16 July 2010

The Comedy of Errors - Open Air Theatre Regent's Park, Monday 12th July 2010


Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, is condemned to death in Ephesus for violating the ban against travel between the two rival cities. As he is led to his execution, he tells the Ephesian Duke, Solinus, that he has come to Syracuse in search of his wife and one of his twin sons, who were separated from him 25 years ago in a shipwreck. The other twin, who grew up with Egeon, is also traveling the world in search of the missing half of their family. (The twins, we learn, are identical, and each has an identical twin slave named Dromio.) The Duke is so moved by this story that he grants Egeon a day to raise the thousand-mark ransom that would be necessary to save his life.
Meanwhile, unknown to Egeon, his son Antipholus of Syracuse (and Antipholus' slave Dromio) is also visiting Ephesus--where Antipholus' missing twin, known as Antipholus of Ephesus, is a prosperous citizen of the city. Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus' wife, mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband and drags him home for dinner, leaving Dromio of Syracuse to stand guard at the door and admit no one. Shortly thereafter, Antipholus of Ephesus (with his slave Dromio of Ephesus) returns home and is refused entry to his own house. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse has fallen in love with Luciana, Adriana's sister, who is appalled at the behavior of the man she thinks is her brother-in-law.
The confusion increases when a gold chain ordered by the Ephesian Antipholus is given to Antipholus of Syracuse. Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to pay for the chain (unsurprisingly, since he never received it) and is arrested for debt. His wife, seeing his strange behavior, decides he has gone mad and orders him bound and held in a cellar room. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave decide to flee the city, which they believe to be enchanted, as soon as possible--only to be menaced by Adriana and the debt officer. They seek refuge in a nearby abbey.

Adriana now begs the Duke to intervene and remove her "husband" from the abbey into her custody. Her real husband, meanwhile, has broken loose and now comes to the Duke and levels charges against his wife. The situation is finally resolved by the Abbess, Emilia, who brings out the set of twins and reveals herself to be Egeon's long-lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus reconciles with Adriana; Egeon is pardoned by the Duke and reunited with his spouse; Antipholus of Syracuse resumes his romantic pursuit of Luciana, and all ends happily with the two Dromios embracing
Egeon - Christopher Ravensworth
Antipholus of Syracuse - Daniel Weyman
Antipholus of Ephesus - Daniel Llewellyn-Williams
Dromio of Syracuse - Joseph Kloska
Dromio of Ephesus - Josh Cohen
Adriana - Jo Herbert
Luciana - Sophie Roberts
Emilia - Veronica Roberts

Creative team:
Director - Philip Franks
Designer - Gideon Davy
Music - Matthew Scott
Lighting - Zerlina Hughes

Oh dear. These people really aren't gathering from the buttocks at all.  In fact, this lot only confirm my theory that, with certain exceptions, the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park is for people who wouldn't know decent Shakespeare if it sat on their face and wiggled (note to self: stop fantasizing about Fred Lancaster).  But then, Regent's Park Shakespeare never is that great - they do the occasional good musical but otherwise its basic, tourist-trap, chuck it on for the masses stuff. And this production is nothing more than that.  What's frustrating is that all the ingredients for a half-decent Comedy of Errors are there (more or less) but they've not been thought through or cooked properly. The basic premise, setting Ephesus somewhere on the Mediterranean coast of Africa in the late 1940s, isn't bad - in fact, with more care taken over the direction and more attention paid to the details, it would be quite a good one.  Mind you, it would help considerably if it were acted better.  Precious few, if any, of the cast have any Shakespeare experience under their belt - its a sad, sad Comedy of Errors when the only decent actors in the cast are playing Egeon and Emilia, both practically invisible parts.  When these people are on stage, it lights up.  When they're not, its like watching Carry On Casablanca - with about as much subtlety.  There's no nuance, no light and shade, no real feeling for the inherent ridiculousness of the situation - just shouting. 

This is a dreary play on the page - the comedy only comes alive with the direction, the interpretation of the roles and the sight gags.  In the main, these are all missing.  The ideas are there; you can see them in embryonic form, but they're "unfinished, sent before [their]time".  With a bit more care for the end product, this could really have been great. Its frustrating to see something never reach the potential you know, lurking somewhere under the flotsam, it has, particularly when occasionally there is a flash of something good.  Unfortunately, this only serves to highlight how bad the stuff around it is.  For instance, Egeon's long opening speech which sets up the story is, usually, a dreary ten minutes or so that you have to endure before you get to the start of the fun.  But here Christopher Ravenscroft invests his speech about the storm which separates the travellers with such intensity and feeling that you can almost hear the salty slap of uncaring waves as they drag his screaming wife and children out of his panicked reach.  Like a great beacon of hope, the speech shines the way for the whole production - but the director ignores it and the entire show heads for the rocks. It founders for a long time, with lots of screaming and rushing about on deck, before a wise and compassionate dolphin (in the form of Veronica Roberts' wonderfully rounded Emila) appears and tries to guide the production to safe harbour but its too late - the ship goes down with all hands. 

Things improve very slightly in the second act when the text takes second place to physical action, but its hard to care by this point about anything or anyone.  There's a lot of padding - unnecessary musical interludes (one "song", murdered by someone with no musical talent whatsoever and which  makes bats tumble out of the evening sky thankfully comes to an end after 4 lines, which is frankly 5 lines too many), people in gorilla suits, references to The Exorcist, Shaun of the Dead and so on. There's a woman in a wheelchair with a puppet pekingese but the comedy potential of this is completely thrown away.  There's a hideously buttock-clenching moment when one of the characters addresses the audience directly, asking if anyone is prepared to stump up surety money for Egeon, which is just asking for trouble.  The Courtesan is turned into a Nightclub singer  (yes, she can sing, but no, she can't act) who at one point strips off to stockings and suspenders that strain to contain her.  Neither of us crack more than the odd smile all evening - its very definitely a case of "Don't play it again, Sam". 

What the critics thought:





15 July 2010

Curtains! - Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Monday 12th July 2010

Robbin' Hood of the Old West, a bad Western adaptation of the Robin Hood story is reaching its conclusion. The egregiously untalented leading lady, Jessica Cranshaw  can't sing, act, dance or remember when to say her lines. To the relief of everyone, she is murdered during her opening night curtain call. The entire company comes under suspicion, and Lt. Frank Cioffi of the Boston Police Department is called in to solve the homicide. Believing that the perpetrator is still in the building, he sequesters it.
The suspects include the hard-bitten producer, Carmen Bernstein; her husband, Sidney; the show's flamboyant director Christopher Belling; divorced songwriting team Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks; Stage Manager Johnny Harmon; choreographer/leading man Bobby Pepper, ingénue Niki Harris, and ambitious chorine Bambi Bernét.

The company use its spare time to attempt to fix the show's problems. Niki, Ms. Cranshaw's understudy, is passed up for the leading role in favour of Georgia, who is encouraged to take the role despite the protests of Aaron, who has fallen in love with her again. Cioffi, a theatre fan and amateur actor, becomes more involved with saving the show than solving the case. Cioffi finds himself falling for Niki, and she seems to return his affection, so he hopes she's not the murderer. Meanwhile, secrets are surfacing, the production numbers in Robbin' Hood are rewritten, rehearsed and rewritten again, and the body count is rising. Can Cioffi solve the case, save the show, and get the girl before the curtain rises without getting offed himself? This is a musical, after all!

Jessica Cranshaw: Sophie Colquhoun
Randy Dexter: David Walmsley
Niki Harris: Eleanor Wyld
Bambi Bernet: Emma Fisher
Bobby Pepper: Nikesh Patel
Georgia Hendricks: Lily Fox
Aaron Fox: Henry Gilbert
Carmen Bernstein: Paloma Oakenfold
Christopher Belling: Patrick Osbourne
Lt. Cioffi: Fred Lancaster

Creative Team:
Director: Martin Connor
Choreographer: Bill Deamer
Musical Director: Steven Edis
Designer: Tom Rogers
Lighting Designer: Mark Jonathan

Fame costs - and right here's where you start paying......   Was that Mr. Shorofsky strolling past being curmudgeonly about Bruno's latest electronic interpretation of Beethoven?  Did I just see Doris Schwartz coming back from the local deli with pastrami on rye? Was that smell wafting along the corridor the tang of Debbie Allen's leotard after a hard morning's session in the dance studio?  No, dahling - nobody here would do anything quite so declasse. For this is not the New York High School for the Performing Arts but the privileged environs of the Guildhall, luvvie, and these old dears are not here because Irene Cara is dancing on the roof of the black cab which dropped them outside but because they're checking that their darling grandchild is spending their Trust Fund wisely in preparation for Life upon the Wicked Stage (preferably in Something At The National or maybe the RSC).  For many, of course, life is going to be unkind and they will end up waiting tables or going into accountancy.  For others, life will be really fucking unfair and they will end up in Holby City.  But until then, its a constant round of "five, six, seven, eight" or gathering from the buttocks while walking around dressed entirely in Ralph Lauren's Polo and sending the bills to Mummy and Daddy, who can't be here because this is a Monday matinee; Mummy is in the Chair at the Townswomen's Guild and Daddy has to soil his hands with work,  for chrissakes, but the Gramps are here so hurrah!

Reading the programme is just as entertaining as watching all the Trustafarians milling in the corridors lugging bongo drums, pushing racks of costumes or discussing what Shakespeare may have had for breakfast the day of King Lear's first performance.  There's a "News about Last Year's Graduates" page, which makes entertaining reading; a couple look like they might be onto something relatively big, others are doing sterling work in the provinces - but poor old David Kirkbride has really lucked out and their only credit to date is, indeed, the dreaded Holby City.  Given that The Bill has finished its long, long run now, all the rest of last year's lot are apparently already Resting, mugging up on compound interest, wiping down lunch tables or have put their head in the Aga.  There is a very strange smell coming from a man in the row in front.  He's wearing a skull and crossbones beanie, is pushing a Womble Trolley and obviously hasn't washed for a while.  He's either a tramp or gloriously eccentric, dahling.  Perhaps he is related to the Marquis of Bath. 

Despite some earlier reservations, I do actually quite enjoy the show, which is as about as daft and engaging as you can possibly get, performed with that fresh-faced optimism that only drama students can possibly get away with.  There are some very good performances, some average performances, some crap performances and a couple of performances which are destined to take the person giving them here - these people are certainly not gathering from the buttocks.  Runaway star of the entire afternoon is the utterly gorgeous Fred Lancaster, who gives a performance of immense charm and gives the part of Cioffi everything that you want from it.  He has enormous, brown Bambi eyes and I sit there in the dark fantasizing about gazing deep into them while doing unspeakable things to him. A Great Future awaits Mr. Lancaster - or at least it will do if I ever get my hands on him.   Lily James makes a very good stab at her part but doesn't quite manage to convince in the shift from ingenue to tart with a heart, and she's a little pushed at the top of her vocal range - the part is simply just that bit too high for her. Paloma Oakenfold also makes a good stab at the part of the middle aged producer but doesnt quite make it; the accent comes and goes and so does the characterisation.  Probably the show's most famous song - It's a Business - is again just that little bit beyond her as it needs an Ethel Merman-esque belt which she simply doesn't have.  But she has excellent timing and is a generous performer, although I suspect that serious drama is going to be more her area of expertise than comedy.  Patrick Osbourne is hysterically funny as Christopher Belling, the Director, playing the part for all it is worth and more and walking off with every scene, channelling Julian Marsh, the Director in 42nd Street and getting away with it.  There's a very fine line between parody and over-egging it, and Belling knows just which side of the line to mince along.  Henry Gilbert.as Aaron Fox, however, seems to get bored with the show about half-way through (unfortunately he allows this to show on his face) and starts to "phone in" his peformance as if he's just tired of the whole thing.  I still can't quite work out whether Nikesh Patel is giving a really good performance as a cardboard cutout leading man or is just not giving it any welly.  There are two people in tiny parts who are polar opposites as regards their performance - a tall, slightly chubby chap who is obviously not a stage animal and who is struggling a little with the choreography but who is enjoying everything immensely and who never stops beaming, sings his heart out and sounds destined for the chorus in an opera company somewhere, treasuring his memories of his moment in musical theatre, and a tiny girl who is half a beat behind everybody else in the choreography, has no stage presence, has dreadful hair doesn't know how or where to stand and is goldfishing some of the words.  She looks totally ill at ease and, to quote Victoria Wood yet again, probably originally signed up for ju-jitsu but turned the wrong way when she got out of the lift.

There is some excellent choreography in the chorus numbers although spacing is sometimes considerably off and, surprisingly, some very bland stuff for the principals. There are some missed opportunities for comedy in the direction, but on the whole it's very good, even though its a little loose at times.  The lighting is good and the technical needs of the show in terms of slick, seamless scene changes (and some quite difficult staging requirements) handled  better than many professional shows I've seen.  Costumes are excellent and look well made and designed - although the nit-picker in me notices a minor glitch - all the characters are locked into the theatre by Lieutenant Cioffi and have clothes delivered from their hotels.  Cioffi specifies blue and green clothes for Niki, the girl he's falling for as he's trying to match her eyes - but none of the character's clothes are blue or green; she ends up wearing a yellow jersy and a red flowered skirt for practically the entire show.  Black mark for the Wardrobe Department who obviously haven't read the script!  The orchestra, sawing away unseen in the pit, is on top form, although someone in the woodwind section feels it necessary to give a solo obbligato after the playout music has finished, which is terribly unprofessional.  However, the Gramps have had a good time, the smelly man in the front row is clapping fit to burst and I've had an unexpectedly good time as well. 

We head off to Carlucio's afterwards for a quick bite, where we sit next to a dreadful woman who is showing off her iPhone to her parents.  She bleats on and on about having "this app which knows where you are because of satellite or something and sends you poems mentioning the road you're in".  I neck my coffee ice cream and wonder if there's an app you can download that will tell you you're a pretentious twat.  I could make a fortune with that one.  Then its through the rush hour hordes to Regent's Park, for the second of today's theatrical offerings.  What a hectic life I lead! 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/jul/07/curtains-silk-street-theatre-review - an incredibly snotty review of this piece by that arch-queen Michael Billington.  Its not much use as a review as all it does is pour scorn on the actual piece rather than review the actual production.  Methinks Mr. Billington just wants to show how clever he is. 

NB: The last time I reviewed a student production I was heaped with abuse by some of the cast.  I will repeat here what I said then, just in case: if you can't take criticism, then you shouldn't be going into the profession. 

10 July 2010

Manon - Royal Opera House, Wednesday 7th July 2010

In the courtyard of an inn, a crowd awaits arrival of the coach. Guillot, an elderly roué, and his wealthy friend Brétigny have ordered dinner for three actresses of easy virtue, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette; as they retire to a room, a young officer, Lescaut, comes to meet his cousin Manon from the coach, who is on her way to a convent. While he looks after her luggage, Guillot notices her and flirts with her, but she only laughs at the elderly man's advances. Lescaut returns, and before joining friends at a gaming table he warns Manon about talking to strangers. To herself, she wistfully compares her own bland future with the pleasure-filled life of Guillot and his glamorous companions. The Chevalier Des Greiux arrives at the inn and, on seeing Manon, falls in love with her. Seizing this opportunity to escape the convent, Manon suggests that they run off to Paris in Guillot's coach. The tipsy old bon vivant, who had intended to abduct Manon himself, stumbles from the inn just in time to hurl curses after the escaping lovers.
In their Paris apartment, Manon and Des Grieux read a letter he has written to his father describing his sweetheart and asking permission to marry her. When Des Grieux notices a bouquet of flowers Brétigny has sent to Manon, she tells him a lie to allay his suspicions of her loyalty. Lescaut and Brétigny arrive, the former to demand that Des Grieux marry Manon, the latter to tell the girl that Des Grieux is soon to be kidnapped by his irate father. The visitors depart, and Des Grieux goes off to send his letter. Left alone, Manon is unable to resist the temptation of luxury offered her by Brétigny and bids a poignant farewell to the life she has shared with Des Grieux. The young man returns, relating an idyllic vision of their future life together, but officers suddenly force their way into the room and abduct him.
A holiday crowd fills a park at the Cours-la-Reine, where Poussette, Javotte and Rosette have eluded Guillot. Lescaut sentimentally addresses a pretty passerby as his beloved "Rosalinde," then generously offers her presents from the vendors' carts. Manon, surrounded by wealthy admirers, preens herself and sings a gavotte in praise of youth and pleasure. When Des Grieux' father, the Count, speaks with Brétigny, Manon overhears their conversation, learning that Des Grieux is about to take holy orders at the Church of St. Sulpice. She herself speaks to the Count and is piqued to hear that her former lover has grown cold to her charms. Manon rushes to St. Sulpice.

In the sacristy, some women describe the eloquence of the new abbé. Skeptical of his son's new virtue, the Count tries to persuade Des Grieux to abandon the church and marry a suitable girl. After the father leaves, Des Grieux prays for the strength to resist the memory of Manon. But Manon arrives, breaks his resolve with her ardor and persuades him to run away with her.

The Hôtel de Transylvanie, a notorious gambling house, is crowded with merrymakers, including Lescaut, Guillot and the three actresses. When Des Grieux arrives with Manon, she suggests that he recoup their sagging fortunes at the faro table. As the young man plays cards with Guillot, Manon and the actresses sing in praise of living for the moment. Guillot, losing every hand, accuses Des Grieux of cheating and goes off to summon the police; the authorities soon arrive and with them the Count Des Grieux, who rebukes his son but promises him that his arrest will be only temporary. Manon swoons as he is taken away.

Manon is to be deported to Louisiana on charges of immorality. On the road to Le Havre, Des Grieux and Lescaut bribe the guards to release her. Manon, in the last stages of consumption, falls exhausted in her lover's arms. Des Grieux, though despairing, comforts her as, murmuring of their lost happiness, she dies.
Guillot - Guy de Mey
De Bretigny - William Shimmel
Pousette - Simona Miha
Javotte - Louise Innes
Rosette- Kai Ruutel
Lescaut - Russell Braun
Manon - Anna Netrebko
De Grieux - Vittorio Grigolo
Comte de Grieux - Christof Fishchesser

Creative Team:
Music: Jules Massenet
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Director: Laurent Pelly
Set: Chantal Thomas
Costumes: Laurent Pelly
Lighting: Joel Adam

As my regular readers will know, I would usually gouge my eyes out with blunt spoons than sit through an evening of opera.  But one opera singer I would gladly walk across broken glass in my bare feet to hear is the gorgeous, sexy Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, which I suppose just goes to show that I'm as subject to the thrall of celebrity as everyone else in this fair land of ours.  Finally, I think I understand why ordinary people go absolutely bananas about a particular star.  Because let's face it, the woman is pure, unadulterated class.  I first came across her during an enforced viewing of Bellini's I Puritani on DVD.  "Wow", I thought, "finally here's a soprano who is beautiful, the right age for once and who can actually act".  And then she opened her mouth and out poured the most glorious sound I'd ever heard come out of a human throat.  Towards the end, in the "Madness aria" she laid on her back with her head dangling over the edge of the orchestra pit and sang one of the most difficult colaratura ("lots of twiddly bits") arias in the entire operatic repertoire (the YouTube of this is at the bottom of the review if you want to be amazed).  I was completely smitten.  And then I saw a documentary about her early career in which she explained that her family had been too poor to send her to singing lessons, so she took a job as a cleaner in one of the great opera houses so she could listen to the great stars rehearse while she worked, by the end of which I was ready to  renounce my homosexuality and become Mr. Netrebko if she would have me. So when word leaked out that she was coming to the Royal Opera House to sing the title role in Manon I grabbed Him Indoors by the scruff of the neck and said "Get tickets NOW".  "But", he wheezed, "you hate opera".  "I'd sell my grandmother to hear Anna Netrebko singing Three Blind fucking Mice" I replied, "flash that plastic or you'll be dead by nightfall" - which I thought was a suitably operatic threat.   

So it was a shame that the production wasn't really up to much, for all that the critics have slobbered over it.  I can only assume that they scored the singing and the music rather than the production itself, which is frankly a bit of a mess.  The setting is unfocussed (for which read "all over the place"), the scenery grim and the lighting the worst I have ever seen (or not seen, in this case).  The inn of Act 1 looks more like the Bastille, and the costumes in this act are very early 1900's, with Ms. Netrebko fetchingly decked out like Gigi.  The garrett of Act 2 could be from a 70's version of La Boheme with the tenor more or less rigged out as Tony from West Side Story in black slacks and a modern vest (presumably in order to show off his biceps and very fine shoulders....).  We're back to Edwardian frou-frou for Act 3, although the set is more or less modern.  God only knows where (or when) the gaming club in Act 4 is meant to be but its got fluorescent strip lighting and is probably the ugliest set I've ever seen - so cramped and vertiginous that it looks like something from the worst excessess of Dr. Seuss and the poor chorus have to cling on to each other to get past one another on its cramped levels.  And Act 5 is a dreary, modernist fishing port, with the sky completely wreathed in cloud (although its clearly mentioned in the libretto that the evening star is visible).  Little use is made of the chorus throughout and there are some majorly wasted opportunities for chorus movement.  The lighting is patchy at best, leaving big gloomy spots on the stage through which you can see nothing - at one point, you can see Ms. Netrebko's feet very well but nothing upward of her knees, pretty though they are. 

There's the added disappointment that, after the first interval, an announcement is made from the stage that Ms. Netrebko is not feeling well (huge groans from all round the auditorium) but will try her best to complete the performance, so the evening is given a will she, won't she frisson of excitement which makes up for what pains me to say is noticeably wobbly singing from La Diva in a couple of places.  At the curtain call its the tenor, Vittorio Grigolo, who gets the lion's share of the applause for an amazing vocal performance.  Netrebko retires with full honours to her dressing room, and I silently pledge to see her in a decent production one day, with proper lighting, a decent set and her in a big crinoline covered in sparkly bits.

What the critics thought: