11 June 2008

The Chalk Garden - Donmar Warehouse - Friday 6th June 2008


The eccentric Mrs. St. Maugham potters about her country estate, watching over her granddaughter Laurel (who seems to be developing a taste for pyromania) and her beloved garden, even though nothing she plants there seems to thrive. The troubled adolescent, whose mother Olivia has recently announced her intention to marry the father of her expected child, has frightened away several governesses until the enigmatic Miss Madrigal is hired, a woman with a secret past. Upstairs, the bedridden former butler still manages to exert his control over the household, including Maitland, the new manservant; the fact that he has served a prison sentence in the past is known only to Laurel. Mrs. St. Maugham invites a former beau, now an elderly judge, to lunch - and Miss Madrigal recognises him....

I admit I got my wires slightly crossed here. I impressed everyone at work with my culture and erudition saying that we were off to see yet another play by Brecht – and then of course realised that I had got “The Chalk Garden” mixed up with “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, so there was a bit of backtracking to do the next day at the water cooler! Durr!

What I got (rather than the expected gloom) was a slightly odd mix of 50s high comedy, country house thriller and deep psychological brooding – not perhaps seen from the best angle, thanks to the Donmar’s rather oddly placed balcony, but I can assure you that the top of Penelope Wilton’s head is very pretty indeed! It did take me about 20 minutes to re-jig my mindset to accommodate the style of the play from what I was expecting – and even then I think I was slightly wrong-footed by the fact that the first part of this play borders perilously close on farce. Just as I had sorted myself out and re-tuned my ear to the sheer speed of what, had it been played very slightly slower, would obviously have been incredibly witty and dextrous dialogue (don’t laugh at one line or you’ll miss the next – Maggie Tyzack’s first line is a shouted enquiry from offstage about the possible whereabouts of her false teeth!), the mood of the play darkens and it all gets a bit “sub-Agatha-Christie”. A directorial decision had been made to present all three acts with no intervals between, which I think helped the thrust of the play a great deal – had it been presented more “traditionally”, a lot of the brooding “will she, won’t she?” tension could well have gone for nothing. But it does need to slow down a little so you can actually relax into the dialogue.

In terms of performances, it was a straight three-horse race between Maggie Tyzack, Penelope Wilton and the astonishing Felicity Jones. The latter can’t be more than in her very early 20’s, but she gave an incredibly powerful performance – half gangly, spoilt girl, half creepy, intense young woman – and was incredibly “watchable” from start to finish. She’s certainly been taught that “less is definitely more”, because most of her acting seemed to be taking place in her eyes. Maggie Tyzack wobbled about the stage rather like a latter-day Lady Bracknell, fussing and carping and worry-budgeting like an elderly, slightly bedraggled hen with only one chick, denying reality with every breath. And Penelope Wilton – winner of one of my They Who Can Do No Wrong awards – just WAS. This is definitely an actress who knows the value of being still and communicating with her expressions – this was a wonderful performance of repressed intensity, often delivered in a flat monotone of supreme world-weariness. I’ve always thought that PW is one of our neglected treasures; in a just world, she’d be up there being feted with the greats like Judi Dench. Sign the petition now! Come on – she deserves an award just for having been married to that Uberswine Ian Holm.

Loved the set as well – a vast conservatory, decked out with shelves, living room furniture, potting racks and all the detritus that you’ll find in the “engine room” of a fanatical gardener. The eponymous chalk garden is not seen – merely suggested by an all encompassing haze of white through the windows, like the fog that clouds all our judgements. Just one tiny note for the props buyer – when the script refers to Madonna lilies, make sure that you don’t use Lilium longiflorum; some nitpicker with ivy leaves on his business card is bound to notice.

What the critics thought:

(probably the first time EVER that Nicholas De Jongh has given five stars!)

(the director has obviously put in an interval since the previews)


05 June 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy - National Theatre, Saturday 31st May 2008


Renaissance Italy (or is it modern Italy, or indeed a blend of both?) The main character is Vindice who lives away from the court. The Duke poisoned Vindice's beloved nine years ago because she resisted him. His father has recently died from the Duke's unkindness. Vindice learns from his brother Hippolito that the Duke's eldest son Lussurioso is looking for an unscrupulous servant. He disguises himself with the name Piato and gets the job, which he finds involves seducing for Lussurioso his and Hippolito's chaste sister Castiza. The Duchess had three sons by a previous marriage, the Duke has one bastard, Spurio. Her Younger Son has raped the wife of a lord, Antonio; the woman killed herself, the Son is now in prison. The Duchess is wooing Spurio. Vindice is happy to find that Castiza is incorruptible, shocked to find their Mother eager to change her mind (she later repents). He reports to Lussurioso that he overheard the Duchess and Spurio agreeing to sleep together; Lussurioso breaks into the bedroom but find the Duke, his Father, with the Duchess. He is arrested for attempted assassination. The Duchess's two other sons hate Lussurioso; they forge an order for their "Brother's" execution. Only the Duke has forgiven Lussurioso and set him free; the only "Brother" remaining in prison is their Younger Brother, who is duly executed. The Duke asks Vindice to find him a chaste woman he can corrupt. In a secret place, Vindice gets the Duke to kiss a mask containing the skull of his own dead lady. Poison is hidden in its mouth, and as the Duke slowly dies he sees his wife and Spurio together. Lussurioso sacks "Piato" for his mistake and Vindice offers to "take his place" under his own name. His first job is to murder Piato. He and Hippolito dress the Duke's body in Piato's clothes and Piato is assumed to have escaped after killing him. Lussurioso becomes Duke, banishes the Duchess, and throws a party. Vindice and Hippolito play a masque, during which they kill Lussurioso and his three companions. The Duchess's sons with Spurio, arriving with a similar plan, find Lussurioso dead and kill each other over their claims to be Duke. Antonio becomes Duke and tries to understand what has happened. Vindice hopes to be praised by Antonio, assuming that he too wanted revenge, and boastfully tells what they did. Antonio fears for his own life and orders their immediate execution.

OK, I admit it, I was expecting to be bored rigid by this play. But even I'm allowed to be wrong sometimes. Having almost literally thrown myself in my seat after the route march from Waterloo station (when going to the theatre with Him Indoors, one is late at one's peril), I was fighting to regain my breath when I had what little was left of it taken away by the wonderful opening of this production. Loud, funky music of the kind that I am occasionally to be found bopping away like a loon to on a Saturday night out was totally unexpected but counterpointed the vaguely period sets and modern costumes wonderfully. So, here we have our revolving set, the stage divided into three equal segments like bits of a cake. Make each of the dividing lines a corridor running between two adjacent pieces. Set the stage turning, and people the rooms and corridors with libertines, drug takers, sexual predators and victims, oral sex, dark intrigue, corruption, rape, blackmail and other types of human vice, and you have an overview of complete depravity spiralling out of control - rather like the palace scene in Rigoletto should be, but rarely is. Set all this in front of a courtroom fresco of Truth and Evidence, or a luscious red leather banquette topped with a column carrying a statue of the Virgin, and the irony becomes almost unbearable. I loved the way that all this lush depravity was contrasted with the stark, poverty-struck simplicity of Gratiana's home, the walls decorated only with the non-faded squares of wallpaper over which family portraits had previously hung. The one remaining picture - all that could be salvaged from the wreckage- had been stripped of its valuable frame which left only its ghost behind. Neither had the bookshelves survived - their the remains of their treasured cargo piled up around the fringes of the room like flotsam. One particular piece of direction that I particularly appreciated was the "epilogue" after the text comes to its end - updates of several of the characters and how they react to the various pieces of news that come their way, for good or ill, were presented in mime, and rounded off the shocking, rather sudden ending perfectly.

Anyway, loved the costumes as well - most of them had that "sad fashion victim" look about them - silver trainers, winkle pickers, skinny cut jeans, suit jackets with the sleeves rolled up, contrasting well with the "slimy executive look" of over-shiny suits and highly polished shoes, with tie and hanky matching.

Of the players, two come away with my "TWCDNW" (They Who Can Do No Wrong) award I have recently instigated. Rory Kinnear goes from strength to strength as regards both his ability to act almost everyone else off the stage and to flash up different facets of a character like a brightly-lit diamond, with the shadows just as brilliantly highlighted. I've loved Barbara Flynn ever since I first saw the TV adaptation of The Barchester Chronicles many years ago - you may well have seen her in several period series since, such as Cranford and He Knew He Was Right, as well as playing Rene Zelleweger's mother in the film Miss Potter, or from her TV voiceover work, and she gave an excellent, funny and moving account of her character here (even though I did (briefly) mistake her for Zoe Wannamaker!). Also brilliant was Elliot Cowan as the sexually and politically ambiguous Lussurioso and Jamie Parker as Hippolito. Given such a generally good looking cast, it was difficult to see how Katherine Manners' Castiza could have inspired such lust, as I thought she would have been more suited to portraying one of the runners in the 3.40 from Haydock.

Add a (mostly) brilliant cast to great sets, interesting costumes, gore by the bucket and deaths by the dozen, and its hard indeed to see why the couple in front failed to return to their seats after the interval.

What the critics thought:




Feerie - Moulin Rouge, Paris - Wednesday 28th May 2008

Lovers of camp the world over - hie yourself along to one of the most famous nightclubs in the world and overdose on feathers, beads, G-strings and sweat!
A visit to the famous “Red Windmill” was our “last night of the holiday” treat – the 9pm show was sold out completely at least a month beforehand, and there were only a few tickets left for the 11pm show, so we decided to become Gentlemen of the Night for the evening. Unfortunately, CBB failed to realise that the MR is in the middle of one of the most famous red light districts in Europe and had somewhat of a prissy hissy fit when it transpired that being a boulevardier for half an hour or so might mean “being importuned by prossies”. Some people, eh? So, while he scuttled along in the shadows (surely the worst place to scuttle?), I managed to beat him by three “Looking for a good time, Mister?”s to nil – one of whom was from a particularly aesthetic looking chappie – if I’d had the time and a couple of euros spare, this review might never have been written… Anyway, all attempts at getting CBB to sit down at a pavement café, chill out and watch the world and his pickup go by having failed, we headed for the MR – and it was probably a good job that we did, as the queue was already stretching well along the street, to the consternation of several café owners (if we’d been there any longer, we could have probably had moules frites and a coffee while remaining stationary in the queue) and the managers of the review La Grand Prix de Monte Carla, the posters for which showed that it was really “Oooh la la, there go my pantalons” by any other name - none of the audience, when they came out, getting mixed up with our queue in the process, looked as if they had laughed any great deal. Really, tout le monde were in the queue – Americans (you mean we’ve really got to join this queue? We’re from Bedillybong, Idaho!), Russians, Chinese, Germans, Brits; in fact, everyone except the French who stared as everyone in the line with that “looking down the nose in a superior fashion at the tourists” kind of way they have. By 10.50pm, the queue was down the road and then some, and people were getting distinctly edgy. At 11pm exactly, the doors swung open and an excited buzz went up. The curtains opened at 11.30pm, to a chorus of popping champagne corks and muttering from people who thought they’d been put at bad tables.

And what a show it was. An acquaintance of ours had reported that, having seen the show earlier that year, he “hadn’t noticed” that the girls (collectively known as “The Dorris Girls”) were bare-chested until about half way through “because it was done so tastefully”. I’d made loud scornful noises, but I have to say that I could see what he meant. There was absolutely nothing sleazy or seedy about any of the show – yes, there were many perky boobs on show, but it was about as raunchy as a vicarage garden party. In a fab way, though.

The show started with a bizarre act in which all the girls were decked out in tomato red feathers – in fact, some of them did look just like tomatoes for a while as the feathers were curled round their upper bodies, although they “dropped” later to become long feathery skirts. The boys were in silver lame toppers and tails, but ripped their trousers off a la The Full Monty very quickly! The next routine was a slightly bizarre number that started off with the entire cast camping it around as sparkly pirates – then the backdrop changed to The King and I on LSD and costumes went brief, camp and glittery – sort of Scherezade and Indiana Jones meet Chu Chin Chow and Carry On up the Khyber. There were some amazingly OTT deep blue Conquistadors (both male and female) prancing about the stage briefly, and then we seemed to be in the Temple of Medusa – at which point a see through water tank filled with pythons actually rose from the stage! A scantily clad young lady then jumped in and proceeded to do underwater acrobatics – I noted that the snakes didn’t really seem particularly bothered! On a 1 – 10 scale of camp, this number went completely off the scale!

In order to cool everyone in the audience down (by now we were all at least halfway through the champagne and getting into the swing of things), we then got a solo act involving ping pong balls. No, its not what you think – the chap actually juggled them with his throat! He swallowed one, shot it about four feet in the air and then caught it back in his throat – and then proceeded to do the same thing with three balls at once. I tell you what – it was filthy!

Then on to the big Act 1 Finale – Au Cirque Dorris! Firstly there were some distinctly creepy clowns, managed by a distinctly horny Ringmaster. Then “Olga and her lions” – human lions with big, bronze feathered headdresses all covered in spangles, then a rather bizarre and somewhat distasteful “Siamese Twins” act – two girls in one big dress between them (which I don’t think most of the audience knew quite how to react to. It certainly wasn’t funny and, I think, fell rather on its face. Then six girls in very skimpy “Jockey” costumes each led a miniature horse (each with full complement of feathered headdresses!) across the stage – and of course the audience went completely wild. I’ve said it before in reviews – you can put on the most spectacular production and blast people from their seats, but bring on some kind of cute animal and the rest of the production will go unnoticed as the audience go totally beserk! Bring on SIX cute animals and you might just as well give up competing with them because, cherie, the punters just ain’t looking at you no more!

After a short interval, during which the audience had to collectively take aspirin in order to calm themselves down, Act II started with the classic Moulin Rouge “Can Can” – and theres absolutely no need whatever to describe this because it was everything (and more) that you would expect, culminating in absolutely everyone on stage (I think there were 70, but they wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to count them accurately!) doing the splits and “whoop”ing and “Oh la la”ing their heads off. Fantabulous! There was a rather strange “Homage to Women” number which started with the girls in rather revealing versions of turn of the century costumes, moving through the 20s, 40s and 50s and which ended up, bizarrely, with all the men in leather trousers, body harnesses and black leather caps. Finally there was another “big feathers and spangly G-strings” number – this time in shocking pink – and just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get ANY camper, all the women’s headdresses actually lit up! Superlatives failed me at this point and the audience went completely AWOL, as you might expect. We staggered out into the night squiffy and elated – but not squiffy enough for me to disregard an unopened bottle of Moulin Rouge Champagne on a nearby table - it left under my jacket. C’est manifique!