31 October 2008

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

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

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

Bella: Ambra Vallo

The Beast: Tyrone Singleton

The Wild Girl: Laëtitia Lo Sardo

The Merchant: David Morse

The Raven: Joseph Caley

Vanité: Samara Downs

Fière: Carol-Anne Millar

Monsieur Cochon: James Grundy

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

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

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

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

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

21 October 2008

Blowing Whistles - Leicester Square Theatre - 27th October 2008


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

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

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

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

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

09 October 2008

Oedipus - National Theatre - Friday 10th October 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the critics thought:


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



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