29 April 2008

Hamlet - Northern Ballet Theatre @ Sadler's Wells, Friday 25th April 2008

Synopsis (no, its not what you think - read it as otherwise my review will make no sense!):

Wartime occupied France. Hamlet, in mourning for his dead father, appears through the steam from a train. People pass him by as he stands lost in thought. He has a vision of a dark alley, a scuffle, a beating. He remembers a Parisian restaurant in 1939 - a farewell dinner for Hamlet, Laertes and Horatio who are joining the army to fight the Germans and his mother and father as they dance together [this is what the programme said; I'm assuming that the army arent fighting the Germans and Hamlet's mother and father]. The station is chaotic and frightening. People are being humiliated, arrested and beaten. Hamlet looks for his mother who was to meet him. Polonius, now working with the Germans, speaks to the Nazi officers. He whisks Hamlet away to the officical residence of the Head of Police, Hamlet's home before the war.

Gertrude and Claudius are hosting a party. Hamlet watches Ophelia talking to the Germans and the affection between Claudius and his mother. He leaves, distressed by the collaboration with the Germans and his mother's new marriage. In his bedroom, he senses his father's presence but the image is broken as Horatio and Ophelia come to find him. Laertes interrupts Hamlet's reunion with Ophelia but Hamlet sends him away. Laertes returns with Polonius who pulls the couple apart. When he sees Ophelia is wearing a new necklace, he demands she removes it and presents her with a swastika.

New images of the day return to haunt Hamlet. His vision of the beating in the alley returns - as the man raises his head, Hamlet realises it is his father. He sees his father's office, a Nazi officer places a swastika on the desk. When he refuses this, Hamlet realises that Claudius signed his death warrant.

Hamlet spies on his mother and her new husband making love. He considers suicide.

Horatio seeks out Hamlet to heal the rift between Ophelia and his friend. Hamlet confronts Ophelia and before a resolution can be found, Laertes escorts Hamlet to his uncle's office, where Polonius, Claudius and the SS are interrogating a member of the Resistance. Hamlet is shown what could happen to him if he doesnt comply. As he leaves, he turns back to the chair and realises that his father sat in that chair having been beaten and tortured. Hamlet and Horatio break into the desk and steal Hamlet's father's death warrent.

Hamlet arrives for dinner, wearing his father's coat. He indicates that he knows Claudius killed his father and that he has evidence. Claudius leaves Gertrude to discipline her son, leaving Polonius as a hidden spy. As Hamlet is about to show her the death warrant, Polonius tries to snatch it. Hamlet stabs him, thinking he is Claudius. Claudius returns and reaslises that Hamlet has committed murder. Laertes and Ophelia return to find their dead father and, on seeing the knife in Claudius's own hand, attack him as the murderer. Claudius denies that he is the killer and implicates Hamlet. Claudius signs a death warrant - Hamlet's. He goes on the run.

Gertrude and Claudius attend a ball at the German embassy. Ophelia arrives with a posy of small swastikas, which she hands out . She leaves the ball and loses her mind [as you do]. She is followed and assaulted by Nazi soldiers. Laertes arrives and sees his sister with Hamlet, and they fight. Claudius arrives with the SS and Hamlet's death warrant. Hamlet is shot dead.

A crowd celebrates the liberation of the city and we see the fates of Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes. Horatio is left alone to mourn Hamlet's death.

Well, I hope you followed that. Because basically - I didn't. I think you would have to be far more familiar with the tale of Shakespeare's Danish prince than I am to have been able to relate this to what was actually happening on stage. As far as I could see, the only correlation was a moody suicidal with a mad girlfriend and a couple of dodgy mates. No battlements, no gravediggers, no windy courtyards, no "play within a play" no Fortinbras sub-pot, no dewey eyed, lanky blond bloke with a pudding basin haircut, black tabard and an inability to make up his bleeding mind..... Ah yes, said Him Indoors, but you see the characters in the ballet share the names of the characters in the play. But, I replied, you could call them Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb, and unless they are rescuing one of Mrs. Honeyman's Pekingese dogs from a puddle in the park, assisting Doctor Mopp with the six-monthly "drop and cough" on the boys at Pippin Fort or rehearsing that tune that they played on the town bandstand week after week after week, you ain't watching Trumpton, love. Ah yes, said Him Indoors, but you see the themes are the same. But, I replied, where is Windy Miller in all this?

As you might have gathered from this, and the synopsis, I thought the connection between the source material and this ballet was tenuous, to say the least, and probably only Hamletophiles would have been able to see the join. In fact, so confused did I become that I stopped engaging with what was happening on the stage and just stared blankly, hoping that I might spot some point of reference - a skull, perhaps, or Ken Dodd dressed as Yorick. But no. I did kind of see a parallel during Ophelia's mad scene (although forget "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, there's pansies, thats for thoughts......" - what we got was "ear y'ar love, have a swasticka-on-a-stick, but 'urry up cos I'm due to go off me 'ead very soon") but quite honestly by this point I was well overdue a mad scene of my own.
Whatever inspired NBT's Artistic Director to come out with this load of tosh (other than his own deluded sense of self-importance, of course) is beyond me, and it seemed that the Good People of London Town agreed with me - at this performance there were only about 40 people in the Circle, and I gather that so few were in the Circle on Saturday evening that they closed it completely and moved people down to the stalls. Another "artistic triumph but financial disaster" for NBT. The man needs a good kick up the arras if you ask me.
What made this all doubly obscure (literally) was that all the second half was played out behind a scrim (a very thin curtain rendered see-through by lighting the stage behind it). This is usually a conceit employed in ballet during dream or fantasy sequences - were we to infer that Act 2 was all the product of Hamlet's deluded mind? Dunno, basically.
Another problem which interfered with the story was the dreadfully boring scenery. Now, Im all for doing this on the cheap if you can get away with it and there is some relevance to it, but what we got was basically two huge rotating boxes, the front parts of which were built out as flights of stairs. The sections at the back did treble duty for bathrooms (you could tell it was a bathroom because there was a little mirror hanging over the sink), dining rooms, bedrooms, offices, streets... in fact, anything that wasnt a staircase. This would have been all very well had not most of the action taken place in, on, around and under staircases. It felt like:
Act 1, sc 1: an alleyway between two staircases
Act 1, sc 2: a staircase
Act 1, sc 3: a grand staircase (both staircases having been joined together)
Act 1, sc 4: a bathroom
Act 1, sc 5: a different staircase
Act 1, sc 6: another part of the staircase
Act 1, sc 7: a ball (taking place in front of a staircase), and so on, ad nauseum, until I longed to shout "bring on a bloody sofa, for chrissakes!"
According to the blurb in the programme (and the total lack of punctuation is completely Sadlers Wells's): "Hamlet is of course one of the best examples of the power of the written word but dance has often been able to express those emotions that are difficult to express in other ways". So you will excuse me for having stood in the foyer on the way out expressing "What the fuck was all that about?" through the medium of dance.
What the critics thought:

14 April 2008

Titanic! - Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts @ the Shaw Theatre, Friday 11th April 2008


TITANIC! begins as Thomas Andrews, the architect of the great ship, pores over the blueprints of his design. The curtain then rises to reveal the Ocean Dock in Southampton, where people are gathering to wonder at and to board the ship on sailing day: first a stoker, then additional crewmen, officers and stevedores, the owner, the architect and the captain, the Third and Second Class passengers, and finally the First Class Passengers. Now, fully boarded, the ship pulls out as the company sings a prayerful farewell.

One by one, the dreams and aspiration of key characters are presented: Barrett, the stoker who wanted to get away from the coal mines; Murdoch, the ship's officer contemplating the responsibility of command; Kate McGowan and the Third Class passengers who yearn for a better life in America; Chief Steward Etches and the millionaires he serves who exult in the wonders of their world.

Barrett finds his way to the Telegraph Room where he dictates a proposal of marriage to his sweetheart back home in a telegram transmitted by Harold Bride, a young telegraph operator smitten with the possibilities of the new radio technology.

The next day, 14th 14, after Sunday morning church service, the First Class attends the shipboard band's spirited out-of-doors concert - an exclusive event crashed by Second Class passenger Alice Beane, a hardware store owner's wife who wants more out of life. That evening, as Fleet the lookout scans the horizon and bandsman Hartley regales the First Class Smoking Room with a new song, the ship sails inexorably towards her collision, which ends Act One.

Act Two opens as the suddenly awakened First and Second Class passengers are assembled in the Grand Salon for life-belt instruction by Chief Steward Etches, before being sent up to the Boat Deck to board the lifeboats. In the Telegraph Room, Captain Smith, Mr. Andrews and Mr. Ismay, the owner, argue over who is responsible for the disaster while Mr. Bride tirelessly sends out the S.O.S. Up on the Boat Deck, the male passengers are separated from their families, and all express hopes of being reunited as the final boat is lowered. Isidor Strauss (the owner of Macy's) and his wife Ida remain behind together, as she refuses to leave his side after 40 years of marriage and Mr. Etches utters a prayer. In the abandoned Smoking Room, Thomas Andrews desperately redesigns his ship to correct its fatal flaws, until the futility of his actions leads him to predict, in horrifying detail, the end of Titanic as she begins her now-inevitable descent.

In an Epilogue, the survivors picked up by the Carpathia numbly retell what had once been Mr. Andrews' dream. The living are joined by their lost loved-ones in a tableau recapturing the optimistic spirit of the Ocean Dock on sailing day.

Readers are directed back to my review of WWOS's production of this here: http://russells-theatre-reviews.blogspot.com/2006/11/titanic-west-wickham-operatic-society.html as I will be drawing several comparisons.

This show illustrates my point made about Gone with the Wind - that for an epic story you need an epic score. Four days later and I'm still humming many of the tunes that I heard on Friday evening, whereas not a note from GWTW stays with me.

This was a smaller production than that I saw back in 2006, on a smaller stage and with a smaller company. This inevitably draws comparisons - although the story is unaffected, the smaller cast required some "doubling up" of roles, which led to some confusion. For instance, the First Class Steward was doubled by the chap playing the Third Class Steward,Mr. Guggenheim also appeared as Harold Bride the radio operator, and the Bandmaster also appeared as an engineer. In such a tightly constructed piece, you really had to keep a firm grasp on the plot because of this.

Musical quality was excellent, singing was of very high standard and diction good throughout. Cue pick-up was excellent, making this a much tighter production than the WWOS version (although WWOS Titanic had about four times as many passengers as Mountview's, which made all the "getting on and off again" much lengthier). Also, there was only one, fixed set this time round, saving time on scene changes (although this didn't tilt at all for act 2, making it somewhat less effective). However, I did find the lighting singularly lacking on occasion - in particular right at the end of Act 1. In the WWOS version, the final chord of the collision was accompanied by a complete blackout on stage, with "headlights" coming up in the auditorium to suggest beams of light coming through portholes and the tracking lights on the lifeboats. In the Mountview version, the curtain just closed on a fully lit stage. Also, in the WWOS version, the "ticker tape" lighting effect giving the date, time, longitude and latitude of the ship, as well as the location of the scene about to be played, were projected in large letters on the back screen, whereas in the Mountview production, the words appeared in quite small type in the top left hand corner of the backdrop - if you weren't looking for them, they really escaped your notice. What I did like about this version was that the final scenes were played out in murky blue and green light, making it appear as if the ship was floating down through the ocean, and that the iceberg actually made an appearance in the form of a white gauze curtain being slowly pulled across the stage. Simple, but effective.

I also pick up my prior criticism about costumes; day wear was more or less correct, although the male passengers were wearing suits of modern, rather than Edwardian cut. There were at least two evening dresses of calf-length; all ladies' wear at the time fell to the shoes if not the floor. The sight of bare calves and ankles would have been considered scandalous. Very few of the men had bothered to research period hairstyles, and the First Class Steward would certainly not have had his hair falling over his collar. In act 2, once again, nightwear was almost completely incorrect - no lady worth the name would be wearing pyjamas in 1912. In fact, I think the chorus number "Wearing your pajamas in the Grand Salon" is incorrect - etiquette at the time prevailed that, even during an emergency (and remember, the passengers at this point didn't know it was an emergency) only one's most intimate acquaintances would have seen you in your nightwear. Some effort would have been made to dress. Most of the female passengers who drowned did so because their corsets prevented them from breathing properly in the icy water - and they wouldn't have been wearing corsets under their nightgowns! And, once again, there was a prevalence of 1950s and 60s suitcases going aboard.

