21 June 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors - a postscript

I was having a nap this afternoon (still feeling somewhat grotty) when there was a ring on the doorbell and a delivery man from Amazon on the mat.  Perplexed, I took the proferred parcel and thought "This must be a mistake, I haven't ordered anything from them lately".

I open the box to find a rather expensive book from my Amazon wish list along with the following message:

Dear Russell

I do hope you enjoy this small gift.  I am the father of James Corden and guilty of giving you a little grief over your review of his NT play last year.  Enjoy, and thanks for your forbearance. 

Malcolm Corden.

Well, if you are reading this, Mr. Corden Snr., thank you very much.  Your kind gift is much appreciated, and can be said to be a rare example of something which rendered me completely speechless for a number of minutes.   I do, however, stand by my review, as I have always done, despite the shedloads of abuse received (not all of which was suitable for consumption by a family audience and therefore not published on this blog) for expressing my opinions and which continues to come in some 12  months or more after publishing my review.  However, it is nice to know that someone feels sufficiently guilty about their attack to take the time and effort to send a gift.  Should anyone else who felt it necessary to be vicious feel similarly contrite, then the link to my Amazon Wish List can be found further down the page in the far right hand margin.  Until then, I salute the generosity of Mr. Corden Snr., and accept his apology.  Your son has many fans, Mr. C; it is however such a shame that they express their feelings with such vitriol and contempt for the opinions of others. 

Henry V - Shakespeare's Globe, Wednesday 20th June 2012

Henry hears the legal arguments in favour of his claim to the French crown, and tells the French Ambassador that he will reclaim the former English possessions in France. 
In London, the old companions of Henry’s youth – Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Mistress Quickly and Falstaff’s former page- lament Falstaff’s death. The men and the boy decide to seek their fortunes in the King’s campaign, but are more interested in looting than in fighting. The town of Harfleur is taken, and at the French Court, Princess Katherine learns English from Alice, her lady in waiting. The French send a great force to meet the English army.
At Agincourt, Henry visits his soldiers by night and in disguise. He rejects all representations from the French for ransom and, against enormous odds, engages them in battle and takes Agincourt. When the French regroup, Henry orders the execution of his French prisoners, while the boys left behind to guard the English camp are killed by the French in retaliation.

To reinforce his right to the throne, Henry woos and wins Princess Katherine.

Chorus/Queen – Brid Brennan
Exeter – Nigel Cooke
Pistol – Sam Cox
The Dauphin - Kurt Egyiawwan
Gower – Matthew Flynn
King of France/Nym – David Hargreaves
York – Beruce Khan
MacMorris – James Lailey
Fluellen – Brendan O’Hea
Henry – Jamie Parker
Bardolph – Paul Rider
Boy/Katherine – Olivia Ross
Mistress Quickly/Alice – Lisa Stevenson

Creative Team:
Director – Dominic Dromgole
Designer – Jonathan Fensom
Choreographer – Sian Williams

This is, by necessity, a mini-review. I was feeling distinctly unwell, and perhaps should have stayed home in bed. I wasn’t really in the mood for sitting through a three hour play, and didn’t have the energy to do anything except sit passively in my seat and let the words wash over me. I always find a trip to the Globe a bit of a chore at the very best of times, what with the problems with sightlines (I always seem to end up sitting slap behind a pillar), audibility (theatre “in the round” always means that some of the actors are going to be facing away from you at any given point – when the theatre is open to the elements, this problem is intensified tenfold), uncomfortable wooden seating and the constant tooing and froing of “groundlings”. Last night, a group of sulky teenagers (who turned out to be French, so no wonder they were sulky given the play’s subject matter) with an enormous collection of paper and plastic shopping bags between them were a major distraction, parading in and out and rearranging their shopping at every conceivable opportunity. So my critical facilities were really in “standby” mode for most of the evening, and I think I may even have dozed off at one point.

The rest of the audience, however, seemed to be having a good time, so I guess the production was fairly decent. There were a couple of excellent performances, notably that of Jamie Parker as Henry, who seemed the epitome of English gilded youth, striding about the stage as if he owned it during scenes ambassadorial and battle, yet with a gawky, bashful charm in his long and important final scene with the Princess of France. His impassioned yet quiet and calm “St. Crispian’s Day” speech seemed to bring the entire auditorium to a reverent hush – perhaps in some surprise as this is a great “rabble rousing” speech and is usually delivered at the top of one’s lungs and with all arms flailing. Olivia Parker was an excellent Princess, played much younger and far less coldly regal as a consequence than I believe is the norm, and the famous “learning the English language” scene was a joy, helped terrifically by Lisa Stevenson as a wonderfully pompous Alice. Kurt Egyiawan deserves mention as his Dauphin was perfectly delivered acoustics-wise; you could hear every word even when his back was turned, and showed a great understanding of how projection can overcome the difficulties of playing this challenging space.  Alice and Katheriine are, for some reason, the only French people on stage who attempt any kind of French accent.

I did find the “low comedy” characters even more irritating than normal, probably exacerbated by the fact that I was feeling lousy. I did see a very creative and enjoyable performance of this play a while back, in which most of the Nym/Bardolph/Pistol/Fluellen subplots were cut completely and thought that this tightened up the play no end. Otherwise Henry V is an incredibly wordy play, with so much of the dreary “comedy interludes” that turn people off Shakespeare for good. Even the current production has a three hour running time, although great chunks of it have been jettisoned because they are Very Bloody Boring – Him Indoors always and without fail reminds me that the opening scene in which the Archbishops set up the legal and ambassadorial background to the action is one of Shakespeare’s most wordy, static and tedious. Here, however, it has been thankfully pruned to the necessary minimum, and further lightened by having both stuffy clerics take turns on the close stool while speechifying; possibly the first time at the Globe that actors have had to lift up their cassocks and wipe their backsides while in full view of the audience, although I am happy to be corrected on this point if necessary!

Battles are always difficult to portray convincingly on stage, even though Henry V is the one play of Shakespeare’s in which your powers of imagination are called upon most (the Chorus effectively pleads your indulgence throughout the text) and again the director has turned the battles into stylised dance sequences, which somehow fail to provide the necessary spark. Personally I would like to see Agincourt done in the manner of Stomp – or perhaps not portrayed at all on stage and left completely to the imagination by sound effects and pyrotechnics.

Anyway, as I said before, the rest of the audience seemed to have a good time and the other reviews have been more or less in praise of the production, so Dear Reader, let their opinions guide you on this occasion.

What the critics said:

20 June 2012

The Last of the Hausmanns - National Theatre, Thursday 14th June 2012

Anarchic, feisty but growing old, high society drop-out Judy Haussman remains in spirit with the Ashrams of the 1960s while holding court in her dilapidated Art Deco house on the Devon coast.

After an operation, she’s joined by wayward offspring Nick and Libby, sharp-eyed granddaughter Summer, local doctor Peter, and Daniel, a troubled teenager who makes use of the family’s crumbling swimming pool. Together they share a few sweltering months as they alternately cling to and flee this louche and chaotic world of all-day drinking, infatuations, long-held resentments, free love and failure.
Libby: Helen McCrory
Nick: Rory Kinnear
Summer: Isabella Laughland
Judy: Julie Walters
Peter, Matthew Marsh
Daniel: Taron Egerton

Creative Team:
Written by Stephen Beresford
Director: Howard Davies
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Mark Henderson

How to get your first play seen by thousands of people:

1) Write a part in it for Julie Walters. If the part is broadly similar to how Julie Walters is anyway, so much the better

2) Once she has accepted it, offer it to the National Theatre

However good, bad or indifferent your play is, it will receive national coverage in the reviews and be an almost guaranteed sell out at the box office. If you can manage to base your play on something that has already been written, a lot of your work will already have been done for you by someone else. You can set it in the same provincial town, adapt a lot of the dialogue, re-tread many of the same basic ideas and POW – you will have the punters storming the box office, laughing fit to wet themselves every time your leading lady twitches her left eyebrow. You might further decide to adapt the basic premise of a hit TV show such as “Absolutely fabulous” by having three generations of women all cooped up in the same house throwing one-liners at each other, and further plagiarise the idea by writing in a “gay son” character. Throw in a mysterious doctor (Is he all he seems? Which of the characters is he shagging/will he be shagging?), a cute young boy with “plot device” written all over his Speedos (which of the characters will fall prey to his masculine charms first?) a few problems with paying for the upkeep of the house and a bit about the evils of “equity release”, mix in a bit of Chekovian angst along the lines of “a long hot summer – the last in the old family home before society as the occupants know it breaks down” and all you have left to do is pen a few decently funny lines and you can then pat yourself firmly on the back and tell everyone you have “arrived”. The fact that your play remains as essentially empty and as devoid of any real story as Coward’s Hay Fever need not trouble you as the applause rings in your ears and the box office receipts roll in. Until, of course, people with some kind of critical facility view your play and start to think “hang on a minute….”

Now, I fully realise that this kind of review isn’t going to go down well with some people. Having dragged me to the theatre willingly or unwillingly over the space of the last ten years and thus self-cast himself in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, Him Indoors has started to realise that he has created a monster; one with a rapidly developing critical sense and which he cannot necessarily influence any more. So the interval conversations (the ones which start with “Well, go on then – propound”) are starting to get a bit fraught (to the amusement and/or annoyance of people sitting nearby) and reviews are skimmed through and dismissed as “overly picky”. I don’t expect that he will like this one, either. And perhaps neither will you, dear reader. No doubt in the past you have chortled away at some of my more outrageous offerings but the beast seems to be mutating and I admit that it is becoming harder and harder to write “laugh a minute” reviews. This might be seen as A Bad Thing in some quarters. I try to put the occasional flash of humour or bitchy comment in sometimes, but they ain’t coming so easily these days. Perhaps I am getting old and cynical and should take a long sabbatical from this blog….. don’t think I haven’t considered it.

Aaaaaaaaanyway, I enjoyed The Last of the Haussmans, as did the rest of the audience. This is a decent enough first play, although I think shares all the faults that first plays are subject to. Its too long, slightly too desperate to get its message across, slightly unsure what its message actually is and, most importantly, unsure whether it is a comedy with serious undertones or a serious play with lots of funny one-liners. It is, perhaps, un peu grandiose in many aspects. Beresford may well learn in time how to get a point across to his audience without Hammering It Home Repeatedly And With All The Subtlety Of A Brick, but he hasn’t managed this yet. What the play IS is most definitely a showcase for Julie Walters. If you are a connoisseur of a well turned bon mot a la Victoria Wood that you can throw into various conversations (“She sleeps all day and then gets up when she’s hungry, just like a fucking badger”) then you will like this play. If you venerate Julie Walters as A National Treasure then you will like this play (at this performance, quite a few people ovated and I would imagine that quite a few more ovulated). If you like Rory Kinnear you will like this play. If you are a fan of great set design you will like this play (there is a wonderful set – an entire 1930s Art Deco house complete with messy interior and a garden terrace so untidy and unkempt that I found myself fantasising about taking a bucket of hot soapy water, scrubbing brush, broom and pair of secateurs to it), because during the long, wordy, dull bits (of which there are quite a few) you can let your eyes wander all over it and appreciate how detailed it is (there are even stacks of old boxes in the loft). If that is all you desire from a night out at the theatre, that’s all well and good – you will come away happy and have had value for your money. And that’s exactly what many people want, and exactly what many people who see this play will get. Its funny, its bitter, its sad, there’s the great “each character will now make a long, violently impassioned speech giving us the key to their motivation” scene around the kitchen table, followed very quickly by the “we can solve all our problems if we just believe in each other and love each other” scene, ending in a group hug, lights fade to black moment. Many of the key dramatic moments are underscored with appropriate pop songs should you need them signposted for you. It's decently and competently directed.  But Hamlet it ain’t.

In ten years time the play will probably be a staple of the amateur dramatic scene for directors wanting to do something “a bit more edgy than An Inspector Calls yet again” – The Alexandra Players present The Last of the Haussmans, all this week at the Village Hall. Until then, Julie Walters has a sure-fire success on her hands. But personally I found it as hollow as an Easter Egg, prettily wrapped and well presented but with only the thinnest of chocolate veneers around a completely empty centre.

What the critics said:

11 June 2012

Torch Song Trilogy - Menier Chocolate Factory, Friday 8th June 2012

Arnold is a professional drag queen, known as "Virginia Hamm". While visiting a bar, Arnold meets Ed, who is uncomfortable with his bisexuality.  Their relationship is "on/off" and fairly turbulent. A year later, Ed has left and intends to marry his girlfriend Laurel. Arnold meets Alan, and the two settle down into a blissful existence that includes plans to adopt a child, until tragedy strikes. Several years pass, by which time Arnold is a single father raising gay teenager David, while Ed, having left Laurel and moved back in with Arnold, beings to find new aspects to their relationship. All three are forced to deal with the sudden arrival of Arnold's mother on a visit. 
Arnold Beckoff - David Bedella
Alan - Tom Harries
Mrs. Beckoff - Sara Kestelman
Ed Reiss - Joe McFadden
David - Perry Millward
Laurel - Laura Pyper

Written by Harvey Fierstein
Direction - Douglas Hodge
Design - Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design - Paul Anderson
Sound Design - Gareth Owen
Musical Supervision - Cathy Jayes

Warning to theatre-goers! Apparently many theatres are now amending their starting time to 8pm “for the Olympics” That the Olympics have not yet started is apparently neither here nor there, apparently. Any new show that is set to run through Olympic period is amending its curtain up time to 8pm to give you more time to get to the theatre through the traffic chaos. Which, of course, is still six weeks or so away. Regardless or not of the fact that there are still six weeks in which the public transport system could be expected to function relatively normally, I would recommend you check the running time of any show and the departure time of your last train home before booking to see a performance in the next six weeks.

A further warning. The Menier is not known for the generosity of its seat size. You are crammed onto a bench with no dividing arm rests and if anyone on your bench is built for comfort rather than speed, you may well find that the person next to you is encroaching on your space. Fortunately, there were a couple of unsold seats at one end of my particular bench, and as I was feeling a little cramped, turned politely to the two women (from their reaction to my request I cannot possibly describe them as “ladies”) and asked, if the spaces remained empty by the start of the play, if they would mind shifting along slightly to address the spacing issues. I considered this to be a not unreasonable request, but got a curt refusal on the grounds of “restricted view” and “we bought these seats, we want to sit in them”. I grant that the “letterbox” staging of the first act did make it slightly difficult for people near the end of a row to see things taking place at the other end of the stage, but what is a couple of inches between friends?

Personally, I would say that the set design is extremely bad in this respect – the set is initially one unbroken run of wall, the outer sections of which remain static while the large central section moves backwards to give an increased stage area in the middle. The static areas are in fact very little used and therefore almost completely superfluous, and inhibit sight lines badly. Ensure you are either seated towards the middle of the theatre or book seats next to politer audience members than we did. The odd staging does also push the excellent harpist who plays during the first two acts into a very strange position, and it is a great shame that she is not permitted to take a solo bow at the end.

This is a very long show. Just a smidge over three hours (although apparently cut down significantly)  including interval (see above and check the times of your last train!). And, in retrospect, a very strange show too, made up as it is from three one-act plays of wildly varying lengths, tones and formats. The first (and by far the shortest), The International Stud, is, for most of its length, a one-person monologue in which the only actor on stage switches constantly between addressing the audience directly and interacting with imagined other characters, until another character finally enters and the play becomes a realistic duologue. The second, Fugue in a Nursery, is a four-hander, set within the confines of an enormous bed, in which two couples interact with their other halves and occasionally with the other couple. The third, Widows and Children First, much the longest, is a realistic piece on a realistic set. This makes for a somewhat roller-coaster evening as the audience are constantly having to adjust their perceptions to suit each act’s particular style. Added to this unease is the fact that each successive play becomes rawer and more gut-wrenchingly emotional in tone, although all are leavened by flashes of great humour.

The success or failure of the entire evening rests with one person, and I have to say that David Bedla. l;ast seen at the Menier in Road Show, pulled off the difficult and emotionally exhausting role of Arnold with considerable aplomb, great acting skills and superb timing. Initially, I admit that I initially drew comparisons with Harvey Fierstein, who both wrote the piece and starred as Arnold in the film, but I very quickly regretted my short-sightedness as the evening progressed and Bedlla wrestled with Fierstein on his own ground and won on his own terms. I initially also thought that the role of Ed was ill-served by Joe McFadden as he seemed too immature (both in terms of actual age and emotionally) but I gradually warmed to him and he seemed to increase in confidence and stature during the evening (respect to the man for competently and quick-wittedly dealing with the complete disintegration of a vital prop).. I do, however, still think he is too young for the role by at least 10 years. By contrast, he was Laurence Oliver to Tom Harriess Alan, who played the role as a lisping, prissy, totally vacuous and occasionally vicious little queen, clearly cast by Douglas Hodge for his physique, perky nipples and outward appearance rather than for any vestige of acting talent he may or may not possess. On this showing, the answer is “does not possess”. I say this with the full knowledge that I compared him to Matthew Broderick who played this role in the film version and found him wanting, but there were times when I felt like marching up on to the stage and giving him a good hard slap. Larua Piper’s Laurel rather faded into the background for me as the least defined performance of the evening, but I acknowledge that the role is not a particularly great one. Perry Millward shows a considerably amount of geeky charm as David, but Sara Kestelman, who should have stalked the stage like a Jewish Medea appeared badly settled into her role, and, on this one occasion when the role requires “playing it Jewish” was necessary, seemed not to be taking the opportunity of doing so. That is not to say that I didn’t find her performance a good one, but lines written for a Jewish/Brooklyn character really do need to be delivered in a Jewish/Brooklyn accent and manner. As a consequence, the pivotal role of Arnold’s mother seemed somewhat diminished by her performance. I concede (again; I don’t usually make this many concessions as regular readers will no doubt agree) that this was a preview performance so perhaps she is still finding her way into the role.

There is much to be enjoyed here, particularly if you are a fan of the film (in which case you will spend most of the evening anticipating the next great line in your head, or even out loud – guilty as charged!), are of (or have friends of) the Grumpy Old Poof persuasion who were growing up and coming out in the 1980s, live within spitting distance of the Menier so that you can get home before midnight as a result of the late start time, or are extremely thin and can fit in your allocated space on a cramped bench.