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 fiancĂ©e, 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: