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 bouĂ© (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:

06 June 2007

The Three Musketeers – Northern Ballet Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Tuesday 5th June

I LOVED the bit where Tom’s tabard rolls up like a roller blind and the loose end whacks him under the chin several times….. oh no, that’s something quite different. Maybe it was the bit where the little grey French mouse waves his sword and says “Bonjour, Monsieur Pusseeycat!”. Oh no, that wasn’t in it either. What a shame.

This was far, far better than NBT’s risible “Peter Pan” from a couple of years back, but bears all the same hallmarks of an expensive, worthy flop. At least we were spared a Japanese chap called “Preter Pran” asking us to “crap your hands if you bereave in fairlys” – but it seems impossible to keep these dancers fully silent on stage. Ballet doesn’t need whooping and wailing and screaming, guys! And frankly, last night I saw very little to whoop about. In fact, for the first 10 minutes, I saw very little – this production is so underlit as to make much of it, including the set-up of the vastly complicated plot, practically incomprehensible, particularly as much of the plot turns on enormous numbers of individuals putting on long hooded cloaks and creeping/running/dancing across the stage in the gloom. Maybe they were doing “The Three Musketeers Go Down The Mines” and I never noticed. The lighting man seemed to be suffering from “Gobo-mania” (a gobo is a sort of stage light that casts a pattern on the stage or backdrop) and was using his full stock, trying out all the vile colour combinations that he’d not been able to use on other productions. Ever. He was obviously given a nudge by someone after 10 minutes or so, because then some decent lighting was used, but you can’t keep a good gobo down and by the end, they were all back again

Bad lighting doesn’t help either when two of your principals – The Queen of France and Constance, the washerwoman’s spunky daughter – are exactly the same height and build, have exactly the same hairdo and are wearing practically the same costume for much of the evening. Several times I confused the two and wondered “What on earth is the Queen of France doing waving scissors around and climbing out of windows?”. Neither does it help for D’Artagnan’s father to skip the make-up so that he looks of an age with his son – during the scene when they were rolling around half-naked with each other I wondered whether this was a gay subplot to the story I hadn’t heard of before. When I worked out what was going on, I thought “Well, if my dad looked like that I’d be sorry to leave home as well”. The corps of Jolly Washerwomen were obviously suffering from the same mystery illness as the peasants from the dreadful West End musical of “Martin Guerre” some years ago – one which brings permanent cleanliness, scrubbed faces and not a hair out of place. The woman playing the evil Milady (oh, wassname’s got red hair, she can be the evil one) prowled about the stage mugging like Madame Thenardier on speed, and in fact the final scene at the ball when Milady is scrabbling round the ballroom, chasing several identical jewellery cases, none of which prove to hold the stolen necklace, reminded me very much of both the scene in Les Mis when the Thenardiers are caught stealing the cutlery and the opening sequence of “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom”. The chap playing the thankless part of Richelieu had nothing to do but stalk around the stage like an animated ironing board draped in bri-nylon crimson robes. No characterisation (and basically no role either, poor bugger). The Washerwoman, Madame de Brillopad or something, wasn’t even fat – and it’s a narrative necessity that “Comedy Washerwomen Should Always Be Fat”. Did the Director never read “The Wind in the Willows”, for pete’s sake?

The Three Musketeers themselves, usually known as Athos, Porthos and Aramis, would better have been named Arsehole (the thick one), Port-hole (the fat one) and Hi-Karate (the Japanese one) as this is how they were portrayed. Some nice characterisation but mere swagger does not a Musketeer make, chaps. There was also some excellent stage fighting but was ALWAYS preceded by all four standing in a half circle with one arm raised behind their back like a scorpion tail and the tips of their rapiers touching in the classic “All for one….” “and one for All!” stance, which got a bit tedious by the ninth time.

Scenery was generally good (where it could be seen) – there were a couple of lovely sets representing Versailles in all its rococo-mirrored-chocolate-boxishness – but a lot of them seem to have been created using scaled-up versions of painting-by-numbers kits. There was one lovely moment when, intending to exit through the secret door in the Queen’s panelled boudoir, Constance picks the wrong section of the wall and walks right into it (shame that there weren’t two doors, one of which opened into a broom-cupboard).

As to narrative thrust, I felt that many of the initial scenes, and a good many of the later ones, were unnecessarily scamped in order to make time for long pas des deux – Constance and D’Artagnan had THREE, for goodness’ sake. There were also far too many “scenes” which consisted of mysterious cloaked people just scampering across the stage. The scene in which “A Room in England” was indicated by the Union Jack waving proudly from the back of a galleon had me giggling because the Union Jack didn’t come into being until at least 300 years after this period – if not longer. By the time the Bloody Queen of France had got her Bloody Necklace back I had long ceased to care who ended up with the Damn Thing. I got the impression that most of the very thin audience felt the same way. What the whole thing needed was an anvil, a collapsing ironing board, accordions going Waa waaa waaaa waaaaaaaa…..and a fat black woman shouting “Thamas! Thamas!” while trying to hit Jerry with a Kentucky mop. That's All, Folks!
What the critics thought: