30 December 2008

Hansel and Gretel - Royal Opera House - Sunday 28th December 2008


ACT I. Hansel and Gretel have been left at home alone by their parents. When Hansel complains to his sister that he is hungry, Gretel shows him some milk that a neighbor has given them for the family’s supper. To entertain them, she begins to teach her brother how to dance. Suddenly their mother returns. She scolds the children for playing and wants to know why they have got so little work done. When she accidentally spills the milk, she angrily chases the children out into the woods to pick strawberries.

Hansel and Gretel’s father returns home drunk. He is pleased because he was able to make a considerable amount of money that day. He brings out the food he has bought and asks his wife where the children have gone. She explains that she has sent them into the woods. Horrified, he tells her that the children are in danger because of the witch who lives there. They rush off into the woods to look for them.

ACT II. Gretel sings while Hansel picks strawberries. When they hear a cuckoo calling, they imitate the bird’s call, eating strawberries all the while, and soon there are none left. In the sudden silence of the woods, the children realize that they have lost their way and grow frightened. The Sandman comes to bring them sleep by sprinkling sand on their eyes. Hansel and Gretel say their evening prayer. In a dream, they see fourteen angels protecting them.

ACT III. The Dew Fairy appears to awaken the children and the two find themselves in front of a gingerbread house. They do not notice the Witch, who decides to fatten Hansel up so she can eat him. She immobilizes him with a spell. The oven is hot, and the Witch is overjoyed at the thought of her banquet. Gretel has overheard the witch’s plan, and she breaks the spell on Hansel. When the Witch asks her to look in the oven, Gretel pretends she doesn’t know how: the Witch must show her. When she does, peering into the oven, the children shove her inside and shut the door. The oven explodes, and the many gingerbread children the Witch had enchanted come back to life. Hansel and Gretel’s parents appear and find their children. All express gratitude for their salvation.

Scenes from the production accompanied by caterwauling in German.

Note (which only Eddie Izzard fans will understand): there will, unfortunately, be no Ginglybert Slaptiback jokes in this review.

Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. First farce. Now opera.

If you’ve ever seen the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman, you may well remember this line from when he takes her to the opera:

“Your first reaction to opera is very important. If you love it, you will always love it. If you don’t love it, you can learn to appreciate it, but it can never become part of your soul”.

Well, I don’t love it. I marvel at the voices sometimes, I know how difficult it is to sing, I appreciate all the technical problems of staging. Most of the time, the costumes and sets are fascinating. I enjoy reading about the history of productions and infamous mishaps on stage and the personalities involved. But it mostly leaves me cold. So I really started out on the back foot with this. Gloom was descending on me at a rate of knots, dispelled in part only by reading the long list of stupid, upper class names on the “Benefactors” page in the programme (I don’t know Frank and Silviane Destribats, but I wish I did, if only so I could hang over their back fence and take the piss out of them). At least, I thought, I know the story this time round, and it will be pretty to look at. As there are only about 8 people in it, they’ll have chucked all the money at the sets and costumes so it will be visually interesting, and it will be dark and scary and deeply psychological and, who knows, it might even have some funny bits in. Oooooh dear.

Hansel and Gretel (interestingly, not Hansl and Gretl as they are correctly spelled in German) didn’t live in a tumbledown thatched cottage but, from the looks of the bedroom that we discovered them in, in a chi-chi modern apartment with pastel-coloured walls with furnishings by Ikea. Gretel is apparently meant to be darning stockings (OK, she can legitimately do this in her bedroom), but Hansel has been set to work making brooms. In the bedroom? Eh? The family are apparently on their last loaf of bread, but neither of the children look hungry– Gretel, in fact, looked as though a bit of gay starvation would have done her the world of good. Both the beds have comfy duvets, and both the children are clean and well-dressed (although Hansel seems to have put his lederhosen on over his pyjamas for some reason. Perhaps he’s low on blood sugar and is confused, poor mite). A precious jug of milk, donated by a neighbour, gets smashed – and Gretel finds it funny for some reason. They’re sent off to pick berries. Gretel puts on a red dufflecoat that makes her look more like Not-so—Little Red Riding Hood (think Paddington as played by Dawn French). Their father arrives – cue for lots of polite laughter from the audience as he’s carrying a Spar bag (no, Mr. and Mrs. Destribats – not a bag from a spa, but from Spar, a low-cost food emporium where poor people go. Their logo is a pine tree. The cottage is in the middle of the forest. Oh, how funny! How witty!)

