29 April 2010

The Pirates of Penzance - Wiltons Music Hall, Wednesday 28th April 2010


On the coast of Cornwall, a gang of pirates play and party as Frederic (a pirate apprentice) reminds the pirate king that his obligation to the gang is soon over. He was apprenticed to the pirates only until his twenty-first birthday, which is that day, and he is leaving them. Ruth (Frederic’s nursery maid when he was younger) explains that Frederic should never have been a pirate except for her mistake: She was told to apprentice Frederic to a pilot, but she misunderstood and placed him with a pirate instead.
Frederic tells the pirates that, after he leaves the gang, he intends to destroy them, not because he doesn’t love them, but because he loathes what they do. He is a slave of duty and, when no longer a pirate, it will be his duty to destroy them. The pirates understand, and also complain that they cannot seem to make money. Because Frederic is a slave-of-duty to the pirates until noon, he tells them why: Because they are all orphans, the pirates will not rob another orphan; and since all their potential victims are aware of this, they all claim to be orphans!
Because Frederic has spent his entire life with the pirates, he has never seen another woman; thus he thinks he may want to take Ruth with him as his wife. He asks Ruth if she is beautiful, and she responds that she is. Frederic, a very trusting young man, says that he believes Ruth and he will not let her age come between them.At this point, however, Frederic sees a group of beautiful young women, realizes he was betrayed by Ruth, and rejects her. Frederic informs the girls that he is a pirate, but not for long. He asks if any of the girls will marry him, and the youngest, Mabel, agrees.
The pirates enter the scene, and each grabs a girl. Major-General Stanley enters and identifies himself as the girls’ father, demanding to know what is taking place. When the pirates tell Major-General Stanley that they intend to marry his daughters, he objects, saying he has an aversion to having pirates for sons-in-law; the pirates respond that they are opposed to having major-generals as fathers-in-law, but that they will put aside the objection.
Knowing about the pirates’ weakness, Major-General Stanley tells them he is an orphan and, thus, disarms the pirates and saves his daughters. However, he soon feels guilty about the lie he told the pirates. Frederic, however, has a plan to lead a squad of zany policemen against his old gang. Before he can act, however, the pirate king and Ruth arrive to tell him that he is still obligated to the pirates. Because Frederic was born on Leap Year Day, 29th February, he has served only five birthdays, not the twenty-one required by his contract. A strong sense of duty forces Frederic to relent, and, because he is a member of the pirate band again, to reveal the truth that Major-General Stanley is not an orphan. The pirate king vows that he will have revenge on the major-general.

Mabel enters and begs Frederic not to go back to the pirates, but bound by duty, he leaves. The police ready their attack on the pirates, while the pirates creep in to take revenge on the major-general. The pirates defeat the police. However, when Ruth divulges that the pirates are really noblemen and they swear their allegiance to the queen, the tables are turned--and the police take the pirates prisoner. However, because the pirates have never really hurt anyone, they are soon forgiven. The ex-pirates win the girls, Frederic wins Mabel, and everyone lives happily ever after.


Frederick: Russell Whitehead
Mabel: Alan Richardson
Pirate King: Ricky Rojas
Ruth: Samuel Holmes
Major General Stanley: Fred Broom
Sergeant of Police: Joe Maddison
Samuel: Michael Burgen
Edith: Stewart Charlesworth
Connie: Lee Greenway
Isabel: Chris Theo-Cook
Kate: Christopher Wheeler

Creative Team
Director: Sasha Regan
Choreographer: Lizzie Gee
Musical Director: Chris Mundy
Designer: Robyn Wilson
Costumes: Frances Jones
Lighting: Steve Miller

