29 January 2012

Masterclass - Vaudeville Theatre, Friday 27th January 2012

In the 1970s, the legendary opera singer Maria Callas gave a series of opera masterclasses at Julliard University in the USA. The play traces the course of one of these classes, as Callas wrestles with her own past and the demons which haunt her while destroying the hopes and dreams of her unlucky students.

Maria Callas – Tyne Daly
Stagehand – Gerard Carey
Emmanuel Weinstock – Jeremy Cohen
Sharon Graham – Naomi O’Connell
Sophie de Palma – Dianne Pilkington
Anthony Candolino – Garrett Sorenson

Creative Team:
Written by – Terence McNally
Set – Thomas Lynch
Costumes – Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting – David Lander

OK – here it comes. If you only go to the theatre once this year, make it this. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a wonderful show. I’m a huge fan of Tyne Daly anyway, and having seen the other half of the partnership late last year, was looking forward to this evening immensely. On paper, the play isn’t much, but you really do get your money’s worth – and more. Daly truly inhabits the role of the fearsome Maria Callas, a brilliant yet tragically flawed woman. Stalking the stage like some elegantly dressed raven, she tears her victims into emotional shreds and feeds on their flesh, all the while unwittingly exposing her own insecurities and hate.

The set-up of the play is very clever – we, the audience, are playing a part in the action. Its immediately clear that we are not just passive observers but actually there in the lecture hall to observe, learn and have our personal fashion choices subjected to withering scorn (don’t sit in the front row!). Callas/Daly orders us about, instructing how and when to applaud (or not) and takes the reins almost from the very beginning:

“So. How is everyone? Can you hear me? I don't believe in microphones. Singing is first of all about projection. So is speech. People are forgetting how to listen. They want everything blasted at them. Listening takes concentration. If you can't hear me, it's your fault. You're not concentrating.”
This woman is IN CHARGE, and she ain’t gonna let us forget it. In fact, so caught up did I become in the action that Daly and the Vaudeville receded and I was actually there, at Julliard, and not daring to applaud because Ms. Callas had forbidden it. The three hapless students just become conduits for her own memories and recollections, and literally fade from the stage on several occasions as the stage at the Vaudeville/lecture hall at Julliard become the stage of La Scala, Milan where Callas is fighting her art, her audience and her upbringing every step of the way.

"A performance is a struggle. You have to win. The audience is the enemy. We have to bring you to your knees because we're right...Dominate them...Art is domination".
What is doubly clever is that, if you actually pay attention to Daly/Callas, you may very well learn something about the art of theatre and how to work the stage; Callas discusses making an entrance, holding the focus of the audience (in one wonderful moment, Callas retires to her seat and drinks from a glass while one of the students is preparing to sing and comments aside sardonically “Look, I’m simply drinking a glass of water and I still have presence”), interpreting the music and building a character. You’re unlikely to remember most of this, however, as you either dissolve in a welter of laughter or are held completely spellbound when Daly becomes caught up in her reveries of appearing in La Sonambula and Macbeth. Take a pencil.

Of course, every monster needs victims, and Daly has five – a stagehand who refuses to be impressed, an adoring accompanist, a mediocre soprano, an arrogant tenor and a second soprano who is well on her way to becoming just as much a monster as Callas herself and who isn’t willing to play the role of victim. Gerard Carey plays the first, but inhabits such a tiny character that little can really be said about it. Jeremy Cohen makes a very good job out of the thankless role of the accompanist, and I hope Daly buys him a red sweater at the end of the run (an in joke – go and see the show). As the first of the sopranos, Dianne Pilkington makes a good impression at first, (hilariously getting only as far as “Oooooohhhhh……” in her aria before being peremptorily halted in her tracks by Callas) but is unfortunate in that her role is swiftly forgotten once Garrett Sorenson’s bumptious tenor and Naomi O’Connell’s fire-breathing soprano appear. Both actors are legitimate singers in their own right and desevedly get applause for some breathtaking vocal fireworks. But its Daly who – rightly – bestrides the show like a colossus and makes it her very own. This woman can act. She simply becomes Maria Callas. Don’t take my word for it. Just buy yourself a ticket and see for yourself. In fact, buy two tickets – one for yourself and one for me, because I’d gladly go see this again. Tomorrow.

This was a preview performance.  Reviews will be posted when they become available. 


28 January 2012

The Lion in Winter - Haymarket Theatre, Wednesday 25th January 2012


Christmas, 1183. His eldest son having died,  an aging King Henry II summons his family (including his imprisoned wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine) to a reunion at which each of his three surviving sons hope to be named his successor. Henry favours John, his youngest son, and Eleanor is bend on securing the throne for Richard while Geoffrey is left to scheme for himself. Plots and counter-plots abound as each faction bends and shifts allegiances in an attempt to destroy the other.

Henry II – Robert Lindsay
Eleanor of Acquitaine – Joanna Lumley
Richard – Tom Bateman
Geoffrey – James Norton
John – Joseph Drake
Phillip of France – Rory Fleck-Byrne
Princess Alais of France – Sonya Cassidy

Creative Team
Author – James Goldman
Director – Trevor Nunn
Set and Costumes – Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting – Peter Mumford
Music – Steven Edis

This is a very odd play indeed. I think James Goldman had just had a particularly horrendous family Christmas (is there any other kind?) and needed to exorcise some demons when he decided to write this; although the action concerns Henry II’s attempts to sort out who is going to succeed him to the thrones of England and France, with a slight tweak here and there, a change of set and the addition of a cocktail cabinet, glasses of whisky and some cigarettes this could easily be a cross between Seasons Greetings and something written by Edward Albee in the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” vein – you know, vile people being vile to other vile people, but given extra angst by being set at Christmas. In fact, the play is so chock full of anachronisms that it starts to become a contest between what you are seeing (Norman arches, stone flagged floors and medieval costumes) and what you are hearing (modern dialogue, references to Christmas trees and dahlias). Gradually the dialogue wins and you start to tune out the visuals. It takes a while for this to happen, and until it does, the play staggers slowly uphill until you reach the crest, and then you just start to coast down the far side. Its an uneasy blend, however – you start to look for the cocktail cabinet and the ashtrays. Added to the problem is that there are odd elements of farce – two characters end up hiding behind the arras to eavesdrop – and a bizarre “gay clinch” between Prince Richard and the Crown Prince of France, which is interrupted by the entrance of another character, so Richard rushes to the four poster bed, jumps in and pulls the curtains. Its all neither fish nor fowl – neither historical drama nor family comedy but an uneasy blend of both.

There’s quite a lot of pain and hurt in the play and the text isn’t best served by the broad style of acting adopted by most of the cast – Richard Lindsay struggles to make Henry anything more than a direct ancestor of his character in My Family (and in fact now I think of it, the entire play could be summed up as no more than a feature length Christmas episode of this unaccountably popular sitcom. Substitute Zoe Wannamaker for Joanna Lumley and all it needs is canned laughter). Still, the humour isn’t subtle, so I suppose the best way of dealing with this is just to point yourself towards the end of the play and go for it. There is a certain amount of scenery-chewing but compared to the film its all pretty tame stuff.

Lindsay, as I said above, makes Henry just a medieval Ben Fowler and Joanna Lumley is really just Joanna Lumley in a wimple. She mugs just that little bit too much and brings little of Eleanor’s regality to the part, there’s a distinct lack of gravitas here. The three princes are more or less indistinguishable and therefore interchangeable, but Lindsay and Lumley really do show that they are masters of their craft in comparison, with their every consonant pointed and every syllable audible, whereas Messrs Bateman, Norton and Drake all seem to have their volume setting turned down to “indistinct”. The roles played by Ms. Cassidy and Mr. Fleck-Burne are so negligible anyway alongside all the roaring, pacing about and barbed witticisms that they never really register on your consciousness.

The set is pretty and quite clever, with a double revolve disguised as the circles of stone flags around two columns of a Norman-arched nave, and this brings on and takes off various bits of furniture, but its all too clean and pretty to be anything like realistic. There's little sense of it being winter - certainly everything looks bright, warm and cheerful.  Costumes are kind of “all purpose 12th century” and the lighting is effective and well thought out. But the slightly ridiculous plot and modern dialogue make it an odd evening. It’s a little like a theatrical version of “Horrible Histories”.

What the critics thought:




Ready for a bit of scenery-chewing?

08 January 2012

The Wizard of Oz - London Palladium, Friday 6th January 2012

Dorothy – Danielle Hope
Aunt Em – Kate Coysten
Uncle Henry/Guard – Stephen Scot
Hickory/Tin Man – Edward Baker-Duly
Zeke/Lion – David Ganly
Hunk/Scarecrow – Paul Keating
Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch – Marianne Benedict
Glinda – Emily Tierney
Professor Marvel/Wizard/Doorman – Michael Crawford
Creative Team:
Additional Lyrics – Tim Rice
Additional Music – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director – Jeremy Sams
Lighting – Hugh Vanstone
Choreographer – Arlene Phillips

You know, I really am getting sick to the back teeth of the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut, which rolls on and crushes great theatre under its wheels. Once again, ALW has persuaded the BBC to give him hours of prime-time advertising under the auspices of a “search for new talent”, has persuaded the Great British Public to part with its hard-earned by promising a vast, exciting phantasmagoria and has churned out a cheap, damp squib masquerading as a wonderful new reinterpretation of a much-loved classic piece of history. Not content with butchering Oliver and The Sound of Music, ALW now turns his attention to possibly the best-loved film Hollywood ever made (at least his next outing will be to butcher one of his own works – rumour is that the next BBC talent show will be to look for a new Jesus for Superstar, a thought that fills me with dread). What really pisses me off about ALW is that he promises everything and delivers precious little, much like the title character of this show. Its all smoke and mirrors. ALW has the money and the talent pool to present something spectacular beyond our wildest dreams, and what we eventually get once again is him as Chief Peddler of Tat to The Masses.

Regardless of the fact that The Wizard of Oz is a classic loved by millions with a glorious score, ALW is so convinced of his own superiority that he can’t resist fiddling with it and stamping his tawdry mark all over it. So he’s re-written a script which doesn’t need re-writing (at the expense of several characters), turned it into a star vehicle for Michael Crawford, shoved some of his own music into it (mercifully, most of it is instantly forgettable), stripped out a great deal of the wonderful orchestrations from the film soundtrack and thrown onto the enormous stage of The Palladium an ensemble of 20 who look completely lost on it. They’ve been directed and choreographed (if I can call it that – both are horrifically and woefully thin) with the absolute minimum of effort and with a tiny orchestra and some truly lousy scenery and yet Joe Public lap it up by the bucketful and shout for more. Honestly, I don’t know whether I was more disappointed by this show or by the undiscriminating idiots who think that ALW shits pure gold. Its not as if it hasn’t happened before. But nobody takes any notice of the man behind the curtain who is pulling the levers and throwing glitter in their eyes until they can no longer see his deception clearly enough to call “foul”.

OK, he was up against the films’ reputation and that of its star, so he was on the back foot to start with. This is the stuff that peoples’ memories are made of, and you fuck with that at your peril. But instead of giving us what we want, ALW gives us what he thinks we should have. Take the character of the Wicked Witch of the West. What we want is Margaret Hamilton screeching and cackling in a black pointed hat but what we get is a WWotW watered down to the point where the character becomes merely eccentric and unpleasant – think of the Bette Midler character in the film Hocus Pocus – wearing a split skirt, lacy tights and knee-high boots. There’s no real evil here, and the revisionist script doesn’t help. We want Dorothy sitting on a piece of farm machinery with Toto, backlight against the sunset and tearing our hearts out with Somewhere over the Rainbow while birds sing in the distance. What we get is Danielle Hope front and centre on an almost completely darkened stage, wearing a pair of dungarees and not coming anywhere close to the emotional pull that you get when watching the film. We want dozens of Munchkins waving goodbye as Glinda disappears in a big pink soap bubble, and what we get is ten children backed up by five adult ensemble members waving goodbye as Glinda hitches up her skirt and strolls off Stage Right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a set so paltry as this Munchkinland, which seems to consist of a small hillock covered in that green pretend grass you used to see in butchers shop windows, dotted with tissue paper flowers that look as if the local primary school kids have made them in a craft lesson. ALW’s bank balance runs into untold millions, yet this Wizard of Oz feels for the most part skimped and cheap. I sat open-mouthed at the gimcrack paltriness of the poppyfield scenery. And the emotional quality is lacking too – just like the man made of tin, this production has no heart. It’s a cynical money-making exercise for ALW, never mind the quality, feel the width. Nearly everything about this show – the amount of people on stage, the orchestra, the orchestrations - needs to be doubled up before it really befits the stage of the London Palladium.

I missed the wonderful underscoring of the original film music. There were no fighting apple trees, no “If I Were King of the Forest” for the Cowardly lion. I didn’t like the way the break between the acts was moved to the point where the Wizard instructs Dorothy and her friends to go and kill the WWotW (ensuring that Mr. Crawford could end the first act by booming through the auditorium in exactly the same fashion as he did in Phantom of the Opera). I hated that there wasn’t a drop of water, real or otherwise, in the bucket that Dorothy dumps over the WWotW.

I did like the fact that the costumes were clearly based on the illustrations from the original book. I did like the fact that the Tin Man was played butch, forming a very solid centre to the ensemble of four who were clearly working as a team, bouncing off each other with no obvious “star” and no obvious “underdog”. I did like the fact that the Cowardly Lion wasn’t played as a raving poofter. I did think the Witches’ castle set was spectacular (no hourglass though – shame). I did think that Danielle Hope gave it her best shot. But I would rather pay to see Ravensbourne Light Opera Society’s amateur production of The Wizard of Oz at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley again were it possible than Mr. Lloyd Webber’s current offering. Yes, I am a grouchy old bugger on occasion and I’ve had readers of this blog wonder publicly whether I like anything but I was so disappointed last night that I could have cried. Like I said, you fuck with a classic at your peril.

One of the pro critics called this production “soullessly efficient” and I would heartily agree. You’d be far better off renting the DVD and settling in with a pot of tea and a packet of chocolate HobNobs on a rainy afternoon to ensure that the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

What the critics thought: