15 November 2008

Treasure Island - Haymarket Theatre, Friday 14th November 2008

Yet another Haymarket turkey.....


Our narrator is Jim Hawkins, son of a guesthouse owner on the west coast of England sometime in the eighteenth century. To the inn come firstly an old buccaneer who has a map of Captain Flint's treasure, and secondly a group of pirates under the command of ominous blind man Pew. Jim Hawkins, our hero, in an act of bravery and cunning gets hold of the map before this rabid mob gets it. He delivers the map toSquire Trelawney, and together they set off for Treasure Island in the Squire's schooner. The rest of the crew, apart from Dr Livesey (a friend of the squire) are a company collected by Long John Silver. The latter and his men try to mutiny and get hold of the treasure themselves but Jim intervenes and through a series of enthralling adventures we find ourselves on Treasure Island with the marooned Ben Gunn and ever closer to the treasure itself.


Long John Silver: Keith Allen
Tom Morgan/Revd Mainwaring: James Atherton
Ezekiel Hazard: Mark Bagnall
Billy Bones/Captain Smollet: Tony Bell
Black Dog/Ben Gunn: Paul Brennan
Israel Hands: Matt Costain
Calico Jack: Estella Daniels
Justice Death: Branwell Donaghey
Jemmy Rathbone/Job O'Brien: Howard Gossington
Captain Flint/Dr. Livesey/Dermot Kerrigan
Josiah Bland/Father: James Lainey
Jim Hawkins: Michael Legge
Blind Pew/Squire Trelawney: John Lightbody
George Merry: Mark Theodore
Anne Bonney: Sharlene Whyte

The "Captain's Blog" - presumably theres a Star Trek joke there somewhere. I sat through five of these tedious and frankly self-serving publicity reels to find you one where the naff on-stage band make an appearance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfnCqcrHvxY

Arrr Jim Lad! That loud bang you can hear be the sound of yet another Haymarket Turkey falling dead onto the stage! Jeesus beesus what a long evening this was, in the seats voted "Most Uncomfortable Theatre Seats in London" (by me) - anyone over 6 foot has a real hard time in this theatre, and when you are 6'4" of hunky gorgeousness like me, its literally a real pain - and that's without the agony of watching the stuff on the stage.

Now, lets assume that you have read Treasure Island, and are familiar with the fact that its a dreary, maundering load of tosh written by at self-satisifed Victorian dullard with a fascination for the picaresque. The obvious thing to do is then to commission a new stage version, take out all the "exciting" bits but leave in stacks of monotonous dialogue, throw money at it, hire in a "star name" (cough) and stick it on the stage during the Christmas run-up as a new, thrilling and much-loved treat for all the family. Yeah, my Aunt Fanny. I can only assume that the Haymarket publicist hasn't actually had to sit through it. In fact, so "much-loved" was it last night that the auditorium was significantly emptier after the interval, and the biggest laugh of the evening came when one of the sound effects went wrong and the Hispaniola did an impression of the foghorn from a cross-channel ferry. Not bad for a late 18th century sailing ship.

This show was very, very wordy and very, very low on action, and it was a major mistake to have the entire thing "narrated" by Jim Hawkins. This constantly placed Jim outside the action, rather than being an integral part of it, and when he did interact with the rest of the cast, it felt odd and forced. Perhaps a better actor than Michael Legge might have been able to overcome this drawback and project some kind of personality into the part, but personally I've seen more animated cigarette packets. It got to the point when I began wondering if he had actually been cast for his blandness - less than 24 hours after the show, I can't even remember what he looked like. "Arrrr, Jim Bland!"

Probably the most laughable decision was the inclusion of an onstage band - why this was necessary is beyond me. Other than a "yo heave ho" type of sea shanty about 10 minutes into Act One (after reams of dreary dialogue - for pity's sake, if you have a band, the least you can do is get them to play the theme from Captain Pugwash at the start and jolly the audience up a bit) and the closing number, they just supplied the odd tootle or drum roll from their little platform at the back of the stage (roped off with authentic late 18th century fairy lights!). No effort was made to integrate them visually into the production - they could at least have been wearing baggy white shirts and hankies on their heads, but these three were togged up in their DJs and wore naval officer's hats more suited to the Titanic - actually, as the production sank with all hands, perhaps this was deliberate. You'd also expect them to have been vaguely piratical and swashbuckling, but alas, their average age was about 80 and they looked more like Raw Sex (from French and Saunders) than anything you'd see sailing the bounding main (in fact, one of them was probably called Jolly Roger as he looked just like the skull and crossbones on the front of the programme). Pointless, distracting and completely out of touch with the rest of the performance. For all the effect they made, the producer could have had recorded music or got a couple of the bar staff to blow through the cardboard tube from the middle of a toilet roll and ratttle some dried peas in a pint glass with a beermat held over the top. At the top of Act Two, one of the orchestra meandered down to front of stage, rummaged in the treasure chest and pulled out his instrument (steady on! You know exactly what I mean!) and held it up quizzically - I think this was meant to be funny but all I could hear was an embarrassed silence from the audience punctuated by people muttering "What the f....?" In fact, I heard this quite a lot, along with the sound of people checking their phones, rummaging in their bag for a newspaper to read or using a cotton wool bud to clear out their earwax.
In all fairness, Keith Allen (who? oh, you know, him. He's been in The Keith Allen Show and We Love Keith Allen, among other blockbusting primetime TV programmes) wasn't bad as Long John Silver, he just wasn't good. There was an unexpected sussuration from the audience on his first entrance - he probably took it for the sound of waves kissing the shore, but it was actually people whispering to each other thatsLilyAllensdadthatsLilyAllensdad... There was an unexpected moment when I heard the line "Ooooh Jim, come to see me, 'ave ya?" and I thought the love child of Dot Cotton and Catherine Tate's Gran had taken to the stage, but alas no. - it was still Keith Allen.
Add all the above to a fight scene so obviously under-rehearsed that it had to take place on a darkened stage so that none of the audience could see it (for all we know, the sound of clashing rapiers was just someone standing on stage slapping an old bean tin with a pair of scissors) and you have a real Turkey for Christmas. The audience applauded loudly at the end, but I suspect , like me, that they were just relieved it was all over.
What the critics thought:

04 November 2008

War Horse - National Theatre - Tuesday 3rd November 2008


At the outbreak of World War One, Joey, young Albert's beloved horse, is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. he's soon caught up in enemy fire, and fate takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in no man's land. But Albert cannot forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist, he embarks on a treacherous mission to find him and bring him home.

Detailing the making of the puppets, and audience reactions: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=trIFlkJBFhw

I know a couple of people who have seen this show, and each of them advised taking a goodly supply of handkerchiefs to mop up the tears that would undoubtedly flow. And yet, for the very vast majority of the time, I sat there strangely unmoved. Absorbed by and interested in the story, yes; but weepy, no. “Stuff and nonsense”, I thought. And then, for the last two minutes or so, my eyes were clouded over completely and the tears ran down my face; the story, quite wisely, had saved the greatest emotional punch for the very last moment. It crept up quietly and with subtlety, and I’m still not quite sure how it managed to sneak up on me, as like most people in the audience, I had been preparing for it ever since the beginning.

To be fair, there were a number of things about this that I didn’t like. The script was, at times, quite clunky, and allowed the mechanics of the plot to show through. There was a long section in Act 2 where the dialogue was delivered either in a mismash of French and German or in ‘Allo ‘Allo accents, during which I managed to follow the basics of the plot development but missed out on a lot of the finer detail necessary for a complete understanding. Some poor diction during this section didn’t help matters (although I suppose that having a seat right at the back of the stalls perhaps contributed), neither did the very thick Oi Be Drinkin’ Zoider accent affected by Kit Harrington The colour-blind casting policy of the National made for a very jarring and historically completely inaccurate dischord in the appearance of Curtis Flowers as a black WW1 cavalry officer. Bronagh Gallagher’s strange accent, which wandered throughout the British Isles and eventually stuck on Craggy Island was disconcerting, particularly when her character invited another in for “a coup of taay” – all that was missing was “oh, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan”. And there was one awful moment for the entire audience (admittedly unpreventable) when an apologetic Stage Manager scuttled onto the stage and announced that there had been a technical problem and that there would be a halt in the performance until such time as it could be fixed - you could feel the tension level rise close to breaking point as everyone sat there in agonised expectation.

The stars of the show, undoubtedly, had either webbed feet or hooves, and deservedly took the audience by storm. Its practically impossible to describe with any accuracy how these were portrayed on stage – “puppets” just isn’t the right word, neither is “machines”. The Goose, for instance, was of the push-along variety with its feet portrayed as spokes on a small wheel underneath it, yet was so realistically operated/animated/controlled that it seemed like a living, breathing thing, embued with life and a character all its own. Its constant attempts to get through the farmhouse door were a running theme of the plot, and putting the man operating it in a woolly bobble hat was a stroke of genius – somehow this made the characterisation even sharper. Deservedly, The Goose got a round of applause to itself. It sounds daft to applaud structures of wood and metal, operated by humans, but the audience went completely wild when the “horses” took their bows. So skilfully had these been designed and operated, that from the very first appearance of Joey as a gangling foal, all spindle legs and awkward gait, that I found myself increasingly unaware (decreasingly aware?) of the humans operating the horses and only able to see them as living, breathing and indeed sentient creatures, each with their own character. It really is quite impossible for words to describe the effect that these wood and metal structures had on me and how, knowing they were only puppets, they had me sitting on the edge of my seat and willing the story on towards a happy ending.

Beg, lie, cheat or steal to get a ticket to see this show. And for god's sake take a handkerchief.
What the critics said (about the original run last year of this):