30 November 2011

Pippin - Menier Chocolate Factory, Friday 22nd November 2011

Pippin is the story of the French Prince Pippin, son of King Charlemagne. The show begins with the Leading Player and the other players (an acting troupe) inviting the audience to watch their magic as they help to tell the story. They then introduce Pippin as a young man just out of a university. He tells us how he is searching for the meaning of his life, Pippin's father welcomes him home from school. Pippin tells his father he wants to go to war with him. His father eventually agrees with him and we soon see them and some soldiers learning their battle plan.The leading player goes on to tell the audience about the virtues of war and about King Charles’ victory. The soldiers join him in "saluting" their King. Next, the leading player sings a song about how people need some small amount of happiness in life that wealth and fame can't bring you. By now, Pippin has decided that being a war hero is not what he wants to do with his life. So, he goes to his grandmother, Bertha, and asks her what she thinks he should do. She tells him to just live life to the fullest and to enjoy his youth because time goes by so fast. Pippin next looks to women to see if they are the answer to his life. He experiments with sex - symbolically, of course. The act ends with Pippin deciding to lead a revolution against his father.
After this we see Pippin's step-mother, Fastrada, as she plots to get her son, Lewis, to be the heir to the throne instead of Pippin. Pippin is now trying out a political life, revolting against his father and considering assassinating him. When he does do this and becomes the new King he decides that a peaceful time, without war and slavery, is long overdue. When he realizes that this isn't the right job for him, he prays to have his father return. The leading player magically brings King Charles back to life.
Pippin is by now very distraught about his failing search for a meaning to his life. The leading player tells him not to worry, he's on the right road to finding what he is looking for. At the end of this number Pippin collapses to the floor and a pretty young woman, Catherine, finds him and brings him to her house with her small son. She tells him that she is just an "average" girl. Pippin comes to live in her house and do household chores which he finds degrading because he thinks he is above that kind of work. Pippin and Catherine fall in love but when Catherine asks Pippin to become "the head of the household,he runs away.
Pippin has come to the end of the road and has no idea what to do next. The leading player tells him that the only way that he will be remembered now is if he kills himself. Pippin is afraid to do this because he knows that if it is the wrong thing to do, then it will be too late for him to do anything else. The leading player, Fastrada, and all the other players urge Pippin to go ahead and burn himself until he dies. They tell him to think about his life and all of the things he wanted from it. Pippin is almost convinced when Catherine and her son show up. He decides that he will settle for love and not commit suicide.

Leading Player – Matt Rawle
Pippin – Harry Hepple
Charles – Ian Kelsey
Lewis – David Page
Estrada – Francis Ruffelle
Berthe – Louise Gold
Catherine – Carly Bawden

Creative Team:
Libretto: Roger Hirson
Music and Lyrics: Stephen “Wicked” Schwartz
Director/Choreographer – Mitch Sebastian
Design: Timothy Bird
Costumes: Jean-Marc Puissant
Anybody who has the unfortunate task of sitting next to me while I suffer through another production of (for example) Jesus Christ, Superstar will know just how much I loathe 70s rock musicals. They’re so irredeemably naff – showing their age but not yet dated enough to become “period” (such as the big Ivor Novello or Noel Coward shows of the 1950s). No doubt to people a generation younger than me, Jesus Christ, Superstar is shit-hot retro. But I think that 70s rock musicals are just shit. And anyone who has had the patience to read the synopsis above will probably be only too happy to agree with me that the plot of Pippin sounds naff to the nth degree. It doesn’t even sound cheerily naff like the plot of Blondel Pippin just sounds awful. So what would you think when you found that you were going to see Pippin and it had received an 80’s makeover? Reader, your worst nightmare is only just beginning.

Yes, a particularly naff 70s rock musical has been reworked, rewritten and made “contemporary” by being updated to the early 1980s – the decade when every pubescent boy wanted a Atari Games Console in his Christmas stocking. Preferably with a “quest”-type computer-game – slow to load and even slower to play, with heavy, byte-eating graphics and, by today’s standards, laughably ponderous plotlines. Pippin, dear reader, is that quest game. The character of Pippin is now an 80s geek who is magically zapped into his Games Console (“Tron” is referenced not only in the new libretto but also in many of the production’s costumes). The “players” are now no longer of the type described as the “troupe of strolling” kind but that of the “games console character” type. The blank walls of the theatre are covered in projected 80’s games console-style graphics in order to provide scenery etc. Problem is, all the electrical wizardry necessary to achieve this aim, plus banks of enormous stage lights, plus the heat coming off a large audience packed very tightly together heats the small, fairly cramped auditorium to “High Noon on a Midsummer Day in the Kalahari Desert” temperatures. Lord only knows what the actual temperature was, but outside in the interval one can find large groups of sweaty, whey-faced people gulping down the cool night air while they fan each other with programmes and cling to the walls. As it was a fairly chilly night, I’d almost gone to the theatre wearing a jumper over my shirt and a T-shirt under it, but thank god I didn’t otherwise I might just have evaporated – or combusted – completely. As it was, I had galloping indigestion thanks to Him Indoors thinking that its possible to meet friends, eat a two course dinner in a popular restaurant in central London on a Friday night and then get to the theatre in a total of an hour and 15 minutes (I do like Taz as a restaurant and I’m really looking forward to finishing a meal there one day). So I was horribly, horribly uncomfortable.The Menier really need to review the space they allocate to each seat and increase this – they really do love to pack people in until one cannot shift slightly in one’s seat without incurring an accusation of inappropriate intimacy from one’s neighbour. If you’re on the end of the row, forget getting both your buttocks on the seat. You heard it here first.

If you want your plots to be cohesive and make sense, forget it. Updating the story has had no effect on this and it is crazily disjointed and incoherent. The only time you hear groups of previously unknown-to-each-other people actually making conversation is when they have all been involved in some kind of disaster; train derailment, earthquake or on the way out after a show is if its been so dire it beggars belief or nobody has understood a single word of what they have been watching – I heard lots of “What the Fuck was That All About?”-type conversations springing up, punctuated by shrieks of slightly hysterical laughter. Updating the production itself has merely managed to overlay 70s naff with early 80s naff, making it doubly indigestible (or maybe that was just the broad bean salad). Add an attempt at incorporating loads of Fosse-esque choreography (Bob Fosse choreographed the original production, and if you haven’t a clue who Bob Fosse was, he also choreographed Cabaret, so think bentwood chairs, bowler hats, “jazz hands” and cross-kicks) and you really have got a mess on your hands. The graphics are inventive and fun to watch for a while if you like that kind of thing but rapidly become tedious, and when webcam’d “chatroom” heads pop up and start conversations, they are incongruous, distracting, anachronistic (heavily Noughties) and just bloody irritating. God only knows what happens when the computers refuse to co-operate or someone inadvertently hits Ctrl Alt Dlt backstage – no show, presumably. Its bound to happen at least once in the run. Most of the costumes are standard “computer game character” style – a heavy and bewildering mishmash range of Shogun/Monghal/Harem Girl/Medieval European, with a bit of Tron/bag lady/Star Wars thrown in. The supporting chorus are all wearing skin tight grey body suits making them look like your standard computer game avatar in the preparation stage of the game before you get to choose its clothing. I bet the dressing room stinks already – Christ only knows what its going to smell like by the end of the run; the only way of getting rid of the smell would probably be to firebomb the theatre and rebuild.

Its difficult to pick performances out of the mess. Matt Rawle plays the Leading Player as a kind of megalomaniacal Tim Curry lookalike, all greasy black hair and teeth like a cross between Red Riding Hood’s Wolf and a piano keyboard. His diction is at times so bad that regardless of the fact that he’s miked and no more than 15 feet away, a lot of his words sound like he’s got a feather pillow over his face. The dialogue is so toe-curlingly naff (particularly towards the end) that I’m quite relieved that I can’t hear most of it. Harry Hepple is likeable enough as the ingĂ©nue-in-Wonderland title character looks uncomfortable and more than slightly embarrassed at what he has having to do to get himself through until another job comes up in the spring. Frances Ruffelle tries to turn the thankless role of Fastrada into a comedy turn from TOWIE but it falls pancake-flat against the high twaddle factor of the libretto. Nobody can really come out with any honours when the material is so excruciatingly bad. You’ll either love this or loathe it, and personally I think that the Menier has a dead duck on its hands of Paradise Found proportions. I’ve been wrong before and not afraid to admit it, but Pippin is a seriously rotten apple.

What the critics thought:




25 November 2011

Ruddigore - Opera North @ The Barbican, Wednesday 23rd November 2011

A remarkable feature of the Cornish village of Rederring is that it possesses a corps of professional bridesmaids, whose services are much underused of late. They suggest to Dame Hannah that she might marry, but Hannah, the victim of an unhappy girlish romance, is pledged to eternal spinsterhood. She had fallen in love with a young man who courted her under an assumed name but who, on their wedding day, she discovered to be no other than Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, one of the bad Baronets of Ruddigore (and the uncle of the current baronet), on whom there is a strange curse. Madly as she loved him she left him there and then. Dame Hannah tells the chorus about the legend – the first Baronet was a witch-hunter, and while being burned at the stake, one of his victims vowed that he and all his male heirs must commit at least one crime a day or perish in agony.

Rose Maybud arrives. Rose is a foundling. She was discovered on the steps of the workhouse with a book of etiquette tucked into the basket. She has kept this book ever since and lives by its instructions. She is fond of a young farmer, Robin Oakapple (who is in reality Ruthven Murgatroyd. In dread of the terrible curse, he fled from home, while his younger brother, Despard, believing him to be dead, succeeded to the family title and the curse). Robin is greatly attracted to Rose, but he is too shy to tell her that he loves her.

A stir in the village heralds the arrival of Richard Dauntless, a sailor, on leave. Robin enlists his services to propose to Rose on his behalf. In doing so, however, Richard falls in love with Rose himself, proposes on his own account and is accepted. But when Rose learns the true state of affairs she transfers her affections to the shy and modest Robin, and Richard in revenge reveals the identity of Robin to Sir Despard Murgatroyd; in consequence Robin has to re-assume his family title with its terrible curse. Sir Despard, now free, proposes to Mad Margaret, a poor, crazed creature whose brain has been turned by his previous heartless conduct; while Rose, in horror of the dreadful curse, once more bestows her affections on Richard.

In the picture-gallery of Castle Ruddigore hang portraits of the baronets from Sir Rupert, the witch-hunter, to Sir Roderic, the most recent. Robin is now in residence with his faithful servant, old Adam Goodheart. They are discussing what the crime of today is to be. Alone before the portraits of his ancestors, Robin confides to them his detestation of the curse and begs to be released from it. His ghostly ancestors come down from their frames, making it clear to Robin that their patience is running thin with his pathetic attempts at crime. He is ordered for his next crime to carry off a lady, and after Robin has promised to be obedient in the future, the ancestors change back into pictures. Adam sets off to capture a lady from the village.

Robin receives a visit from his brother Despard and Mad Margaret, who are now married and devoted to good works.. Despard points out to Robin that he must realize that he is morally responsible for all crimes committed during Despard's occupation of his place, and Robin is more than ever determined to find some means of freeing himself from the conditions of this dreadful curse.

Old Adam returns to Ruddigore Castle having abducted Dame Hannah. She is in a rage at the treatment she has received. Robin in alarm calls to his uncle Roderic for help, and once again he descends from his picture-frame. He denounces Robin for carrying off the lady who was once engaged to him. Seeing their happiness in their reunion, Robin has a brilliant idea. He puts it to Sir Roderic that a Baronet of Ruddigore can only die by refusing to commit a crime and that is tantamount to suicide. But suicide itself is a crime [or it was when the operetta was originally written]. They ought therefore never to have died at all. Consequently they are all alive. It is obviously impossible to contradict this sound logic and there are finally plenty of weddings for the Bridesmaids to attend.
Rose Maybud – Amy Freston
Dame Hannah – Anne-Marie Owens
Robin Oakapple – Grant Doyle
Old Adam – Richard Angas
Richard Dauntless – Hal Cazalet
Mad Margaret – Heather Shipp
Sir Despard – Richard Burkhard
Sir Roderic – Steven Page

Creative Team
Words – W. S. Gilbert
Music – Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director – Jo Davies
Set – Richard Hudson
Costumes – Gabrielle Dalton
Lighting – Anna Watson

How lovely to see that one of G&S’s relative failures can still pack out an entire theatre, and how wonderful to hear Sulliivan’s score played by upwards of 30 musicians (with a second trombone, yet!). How splendid to see a creatively directed production that had had shedloads of money chucked at it. And how disappointing that the singing wasn’t up to anything like scratch. Opera North should be able to field some better principals than this – perhaps they were saving their Big Guns for their production of The Queen of Spades? Whatever the reason, the somewhat limited vocal talent on display serves this production very ill. I’ve actually heard better amateur voices. Amy Freston got quieter and quieter the higher up the stave she climbed, and there were very few – if any – occasions when you heard any of Rose Maybud’s top notes sailing high over the chorus. Hal Cazalet sounded similarly underpowered as Richard Dauntless – in the trio “When Sailing O’er Life’s Ocean Wide” both Freston and Cazalet were roundly trumped by Grant Doyle’s Robin Oakapple. The greatest disappointment was Steven Page’s Sir Roderic – the character only has one song (When the Night Wind Howls) which should be delivered in the kind of deep, fruity bass-baritone that makes the floorboards vibrate. His somewhat reedy baritone totally failed to make the grade for me. Only Heather Shipp’s Mad Margaret and Richard Angas’ Old Adam sounded like they were being sung by members of a well-regarded opera company.

I enjoyed the central conceit of updating the action to the early 30’s, (although this did tend to make a bit of a nonsense of the libretto’s slightly affected early 19th century style) and it was clever and interesting to present the show as an old, faded movie of the kind you get on Sunday afternoons on TV. What didn’t work well was the mixing of this style with the attempt at taking Ruddigore back to its roots in 19th century stage melodrama – there were prominent footlights across the stage of the kind seen in an old “palace of varieties” and several of the numbers were given in a vaudeville style in front of a dropped frontcloth. Use of the footlights and tracking spotlights reinforced this feel, and I began to feel as if I were being dragged backwards and forwards in time constantly while the production tried to settle into a particular period. The design on the drop cloth, while pretty and well realised, was inappropriate to the given location of the operetta being a Cornish fishing village, as it showed a romantically overgrown garden with steps and crumbling columns. Again, fine for “The Good Old Days” variety hall but out of synch with both the 30’s and the supposed village setting. The problem with making everything fit with the “old sepia-toned film” is that the set and costumes had to follow a very proscribed colour range of whites, creams, blacks, browns and pinks – pretty enough in itself but visually quite dull; after a while one’s eyes start to crave the sharp contrast of a splash of sharp blue or green; proof of which came in the form of Mr. Punch (in cherry red) and the bright green crocodile who appeared during the Punch and Judy show. Immediately the eyes of the entire audience were focussing only on them – which was probably deliberate because its probably the funniest bit of the entire show. One of the ghosts was dressed in a dark red Elizabethan costume and, again, the sudden visual contrast meant that my eyes, hungry for colour, immediately focussed on him alone.

What I particularly enjoyed was the “back story” of young Hannah and her relationship with Sir Roderic being presented as a silent film during the overture – if you’ve never seen the show, this “back story” is easy to miss as its explained in a very brief exchange of dialogue, and, if you do miss it, it can leave you wondering what the hell is going on, with serious consequences for your enjoyment of the piece. I also loved the fact that a great deal of thought had gone into scene changes during Act 1 – for the finale, we find ourselves suddenly inside the village church, which fits perfectly with both plot and music.

The chorus of professional bridesmaids were given plenty to do, with lots of highly inventive business and each seemed to have been given a distinct character. If I am going to be really, really picky (and believe me, I am) I would say that the waistlines of their dresses were in completely the wrong place for the 1930s – waistlines were at the natural waist and therefore insufficiently low to give the correct period line.

The technical demands of the second act were extremely well handled, although the sightlines from my seat didn’t enable me to see the entire stage and therefore I missed a fair bit. The “trial” scene was a very good idea and I anticipate this being pinched by at least one amateur director of my acquaintance. The “disappearance” of Sir Roderic could have been a real coup de theatre but I think a lot of people didn’t register it because his cloak was more or less the same colour as the set and so the “trick” was very easily missed if you happened to be looking elsewhere at the time, which was an incredible shame as it should have been a real “oooooooh!” moment. And the director in me was praying that something was going to be done with the polar bear rug – someone should have tripped over it or wrestled with it, or perhaps its eyes should have lit up.

Yes, I have really picked this production to bits rather. But only because it was thought-provoking and enjoyable. Had I loathed it, then I really wouldn’t have invested the time and effort into being quite so pernickety. It can be a tough life being a theatre critic sometimes – your critical judgement gets sharpened to the point where it becomes practically impossible to just sit back and enjoy things on their own terms. So a big round of applause for Opera North for having the guts to revive a lesser-known G&S work and for doing a damned good job with it.

What the critics thought:



13 November 2011

Death and the Maiden - Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre), Friday 11th November 2011

Years have passed since political prisoner Paulina suffered at the hands of her captor: A man whose face she never saw, but whose voice she can still recall with terrifying clarity.

Tonight, by chance, a stranger arrives at the secluded beach house she shares with her husband Gerardo, a human rights lawyer. a stranger Paulina is convinced was her tormentor and must now be held to account…

Paulina: Thandie Newton
Gerardo – Tom Goodman-Hill
Roberto – Anthony Calf

Creative Team:
Written by Areil Dorfman
Director – Jeremy Herrin
Set and Costume design – Peter McIntosh
Lighting – Neil Austin
Sound – Fergus O’Hare

Its not often that I am sitting at my PC when an offer of cheap tickets drops into my inbox. Sure, it wasn’t for anything that I was desperate to see, but there was a certain “why not?” feeling about my decision – it was either that or sit and stare at the TV all Friday night until my eyes started to bleed. And Him Indoors sounded vaguely amenable to coming. So we went. And rapidly realized that we probably should have stayed at home.

There was a moment of high comedy as we went to the theatre to collect the tickets before heading off for an extortionately priced cup of coffee round the corner. I’d literally put my foot on the first of the steps leading up to the entrance when I was accosted by a slightly over-enthusiastic chap with one of those little earpieces sticking out of his lug. “Are you here to collect your tickets?” I paused for a second or two, wondering why on earth I would be entering a theatre an hour before curtain up otherwise. Perhaps he thought I was a terrorist? “Er….. yes”, I replied. “You’ll be able to get them from the Box Office”, he said, “which is over there”. He pointed to the small window about 8 foot away from me across the nastily patterned carpet. The window had the words “Box Office” painted over it in big gold letters. Perhaps he thought I was a stupid terrorist? “I think I could have worked both those things out for myself, thanks”, I replied, rolling my eyes mentally, “I have done this kind of thing before”, desperately wanting to say “Oh thanks! I had intended to wander about aimlessly in your very small foyer for 20 minutes trying desperately to work out where to collect my ticket” instead. Possibly there have been an influx of people going to the theatre recently (probably to see Ghost or Rock of Ages) who don’t realize that one collects one’s tickets from the box office, people who can’t read or work out the directions to the Box Office even though its quite literally in spitting distance, has “Box Office” painted up over it and is in plain view from the door. Or possibly the guy with the little earpiece worked for the Department of The Bleeding Obvious? Is theatre dumbing down that much? Honestly.

Anyway, it rapidly became clear that the success of the entire play rests very firmly on the shoulders of whoever is playing Paulina. And that when she is being played by someone who has never set foot on the stage before, it isn’t going to work. Sure, the woman may be an experienced film actress but honeychile, they is two completely different things, an’ jus’ cos you is good at the one, doan mean that you is goin’ to be any good at the other. Sure, the role of Paulina is a difficult one; you need not only vulnerability but a core of hardened steel that makes the audience agonise over what you are doing and why. You need to be a frightened woman capable of suddenly turning the tables on both the man you think repeatedly raped you 15 years ago and the entire audience. Juliet Stephenson created the role in London and I bet the atmosphere in the theatre back then was electric. It wasn’t last night. You need an actress with balls of steel and a hell of a lot of stage expertise. This, however, was a horribly, embarrassingly misguided choice of role for someone making their stage debut, someone who should have listened to that irritating voice inside the head that we all have; the one that, however much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, is always bloody right. If Newton had pulled this one off, it would have made her a star overnight. But my advice to her would now be “Stick to films love”.

Ironically, this then throws a more intense light on the two male actors who then have to carry the play. Ordinarily, you would hardly notice their performances because you would be so wrapped up in the action. But here, it becomes rapidly obvious that they are both bloody good actors who have learned their trade well. Tom Goodman-Hill comes out of this particularly well – his character is one of those irritating “Shall I, shan’t I? type of men that would usually just come across as vacillating and a bit wet. Against Newton, you can see that he is actually doing a very good job with a very poorly written part.

Stupidly, the producers seem to have incorporated an interval in the play. Not only is there no natural place for this (reflected in the fact that, during the first part of the run – and very possibly other productions - it was a straight-through, one act, 100 minute play), but the interval means that any tension built up during the first half drains away from the auditorium completely and then struggles – and fails – to build up again in the second. So the second half is an almost complete flop. Lets face it, with the current fashion for no-interval plays, 100 minutes is nothing much anyway – I’ve sat there for 2 ½ hours without an interval in the past. With a decent actress the play would fly by, becoming almost unbearably tense; I have a sneaky suspicion that the lack of interval was having an effect on bar takings at the theatre. The piece would run much better without a break. As it is, most people seem to use the extra time to discuss the shortcomings of both the piece and the leading lady. Or perhaps they are struggling with Ordnance Survey maps and Kendal Mint Cake in the foyer trying to find their way back to the Box Office.

What the critics said: