16 December 2009

Rope - Almeida Theatre, Monday 14th December 2009

On a night not unlike any other night, Brandon and Granillo commit murder. They kill a fellow classmate in college for the simple sport of it. What do you do to top a murder? Why, you stuff the boy’s body into a chest in the middle of the room and you invite friends over for a dinner served off that very chest. And for good measure you invite the boy’s father too, One of the friends invited over is Rupert, slightly older and more sophisticated.
And it is upon Rupert that the truth behind the secret of the chest in the middle of the room begins to dawn.
Philip Arditti – Sabot
Bertie Carvel - Rupert Cadell
Emma Dewhurst - Mrs Debenham
Michael Elwyn - Sir Johnstone Kentley
Henry Lloyd-Hughes - Kenneth Raglan
Blake Ritson - Wyndham Brandon
Alex Waldmann - Charles Granillo
Phoebe Waller-Bridge - Leila Arden

Creative team:
Roger Michell – Director
Mark Thompson – Design
Rick Fisher – Lighting
John Leonard – Sound

Finally, the Almeida produce something worth seeing. It hasn’t formally opened yet, and I suspect that the critics will be extremely divided in their opinions, possibly seeing this play as a bit of a museum piece. But its extremely well written, directed with panache and, with a few caveats, well acted.

It’s interesting that the director made the decision to set the play in its original period (the 1920’s) which comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who only knows the piece through the Hitchcock film. I must admit that I haven’t seen the film, but still somehow expected it to be set in the 40s. So it was a pleasant surprise to get an “authentic” production (even though I spent the first 10 minutes or so feeling that I had wandered into an Agatha Christie novel), and even more surprising that this is set “in the round”. This decision works well, because it’s quite a claustrophobic piece (particularly for the poor sod in the chest!) and being able to see the audience on the other side of the auditorium enhances this feeling of restriction and airlessness. The chest around which all the action is centred is therefore, quite literally, in the centre of the action and the centre of attention as it commands the middle of the octagonal stage. You therefore can’t actually take your eyes completely off it and it consequently becomes a brooding, menacing presence throughout the entire play, almost taking on a character of its own. Clever, clever! One thing I didn’t like about the production, however, was the final coup de theatre, which struck me as completely unnecessary and somewhat “theatrical” (in the worst sense of the word) - rather as if the director was trying to end the play “with a bang” when really such a well-written piece doesn’t need it.

Acting was practically perfect, apart from one or two slight quibbles. Alex Waldmann was a very milquetoast Granillo, and I noticed that Michael Elwyn played the role of Sir Kentley almost as two people, becoming softer round the edges as the action progressed and more “cuddly” almost, perhaps in a misguided attempt by the director to engender sympathy for the character. Bertie Carvel, however, walks away with the entire evening with his portrayal of Rupert Caddel as a lisping, mincing aesthete with a razor-sharp mind, although it has to be said that his projection was, at times, extremely poor and many of his lines simply didn’t reach us in the back row. This, however, may have been the fault of the production being in the round, which always causes problems as, try as you might to avoid it, the actors always end up with their backs to at least part of the audience. Credit to for Emma Dewhurst for making a good part out of a character who has less than a dozen lines throughout the entire play. I also enjoyed Henry Lloyd-Hughes’ portrayal of Kenneth Raglan for all the wrong reasons – not only did he look and sound exactly like he had stepped off the page of Agatha Christie, but there’s something indefinably sexy about a moustached cad in a well-cut dinner jacket….

My enjoyment of the play was spoiled somewhat by some kind of technical problem with the sound system for the first 15 minutes but thankfully this resolved itself just as I was starting to get irritated by it. I would also like to thank the stupid cow who shoved past me en route to the theatre causing me to drop a brand new library book into a muddy puddle. Merry Christmas, you daft bitch. I hope your bus broke down at the next stop.

What the critics thought:





06 December 2009

Aladdin - Wimbledon Theatre, Friday 4th December 2009

Abanazer – Brian Blessed
Genie of the Lamp – Ruby Wax
Genie of the Ring – Djalenga Scott
Widow Twankey – Jonathan Ellis
Wishey Washey – Paul Thornley
Aladdin – Ashley Day
Princess Jasmine – Leila Benn Harris
Emperor of China – Ian Talbot
PC Pong – Sam Bradshaw

Creative Team:
Writer – Eric Potts
Director – Ian Talbot
Choreography – Sarah Dean
Musical Director – Warran Wills
Lighting – Tim Macall
I admit that I had a really hard time enjoying this – not because there was anything intrinsically bad about the production but because I was feeling terribly depressed about life. And theres nothing quite like a theatre full of people having a jolly time to make you feel worse if you’re coming down with a cold and you’re having a rotten time personally. Particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

The place was packed out, and I have to say that not a single child misbehaved themselves. This can’t be said for the adults- articles have been appearing in the press for a couple of years about badly behaved audiences and the writers of these would have had a field day during this performance. Firstly, I was amazed at just how many latecomers there were – and just how many of these people seemed to have seats right in the middle, forcing everyone else in the row to get up and let them in. The sheer amount of popcorn and noisy sweet-eaters was outrageous. Yes, I know that noisy sweets are a very lucrative sideline for theatres, particularly in panto season, but I think I’m going to start my own campaign against this. Its soooo rude, distracting for the performers and the rest of the audience, and the upcoming generation of theatre-goers is being taught that going to see a show = eating noisy food and slurping drinks, just like going to the cinema is these days, and bugger the irritation it causes everyone else. And it wasn’t just the audience – the front of house staff were major noise culprits as well; constantly walking up and down the side aisles, leaning around at the sides to watch a bit of the show then congregating en masse to have a good, loud talk about it. Absolutely disgraceful – and extremely unprofessional.

Panto is, of course, a traditionally English form of theatre, so I was disappointed that this production soft-pedalled a lot of these traditions. There was no “behind you”- ing, very little “oh, no it isn’t”-ing and no comedy wallpapering scene. There was also only one Chinese Policeman; traditionally there are two, the production company obviously being too tight to pay for a second one (neither had the costume budget apparently run to providing the leading man with a pair of tights – not a good move as it looked like he had a pair of milk bottles hanging out of the bottom of his breeches. He could at least have put some make-up or fake tan on his shins). It was, however, nice to see that one particular panto tradition had been maintained – that of employing a troupe of absolutely hopeless dancers from the type of dancing school generally to be found over suburban supermarkets, in this case “June Pughe’s School of Dance, Allesley” (syllabus includes Jazz, Tap, Ballroom and loft lagging).

Brian Blessed was, well, Brian Blessed (as always). Never will anyone ever convince me that this man can play any part other than Brian Blessed. What I particularly dislike about him is a pathetic habit (one which he shares with the actor Royce Mills) of quite literally asking for applause by either making a gesture with his hands to the audience or, as he did this evening, by actually saying “Come on, that’s got to be worth some applause”. This is something that even the rankest amateur knows is tacky beyond belief. Djalenga Scott was particularly noteworthy as the sexy Genie of the Ring (nice to see this part actually included for once!). Jonathan Ellis was not quite on best form as Widow Twankey (sad fact: Twankey is a blend of Chinese Tea, so the late Mr. Twankey must have been a Tea Merchant) and some of his costumes were quite disappointing. One of the conventions of panto is that the Dame’s costumes are completely OTT, and that a different one is worn for every scene. Here, one costume was worn three times, and one “costume” consisted merely of a purple velour tracksuit that looked as if it had been bought at the local branch of TK Maxx that very afternoon).

Thank heavens for Ruby Wax – the saving grace of the entire production, with a nicely observed, sardonic and sarcastic turn of caustic wit that lanced through much of the saccharine bogging down the stage. The jokes about Pamela Anderson were particularly clever, seeing as the botoxed-to-buggery Ms. Anderson is taking over the role of the Genie in a couple of weeks’ time. In fact, I must quote you (at some length) from Ms. Anderson’s biog in the programme as it is quite heave-inducing:

The most recognisable icon of the new millennium continues to hit her stride again and again in so many different fields. this model, actress, mother, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist has appeared on more magazine covers than any other star of her generation….. Her unparalleled career in television extends from the extraordinary global phenomenon which was Baywatch to her recent global documentary series Pam – Girl on the Loose. …though she does not think of herself as an “actress”[that's lucky!]..she has collaborated with some of the most esteemed artists and photographers of the age. … Pamela is currently delighted to be launching her own fragrance Malibu by Pamela Anderson, followed by an extensive range of related products. This is now available in drugstores across America and coming to Europe at the beginning of next year. Negotiations are ongoing for the launch of several international spa hotels based around Pamela’s name and her principles [so they will obviously be called the "Waggle your tits at the camera and take the cash Hotels"]…at 41 years old, this powerful woman, devoted mother, sex symbol and style icon continues to live life on her own terms and give meaning to everything she does.

Honestly, she’s got a great career in comedy ahead of her if she wrote that. It would almost be worth going back to see this show when she takes over just to see what an utter tits-up she’ll undoubtedly make of it.
What the critics thought:
(what hacks me off is that that none of the reviewers went to see the first performances of this and therefore Ruby Wax didn't get her deserved review. Everyone waited until Pammie appeared - two days late, apparently)

01 December 2009

Peter Pan - 360degree Theatre, the O2 - Wednesday 2nd December 2009

Look into my eyes and whisper "I DO belive in fairies...."

The Darling household is a place of joy, consisting of the three children, Wendy, John, and Michael; the practical and sometimes stern father, Mr. Darling; the loving mother, Mrs. Darling; and the children’s nurse, a dog named Nana. But sneaking into the children’s bedroom at night to listen to Mrs. Darling’s bedtime stories is Peter Pan. One night, Nana and Mrs. Darling see him and try to stop him, but are only able to catch his shadow as he flies out the window. So they roll it up and put it in a drawer. Peter, of course, wants his shadow, and returns later after Mr. and Mrs. Darling have left for a dinner party. He brings with him his not-very-polite fairy, Tinker Bell. However, when he finds his shadow, he can’t make it stick to him and wakes Wendy as he begins to cry.

Peter is entranced by Wendy and tells her that he had run away the day he was born because he heard his parents talking about all the things he would do when he was a man, and he went to live with the fairies so that he would never have to grow up. Now he lives in Neverland with the lost boys, children who fell out of their perambulators and were never found again.Wendy sews Peter’s shadow back to him, and then Peter convinces Wendy and her brothers, by teaching them how to fly, to return to Neverland with him and Tinker Bell. So off they fly, over the rooftops of London to Neverland, where the lost boys share the island with the mean pirates, led by Captain Hook, and a tribe of Indians led by their chief and princess, Tiger Lily. It was Hook’s greatest desire to capture Peter Pan and his friends because it was Peter who had cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to a crocodile. The crocodile had so liked the taste of the hand that he followed Hook everywhere, waiting for the rest of him. The crocodile had, unhappily, also swallowed a clock, and its ticking warned Hook of any approach.To this magical land Wendy and her brothers fly with Peter Pan. The lost boys, seeing Wendy and spurred on by a jealous Tinker Bell, think her a giant bird and shoot her with a bow and arrow. Peter arrives immediately and sees that Wendy is only stunned, and, after banishing Tinker Bell for a week, he tells the others that he has brought Wendy to them. They quickly build her a house and ask her to be their mother.

The next day, Peter takes Wendy to Marooner’s Rock to see the mermaids. While there, the pirates bring in Tiger Lily, who they have captured and bound and are leaving on the rock to drown at high tide. Peter saves her, and she and the rest of the Indians become their friends and guardians. Eventually, the children begin to worry about their parents and to feel the pangs of homesickness; and they decide it is time to return to their warm beds in London. The lost boys decide to go with them, but Peter will not hear of going if he will have to grow up. Hook and the pirates, however, foil their plans and capture all the children and take them to their ship. Only Peter, with Tinker Bell’s help, avoids capture.

The pirates are about to have their captives walk the plank, when Peter arrives and saves them. In the final fight with Hook, Peter forces the pirate captain to the edge of the ship where he hears the ticking of the crocodile and, unnerved, falls into its waiting jaws.The three children then return home, along with the lost boys, who the Darlings adopt. Peter stays in Neverland, coming to visit Wendy on occasion, but she soon turns into an adult and mostly forgets Peter. However, she has a daughter, Jane, who dreams of pirates, Indians, and magical places far away . .

OK, lets start with some facts. Fact 1: Peter Pan is a very long, wordy play adapted from a very long, wordy book. Both are very much a piece of their time, and are generally thought of as ideal fare for children – by adults, rather than the children themselves. Children are therefore dragged to the play by their parents or grandparents on the slightly suspect basis that it will be “good for them” to be exposed to classic English Literature of the type that only features in some golden Neverland childhood that didn’t really exist. The whole thing is therefore just an adult fantasy of the kind involving crumpets toasted for Nursery Tea before an open fire, Silver Cross prams, Winnie the Pooh and kindly servants straight out of Upstairs Downstairs. Peter Pan is actually quite a tedious play.

Fact 2: The general social demographic of 02 customers is not the kind of person who lives in a four-storey townhouse in one of the better parts of London. They do not generally take their young children to the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens to sail wooden boats, or afterwards serve supper on the Nursery floor in front of the fire, accompanied by another thrilling chapter from Mr. Barrie’s well-known book. The average O2 family (on yesterday’s evidence) is likely to consist of slatternly women in tracksuits trailing a large collection of children fathered by several different men, one of whom has coughed up the substantial amount of money he recently “earned” (by stealing hub caps) for tickets, and who would probably be happier dahn the boozer with his mates getting bladdered or sticking the DVD of Disney’s Peter Pan on to keep the kids quiet for an hour while he spliffs up with the new girlfriend. The children, one of whom has today been excluded from school for extortion and another who has some kind of unspecified “Attention Disorder Syndrome” are both high on the sugar contained in their Jumbo Bucket of Popcorn, have never seen any kind of theatrical performance before and are getting bored and twitchy.

Fact 3: put Facts 1 and 2 together and you have a recipe for disaster.

The evening didn’t get off to the greatest start when myself and Him Indoors, having negotiated our way round 2/3 of the circumference of the O2, (past an enormous array of naff-looking chain restaurants and the saddest, emptiest, most expensive “Christmas Fun Fair” on the entire planet - £4 a ride and they wonder why nobody is on the dodgems - staffed by a pack of sullen faced men who appear to be on day release from Belmarsh and for whom the addition of Santa hats is, frankly, doing nothing) to the “360theatre” have to walk most of the way back again to find the one public toilet in the O2. We then walk the remaining distance back to the entrance in order to find that the cashpoints are not working, and that getting money out involves trailing all the way back to the tube station. In the pouring rain. We walk all the way back to the “360theatre” to find that, having walked all that way under cover, getting to the “360theatre” now involves a 200 yard dash through the rain, the proprietors of which obviously can’t be arsed to pay for a covered walkway for their customers.

A glance at the programme (£5) reveals where the money for the covered walkway has gone. And honey, it ain’t on the cast. Crammed into the first couple of inches of a double page spread, tiny type reveals that there are 4 Lost Boys and 5 Pirates (most of whom seem to be understudying each other). The Pirates also constitute the on-stage band. White Man’s Diseases seem to have decimated the Indian Tribe down to TigerLily, its sole representative. There are 2 mermaids – Mermaid 1 is understudying TigerLily and Tinkerbell, and Mermaid 2 is understudying TigerLily, Tinkerbell and Mermaid 1. The credits for the production team takes the remaining 9/10 of the pages. The Wardrobe Mistress has a dozen Costume Assistants, 2 Deputies, a Wigs Mistress (and Deputy) and 2 Dressers. There are 4 Assistant Stage Managers, and a “Basketwork Co-ordinator” (who obviously provided the laundry hamper) and 83 musicians played the soundtrack. There are 3 Sound Engineers but the entire production is so badly miked that the moment any of the cast turn their back, their words disappear into thin air. As this is “in the round”, people turn their back quite often. The thin amplification has to contend with: rain on the roof, passing aircraft coming into land at City Airport, Latecomers admitted during the quiet bits, Latecomers in Very Loud Shoes, Latecomers Who Sit Down And Immediately Start Eating Popcorn and Latecomers In Loud Shoes Who Sit Down And Them Immediately Go Out Again And Then Come Back In With Two Glasses Of Wine. My blood pressure begins to inch towards Shouting At People Level
The first half 20 minutes of the play is very tedious and wordy, with lots of Edwardian Dialogue. Not much happens and the audience starts to get shifty. Peter Pan flies in, ragged shirt open to the waist and showing off his three Fairy Friends: Fairy Sixpack, Fairy Pectorals and Fairy Biceps. Fairy Tinkerbell, however, is a not the beam of light as Barrie envisaged, nor a twinkly little winged minx a la Disney, but a grubby Punkette wearing DMs, a dirty vest and a filthy tutu with a couple of Fairy Landing Lights sewn into it. Things perk up considerably during the flying sequence, when the entire roof turns into an enormous CGI screen on which the flight over London to Neverland is projected, and everyone ooohs and aaaahs and gets a crick in their neck and starts to feel slightly queasy after five minutes. However, Neverland seems to have shifted location since I last saw Peter Pan and is now not to be found “Second star to the left, and then straight on till morning”, but at the bottom of the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens. The Mermaid Lagoon is the Serpentine, and the Albert Memorial sticks up out of the sea. Ah, I get it – the whole thing is being presented as an extended fantasy sequence, with Neverland being made up of aspects of the Darling children’s daily life (for those Readers baffled by this, and who obviously weren’t listening at bedtime, The Little White Bird, the first book to feature Peter Pan, is set in Kensington Gardens). This leads to some interesting ideas; the Wendy House is built using a cot, a couple of blackboards, nursery blankets and a tennis racquet, the pirate’s rowing boat is an Edwardian bathtub and the Crocodile is made out of coathangers and clothes pegs and has footballs for eyes. But the rest of the show is almost incidental to the CGI which switches rapidly between pirate ship, coral reef, Lost Boy hideout, mermaid lagoon, exotic forest etc. Most of the audience spend so much time staring up at this that they start to tune out what is happening on stage. When the CGI isn’t on, they have to contend with lots of Wordy Edwardian Dialogue which tries hard to be funny but is just painful, a loathsome Tinkerbell about whom nobody really cares much and a general feeling that the cast are rapidly giving up the fight to maintain the audiences’ interest. In fact, about 15 minutes from the end, a tiny voice pipes up “I’ve had enough of this” and the whole auditorium erupts in the biggest laugh of the night. TigerLily (Sole Representative of the Indian Tribe) performs an acrobatic dance which is faintly indecent, ending up on her knees in front of an obviously embarrassed Peter and looking for all the world like she is about to go down on him. Mermaid 1 and Mermaid 2 perform a series of vague rope tricks rather than be hooked up to the flying system, which is a major opportunity missed as regards spectacle in the underwater scene. Wendy gets more and more irritating and the entire show maunders on and on and eventually (pun intended) peters out completely.

Of the performances, none really stands out. Ciaran Kellgren makes a good stab at the title role, battling against what is really quite an unsympathetic role when you look closely at it, although I spend most of time looking closely at his Fairy Pectorals. The role of Tinkerbell is badly, badly misjudged by the writers and the hideous, tatty costume lends no magic to the portrayal. Abby Ford was blonde and bland as Wendy (and it irritated both me and Him Indoors that she wore pajamas, which would have been considered indecent for an almost pubescent girl of the period). Neither is she old enough or tall enough to convincingly play the older sister of Michael and John Darling. Jonathan Hyde seemed too weighted down by his dialogue to give Captain Hook anything like the necessary evil swaggering bravura, and his dark, rather tatty costume meant that he failed to dominate the stage visually. Captain Hook should be a panto villan in a bright red and gold frock-coat and an enormous feathered tricorn hat, not a slinky black and silver dressing gown affair. Note for the writer: Captain Hook’s first name is “James”, not “Jas” (although this is invariably how the name was signed during the period, rather like “Thomas” always being rendered at “Thos”. Someone didn’t do their homework properly).

Later, the autopsy report from Great Ormond Street Hospital reads “Cause of Show’s Death – Complete Lack of Heart”.

and a couple from the new run: