24 May 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Open Air Theatre @ Regents Park, Monday 25th May 2009


The war is over. Pedro Prince of Aragon, with his followers Benedick and Claudio,visits Leonato, Duke of Messina, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice. Claudio falls in love with Hero and their marriage is agreed upon. Beatrice and Benedick despise love and engage in comic banter. The others plot to make them fall in love with each other, by a trick in which Benedick will overhear his friends talking of Beatrice's supposed secret love for him, and vice versa. Meanwhile Don John, the prince's misanthropic illegitimate brother, contrives a more malicious plot with the assistance of his follower Borachio: Claudio is led to believe that he has witnessed Hero in a compromising situation on the night before her wedding day – in fact it is her maid Margaret with Borachio. Claudio denounces Hero during the marriage ceremony. She faints and on the advice of the Friar, who is convinced of her innocence, Leonato announces that she is dead. Beatrice demands that Benedick should kill Claudio. The foolish constable Dogberry and his watchmen overhear Borachio boasting of his exploit and the plot is exposed. Claudio promises to make amends to Leonato: he is required to marry a cousin of Hero's in her place. When unmasked, she is revealed as Hero. Beatrice agrees to marry Benedick.

Peter Bramhill : Borachio
Sean Campion : Benedick
Silas Carson : Don Pedro
Eke Chukwu : Watch/Messenger
Nigel Cooke : Leonato
Simon Gregor : Verges
Tim Howar : Balthasar
Sarah Ingram : Ursula
Chris Jared : Conrade
Ben Mansfield : Claudio
Mark McGee : Watch
Harry Myers : Watch/Sexton
Anthony O'Donnell : Dogberry
Anneika Rose : Hero
Annalisa Rossi : Margaret
Samantha Spiro : Beatrice
Tim Steed : Don John
Kate Tydman : Waiting Woman
David Whitworth : Friar Francis

Creative Team:
Director Timothy Sheader
Designer Philip Witcomb
Costume Designer Deidre Clancy
Composer David Shrubsole
Choreographer Ann Yee
Lighting Designer Simon Mills
Sound Designer Fergus O'Hare
Casting Director Ginny Schiller
Voice Coach and Text Consultant Barbara Houseman
Language and Verse Consultant Giles Taylor
Assistant Choreographer David Grewcock
Assistant Director Kate Sagovsky

Ah, the sounds of the English summer. The plop of tennis balls at Wimbledon, the crack of leather on willow followed by the subdued clack-clack-clack of polite applause at Lords, the chink of champagne flutes during the Glyndebourne interval, and the incessant pitterpatter of raindrops falling on umbrellas at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.

I've now lost count of how many times I've seen this play. I've seen brilliant versions, indifferent versions, so-so versions and feckin' awful versions. The opening gambit in this year's OATRP season is perhaps best described as Shakespeare-by-numbers - safe, tidy and gently trimmed back, rather like the exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show. All the T's crossed and all the I's dotted. Nothing too controversial, nothing that will upset visiting relations from out of town or tourists from other lands. Pretty costumes, a minor "star name" showing us that she can do the Classics, a couple of sets of safe Shakespearian hands in supporting roles. Even a couple of gags about the weather. All very nice. Very Regent's Park. Penny plain and tuppence coloured.

Still, it was nice to see that this was a vaguely period production. I have absolutely no time for modern-dress Shakespeare, as regular readers will no doubt remember. An interesting permanent set, of wiggly wooden paths leading in and out of the shrubbery at the back (which this year includes a viciously pollarded plane tree looking like something from Lear's blasted heath), with an all-purpose "orange tree" planted in the middle - this is Messina, remember. At various points, people sit on the swing hanging from this and, at some point in the season, that tree is going to crack, you mark my words - it bends alarmingly. Quite how the cast are going to incorporate that into the show I have no idea.

Samantha Spiro did an OK job with Beatrice, but it wasn't until after the interval that she really seemed to get the bit between her teeth. She clowns well, but there was little of the light and shade that Zoe Wannamaker achieved with the role back in December 2007 at the National. She was essentially a merry Beatrice rather than one with healed-over wounds, and only occasionally threw any kind of weight into the part. Sean Campion (a devotee of the Simon Russell Beale "spit all over everyone" method of vocal delivery) also seemed to lack something in the oooomph department and his was a rather one-dimensional Benedick as a result. Silas Carson, however, glittered in a slightly dangerous fashion as Don Pedro, playing the role rather sexier and younger than I believe is usual. Ben Mansfield was everything you want in a Shakespeare prince - floppy haired, doe-eyed. lean, hairy and gorgeous ; the kind of man that makes me want to rack up a gram and shout to my obedient flunkies "Have him stripped, washed, handcuffed and sent to my tent. Actually, no - don't strip him; I'll do it myself. With my teeth". Quite honestly I was enjoying watching him too much to actually take much note of his acting (pauses to wipe dribble off the keyboard). Among the minor principals, Annalisa Rossi is notable for two particular reasons. I think the word that Shakespeare would use is buxom. And of course, there was the obligatory Member-of-The-Cast-Known-To-Him-Indoors; this time Sarah Ingram making a good fist of the somewhat thankless role of Ursula.

Particularly of note in this production is the skill with which Anthony O'Donnell paints Dogberry. Perhaps unique among all the Dogberry's I've seen, he actually managed to make his scenes funny. Ably assisted by the rest of the Watch, I think I truly enjoyed these scenes for the first time ever. Perhaps Mr. O'Donnell might pop down to the National and give some "Shakespeare Clown" lessons?
What the critics said:

18 May 2009

Carousel (also known as Lesley Garrett is bustin' out all over) - Savoy Theatre - Thursday 21st May 2009


Two young millworkers in freshly industrialized 1870s New England visit the town's carousel after work. One of them - demure Julie Jordan - shares a lingering glance and suggestive touch with the carousel's barker, Billy Bigelow. Julie's friend Carrie Pipperidge presses her for information, but Julie is reticent about the encounter. Eventually satisfied, Carrie confides that she has a beau of her own: local fisherman Enoch Snow. A policeman appears and warns the women that Billy has taken money from other women. Carrie goes off, but Julie stays. She and Billy, now alone, can talk freely, but neither can quite confess the growing attraction they feel for each other.

Despite the incommunicative start, Julie and Billy are married shortly thereafter. When we next see them, Julie is confiding to Carrie that Billy, now unemployed, is unstable and occasionally violent. Carrie has news, too - she and Mr. Snow are officially engaged and looking forward to their idealized notion of married life. As they and the town's other young folk prepare to attend a clambake, spitfire Carrie pokes fun at the local boys, cheered on by the local girls. Julie's cousin Nettie Fowler leads them all in a celebration of spring before they leave for the clambake. Meanwhile, Billy has fallen in with the unsavoury sailor Jigger, who tries to recruit him to help with a robbery. Billy is initially uninterested — but then Julie tells him of her pregnancy. Overwhelmed by the news, and determined to provide for his future child, he decides to be Jigger's accomplice after all.

After the clambake the townsfolk head back to town. Carrie's fiancĂ© walks in on some innocent flirting between Carrie and Jigger, and declares, as Jigger jeers, that he is finished with her. Julie, meanwhile, places her self-doubt aside and resolves to accept and love Billy as he is. Jigger and Billy play at cards, with the stakes being shares of the forecasted robbery spoils. Soon Billy has lost his entire stake in the robbery; the robbery is aborted; and Jigger escapes while Billy is caught. Distraught, Billy kills himself — Julie arrives too late to save him. .Nettie and the townsfolk comfort Julie and we follow Billy to heaven. There, a pair of blunt-spoken angels explain that he must attempt to solve the problems he left behind. They send him back down to earth, fifteen years after his suicide.

His and Julie's daughter, Louise, is now an angry and rebellious teen He manages to give her a small gift, and finally confess his love to Julie. Having thus made amends, he wins entry to Heaven.


Carrie Pipperidge: Lauren Hood
Julie Jordan: Alexandra Silber
Mrs. Mullins: Diana Kent
Billy Bigelow: Jeremiah James
Nettie Fowler: Lesley Garrotte
Enoch Snow: Alan Vicary
Jigger: Graham McDuff
Starkeeper: David Gollings

Production Credits:
Director: Lindsay Posner
Choreography: Adam Cooper
Sets: William Dudley
Costumes: Deirdre Clancy (fab name!)
Lighting: Peter Mumford
PA to Lesley Garrotte: Ania (no, I don't know why her PA gets a mention in the "Production Team" list in the programme, nor why she only appears to have one name)

I admit that I have major problems with this show. I don’t mind the first act, although it has its longeurs, and the first half of the second is OK, but after that it all gets very, very silly, as if Oscar Hammerstein suddenly paused from his inky scribbling of the libretto and thought “Shit, I’ve run out of plot and there’s still 30 minutes left of Act 2”). Also, I’m not the world’s greatest fan of La Garrotte (‘Ullo love, I’m from Doncaster!!”), her incessant mugging on stage and her fudged top notes. Still, there was now’t on t’telly and the seats were cheap (two for ‘alf a crown and change left over for a barm cake each on the way ‘ome from t’pit). In fact, from the crush in the auditorium, it seemed that there were quite a lot of other people who had somehow managed to get cheap tickets as well (the technical phrase is “heavily papered, dharling”). I think I was probably the youngest person in the place – there seemed to be a lot of coach parties from Hastings in; Rogers and Hammerstein have got a bit of a reputation of being SYCSTYMT (Something You Can Safely Take Your Mum To).

Mind you, in retrospect we were extremely lucky to actually get into the theatre, there having been a slight contretemps with a security guard outside over the placement of a “no smoking” sign. I was actually outside the theatre, but standing under the canopy of the Savoy Hotel having my pre-show cigarette (the show is a whopping 3 hours long, so I needed to top up my nicotine level before going in) when I was ordered to put it out. I queried where the “no smoking under the canopy” sign was – and it turned out to be inside the theatre. Not having yet been inside, I obviously hadn’t seen it. The security guard took my pointing this out as a challenge to his authority, as those with limited intelligence tend to do. So me and Him Indoors were suddenly subject to a “random bag search” by way of reprisal, and an argy-bargy ensued, which then led to threats of being chucked out. I bet the West End Whingers never have to put up with such treatment. The excitement continued inside when Him Indoors, having asked the woman in the seat next to him to stop talking during the overture, got clobbered round the ear with her programme. Another argy-bargy ensued, and I had visions of being dragged from my seat by usherettes wielding tazers disguised as Cornettos and lobbing small grenades cunningly hidden inside Maltesers. Fasten your seatbelts, its going to be a bumpy night!

Anyway, the orchestra were on top form (from what we heard of the overture above intimate details of Carol-next-door’s hysterectomy) – its extremely rare these days that there’s 19 people in the pit. No expense spared there. Where the production did spare expense was in its constant use of back projections – not a single backcloth to be seen. It seems that, recently, ingeniously designed and clever scenery is on its way out. There’s little left of stage magic – everyone’s copping out and using film techniques instead. Sorry chaps, but if I want to see want moving images projected onto a screen I’ll go to the cinema. This cheapskate illusionism even extended here to the carousel itself. OK, it was a full-sized, elaborate, whirling image – but that’s not what I want (particularly as all the horses were empty!) when I’m at the theatre. This technique was used once again during Act 2 for the ascent to Heaven – this was a supremely naff animated “galaxy” tracking shot, during which I half expected to hear Oliver Postgate narrate the opening sequence from The Clangers. This then turned into a syrupy version of the famous “Stairway to Heaven” sections from A Matter of Life and Death. And right at the end, the graduation ceremony was backed by an animation of the Stars and Stripes waving against a cloudless sky. C’mon fellas – this isn’t stagecraft, this is lazy!

What made this laziness harder to countenance was an example of just how effective traditional sets can be if they are lit effectively. The dockyard scene in Act 2 was fabulously realised, with old tarpaulins draped over a series of huge packing cases. Add lighting worthy of Rembrandt himself and you’ve got True Theatre Magic. This scene, so simply done, was stunningly beautiful; very static but supremely effective and a true example of the Lighting Designer’s craft. Well done, Mr. Mumford.

For all my dislike of the show itself (because of the daft “Heaven” section and the supremely pointless 10 minute ballet – which always makes me think that Rogers thought “Sod it, it worked in Oklahoma, I’ll stick a ballet in here”), I have to say that the choreography was excellent, the entire show was very well paced (there is a long, static scene right at the beginning which can be excruciating to sit through but it was very well done here) and there were some wonderful performances. Alexandra Silber was truly amazing as Julie – restrained, completely believable and expertly pitched throughout. She has a singing voice of such incredible purity and charm that it puts La Garrotte to shame. She also outstrips her in acting technique – but then that’s not difficult. Jeremiah James was completely believable as Billy Bigelow. This is a completely unsympathetic role – Bigelow is a drunk a waster and a wife-beater, yet he somehow managed to get the audience to believe that there was a better person somewhere underneath. Again, excellent vocally – although his costume bears more than a passing resemblance to that worn by Marcel Marceau, which is distracting. Graham McDuff gave a performance of genuine villany as Jigger - a combination of The Childcatcher and Bill Sykes. In fact, he actually gets booed at the curtain call – a sure sign of a perfectly pitched performance of nastiness. .Alan Vicary gave a very rounded performance in the somewhat thankless role of Mr. Snow – I’m not sure whether he wears a wig in the show but, if so, it needs attention; when he pulls of his hat he looks like Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons. Lauren Hood was just slightly too shrill to be perfect as Carrie Pipperidge – her performance is in danger of becoming too broad and needs reining in slightly lest it tip into caricature. And Diana Kent gives a wonderfully warm, restrained performance as Mrs. Mullins.

And La Garrotte? Well, I think I loathe her even more than I loathe Alan Titchmarsh. She’s on for a spit and a whistle in this show, yet seems determined to steal every scene she’s in by mugging, gurning and playing completely to the audience – just like she did in The Sound of Music. She is a most ungenerous performer, relentlessly trying to upstage everyone else on the stage. She goggles and grimaces through June is Bustin’ Out All Over like an over-excited teenager, rather than the matronly, dignified but always ready to let down her hair and kick up her heels, Aunt-Eller-like character that Nettie Fowler should be. And of course, she wouldn’t be Lesley Garrotte if she didn’t milk The Big Number (You’ll Never Walk Alone) for everything its worth. This comes for the first time in the show halfway through Act 2, when Nettie comforts the grieving Julie after Billy’s death. It should be a quiet, dignified hymn which builds to a crescendo with the promise of calm in the middle of a maelstrom of emotions. But no, we could have been on the terraces at Anfield. All it needed was a stripy football scarf and a dodgy meat pie. And her behaviour during the curtain calls was unforgivable – gurning and wiggling her not inconsiderable bosom at the audience and detracting from everyone else on stage. Shame on you, woman. There are finer actresses (with better quality singing voices) on stage, so just get back to Doncaster where you belong. I’ll pay your train fare. This is a classic case of miscasting - transposing a big name draw from one performing genre into one in which they are ill-suited and out of place just in order to sell tickets. Well, I tell you, this show would be that much better without her.

Thankfully we did not get accosted by security guards or attacked by mad women brandishing programmes on the way home.

What the critics said:





Listen to La Garrotte murdering the phrasing in this!

All's Well That Ends Well - National Theatre

The play begins with Bertram assuming the title of Count of Rossillion upon the death of his father. Helena is the orphaned daughter of a great doctor, and for years has lived in the Rossillion household under the care of Bertram's mother, the Countess. Over the years, Helena has developed a secret love for Bertram. The Countess, however, is well aware of Helena's feelings (and indeed approves of them).

Against this backdrop, the King of France has been taken deathly ill. Bertram leaves to attend the King's court. Helena soon follows him to Paris, and cures the King with the medicinal knowledge she learned from her father. The cure earns her the gratitude of the King, who gives her a costly ring in gratitude and also offers her the pick of the bachelors at his court. Helena, of course, picks Bertram, who is quite put off by the prospect. To Bertram, Helena is beneath him and unworthy of his notice. Nevertheless, Bertram is ordered to marry her. He assents to the marriage under protest, then slips off to a war in Tuscany with his cowardly companion, Parolles.

Helena returns to Rossillion and the Countess. Bertram sends word that she may not call him husband until she gets from him a ring (which he always wears) and can bear him a child—not a simple task, especially given that Bertram is in Italy with no intention of ever consummating their marriage. Helena once again takes matters into her own hands and sets out to follow him. She arrives in Florence in the guise of a pilgrim and lodges with a widow whose daughter, Diana, is the newest object of Bertram's affections. With Diana's help, Helena aims to trap Bertram into marriage.

She gets Diana to accept Bertram's advances. Bertram, however, must agree to give Diana his ring before they share a bed. At the crucial moment, Helena takes Diana's place in the dark. She also exchanges the ring given to her by the King for Bertram's, accomplishing both terms of Bertram's challenge. When a rumour is spread of Helena's death, Bertram assumes that he is clear of any responsibility for the wife he never wanted, and returns to France. However, the King easily recognizes the ring he bears as the one he had given to Helena; when Bertram is caught in a series of lies, the King has him arrested on suspicion of having murdered her. Adding to Bertram's misery, Diana and her mother arrive demanding justice, which exposes even more lies. Helena finally appears— wearing Bertram's ring and carrying his child— leaving him no option but to marry her, to his mother's delight.

Helena : Michelle Terry
Bertram : George Rainsford
The Countess of Rossillion : Clare Higgins
King of France : Oliver Ford Davies
Diana : Hasina Haque
The Widow : Janet Henfrey
Parolles : Conleth Hill
Violenta : Cassie Atkinson
Gentleman Astringer : Jolyon Coy
Interpreter : Robert Hastie
Lavatch : Brendan O'Hea
Mariana : Sioned Jones
1st Lord Dumaine : Elliot Levey
2nd Lord Dumaine : Tony Jayawardena
Rynaldo : Michael Mears
Lafew : Michael Thomas
Ensemble : Oliver Wilson, Ben Allen, Tom Padley, Rob Delaney, Alex Felton

Production credits:
Director: Marianne Elliott
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Music: Adam Cork
Movement Director: Laila Diallo
Projection Designers: Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson

Believe me, there’s nothing so bad as Bad Shakespeare. And gadzooks, is this Bad Shakespeare. Officially it’s one of his “Problem Plays” – because they don’t fit into any of the established categories, because they are ambivalent in material, tone and/or treatment, written when he was feeling old and crotchety, or because he was running out of ideas to steal from other sources. Or all of the above. In layman’s terms, piss poor plays.

All’s Well That Ends Well is, quite simply, a piss poor play. It takes a great production to transcend the material. It needs actors at the height of their game. It needs a “concept” – something to pin onto the play to make it come alive in the minds of the audience and make it work. It needs that indefinable spark. And this production hasn’t got any of them. It’s not only Bad Shakespeare – its Bad Bad Shakespeare.

It took me a while to work out what the “concept” was for this production. Initially I thought it was Gormenghast, but it turned out that its Gormenghast, designed by Arthur Rackham, as retold by The Brothers Grimm, with lighting by The Badly Lit Stage Company and stage effects by Lots Of Dry Ice, Inc. At least in the first half. The Countess of Rousillion presides over an eerie, snowbound realm, huddling under scudding clouds and skies full of ravens. There are servants in knee breeches and powdered wigs, there are blood-red velvet cloaks and sparkling, glassy footwear. Irascible kings with crooked sceptres wear floor length robes and high pointy crowns. There are quests to undertake with rings in reward for potions delivered. There are silhouettes and shadow-plays. Mirrored doors covered with bronze flowers open and flunkys unroll red carpets using brooms. It all looks very, very pretty – at least, what you can see of it through the gloom and the dry ice. But it’s all a coathanger for a very thin garment.

After the interval, the “The Concept” seems to have been completely abandoned and the whole thing becomes Rydell High School 1954. There are strings of fairy lights, leather jackets and frogged uniforms open to the waist, and women in 50’s frocks and “sexy vixen” costumes from Ann Summers. Frankly, its all a bit of a mess. There are back projections of creepy woods – at one point an owl lands in a tree and gets a bigger laugh than the “comedy” going on in front of it. Which is a Bad Sign.

The play isn’t helped by the fact that the early scenes contain an enormous amount of speechifying – earnest, declamatory speeches that go on and on, delivered from someone standing in the centre of the stage and which don’t really add anything to the plot. The kind of speech that Victoria Wood always hoped would be interrupted by the sound of trumpets and the entrance of a messenger: “My Lord, the sofa has arrived!” Quite a lot of the early speechifying is inaudible – either because of bad diction or lack of projection - and some of it is SO AUDIBLE AT THE BACK OF THE CIRCLE that it makes your ears bleed. Some of the speechifying is delivered by a character so unsympathetic that its amazing he isn’t booed on a nightly basis. And then there’s the character that always fills me with dread: The Shakespeare Clown. It can be a horrendous job playing a Shakespeare Clown – busting your gut trying to get a laugh out of “jokes” that weren’t funny in 1604 while biffing people over the head with a pig’s bladder. But oh my days, (and leaving aside the individual performance, which is frankly as piss poor as the play itself) this particular Clown is a rotten example of the species.

Clare Higgins fails to impress as the Countess, mainly because a lot of her dialogue is poorly delivered, rendering her all but inaudible (and thus incomprehensible). As much of her early speechifying sets up the plot for the audience, this is unforgivable. Brendan O’Hea is so dreadful as Lavatch (the “clown” role) it simply beggars belief that such shoddy acting can be countenanced by the National Theatre. I’ve seen better acting by MPs trying desperately to explain their expenses claims. Conleth Hill is wildly miscast as Parolles, seems incapable of extracting any meaningful characterisation from the role and becomes increasingly desperate for laughs, which the audience don’t provide him with. George Rainsford takes on the (admittedly unsympathetic) role of Bertram with no previous Shakespearian acting experience. He sets himself low standards and its obvious by the end of Scene One that he’s not going to reach even them. In fact, he’s so forgettable that his biog has been missed out of the programme and appears on a paper erratum slip tucked into the front. Michelle Terry tries her hardest to inject life into the role of Helena, but its only Michael Thomas and Oliver Ford Davies (Lafew and the King of France respectively) who succeed in bringing their characters fully to life.

Everybody tries hard to overcome the many shortcoming of the play. But its an unenviable task. I’ve had haemorrhoid surgery that I enjoyed more than this production (given that, in the play, the King of France is suffering from a fistula, this is not a gratuitous comparison). The “comedy” scenes are greeted with a stony silence, the dramatic scenes with apathy and the whole evening falls dead in the water. Quite simply, the best epithet for the entire production (described by the NT as “full of fairytale logic”) is “Grimm”.

What the critics said:





05 May 2009

La Cage aux Folles - Playhouse Theatre, Monday 4th May 2008 (re-review, production originally reviewed December 2007)

For synopsis, see original review December 2007

Albin- Roger Allam
Georges - Phillip Quast
Jean-Michelle - Stuart Neal
Jacob - Jason Pennycooke
Anne - Alicia Davies
Cagelles - Ben Bunce, Darren Carnell, Nicholas Cunningham, Nolan Frederick, Gary Murphy, Dane Quixelle, Adrian der Gregorian

Only under very rare circumstances would I advise going to see a show for a second time - lightning never strikes twice, they say (unless you're very unlucky). And on second viewing, I'm afraid that this production of La Cage aux Folles missed quite a lot of marks.
Having moved from the cosy (some would say "cramped") Menier Chocolate Factory, the show has lost quite a lot of the somewhat shabby intimacy that made it so enjoyable. The Playhouse have tried to compensate for the larger space by creating a "stage within a stage" - a second, smaller proscenium set back from the permanent one. Four or five cafe tables are set across the front row of the auditorium (where the orchestra pit would be if there were one) so that unwary patrons can be flirted with and generally embarrassed by the cast, but where at the Menier these tables were more or less on a level with the stage (allowing all sorts of outrageous olive-feeding, hair-ruffling and drink-stealing), they are now so far below stage level that nothing can be acheived by the cast without practically getting down on all fours. This may appeal to those who enjoy doing whatever they do doggy-fashion, but its now so difficult to acheive this naturally that any attempt feels extremely forced and looks even worse. The cast are now divorced from their audience and the intimacy and immediacy has gone.

The change of venue also means that the feeling of entering a small, slightly seedy nightclub has completely gone; at the Menier this was expertly contrived by having the audience come down the stairs from the bar and through a swagged velvet "tunnel" hung with fairy lights - exactly how it would be done if "La Cage aux Folles" was a real place. Here, that feeling of verisimilitude has gone; you're walking into a "proper" theatre and the atmosphere has disappeared completely. To quote Pope, there is no "genius of the place" any more, and the overall feel of the production has changed accordingly. It feels sterile, vacuum packed.

Of the original Menier cast, Philip Quast has recently returned as Georges, and is as louche and wonderful as ever, but has to battle hard to overcome the new sanitised atmosphere. Jason Pennycooke has stayed with the production all the way since it opened at the Menier, and is now coming dangerously close to over-egging the pudding as Jacob, almost parodying the role to the point of incomprehensibility. All the gestures are bigger, the "franglais" more pronounced (several times I couldn't understand a word he was saying) , the facial expressions that bit more tortured. It doesn't work - its merely irritating. The Cagelles have also "upped" their performance, with the result that they now border on the macabre. At times they resemble dancers from the infernal regions. There are few smiles, only rictus grins. They've changed from drag queens to twisted monsters from some members-only freak show. Scary, scary, scary.
Roger Allam, it must be said, made a bit of a fist of the role of Albin. OK, it was his very first performance in the role, but he slipped over quite a few lines, was unsure of a lot of the choreography and practically threw I am what I am away for nothing. I saw little of the personal struggle and triumph that Douglas Hodge brought to this song - no lump in my throat this time round.
I'm so glad I saw this back in December 2007 when it was fresh. The best of times was then - whats left of La Cage is but a faded rose.

04 May 2009

Parlour Song - Almeida Theatre - Saturday 1st May 2009


Demolition expert Ned lives in a nice new house on a nice new estate on the edge of the English countryside. He loves his job. Barbeques.Car Boot Sales. Outwardly his life is entirely unremarkable. Not unlike his friend and neighbour Dale. So why has he not slept a wink in six months? Why is he so terrified of his attractive wife Joy?And why is it every time he leaves on business, something else goes missing from his home?


Amanda Drew - Joy
Toby Jones – Ned
Andrew Lincoln - Dale

Production credits:

Jez Butterworth - Writer
Ian Rickson - Director
Jeremy Herbert - Designer
Peter Mumford - Lighting
Stephen Warbeck – Music
Paul Groothuis - Sound
Steven Williams - Video

Talk about running the gamut. From a classic 50’s play at the National Theatre to a new three-hander in the depths of Islington in two nights. I know which one I enjoyed more though, and it wasn’t the new three-hander. I’d be hard pressed to say why. Although I know where I stand on such deeply polarising issues as Last of the Summer Wine, Peanut Butter and Alan Titchmarsh (i.e. I loathe them all), for some reason I just didn’t feel swayed by this play into “loved it” or “hated it” territory. It was OK, and nothing more. It was reasonably well written, competently acted, adequately directed. I don’t know – has the “darkness behind surburbia’s net curtains” been done before? Yes, and by better playwrights than Jez Butterworth. Has the “My wife’s having an affair with my neighbour” been done before? Yes. The “mid-life crisis” drama? Yes. In fact, to misquote Lady Bracknell, everybody has more or less said what they wanted to say – which for the vast majority of them was not much in the first place. I don’t know what this play was trying to say. It would best be described as a “comedy thriller” – a dreadful catch-all phrase usually used to describe something which is neither a comedy or a thriller but the misbegotten bastard child of both.

Yes, there were some good performances –the scene in which Ned is listening to an oral sex instruction tape and, caught by his wife “doing the moves”, has to pretend that he’s listening to Eric Clapton, would bring a smile to the face of a statue (although heaven only knows what some of the Islingtonites in the audience were thinking: “Fellatio? Isn’t he a character in The Comedy of Errors?”) and the weightlifting scene was worthy of every laugh it got. And yes, Andrew Lincoln was spot on as Dale, the dimwitted, muscle-bound “Wigger”. ButAmanda Drew was incredibly irritating -she seemed to be doing an impersonation of Brenda Blethyn in Secrets and Lies all night. And there were also long, unnecessary tracts of dialogue where I itched to get out my blue pencil – Ned’s tediously long description of the purchase of the birdbath being one of them; it went on and on and on and I became painfully aware of just how uncomfortable those dreadful double tip-up seats at the Almeida are.

There were also many questions left unanswered by the end. Is Ned going slowly mad or are his possessions really disappearing? If you were stealing things to fund your elopement, would you steal things as obvious as a lawnmower? If you had someone as horny as Dale in your bed, would you really waste time playing Scrabble? What's the meaning of the play's title? And what exactly is the point of Alan Titchmarsh?

What the critics thought:





01 May 2009

Time and the Conways - National Theatre - Friday 1st May 2009


In the first act we meet the Conway family; Mrs Conway, her daughters Kay, Hazel, Madge and Carol, and her sons Alan and Robin. Three other characters appear: Gerald, a solicitor; Joan, a young woman in love with Robin; and Ernest, a young, ambitious entrepreneur of a lower social class. The family celebrates the end of the Great War and look forward to a future of fame, prosperity and fulfilled dreams. In a pensive moment when Kay is left alone on stage she seems to slip into a reverie and has a vision of the future...

Act Two plunges us into the shattered lives of the Conways almost twenty years on. Gathering in the same room where they were celebrating in Act One, we see how their lives have failed in different ways. Robin has become a dissolute travelling salesman, estranged from his wife Joan, Madge has failed to realise her socialist dreams, Carol is dead, Hazel is married to the wealthy but sadistic Ernest. Kay has succeeded to a certain extent as an independent woman but has not realised her dreams of novel writing. Worst of all, Mrs Conway's fortune has been squandered, the family home is to be sold and the children's inheritance is gone. As the act unfolds, resentments and tensions explode and the Conways are split apart by misery and grief. Only Alan, the quietest of the family, seems to possess a quiet calm. In the final scene of the Act, Alan and Kay are left on stage and, as Kay expresses her misery Alan suggests to her that the secret of life is to understand its true reality - that the perception that Time is linear and that we have to grab and take what we can before we die is false. If we can see Time as eternally present, that at any given moment we are seeing only 'a cross section of ourselves', then we can transcend our suffering and find no need to hurt or conflict with other people.

Act Three takes us back to 1919, some seconds after the end of Act One, and we see how the seeds of the downfall of the Conways were being sown even then. Ernest is snubbed by Hazel and Mrs Conway, Gerald's budding love for Madge is destroyed by the snobbery of Mrs Conway in another moment of social arrogance, Alan is rejected by Joan who becomes betrothed to Robin. As the children gather at the end of the play to foretell their future Kay has a moment of memory of the vision of Act Two we have seen unfold. Disturbed, she steps out of the party and the play ends with Alan promising that he will be able to tell her something in the future which will help her.

Mrs Conway :Francesca Annis
Carol Conway : Faye Castelow
Robin Conway : Mark Dexter
Joan Helford : Lisa Jackson
Hazel Conway : Lydia Leonard
Kay Conway : Hattie Morahan
Gerald Thornton : Alistair Petrie
Alan Conway : Paul Ready
Ernest Beevers : Adrian Scarborough
Madge Conway : Fenella Woolgar

Production credits:
Director: Rupert Goold
Designer: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Music and Sound: Adam Cork
Video Design: Fifty-Nine Productions Ltd
Movement Director: Scott Ambler

Oooh, I do love a good Priestley! The Good Companions is one of my Desert Island Books, and its good to see that his plays seem to be undergoing rather a renaissance of late (by which I mean the last 15 year or so) - one hopes that this means theatregoers are increasingly demanding good, solidly crafted plays which actually make you think once more, rather than some of the shite around these days. Both Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls have both been put back before audiences and received good reviews (I saw both) so I was really looking forward to seeing this. I'd heard good things about it and I'm pleased to say that its tightening up in preview and seems to have picked up quite a lot of pace since the West End Whingers turned their steely gaze upon it.

On the face of it, this play seems a typical Priestley drawing-room-type affair (smug, solidly middle to upper class family all being somewhat self-congratulatory until fate throws a spanner into the clockwork) and doesn't really "go anywhere" until the start of Act 2. But once it does get going, its a real look-through-your-fingers roller coaster ride as everything begins to unravel. The clockwork analogy is very apt as this is, again, one of Priestley's "experiments with time", in the vein of Inspector. But this time, there is no outside individual who comes in and disrupts the status quo; this is left to the family themselves who sow the seeds of their own individual destructions.

The slightly dusty air of the play (amazingly, it was written in 1937, a year before the setting of Act 2, which actually refers to the gathering clouds of WW2 - Priestley must have been remarkably prescient) is given a slightly more contemporary edge with tiny inserts at the end of each act. On the basis that this deserves to be a huge hit once it opens, I won't spoil the surprises - although I might be tempted to add them in the Comments section once the run is over. Act 1 ends with a very clever "freeze frame" - the set then fractures into pieces. Act 2's "easter egg" shouldn't really be a surprise if you study the production credits closely enough, where the inclusion of Scott Ambler (formerly with Adventures in Motion Pictures) and several supernumerary cast members, all female, point towards something vaguely choregraphical going to happen. Act 3's ending did, I feel, rather over-egg the pudding, as it was really rather too clever for its own good and felt completely out of touch with the rest of the production. Neither, it must be said, was it completely successful - although perhaps its success depends on exactly where you are sitting. Scrunched up as usual in the second row (cheap seats!), viewing the state from an acute angle, it all looked a bit fuzzy to me. I think the ending has the potential to alienate quite a lot of people and send them home feeling robbed of a cleaner, more traditional ending; I must check the original text to see what should happen. Ironically, given all the technology that must have been used at this point, the whole production nearly came a cropper when the curtain failed to close properly!

Part of the joy of this production is that there isn't a single duff performance on stage. Hattie Morahan was fantastic as Kay, as was Lydia Leonard as Hazel (who had obviously been studying Francesca Annis, her stage mother, fairly closely as she had caught many of her mannerisms in her portrayal). Paul Ready's quiet despair in Act 3 was so real it was quite painful to watch, and Adrian Scarborough deserves special mention for his "worm that turns". Fenella Woolgar was brilliant (you may have seen her several times on TV with David Tennant, not only in Dr. Who, but in He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now). What makes all the performances doubly special is that, essentially, each was playing two people - their character in 1919 and their character again in 1938). One comment I must make (which caused a slight "domestic" at the time with Him Indoors) is that Francesca Annis does seem a little mature to be playing a woman with twenty-something children in an era when the average age of marriage was itself twenty-something (and quite early twenty-something too). This meant that, in Act 2, she had to be practically decrepit, rather resembling Catherine Tate's "Gran" character. In order to give the impression that she had shrunk in stature in Act 2, she wore incredibly high heels in Act 1. That's all well and good, but a) killer heels weren't period and b) if you are going to use this kind of ruse, don't display your non-period shoes to all and sundry by sitting on a stool and kicking your legs out straight in front of you.

The set was very effective - seemingly 20 years went by in the drawing room during the interval, so we got the same set but in a completely different decorative style (obviously the Conways had had a change round of their living quarters at some point because the drawing room was now the dining room, dominated by a huge, shiny black dining suite looking rather like a hearse drawn up in the middle of the floor). One thing I will say is that both sets seemed incredibly sparse - a 1919 drawing room would have been populated with far more knick-knackery, and there would have been more than one painting hung on the wall. This painting didnt move (or fade) for 20 years seemingly, and it was so prominently positioned and lit that I expect it was somehow significant. Not having recognised the picture, I've been reduced to emailing the NT about it - watch this space.

All in all, a thoroughly good night out. I'm sure that it won't appeal to everyone, but I shall be very interested to see what the pro reviews are like when the show opens - as usual I will add a selection below. So, An Inspector Calls - tick. Dangerous Corner - tick. Time and the Conways - tick. How about a revival of When We Are Married or I Have Been Here Before, London producers? Meanwhile, I shall be dusting down my copy of Angel Pavement in order to feed my Priestley fixation.

What the critics said (most of the pro reviews compare this production to that of An Inspector Calls which, I think, is pointless. They're two different plays with two different directors, produced some 12 years apart - which to my mind is like comparing an apple with a potato. Sure, they belong to the same botanical family, but they're two completely different things, so comparison is facile):