The young age of the performers did cause some problems - Alan Pearson as Captain Smith looked more like Captain Birdseye and his make-up "wrinkles" were somewhat less than subtle. His posture was bad throughout (shoulders back, that man!) and he lacked the authority that the role needs. Danny Flitney as Murdoch seemed to have flown in from the naff TV series "The High Life", so twee and forced was his scottish accent. Hartley Wallace was excellent as the Bandmaster, singing very well, dancing even better and even playing his own violin, damn his talent! (Note for the choreographer - the Charleston was yet to be invented in 1912 - the steps should have been Ragtime Jazz). Scott Armstrong, though well voiced for the part of the Stoker, was physically too small to be convincing. Adam Welsh as Bruce Ismay was so small that his role could have been doubled by Jeanette Krankie and looked like a petulant schoolboy dressed in his father's suit. Scott Armstrong and Victoria Basten as the Strausses seemed to have retained their Cherman Eccents even after living in America for over 40 years, and I think that some of their lines had been cut, as had some other small sections - for instance, nobody missed the boat in this production. Natalie Tulloch seemed to be playing Charlotte Cardoza as some kind of cross between Gypsy Rose Lee and Rose de Witt Burkator (as played by Kate Winslet), as evidenced by the untidy titian curls and the 3/4 length burgundy dress trimmed with black bugle beads. Whether this was a deliberate "nod" to the film I couldn't work out.

Down in Second Class, Jenny Perry was First Class as Alice Beane - diction and characterisation were perfect throughout and in her incredibly difficult "Embarkation" number, her dress, shoes, hair, hat and makeup were all spot on. She's obviously been doing her research. Tom Idelson was nicely diffident and embarrassed by turns as her long-suffering husband. In Steerage, the name to watch out for in future is Lucy-Jane Quinlan, who played Kate McGowan with an incredible range of utterly believable emotion from optimism to lonely despair. The scene in which she confesses to Jim Farrell that she is pregnant was heartrendingly underplayed - I certainly don't remember this scene from the WWOS version. Katie Vincent should have been forcibly restrained from going on as Kate Murphy wearing a tartan tam'o'shanter and short yellow pigtails, which made her look like Pippi Longstocking.

Spooky footnote: Mountview did 13 performances of this show, the last of which took place 96 years to the day that RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton. The tighter running time of 2 hours, 5 minutes, echoes exactly the time between the collision with the iceberg and the final disappearance of the great ship beneath the waves. I'm writing this review 96 years to the day that the collision occurred, at 2340hrs, the time that Him Indoors and I reached home after seeing the show....... I hope, and indeed expect, to be reviewing another production of this show in four years time, when the 100th Anniversary of the sinking is marked. Until then, in the words of the finale: "Sail on, saaaail on, great shiiiiiip, Titan...iiiic...."

02 April 2008

Gone With The Wind - New London Theatre, Saturday 4th April


Oh come on! If you don't have even the vaguest idea, you must have been living under a stone for the last 75 years!

Tension was running high in the auditorium- I think Danni was on the point of hyperventilation and I was desperate for a "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" mug. Him Indoors had dropped his opera glasses down the back of the seat and the party in front were in the wrong row. And then a chap strode onto the stage with a clipboard to make an announcement. A shiver of fear went through me - was Darius off? Thankfully not, but this was the first preview performance and "the show is currently running at about 3 and 3/4 hours, so please bear with us". Hold on to your bladder and ring the babysitter in the interval, basically - to paraphrase Bette Davis - "Tighten your seatbelts because its gonna be a looooooong night" The show eventually finished 4 hours and 5 minutes afterwards! The problem was that this is an adaptation of the book, rather than the film, and what can one possibly leave out without leaving a huge hole in the plot, or the production degenerating into what appears to be a stage version of the film? Essentially, the answer was "nothing" - and they even added a couple of extra bits too. Just like the book, the plot becomes rather laboured in the second half, and its here that I suspect the required cuts will have to be made in order to bring the running time down to an acceptable level. Certainly the scissors could justifiably be taken to the new scene in which Prissy expresses her hopes for the future through literature, also the new scene where the former house-slaves celebrate their new-found (if perplexing) freedom - although this would mean the cutting of what is probably the best, and certainly most memorable, song from the entire score - and possibly Mammy's scene and solo after the death of Bonnie (although again it would mean cutting an excellently written and performed solo).

Whatever possessed Trevor Nunn to direct a musical version of this well-loved book/film is beyond me - by doing this, you are asking for trouble. The last try crashed and burned in the 1970s as spectacularly as Atlanta. Even if you've never read the book, chances are that you will have seen at least some of the 1939 film, be vaguely familiar with it. and feel slightly resentful as a result. Its an epic on the scale of Ben Hur, and 8 times as popular. Many people can quote the film ad nauseam (name no names!) and odd is the Easter Bank Holiday when its not on TV. Its a classic, and you tamper with it at your own risk. Brave is the woman who goes three rounds with the shade of Vivien Leigh, who made the role of Scarlett O'Hara completely her own.

Well, in this bout, Jill Paice carried the awful burden of trying and, even though she may not have won outright, forced a one-all draw. Looking incredibly (and sometimes spookily) like a young VL, Paice appeared spot on in terms of age (SO'H starts the book aged 17) and her first-generation Irish/American accent triumphed over Leigh's pukka, cultured tones. Some of her dialogue inflections and emphases, however, showed clear traces of having been based on those of Leigh. Still, it would have been a very brave actress who gave a "new" SO'H and no doubt there was a large element of giving the audience what they wanted to see. And why not? If it aint broke..... She portrayed SO'H well in all her facets from spoilt child to war-shocked refugee unable to comprehend the destruction of the society of which she was a part to the tired and weary woman. At all times there was a certain "glitter" behind her performance as the remnants of the girl shone through the chinks in the woman's facade.

What I suspect a majority of the audience DID want to see (at least, the large part of the audience composed of females and red-blooded homos) was Darius Danesh as Rhett Butler. He wasnt quite as successful in taking on the ghost of Clark Gable but I was far too busy dribbling to care. The trouble was, I think, that Gable was well into his 40s when the film was released, and Darius is in, I think, his late 20s or early 30s. The Southern American drawl, cultured but lazy, is a particularly difficult accent to maintain, and DD managed this perfectly and with great style. He created a slightly diffident Rhett, and seemed (surprisingly) a little unsure with his vocals on occasion, but scored highly in terms of looks, height and the ability to carry his clothes impeccably. The fact that he spent most of the performance in tight, highwaisted trousers, makings his backside look like a ripe Georgia peach wrapped in a handkerchief only added to his manifold attractions.

Beside two such engaging villains, the roles of Melanie and Ashley become mere puppets and even De Haviland and Howard failed to make much headway with them (although I would opine that De Haviland did at least succeed in fleshing out her role into a reasonably fully-rounded character, which Howard failed to do). Madeleine Worrall seemed to be playing Melanie as a pale version of Little Nell and, as the evening finally started drawing to a close, found myself glancing at my watch and thinking "Oh for crissakes just die, will you?". However, in mitigation, "good" is always difficult to portray on stage, often coming across as "dull". What Worrall failed to do was give us flashes of the steel that Melanie possesses deep within her. Edward Baker-Duly portrayed Ashley as such a morally upright prig that it became difficult to see what Scarlett ever saw in him, and with a posture that often suggested he had a pole up his rectum. The famous "Orchard" scene in which Ashley confesses the destruction of his dreams is integral to the understanding of the character, and Baker-Duly simply threw it away, in my opinion. Not quite so much "Duly" as merely "dully".

Natasha Yvette-Williams had probably been instructed not to play Mammy in the style of the great Hattie McDaniels, and this was a major disappointment. Rather than a comic (yet profoundly touching and lovable) character, this Mammy was rather straight-laced and dignified. OK, the film version is a stereotype, and the current cult of PC would probably disapprove violently with a recreation of this, but the role was written this way for a reason, and provides a much needed counterpoint of earthy realism and (low) comedy to the sometimes strained posturing and agonising of "De Whate Folkses". But Lawdy, Mizz Scarlett, this Mammy could sing. Apparently she has just arrived in the UK from playing the Oprah Winfrey role in The Colour Purple on Broadway, which thought made me yearn to have seen the production.

Prissy too (Jina Burrows) owed far more to RADA than to Georgia, played not as a half-brained moppet (Yeas, Mizz Scarlett, Ah 'speckt ah surely will") but as a reserved and withdrawn young woman, thirsty for the benefits of education. Jacqueline Boatswain as her mother, Dilcey, however, fulfilled all the criteria for the role as it appears in the book, resigned to her role but full of proud dignity.

Of the other minor roles, all Julian Forsyth was missing from his portrayal of Gerald O'Hara was a four-leaved clover and a pot of leprachaun's gold, and such was his dee-diddley-didely Orish Begods and Begorrah missie accent that I half expected him to be accompanied by a troupe of dancers from Riverdance. His wig, resembling a dead lamb, made him look less like a successful plantation owner than a bad Willie Wonka wannabe. As Aunt Pittypat, Susan Turner failed to tick any boxes, coming across as a withered, caustic and half-crazed old spinster rather than a lovable (if infuriating) twittering grown up child. The small but important role of Belle Watling seemed to have been jettisoned from the script - a surprising ommission given its function in the story, and even more surprising when several characters who appear in the book as mere background padding (such as Rene Picard, Fanny Elsing, Honey Wilkes and Dimity Munroe) all made an appearance on stage. Susannah Fellowes portrayed Mrs. O'Hara as a kindly, all forgiving character rather than the proud, humourless woman in the original story (a characterisation largely lost in the film).

With my GWTW anorak on, I have to take exception to Emmie Slatterly's costume. If you read the relevant passage in the book, you will see that there is a very good reason that she is wearing clothes of a very recently introduced fashion when she makes her appearance on the porch at Tara as Mrs. Wilkerson. She should have been wearing a bustled skirt and a "pancake" hat rather than a full crinoline and a leghorn bonnet. Sack the costume designer!

And now we come to the reason why I think this production will get eggs thrown at it by the critics. The music. Apart from one or two snatches, all of this was instantly and utterly forgettable. There were far too many superfluous reprises of naff songs (please, someone, axe "Once Upon a Time"), far too many pointless chorus numbers (such as the Reconstruction Ball), far too many songs in the second half (as opposed to very few in the first), and far too many songs which replaced perfectly acceptable (and, indeed great) dialogue. What was also missing was one single, unifying theme along the lines of Dah daaah da daaaaaah, dah daaaaaah da daaah, da DAAAAAAAA da daaaa daaaaa to cement the whole thing together, variations of which punctuate the entire film and echo through your head every time you read the book. Underscore Scarlett's famous "As God is my witness" or "Tomorrow is another day" speeches with this and you grab the audience by the balls and heartstrings and bring them cheering to their feet. Lose it, replace it with a forgettable and trite song and you blow the emotional content completely. All epic stories need an epic score, and this wasnt one. How Margaret Martin thought she was capable of this (its her first score) beggars belief. One just wonders who she slept with. Its like going to a couple of Creative Writing lessons and believing you can re-write the Bible (or, indeed, Gone with the Wind). Amazing.

It sounds as if I really loathed this show. I didn't, and neither did I set out willing it to fail - in fact, quite the reverse. The first half passed in a flash, and neither Danni nor I could believe that over 1 1/2 hours had already gone by the interval. But the second half just felt as leaden and flat as a flan in a cupboard, and not even the sight of Darius performing to a dummy Bonnie Blue Butler (stage timing regulations having meant that the child actor had long gone home) could lessen the pain. For that, it would have had to have been Darius taking his ruffled front shirt off and smearing baby oil all over his torso.

Essentially, therefore, the evening turned out to be "an experience" rather than wholly enjoyable. Perhaps perfection should never be tampered with. But in Mr. Danesh's case, I might just make an exception.

What the critics thought: