29 July 2011

Once more into the breach......

An article appeared in today's Guardian online by Michael Billington regarding the nature of criticism.  One idiot, obviously still smarting from my review of Kiss Me, Kate, took it upon themselves to publish a link to this blog in the "comments" section. This resulted in several Guildhall students, and others, who had not previously been aware of my review, barraging me with vicious comments once again.

As a result, commenting on this blog is disabled (again) until people stop throwing toys out of prams. 

I repeat - if you cannot hack criticism, what on earth are you doing entering a profession where your every move will be subject to it? 


27 July 2011

The Beauty Queen of Leenane - The Young Vic, Monday 25th July 2011

Maureen, a middle‐aged spinster, lives with her elderly, manipulative mother Mag. in a remote cottage in Leenane, Connemara.  Maureen’s sisters have flown the nest, escaping the drab family home, but Maureen, who has a history of mental illness, remains at home, trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with her mother.

The arrival of an invitation sparks hopes of a last‐chance romance and offers Maureen the prospect of an escape to a new life. Things might just be looking up for her…but not if the interfering Mag has anything to do with it.

Maureen Folan – Derbhle Crotty
Mag Folan, her mother – Rosaleen Linehan
Pato Dooley – Frank Laverty
Ray Dooley, his brother – Johnny Ward

Creative Team:
Written by – Martin McDonagh
Direction – Joe Hill-Gibbin
Designer – Ultz
Lighting – Charles Balfour
Sound – Paul Arditti

Well, I haven’t had such a good time at the theatre in a long while. I’m going to try and not spoil the plot for you, because you really, really must phone the Young Vic and offer to sell your grandparents in exchange for a ticket. All I am going to say is that The Beauty Queen of Leenane is one of those plays which you think is going to be extremely straightforward, but which leads you very firmly by the hand up the garden path and then spins you round and pushes you into a ditch. You stagger out, continue up the path and arrive at the door, only to have the mat pulled out from underneath your feet. And then, having apologised profusely, welcomed you into the house and offered you a towel, the play then hits you round the back of the head with a saucepan. And runs away laughing. What appears to be a straightforward little play, in which the happiness of the lead character is all you hope for, comes all over Agatha Christie and starts throwing unexpected plot developments in your way. You know what you want to happen, you think you know what will happen – and then you sit there peering through your fingers muttering “Don’t answer the door – I know who’s going to come through it”. And they don’t, dammit. This is about 20 minutes after you have been lulled into a false sense of security by having something happen on stage that is utterly predictable the minute you see it coming. I got so wrapped up in the action it was as much as I could do not to start shouting out advice to the characters. Its soooooo clever – and if the seats at the Young Vic weren’t so damned uncomfortable anyway you’d be spending most of the evening perched on the edge. It’s a rare thing that gets members of the audience talking to the people next to them in the interval about what they think is going to happen and how, or discussing the plot twists on the way out.

The set is simple, yet extremely effective, and you’re given the usual Young Vic “total experience” by walking into the auditorium to the sight and sound of rain falling lightly yet incessantly down sheets of taut plastic stretched from floor to ceiling (which also gives the place an authentic Irish Croft kind of chill). For some time, I even thought the theatre were piping in the smell of slightly stale beer as well, until I realised that the woman sitting next to me was holding a glass of it. We had a good laugh about this in the interval, and we both agreed it should be suggested to the theatre management for next time (we could have had the whiff of fried noodles for The Good Soul of Schezuan, manky straw for [The] Government Inspector and perhaps warm cattle dung for Annie Get Your Gun).

It would be invidious to give out “acting honours” for the three main leads as they were all so perfectly cast. Derbhle Crotty (which sounds like something you need to rub ointment into before going to bed) tends to walk away with them, because the audience are all rooting for her so much. Rosaleen Linehan makes a formidable Mag, alternately vicious and sympathetic (watch her eyes closely during her first scene after the interval – that’s classy acting) and Frank Laverty gives such a perfectly judged performance that his Act 2 opening monologue deserved – and indeed got – a round of applause. In fact, by the time Act 1 was half over, people were applauding each individual scene, which I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. And its well deserved, believe me. And there was at least one Silence, if not two*. Johnny Ward is fine as Ray, but I think needs to settle down into the role slightly because there was just a touch too much of Dougal from Father Ted for my liking. It doesn’t help that he is never given a chance to be serious – all his scenes are slightly off the wall verbal sparring and one-liners.

Anyway, it was a grand night and one I enjoyed immensely. Go get your tickets now because a) its going to be sold out and b) you’ll come out afterwards talking to people you don’t know about what you’ve just seen.  And you'll never look at your chip pan with quite the same eyes again. 

* For those of you relatively new to this blog, a “Silence” isn’t when the audience is just quiet. Its when the audience is so wrapped up in what is happening on stage that there is a complete absence of sound. Not a cough, not a fidget, nothing. I’ve variously described it in the past as the sound of the entire audience collectively holding its breath, or the sound that black velvet would make if it could.

What the critics thought:

10 July 2011

Kiss Me, Kate - Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Thursday 7th July 2011


A  theatrical troupe is presenting Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore, Maryland. The cast includes Fred Graham and his former wife, Lilli; also Bill Calhoun, an irresponsible gambler, and the girl whom he is interested in, Lois Lane. Bill breaks down and confesses to Lois that he is involved with gangsters, who have his I.O.U. for $10,000 from a game of cards. Bill, however, has signed it in the name of Fred Graham. This is not the first time Lois has had to tolerate Bill's escapades, and she inquires poignantly why he cannot behave himself. Meanwhile Fred and Lilli begin to realize that their one-time tender feelings for each other have not completely died out. They start to reminisce about the shows in which they appeared, including an old-fashioned Viennese operetta. Just before the opening night of The Taming of the Shrew, Fred sends flowers to Lois. By mistake they come to Lilli's dressing room - further proof (she thinks)  that Fred still loves her. She now openly reveals that that love is reciprocated.

On stage, the performance of The Taming of the Shrew is taking place.  As a play within a play, we learn that Bianca cannot get married until her older sister, Katherine, has found a husband. When Petruchio arrives in Padua to seek out a rich wife  he is chosen for Katherine. She, (the Shrew of the title), makes no attempt to conceal her feelings about men while Petruchio knows that Katherine is not the woman of his dreams. Nevertheless, he agrees to marry her.
We are now transferred from Shakespeare's Padua back to the intrigues within the theatrical company. Having learned that Fred's flowers were meant for Lois, Lilli bursts into a fit of temper, and announces hotly that she is leaving the company for good. Her departure, however, is delayed by the arrival of gangsters coming to collect from Bill the $10,000 for his I.O.U. As it has Fred's name on it, they pursue him for the money, but, he says, if Lilli leaves the company, the show cannot continue and he will be unable to give them the money.  To ensure that neither Fred nor Lilli leave until the money is paid, the gangsters become part of the show and accompany its two principals everywhere on stage during the performance.
In the second act we return to The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio and Katherine are now man and wife. Since her violent tempers and caprices are complicating Petruchio's life to no end, he begins to recall nostalgically his single-blessedness Backstage, when Bill reprimands Lois for flirting with one of the actors, she makes light of her tendency to be fickle. But, for all his troubles with Lois, Bill has good cause for cheer. There has been a violent shake-up in the gangster world, as a result of which the I.O.U. is no longer valid. Bill and Lois are now reconciled, and Katherine and Fred return to each other.
Lilli Vannessi/Kate – Alex Chatworthy
Fred Graham/Petruchio – Alex Knox
Lois Lane/Bianca – Kae Alexander
Bill/Lucentio – Joshua Miles
Gangster – Lewis Goody
Gangster – Stephen Wilson
Hattie – Mabel Clements
General Harrison – Kingsley Ben-Adir
Harry/Baptista – Josh Hart
Hortensio – Karl Brown
Gremio – Thomas Clegg

Creative Team:
Music and lyrics – Cole Porter
Book – Bella and Sam Spewack
Director – Martin Connor
Choreographer – Joseph Pitcher
Designer – Mark Bailey

Hurrah, a musical! Just when I was beginning to lose all hope (ironically, one based round a Shakespeare play), and a good one too, by more or less the same creative team as last year’s Curtains! Once again, it’s a “money no object” production as the mighty coffers of practically all the big London professional guilds drain into Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s bank account – there have been six months of rehearsals, 26 musicians in the pit and more backstage crew than you can shake a stick at, all of whom will soon be making their way into the big, frightening and expensive world backed up by Mummie and Daddies’ Trust Fund. For some, the big time beckons, for others it will be Casualty, and for a good few, life will be spent struggling to keep up with the demand for double-decaff-skinny-latte orders or spitting in the food of those who don’t leave a decent tip.
Like last year, there are slick production values, good scenery, great costumes and loads of bodies on stage, supplemented by a fair few from the singing courses. This year, however, its more difficult to pick out those who are not the natural stage animals, although there is the obligatory tubby guy in a horrendous costume beaming all over his face and having the time of his life as he hits his top notes and struggles to keep up with the choreography. What larks! How wonderful this week will be to look back on as he toils away the years as the assistant accountant for an agent, adding up all those lovely ten-per-cents that his erstwhile friends are racking up for his boss.
The trouble is that Kiss Me, Kate (note the comma, which for some reason is missing from the front cover and cast list page of the programme) needs a male lead with a few years under his belt. Fred Graham needs to be a world-weary, slightly washed up actor, anxiously scanning for crow’s feet and trying to hold age and an expanding waistline at bay with crimson lake and a tightly hitched corset under his costume. Alex Knox, although admittedly young and pretty, plays it young and pretty as well. For all his swagger, its like watching an ingénue making his first stab at King Lear. And he’s a tenor, for chrissakes; Fred Graham is a bass-baritone role (it was one of Howard Keel’s greatest screen roles). Although I enjoyed his performance throughout, Fred/Petruchio is not his role. Yet. Give it another 20 years and then we’ll see. Alex Chatworthy, however, manages to convey Lilli’s faded edges convincingly, does a great line in tired sarcasm, seems familiar with the bitterness of disappointment and yet looks astonishingly like a very young Jodie Foster. Her Lilli seems somehow much older than Knox’s Fred. Kae Alexander lands the plum ingénue role of Lois Lane and has a great time being irritatingly perky all evening, although quite what she sees in Joshua Miles’ rather dreary Bill is beyond me. Of the two gangsters, Stephen Wilson (in what is nominally the lesser role of the two) is by far the most entertaining, and pulls off the astoundingly difficult feat of singing all of Brush Up Your Shakespeare while constantly chewing gum. That, my friend, is talent.
The role of Hattie (technically Lilli Vannessi’s maid but in this version reduced to the status of dresser) isn’t the world’s best part but gets to start the ball rolling in both acts with one of musical theatre’s best opening songs Another Op’nin’, Another Show and also Too Darn Hot at the top of Act 2 – but is denied the former in this particular version in which there is not only no overture but in which Another Op’nin’ is doled out piecemeal between the entire chorus. Kingsley Ben-Adir scores an unexpected hit with the “straight” role of General Harrison (again, rewritten from the original version) and also gets the added bonus of the song From This Moment On, which doesn’t appear in the stage version but has been added from the film, sitting slightly awkwardly, I thought.
Although its slick, well sung and obviously very well rehearsed, the choreography is rather disappointing. For a start, there ain’t that much of it. Its there when you expect it – and nowhere else. There are a couple of places where Petruchio’s solos cry out for a bevy of beautiful hoofers, most notably during Were Thine That Special Face, whose rumba beat doesn’t so much cry out for it as sit up and beg for it. What choreography there is, is often slightly utilitarian, leaving me feeling that the whole show is somewhat meh in places when it could have been WOW. I enjoyed the slightly cartoony Taming of the Shrew sets but noticed a major error that someone on the design team should be roundly spanked for. When we see Fred and Lilli’s dressing rooms from the inside (with the doors upstage), Lilli is in Dressing Room 1 on stage left, and Fred in Room 2 on stage right. Therefore, when we see the dressing room doors from the other side (i.e. from the corridor) the door to Room 1 should be stage right and room 2 stage left - but they’re not. In fact, from the corridor, the doors (and therefore the rooms behind them) have somehow swapped sides. Neither has there been any effort made in getting Lilli’s bouquet (snowdrops, pansies and rosemary, according to the script) to look anything like snowdrops; pansies and rosemary – although one wonders where the snowdrops came from in midsummer Baltimore. Someone perhaps needs to change the script to “a bunch of generic stage greenery”. Yes, I know, I know!
The pleasure of seeing a good show with a lot of noise coming from the pit is enhanced later by scanning the “News of last year’s graduates” page in the programme. Some have indeed gone on to greatness, some fallen by the wayside with a single appearance in Casualty. Now that The Bill is no longer, things are tough out there. Still, spare a thought for some of the technical graduates, who have worked on such exciting things as Paul Daniels: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow (I kid you not), the WhatsonStage Theatregoers’ Choice Award Ceremony 2011 and, soul-destroyingly, the IBM Smarter Industries Symposium. I think I would rather gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. Or perhaps sit through Richard III again.

01 July 2011

Richard III - The Old Vic, Friday 24th June 2011

Richard, the Yorkist Duke of Gloucester, has not stopped plotting since the defeat of Henry VI. He conspires to play his brothers, Edward (now King Edward IV) and George, Duke of Clarence, against each other in an attempt to gain the crown for himself. By insinuating charges of treason against George, Richard has him arrested. He also brazenly woos Anne, widow of the murdered Prince of Wales, in the midst of her husband's funeral procession. In the course of events, Edward IV, who is deathly ill at the beginning of the play, dies; Richard has already arranged for George to be murdered while imprisoned, and so it stands that Richard will serve as regent while Edward's son (also named Edward) can come of age.
In order to "protect" the Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Richard has them stay in the Tower of London. He then moves against Edward's loyalist lords; Vaughan, Rivers, Hastings, and Grey are first imprisoned, then executed. Then, with the aid of Buckingham, Richard declares that Edward IV's offspring are technically illegitimate. In an arranged public display, Buckingham offers the throne of England to Richard, who is presumably reluctant to accept. By this time, Richard has alienated even his own mother, who curses him as a bloody tyrant.
By now, Richard needs to bolster his claims to the crown; the young princes locked away in the Tower of London must be disposed of. Buckingham, until now Richard's staunchest ally, balks at this deed. Richard gets a murderer to do the deed, but turns on Buckingham for his insubordination. Now Richard—conveniently a widower after the suspicious demise of Anne—makes a ploy to marry the late King Edward's daughter, his niece. Elizabeth, Edward's widow, makes Richard believe that she agrees to the match; however, Elizabeth has arranged for a match with the Earl of Richmond.
Richmond, at this point in the action, is bringing over an army from France to war against Richard. Buckingham, finding himself out of favor with the king, gives his allegiance to Richmond. However, Buckingham is captured when his army is thrown into disarray by floods, and Richard has him executed immediately. Richmond, who has undergone his own troubles crossing the English Channel, finally lands his army and marches for London. The armies of Richard and Richmond encamp near Bosworth Field; the night before the battle, Richard is visited by the sundry ghosts of the people he has slain, all of whom foretell his doom.
At Bosworth, Richard is unhorsed in the combat. Richmond finds him, and the two of them clash with swords. Richmond prevails and slays Richard, to be crowned as King Henry VII there on the field of battle. This is the founding of the Tudor line of kings and the end of the War of the Roses.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester - Kevin Spacey
George, Duke of Clarence - Chandler Williams
Hastings - Jack Ellis
Anne - Annabel Scholey
Elizabeth - Hadyn Gwynne
Buckingham - Chuk Ijuwi
Margarget - Gemma Jones

Creative Team:
Director - Sam Mendes
Set - Tom Piper
Costumes - Catherine Zuber
Lighting- Paul Pyant

Jesus Mary Mother of God, does the world need another black and white, modern dress production of Shakespeare? No, my friends, it does not. Does it need Kevin Spacey to dress up as Colonel Gadaffi to hammer home the point that Richard III was a crazed tyrant and that crazed tyrants are still with us? Does it need an Yank to play the (ultimately) victorious Henry VII to remind us of the American habit of riding in with the cavalry as each conflict draws to a close to “save the world from itself” and restore order? Are the modern references hammered home with that little bit too much force? Yes, my friends, they are. Did I enjoy this? No, my friends, I did not. In fact, I booed very loudly at the end, the first time I’ve ever done so and god did it feel good.

This is the final offering by Spacey’s Bridge Project, a series of UK/US collaborations which have ultimately and across the board failed to deliver the goods on any kind of level, proving nothing other than that Americans don’t understand Shakespeare’s speech patterns. This particular play also highlights the fact that big-screen actors can rarely adapt downwards to appearing on stage – its only at the end of the tediously long first half (two and a quarter hours, take a bucket to put under your seat) when the action puts Spacey in front of an offstage camera that he comes alive as an actor. It also highlights the fact that theatres really, really need to go back to putting a synopsis in their programmes – not once throughout the entire evening did I fully understand who was married to who, what the line of succession was or why the Bishop of Ely was eating strawberries (placing the action firmly in June) on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field (which took place in late August).

You really have to be a serious history buff to get the best out of this play – unfortunately, most of the audience seemed to be there merely because they were Kevin Spacey buffs; a fact that led to at least two people walking out before the interval (‘Psst” “What?” “Is it me or is this a really boring play?” “Yeah, really boring” “You wanna go?” “We can’t, I paid sixty quid for these tickets ‘cos you like Kevin Spacey films”. “Yeah, but I didn’t know it was gonna be like all this shoutin’ and stampin’ about and wotnot. C’mon, lets go, and we’ll get a KFC on the way home”. “Alright then”) and at least 6 more failing to return after the interval (presumably their bladders had been battered into complete submission and they couldn’t face any more). There were the requisite shouts of “whoooooo!” by the Sharon’s and Tracey’s when Spacey made his first entrance and plenty of ovating at the end (presumably by people relieved that the whole thing was over). But Mendes’ sparse direction really failed to catch fire for me. Add to that some really dreadful acting by Chuk Iwuji as the Duke of Buckingham (perhaps he should be called Chuk Himoffstage) in a role which should be that of eminence grise but was more like one of the Wicked Queen’s henchmen in Snow White and a visually dreary production made me go off this big-time. Of course, its critic-proof – practically sold out for the remainder of the run so neither this review nor any other is going to stop the tills at the Old Vic ringing loudly.

The only cast members to really come alive on stage were exclusively female – Haydn Gwynne took a while to warm up into the role of Elizabeth but fired on all cylinders once she got going, and Gemma Jones walked away with the very few scenes she was in as a dreadlocked voodoo Queen Margaret. This character is only onstage for a tiny proportion of the running time, but Jones managed to show everyone else around her up completely by giving her Margaret true Shakespearean stature. Of course, she is a classical trained actress while the majority of the younger cast have merely driven the van for a Legs Akimbo Summer Tour (most of them seem to have been cast for their skills in drumming rather than for any actual talent in acting) and by golly it showed in her last scene when every word was audible, every consonant properly place, every line thoughtfully and carefully inflected. I applauded – people sitting nearby looked at me as if I was some kind of loony but then they probably wouldn’t recognise good acting if it came and sat on their face. And as for casting Katherine Manners and Hannah Stokely as the Princes Richard and Edward (the “Princes in the Tower”) – well that was just daft. Two full grown women with breasts and hips, dolled up in school uniforms and affecting piping trebles – who ever came up with that daft idea? What really got my goat was the lack of blood on stage – to sit someone in a chair, stand behind them and put your hands over their eyes, then dim the stage lights to represent a gory murder – that’s just pretentious. As Agatha Christie said in her autobiography (and excuse me if I paraphrase a little here because I can’t locate my copy at the moment to get the exact quote ) “The symbolism of tapping someone gently on the cheek with a tin of Birds Custard Powder is all very well, but I do prefer to see someone getting a proper custard pie in the face sometimes”.

And what of Spacey? Well, he’s OK. I found him just that bit too mannered to be truly believable. Part of the problem is the accent – for the first ten minutes, I was impressed by his perfect RP, but then it started to slip away on certain words until we were getting Standard American all the way through. By the end I had started to find his performance crashingly arrogant – I felt as if he was playing to the gallery rather than really inhabiting the role.

At the end, I actually booed – the first time I recall having done so at the theatre. It was all a bit too much of the Emperor’s New Clothes for me to be convinced I was watching a great production. The one thing I dislike about what Him Indoors calls “Communist Bowing” (i.e. when all the cast take their bows together rather than individually) is that one doesn’t get the chance to applaud (or indeed boo) particular performers. I’d have stood for Gemma Jones, cheered for Hadyn Gwynne and roundly raspberried Chuk Iwuji. Bring back individual bows, synopses in the programme, some decent scenery to look at and buckets of blood on the stage and I’ll be a happy man. Oh, and some actors who don’t drawl like John Wayne when they are playing English noblemen.

It is, of course, traditional in this household to see at least one Panto during the Christmas season. However, Him Indoors recently let slip that there are tickets booked for Richard II in very late December. Unless I can wing it otherwise, he’ll be going on his own because frankly, this Richard III was just one dreary production of Shakespeare too many for me. There have been too many of late, and I’m done with The Bard for a good long time on the back of them. Call me a philistine, but I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really want at the moment is a decent musical!

What the critics thought: