23 May 2010

Paradise Found - Menier Chocolate Factory, Sunday 23rd May 2010

The Shah of Persia is feeling low. So to lift his spirits he’s off to Vienna with his Eunuch in tow for some new adventures. He promptly falls in love with the Empress of the Empire, much to the dismay of her husband, so a resident of the local brothel – who is a double for the Empress – is substituted for a night of passion. But she’s in love with a Baron, who’s having an affair with the Soap Manufactuer’s Wife….

Colonel/Trummer – Herndon Lackey
Shah – John McMartin
Eunuch – Mandy Patinkin
Vizier/Soap Manufacturer – George Lee Andrews
Baron – Shuler Hensley
Mizzi – Kate Baldwin
Frau Matzner – Judy Kaye
Soap Manufacturer’s Wife – Nancy Opel
Mayor – Daniel Marcus
Creative Team:
Director – Harold Prince
Co –director/Choreographer – Susan Stroman
Music – Strauss (arrangements by Jonathan Tunick)
Scenic Design – Beowulf Borrit
Lighting – Howell Binkley
Costume – Judith Dolan

And so ends a long run of Menier Theatre hits with the sound of a dead duck falling very heavily on the stage. I did wonder beforehand about the advisability of going to the theatre on a boiling hot Sunday (when one really should have been In the Park With George), but with seemingly the entire theatre-reviewing community of London also en route (even those of us who had paid for our tickets) I was obviously going to be in august company, especially since the Broadway transfer of this show has already been announced, following hot on the heels of 15 or so Tony nominations for other Menier productions which have already crossed the pond. But its important to note that this isn’t a Menier production in the same sense as A Little Night Music or La Cage aux Folles (both currently wowing the yanks) as it hasn’t been produced in-house – although it will probably have “direct from the Menier Chocolate Factory, London” plastered all over it in New York to give it some added cachet – and by god it will need every ounce of cachet it can get. Despite an awesome array of talent both in front of the curtain and backstage, this is a real stinker of the kind I haven’t seen since Too Close to the Sun last year.

The insurmountable problem here is the sheer awfulness of the book, which is essentially operetta of a kind that went out of fashion about 30 years ago. It starts by trying to be something vaguely 1001 Nights, tries desperately to reference The King and I in that its framing device is the clash of culture between east and west (or in this case the Middle East and Mittel-Europa) and then mixes in Strauss’ Vienna and Die Fledermaus (there’s a louche club called – with extreme heavy-handedness - “The Bat”, the baron makes a pass at someone’s wife’s maid, there's a "comedy" deception when a whore masquerades as an Empress) with dollops of Ivor Novello (soubrettes called Mizzi, chorines in dirndls and so on). It then gets all realistic and grim for a while in Act 2 and then goes back to 1001 Nights with an implausibly “happy ever after in the harem” ending. The set-up is dire, the story daft beyond words, the characters unsympathetic and badly drawn and the execution perilously close to farce. If it were parodying operetta, it would be just about allowable, but its not – its played straight and its bloody awful. The songs are uninspired, set to not-very-well-known Strauss, although the Blue Danube is referenced and the Kaiser Waltz features a couple of times. The dialogue is risible and, although it tries hard to be funny, just isn’t. The audienece is practically silent for the entire performance, although there is the occasional titter from someone low on oxygen in the dark heat of the auditorium. I laugh once, when one of the characters asks for a slice of a Viennese pastry called gugelhupf – and the only reason I laughed at that is because it’s a private joke (look at me in a particular way and say profiteroles or sachertorte and I’ll collapse in hysteria). The costumes are occasionally unbelievably tatty, despite being from Angels, and the wigs, which could be beautiful if dressed properly, don’t look as if they’ve seen a perruquier’s loving hand or a quick blast of Elle-Net for ages. And then there’s Mandy Patinkin, warbling and sweating and attempting to sing falsetto (he is playing a eunuch after all) and looking and sounding like he’s channelling Yoda from the star wars films.

Truly, this is really, really bad, to the point of my feeling embarrassed for some of the people sweating their tits off on stage. I predict they will be giving tickets away for nothing by the end of the run. Which should at least please some people.

What the critics thought:
No professional reviews yet; opening night isnt until Tuesday 25th.  However, the Blog Reviewers have more or less unilaterally poured their justifiable scorn:




And with the arrival of the pro reviews: Paradise Lost sinks away never to be heard of again.






