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.