Deep in the forest, (a pretty set, which you will see in the YouTube stills, but very limiting direction-wise) the children pick about 8 strawberries and then eat them from a polythene bag. They drop the bag, adding environmental damage to the crime of disrespecting jugs of milk. The forest changes from a place of light to a place of darkness and foreboding. The children sing (at length) about 14 angels coming to watch over their sleep – at which point 8 angels with teddy bear faces and light-up wings (enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies) conjure up visions of a perfect Christmas (which seems to consist of a log fire, their parents in evening clothes and gaily wrapped parcels which contain sandwiches). They fall asleep, not having noticed that they’ve been shortchanged by 6 whole angels. Maybe there’s a credit crunch in heaven.

The Dawn Fairy wanders on, looking like Glinda the Good after a rough night out, with her magic cleaning trolley and rubber gloves, cleaning up the forest. She sings about 8 notes and disappears for good, poor cow. She’s probably got enough bars rest before and after to actually get a part-time job in a local pub somewhere. The children spy a gingerbread house through the trees. Cue amazing set change, with house dropping onto the set and making everyone in the audience go “ooooooohhhhhh!”? No. Someone pushes a dolls house onto the stage. Its about the size of a large box of cornflakes. The witch appears. Black pointy hat, warts, broomstick? No – bad wig, carpet slippers, zimmer frame. Not that far removed from Catherine Tate’s Gran, although she appears to have her tits out at one point. Eh? Have I missed something? Cue enormous set change – the forest turns into witch’s kitchen, complete with industrial ovens. The witch waves her rubber gloves and imprisons Hansel in the kitchen unit with only his head sticking out. No cage then? No. Witch pulls a dead child from the fridge, plonks it into a gingerbread man mould, pipes some buttons on (this is the one and only point in the entire evening when both me and Him Indoors laugh) and sticks it in the oven. Gretel waves rubber gloves at Hansel and frees him from the kitchen unit. They push the witch into the oven, which explodes. All the gingerbread men fall out of the cupboard and turn back into posh little boys and girls from the Tiffin School (I kid not, its really called this – and there was me thinking that “tiffin” was what tea and sponge fingers was called during the Raj). They sing excruciatingly badly, off key and out of time and all ends happily.

Well, if I was expecting darkness and wit and magic, I didn’t get it. This could have been so visually interesting – but it wasn’t. It was, as Craig Revel Harwood said on TV recently:
“D-U-L L”.

We rush off and catch the train. There is a posh couple in evening clothes sitting opposite and its clear that they too have just seen the opera (sharp intake of breath – could it be the Destribats, en route to their Destriperch from which they hang upside down all night?) They didn’t enjoy it either, from the sounds. Him Indoors gives me “that look” which says “Don’t even think about it” – and then proceeds to turn into Brian Sewell, agreeing with the Destribats just how dreary the production was and how there are no great productions of anything any more dharlings and no great stars left and I’m very familiar with the work as I sang in it during my youth and I sat there and ate the end of my scarf out of sheer effing embarrassment all the way home.

What the critics thought:

Loot - Tricycle Theatre Kilburn - Monday 22nd December 2008


Hal and his pal Dennis have just robbed a bank and need a place to stash their loot. With the police hot on their trail, the boys decide to hide the stolen cash in the coffin that contains Hal's late mother, Mrs. McLeavy. While old Mr. McLeavy is busy cataloguing the flowers sent in memory of his wife, Hal and Dennis stuff Mummy in the wardrobe and the money in the casket. Fay, Mrs. McLeavy's nurse, stumbles upon her dead patient and demands a cut in the action. But before the three criminals can sneak away with their booty, the notorious Inspector Truscott of the Yard starts snooping around the house and throws a wrench in their plans.

Hal – Matt Di Angelo
Dennis - Javone Prince
Fay - Doon Mackichan,
Inspector Truscott: - David Haig
Mr. McLeavy – James Hayes

Warning – leaving an unfavourable review for this production results in the Marketing Manager of the Tricycle getting stroppy:


Well, I was prepared for the usual Tricycle Theatre pandemonium of trying to get a seat. But for some reason, it didn’t happen. Whether people just got there late, were so knackered from shoving each other around in shops while doing some last minute Christmas shopping or were taking “goodwill to all men” literally this year, everyone was very sedate and well mannered and the only person I ended up tutting at was some strange American woman who kept saying to her companion “I’m gonna go gedda cuppawater fromthebar – you wanna cuppawater fromthebar?”

Now, my regular readers will already know that farce is not one of my greatest loves. In fact, show me a vicar with no trousers on and a French maid and I will generally run screaming from the building, trampling strong men underfoot in an attempt to get out. But I wasn’t feeling that great, and the strange American woman was in the way and, I thought, might think I was some kind of terrorist and grapple me to the floor. So I had to stay put. And, once again, proceeded to sit there in stony-faced bewilderment while other audience members pissed themselves laughing like hyenas on Ecstasy (and in one case, actually joining in with some of the lines). For not only did Orton write farce, he apparently wrote something called “Nihlistic farce” which I’m afraid I don’t understand at all. And, more to the point, find about as funny and entertaining as having blazing cactus spines inserted under my fingernails. I don’t think I’ve every felt quite so lonely at the theatre. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time, and I was metaphorically in the kitchen washing up. What the cast must have thought of me sitting there stony-faced in the front row with my arms crossed makes me shudder. Believe me, I tried to find it funny, I really did. But it completely missed me. Even the sight of David Haig, a chap I would willingly walk over broken glass to watch, pouring with sweat and actually within grabbing distance, failed to evoke any response. I just didn’t get it. I know – I’m a lost cause. I don’t like Sophocles, I don’t like Orton, I don’t like Brecht. I don’t like Albee. Many of Shakespeare's plays leave me totally cold. Maybe I should hand in my “Theatre Reviewer” badge and grow pumpkins instead.

What the critics thought:





What the critics thought:

18 December 2008

A Little Night Music - Meniere Chocolate Factory - Friday 18th Decmber 2008


The show opens with a prologue, introducing the Liebeslieder Singers, who begin blending various songs that will be heard later in the play. The other characters of the play enter, engaged in a waltz but all are uncomfortable with their partners. The aging and severe Madame Armfeldt and her solemn granddaughter, Fredrika, enter. Mme Armfeldt tells the child that the summer night "smiles" three times: first on the young second on fools and third on the old. Fredrika vows to try and watch the smiles occur.

The middle aged Fredrik Egerman, is a successful lawyer who has recently married an 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne, The two have been married for eleven months, but Anne still refuses to sacrifice her virginity His son Henrik, who is a year old than Anne is feeling extremely frustrated with himself, having acquired a rather negative world view. Anne's maid Petra offers her rather crass advice on the situation.

Desiree Armfeldt, a once-prominent but now fading actress was Fredrik’s lover many years ago.. Fredrika misses her mother, but Desiree continually puts off going to see her.. She happens to be performing near Fredrik's estate, and the lawyer brings Anne to see the play. While there, Desiree remembers Fredrik. Anne is instantly suspicious of Desiree's amorous glances. Meanwhile, Petra has been trying to seduce Henrik. Frederik and Desiree reflect on their new lives, and Fredrik tries to explain how much he loves Anne Desiree happily boasts of her own adultery — she has been seeing a married dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. Upon learning that Fredrik has had to go for eleven months without sex, Desiree agrees to accommodate him — as an favour for a friend.

Back in Desiree's apartment, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm arrives unexpectedly. Fredrik and Desiree try and fool him into believing that nothing went on between the pair, but he is still suspicious. He goes back to his own wife, the Countess Charlotte, who is apparently aware of her husband's infidelity. Desiree requests that Madame Armfeldt host a party for Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik. The Egerman household is sent into a frenzy.The Count has plans of his own — as a birthday present to his wife, the pair will attend the party uninvited. Carl plans to defeat Fredrik in a duel during the event, while Charlotte hopes to seduce the lawyer into sex to make her husband insanely jealousEveryone arrives, each holding their own purposes and desires — except, perhaps, Petra, who catches the eye of Mme. Armfeldt's fetching manservant Frid. All of the women begin to act against each other. Charlotte begins to flirt with Fredrik, while Anne and Desiree trade insults. Henrik finally stands up for himself, and flees the scene.

At the lake on the estate, Anne finds Henrik, who is ready to commit suicide. The clumsy boy cannot complete the task, and Anne tells him that she has feelings for him, too. The pair begins to kiss, which leads to Anne's first sexual encounter. Meanwhile, not far away from the young couple, Frid sleeps in Petra's lap. Henrik and Anne to start a new life together. Fredrik finds out, but is surprisingly calm about the situation. Charlotte confesses her plan to the lawyer. Carl, preparing to romance Desiree, sees this out of her window and is flooded with jealousy. He challenges Fredrik to a game of Russian Roulette and the lawyer injures his ear. Feeling victorious, Carl begins to romance Charlotte, granting her wish at last.

Now free of the bonds that once held him, Fredrik is able to confess his love for the actress. Desiree reveals that Fredrika is Fredrik's daughter, and the two promise to start a new life together.

Henrik – Gabriel Vick
Fredrika – Holly Hallam
Madame Armfeldt – Maureen Lipman
Frid – Jeremy Finch
Anne – Jessie Buckley
Fredrik – Alexander Hanson
Petra – Kaisa Hammarland
Desiree – Hannah Waddingham
Count Carl-Magnus – Alaister Robins
Countess Charlotte – Kelly Price

Judi singing "Send in the Clowns" after being interviewed by that clown Alan Titchmarsh

Its impossible, I’m afraid, not to make comparisons with the last production I saw of this at the National Theatre, starring Judi Dench, Sian Phillips and Patricia Hodge. The NT production was huge, whereas this was very, very small by comparison; however, I’m not quite sure that a much smaller space didn’t suit this piece better. It is, after all, quite a claustrophobic piece, about a closely knit group of people – almost a “chamber piece” really (blimey, I’m staring to sound like Him Indoors). It got off to a good start because the Meniere, for once, have abandoned their policy of having all the seats unreserved, meaning that you could go out for something to eat first without having to keep several eyes on the clock, and then get trampled in the rush when you do turn up. Shame that the front row seats are still as low and uncomfortable as usual though – most of us seemed to be sitting with our knees directly in our line of vision. For some reason the rest of the seats aren’t nearly as low. I liked the semi-permanent set – a quarter-circle of mirrored doors which opened and closed to define different spaces. What I didn’t like, however, was the tempi – compared to the NT production, everything seemed very, very slow and speeds didn’t seem to pick up until after the interval. Yes, I know that Sondheim is phenomenally difficult to sing - but surely slowing it down just makes it harder?

Another thing I didn’t really warm to was the outdoor setting of Act II for instance, the grand dinner party (at the National, one of those fraught meals where every attempt at conversation results in a faux pas) became a picnic. The dialogue had obviously been slightly re-jigged to take account of this and I spotted a couple of mistakes. Lipman says during the picnic taking place as the curtain rises that she doesn’t want to be seen by her guests lolling around like a bohemian, yet then shows up a second picnic. And I don’t think a woman of her age or social standing would allow herself to he carried off like an old Aunt Sally if caught without her wheelchair.

Anyway, it was a bit of a shock coming face to face with Alexander Hanson again, having seen him as a lacklustre Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and a slightly bland Nazi (if there is such a thing) in Marguerite. Would he be able to bring off the role of Fredrik Egerman? Sporting a cute new goatee and some “distinguished” highlights, I think I would have forgiven him even if he hadn’t, purely on the aesthetics front, but he was spot on in this. Excellent singing, excellent acting and a very cute butt. It was even more of a shock coming face to face with Jessie Buckley – you remember her, she came second in I’d Do Anything (how awful for the poor girl to have to go through life with that hanging round her neck. Still, she seems to have actually got on stage faster than the winner). Having watched her belt out showstoppers week after week, it was very strange listening to her produce a high, clear soprano until you got used to it – but very well she did it, actually. There was still a toiny trace of an Oirish accent now and again, but she carried the role extremely well, held her own on stage against far more experienced performers and looked like a ravishing porcelain doll. Note for the wardrobe mistress though – do patch that hole in her stocking where her big toe is showing through, there’s a love.

My opinion is still very much divided on Hannah Waddingham’s Desiree. Easily the most imposing figure of stage physically, this was a very different portrayal of Desiree than I was expecting – Judi highlighted the “fading actress” more, and hence was more the kind of woman having to play Hedda in Helsingborg out of sheer financial necessity – or simply desperation. This Desiree, however, was far younger, far more in control of her life and considerably more feisty. All she needed was an armoured breastplate and she could easily have played Brunhilde. Where she did score big over Judi, however, was her vocal ability. There maybe nothing like a Dame, but this gal could sing. And yet she didn’t overdo it. She sang just enough to reassure the audience that she could belt it if necessary, but wisely hung back from doing so. Send in the Clowns was glorious – and all hail an actress who can sing this and cry as well. Unfortunately, someone else in the auditorium was crying at the same time – I couldn’t see who it was but it was probably some old queen reliving their glory days when they played the role for the Helsingborg Arts Council Amateur Theatre Group. . So what we got was: “Isn’t it rich?” (sniff from the back), “Are we a pair?” (sniff). Me here at last on the ground, you in (sniff) mid-air” (sniff). Chrissakes, blow your nose why don’t you?

Maureen Lipman played Madame Armfeldt as – well, Maureen Lipman, basically; a mixture of Joyce Grenfell and Baroness Thatcher, just like she always does, whatever the role. Sorry, but she was no match for Sian Phillips in the NT production – although was I was pleasantly surprised that she coped so well with Liaisons, which is a horrendously difficult number with about 80 key changes in it.

Both Alaister Robins as Count Carl-Magnus and Gabriel Vick as Henrik failed to come up to the mark. Count Carl-Magnus should be a gorgeous, arrogant, vain studmuffin, but was presented here as if he were the battalion accountant. He wasn’t helped by the most ghastly, cheap-looking costume which looked like it had been pulled out of a hamper full of dressing up togs. Gabriel Vick reminded me physically of Lee Evans and did little to dispel the image.

Having said all that, this is probably the first time ever I’ve left the theatre wondering what happens to the characters after the curtain comes down - Does Fredrik give his young wife a divorce and enough to live on with Henrik? Or does she realise the folly of her ways? As Madame Armfeldt disapproves of her daughter’s goings on, does she leave her anything in her will? Do the count and countess drift apart again? – and that, my friends, is the mark of a damned good show.

What the critics thought:

02 December 2008

In a Dark Dark House - Almeida Theatre - Monday 1st December 2008


Act One: T two brothers find themselves brought face to face with each other's involvement in their traumatic past. They talk about it. At great length.
Act Two: One of the brothers hits on the daughter of the man who abused them both. They talk. A lot.
Act Three: The brothers try to come to terms with their traumatic past. They shout at each other. For a long time.

Steven Mackintosh - Drew
David Morrissey - Terry
Kira Sternbach - Jennifer

New and improved blog! For my birthday, I've decided to treat you all to all little technological update - something to watch!

An interview with the humungous and frankly quite scary Neil La Bute (author and doughnut lover): http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=HqXtMK493YQ

To well-heeled Islington we go on a dark, dark night, where on a short, short street, one may pass as many as 17 estate agents trying to flog very, very expensive houses (although take comfort from the fact that they’ve all become a lot, lot cheaper since you started reading this). The foyer of the Almeida is, as usual, full of Henrys and Jocastas in their smart, smart suits and dead, dead furs. Although night has already fallen, several of them are wearing dark, dark glasses of the Posh Spice “I’m turning into "The Fly” type". Into the auditorium, and Him Indoors and I wedge ourselves into small, small seats, which give those at the Haymarket a run for their money in terms of their non-existent leg room and general comfort level. We have to stand up again several times to let other people past as the majority of the audience are very, very late in taking their seats – presumably so that they can maximise their posing time in the bar with their rich, rich friends and over-awe any MOLOs (Members Of the Lower Orders) who have sold their 85” plasma screen TV’s in order to buy a ticket.

There is a permanent, permanent set of wondrous beauty, representing a small clearing surrounded by tall, tall trees. Indeed, if it weren’t for the park bench, this is the kind of bank across which one might reasonably expect to find fairies having a wild thyme blowing on. “Credit crunch. Peaseblossom? What credit crunch? Me and Mustardseed here are off to Titania’s Bank”. In fact, so pretty was the set that I was to spend a good deal of the duration of the play looking at it.

Two men appear on stage – both trying desperately to hold onto American accents. One of them is vaguely familiar in that “Its him, you know, he was in… thing” kinda way. The other looks like Patrick Keilty. They talk at each other for some considerable time. There seems to have been some kiddy fiddling going on in their past. The Henrys and Jocastas collectively hug themselves with glee. This is so now, so le moment, so Daily Mail; an ideal dinner party conversation topic for lightening the mood after Darius has depressed everyone by maundering on about the size of his bonus this year and how he might have to give up the Maldives next summer if things don’t improve. I count the dandelions on the set.

The lights dim, Patrick Kielty goes off and a small windmill appears at the top of the bank, with one of those little flag markers that indicate the presence of a hole on the grass below. Oh Tarquin, its Crazy Goff. I say – how utterly relevant – its hole 13. Unlucky for some. A young girl in tight shorts comes on, and chats with the vaguely familiar man for a while. He challenges her – if I get a hole in one, we fuck. If I don’t, we don’t. He hits the ball. There is a tense moment. Will he pull it off? Or will he keep it on? Damn, he misses. The audience exhales. What happens, I wonder, if by some stroke of chance, he actually manages a hole in one? Does the play end differently?

The lights dim again. Patrick Kielty comes back on again in a suit. The two men talk. I close my eyes and snooze – I’m not really going to miss anything important. On stage, the two men are shouting at each other. They carry on doing this for a while, then cry and hug, shout a bit more. I drum my fingers on my knee, and watch the fat woman across the aisle (all 18” of it) from me who appears to be having as much fun as I am. She picks at the lid of her coffee container. I know how she feels.

The lights dim again. The three actors take the stage and bow. Some twat at the back shouts “Bwavo, bwavo!” in a loud voice. I wonder whether he’s enjoyed the last hour and 45 minutes of deep, deep psychological torment with its powerful catharsis and themes of forgiveness, or whether he’s just relieved its all over and he can get back home and finish the Sauvignon. We wander out into the dark, dark night. I scandalise one of the Henrys by constructing a sentence containing the words “dreary, pretentious wank”. Hey, this show’s running until mid-January. Shall we come and see the Christmas Eve performance? No, lets not. Lets stay at home and slash our wrists. It’ll be so much cheaper that way.