22 May 2010

Carmen - The 02, Friday 22nd May 2010

In a square in Seville, soldiers and townspeople are gathered when a young peasant girl name Micaela questions the soldiers about her love, Don Jose. The soldiers try to persuade the young girl to stay with them until Don Jose returns, but she declines and leaves. Don Jose arrives moments before the cigarette factory bell rings and a group of women, including the beautiful gypsy, Carmen, exit the building. The soldiers flirt with the girls and asks Carmen when she will love them. Don Jose becomes enchanted by the beautiful Carmen. Micaela returns with a letter sent to Don Jose by his mother. In the letter, Don Jose's mother has asked him to marry Micaela. Don Jose promises his fidelity and love. A fight breaks out at the cigarette factory between Carmen and another woman. Carmen injures the woman before she is captured by Officer Zuniga. Zuniga commands Don Jose to escort Carmen to prison. However, Carmen charms Don Jose into letting her escape. When Don Jose is discovered for letting Carmen escape, he is thrown into jail.
At Lilas Pastia's inn, Carmen and her friends Mercedes and Frasquitam are socializing with the soldiers when the victorious bullfighter, Escamillo, arrives with a celebrating entourage and attempts to capture Carmen's heart. However, his attempts are unsuccessful, as are Officer Zuniga's, who tells Carmen that he will return to the inn later to meet with her - Carmen's heart waits for Don Jose's release from prison. The smugglers Dancairo and Remendado ask for help from Carmen and her two friends. Mercedes and Frasquita agree to help, but Carmen refuses as she knows that Don Jose will be released from prison that day. When he finally arrives, Carmen dances for him. Her dance is cut short when a bugle sounds in the distance, signaling Don Jose to return home. Carmen mocks his obedience and tries to persuade him to remain with her and live the gypsy life. Don Jose does not give in until Zuniga arrives at the inn searching for Carmen. Zuniga orders Don Jose to leave, but in a fit of jealousy, he defies his commander’s orders. Dancairo and Remendado tackle Zuniga and take him away from the inn. Don Jose stays at the inn with Carmen.
Don Jose, now at the smuggler's hideout in the mountains, begins to reminisce about his former home and his mother and starts missing them dearly. Carmen, who has decided she no longer loves him, takes notice and starts taunting him to leave, but he does not. Mercedes and Frasquita tell their fortunes with a deck of cards. For the two girls, the cards The smugglers and the girls leave, while Don Jose watches over the hideout. Micaela, comes to the mountain hideout and hides behind a mound of rocks when she hears a gunshot fired by Escamillo. Escamillo enters the hideout and begins telling Don Jose about his love for Carmen. He also tells Don Jose about her relationship with a soldier, not knowing the story is about Don Jose, who starts fighting Escamillo. The smugglers return before the fight gets worse. Escamillo invites Carmen and the others to his upcoming bullfight as he leaves the hideout. Micaela finally emerges from her hiding spot, and tries to convince Don Jose to return home. After several unsuccessful attempts, she finally persuades him to leave by telling him his beloved mother is dying. He promises his return to Carmen and leaves with Micaela.
During the procession of the toreadors, Carmen and Escamillo are seen arriving together. Mercedes and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don Jose is lurking around the crowd plotting to kill her. While Escamillo enters the bullfighting ring, a desperate Don Jose meets Carmen outside the arena. She explains that she no longer loves him and throws the ring he gave her on the ground. Now completely mad, Don Jose stabs Carmen in the heart with a dagger.
Carmen: Cristina Nassil
Don Jose: John Hudson
Micaela: Elizabeth Atherton
Escamillo: Kevin Greenlaw
Frasquita: Kate Ladner
Mercedes: Susan Atherton
Dancairo: Quentin Hayes
Remendado: Aled Hall

Creative Team:
Director: David Freeman
Musical Director: Gareth Hancock
Designer: David Roger
Choreographer: Robert North
Lighting: Andrew Bridge

First things first: the publicity for this says “A cast of over 200”. Well, having counted all the names in the programme, I can tell you that there are actually 124 – unless one counts the orchestra, of course. It isn’t usual to include the orchestra in the cast count – in fact, I’ve never known it done. I contacted the promoters for their explanation and will report back.
Him Indoors often criticises my reviews for not mentioning the direction enough. Well, I’m about to change all that.
The whole point of theatre “in the round” is to make sure that everyone in the auditorium can see what’s going on. So you direct accordingly. Its not easy, granted, but with a performance space the size of the 02, when a crowd scene is necessary, you use your directorial skill and spread your cast (all 124 of them) out to fill the space, making sure that the sightlines are clear and that the principals can be seen by the audience. You get them to exaggerate their movements so that their performance can be “read” by people sitting in the cheap seats at the back (this is opera, remember, so you’ve got carte blanche to go completely over the top). You get your costume designer to put principals in bright costumes so that they can be identified, and you get your lighting designer to pick out important people and bits of action in bright spotlights. You pay a great deal of attention to spacing and you avoid having your chorus stand in straight lines wherever possible so that no section of the audience is presented with a row of backs. You use all the available space, making sure that important bits of the plot aren’t obscured by the cast or tucked away in corners where the sightlines might be dodgy, and you certainly shouldn’t fall into the trap of setting the really important bits exclusively in front of the most expensive seats in the house to the detriment of those people sitting in the cheaper seats. This is what you should do. This is not what happens in this production.

The vast, soulless and impersonal space of the O2 ("the world's most popular venue") probably isn’t the best place for opera anyway, most of which relies on an emotive connection between the cast and the audience member. The acting area for this production, marooned in the middle of the arena and putting further physical space between performers and viewers, is a single strip of sand-coloured rostra. It has a long windy tail section, a couple of slightly wider sections about 2/3 of the way along and then curves round through about 4/5 of a circle. From where we are sitting, it looks vaguely like an enormous sperm – quite appropriate seeing as how the direction is a load of wank, frankly. Much of the performance takes place at the “head” of the sperm shape (right in front of the expensive seats), leaving those of us marooned at its tail trying desperately to pick out what is going on. I would have seen more of the action by staying home and renting a DVD as most of the cast are so far away for so much of the time that they would appear larger on my TV screen. In this we are not helped by constant “clumping” of chorus and supernumerary cast around the principals – for most of the evening, all I can see is backs, making it impossible to judge what is going on, who is singing what to whom and whether any acting of any kind is taking place (I’m vaguely embarrassed to state that I don’t really know the story of Carmen, so do find it necessary to be able to see what is going on so that I can understand the plot). Carmen, having made her entrance in a red skirt so that she can be picked out from the chorus who are all wearing white, takes her skirt off so that she disappears into the throng of clumped chorus.  When its not the chorus who are clumped, it’s the furniture – the inn scene takes place on one of the small “blobs”, making the performing area so cramped with rustic tables that the cast are, most of the time, in grave danger of tripping over each other while jigging about being a chorus of happy customers. Escamillo, wearing a black costume, simply disappears into the throng of other people wearing black costumes. No use is made of the space around the walkway - everyone is simply herded onto one of its "blobs, so they are all at the same physical level - until the end of Escamillo's second verse, at which point he stands on one of the tables so he can FINALLY be seen.. The principals, quite simply, disappear in the throng.  The throng disappears quite a lot too, into the haze at the other end of the arena.  Nothing is staged at our end of the walkway. Act 3, set in and around the smugglers' den, is staged in such stygian gloom throughout that not even the people in the expensive seats can see what is happening.  Someone is apparently hiding in the rocks outside the den but I can't see who it is.  Whoever it is sings that she hasn't seen Don Jose for ages.  I can understand why. 

The orchestra are at the tail end of the sperm, right at the other end from where the performance is happening. There are, however, 18 relay screens located round the arena so that the performers can see the conductor and the conductor can see the performers. This doesn’t stop a lot of the chorus and a fair few principals drifting badly away from the beat on several occasions.  I find myself wishing that the relay screens were relaying the actual performance so that I can see what is going on.  A lot of people in the audience (those who aren't constantly traipsing up and down the stairs in order to buy wildly overpriced drinks and pungent fast food from the food booths which remain open all the way through the performance- how the stink of chips adds to the Spanish atmosphere!)  walk out and never return.

I can't comment on any of the individual performances as I didn't see any of them - they were either too far away or hidden by the chorus or both.  The only person whose diction is good enough to be heard consistently is Elizabeth Atherton's Michaela, demonstrated by the fact that she got the biggest round of applause at the end, very possibly for being the only cast member who could be bothered to project her acting to the entire arena.  Honestly, if the director had come on at the end I would have stood up and booed extremely loudly.  Despite the vastness of the arena, most of this production is directed for a performance space the size of the stage in a village hall. No effort whatsoever went into using the space effectively, or even properly. The director should be ashamed of himself - he seems to have directed other arena productions on a similarly vast scale and there was no excuse for the schoolboy errors he has made for this show.  Disgusting.  If you go to see this (and I highly recommend you don't) then remember to take very powerful binoculars with you.  You might be able to spot 76 people lurking round the auditorium who should be up on the stage. 

Rating: No stars (bloody awful)

What the critics thought:

11 May 2010

Love the Sinner - National Theatre - Monday 9th May 2010


An international group of church leaders converge in an African hotel to contend the need for Christian doctrine to change with the times. In a neighbouring room, a brief sexual encounter between Joseph, a local porter, and Michael, a British conference volunteer, leads to a direct and potent challenge to both Michael, as he returns to England to grapple with ethics of his own, and to the liberal claims and professed compassion of the affluent West and its church.

Daniel: Scott Handy
Tom/Bill : Sam Graham
James/Dave: Fraser James
Matthew/Harry: Robert Gwilym
John/Revd Farley: Paul Bentall
Simon/Official: Richard Rees
Hannah/Alison: Nancy Crane
Stephen: Ian Redford
Paul: Louis Mahoney
Michael: Jonathan Cullen
Joseph: Fiston Barek
Shelley: Charlotte Randle

Creative Team:
Writer: Drew Pautz
Director: Matthew Dunster
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting: Philip Gladwell
Music: Jules Maxwell

Rearranging the letters that make up the words “Cottesloe Theatre” with the help of my trusty Scrabble set I came up with “To the electorates” (very timely) and “The Settee Locator” (there weren’t enough letters to make the phrase “Cold dark hole of a theatre down the side of the National” or “What a load of rubbish”). I needed a settee locator after having suffered two and a bit hours of probably the worst play I’ve seen so far this year – badly written, wildly uneven and appallingly acted. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a machine gun with the safety catch off being operated by a complete novice, firing off in all directions trying to hit several targets and missing every one of them.

The story itself wanders about like a saint in the wilderness, trying desperately to be “relevant” and “topical” but eventually just getting totally lost and refusing to pull over and ask for directions. At a theological conference debating homosexuality and the Church, being held in a hotel in an unnamed African country, rampantly heterosexual yet strangely beige and ineffective Michael is a humble note-taker among wildly stereotyped vicars of various nations (who cannot agree on whose turn it is to order coffee, let alone decide whether Jesus would have ever condoned poofery). Michael then falls prey to the manly charms of Joseph, a porter in the hotel. Whether Joseph does this kind of thing regularly or has set Michael up for blackmail (he wants to leave Africa and start a new life in England) is never made clear. There are (allegedly humorous) misunderstandings of the “Oh…er… this young man was helping me find my passport” kind when Joseph is discovered in Michael’s bedroom. Back in England, Michael’s wife can hear her biological clock ticking loudly and is arguing her case for IVF treatment, although he seems more concerned about the family of squirrels in their loft (cue for a very heavy-handed and extended metaphor about the resettlement of families and how the displacement of the male usually leads to the breakup and eventual death of the entire colony). He starts to have problems at work (he runs a firm making donation envelopes for churches – surely somewhat of a niche business but he seems to employ at least six people) and is in the middle of a tense meeting when his wife turns up explaining that Joseph has managed to get to England and has (somehow) tracked Michael down (no explanation given as to how Joseph has managed to pay for the flight over) then, when the meeting is over, they decide to make love on the table (cue for nudity and then broad farce when one of the employees tries to come back into the room). At some kind of press conference held in the local church and attended by the Bishop and several of the delegates from the African conference, Michael is discovered hiding Joseph in the basement. Joseph has been badly beaten by thugs in Africa because of his homosexuality (a point which is rammed down the audiences’ throat not via the text but through Joseph displaying his scarred back to the audience for the first 10 minutes of this scene). The bishop takes Joseph under his wing and promises to help him towards a better life. The end. Bewildered and perfunctory applause from the audience.

Reading through the scant programme notes, it turns out that the author, Drew Pautz, was for many years a theatre lighting designer. Obviously, Mr. Pautz watched several productions while programming his Super Troupers to fade up stage left and thought he would have a go at this playwriting lark himself. This is the result and I can only devoutly wish that he had stuck to his lighting desk.
Badly written, it was no better acted. Jonathan Cullen and Charlotte Randall play Michael and his wife with all the subtlety of Elyot and Amanda in Cowards Private Lives, flailing wildly at each other like a pair of demented windmills (some of the most poorly directed stage fighting I’ve ever seen) and verbally. Fiston Barek looks embarrassed most of the time at having to play a hideously stereotyped Joseph. The rest of the cast do their best to bring life to caricatured roles and fail miserably. One can only have sympathy with them. Even the set seemed to be longing to disassociate itself from the play – at one point, in the main characters’ winter-bound flat, Ms. Randall lent on the windowframe and it fell out completely, leaving it wide open to the elements for the rest of the scene. As the two main characters have just been arguing about the extent of the damage caused to their loft by a nest of squirrels, I wondered whether Mr. Nutkin and his family had spent the preceding weeks planning an invasion of the living room and gradually gnawing through the frame in shifts during the hours of darkness in order to gain entry. They certainly would have had the entire family working constant overtime shifts had they found themselves holed up in the Cottesloe Theatre, desperate to get away from this train wreck of a play.   Love the Sinner?  Is this Mr. Pautz's plea for tolerance of this badly written piece of rubbish?

What the critics thought: