filled by people going "awwwwwwwww!" Bring the animal on twice and you're on a winner - "The show? Oh, it was OK I guess, can't really remember much about it - but there was a goat in it! A real one!"). Darryl D'Silva as Alvaro was just a touch too much "Shaddupa you face" for my liking - tipping just that little bit too far into caricature to be truly convincing.

Fantastic set - a "cut away" house on the revolve, showing both interior and exterior. However, the set designer clearly hadnt studied all the sight lines as, from my seat on the side, various posts and beams obscured the action sometimes.

Now, lets talk symbolism shall we? The play is called "The Rose Tattoo". Two of its characters are called Serafina and Rosa delle Rose, and the already-dead husband is called Rosauro, who apparently not only had the eponymous tattoo but also wore rose oil in his hair. The house is furnished with rose-covered carpets and curtains and cushions. The house itself stands on what appears to be a huge metal disc engraved with roses. Life may not be a bed of roses for Serafina, but she really can't escape all this heavy handed symbolism. Serafina is a dressmaker, and on two dummies hang a wedding dress and a funeral outfit. Hmmmm, what is the director saying here, I wonder? Would any dressmaker worth her salt really have the same two outfits on display for THREE YEARS? Or is the symbolism getting just a little too heavy here?

Anyway, even if the evening wasn't roses, roses all the way (bugger, even I'm doing the symbolism now), it was enjoyable and illuminating and I want Zoe Wannamaker to know that I recommended "The Rose Tattoo" to three people over the course of the following weekend. And THAT's something I never thought I'd say about a Tennessee Williams play.

04 April 2007

Oliver! Ravensbourne Light Operatic Society, Churchill Theatre Bromley, Friday 6th April 2007

Ravensbourne are one of the area’s leading amateur operatic societies, although in the main are a "musical" or “dance” company rather than an “operatic” one – you won’t find them performing Gilbert and Sullivan, for instance. And for such a large company, with so many stalwart members, this was an odd show to choose – there are really only three big chorus numbers for the adults, very few opportunities for supporting players to shine, and only a couple of big roles. You also need lots of anklebiters and a couple of precocious youngsters for the title role and that of the Artful Dodger. Having said that, it’s a good “family” show – and if you have lots of kids in the show, ticket sales are practically guaranteed. And I gather that this is what happened – certainly at this performance, there didn’t seem to be a seat to be had. Shame then that the front of house staff (obviously not used to dealing with capacity audiences) seemed unable to cope and that insufficient ice cream was in stock.

What was blatantly obvious from the beginning was that the director was obviously far more experienced (being a school drama teacher) at directing children than adults – all the children looked drilled with military precision, whereas some of the direction of adults looked woeful – particularly badly done was the scene where Nancy is murdered. The Churchill has an enormous stage, yet often many of the adults in the chorus seemed to be lined up at the back, rather as if nobody knew what to do with them. The dog – Bullseye – was also under-used; if you are going to go to all the trouble of having a dog on stage, you must use it, otherwise you might just as well not have it at all.
James Pallant as Oliver himself was a revelation – just what you want from the part. A good clear voice, excellent diction, angelic looks and great stage presence. Theo Smithard-Powell was not nearly so good as the Artful Dodger, seeming ill at ease a lot of the time and moving awkwardly and self-consciously. The dreadful costume really didn’t help – but then nobody really looks good in an orange velour tailcoat. Among the adults, John Coleman gave a masterly Fagin, proving that lack of physical stature does not necessarily mean lack of stage presence. His slight build, however, did make him sometimes extremely difficult to pick out when surrounded by his young charges. This is a difficult role to pull off – just as all actresses playing Lady Bracknell have to tackle the shade of Edith Evans, all actors playing Fagin have to transcend the Ron Moody (or indeed the Len Thorpe!) interpretation, and this John managed with aplomb, capering gleefully about the stage with the energy of a man half his age. Tim Maunder was “A-list” casting for the small role of Bill Sykes – butch, rough and with a voice sounding like his regular tipple in “The Three Cripples” was a pint of beer with a gravel chaser. It would have been good to have seen him interact physically with Nancy though. You need to get a sense of her being one of those women who, on one hand, wilfully submit to Sykes’ rough passions but, on the other, find themselves quantifying their terror of walking away from physical abuse by saying “But I love him”, when they are really trying to justify their fear of being alone. None of this did we get to see on stage. Anita Singh was perhaps not ideal casting as Nancy – certainly “As Long As He Needs Me” needs, deserves and cries out for a singer who can really belt this out with raw emotion across the footlights – but this Nancy was obviously trying to sing “properly”, to the song’s and the character’s detriment. The poor staging of this number didn’t help – for both the song and its reprise, she was literally marooned in front of a dropped in cyc-cloth. Some of the staging of “I’d Do Anything” seemed to have been lifted straight from the film.

Of the smaller roles, credit must go to Jane Kerfoot as Mrs. Sowerby. She played this role with genuine gusto as a real Dickensian villainess – in fact, if this is what she is capable of, it was a shame that she didn’t bring it to her role as the Wicked Witch in last year’s “Wizard of Oz”. Credit is also due to Myra Warwick who, as the archetypal “safe pair of hands” brought dignity and quiet humour to the somewhat thankless role of Widow Corney. She did look rather trapped at one point by some awkwardly placed furniture in her scenes, and the business with the teacups really didn’t help. I long to see her “pull out all the stops” one day and show us what she is really capable of, however. Clive Bebee was utterly plumptious as Bumble the Beadle, nicely combining humour and evil, even though the role would perhaps have been better served by playing it as pure evil. Fabulous top notes and a command of the stage that only the really gifted have. The montage of sequences when he drags poor Oliver through the snowy streets was something I wish Charles Dickens could have seen.

Something really must be done about the sound quality at the Churchill. All the principals were miked up, yet no effort had been made by the sound crew to bolster the poor chorus. I gather that this is a "historical" problem with certain crew members employed by the Churchill and should therefore not be taken as a criticism of those on stage. Having said that, with so many bodies on stage, the Ravensbourne chorus really should be capable of producing a bigger sound than they did. The first street scene was wonderfully directed with the hustle and bustle of the Whitechapel streets filling the stage so completely that it was difficult to know quite where to look – like a Victorian print come so totally to life that it threatened to burst out of its frame. The Punch and Judy show was a particularly nice touch. So it was a real shame that “Oom-Pah-Pah” and (particularly) “Who Will Buy?” failed to come anywhere near the highwater mark set by this. One particular point for the choreographer – leave running jetés to those dancers actually capable of performing them; “making a game stab at it” just doesn’t work and looks incredibly naff when it fails to come off. I would also have liked to see more dirt and grime portrayed on stage – all the chorus looked far too clean, well dressed and fresh-faced to convince that they were members of the Great Victorian Underclass. There was obviously “Trouble Dahn T’Pit” as the orchestra and stage parted company on several occasions, and at one point the left hand side of the orchestra even parted company with the right hand side.

Generally though, I “Consider Myself” well pleased with the show and offer my congratulations to the company.
My review of this seems to have touched raw nerves of at least two of the company, by the sound of the comments left on this posting. Can I just refer those two people back to the header at the top of the main blog page? These comments are "my uninformed opinions". I am not a professional critic and merely say what I think. I could be sharp and say something like "If you're not prepared to take criticism, then don't pursue a leisure activity which invites same" but I won't. As a performer myself, I've had criticism levelled at some of my performances, some of which has hurt a great deal. But the first rule of responding to criticism is: DON'T.

Onegin – Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, Saturday 31st March 2007

Thanks to a combination of unreliable friends and London Undergrounds usual early Saturday evening service (i.e piss poor), I arrived literally just as the curtain was going up on this and in need of one gin (or indeed more) myself. So I was really too frazzled to take in much of the first 20 minutes or so of this with any great clarity. Add to the fact that I always find it difficult to tell the story of Onegin from that of Chekov’s Three Sisters for some reason, and you have a recipe for confusion! It seems an odd choice for a ballet – its all about complex emotions and these are not really best served by ballet, I find. “Broad brush” stories are usually served better. What is disappointing about the ballet version of Onegin is that it uses none of the famous opera score, so you’re more than two removes from the story before you start. This production also suffers in that it is a faithful reproduction – in terms of scenery and costumes – of the original Royal Ballet 1972 production, so a lot of it is inexpressibly dreary to look at. I did think at one point that it might have been a dreaded Julia Trevlyan Oman production, so mired was it in dreary browns, limes, oranges and creams. But apparently not. And I really don’t get on with John Cranko’s choreography, finding it rather stilted and angular and certainly not fan-dabby-dozy. But I stand corrected at some points – the wonderful ballroom choreography in act 3 was lovely to watch as patterns that were simple but somehow extremely intricate began to unfold. And there were lovely touches of humour here as well – for instance, one male ball guest was obviously being given the “run around” by his partner, and one unfortunate man had obviously ended up escorting twin sisters and couldn’t tell which was which.

There is some lovely “stage magic” in the “Letter Scene”, where Alina Cojocaru (ideally cast to play a girl on the cusp of womanhood but not perhaps so convincing as a stately princess “some years later” as her small frame makes her look like an eternal child) advances towards a cut out in the rear wall which represents a full length mirror – an identically dressed dancer appears in the gloom on the other side and they dance as girl and reflection. Nice idea for Onegin to then suddenly step from the far side of the mirror through the frame and into the bedroom – just like a nightmare. Seeing that earlier in Act 1, Tatiana has been playing the ancient Russian game of “mirror gazing”, in which young girls stare into a mirror and see the face of their future husband reflected behind theirs, this makes a nice point – do we ever see a person (or indeed ourselves) as they really are, or just the image they choose to portray? And what happens if the image we see does not reflect the real person? Discuss, using both sides of the paper if necessary.

The emotional heart of this ballet is the Act 3 duet between Onegin and Tatiana – and by god did Cojucaro and Johan Kohlberg (an icy, powerful Onegin) go for it at this point. It was raw emotion expressed in dance – yes, I know that I just contradicted what I said above. His BBness overhead a woman in the street afterwards saying “They MUST be At It to be able to dance together like that” – obviously not knowing that Mr. Kohlberg does indeed regularly slip the comely Miss Cojucaro a length of hot Danish sausage. Well, they must have been doing something right, because the ovation at the end lasted for a good five minutes – long enough for his BBness and I to gather our coats and bags and reach the ground floor of the Opera House, where the cold light of reality awaited us. There was no furlined Troika waiting to drive us home through the bloodstained snow, unfortunately.