Think Gilbert and Sullivan is outdated and old hat? Think again, my friends, think again. Hie yourself off to the sunny coast of Cornwall (currently in residence at the wonderfully atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall, deep in the heart of Jack the Ripper territory) and have your preconceptions thrown away. But make it quick – this production isn’t going to be around for much longer and it deserves to be seen. The production’s “gimmick” is that its an all male cast (making for a fairly high PPSI ratio in the audience) but played more or less “straight” – and this just serves to make it even funnier. Henry Lytton, who took over the G&S comic roles in the early 1900s, once made a very good point about how to play the comedy parts in the operettas, saying

Now, if an actor in these operas has to be careful of one thing above everything else, it is that of avoiding forcing a point. Gilbert's wit is so neat and so beautifully phrased that it would be utterly spoilt by buffoonery. The lines must be declaimed in deadly seriousness just as if the actor believes absolutely in the fanciful and extravagant thing he is saying. I can think of no better illustration of this than the scene in Iolanthe where Strephon rejects recourse to the Chancery Court and says his code of conduct is regulated only by "Nature's Acts of Parliament." The Lord Chancellor then talks about the absurdity of "an affidavit from a thunderstorm or a few words on oath from a heavy shower." What a typical Gilbertian fancy! Well, you know how the "comic" man would say that, how he would whip up his coat collar and shiver at the suggestion of rain, and how he would do his poor best to make it sound and look "funny." And the result would be that he would kill the wittiness of the lines by burlesque. The Lord Chancellor says the words as if he believes an affidavit from a thunderstorm was at least a possibility, and the suggestion that he does think it possible makes the very idea, in the audience's mind, more whimsical still.
This tenet has obviously been at the forefront of the creative team’s vision for this production and it works like a dream. It’s not burlesque (no wigs or outrageous make-up, for instance) - it just happens to be an all male cast, who are not “consciously” playing women. Yes, its camp (with a fairly high PPSI quotient in the audience), but then G&S is camp anyway. What makes the production stand out is its energy, its commitment, its creativeness and, and above all, its humour. I really can’t remember the last time I heard an audience laugh so much at a show that’s rapidly approaching its 125th birthday. Not only is the (by now very familiar) dialogue made funny again, but there are visual jokes coming at you thick and fast from the moment the first person steps on the stage. Its simply but extremely effectively staged, leaving your mind free to focus on stage groupings and placings and to enjoy facial expressions and interactions (nobody on stage actually stops acting the entire way through). You actually start to forget that these are all men because you’re enjoying what they are doing so much. I haven’t enjoyed a production of Pirates so much for a good long time. This performance simply made me appreciate just how good it was – it takes all that is good about G&S and acknowledges its history, yet re-invents it for a new audience. It doesn't try to pickle the show in aspic, nor treats it with such reverence that it falls under its own weight. Its light-hearted, fun, inventive and (in the main) well sung.
Of course, the operetta die-hard in me has a few quibbles. A couple of the performances failed to stand out as much as they might have done, mainly that of the Pirate King - this role can go for nothing if not played with enough bravura and swagger. Although Ricky Rojas played the part well enough (with a strong Spanish accent of the “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die” variety), he lacked the proper vocal weight that the role requires; it needs to be sung with a decent bass-baritone register. The Sergeant of Police is always a role that the least-vocally talented member of a Pirates company gets landed with and this production is no exception. Russell Whitehead, although having a pleasant enough voice, lacked true vocal power in the operatic sense and had insufficient range to hit some of Frederic’s top notes. It would seem churlish, however, to criticise Alan Richardson for his relatively small voice and for not being able to tackle “her” cadenza – how often do you hear a man singing with a more than passable soprano voice?

The performance that really blew me away, however, was Samuel Jones’s Ruth. Looking like a dishevelled umbrella, Mr. Jones’ portrayal really made me look at the relationship between Ruth and Frederick in a way that I’d never seen it before. It was a lesson in what can be made of one of Gilbert’s unsympathetic “old bag” parts by a talented actor, completely opened up the part and made what can be a fairly throwaway character (even though it’s quite a big part) into a major player, both in terms of the actual plot and the character’s relationships with other people in the story. Jones’ performance should be viewed and noted by every amateur contralto who thinks that Ruth is a “non-part”. Coming up close behind on the rails was Fred Broom’s Major-General, played like a cross between something from the pages of Punch and a music-hall MC (although he couldn’t manage “I am the very model of a modern Major-General) at anything like the required speed).
I liked the two-tiered stage and the very simple but extremely effective “set”, consisting really of nothing more than a large stack of wooden crates, piled up to represent sand dunes, and which gave good opportunities for groupings and stage pictures. I also loved the fact that Major-General Stanley’s “horse” was nothing more than an old broom and will remember the “feeding the horse a carrot” sight gag for a very long time! In fact, seeing that Him Indoors is known to occasionally direct the odd production of Pirates, I may well insist that this particular gag makes an appearance in the next one. Lighting was extremely effective and costumes, although basic, were clever and appropriate; the fact that they were all basically white and/or cream cleverly brought the production together as a “unit” without detracting from the whole.

I think Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan (once they had finished chuntering into their whiskers, of course, about the impropriety of it all), would have enjoyed the evening thoroughly. Go book your tickets now. You’ll be glad you did.

What the critics said:


23 April 2010

Women Beware Women - National Theatre, Wednesday 18th April 2010


At the court of the Duke of Florence, a husband must be found for Isabella, daughter to Fabritio and niece to the scheming professional widow, Livia. Guardiano, a Courtier suggests his nephew, the foolish Ward, but Isabella refuses him, and through the machinations of her aunt, the innocent Isabella is seduced by her salacious uncle, Livia’s brother Hippolito.

Leantio, a poor agent, has married Bianca, a wealthy heiress. Shortly after their union, Leantio is called back to his business, leaving his wife alone with his mother.

When the Florentine Duke catches Bianca’s eye, she too is procured by Livia whose quest for sexual power kick-starts a chain of events that will shake the foundations of polite society. She seduces the estranged husband Leantio, but their relationship is cut short when he is wounded and killed in a duel by her brother.

The newly-widowed Bianca quickly marries the Duke, and under the pretence of a play performed for their nuptials, those caught in the web of deceit and betrayal enact brutal and bloody revenge on each other.

Leantio -Samuel Barnett
Sordido - Nick Blood
Hippolito - Raymond Coulthard
Fabritio - James Hayes
Messenger - Samuel James
Isabella - Vanessa Kirby
Duke of Florence - Richard Lintern
Ward - Harry Melling
Lord Cardinal - Chu Omambala
Bianca - Lauren O’Neil
Mother - Tilly Tremayne
Livia - Harriet Walter
Guardiano - Andrew Woodall

Well, this WAS a disappointment - not only for me, but for Him Indoors, who had been bouncing up and down in his chair for the last three weeks squawking "We're going to see Women Beware Women"! at every possible opportunity like a demented parrot. We were both expecting (and hoping for) a debauched, seedy, blood-soaked Florentine Court much in the vein of The Revenger's Tragedy but got a pale, controlled and somewhat too squeaky clean version set vaguely in the 50's where everything seemed to have been dipped in Flash and given a good scrub down.  Part of the problem was that the enormous revolving set, although interesting to look at and allowing for playing on lots of physical levels, was just that bit too well-kempt, well-lit and frosty-clean to hint at the corruption and depravity that was meant to be lurking behind it. Cobwebs decay and darkness lit by dribbly candles would have been more appropriate, but for most of the evening we were looking at enough shiny black marble floortiles and perspex panels to give the man from the Cilit Bang adverts a hard-on.  The 1950s are not an era that you would really associate with depravity - if you ARE going to be lazy and put on a modern dress production (rather than setting it in the correct period with all the gorgeousness and lushness and corruption that this engenders - and at least it would have been visually more impressive than the tired old "black, white and red" idea), then the 1980s would have been more appropriately sleazy, and would have provided a better example of a society of incredible disparities in wealth.  The 50s seemed just a bit too.... safe.   

Another problem was that Middleton's text really rather failed to catch fire at any point - it's very, very wordy and yet somehow quite sterile - you'd usually expect 17th century Revenge Drama to be a lot more florid.  I know that this was a very early preview performance, so maybe the cast were still trying to stretch their vocals to give their lines some colour and adapt to the cavernous space, but it did all seem a little....well, rehearsed, really. 

Part of the problem was certainly with the casting. Samuel Barnett looked and sounded like a very young Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair opposite Helen Mirren in The Queen) and was not terribly convincing - too shrill, too geeky, too self-consciously ingenue.  Vanessa Kirby is  far too old to be playing a 16 or 17 year old girl and it was a bad mistake to give her a role which requires singing a throaty jazz number because she just ain't got the vocal talent to pull it off. I did feel sorry for her, however, having to appear several times in a frock that already seemed to be fraying badly at the front hem.  Harriet Walter, much as I adored her in the film of Sense and Sensibility and her completely scene-stealing role in The Young Victoria, looked somewhat dessicated to be playing a voluptuous, scheming murderess, and creaked about the stage like a Machiavellian pterodactyl.  Her vocal projection seemed to be suffering as well; like the brittle crackling of pages in a badly-stored book.  Lauren O'Neill was by far the most appropriately cast, holding the stage well and gorgeously audible, but it was probably Tilly Tremaine who walked away with all the acting honours as Leantio's elderly mother, giving a simple yet elegant portrayal of poverty-stricken respectability  (a lovely little bit of direction has her carefully popping several bits of unwanted Turkish Delight from the grand dinner table into her handbag in the second act).  However, she probably won't be tying her apron strings up in such a complicated bow ever again as they got caught up in a knot and, after a slighly unprofessional struggle with them during the first five minutes of the play, decided to wiggle out of the offending apron, drop it to the floor and step out of it.  Personally, I would have just turned my back on someone and indicated to them to undo me - very possibly Nick Blood's gorgeously sexy Sordido.  James Hayes as Fabritio fell foul of Spencer Tracy's famous adage about acting "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture" by very audibly falling over a step while making his first entrance.  Tsk tsk, and this at the National. 

Obviously the audience found the first act very hard going as there were quite noticeable absentees after the interval (it is a very complicated plot, admittedly), although the two American women next to me might have found it easier to follow had one of them stopped playing with her Blackberry and the other refrained from doodling on a Starbucks napkin all the way through.  There is an extremely badly misjudged attempt at a comedy interlude halfway through the second act which grates badly with the rest of the piece, and the plot takes an unsympathetic and incredible (in the original sense of the word) turn when Livia falls for Leantio and pursues him like a cross between a preying mantis and  Lady Bracknell stalking a butterfly.  It was only in the final five minutes or so that the blood-and-guts really started spilling in a wonderfully baroque piece of staging as the servants metamorphosed into black-winged Angels of Death attendant on a masque where poison, knives and garrottes were deployed with abandon.  If only the rest of the production had been like these last few minutes, then the entire night wouldn't have felt like such a waste of time.  As it is, this was far too clinical, too anodyne and not nearly decadent enough. I predict a flop.  Beware Women Beware Women!

20 April 2010

Cinderella - The Royal Ballet @ The Royal Opera House, Saturday 17th April 2010


Cinderella: Miyako Yoshida
Prince: Steven McRae
Stepsisters: Wayne Sleep, Luke Heydon
Cinderella’s Father: Christopher Saunders
Fairy Godmother: Laura Morera
Spring Fairy: Iohna Loots
Summer Fairy: Hikaru Kobayashi
Autumn Fairy: Akane Takada
Winter Fairy: Claire Calvert
Jester: Paul Kay

Creative Team:
Music: Prokofiev
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Set: Toer van Schayk
Costumes: Christine Hayworth
Lighting: Mark Jonathan

Strange to see a production of Cinderella when the sun is blazing outside, and sad to see the great Miyako Yoshida at one of her last performances in the UK for the Royal Ballet as she retires from the stage in June this year. And doubly sad that this performance looked under-rehearsed by some of the minor principals and the stage technicians. And trebly sad that the audience was so badly behaved.
Regular readers of my reviews will know how much I rave about Yoshida’s performance in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker, so it was kind of Him Indoors to stump up for tickets for me to see her in this production. The place was packed to the rafters, with many Japanese people among the audience – Yoshida is hugely popular with her countrymen, who will get to see her dance her last role – Juliet – in Tokyo later this year. The place was also packed with people who didn’t know how to behave at the ballet; a whiny 10 year old girl at the end of the row who didn’t go to the toilet during the interval and consequently fidgeted throughout the whole of Act 2, the woman in the row in front who neglected to turn off her mobile phone which then, of course, rang in her handbag several times during one of the quiet bits, the couple next to her who only had one pair of opera binoculars between them and spent the entire evening taking off their spectacles, putting them on the top of their head, focussing the binoculars on the stage for 30 seconds or so, replacing their spectacles and then passing the binoculars right across my sightline to the other, and the couple in front of them who found it necessary to chatter loudly to each other on several occasions, earning one of the loudest shushes I have ever made in public. Then there was the couple who didn’t know where their seats were and made everyone in the row get up so they could wiggle past, and then made everyone get up again when they realised they had been in the right place the first time and had to wiggle all the way back again. Much more and I’d have been hammering on the ticket office door for a private box.
Sadly, the performance looked a bit wobbly in a lot of places. There were problems with some of the sets which didn’t open out properly. There was some very scrappy dancing by a couple of minor characters, and lots of spacing and lining problems from the corps. One of the Season Fairies (Summer, I think) fell off her pointe at the end of her solo, and the Autumn Fairy should be relegated to sweeping the stage (of dust, if not fallen leaves). The sweet lickle kiddiwinkles who accompany each Season Fairy were obviously thrown on with no rehearsal as very few of them had any real idea of where to stand, ending up in dark spots or completely out of line with everyone else. Still, we were all really there just to see Miyako and she didn’t disappoint. She has the most remarkable hands and wrists, which she uses so gracefully that she stands out from everyone else even when surrounded by other dancers doing the same steps. Of course, she’s so tiny that the role of Cinderella is perfectly suited to her anyway, but she seems to dance everything with such joy. There’s no real dark side to Ashton’s version of the story anyway – no evil stepmother and the stepsisters are straight out of panto with their comical hideousness. Many moons ago I saw a version of Cinderella choreographed by Matthew Bourne (him of the all male Swan Lake), in which Cinders’ life was really made a living hell by her nasty step-siblings and their horrible mother, which gave some much-needed light and shade to the story (and also some context as Cinders' mother appeared briefly at the beginning. In Ashton-land, however, the family seem to be rubbing along quite cheerfully. The production feels skimped by Ashton. The transformation scene (such as it is) is in dire need of some major magic, there’s no grand pas de deux for Cinders and her prince in Act III and nothing approaching any psychological depth. On the other hand, so much time is taken up by the cavortings of the Step-sisters (Ashton wrote one of the roles for himself) that there’s little time to emphasise anything else and the bloody Jester dominates Act 2 so much that frankly he gets on my tits, making the Prince a mere cipher in terms of stage time. The inclusion of 12 ballerinas representing the Hours was a good idea by Ashton, but they feel underused and could be utilised more effectively than merely turning up in the kitchen and hopping round the place. For instance, what would be wrong with them forming a semicircle round Cinders and the Fairy Godmother during the latter’s explanation that she must be home by midnight and each using her arms to portray a different hour on the dial ? There’s bugger all else for them to do, frankly, so they might as well make themselves useful.

Anyway, I shall now stop playing the frustrated choreographer. Wayne Sleep, who must be in his sixties by now, gave a wonderfully energetic and comic Stepsister, but wasn’t matched by Luke Heydon in terms of energy, attack or even apparent commitment to his role. Laura Morera, however, was a grand and gracious Fairy Godmother

It’s a shame that the Royal Ballet didn’t let Yoshida open this revival (her last UK role) and thus get the reviews, all of which go to Alina Cojucarou who danced on the opening night. We’ll be sad to see you go, Mikayo; you were an ornament to our stage.

01 April 2010

Concerto/The Judas Tree/Elite Syncopations - Royal Ballet @ Royal Opera House, Wednesday 31st March 2010

To a half-empty Opera House yesterday to see an extremely mixed bill in honour of Kenneth Macmillan, a bitter, angry old queen whose signature style of choreography still defies pinning down. The evening felt cheap and “thrown on” and nobody really seemed to be dancing their best. There was a real “its mid-week, there’s only rubes in so let’s not bother pushing the envelope” feel to the whole evening. The performance wasn’t helped by an extremely idiosyncratic grab-bag of short items, seemingly plucked out of the air at random. A better selection might have done much to improve the overall feel of the evening.

The first out of the bag was Concerto, a “pure dance” piece to music by Shostakovich and with no plot. I must admit straight out that I’m not a great fan of pure dance, but by the second movement, this was really working its magic on me. I think it was the effect of the wonderfully lit stage, with an enormous low-hanging sun (I thought it was setting, but then I’m a “glass half empty” person and it could just as well have been rising; in my own defence, the generally autumnal colours of the costumes gave it an “end of summer” feel). Pretty shapes, nice music, interesting choreography (although my brain kept trying to force some kind of narrative on it) – although there was some incredibly sloppy lining and spacing going on, which my eye always seemed to be focussing on.

Next up was The Judas Tree, the type of ballet which completely turns me against the entire art form (and yet its one that gets the most column inches in all the reviews). Horrible discordant “weasel music” of the kind which a four year old produces at their first violin lessons, ugly choreography and an incoherent storyline overlaid with semi-religious overtones. Much as I fought to overcome my prejudices and open my mind to the piece, the shutters came down after about five minutes and I started tuning out; after ten minutes I was staring into space and not registering anything other than the sight of hunky young men stripped to the waist. Otherwise, not worth the effort. It was Macmillan’s last work and shows just how confused and desperate to please he had become – unfortunately it’s a real case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

This piece then poisoned my mind to the evening’s last offering, Elite Syncopations, another “nothing” ballet danced on a completely bare stage. Unfortunately this also appeared to be a desperate attempt at crowd-pleasing by Macmillan, in his “straining for a laugh” mode; there’s no subtlety of humour such as in Ashton’s Les Patineurs, merely clowning. And the costumes kept getting in the way visually – when 30 or 40 people (including the on-stage band) are dressed up like rejects from Chipperfields Circus, your vision gets tired by the bright colours and attempts to pick out the details of each individual costume and silly hat, rather than concentrating on the movements. There were two people wearing exactly the same costume which became glaringly obvious when they were close together and annoying when they moved apart. It may have been well-danced but again, there were spacing issues and wobbly lineups all over the place.

Macmillan choreographed several short ballets and I think it would have done his memory better service if we’d seen something like Winter Dreams (which is based on Chekov’s Three Sisters) or maybe explored some of his more obscure stuff – I’ve never seen Valley of Shadows, Gloria, Fin du Jour or Different Drummer and they all seem intriguing titles. This particular triple bill seemed just that bit too safe, and there was a definite lack of sparkle to the evening.

For such short pieces (25 minutes, 35 minutes and 36 minutes) I completely fail to see why the Royal Ballet insist on such incredibly long intervals of 30 minutes each. Two of these intervals add a whole hour to the proceedings and I could have been home in time to watch Kitchen Nightmares without them. Still, I suppose the upper crust have to have time to swill their champagne and wolf down their smoked salmon sandwiches without getting indigestion.

And still no sign of the Destribats in the Benefactors list. They've been missing for a good couple of years. Maybe the recession is hitting them hard.