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 na├»ve 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: