30 December 2008

Hansel and Gretel - Royal Opera House - Sunday 28th December 2008


ACT I. Hansel and Gretel have been left at home alone by their parents. When Hansel complains to his sister that he is hungry, Gretel shows him some milk that a neighbor has given them for the family’s supper. To entertain them, she begins to teach her brother how to dance. Suddenly their mother returns. She scolds the children for playing and wants to know why they have got so little work done. When she accidentally spills the milk, she angrily chases the children out into the woods to pick strawberries.

Hansel and Gretel’s father returns home drunk. He is pleased because he was able to make a considerable amount of money that day. He brings out the food he has bought and asks his wife where the children have gone. She explains that she has sent them into the woods. Horrified, he tells her that the children are in danger because of the witch who lives there. They rush off into the woods to look for them.

ACT II. Gretel sings while Hansel picks strawberries. When they hear a cuckoo calling, they imitate the bird’s call, eating strawberries all the while, and soon there are none left. In the sudden silence of the woods, the children realize that they have lost their way and grow frightened. The Sandman comes to bring them sleep by sprinkling sand on their eyes. Hansel and Gretel say their evening prayer. In a dream, they see fourteen angels protecting them.

ACT III. The Dew Fairy appears to awaken the children and the two find themselves in front of a gingerbread house. They do not notice the Witch, who decides to fatten Hansel up so she can eat him. She immobilizes him with a spell. The oven is hot, and the Witch is overjoyed at the thought of her banquet. Gretel has overheard the witch’s plan, and she breaks the spell on Hansel. When the Witch asks her to look in the oven, Gretel pretends she doesn’t know how: the Witch must show her. When she does, peering into the oven, the children shove her inside and shut the door. The oven explodes, and the many gingerbread children the Witch had enchanted come back to life. Hansel and Gretel’s parents appear and find their children. All express gratitude for their salvation.

Scenes from the production accompanied by caterwauling in German.

Note (which only Eddie Izzard fans will understand): there will, unfortunately, be no Ginglybert Slaptiback jokes in this review.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. First farce. Now opera.

If you’ve ever seen the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman, you may well remember this line from when he takes her to the opera:

“Your first reaction to opera is very important. If you love it, you will always love it. If you don’t love it, you can learn to appreciate it, but it can never become part of your soul”.

Well, I don’t love it. I marvel at the voices sometimes, I know how difficult it is to sing, I appreciate all the technical problems of staging. Most of the time, the costumes and sets are fascinating. I enjoy reading about the history of productions and infamous mishaps on stage and the personalities involved. But it mostly leaves me cold. So I really started out on the back foot with this. Gloom was descending on me at a rate of knots, dispelled in part only by reading the long list of stupid, upper class names on the “Benefactors” page in the programme (I don’t know Frank and Silviane Destribats, but I wish I did, if only so I could hang over their back fence and take the piss out of them). At least, I thought, I know the story this time round, and it will be pretty to look at. As there are only about 8 people in it, they’ll have chucked all the money at the sets and costumes so it will be visually interesting, and it will be dark and scary and deeply psychological and, who knows, it might even have some funny bits in. Oooooh dear.

Hansel and Gretel (interestingly, not Hansl and Gretl as they are correctly spelled in German) didn’t live in a tumbledown thatched cottage but, from the looks of the bedroom that we discovered them in, in a chi-chi modern apartment with pastel-coloured walls with furnishings by Ikea. Gretel is apparently meant to be darning stockings (OK, she can legitimately do this in her bedroom), but Hansel has been set to work making brooms. In the bedroom? Eh? The family are apparently on their last loaf of bread, but neither of the children look hungry– Gretel, in fact, looked as though a bit of gay starvation would have done her the world of good. Both the beds have comfy duvets, and both the children are clean and well-dressed (although Hansel seems to have put his lederhosen on over his pyjamas for some reason. Perhaps he’s low on blood sugar and is confused, poor mite). A precious jug of milk, donated by a neighbour, gets smashed – and Gretel finds it funny for some reason. They’re sent off to pick berries. Gretel puts on a red dufflecoat that makes her look more like Not-so—Little Red Riding Hood (think Paddington as played by Dawn French). Their father arrives – cue for lots of polite laughter from the audience as he’s carrying a Spar bag (no, Mr. and Mrs. Destribats – not a bag from a spa, but from Spar, a low-cost food emporium where poor people go. Their logo is a pine tree. The cottage is in the middle of the forest. Oh, how funny! How witty!)

Deep in the forest, (a pretty set, which you will see in the YouTube stills, but very limiting direction-wise) the children pick about 8 strawberries and then eat them from a polythene bag. They drop the bag, adding environmental damage to the crime of disrespecting jugs of milk. The forest changes from a place of light to a place of darkness and foreboding. The children sing (at length) about 14 angels coming to watch over their sleep – at which point 8 angels with teddy bear faces and light-up wings (enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies) conjure up visions of a perfect Christmas (which seems to consist of a log fire, their parents in evening clothes and gaily wrapped parcels which contain sandwiches). They fall asleep, not having noticed that they’ve been shortchanged by 6 whole angels. Maybe there’s a credit crunch in heaven.

The Dawn Fairy wanders on, looking like Glinda the Good after a rough night out, with her magic cleaning trolley and rubber gloves, cleaning up the forest. She sings about 8 notes and disappears for good, poor cow. She’s probably got enough bars rest before and after to actually get a part-time job in a local pub somewhere. The children spy a gingerbread house through the trees. Cue amazing set change, with house dropping onto the set and making everyone in the audience go “ooooooohhhhhh!”? No. Someone pushes a dolls house onto the stage. Its about the size of a large box of cornflakes. The witch appears. Black pointy hat, warts, broomstick? No – bad wig, carpet slippers, zimmer frame. Not that far removed from Catherine Tate’s Gran, although she appears to have her tits out at one point. Eh? Have I missed something? Cue enormous set change – the forest turns into witch’s kitchen, complete with industrial ovens. The witch waves her rubber gloves and imprisons Hansel in the kitchen unit with only his head sticking out. No cage then? No. Witch pulls a dead child from the fridge, plonks it into a gingerbread man mould, pipes some buttons on (this is the one and only point in the entire evening when both me and Him Indoors laugh) and sticks it in the oven. Gretel waves rubber gloves at Hansel and frees him from the kitchen unit. They push the witch into the oven, which explodes. All the gingerbread men fall out of the cupboard and turn back into posh little boys and girls from the Tiffin School (I kid not, its really called this – and there was me thinking that “tiffin” was what tea and sponge fingers was called during the Raj). They sing excruciatingly badly, off key and out of time and all ends happily.

Well, if I was expecting darkness and wit and magic, I didn’t get it. This could have been so visually interesting – but it wasn’t. It was, as Craig Revel Harwood said on TV recently:
“D-U-L L”.

We rush off and catch the train. There is a posh couple in evening clothes sitting opposite and its clear that they too have just seen the opera (sharp intake of breath – could it be the Destribats, en route to their Destriperch from which they hang upside down all night?) They didn’t enjoy it either, from the sounds. Him Indoors gives me “that look” which says “Don’t even think about it” – and then proceeds to turn into Brian Sewell, agreeing with the Destribats just how dreary the production was and how there are no great productions of anything any more dharlings and no great stars left and I’m very familiar with the work as I sang in it during my youth and I sat there and ate the end of my scarf out of sheer effing embarrassment all the way home.

What the critics thought:

Loot - Tricycle Theatre Kilburn - Monday 22nd December 2008


Hal and his pal Dennis have just robbed a bank and need a place to stash their loot. With the police hot on their trail, the boys decide to hide the stolen cash in the coffin that contains Hal's late mother, Mrs. McLeavy. While old Mr. McLeavy is busy cataloguing the flowers sent in memory of his wife, Hal and Dennis stuff Mummy in the wardrobe and the money in the casket. Fay, Mrs. McLeavy's nurse, stumbles upon her dead patient and demands a cut in the action. But before the three criminals can sneak away with their booty, the notorious Inspector Truscott of the Yard starts snooping around the house and throws a wrench in their plans.

Hal – Matt Di Angelo
Dennis - Javone Prince
Fay - Doon Mackichan,
Inspector Truscott: - David Haig
Mr. McLeavy – James Hayes

Warning – leaving an unfavourable review for this production results in the Marketing Manager of the Tricycle getting stroppy:


Well, I was prepared for the usual Tricycle Theatre pandemonium of trying to get a seat. But for some reason, it didn’t happen. Whether people just got there late, were so knackered from shoving each other around in shops while doing some last minute Christmas shopping or were taking “goodwill to all men” literally this year, everyone was very sedate and well mannered and the only person I ended up tutting at was some strange American woman who kept saying to her companion “I’m gonna go gedda cuppawater fromthebar – you wanna cuppawater fromthebar?”

Now, my regular readers will already know that farce is not one of my greatest loves. In fact, show me a vicar with no trousers on and a French maid and I will generally run screaming from the building, trampling strong men underfoot in an attempt to get out. But I wasn’t feeling that great, and the strange American woman was in the way and, I thought, might think I was some kind of terrorist and grapple me to the floor. So I had to stay put. And, once again, proceeded to sit there in stony-faced bewilderment while other audience members pissed themselves laughing like hyenas on Ecstasy (and in one case, actually joining in with some of the lines). For not only did Orton write farce, he apparently wrote something called “Nihlistic farce” which I’m afraid I don’t understand at all. And, more to the point, find about as funny and entertaining as having blazing cactus spines inserted under my fingernails. I don’t think I’ve every felt quite so lonely at the theatre. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time, and I was metaphorically in the kitchen washing up. What the cast must have thought of me sitting there stony-faced in the front row with my arms crossed makes me shudder. Believe me, I tried to find it funny, I really did. But it completely missed me. Even the sight of David Haig, a chap I would willingly walk over broken glass to watch, pouring with sweat and actually within grabbing distance, failed to evoke any response. I just didn’t get it. I know – I’m a lost cause. I don’t like Sophocles, I don’t like Orton, I don’t like Brecht. I don’t like Albee. Many of Shakespeare's plays leave me totally cold. Maybe I should hand in my “Theatre Reviewer” badge and grow pumpkins instead.

What the critics thought:





What the critics thought:

18 December 2008

A Little Night Music - Meniere Chocolate Factory - Friday 18th Decmber 2008


The show opens with a prologue, introducing the Liebeslieder Singers, who begin blending various songs that will be heard later in the play. The other characters of the play enter, engaged in a waltz but all are uncomfortable with their partners. The aging and severe Madame Armfeldt and her solemn granddaughter, Fredrika, enter. Mme Armfeldt tells the child that the summer night "smiles" three times: first on the young second on fools and third on the old. Fredrika vows to try and watch the smiles occur.

The middle aged Fredrik Egerman, is a successful lawyer who has recently married an 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne, The two have been married for eleven months, but Anne still refuses to sacrifice her virginity His son Henrik, who is a year old than Anne is feeling extremely frustrated with himself, having acquired a rather negative world view. Anne's maid Petra offers her rather crass advice on the situation.

Desiree Armfeldt, a once-prominent but now fading actress was Fredrik’s lover many years ago.. Fredrika misses her mother, but Desiree continually puts off going to see her.. She happens to be performing near Fredrik's estate, and the lawyer brings Anne to see the play. While there, Desiree remembers Fredrik. Anne is instantly suspicious of Desiree's amorous glances. Meanwhile, Petra has been trying to seduce Henrik. Frederik and Desiree reflect on their new lives, and Fredrik tries to explain how much he loves Anne Desiree happily boasts of her own adultery — she has been seeing a married dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. Upon learning that Fredrik has had to go for eleven months without sex, Desiree agrees to accommodate him — as an favour for a friend.

Back in Desiree's apartment, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm arrives unexpectedly. Fredrik and Desiree try and fool him into believing that nothing went on between the pair, but he is still suspicious. He goes back to his own wife, the Countess Charlotte, who is apparently aware of her husband's infidelity. Desiree requests that Madame Armfeldt host a party for Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik. The Egerman household is sent into a frenzy.The Count has plans of his own — as a birthday present to his wife, the pair will attend the party uninvited. Carl plans to defeat Fredrik in a duel during the event, while Charlotte hopes to seduce the lawyer into sex to make her husband insanely jealousEveryone arrives, each holding their own purposes and desires — except, perhaps, Petra, who catches the eye of Mme. Armfeldt's fetching manservant Frid. All of the women begin to act against each other. Charlotte begins to flirt with Fredrik, while Anne and Desiree trade insults. Henrik finally stands up for himself, and flees the scene.

At the lake on the estate, Anne finds Henrik, who is ready to commit suicide. The clumsy boy cannot complete the task, and Anne tells him that she has feelings for him, too. The pair begins to kiss, which leads to Anne's first sexual encounter. Meanwhile, not far away from the young couple, Frid sleeps in Petra's lap. Henrik and Anne to start a new life together. Fredrik finds out, but is surprisingly calm about the situation. Charlotte confesses her plan to the lawyer. Carl, preparing to romance Desiree, sees this out of her window and is flooded with jealousy. He challenges Fredrik to a game of Russian Roulette and the lawyer injures his ear. Feeling victorious, Carl begins to romance Charlotte, granting her wish at last.

Now free of the bonds that once held him, Fredrik is able to confess his love for the actress. Desiree reveals that Fredrika is Fredrik's daughter, and the two promise to start a new life together.

Henrik – Gabriel Vick
Fredrika – Holly Hallam
Madame Armfeldt – Maureen Lipman
Frid – Jeremy Finch
Anne – Jessie Buckley
Fredrik – Alexander Hanson
Petra – Kaisa Hammarland
Desiree – Hannah Waddingham
Count Carl-Magnus – Alaister Robins
Countess Charlotte – Kelly Price

Judi singing "Send in the Clowns" after being interviewed by that clown Alan Titchmarsh

Its impossible, I’m afraid, not to make comparisons with the last production I saw of this at the National Theatre, starring Judi Dench, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge. The NT production was huge, whereas this was very, very small by comparison; however, I’m not quite sure that a much smaller space didn’t suit this piece better. It is, after all, quite a claustrophobic piece, about a closely knit group of people – almost a “chamber piece” really (blimey, I’m staring to sound like Him Indoors). It got off to a good start because the Meniere, for once, have abandoned their policy of having all the seats unreserved, meaning that you could go out for something to eat first without having to keep several eyes on the clock, and then get trampled in the rush when you do turn up. Shame that the front row seats are still as low and uncomfortable as usual though – most of us seemed to be sitting with our knees directly in our line of vision. For some reason the rest of the seats aren’t nearly as low. I liked the semi-permanent set – a quarter-circle of mirrored doors which opened and closed to define different spaces. What I didn’t like, however, was the tempi – compared to the NT production, everything seemed very, very slow and speeds didn’t seem to pick up until after the interval. Yes, I know that Sondheim is phenomenally difficult to sing - but surely slowing it down just makes it harder?

Another thing I didn’t really warm to was the outdoor setting of Act II for instance, the grand dinner party (at the National, one of those fraught meals where every attempt at conversation results in a faux pas) became a picnic. The dialogue had obviously been slightly re-jigged to take account of this and I spotted a couple of mistakes. Lipman says during the picnic taking place as the curtain rises that she doesn’t want to be seen by her guests lolling around like a bohemian, yet then shows up a second picnic. And I don’t think a woman of her age or social standing would allow herself to he carried off like an old Aunt Sally if caught without her wheelchair.

Anyway, it was a bit of a shock coming face to face with Alexander Hanson again, having seen him as a lacklustre Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and a slightly bland Nazi (if there is such a thing) in Marguerite. Would he be able to bring off the role of Fredrik Egerman? Sporting a cute new goatee and some “distinguished” highlights, I think I would have forgiven him even if he hadn’t, purely on the aesthetics front, but he was spot on in this. Excellent singing, excellent acting and a very cute butt. It was even more of a shock coming face to face with Jessie Buckley – you remember her, she came second in I’d Do Anything (how awful for the poor girl to have to go through life with that hanging round her neck. Still, she seems to have actually got on stage faster than the winner). Having watched her belt out showstoppers week after week, it was very strange listening to her produce a high, clear soprano until you got used to it – but very well she did it, actually. There was still a toiny trace of an Oirish accent now and again, but she carried the role extremely well, held her own on stage against far more experienced performers and looked like a ravishing porcelain doll. Note for the wardrobe mistress though – do patch that hole in her stocking where her big toe is showing through, there’s a love.

My opinion is still very much divided on Hannah Waddingham’s Desiree. Easily the most imposing figure of stage physically, this was a very different portrayal of Desiree than I was expecting – Judi highlighted the “fading actress” more, and hence was more the kind of woman having to play Hedda in Helsingborg out of sheer financial necessity – or simply desperation. This Desiree, however, was far younger, far more in control of her life and considerably more feisty. All she needed was an armoured breastplate and she could easily have played Brunhilde. Where she did score big over Judi, however, was her vocal ability. There maybe nothing like a Dame, but this gal could sing. And yet she didn’t overdo it. She sang just enough to reassure the audience that she could belt it if necessary, but wisely hung back from doing so. Send in the Clowns was glorious – and all hail an actress who can sing this and cry as well. Unfortunately, someone else in the auditorium was crying at the same time – I couldn’t see who it was but it was probably some old queen reliving their glory days when they played the role for the Helsingborg Arts Council Amateur Theatre Group. . So what we got was: “Isn’t it rich?” (sniff from the back), “Are we a pair?” (sniff). Me here at last on the ground, you in (sniff) mid-air” (sniff). Chrissakes, blow your nose why don’t you?

Maureen Lipman played Madame Armfeldt as – well, Maureen Lipman, basically; a mixture of Joyce Grenfell and Baroness Thatcher, just like she always does, whatever the role. Sorry, but she was no match for Sian Phillips in the NT production – although was I was pleasantly surprised that she coped so well with Liaisons, which is a horrendously difficult number with about 80 key changes in it.

Both Alaister Robins as Count Carl-Magnus and Gabriel Vick as Henrik failed to come up to the mark. Count Carl-Magnus should be a gorgeous, arrogant, vain studmuffin, but was presented here as if he were the battalion accountant. He wasn’t helped by the most ghastly, cheap-looking costume which looked like it had been pulled out of a hamper full of dressing up togs. Gabriel Vick reminded me physically of Lee Evans and did little to dispel the image.

Having said all that, this is probably the first time ever I’ve left the theatre wondering what happens to the characters after the curtain comes down - Does Fredrik give his young wife a divorce and enough to live on with Henrik? Or does she realise the folly of her ways? As Madame Armfeldt disapproves of her daughter’s goings on, does she leave her anything in her will? Do the count and countess drift apart again? – and that, my friends, is the mark of a damned good show.

What the critics thought:

02 December 2008

In a Dark Dark House - Almeida Theatre - Monday 1st December 2008


Act One: T two brothers find themselves brought face to face with each other's involvement in their traumatic past. They talk about it. At great length.
Act Two: One of the brothers hits on the daughter of the man who abused them both. They talk. A lot.
Act Three: The brothers try to come to terms with their traumatic past. They shout at each other. For a long time.

Steven Mackintosh - Drew
David Morrissey - Terry
Kira Sternbach - Jennifer

New and improved blog! For my birthday, I've decided to treat you all to all little technological update - something to watch!

An interview with the humungous and frankly quite scary Neil La Bute (author and doughnut lover): http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=HqXtMK493YQ

To well-heeled Islington we go on a dark, dark night, where on a short, short street, one may pass as many as 17 estate agents trying to flog very, very expensive houses (although take comfort from the fact that they’ve all become a lot, lot cheaper since you started reading this). The foyer of the Almeida is, as usual, full of Henrys and Jocastas in their smart, smart suits and dead, dead furs. Although night has already fallen, several of them are wearing dark, dark glasses of the Posh Spice “I’m turning into "The Fly” type". Into the auditorium, and Him Indoors and I wedge ourselves into small, small seats, which give those at the Haymarket a run for their money in terms of their non-existent leg room and general comfort level. We have to stand up again several times to let other people past as the majority of the audience are very, very late in taking their seats – presumably so that they can maximise their posing time in the bar with their rich, rich friends and over-awe any MOLOs (Members Of the Lower Orders) who have sold their 85” plasma screen TV’s in order to buy a ticket.

There is a permanent, permanent set of wondrous beauty, representing a small clearing surrounded by tall, tall trees. Indeed, if it weren’t for the park bench, this is the kind of bank across which one might reasonably expect to find fairies having a wild thyme blowing on. “Credit crunch. Peaseblossom? What credit crunch? Me and Mustardseed here are off to Titania’s Bank”. In fact, so pretty was the set that I was to spend a good deal of the duration of the play looking at it.

Two men appear on stage – both trying desperately to hold onto American accents. One of them is vaguely familiar in that “Its him, you know, he was in… thing” kinda way. The other looks like Patrick Keilty. They talk at each other for some considerable time. There seems to have been some kiddy fiddling going on in their past. The Henrys and Jocastas collectively hug themselves with glee. This is so now, so le moment, so Daily Mail; an ideal dinner party conversation topic for lightening the mood after Darius has depressed everyone by maundering on about the size of his bonus this year and how he might have to give up the Maldives next summer if things don’t improve. I count the dandelions on the set.

The lights dim, Patrick Kielty goes off and a small windmill appears at the top of the bank, with one of those little flag markers that indicate the presence of a hole on the grass below. Oh Tarquin, its Crazy Goff. I say – how utterly relevant – its hole 13. Unlucky for some. A young girl in tight shorts comes on, and chats with the vaguely familiar man for a while. He challenges her – if I get a hole in one, we fuck. If I don’t, we don’t. He hits the ball. There is a tense moment. Will he pull it off? Or will he keep it on? Damn, he misses. The audience exhales. What happens, I wonder, if by some stroke of chance, he actually manages a hole in one? Does the play end differently?

The lights dim again. Patrick Kielty comes back on again in a suit. The two men talk. I close my eyes and snooze – I’m not really going to miss anything important. On stage, the two men are shouting at each other. They carry on doing this for a while, then cry and hug, shout a bit more. I drum my fingers on my knee, and watch the fat woman across the aisle (all 18” of it) from me who appears to be having as much fun as I am. She picks at the lid of her coffee container. I know how she feels.

The lights dim again. The three actors take the stage and bow. Some twat at the back shouts “Bwavo, bwavo!” in a loud voice. I wonder whether he’s enjoyed the last hour and 45 minutes of deep, deep psychological torment with its powerful catharsis and themes of forgiveness, or whether he’s just relieved its all over and he can get back home and finish the Sauvignon. We wander out into the dark, dark night. I scandalise one of the Henrys by constructing a sentence containing the words “dreary, pretentious wank”. Hey, this show’s running until mid-January. Shall we come and see the Christmas Eve performance? No, lets not. Lets stay at home and slash our wrists. It’ll be so much cheaper that way.

15 November 2008

Treasure Island - Haymarket Theatre, Friday 14th November 2008

Yet another Haymarket turkey.....


Our narrator is Jim Hawkins, son of a guesthouse owner on the west coast of England sometime in the eighteenth century. To the inn come firstly an old buccaneer who has a map of Captain Flint's treasure, and secondly a group of pirates under the command of ominous blind man Pew. Jim Hawkins, our hero, in an act of bravery and cunning gets hold of the map before this rabid mob gets it. He delivers the map toSquire Trelawney, and together they set off for Treasure Island in the Squire's schooner. The rest of the crew, apart from Dr Livesey (a friend of the squire) are a company collected by Long John Silver. The latter and his men try to mutiny and get hold of the treasure themselves but Jim intervenes and through a series of enthralling adventures we find ourselves on Treasure Island with the marooned Ben Gunn and ever closer to the treasure itself.


Long John Silver: Keith Allen
Tom Morgan/Revd Mainwaring: James Atherton
Ezekiel Hazard: Mark Bagnall
Billy Bones/Captain Smollet: Tony Bell
Black Dog/Ben Gunn: Paul Brennan
Israel Hands: Matt Costain
Calico Jack: Estella Daniels
Justice Death: Branwell Donaghey
Jemmy Rathbone/Job O'Brien: Howard Gossington
Captain Flint/Dr. Livesey/Dermot Kerrigan
Josiah Bland/Father: James Lainey
Jim Hawkins: Michael Legge
Blind Pew/Squire Trelawney: John Lightbody
George Merry: Mark Theodore
Anne Bonney: Sharlene Whyte

The "Captain's Blog" - presumably theres a Star Trek joke there somewhere. I sat through five of these tedious and frankly self-serving publicity reels to find you one where the naff on-stage band make an appearance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfnCqcrHvxY

Arrr Jim Lad! That loud bang you can hear be the sound of yet another Haymarket Turkey falling dead onto the stage! Jeesus beesus what a long evening this was, in the seats voted "Most Uncomfortable Theatre Seats in London" (by me) - anyone over 6 foot has a real hard time in this theatre, and when you are 6'4" of hunky gorgeousness like me, its literally a real pain - and that's without the agony of watching the stuff on the stage.

Now, lets assume that you have read Treasure Island, and are familiar with the fact that its a dreary, maundering load of tosh written by at self-satisifed Victorian dullard with a fascination for the picaresque. The obvious thing to do is then to commission a new stage version, take out all the "exciting" bits but leave in stacks of monotonous dialogue, throw money at it, hire in a "star name" (cough) and stick it on the stage during the Christmas run-up as a new, thrilling and much-loved treat for all the family. Yeah, my Aunt Fanny. I can only assume that the Haymarket publicist hasn't actually had to sit through it. In fact, so "much-loved" was it last night that the auditorium was significantly emptier after the interval, and the biggest laugh of the evening came when one of the sound effects went wrong and the Hispaniola did an impression of the foghorn from a cross-channel ferry. Not bad for a late 18th century sailing ship.

This show was very, very wordy and very, very low on action, and it was a major mistake to have the entire thing "narrated" by Jim Hawkins. This constantly placed Jim outside the action, rather than being an integral part of it, and when he did interact with the rest of the cast, it felt odd and forced. Perhaps a better actor than Michael Legge might have been able to overcome this drawback and project some kind of personality into the part, but personally I've seen more animated cigarette packets. It got to the point when I began wondering if he had actually been cast for his blandness - less than 24 hours after the show, I can't even remember what he looked like. "Arrrr, Jim Bland!"

Probably the most laughable decision was the inclusion of an onstage band - why this was necessary is beyond me. Other than a "yo heave ho" type of sea shanty about 10 minutes into Act One (after reams of dreary dialogue - for pity's sake, if you have a band, the least you can do is get them to play the theme from Captain Pugwash at the start and jolly the audience up a bit) and the closing number, they just supplied the odd tootle or drum roll from their little platform at the back of the stage (roped off with authentic late 18th century fairy lights!). No effort was made to integrate them visually into the production - they could at least have been wearing baggy white shirts and hankies on their heads, but these three were togged up in their DJs and wore naval officer's hats more suited to the Titanic - actually, as the production sank with all hands, perhaps this was deliberate. You'd also expect them to have been vaguely piratical and swashbuckling, but alas, their average age was about 80 and they looked more like Raw Sex (from French and Saunders) than anything you'd see sailing the bounding main (in fact, one of them was probably called Jolly Roger as he looked just like the skull and crossbones on the front of the programme). Pointless, distracting and completely out of touch with the rest of the performance. For all the effect they made, the producer could have had recorded music or got a couple of the bar staff to blow through the cardboard tube from the middle of a toilet roll and ratttle some dried peas in a pint glass with a beermat held over the top. At the top of Act Two, one of the orchestra meandered down to front of stage, rummaged in the treasure chest and pulled out his instrument (steady on! You know exactly what I mean!) and held it up quizzically - I think this was meant to be funny but all I could hear was an embarrassed silence from the audience punctuated by people muttering "What the f....?" In fact, I heard this quite a lot, along with the sound of people checking their phones, rummaging in their bag for a newspaper to read or using a cotton wool bud to clear out their earwax.
In all fairness, Keith Allen (who? oh, you know, him. He's been in The Keith Allen Show and We Love Keith Allen, among other blockbusting primetime TV programmes) wasn't bad as Long John Silver, he just wasn't good. There was an unexpected sussuration from the audience on his first entrance - he probably took it for the sound of waves kissing the shore, but it was actually people whispering to each other thatsLilyAllensdadthatsLilyAllensdad... There was an unexpected moment when I heard the line "Ooooh Jim, come to see me, 'ave ya?" and I thought the love child of Dot Cotton and Catherine Tate's Gran had taken to the stage, but alas no. - it was still Keith Allen.
Add all the above to a fight scene so obviously under-rehearsed that it had to take place on a darkened stage so that none of the audience could see it (for all we know, the sound of clashing rapiers was just someone standing on stage slapping an old bean tin with a pair of scissors) and you have a real Turkey for Christmas. The audience applauded loudly at the end, but I suspect , like me, that they were just relieved it was all over.
What the critics thought:

04 November 2008

War Horse - National Theatre - Tuesday 3rd November 2008


At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert's beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. he's soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man's land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

Detailing the making of the puppets, and audience reactions: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=trIFlkJBFhw

I know a couple of people who have seen this show, and each of them advised taking a goodly supply of handkerchiefs to mop up the tears that would undoubtedly flow. And yet, for the very vast majority of the time, I sat there strangely unmoved. Absorbed by and interested in the story, yes; but weepy, no. “Stuff and nonsense”, I thought. And then, for the last two minutes or so, my eyes were clouded over completely and the tears ran down my face; the story, quite wisely, had saved the greatest emotional punch for the very last moment. It crept up quietly and with subtlety, and I’m still not quite sure how it managed to sneak up on me, as like most people in the audience, I had been preparing for it ever since the beginning.

To be fair, there were a number of things about this that I didn’t like. The script was, at times, quite clunky, and allowed the mechanics of the plot to show through. There was a long section in Act 2 where the dialogue was delivered either in a mismash of French and German or in ‘Allo ‘Allo accents, during which I managed to follow the basics of the plot development but missed out on a lot of the finer detail necessary for a complete understanding. Some poor diction during this section didn’t help matters (although I suppose that having a seat right at the back of the stalls perhaps contributed), neither did the very thick Oi Be Drinkin’ Zoider accent affected by Kit Harrington The colour-blind casting policy of the National made for a very jarring and historically completely inaccurate dischord in the appearance of Curtis Flowers as a black WW1 cavalry officer. Bronagh Gallagher’s strange accent, which wandered throughout the British Isles and eventually stuck on Craggy Island was disconcerting, particularly when her character invited another in for “a coup of taay” – all that was missing was “oh, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan”. And there was one awful moment for the entire audience (admittedly unpreventable) when an apologetic Stage Manager scuttled onto the stage and announced that there had been a technical problem and that there would be a halt in the performance until such time as it could be fixed - you could feel the tension level rise close to breaking point as everyone sat there in agonised expectation.

The stars of the show, undoubtedly, had either webbed feet or hooves, and deservedly took the audience by storm. Its practically impossible to describe with any accuracy how these were portrayed on stage – “puppets” just isn’t the right word, neither is “machines”. The Goose, for instance, was of the push-along variety with its feet portrayed as spokes on a small wheel underneath it, yet was so realistically operated/animated/controlled that it seemed like a living, breathing thing, embued with life and a character all its own. Its constant attempts to get through the farmhouse door were a running theme of the plot, and putting the man operating it in a woolly bobble hat was a stroke of genius – somehow this made the characterisation even sharper. Deservedly, The Goose got a round of applause to itself. It sounds daft to applaud structures of wood and metal, operated by humans, but the audience went completely wild when the “horses” took their bows. So skilfully had these been designed and operated, that from the very first appearance of Joey as a gangling foal, all spindle legs and awkward gait, that I found myself increasingly unaware (decreasingly aware?) of the humans operating the horses and only able to see them as living, breathing and indeed sentient creatures, each with their own character. It really is quite impossible for words to describe the effect that these wood and metal structures had on me and how, knowing they were only puppets, they had me sitting on the edge of my seat and willing the story on towards a happy ending.

Beg, lie, cheat or steal to get a ticket to see this show. And for god's sake take a handkerchief.
What the critics said (about the original run last year of this):

31 October 2008

Beauty and the Beast - Birmingham Royal Ballet @ Sadlers Wells - Wednesday 28th October 2008

Watch the wonderful ballroom scene here: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=c8xYfiTT8D8

Belle lives with her merchant father and two sisters. He is desperately awaiting ships to return in order to pay off debts. When the ships come in, the Merchant sets off to collect the goods and reclaim his fortune. He asks his daughters to choose a gift. Two of the sisters demand expensive gowns and lavish jewellery, but Belle asks for a simple rose.On his way back, a storm blows up and the Merchant and his party are robbed of their cargo. The Merchant shelters from the storm in a seemingly empty castle but upon entering he is treated to a fine feast of food and drink served by unseen hands. In the morning, with the storm over, the trunks are again groaning with fine gowns and jewels. Leaving the castle, the Merchant sees a briar covered in exquisite roses and, remembering Belle’s request, takes one for her.A terrifying Beast appears, raging at the Merchant’s ingratitude for stealing the flower, despite his hospitality. The Merchant trys to pacify the Beast by explaining Belle’s simple request for a rose. On hearing this, the Beast allows the Merchant to leave unharmed – providing he sends his youngest daughter to live in the castle...

Bella: Ambra Vallo

The Beast: Tyrone Singleton

The Wild Girl: Laëtitia Lo Sardo

The Merchant: David Morse

The Raven: Joseph Caley

Vanité: Samara Downs

Fière: Carol-Anne Millar

Monsieur Cochon: James Grundy

Right. If you have the attention span of a newt and are incapable of sitting quietly for 45 minutes, cannot use a handkerchief to blow your nose, are such a Sad Fashion Victim that you can’t remove your hat, are so self-important that you must check the little lit-up screen of your mobile every 8 minutes for incoming texts, have had such fun shopping that you feel compelled to look through all your carrier bags as soon as the lights go down or are so low on sugar and E numbers that you need to stuff your face with crisps/sweets/takeaway and slurp Capri-Sun, then for your own sake, you Chav Scumbag, don’t sit anywhere near me at the theatre. Better still, stay at home and make a nuisance of yourself there in the privacy and comfort of your own home. Otherwise I vow I will cow you into mortified silence by hissing loudly at you to stop, and there is the distinct possibility of your receiving one of my special Pissed Off stares when the lights go up again. Got that? Good – now go catch up with The X Factor on your 50” widescreen and leave me to my theatregoing in peace.

*Takes deep breath* OK, having got all that off my chest, where its been bubbling away for a couple of days, I can now focus on writing this review, although I wasn’t able to focus on a great deal of the first act of this production for reasons stated above. Its annoying when audiences misbehave, and particularly so when the show is a charming, carefully constructed tapestry of shining gossamer threads. The purist in me was very glad to see from the programme that Birmingham Royal Ballet have chosen to ignore the milquetoast, bastardised Disney version of this story that children are growing up with these days and gone with the original Perrault version, with its tones of darkness and semi-gothic gloom. There’s no need for camp speaking clocks and Cockerney teapots when candlelabra, festooned with spider webs, self-ignite and the arms of chairs suddenly sprout hands and grab you by the wrists, while gilded flagons lift themselves from the table and pour blood-coloured wine into your goblet. Outside, a flock of blackly glittering crows perch in trees, and wraiths of mist embrace ivy-shrouded gates….. Scary this might be, but preferable to home, where the horrors come in human form…. Yes, I loved it!

What made this all the better was that it started off just like a pantomime, with a proper Prologue explaining how the Prince and his court became turned into animals and then a high comedy “set up the story” sequence with Bella’s two sisters falling over themselves to be vain and spiteful while the bailiffs stripped their father’s home. Against this, Bella really did look like a dewy white rose between two vicious thorns. And what was even better was the fact that the production wisely skirted round “Proper Ballet” until it was really called for, doubling its impact and making it part of the story rather than the story being part of the ballet. For instance, the story was entirely principal work until the end of Act 1, when the corps de ballet suddenly erupted onto the stage as a flock of ragged crows (caw de ballet, perhaps?) which carried Bella off to the castle. The music I found strangely forgettable, however, and although the sets appeared to be glorious, they were mostly so shrouded in gothic gloom that I found myself longing to see them in greater detail. The ballroom set turned out to be a riot of tortured gilt wall reliefs of gory hunting scenes backed by foggy mirrors which put me in mind of the Salon des Glaces at Versailles, and I would have liked to have seen the stage better lit so that the set designer’s art could be better appreciated, because whoever designed it knew what they were doing. The garden set was so dark that all I made out were columns topped with stags heads and the castle gates. When part of this turned into Bella’s bedroom, it looked so well-designed and intricate that I took my eyes off the action and concentrated on the set instead. A shame.

There were nice touches of humour all the way through, particularly from Bella’s two awful sisters and their argument as to which of them their equally awful suitor was going to marry, and in the ballroom scene, where the courtiers-turned-into-animals all danced in ways appropriate to the animals that they had become. An elegant lady rabbit, a proud fox and a boorish boar caught my eye particularly, and there was a good (uncredited) solo from an athletic hare. Their costumes and masks looked spectacular, but again the whole scene suffered from being underlit. The transformation scene was nicely handled without being overdone or mawkish, and the pas de deux between Bella and the Prince was spectacular – charming, elegant and wonderfully backlit with the dawn’s light streaming through windows festooned with ivy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and it’s a great pity that its running for less than a week and that audience reaction seemed somewhat muted. After having ingested all that chocolate, I would have thought they’d have had more energy to clap. Or maybe they were disappointed that they didn’t get any dancing teapots.

21 October 2008

Blowing Whistles - Leicester Square Theatre - 27th October 2008


The evening before Gay Pride, thirtysomething couple Nigel and Jamie celebrate their 10th anniversary by finding someone on the internet dating site Gaydar for the night. The problem is that their chosen squeeze, Mark, is looking for something more than a one-night stand and, as a result, Jamie begins to question his relationship...

Paul Keating (Jamie)
Stuart Laing (Nigel)
Daniel Finn (Mark)
It took me quite a while – about 20 minutes – to warm to this play. On the face of it, it seemed like every other “gay play”; trite, camp, fluffy and with the promise of some cute totty in the buff. I was more interested, frankly, in some of the cute totty in the audience (PPSI* coverage = about 95%, and if the gorgeous Silver Fox wearing a suit in the back row is reading this, please get in touch), But then I started to realise that, under the fluff, there was actually some quite good writing, and some quite decent acting as well. On at least two occasions, there was that rare theatrical experience – A Silence. Now, “silence” in the theatre is usually full of the sound of people coughing, rattling sweet papers, shifting in their seats and so on. But A Silence is different. A Silence is the sound that black velvet would make if it could, and occurs only when every single person in the auditorium is watching and listening with complete and total concentration, a silence so intense as to be almost audible. It happens very, very rarely and in fact I think I’ve only experienced it once before in the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, and that was during Shadowlands. What was amazing is that, not only did it happen twice, but each time it was burst by a line so goddamned funny as to render the entire audience completely hysterical. A Silence only occurs when great writing is matched by a great and believable performance but the lines, sad to say, cannot really be quoted out of context, because they just refuse to be tied down.

And another thing. What this play does extremely well is put “gay life” under a microscope and dissect it, showing quite how vacuous and shallow it really is. This is shown particularly well when Gay Pride is being discussed; one character says “It used to be about politics, about making speeches, about the fight for freedom – now its just marketing; selling crap with rainbow flags on and calling it equality”. Right on, Sister! Without wishing to sound like a Bitter Old Queen (bitter – yes; old – getting there; queen – you decide) it is a simple fact that “We did all the work and they get all the benefit”. Young gay men do have it so effing easy these days, and know little (and care less) about the Bad Old Days of pre-1967, or even the Just As Bad Old Days of La Thatcher and her attempts to demonise gay men and drive us back underground. The days of speechifying and waving placards have to be explained to Mark, the teenage boy in terms of his own frames of reference – gay activist Ian McKellen has to be referred to as “Gandalf”. Its actually quite disturbing to think that, to the Young and Pretty, this is who Ian McKellan is. Potential shags used to be met by writing to a box number with a passport-sized photo enclosed – now all you have to do is log on to the net and you can be making the beast with two backs in 20 minutes. God, I sound old.

Anyway, full marks to Matthew Todd, the writer, for putting it all into words, and providing some hilarious one-liners and a fair few eye-wiping moments. All three of the cast were excellent – Paul Keating (you may have seen him in the Chocolate Factory’s production of Little Shop of Horrors) was first class as Jamie, biceps, Aussiebums and all. Stuart Laing played Nigel as a glib, slimy, untrustworthy charlatan with the charm of Old Nick himself – the kind of man our mothers warned us about but whom we invariably find ourselves lured into bed by (well, at least I do) and Daniel Finn was sweet, blond, stacked and not quite so butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth as he would have you believe.

The only thing that didn’t quite come across was the sofa – do gay men really shop for furniture in Habitat any more? Soooooooo 80’s old hat, dharling.
A clip from the 2005 Croydon production: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RU42Xa12I00

09 October 2008

Oedipus - National Theatre - Friday 10th October 2008


Some twelve years before the action of the play begins, Oedipus has been made King of Thebes in gratitude for his freeing the people from the pestilence brought on them by the presence of the riddling Sphinx. Since Laius, the former king, had shortly before been killed, Oedipus has been further honored by the hand of Queen Jocasta.

Now another deadly pestilence is raging and the people have come to ask Oedipus to rescue them as before. The King has anticipated their need, however. Creon, Jocasta's brother, returns at the very moment from Apollo's oracle with the announcement that all will be well if Laius' murderer be found and cast from the city.

In an effort to discover the murderer, Oedipus sends for the blind seer, Tiresias. Under protest the prophet names Oedipus himself as the criminal. Oedipus, outraged at the accusation, denounces it as a plot of Creon to gain the throne. Jocasta appears just in time to avoid a battle between the two men. Seers, she assures Oedipus, are not infallible. In proof, she cites the old prophecy that her son should kill his father and have children by his mother. She prevented its fulfillment, she confesses, by abandoning their infant son in the mountains. As for Laius, he had been killed by robbers years later at the junction of three roads on the route to Delphi. This information makes Oedipus uneasy. He recalls having killed a man answering Laius' description at this very spot when he was fleeing from his home in Corinth to avoid fulfillment of a similar prophecy. An aged messenger arrives from Corinth, at this point, to announce the death of King Polybus, supposed father of Oedipus, and the election of Oedipus as king in his stead. On account of the old prophecy Oedipus refuses to return to Corinth until his mother, too, is dead. To calm his fears the messenger assures him that he is not the blood son of Polybus and Merope, but a foundling from the house of Laius deserted in the mountains. This statement is confirmed by the old shepherd whom Jocasta had charged with the task of exposing her babe. Thus the ancient prophecy has been fulfilled in each dreadful detail. Jocasta in her horror hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his eyes. Then he imposes on himself the penalty of exile which he had promised for the murderer of Laius.

Cast (I'll be putting this in all future reviews):

Oedipus – Ralph Fiennes
Priest – David Burke
Creon – Jasper Britton
Teiresias – Alan Howard
Jocasta – Clare Higgins
Stranger from Corinth – Malcolm “I wanna tell you a” Storry
Shepherd – Alfred Burke
Messenger – Gwilym Lee
Boy (bet he was chuffed when his agent rang and said “You’ll be playing ‘Boy’. By the way, its not a speaking part darling, but you do get to be hauled around the stage wearing a collar and lead by a mad, blind soothsayer”) – Reece Beaumont

The Paula Yates “Fifi Trixibelle” Award 2008 for the most cringeworthy name given to a child goes to the parents of: Shannon-Fleur Roux (who played “Child”).

Let’s face it, it ain’t a great play. All the exciting bits take place off stage, and the characters just stand there talking about them. Babies are found on barren hillsides with their feet bolted together. Kings are waylaid en route to Delphi and slaughtered. The Sphinx gets defeated. The people of Thebes are plague-ridden and starving. Women are having miscarriages in the street. Jocasta hangs herself. Oedipus rips out his own eyes with brooch pins. All chances for a bit of coup de theatre? Nah, thought Sophocles, too much unnecessary padding. I’ll just have them all happen off stage and then someone the audience have never seen before can wander on and declaim about them. Usually someone called “Stranger from Corith” or “Messenger”.

Well, the place was packed out (apart from the seat right in front of me, strangely). There were even people standing at the back of the circle – one of whom stood there jangling her bracelets so much it sounded like a canteen of cutlery being thrown down the stairs. Thankfully someone a few seats away got to her first, otherwise I would have turned round and slapped the bitch. Given the crush, I thought it pretentious to the nth degree of the director to give 8 members of the Chorus seats in a block in the auditorium, have them sit it them for the first 2 minutes, then get out of them and clamber up onto the stage, leaving their seats bathed in a pool of light for the remainder of the play. I can image the House Manager tearing his hair out and screaming “We could have sold those seats! They’re in the front two rows!” I suppose, however, given the nature of some of Oedipus’ “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speeches, that it was being implied that we were all Citizens of Thebes watching the action from our seats in the amphitheatre. “We must involve the audience in the action, love! Make them feel part of the play!” But I bet the poor sods standing at the back of the circle jiggling from one foot t'other were pig sick.

I strongly suspect that this production is enjoying the “David Tennant’s in Hamlet” factor, and that there were a lot of people there who thought “Oooooh, lets go see Ralphie in something – anything!” because I can’t see that so many people would otherwise give up their Friday night to see a dreary play that’s been boring people for 2,500 years. I tried with this, I really did. Maybe it was the awful heat inside the theatre – it had touched 70 degrees during the day, but the NT management noticed that the calendar said “October” and thought “We’ll put the heating on”. Maybe it was because I’d had an exhausting week and was tired. Maybe its because, as Him Indoors pointed out afterwards (cue Zippy from Rainbow voice): “You’re not a Classicist, Jeffery. You may not have liked it but this production will be acclaimed”. But it was hard going; I found myself glancing at my watch after the first 30 minutes, which is always a bad sign. It just never seemed to get going until the last 10 minutes.

I also had trouble with Mr. Fiennes’ Dec/Lam/A/Tory/Style/Of/De/Liv/Er/Ing/His/Lines in a way that made him sound Like/A/Con/Sti/Pat/Ed/Da/Lek with an audible pause Be/Tween/Ev/Er/Y/Syll/Ab/Le – he was the only person on stage doing so and it was really, really irritating (mind you, given that he’s shaved his head for this role, I thought the line “My hair is standing on end” extremely funny – unfortunately nobody else did so my snort was probably heard by those in the front row). More irritating, even, than Alan Howard’s strange accent which wandered from Aberdeen to East Ham via Birkenhead and the Channel Islands and back via Donegal. Clare Higgins was good as Jocasta, but the story from her point of view has lost the ability to shock – I mean, you can see women who find out that their son is the father of their kids any day you care to mention on the Jeremy Kyle Show – so any actress playing this part is basically just chewing the scenery. But at least she chewed it with conviction and gusto.

I think I've said it before in this blog but I looooooong to see a play of this period done in Ancient Greek costume (ah, I remember, it was in the "Women of Troy" review. Putting all the men in white shirts and black suits and the one woman in a black cocktail frock and stillies is just LAZY. I imagine the co-called "Costume Designer" ringing round the cast and saying "We've got Ralph Fiennes in the cast, love, so budget's tight. Have you got a black suit you can use? Fab. See you at the dress rehearsal."

I got far more enjoyment out of reading the essays in the programme than I did the play itslelf. Some people are so up themselves. “Some interpreters have argued that in this hero, Sophocles confronts his audience with the absolute injustice (from the human perspective) of divine predetermination, and with the feebleness of human cognition and agency in the context of the forces that run the universe”. Say wha’? Try this – “For all that, in fitting the Oedipus myth into the Procrustean bed of his own system, [Freud] lost some of its profounder connections with that strange protean process known as psychoanalysis.” Or this: “It is [Oedipus’] over-urgent knowingness that facilitates his ability to answer the notorious riddle of the Sphinx”. Oh, yeah right.

And I also got a great deal of evil pleasure when, about 5 minutes from the end of the play, someone just across the aisle from me gave the loudest and most protracted snore I think I’ve ever heard - like a walrus with sinus trouble. I really couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself.

What the critics thought:


http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2008/oct/16/theatre2 (almost as pompously worded as some of the articles in the programme)



http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7670001.stm (good to see that someone is obviously on the same wavelength as me!)

29 September 2008

Girl with a Pearl Earring - Haymarket Theatre, Friday 26th September


Delft, Holland, 1665. After her father is blinded in an explosion, 17-year-old Griet must work to support her family. She becomes a maid in the home of Johannes Vermeer and gradually attracts the master painter’s attention. Though worlds apart in upbringing, education and social standing, Vermeer recognizes Griet’s intuitive understanding of color and light and slowly draws her into the mysterious world of his paintings. Vermeer is a perfectionist, often taking months to finish a painting. His shrewish mother-in-law struggles to maintain the family’s lavish lifestyle on the income from his meagre output. Seeing that Griet inspires Vermeer, she takes the dangerous decision to allow their clandestine relationship to develop.

Griet also contends with the attentions of Vermeer’s patron, the wealthy and lascivious van Ruijven, who is frustrated that his money does not buy him control over the artist. While Griet falls increasingly under Vermeer’s spell, she cannot be sure of his feelings for her. The Machiavellian van Ruijven, sensing the intimacy between master and maid, gleefully contrives a commission for Vermeer to paint Griet alone. The result will be one of the greatest paintings ever created, but at what cost?
Read the book? Yes. Seen the film? Yes. In which case, don't spend your hard-earned on a ticket for this because you won't get anything you haven't had already. This production, imported from Richmond Theatre via the Cambridge Arts Theatre, has obviously just been thrown on quickly in order to fill the gap made by the "unexpected" closure of Marguerite (although not that unexpected if you happened to see it), and basically does what it says on the tin and nothing else. Its scheduled to run only six weeks, and is obviously aimed at people who enjoyed the book/film and fancy having the story re-told to them without the effort of having to turn any pages or schlep down to the DVD rental shop. However, because the story is pared down to its barest essentials, you might come away wishing you'd gone to the effort. Gone are the background, middle distance and foreground layers, and gone are the coats of varnish that add gloss and depth. The end of the story is cut off raggedly and tacked onto the very beginning in an effort to give a vague feeling of "flashback" and the "vegetable chopping" scene is moved slightly out of its place in the book, but otherwise that's really all the adaptor has thought it worth doing. Dialogue is lifted straight from the book, although there are times when characters address the audience directly in asides when their thoughts, feelings or actions can't be rendered in actual conversation - this is a terribly lazy way of recreating a masterpiece. If this conceit were done skillfully and kept up all the way through the play, it might be a way of papering over some of the more obvious failings of the script, but it happens just enough times for you to start getting used to it and then falls by the wayside.

Kimberley Nixon makes a fair stab at Griet, the eponymous heroine, but doesn't catch the awkwardness or shyness of a young girl suddenly removed from the world she knows and transplanted into the role of a servant in the world of her social superiors. She comes across as rather lippy to the Vermeers rather than anxious to please. Adrian Dunbar is a dead loss as the enigmatic Vermeer - there is no mystery, no sex appeal, no broody, misunderstood genius. There should be deep shade and the occasional sudden ray of light to highlight the shadows - all the chiaroscuro of Vermeer's paintings themselves, in fact - but there's nothing; no detail, no middle ground. Vermeer should be a whole palette of shades, tones and hues, but is played here as the equivalent of magnolia emulsion. Note to the costume department - his shoes are obviously slightly too loose as, at the performance we saw, he sported a modern pair of short black socks over his tights. Or maybe his feet were just cold. The great Sara Kestelman was really just wasted as Maria Thins - she wasn't at all stretched by the role and was more or less reduced to the role of chorus, commenting on the action but never engaging in it directly. Lesley Vickerage did her best to flesh out the poorly written role of Catherina but never managed to rise above puppet-dom. Maggie Service as Tanneke was lucky in that her dialogue gave her the opportunity to be funny and acidic and worldly-wise.
The set was serviceable, I suppose - a small revolve showing the kitchen, the studio and the salon, but was surrounded on all sides by some weird curtaining that looked rather like camoflauge material made out of black plastic squares linked together chequerboard style. No effort whatsover seemed to be made to light the sets in the manner of Vermeer's paintings, which was a major loss to the production as a whole. The one scene where lighting was effective (three baby spots trained on lit candles) was all too brief and far too late to save an extremely dull lighting plot.
In effect, in its depth and scope, this production showed as much relationship to its origin as a painting by numbers set does to a Old Master; on the surface they may be vaguely similar, but one takes masterly skill, years of dedication and great mental and physical effort and the other is just a daub.
What the critics thought (not a lot, basically!):

28 September 2008

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – Peacock Theatre, 23rd September 2008

Well, here we are again, Trocks fans. Having seen both their shows two years ago at this very same theatre, expectations were again high and again hit the spot completely. For those not familiar with the Trocks, they are an all male ballet company who specialise in dressing up in tutus and generally taking the piss out of classical ballet. As with all satire, it does help a lot if you have some knowledge of what is being sent up – but with the Trocks you can just as easily go in completely “cold” and still have a great deal of fun. Ballet, after all, lends itself spectacularly to being sent up – think of all the times you’ve seen Morecambe and Wise/The Two Ronnies/Little and Large/The Krankies et al doing The Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake.

What can possibly be missed is the fact that there is actually some incredibly skilful dancing going on underneath all the campery, over made up faces and comic moments. All are trained classical dancers. Some of these guys are strapping six-footers with shoulders (and in some instances, faces) that wouldn’t disgrace a scrum half, and yet they can all manage to dance en pointe – no mean feat for a man. Some of their star performers can cope with multiple single, double and sometimes treble fouettes, while still making it look easy. And of course, pair a big, strapping “ballerina” with a tiny male dancer, and you can make people laugh before either of you have danced a step.

What I particularly like about the Trocks is the way they show off their repertoire – there’s usually a (truncated) entire act from something, followed by a couple of shorter pieces, then a bravura “show off” piece at the end. Tonight’s performance started off with Act Two of Giselle – my favourite ballet and so ripe for sending up that it’s a complete gift. For the non-balletomanes out there, here’s a quick synopsis:

Giselle, having died of heartbreak at the end of Act One after discovering her lover, Albrect, is actually not the simple farmer she supposes but an aristocratic cad with nostalgie de la boue tendencies and an upperclass fiancée, is recruited to the ranks of the Wilis – a troupe of ghostly young women who, engaged to be married, have all died before their wedding day. At midnight, led by their Queen, Myrtha (as in Tidfil), they rise from their unquiet graves, waylay unfortunate young men who just happen to be wandering about the forest by moonlight (possibly in order to meet with other young men, who knows?) and dance their victims to death. As you do. Her ghouls having danced Hilarion (a “gamekeeper” but more likely a “poacher”, and rejected suitor of Giselle) right into the lake, Myrtha commands Giselle to dance Albrecht to his doom in punishment. Albrecht is saved by the power of love – Giselle manages to play for time until daybreak, when the first rays of the sun and the sound of a church bell send the Wilis back to their tombs.

You can’t not send that up, can you? I mean – Myrtha? (Mind you, in La Sylphide, the witch is lumbered with the name of Madge, for heaven's sake.) Robert Carter was a fab Myrtha, rising from the grave with a plastic arum lily standing up on her head, and her Wilis were like extras from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, even down to the arm gestures – no pretty pretty, carefully made up and chignoned spirits here but semi-rotted corpses dressed in tatters, which is just how they should be. Him Indoors told me about a production he had seen a while back where the Wilis actually clawed themselves out of their graves, which sounds enough to give anyone the Wilis.

This was followed by a sparkling pas de deux – Diana and Acteon – then the Vivadi Suite (in which we had the company’s tallest dancer partnered with the company’s smallest one; it was an interesting piece and, much though I profess to dislike Balanchine’s choreography, I really would quite like to see it done “straight” some time. Him Indoors got all pompous about this piece and in his best “Zippy from Rainbow” voice said “Of course, Balanchine was well known for casting enormously tall women so there’s a double layer of parody, isn’t that right, Jeffrey?”) and then the Trocks’ “signature piece” of The Dying Swan, shedding its feathers all over the stage to The Swan from Carnival of the Animals.

The company always finish with something unusual but fun, and for the finale we had “The Underwater Scene from The Little Humpbacked Horse”. No, I don’t know it either! Apparently it’s a very obscure Russian ballet based on a very obscure Russian Folktale – but it’s the type of underwater scene you get in lots of ballets and operas (and, come to think of if pantomimes) where they have a bubble-blowing machine in the wings and everyone dresses up as sea creatures. Think back to the last production of Dick Whittington you saw and you’ll know the type of thing. They followed this with a short encore of “New York, New York” and all wore Statue of Liberty headdresses – although Him Indoors thought they were meant to be starfish, Jeffery.
Great fun, as always guys.
The Trocks Website: http://www.trockadero.org/

What the critics thought: (all reviewers saw a peformance of the first programme; we saw the second)

20 September 2008

The Norman Conquests - The Old Vic - various dates in September 2008


The Norman Conquests is an interconnecting triptych of plays - Table Manners (set in the dining room), Round and Round the Garden and Living Together (set in the living room)- which follow the same six characters - Norman, his in-laws and the local vet - over a summer weekend in an English country house. Believing it his mission in life to make women happy by showering them with love, Norman makes the most of every opportunity to seduce his sister-in-law Annie, charm his brother-in-law's wife Sarah, and woo his wife Ruth during this disastrous weekend of constant bickering, drunken bonding and illicit rendezvous. The plays all happen in "real time" - i.e all take place at the same time. As characters interact and move around the house, they move from one play to another.

I was initially quite resistant to the thought of going to see these plays - they're by Alan Ayckbourn and I tend to think of his plays as being incredibly bleak and dark about the human condition and relationships (watching Season's Greetings or Absurd Person Singular is enough to leave you fumbling in your bag for a sharp knife with which to end it all, or at least bring on an attack of the NAHB (Not a Happy Bunny) Syndrome).

I admit that my hackles rose substantially when entering the theatre - some overpaid Capitalist has paid for the stage to be ripped out (the stage! At the Old Vic! The stage of Garrick, Gielgud, Edith Evans and Mrs. Patrick Campbell!) and the auditorium remodelled to become a "theatre in the round" rather than the traditional proscenium. Barbarism! The hallowed ghosts of great actors long since dead no longer drift around the stage clad in the costumes of their most famous roles - they have to clamber around over tiers of seats going woogy woogy woogy and getting their cloaks caught in the tip-up mechanisms. Outrage! Apparently, this is in homage (dharling) to the original production of The Norman Conquests which was played "in the round", but I have a nasty feeling that Mr. Spacey will be gunning for the new layout to remain. What's even worse is that this overpaid Capitalist hasn't, naturally, thought it fit to be an anonymous philanthropist, but has insisted on plastering the name of his bloody Hedge Fund all over the refit - its now the "CQS Space", apparently. Ye gods!

What is very disconcerting about this new layout is that, instead of looking at the stage, one now finds oneself sitting "on the stage" (the proscenium arch is still actually in place above your head) looking at other people in "the auditorium" - giving the odd impression of looking in a mirror. Is this a clever directorial conceit? Are we watching a play, or are we merely watching ourselves? When the same little old lady, wearing the same red sweatshirt, is sitting in the same seat for two different performances, this only adds to the surrealism and leaves you thinking "Have I been here before?"

Ah, but here comes the clever bit. We have been here before - these three plays feature the same characters, in the same costumes, in the same story. But each play is only one third of the story - and all the three parts are running at the same time (figuratively, not literally - although there is a famous pair of plays - House and Garden - which do run literally at the same time). Its like doing 1/3 of a jigsaw puzzle, then breaking it all up and doing it again, using different pieces and getting a different 1/3 of the picture, and then doing the same thing again to see the last 1/3. Sometimes, an individual piece might be in the middle of the bit that's visible, only to reappear the next time on the edge of the image. You can see its the same piece, only the context has changed. And your knowledge of 1/3 helps you relate it to either, or both, of the other two. Clever, eh?

Yes, very clever, but its still Ayckbourn and its still pretty bleak if you dont happen to be in a jolly frame of mind. Try and go when you're in a good mood, otherwise the darkness blots out the humour - and the humour is very funny indeed. I was getting over food poisoning for Table Manners, and sat in front of a buffoon from the City haw-hawing about his share options for Living Together, both of which events affected the way I related to the plays (at time of writing, we're still trying to get tickets for Round and Round The Garden). Anyway, it all revolves perilously close to farce in places, but without the physical humour; this humour is the black humour of relationships - family, partners, lovers - and what happens when testosterone levels get waaaaay too high. Essentially, I suppose, its a 19th century drawing room comedy set in the early 1970s. Like J. M. Priestley (of An Inspector Calls, Time and The Conways and Dangerous Corner fame), Ayckbourn gets a kick out of manipulating time - and your head. Watching the second play (they dont have to be seen in any particular order), I found myself constantly trying to reference what I had seen in the first, and watching intently for cues in order to "see where the joins were"; very tiring but ultimately very satisfying. Despite my avowed loathing of Ayckbourn, I'm very much lookng forward to seeing the last play.

Of the six actors in the cast, I can't really single out any individual for brickbats or bouquets as all are uniformly excellent. Amelia Bullimore has a difficult job with Ruth, probably the most poorly written role of the lot (and certainly the least believable) and rather a thankless task as a result. I don't think Steven Mangan is quite as good as he thinks he is as Norman, but its an unsympathetic role, and gets more so as you see each play in turn and learn more about him. I'm not sure that he needs to be portrayed as quite such a hairy loon with unkempt beard and wild locks. Some of Amanda Roots' vocal inflections and facial movements remind me of a very young Julie Walters (from her Victoria Wood days) and are genuinely funny as a result (apparently Penelope Keith created the role and I can imagine her in it, but I think I prefer Roots) and Ben Miles is a wonderfully ponderous Tom.

I'm not quite sure what purpose the model village serves - on a huge metal wheel suspended about three feet above the circular stage, leading to much pre-curtain speculation from the audience as to what is actually going to happen to it - but it rises up to reveal another identical model village on the underside. Most bizarre and I can't really see the point. Some of the actual direction is slightly disappointing - theatre in the round can leave you staring at the actors' backs for a good long while if its not carefully handled, particularly when a piece of furniture such as a dining table "anchors" people in one spot - and some of the sight lines are a little dodgy. It must be a very large house if both dining room and living room have at least three doors, making the overall layout of the house rather confusing to work out mentally. But the overall shabbiness of the house is well hinted at.

I think it was in one of Maureen Lipman's books that she said something along the lines of "Once an audience has realised that something on stage has gone wrong, they like nothing more than settling back and seeing how you are going to get out of it" - and the sadist in me did enjoy the moment when Norman slammed the coffee pot down on the dining room table just that little bit too hard in Table Manners, cracking it and watching water spread in a great pool before trickling down to form an ever-spreading puddle on the rug.

What the critics thought:

05 August 2008

The Wizard of Oz - Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday 6th August 2008


See my synopsis of Gone With the Wind!

It’s a sure-fire hit, ok? Iconic characters, classic songs, a real-live dog, villains to hiss and goodies to cheer, the potential for great sets and costumes, stage magic in bucketloads and the potential for getting the audience on your side however bad the production – a guaranteed sell-out during the school holidays and every small child and gay man for many miles around clamouring for tickets, right? WRONG! Jude Kelly (director) should hang her head in shame at this leaden, dreary production which completely fails to hit even the easiest of marks. In fact, so bored was I that I whipped out a notebook and sat taking notes all the way through - I covered four pages and, looking back, I see that only 2 comments were in any way positive.

Lets start with the basics – firstly, the venue. The Royal Festival Hall auditorium is vast, bleak and firmly mired in the 1960s. It feels like a concrete aeroplane hanger, but without the charm. It’s a concert venue, with a tiny stage that has acres of width but about 3 feet of depth. In this empty, echoing shell, there can be no place for subtlety – any performance that must cross the orchestra pit and reach the back row has to be broad, brassy and over-miked – no problem if you’re the Royal Philharmonic, but a handicap for a jolly stage show. The lighting is gloomy and designed for atmospheric concerts where each member of the orchestra has their own music stand complete with lamp – not ideal for a show where many of the set pieces take place in wide-open spaces by daylight. Most of this production is mired in perpetual twilight – heads and feet disappear in the gloom unless you’re standing in the middle of one of the (few) spotlights, which are contrastingly so bright that it washes out any details.

Sian Brooke looks old enough to be Aunt Em’s middle-aged daughter and has no experience of musical theatre listed in her biog. Put simply, she cannot sing. Her rendition of everyone’s favourite torchsong - the heartbreaking “Somewhere over the rainbow” was croaky, out of tempo and her musical phrasing was all over the place, proving instantly that for this role, you need a singer who can act, not an actor who thinks she can sing. And that accent – less Dorothy Gale than Daisy Duke (this is being charitable – I could have said Daisy Duck). This was a performance of little or no charm, no sparkle and none of that heart-aching innocence that the role demands. In fact, you could have put her costume on a plank and felt more connection.

Adam Cooper played the Tin Man as Adam Cooper i.e. can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a bit (now, where did I hear that before??). A performance as dull as unpolished tin, occasionally enlivened by some completely gratuitous choreography. Hilton McCrae was, I suppose, adequate as the Scarecrow, being slightly less OTT than some interpretations I have seen. Gary Wilmott played the Cowardly Lion as a camp, effeminate type, all limp wrists and pouts – an extremely lazy interpretation of the part yet one which, surrounded as it was on all sides by cardboard, actually came across as one of the more entertaining characters. The dual, small roles of Professor Marvel and the Wizard can be difficult to establish – so Roy Hudd didn’t even try. In fact, in this production, Marvel and the Wizard are actually the same character, wearing the same costume. Dull, dull, dull. Julie Legrand, with the plum role of WWW, could have walked away with the entire show – the role is a complete gift yet so often, as here, the actress concerned delivers a performance as if made from Spotted Dick than from Pure Evil, merely going through the motions. Desperately, desperately disappointing. In fact, the most animated character of the entire production was Toto (here played by Bobby, a white Highland Terrier) and even he looked bored for most of the time, being seemingly content to doze on stage when his presence was required.

Costumes? Well, the designer apparently “wanted to keep the characters recognisable” – for which read “make slavish copies of the costumes from the film”. Yes, I know that they are iconic – but a little imagination really wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. WWW’s costume was possibly the laziest design of the lot, although this was given a run for its money by those of the Munchkins. A little bit more than brightly coloured shorts, T-shirts and the occasional baseball cap is needed, for pity’s sake. Having seen a production (amateur, I hasten to add) in which the costumes (in particular those of the talking trees and the deadly poppies) were described in the local paper review as “wonderfully extravagant and fit for a cruise liner’s cabaret”, these were truly woeful. The inhabitants of The Emerald City were kitted out as superannuated circus performers – c’mon, designer! A few pairs of green Kicker boots, stripy socks and green Tshirts do not fantasy citizens make.

Choreography? Virtually non-existent. There were some sparks – the three crows, the Tin Man’s dance break – but we got 12 bars of “The Jitterbug” and that was that. Over, finished, done with, kaput – as was the “snowstorm” and associated dance number that kills the Deadly Poppies and finishes Act One.

Stage magic? Oh, my days, was this in very short supply. This is a show that not only requires it, not only needs it, not only demands it, but gets down on its knees and effing begs for it in dumper-truckloads. Here, Glinda didn’t float on in her traditional pink champagne bubble – she just wandered in through the auditorium. Did the Flying Monkeys fly? Did they heck. The Wizard’s Throne Room was empty – just a disembodied voice. I’ve seen scarier Haunted Forests in my back garden. And the Twister? Well, this brings me onto the subject of “Visual Installation”.

With such a slender stage, some form of back projection obviously had to be used. No problem there – back projection can be used to add depth, provide a bit of stage magic and generally plaster over the cracks, if used properly. Unfortunately, WOZ director decided to use a firm called Huntley Muir, who describe themselves as “Urban Playground Studios” – having had a quick look at their website, it seems that they provide the type of “artwork” that a reasonably talented five or six year old turns out. Well, for this, the whole firm must have chopped up a couple of lines of Colombia’s finest each, put their shirts on back to front and crowded round the “creative play” table with boxes of magic markers, sheets of gummed paper and safety scissors, and then uploaded the lot onto PowerPoint. Their interpretation of the terrifying Twister was a rotating spiral rendered in chubby Magic Marker, during the Tin Man scene we were treated to a clunky axe with the words “chop, chop” squiggled in round it (in case we weren’t sure what an axe did) and the closing of Act One, where Emerald City looms on the horizon, sparkling and glittering like an enormous jewel seen through a sudden shower of rain, gave us what appeared to be the letterhead of Croydon Council drawn in acid green highlighter - although I am assured that it actually represented the skyline of the South Bank Centre. Oh, what wit! Oh, what ironic reverence to the post-modernist, 21st century zeitgeist! Oh, what a load of self-indulgent crap!

Add to this pacing of the kind best described as “funeral” (what worries me is that, during the first couple of weeks of the run, the performances lasted for almost exactly three hours, although they had shaved some 20 minutes off by yesterday, so the early performances must have progressed with the speed of continental drift) and the “sure-fire hit” that this show should be, fell dead to the ground with the kind of thump associated with giants falling from beanstalks. Do yourself a favour – don’t go and see this show. You’ll only find yourself agreeing that “There’s no place like home”.

What the critics thought: