17 March 2008

The Baker's Wife - TEPOS @ The Bob Hope Theatre, Saturday 15th March 2008


The café of a small Provençal town in the mid-1930s. . Denise, the wife of the proprietor, sees the same faces every day, but sometimes, things can happen that change you, making life different and new. Bits of conversation are heard from the customers - complaints from a gardener who's neighbor's tree is shading his spinach, an argument between the local priest and the school teacher who has been teaching that Joan of Arc "thought" she heard voices. Those bickering tell each other that their lives would be that much better "If It Wasn't for You". Through it all is the anticipation of the arrival of the baker: the village has been without bread since the last baker died and tensions have run higher than normal.

The Marquis enters with his three "nieces" and welcomes the new baker, Aimable Castagnet. Accurately named, he is a jolly, middle-aged fellow. With him is Geneviève, young and beautiful, whom the Marquis mistakes for his daughter. The error quickly addressed, it is not met without comment from the townspeople. With Pompom, the cat, the couple make for their new home, with the customers exchanging comments about the baker robbing the cradle .The villagers are pleased with the return of bread to the small town. They argue about their place in line in the small shop, eager to sample the wares of the new baker. Others, gossip about the Marquis and his nieces, and one of the villagers asks Aimable how an old man like him was able to snare the beautiful Geneviève, who sings of her past affair with Paul, a married man, and her love for Amiable. Closing the door on her past, she resolves to be a good wife to the baker.

While picking up the Marquis' pastry order, his driver, Dominique, eyes Geneviève, mistaking her for the baker's daughter. She corrects him, but he insists on addressing her as Mademoiselle. Amiable returns after trying to find Pompom and reports that the cat has run off.

The villagers gather again outside the café, engaged in their typical squabbles. The baker and his wife arrive and sit near Antoine who continues to tease them about the difference in their ages. Geneviève exits in a huff, leaving the men to tell each other to "Look For the Woman" when they start fighting. The baker and his wife gett ready for bed. Dominique and his guitar-toting friend Philippe plot to serenade her in the street. Geneviève castigates Dominique, but he is undeterred. Though she protests, she is unable to resist Dominique, and they decide to run off together.

The neighbors are awakened to a fire in the bakery's oven where the baker finds charred loaves. Usually Geneviève is the early riser of the household, and he begins to search for her, believing that she has gone in search of Pompom. A crowd begins to gather: they know Aimable's search will yield neither cat nor wife.

The Marquis arrives and takes the baker aside, telling him that Geneviève had run off with Dominque.. Philippe arrives and confirms the story, but Aimable chooses to believe that Geneviève has gone off to visit her mother. As the gossip continues, the Marquis threatens going to the police to report his stolen car, and the two lovers would be arrested. The gossipers decide that the situation is the "best thing to happen in this town in all my life!"

The teacher and the priest argue again: the priest accusing the villagers of contaminating Geneviève with their immoral conduct, the teacher championing free will. The typically sober baker orders a cognac, and another, and sings to the cafe that Geneviève has just gone to visit her mother. In an attempt to sober him up, they follow him into the bakery, only to find it in a sad state. Aimable collapses amongst the spilled flour, dough hanging from the ceiling, and burnt loaves of bread.

The villagers come to the decision that the town is cursed and they blame the baker's wife for the burdenThe Marquis enters, telling Aimable that he needs some "Feminine Companionship" and offers to loan his nieces. The girls surround the baker, flirting with him. The priest enters and, shocked, begins feuding with the Marquis. The villagers join in the fray, and the baker throws them all out.

At a town meeting Aimable admits that he knows that Geneviève has run off. He leaves the church, and the villagers vow to find his wife. Antoine enters claiming that he has found the young couple at a hotel in a nearby town. They agree to form a search party, and the Marquis, the priest, and the teacher go after the outcasts to persuade the baker's wife to return home. Left behind, the women of the town comment bitterly.

Geneviève and Dominique are together, but all is not well. She admits her passion for the young man, but gathers her things and leaves him asleep. The villagers encounter Geneviève and they eventually convince her to return. She finds Aimable and attempts to tell him the truth, but he chooses to believe that she has returned from visiting her mother and offers her dinner. Pompom arrives at the window, and Aimable bitterly harangues the cat for running after "some tom that looked good in the moonlight." He unleashes all of his pent-up anger toward Geneviève on the small cat, and offers it a saucer of milk. He has faithfully refilled the milk each day, and, when Aimable charges that the cat will run off yet again, Geneviève assures him that she will not. Reconciled, the two begin to prepare the bread for the next day. Their feuds ended, the villagers resume their everyday lives.

Set in a small French village during the 1930’s, somewhere between the locations of Chocolat (the plot of this and The Baker’s Wife share a lot of similarities, and I must check to see which was written first!) and Allo Allo, this show was, on the face of it, an unusual choice for an amateur company. It doesn’t have a very high recognition factor and is therefore not really a “bums on seats” show like, say, My Fair Lady is. But I hope the company were mollified by the audience appreciation of their efforts rather than disappointed at the lack of tickets sold. It’s a simple show, about relationships and their effects, and indeed the village itself becomes a strong character, rather in the same way that Anatevka is in Fiddler on the Roof. It was a bit of a shock to see so few people on stage – times were (not that long ago) when I appeared with the company and there were at least double the number in the cast; in fact, I think for Pirates of Penzance we had about sixty people on stage. However, the show works very well in a small venue with a relatively small cast, and adds to the feeling of intimacy.

The one set was quite simple but nonetheless effective, in warm colours appropriate for the location, although I did think that the railings of the balcony were set too low for comfort, as both the baker and his wife had to lean forward quite a way several times in order to put their hands on the rail. I have to take issue also with the use of a stuffed toy cat (and not a particularly realistic one at that – it looked like it was hiding a loo roll under its fur). Surely a real one in a cat basket would have been more effective? The cat isn’t on stage for long, and I’m sure that, with a dose of Mogadon (Moggiedon?), a sufficiently docile and amiable one could have been held by the cast members when necessary for the plot.

The orchestra was nicely handled by Alan “Smashie” Thompson in the pit, and was unobtrusive when necessary, something other MD’s of amateur companies (and some professional ones) would do well to emulate.

Sue Wooton was fab as Denise, the rather faded wife of the café owner, and her warm toned singing voice fitted the role perfectly. The stalwart Marion Terry, always a safe pair of hands, was wonderfully starchy as Therese the village spinster, and Bud Abbott hilarious as Domergue (in fact, all that was missing in his dialogue was either “It is I, Le Clerk” or “Non, non, non, non, non, non….er..oui” and he could have stepped out of Allo Allo or La Curee de Dibley, at which point the audience would probably have collectively wet themselves with hysterics). Rose Walker gave an empassioned performance as Hortense, the butcher’s wife who decides to take control of a life ruined by domestic violence, bringing to mind one of the sub-plots of Chocolat.

Sorry, everyone else, but Chris Betterton as the Village Priest deserves (and therefore gets) an entire paragraph of praise all to himself. He was perfectly cast (I did hear a rumour that he only got the part because he already had the costume in his wardrobe but I don’t believe it for a minute) and was a complete joy to watch as he wobbled between unctuous complacency and fury, with every nuance of his emotions caught perfectly on his face. I think Derek Nimmo would be proud! It used to be said of some performers that they had “comedy feet” – well, Chris has comedy hands, and I would quite happily have sat through his performance again.

Richard Cooper was very good as Dominique and his voice was excellent – a pure ringing tenor that will stand him in good stead should he decide to hit the Gilbert and Sullivan circuit in years to come, although his somewhat awkward body posture does need work, and it will be a while yet before he has the acting maturity to play roles like Colonel Fairfax in Yeoman or Tololler in Iolanthe.

Both on top form were Chris Arden as the Baker and Nicola Henderson as the eponymous wife. Chris was perfectly cast for the role, with his warm personality shining through, although he seemed a little unsure at times exactly how to pronounce the name of his wife. Being a Frenchman, it should have been Szhon-Vee-Ef rather than the English Jennie-Veeve which slipped out a couple of times, as did a rather strange hybrid version pronounced Jen-Vee-Ef. Nicola Henderson blew me (and Him Indoors) away with her vocal ability . At times she seemed a little “absent” but it is a difficult part to play – it’s a “cypher role” – things happen to her and around her rather than through her influence on the plot.

All in all, a really good night out watching people I know entertain people they know in a production as warm and comforting as bread fresh from the oven.

Into the Hoods - Novello Theatre, Friday 14th March 2008


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, two children ran away in search of freedom,but found themselves lost....in the hood. Welcome to the Ruff Endz Estate, the home of the vinyl spinning DJ Spinderella, who is dating the uber confident lady magnet Prince who, being a "true playa" is two timing her with the vivacious rapper MC Rap-on-Zel. She lives on the 10th floor of the tower block, letting down her long hair extenshuns from her window so that Prince can pay her secret visits. Then there is Lil Red, a singer who has just signed a deal with Wolf, the manager of Big TeefRecords. She secretly has feelings for music producer Jakk (who lives in the basement) who is struggling with debt, is late on the rent and facing eviction. A desperate Jakk enters into some dodgy dealings with Giant, the resident drug-dealing pimp, who lives in the penthouse. The children meet The Landlord, who sends them out to work for him with the task of finding gifts for his daughter Rap-On-Zel's birthday. In return, he promises to see them out of the Hood and safely home. They have only four days to find: an ipod as white as milk, a hoodie as red as blood, a weave as yellow as corn and trainers as pure as gold...

Those of you who are familiar with Stephen Sondheim might well recognise the above synopsis as being pretty damned similar to his work "Into the Woods" which I have reviewed elsewhere. As there was no mention of this in the programme, Im not sure whether to label this production as an affectionate tribute or a complete rip-off. Whichever it is, only those familiar with the source would really have appreciated how clever/how much of a rip-off this is. Unfortunately,unless "Into the Woods" has been performed at Belmarsh Prison or the local Young Offender's Correction Facilty recently, I very much doubt that many of the bruvvas and sistas in the audience would have realised this - it was very much aimed at the "Yeah but no but yeah but no" demographic. A comment I overheard (well, it didnt take much overhearing as it was bellowed in a voice that would have put the Beachy Head foghorn to shame) showed that most of the audience had only ever been in the kind of theatre that deals with bones broken after falling into the gutta on a night out on the razz in some of the seedier parts of London: "Taneesha, it's massif in 'ere girl!". A few rows behind me were a middle-aged couple looking like they had just stepped off the train from Tunbridge Wells, obviously hanging onto their valuables for dear life and on the sharp look out for knives being waved.

Having been told that curtain-up was at 7.30, it was irritating to sit there for a further 20 minutes surrounded by bus-loads of badly dressed and bling-laden hyenas to the accompaniment of hiphop music so loud that flakes of plaster were falling from the ceiling. It was doubly annoying to find that the first "half" of the evening consisted of what I am reliably informed was a "set" by "poet and comeeeeedien rappa "Mr. Gee" - who stood lamely before the curtain telling unfunny jokes and reciting poems that didnt rhyme and didnt scan about hoodies. The hyenas, of course, lapped all this up and howled their Nikes off (the sista next to me said to her posse member "Jeeeesus man, I is gonna bust somefin if I don't get me sum res-pite soon!"). There was no reaction from anybody in my row and a stony silence from Mr. and Mrs. Tunbridge Wells - probably because we only understood about one word in 10. After 25 minutes of this, an interval was announced. The lights went up and the music recommenced, and us regular theatre-goers sat there blinking in the light and wondering "Is that it?". The hyenas, of course, used the time to drink the bar dry of vodka and Red Bull, send text messages or use their mobiles to take pictures of each other "at the feeertre cos no-one ain't gonna beleeeeve it man".

The curtain finally went up again at 9pm, and for the first 15 minutes I resented like hell what was going on on stage - a street dance version of Into the Woods. No dialogue, only narration by a disembodied voice. No Sondheim tunes - hip hop, rap etc. My bristles went up and I sat there determined not to enjoy it. But then something caught my attention - I think it was the back projection of the estate newsagents, with a board outside "See it now in your magic Mirror"- and I began to think "Hey bro, this is well wicked". The energy pouring across the footlights was astonishing - like The Magic Flute at the Young Vic, the sheer pleasure of performing came across in buckets. I think it was when Lil Red, dreaming of winning her own Grammy (geddit?) had to cross the park to reach the Old Folk's home before sunset in order to visit Granny, that I finally started to really appreciate the thought that had gone into the production.

Of the cast, particularly good were Rhimes Lecointe as a sad (in the modern sense), spoilt and rather tubby Rap-On-Zel forever redoing her cornrows and Rowen Hawkins as a particularly spunky skater-boy Jakk - I could quite happily mount his mighty stalk any time. The highlight though must have been the visit of Fairy Gee - a body-popping six year old black girl in a gold tracksuit (with tutu) and trainers, wearing her hair in enormous bunches, giving it her all and completely upstaging every adult on stage. The audience (apart from the Tunbridge Wells's) went totally beserk at this point.

Costumes were simple, cleverly designed and appropriate for the principals, allowing them to fade back into the ensemble when necessary by donning a different colour hoodie. A major problem, however, was the rounding off of the story during the bows - most of the narration simply couldnt be heard over the screaming and so I missed out on how some of the stories ended. Jakk, it appears, ends up in bed with Lil Red - the bitch.

It was loud, it was raucous, it was completely unexpected, it was fun (once I had got over my disapproval) - but a bit cheeky in terms of it really only lasting an hour and being padded out by the "comedy" turn at the beginning. Mr. and Mrs. Tunbridge Wells staggered off into the night, ashen-faced, partly deafened and probably in search of a couple of very stiff gin and tonics.

13 March 2008

Thespis - Normansfield Theatre, Sunday 9th March 2008


Scene: A Ruined Temple on the Summit of Mount Olympus
On Mount Olympus, the aged deities lament their waning influence. Mercury complains that the gods are lazy and leave all their duties to him. Jupiter says that matters have reached a crisis, but he is unsure what can be done about it. The gods see a group of mortals ascending the mountain, and withdraw to observe them from a distance.

Thespis's acting company enters for a picnic celebrating the marriage of two of its members, Sparkeion and Nicemis. Daphne, Sparkeion's former fiancée, annoys Nicemis by flirting with him. In retaliation, Nicemis flirts with Thespis.

Jupiter, Mars, and Apollo enter. All of the actors flee in terror, except for Thespis. Jupiter asks Thespis whether he is impressed with the father of the gods. Thespis replies that the gods are unimpressive, and suggests that they go down to earth in disguise to judge for themselves why people do not take them seriously. They agree that Thespis and his acting company will keep things running on Mount Olympus during the gods' absence. Each actor takes the place of one of the gods, with Thespis himself replacing Jupiter. Mercury stays behind to offer any advice the actors may need.

Act II
Under Thespis's direction, Olympus has been restored to its former splendour. However, Mercury says that the substitute gods are incompetent, and their experiments have wreaked havoc in the world below. For instance, the replacement for Mars is a pacifist, the replacement for Hymen refuses to marry anyone, and the substitute Bacchus is a teetotaller. The ersatz Apollo the god of day, goes out at night to protect Diana, the goddess of night, from coming to harm, and the substitute Venus decrees that babies are to be born full-grown. The actors also find that the romantic entanglements of the gods they've replaced conflict with their attachments in real life. Venus, played by Pretteia, is supposed to be married to Mars, but the actor playing Mars is her father. A possible solution is discovered in Venus having actually married Vulcan but Vulcan is her grandfather. Daphne has become the muse Calliope and claims, based on a bowdlerised edition of the Greek myths that Calliope was married to Apollo. However, Sparkeion, who took on the role of Apollo, is already married to Nicemis. Thespis is asked to rule on these issues, and, while he puts off judging Pretteia's case, he decides that Sparkeion is married to Daphne while they are gods, but his marriage to Nicemis will resume when they are mortals once again.

When the gods return they are furious at the disarray that Thespis's company have created. They watch incognito as Mercury presents to Thespis all of the complaints from earth that have accumulated while the gods have been gone. After listening to a long list of grievances, the gods shed their disguises and banish the actors from Olympus. As punishment for their folly, Jupiter sends them back to earth as "eminent tragedians whom no one ever goes to see."

Firstly, if you ever get the opportunity to see a show at this theatre (hidden away in the wilds of west London), go see - if only to see the theatre itself, which a perfect jewel, like something you would find inside a Faberge Easter egg. Decorated in High Pre-Raphaelite style, shimmering with darkly patinated gold leaf and decked with Rapturous Maidens (shades of Patience) and the kind of plant portraits that Rosetti would have had orgasms over, its an experience in itself. The sumptuous curtain (the old Music Hall "straight up and down" style rather than traditional velvet ones) is an added bonus. The relatively dim lighting only adds to its charm.

As predicted, the place was heaving with G&S Anoraks, flocking to see this lost G&S operetta, even on a dreary, wet Sunday afternoon in March. When I walked in the door, the average age of the audience fell by about 25%, I think. There were a fair amount of elderly women with sensible shoes who might well come out with "Stuff and nonsense", and lots of similarly-aged men with hairy ears, all wearing their M&S "Old Geezer" best - brown or grey slacks, comfy cardigans and matching kagoules. I dare say that many of them had bought a flask of tea along.

Quite what I was expecting I don't know. Its a very odd piece, owing a lot to the Edwardian love of "burlesque" and panto, the original script is not the least bit funny, and all the music save two pieces have been lost to posterity, one of which only survives because it found its way (in an emergency) into The Pirates of Penzance. Perhaps I should have read the programme properly, for on the cover it was stated "Music from Arthur Sullivan and Offenbach", which might have alerted me to the fact that I wasnt going to hear a complete, newly-composed score as I was, I think, expecting. Now, don't get me wrong - the score was perfectly adequate, well peformed by the orchestra and exuberantly conducted by Tim Henty (note: never sit right behind him, he's well over six foot and when there is no orchestra pit and he's giving it some welly, this means that a lot of the stage is obscured by what could easily double for the windmill in Don Quixote), but it did rather degenerate into a game of "spot the tune" - we got stuff from The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Gondoliers, and several other G&S's, as well as from Orpheus in the Underworld. Sullivan geeks like me picked up tunes from The Rose of Persia, and there was even some cod Don Giovanni. If you are familiar with the tunes, there is always an awful 20 seconds or so during which your brain stops paying attention to the stage and attempts to identfy them. Only when you've done this successfully do you switch back into proper listening mode. If you don't achieve recognition, you then sit there agonising for the remainder of the number (well, I do, anyway). But it did seem an awful cop-out to use tunes written a good many years later by the same composer. There may have been a number of "Henty originals" (I'm sure the overture was one, and the opening chorus another one) but more than these two I couldnt vouch for personally. A programme note about the transfer of music to Pirates said "No composer ignores good material" and perhaps there was a hint of self-justification about this. Still, kudos to Tim for managing to fit Gilbert's horrendously complicated lyrics to existing bits of Sullivan's music - particularly the fiendish patter songs - which can't have been anything like easy. The boy did good.

There was no chorus in this production, and several of the smaller roles had been incorporated into larger ones. There were also uneven numbers of gods and mortals - which showed up in the second act when the latter become the former, as not all the roles mentioned were covered. There should, for example, have been a "Venus" among the gods for her role to be taken over by a mortal, even though it would have been a super-numerary part. It also pointed up another difficulty of casting this show - all the gods must be cast from the more, shall we say, senior members of the company, and all the actors from the younger ones. I have to say that I didn't think much of the idea of portraying the actors as Edwardians rather than Greeks. Yes, I know that the sub-title of the piece is The Gods Grown Old, but the Edwardians were fervent Christians and didn't pay homage to the gods of the Greek pantheon. OK, call me a purist then.

Of the gods, Jill Pert was an excellent Diana - but then Jill Pert is an excellent anything. I long to see her Katisha, and I hear that she can even make the non-character of Little Buttercup into a fully-rounded person. She has a dry, knowing wit and sense of fun that drives across the footlights. Truly an ornament to the stage. Ian Belsey was fun as Apollo but, from the amount of eye shadow and lipstick he was sporting, would possibly have looked more at home with a dish of Trill, a cuttlefish and a little metal bell, or maybe as Louis XV (an interesting thought, as that gentleman styled himself as The Sun King and his gardens at Versailles are loaded with references to Apollo). Rebecca Seale as Mercury was not quite the glamourpuss that we are lead to believe the originator of the role, Nellie Farren, was and, at times, bore a remarkable resemblance both physically and vocally to a very young Barbara Windsor. She also had an irritating habit when front of stage of fixing her gaze on a point of the auditorium ceiling and singing to it, rather than making any kind of eye contact with the audience. Still, it has to be said that her diction during the horrendously fast patter songs was excellent.

On the mortal side, Richard Suart played Thespis as a larger-than-life version of Richard Suart, and on occasion completely overdid the melodrama to the point of ludicrousness. Him Indoors said that "You have to rise above the material, dahling" but my opinion veers towards "Less is Definitely More". It was an interesting idea to have the role of Sparkieon played as a "Trouser Role" (i.e. by a woman dressed up as a man) and Miranda Westcott did literally sparkle vocally. Martin Lamb made a fine and portly Tipseion, but, as the great Victoria Wood herself once wrote in a sketch, "Drop the Geordie, dear - its not coming across". David Menezes, as the Company Manager Timidon, was very good, seemingly characterising his role on the impressionist Alastair McGowan (currently to be found boring theatregoers -or at least those four I heard on the train recently - with his awful Mikado). Rachel Harland spoke and sung prettily but with perhaps a little over-enunciation, and I think that Sian Jones was rather wasted in the largely speaking role of Pretteia (portrayed as a slightly lunatic ballerina) if her solo during the opening chorus was anything to go by.

An interesting afternoon's entertainment, although I think it does show that what is lost sometimes deserves to remain lost. Gilbert certainly wasn't on top form when he wrote the libretto (proved by the fact that the script seemed to have been largely re-written for this production). Whether Sullivan was on top form we shall, unfortunately, never know. But if his performance that afternoon was anything to judge by, Mr. Henty is certainly a man to be watched - but not from the back.