01 November 2014

The Wanderer returns

Well, if there are any of you left out there in review land - apologies.  I had to move away from home for what turned out to be  six long months to allow some building work to take place and its all taken a lot longer than expected and been a lot more traumatic - plus I have basically been living in a whole in the ground where there was no internet signal.  And what with all that plus a demanding full time job and not being able to get online other than rushing home from work to the library once or twice a week for an hour at most, its been difficult - nay, practically impossible - to post reviews.  There has also been a marked falling off on theatre trips over the last six months, mainly because I felt I was reaching saturation point with the theatre and it was becoming much harder to whip up the enthusiasm or the creativity necessary to blog a decently entertaining review.  So, a few trips to report on over the next couple of weeks in the form of mini reviews as a catch up exercise, and then hopefully things may start returning to normal.

12 June 2014

The Pajama Game - Shaftesbury Theatre, Saturday 31st June 2014


A strike is imminent at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, where the workers churn out pajamas at a backbreaking pace. In the middle of this, a new superintendent, Sid Sorokin, has come from out of town to work in the factory. The union, led by Prez, is seeking a wage raise of seven and a half cents an hour. Sid and Babe are in opposite camps, yet romantic interest is sparked at their first encounter. Despite cajoling from her fellow garment workers, Babe appears to reject Sid. Meanwhile, Hines, the popular efficiency expert, is in love with Gladys, the company president's secretary, but is pushing her away with his jealous behavior. After witnessing a fight between the couple, Sid's secretary, Mabel, tries to help Hines break from his jealous ways.. Meanwhile, Sid, rejected again by Babe, is forced to confide his feelings to a dictaphone. 
During the annual company picnic,Prez chases after Gladys, who rejects his advances, a drunken Hines demonstrates his knife throwing act (these knives are thrown at Babe), and Babe warms up to Sid. As the picnic-goers head home, Prez turns his attentions to Mae, who responds in the positive far more quickly and aggressively than he'd expected. At Babe's home, Sid's romantic overtures are deflected by Babe, who makes casual conversation on tangential subjects.. Eventually the walls come down between the two, who admit their love for one another, but their estrangement is reinforced when they return to the factory. A slow-down is staged by the union, strongly supported by Babe. Sid, as factory superintendent, demands an "honest day's work" and threatens to fire slackers. Babe, however, is still determined to fight for their cause, and kicks her foot into the machinery, causes a general breakdown and Sid reluctantly fires her. As she leaves, he begins to wonder again whether a romance with her is a mistake 
At the Union meeting, Gladys performs for the rest of the union, with "the boys from the cutting room floor" After the main meeting, the Grievance Committee meets at Babe's house, to discuss further tactics, such as mismatching sizes of pajamas and sewing the fly-buttons onto the bottoms such that they are likely to come off and leave their wearer pants-less. At the meeting, as Prez and Mae's relationship is waning, Sid arrives and tries to smooth things over with Babe. Despite her feelings for Sid, she pushes him away 
Back at the factory, the girls reassure Hines, who is personally offended by the slow down.. Sid, now convinced that Babe's championship of the union is justified, takes Gladys out for the evening to a night club, "Hernando's Hideaway" , where he wheedles the key to the company's books from her. Hines and Babe each discover the pair and assume they are becoming romantically involved. Babe storms out, and Hines believes his jealous imaginings have come true. 
Using Gladys' key, Sid accesses the firm's books and discovers that the boss, Hasler, has already tacked on the extra seven and one-half cents to the production cost, but has kept all the extra profits for himself. 
In Gladys' office, Hines, still jealous out of his mind, flings knives past Sid and Gladys (deliberately missing, he claims), narrowly missing an increasingly paranoid Mr. Hasler. After detaining Hines, Sid then brings about Hasler's consent to a pay raise and rushes to bring the news to the Union Rally, already in progress. This news brings peace to the factory and to his love life, allowing him to reconnect with Babe. Everyone goes out to celebrate—at Hernando's Hideaway.
Babe Williams: Joanna Riding
Sid Soronkin: Michael Xavier
Vernon Hines: Peter Polycarpou
Gladys: Alexis Owen-Hobbs
Hasler: Colin Stinton
Prez: Eugene McCoy

Creative Team:
Words and music: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book: George Abbott and Richard Bissell
Director: Richard Eyre
Choreographer: Stephen Mear
Set and costumes: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Howard Harrison

There's an old saying in the theatre review world - "never go to see a show when you are feeling ill, because it will colour your review".  OK, I made that up, but you get my drift.  Having obviously caught the mother of all colds in the head when getting drenched by passing cars and pouring rain and then sitting in an unheated, half finished apartment block facing directly on to the river watching Venice Preserved (how I  suffer to bring you these reviews; I hope you appreciate them....) the lurgy was still washing round my system big time on Saturday when I was dragged to see a show I knew little of and wasn't feeling particularly enthusiastic about to begin with, having sat in a coffee shop nearby wrapped in misery, snot and cold sweat for half an hour beforehand because we got there too early. This is Him Indoors' major foible (well, one of them - go anywhere else with him and its all "Why are you hurrying?  Why are you walking so fast?" but when there are theatre tickets involved its like a bloody route march, 'eft right, 'eft right, 'eft right, come on you there with the runny nose, at the bleedin' double.  Bugger only knows why we had gone to see it; I keep pushing for tickets to Handbagged because I could do with a bloody good laugh, but it looks like I am going to have to tell the bank I have spent this month's mortgage money on tickets and damned well buy them myself. Grouch grouch grouch.  But anyway, at least it made a change from sitting at home wrapped in a blanket in front of the TV (if I say this enough times, I might persuade myself).  It looked like we were the youngest people there by a long way - grey heads and beige windcheaters aplenty in the stalls; Stan and Ethel in the seats directly in front of us were just finishing their supper from a wide variety of Tupperware containers, a party of old dears with walking sticks ambled past looking like a small flock of taupe flamingos and there were many old chaps wearing brown slacks and those shoes that look like Cornish Pasties. Oh no, I lie - there was a woman in the seats behind with two grandchildren aged about 10, who were already bored stiff, kicking the backs of our seats and bemoaning the fact that they were being expected to spend the next two hours out of mobile phone contact with their friends.  The two grandchildren were probably on contract to help out the orchestra as they supplied rhythmic seat kicking, musical drink slurping and acoustic chewing gum accompaniment for the majority of the first half, little darlings, until Grannie threatened them with ex-communication and the fires of hell if they didn't behave themselves, which improved  the situation no end for about 12 minutes.  Two tickets for the ferry, Charon, singles, have them ready, customers coming your way....

What I found so bizarre about this show was how unapologetically old-fashioned it was.  Call me a cynic, but it does seem really strange that a wonderful, intelligent show like From Here to Eternity more or less crashes and burns, when a bit of old hokum like this is packing them in.  I dunno, perhaps the theatregoing public are a lot older and less discriminating than I thought.  Perhaps they are all sitting at home in their beige cardigans watching Last of The Summer Wine re-runs and waiting for a new production of an old warhorse like The Pajama Game to be announced, at which point they nip to Rene in the High Street for a wash and set, pack up some sandwiches in Tupperware boxes and head to the West End.  Its not a bad show, just so dated.  At one point not more than 10 minutes into the first act, I leaned across to Him Indoors and whispered "Well, I wonder what is going to happen at the end?"   It is, of course, bleeding obvious, even if you have never seen the show before in your life.   The storyline is, more or less, non-existent and really only serves as a loose framework for the musical numbers - some of which even I am forced to admit are bloody good - You with the Stars in Your Eyes, This is My Once-a-Year Day, and Hernando's Hideaway are all justly famous, with Seven and a Half Cents probably being the best number in the entire show and deserving of being known more - its a big chorus number and looked a lot of fun to be in.  Some numbers are very dodgy - the execreble There Once Was a Man, for example, and others shoehorned in - Steam Heat only exists to give the second act a rousing opening and the justification for it in is absolutely nil. Obviously creative steam was running low by the time Adler and Ross got round to Act 2 because it consists of very little but reprises of numbers we have already heard at least once in Act 1.

Most of the performances were likeable enough, but no character really rises above the level of cardboard and very few of the cast seemed to care about even trying so.  Eugene McCoy's performance as Prez was so irritating I could happily have smacked him one with a Tupperware box wrested from Ethel's clammy grip (Ethel loved the show; you could tell by the way she turned to Sid every 38 seconds and said so.  Loudly). Peter Polycarpou, not my most favourite actor in the entire world, didn't seem to be giving his last performance in the role of Vernon Hines any oof at all - although his "Oh dear, I've taken my trousers off and now the Boss is here and I can't get them back on again" schtick seemed at least to go down well with the horrible grandchildren in the row behind, who momentarily seemed to forget the fact that they weren't on Facebook.  Still, I expected they Tweeted about it the moment the curtain came down.  Yes, Michael Xavier is good looking in a kind of plastic Barbie-and-Ken way, and yes he can sing, and yes he can move, and yes he has an impressive upper body (displayed pseudo-coyly in a completely unnecessary "get your tits out" moment right at the end) but really, its such a bland role that it was all in danger of going for nothing.

Really, I couldn't get past the fact that I thought the show was really, really old-fashioned (yes, I know that a lot of people like "old fashioned" but this particular example left me completely cold).  Mind you, even an old cynic like me briefly warmed to it when Him Indoors welled up on the way back to the bus stop because it was the kind of show that his mum and dad would have loved.  No doubt Ethel and Sid had a great time as well, but I didn't.

What the critics said:





02 June 2014

Venice Preserved - Greenwich/Deptford Riverfront - Saturday 24th May 2014


The play concerns Jaffeir, a noble Venetian who has secretly married Belvidera, the daughter of a proud senator named Priuli, who has cut off her inheritance. Jaffeir is impoverished and is constantly rebuffed by Priuli. Jaffeir's friend Pierre, a foreign soldier, stokes Jaffeir's resentment and entices him into a plot against the Senate of Venice. Pierre's own reasons for plotting against the Senate revolve around a senator (a corrupt and foolish Antonio) paying for relations with Pierre's mistress, Aquilina. Despite Pierre's complaints, the Senate does nothing about it, explaining that Antonio has senatorial privilege. Pierre introduces Jaffeir to the conspirators, led by bloodthirsty Renault. To get their trust, he must put Belvidera in Renault's care as a hostage. In the night, Renault attempts to rape her, but she escapes to Jaffeir. Jaffeir then tells Belvidera about the plot against the Senate, and against her father. She devises a plan of her own. Jaffeir will reveal the conspiracy to the Senate and claim the lives of the conspirators as his reward. It is only after Belvidera informs him of the attempted rape that Jaffeir agrees to do this, but the Senate breaks its word and condemns all the conspirators to death. In remorse for betraying his friend and losing his honour (by betraying his oath to the conspirators), Jaffeir threatens to kill Belvidera, unless she can get a pardon for the conspirators. She does so, but the pardon arrives too late. Jaffeir visits Pierre at his execution. Pierre is crestfallen because he is sentenced to die a dishonourable death and not the death of a soldier. He forgives Jaffeir and whispers to him (unheard by the audience) to kill him honourably before he is executed. Jaffeir stabs his friend, Pierre, on the gallows, and as a form of atonement commits suicide. Belvidera then goes insane and dies.

Aquilina: Ayesha Antoine
Belvidera - Jessie Buckley
Antonio - Pip Donaghy
Pruli - Emilo Doorgasingh
Doge: James Hillier
Pierre: - Ferdinand Kingsley
Eliot - Dwane Wallcot

Creative Team:
Original text: Thomas Ottaway
Director: Charlotte Westenra (does she have a sister called Lucy, perhaps?)
Producer: Harry Ross
Designer: Helen Scarlett Oneill
Costume: Francesca Reidy
Lighting: Tim Lutkin

Firstly, an apology to all my readers for my lack of posts recently.  There have been some major changes going on at RTR Towers, including a change of address, which is always timeconsuming and stressful.  And there have been some staffing issues as well and yadah yadah yadah.

So, it has to be admitted that I wasn't really feeling great; the very muggy weather was making me feel foul and I was nursing a bad chill. And I was therefore knackered, and not in the very best of moods.   And Him Indoors applied his usual poultice to the situation which is "To solve any problem, buy theatre tickets".  Apparently this was a promenade performance on the riverfront between Deptford and Greenwich, and as we are currently living in Blackheath (dharling) for a while, it was relatively nearby.  But because I wasn't entirely sure of where it was happening, and Him Indoors had even less idea (bless him, when he says that something is on the right, it is always best to check whether he means the right that is on the right hand side, or the right that just happens to be on the left hand side), I decided to hit the internet and look up buses and directions and stupid, inconsequential stuff like that because I didn't fancy walking for miles getting lost in the rain when I wasn't feeling great.  For some reason, the venue appeared to be a partially completed apartment block overlooking the Deptford Riverfront.  Odd.  Never fear, said Him Indoors, I will fire up the trusty GPS on the phone and we will be fine.  Which we would have been had not said trusty GPS packed up completely somewhat less than  30 seconds after we had got off the bus.  I stood there and folded my arms and pulled "that face" - the one that communicates "I am not very impressed".  By this point there was a fight going on outside one of the local boozers (bit rough, Deptford, always has been) so it was time to move quickly.  "Follow me", said Him Indoors, coming over all Bear Grylls. "But we are looking for a wharf", I said, "and the river is that way [pointing over my shoulder in the exact opposite of the direction that Him Indoors was walking off]".  I pulled "that face" again. Him Indoors turned round, shook his phone, stuffed it in a pocket and set off in the direction of the river.  

Off we set, intrepid explorers both, along a very dodgy looking street leading towards the river.  From the doors and windows of nearby houses, modern-day equivalents of the Artful Dodger and Bill Sykes peered at us walking by. Aside from us, the street was deserted. And then after about 10 minutes the scenery changed suddenly and we were walking between tidy little houses with tubular red exterior trim in streets called  "Spinnaker Street" and "Frigate Mews" and "HeaveYourBreakfastOverTheSide" Close and such like.  The cracked and fissured tarmac changed to designer cobbles.  We rounded a small green area with the fantastic name of "Twinkle Park", which smelled vaguely of piss making me wonder aloud whether someone had been having a tinkle in the Twinkle.  Our destination - a half finished apartment block - hove (heaved?) into sight.   A small car roared by, far too fast for the restricted space, drove through an enormous puddle and drenched me from head to foot. I was not happy, and gave chase, brandishing my umbrella.  The driver (female), screamed abuse from her window and then wound it up and put the pedal to the metal because I was getting closer and wasn't at all happy - serves her right, stupid cow, but it must have been like being chased down by an angry bull elephant.  We picked our way down a small alley paved with designer cobbles (terribly hard on the old ankle) where, Wonderland-like, a small carved table stood alone in the middle of the street.  A rather over-enthusiastic girl in vaguely "all purpose peasant" costume bounded out of a door and sold us a sheet of paper from the shelf underneath the table.  There was a gust of wind which funneled down the narrow street, picked up every sheet of paper and threw them across the pavement.  All-purpose Peasant Girl spent the next couple of minutes chasing them.  I picked up a large pebble and put them on top of the pile to weight them down.  My expression said "See?  Not difficult".  

We found ourselves on a terraced walkway directly adjoining the river, more or less alone, with a view along the river to Greenwich in the middle distance.  Authentic 17th century Venetian rain began to fall.   Gradually, other people joined us, and then various cast members in costume. Him Indoors found himself chatting to an Old Pro Actor (completely in his element, then) and maundered on about how he was in the Profession himself and oh yes, I've seen this play before, it was the 1984 production starring Sir Bingley Bongley Boo and nobody could hear him and someone shouted out "Speak up luv, we can't hear a word" and oooooh, I do like your codpiece and yadah yadah yadah and I rolled my eyes and huddled into my coat and then wandered off to buy a programme - which was clever and inventive because it was in the form of a broadsheet newspaper, and which is so pretty that I am thinking about having it framed.  

Anyway, the bits of paper that had blown off the table were A5 sheets printed with various bits of instructions about what to do during the performance and words to shout out during the audience participation bits and so on  and, this being Renaissance Venice I decided to make it into a mask. 

Unfortunately, I became so intent on creating my wonderful carnival mask from the paper that I paid scant attention when the first scene began, which was basically two men in period costume shouting at each other. It sounded very much like some of those first scenes in Shakespeare where nothing much happens except that people stride on and shout at each other to give the groundlings time to finish buying their oranges and fish heads and settle down and decide when to eat the former and at whom they are going to throw the latter. Big Mistake.  Huge.  For this play is, apparently, One In Which The First Scene Is Extremely Important; If You Don't Listen Carefully You Won't Have A Scooby About What Happens Afterwards.  But, intent in my work of creativity, I blithely ignore the two shouting men, even though did register that the one  with the beard and the big brown eyes was Bloody Sexy.  A woman walked on and began to emote.  I noticed that her dress was coming apart at the back and falling off her shoulders but carried on tearing and creasing the paper and making holes at each side so that I could put my glasses on top and thus keep it on without holding it. The man with the beard, I noticed, looked Bloody Sexy in his black leather jerkin.  There - my carnival mask is finished.  I put it on triumphantly and then realised that I hadn't got an effing clue what was going on. Never mind - its time to move on, to an interior courtyard with a small canal running along it, over which was thrown a scaffolding bridge disguised as the Rialto Bridge.  Clever - and wonderfully, the acoustics here were so perfect that I could hear every word and there were a couple of minutes when I thought I might actually have picked up on the plot.  Alas, it was not to be.   And then we moved inside the incomplete apartment block and watched a couple of very long, dreary scenes and I gave up trying to follow the plot completely and just sat and watched and felt damp and cold and Not Very Well At All.  And then there was an interval during which I asked Him Indoors to explain the plot and, not being very articulate about these things, bless him, I had to ask him to stop after a couple of minutes because I couldn't work out who "Him from that play that we saw about five years ago somewhere - you know, the one that had that woman in, whatshername" was and what his character was called and so I gave up. 

And then it was time to move to a different bit of the unfinished apartment block, this time a bit overlooking the river and the lights of Canary Wharf and we all got a red hooded cape to wear and pretend to be Members of The Senate, which would have been interesting if we could have seen ourselves but because we were the audience we couldn't, although I'm sure the actors thought we looked great. And Jessie Buckley came on and emoted a lot and I got colder and colder and more miserable and still didn't understand the plot.  And then we moved outside and watched the Sexy Man with the Beard and the Black Leather Jerkin get stabbed (shame about the disco boat going past on the river at this point - not calculated to add to the authentic 17th Century Venetian atmosphere) and then we moved again and watched Jessie Buckley go mad, although from where I was sitting I couldn't see that there were images being projected onto the plate glass frontage but anyway by this time I was frozen to the marrow and bored and not happy at all.  And then despite everyone standing on an enormous terrace overlooking the river, the cast came on and had to take their bows in a very cramped space wedged up against the wall of the building and it was time to go home, pausing only to have a blazing row on the way to the bus stop. 

Undoubtedly this is a clever production. The setting is extremely unusual and intelligently thought out, and very well used (would you think about putting on a play in an unfinished apartment block?).  Undoubtedly there is some very fine acting going on - particularly from Jessie Buckley who is becoming a very fine actress indeed, from Ashley Zhangazha who has the most perfect diction, every syllable as clear and audible as a glass bell, and from Ferdinand Kingsley  who, besides being a very good actor, is also One Horny Dude and Hairy With It. Undoubtedly the concept is intriguing and the execution of the production very clever.  But.  I was too cold and feeling too rotten to engage with it in any meaningful way.  Venice Preserved isn't the world's best play, and if you are not a fan of Restoration Revenge Tragedy it won't really be your bag. The audience participation bits are embarrassing (this is England, for pete's sake) and the Commedia Dell'arte sections just plain irritating.  The constant movement from one place to another effectively destroys any build up of tension - just as things are starting to get interesting, its time to move on, and when there are 150 or so  people to move, this can take quite some time; by the time you are all resettled, the tension has deflated like a flan in a cupboard.  Some of the costumes are lovely, some look as if they have been picked up out of the dressing up box.   As a concept its very interesting, but in reality it doesn't really work.

What the critics thought:





27 April 2014

A View from the Bridge – Young Vic, Saturday 3rd April 2014

Alfieri, an Italian-American lawyer in his fifties, enters the stage and sits in his office. Talking from his desk to the audience, he introduces the story of Eddie Carbone. Alfieri compares himself to a lawyer in Caesar's time, powerless to watch as the events of history run their bloody course.
As Eddie enters his home two fellow Longshoremen, Mike and Louis, greet him. Eddie's niece, Catherine, reaches out the window and waves to them.  Eddie scolds Catherine for flirting with the boys so blatantly.   Beatrice (Eddie’s partner) convinces Eddie to let Catherine take a job as a stenographer down by the docks. Eddie informs Beatrice that her cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, will be arriving from Italy that night. Beatrice and Eddie plan to hide Marco and Rodolpho who plan to work in the country illegally to send money home.
Marco tells them that he has three children and a wife back home that he will be sending money to. Rodolpho, his young blonde brother, has no family and intends to stay in the country as long as possible. Rodolpho entertains everyone with his version of the jazz tune, "Paper Doll."
In the following weeks, Rodolpho and Catherine spend a great deal of time together, which worries Eddie. Eddie thinks that Rodolpho is untrustworthy and  becomes jealous of the time that Rodolpho spends with Catherine, telling her that  Rodolpho just wants to marry her to in order to get his Green Card and become a legal citizen, but she does not listen. Rodolpho develops a reputation at the docks for being quite a joker, which further embarrasses Eddie. Beatrice becomes  more aware than ever of the attention Eddie is giving Catherine and  encourages Catherine to get married to Rodolpho if that is what she wants to do.  Eddie, still frustrated,  visits Alfieri and asks if there is any way he can get rid of Rodolpho by law, but Alfieri assures him there is not. Alfieri tells Eddie that he needs to let Catherine go.
Eddie becomes increasingly jealous of Rodolpho and resents  the fact that Rodolpho thinks Catherine is looser than Italian girls. He threatens Rodolpho in a pretend boxing match, which is stopped by Catherine and Beatrice.
Time passes.  Rodolpho and Catherine are left alone in the house and have sex .  Eddie comes home drunk and  kisses Catherine, then pins Rodolpho to the floor and kisses him as well. He visits Alfieri  again, who repeatedly tells him to let Catherine go her own way.  Instead, Eddie calls the Immigration Bureau and reports the two men as illegal aliens. Immigration officials arrive and arrest them. As he is being taken away, Marco spits in Eddie's face. Alfieri pays bail for the two men and arranges the marriage between Catherine and Rodolpho. On the day of the wedding, Marco returns to the house for revenge. Eddie lunges into Marco with a knife. Marco turns  the knife on Eddie and kills him.
Marco –Emun Elliott
Catherine – Phoebe Fox
Alfieri – Michael Gould
Louis – Richard Hansell
Rodolpho – Luke Norris
Eddie – Mark Strong
Beatrice – Nicola Walker
Creative Team:
Written by Arthur Miller
Director – Ivo van Hove
Designer – Jan Versweyveld
Costumes – An D’Huys
Sound – Tom Gibbons
Well, peeps, to say that it has been busy here at RTR Towers is like saying that Claudia Winkelman’s fringe needs a bit of a trim.  In fact, its been so bloody hectic that its taken me nearly 3 weeks to find the time (and energy) to sit down and scribble this.  So my powers of recall are really being stretched a little here.  I can’t say that I was really looking forward to this – Arthur Miller plays don’t exactly have a reputation for being a laugh a minute, do they?  But I surprised myself by enjoying it rather more than I had expected to, with a fair few caveats. There were some excellent performances, and the story is gripping, but the direction is just so bloody up its own arse that I came out thinking that I had never yet seen anything so effing pretentious – which rather ruined the evening. 
Firstly, there’s the set.  Or, more correctly, firstly there isn’t the set.  When you enter the auditorium you are faced with an enormous grey block which fills the entire acting area.  This, it transpires, is essentially the curtain – it rises up slowly and more or less disappears into the ceiling, although there is plenty left of it to obstruct the sightlines of anyone sitting in the upper gallery.  It reveals a slightly raised podium, edged on all sides  by a calf-high glass wall, on the top of which there is a black ledge.  This surrounds a shiny white floor.  This is “the set”.  There is no furniture, no scenery, just the shiny white floor.  Its so stark  that it would make minimalism look cluttered.  I imagine that this is what Kevin McCloud’s living room looks like.  However, although it takes a bit of getting used to, I can cope with it for a couple of hours (there is no interval, folks – go to the toilet first). 
Secondly, there’s the soundtrack.  The opening scene starts and is accompanied by suitably gothic and portentious music which swells and then fades away, to be replaced by super-minimalist “music” which basically consists of a series of loud “doinks” separated by about 8 seconds of silence.  The “doinking” goes on for quite some time, and then we get some churchy choral singing, then its back to the gothic, which is followed again by the “doinking” and then repeat ad nauseum all the way to the bloody end.  Now, I am the first to admit that suitable music during the performance can heighten the scene and add to the tension and so on and so forth, all well and good – but there is no end to it.  The loop lasts the entire two hours – and by 45 minutes in you are sitting there thinking “I can’t take any more of this doinking” and longing for a bit of peace and quiet.  After an hour, I was at screaming pitch. Rather than adding to the atmosphere, the sounds become intrusive; its so insistent that it becomes annoying and however hard you try to screen it out, there’s no escaping the fact that in 10 minutes or so, you know you’re due for another round of doinks.  The climax of the play, which is incredibly dramatic and the kind of moment that produces that all-encompassing lack of sound in the audience as they hone in on what is unfolding before their eyes (and which I am wont to describe as “a silence”) is completely ruined by the soundtrack.  I suspect that half the applause was through sheer relief that the doinking was finally over. 
More than slightly odd is the treatment of the Italian characters.  Two of them are meant to be literally “just off the banana boat” (or perhaps the “pasta ship”), yet arrive in New York speaking absolutely faultless cut glass English while around them the natives are all Noo-Yorking like MaryBeth Lacey (from Cagney and…..) on speed. 
And then there’s the shoes.  Or lack thereof.  For some reason, the director has come up with the concept that nobody wears any. Fully clothed they may be (and partially clothed occasionally) but its “no shoes anyone.  Let’s make this edgy and relevant by not wearing any shoes or socks.  No, I know it makes no sense, people, but fuck knows what else I am going to do with this production so we’ll be doing it barefoot”  I mean, WTF is that all about - Apart from uber-wank, of course?  In fact, its all so uber-wank that Him Indoors found it necessary to express his opinion so loudly on the way out of the theatre and down the street to the tube station that I had to snap at him several times to belt up because a) it was highly embarrassing and b) I thought we were going to get lynched by other audience members who were enthusing about the production with such twitterati-esque rapture that it was surprising, frankly, that the pavement wasn’t awash with spunk.
Summary: a fine and gripping production rendered more or less unbearable by the pretentiousness of the “concept”.  The lack of scenery I could cope with once I had adjusted to the idea, but the soundtrack is irritating beyond belief and if you are in any way phobic about other people’s feet, definitely not one for you. 

What the critics said:





16 March 2014

Blithe Spirit - Gielgud Theatre, Friday 14th March 2014


Charles Condomine, a successful novelist, wishes to learn about the occult for a novel he is writing, and he arranges for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house. At the séance, she inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, unaware that she has summoned Elvira. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, and his second wife, Ruth, does not believe that Elvira exists until a floating vase is handed to her out of thin air. The ghostly Elvira makes continued, and increasingly desperate, efforts to disrupt Charles's current marriage. She finally sabotages his car in the hope of killing him so that he will join her in the spirit world, but it is Ruth rather than Charles who drives off and is killed.
Ruth's ghost immediately comes back for revenge on Elvira, and though Charles cannot at first see Ruth, he can see that Elvira is being chased and tormented, and his house is in uproar. He calls Madame Arcati back to exorcise both of the spirits, but instead of banishing them, she materialises Ruth. With both his dead wives now fully visible, and neither of them in the best of tempers, Charles, together with Madame Arcati, goes through séance after séance and spell after spell to try to exorcise them, and at last Madame Arcati succeeds. Charles is left seemingly in peace, but Madame Arcati, hinting that the ghosts may still be around unseen, warns him that he should go far away as soon as possible. Charles leaves at once, and the unseen ghosts throw things and destroy the room as soon as he has gone.

Edith – Patsy Ferran
Ruth – Janie Dee
Charles – Charles Edwards
Dr. Bradman – Simon Jones
Mrs. Bradman – Serena Evans
Madame Artcarti – Angela Lansbury
Elvira – Jemima Roper
Creative Team:
Written by: Noel Coward
Director : Michael Blakemore
Designer – Simon Higlett
Lighting – Mark Jonathan
Wardrobe – Traipsy Drake (what a name!)
Working in the back of beyond and living in the burbs, I don’t often get into Central London on a Friday night.  Which is probably just as well, as I don’t think I could stand it.  Readers, it was chaos.  Pavements outside every pub were practically impassable, lost tourists stopped in the middle of the path and consulted maps, couples canoodled and dawdled and wrapped their tongues round each others tonsils, idiots looking at mobile phones and iPads wandered  aimlessly from one side of the pavement to the other with eyes fixed on their gadgets, rickshaws trundled along, vans tried to reverse round corners, pedestrians drifted across the road willy-nilly, police sirens wailed and from every doorway in Chinatown came the clang of a different radio station..  At several points on the walk from Charing Cross to Shaftesbury Avenue, Him Indoors drifted in and out of visual contact as I occasionally got caught up in the melee and lost him in the crowd.  On Shaftesbury Avenue itself, just outside the theatre, I got caught up in a particularly intense eddy of humanity and was literally swept past the door for about 50 yards, eventually managing to save myself by clinging to a tree and waiting until the flow had subsided.  Dazed, hot and bewildered I staggered into the foyer resembling Robinson Crusoe washed up on the beach. Even then I thought that the wildlife had followed me through the door as an incredibly sour faced chap wearing trousers of the loudest shade of emerald green I have ever seen waddled by, leaving me briefly wondering if I was being stalked by a mallard with a face like a slapped arse.  Just by my elbow a woman practically screamed to her companion “Do you want coffee or champagne in the interval?”  Personally, I thought, I could do with a couple of valium and a swig of Rescue Remedy if she was offering, but she didn’t.   So was it all worth it?  Of course it was.  Angela Lansbury could have stood on the stage and read from the telephone directory and it would have been worth it. 
On the face of it, Blithe Spirit is a strange animal to be inhabiting the West End.  It’s a gentle, amusing play without flash or dash, wasn’t written by Lloyd Webber, isn’t based on a 1980s film and doesn’t feature animatronic sets that would make Alton Towers look like a local playground.  Its audience isn’t going to be families with screaming kids nor groups of slaggy girls out on the lash.  It has a slightly faded, “Home Counties Rep. Company” air about it.  It is, in fact, a bit of a war horse (as opposed to War Horse).  But it has stood the test of time surprisingly well as an example of period “drawing room comedy”. (albeit with ghosts)  and continues to provide endless ladies of a certain age (Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendall, Joanna Lumley and so on) with employment and endless audiences of a certain age with entertainment.  And, of course, when your Madame Arcarti is a Broadway Legend as well as Hollywood Royalty, entertainment for endless numbers of Gentlemen who prefer the company of other Gentlemen.  Very high PPSI ratio throughout the auditorium. 
Of the assembled cast, only Jemima Rooper’s Elvira really fails to shine.  Her Elvira is not quite classy enough to have been married to Charles Condomine, a little too earthy and a little too earthbound.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fact that there was no apparent effort to give her an appropriately ghostly pallor – not only has Elvira been dead for seven years, but she was recovering from the flu at the time of her death, so a touch of pale makeup would have been appropriate.  The only time she looked really ghostly was whenever she stood in a particular spot down stage left where the lighting seemed particularly pale, in contrast to the warmly lit remainder of the stage.  The fact that Ms. Rooper is dark-haired underneath her white wig is unfortunately evidenced by her very dark eyebrows, making her look a little badgerish.  She is totally outclassed  on the stage by Janie Dee’s Ruth, looking considerably better coiffed and attired than the last time I saw her.  In fact, if I hadn’t been told she was Janie Dee, I wouldn’t have recognised her.  Charles Edward’s Charles is a perfect rendition of a part that must be very tempting to over-do.  I would imagine that there is a temptation to make him rather louche and brittle, in the manner of Coward himself.  Apparently Rupert Everett played the role on Broadway before this production transferred to London, and I would imagine that he over-did the role terribly.  The minor parts of Dr. and Mrs. Bradman are well handled, with the part of Mrs. Bradman particularly well defined. Congratulations are due to Patsy Ferran, making her professional debut in the tiny but vital role of Edith, the housemaid – what a production to launch your career with, sharing a stage with a Legend.
They are, of course, only there as padding to support Angela Lansbury, whom everyone has come to see.  I tell you, you wouldn’t know the woman was well into her 80s.  Despite playing the part of Madame Arcarti as much younger than she is herself, Lansbury rarely, if ever, shows any that she is not physically up to the role.  There were a couple of wobbles with the dialogue – several times you can see she is fumbling to remember the exact words, and one major clanger dropped when she gave the date of Daphne’s death (Daphne being her spirit guide) as 1994 rather than 1884 – but the woman is a natural comedian both physically and verbally and oozes class from every pore.  She wisely avoids making her Madame Arcarti over-hearty in the style of Margaret Rutherford, and brings a certain wistful common sense to the role, although she is perhaps a little too frail physically for the audience to believe that she has cycled 8 miles to the Condomine’s house (although, again, this was a tiny slip; in the script, its 7 miles).  At times, there is more than a touch of the Salome Otterbourne about her  portrayal, but who cares?  It’s a stunning performance, full of lovely deft touches of comedy timing  I admit that I did get slightly annoyed with the audience’s tendency to applaud her every entrance and exit, and wonder whether she deliberately “wrong footed” the audience at one point by exiting in her final scene and then suddenly popping back onto the stage halfway through the applause with an interpolated line (not in the original script) about wanting another cucumber sandwich. 
The nit picker in me noticed quite a few slip ups in terms of the stage design. In the first scene we hear a cuckoo calling outside the French windows (and this is commented on in the script), which would make the action set no later than the end of May, and yet one of the flower vases contains a sunflower, a species which doesn’t bloom until late July at the earliest.  There are two vases of flowers on stage during Act 1, both of which remain untouched and unchanged as the curtain rises on Act 2 and yet in Act 2, scene 1, (set the next day), Ruth mentions having done the flowers that morning.  Edith is supposed to bring in a tray of bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast (all of which are referred to in the dialogue), but the toast rack holds only slices of raw bread.  Yes, yes, I know. 
A wonderful evening’s entertainment, well played and excellently cast.  But the entire show rightly belongs to Lansbury who takes the audience in the palm of her hand and walks away with their hearts and minds, for which she rightly and justifiably received a standing ovation at the final curtain.  One final note of approval – there was none of this “communist bowing” that Him Indoors loathes and always comments on; Edith the maid takes a solo bow, followed by the Bradmans, then by Ruth and Elvira, then by Charles and finally Madame Arcarti, giving the audience the opportunity to show their appreciation by rising from their seats as a single unit and giving Lansbury the ovation she deserves.    
Blythe Spirit officially opens tomorrow - I will post up some reviews, and hopefully a youtube video later in the week.

23 February 2014

Finian's Rainbow - Union Theatre, Sunday 16th February 2014

Finian McLonergan arrives in Rainbow Valley,, with his daughter, Sharon, and a "borrowed" pot of gold. His theory is to plant the gold near Fort Knox. Surely it will multiply just as America's bullion burial has made all Americans rich. They encounter poor sharecroppers who are about to lose their land. Henchmen of Senator Billboard Rawkins are ready to pay back taxes and take over. However, his plan is foiled by Woody, who returns from the big city with the tax money, and by Finian, who covers the hidden charges when Woody cannot. In exchange, Finian gets property rights for enough land to sow his golden dream.  
While Sharon and Woody are falling in love, Og, a leprechaun, confronts Finian and demands the return of his pot of gold, without which he will start to become human and mortal. But Finian ignores him, as a figment of his imagination. Geologists, working on a secret dam project, detect gold on the sharecroppers' land. Learning this, Rawkins moves in to take the land by force. As he is manhandling a Negro sharecropper, Sharon wishes that Rawkins was black. Unwittingly, she is standing over the magical pot, and her wish is granted. Rawkins dashes into hiding.  
A telegram arrives from Shears and Robust granting unlimited credit to the people of the gold-rich valley. Woody persuades them to use the credit to buy tractors and equipment to improve the harvest. Without his gold, Og will become mortal. However, his search for the pot is interrupted by Sharon with whom he immediately falls in love. When Shears and Robust arrive to collect for all the merchandise, Woody satisfies them with proof of future profit. The McLonergan economic theory is working, but Sharon is charged with witchcraft and the mysterious disappearance of Rawkins. Og encounters Billboard in the woods and magically improves his disposition. Arriving back in the Valley, Og encounters Susan the Silent. Love strikes again, only harder. He also learns Sharon is to be burned as a witch unless a white Rawkins can be found. Og believes Susan can tell him where the gold is hidden and so wishes. She talks. He is sitting above the crock. He unearths the pot and makes the final wish that saves Sharon for Woody, but renders himself completely mortal. But Og has Susan. Finian, having proven his theory without a shadow of doubt, moves on to spread joy elsewhere. 

Finian McLonegan – James Horne 
Sharon – Christina Bennington 
Og – Raymond Walsh 
Senator Rawkins – Michael Hayes 
Sherrif – David Malcolm 
Woody – Joseph Peters 
Susan – Laura Bella Griffin 

Creative Team: 
Adaptation – Charlotte Moore 
Drector – Phil Willmott 
Choreography – Thomas Michael Voss 
Costumes – Kirk Jameson 

Well, I don’t know what I was expecting and I still don’t know whether I got it or not. What an odd, odd show. I have to say that I think the cast did the best they could with this oddity, which is really neither fish nor fowl. To call the plot “paper thin” is really to insult thin paper. And SUCH a strange story, made even stranger by having to be toned down so as not to offend any sensibilities. Let’s get it straight – in the show as originally written and performed, Senator Rawkins issues an edict preventing black people and white people from living and working together. He manhandles a black woman (for “manhandle” I suspect “assaults” or even “attempts to rape” would be more accurate). As punishment, he is turned into a black man so that he can experience how black people are treated. This, I suspect, would have Guardian readers the length and breadth of the country rising up in arms, so all three points have been quietly glossed over in this production. Unfortunately, doing so rather takes the wind out of the storyline. Senator Rawkins remains white, and merely becomes “nice” as opposed to “nasty”. This fails to explain to the audience exactly why Rawkins is turned away from his home and put out of a job. Are we supposed to believe that nobody recognises him just because he is wearing a smile instead of a frown? It also fails to explain why he loses his nice clothes and appears after his “transformation” wearing a slightly grubby Tshirt and a pair of tattered jeans. As it is, it makes no sense. 

Not that the story makes much sense anyway. A man steals a pot of gold from a leprechaun, and then goes to America to bury it. The leprechaun follows him, discovers women and becomes human. A mute girl finds the pot of gold and acquires the ability to speak. The gold is used to buy a farm, an evil politician is punished by being turned black, learns the error of his ways and everyone lives happily ever after. I mean, what were the writers smoking? Were they going for whimsy or hard hitting social comment? A love story or a supernatural story in the vein of Brigadoon? But with Irish characters instead of Scottish ones? Honestly, there are parts of this that are so hokey with stereotypes (Irish colleens, leprechauns, Boss Hogg-esque Senators, black sharecroppers a la Gone with the Wind) that sitting through it becomes a constant effort not to vomit. The “twee” element is so “twee” that it “out-twees” anything I’ve ever seen. Mind you, the auditorium was so full of stage mist (presumably to make everything look soft focus and dreamy) that for quite some time I couldn’t see much of anything anyway. 

And the director missed something – the show is called “Finian’s Rainbow” – and nary a rainbow was there in sight, even right at the end when one is supposed to appear with the first drops of rain that Rainbow Valley has apparently seen in some time.. A budget production this may be – but I think there should be some attempt at putting some kind of meteorological effect on the stage, even if it were only made out of strips of coloured paper. Sometimes, I think it is better that a show slips into theatrical oblivion and dies a quiet death. Finian’s Rainbow is one of those shows. The plot is laughable, has to be changed to fit “modern sensibilities”, and can’t even be filed under “period whimsy” any more. Presumably set in the late 30s (there are references to the land being worn out through over-cultivation and everyone is hungry, so we are well into Grapes of Wrath territory here), this production has more of a late 40s feel – everyone is nice and clean, tidily and neatly dressed, well shod, recently coiffured and happy. There is little evidence of hunger or misery. Its all nicely sung, and there is lots of dancing. But nothing can hide the utter vacuousness and paucity of the plot. Personally its not something I would care to sit through again. 

What the critics thought: 





20 February 2014

A Taste of Honey – National Theatre, Monday 10th February 2014


Jo is an awkward, shy 17-year-old girl living with her promiscuous alcoholic mother, Helen. Desperately longing to simply be loved, when her mother's latest "romance" drives Jo out of their apartment, she spends the night with a black sailor on a brief shore leave. But when Jo's mother abandons her to move in with her latest lover, Jo finds a job and a room for herself, meets Geoffrey, a shy and lonely homosexual, and allows him to share her flat. When she discovers that she is pregnant with the sailor's child, Geoffrey, grateful for her friendship, looks after her, even offering marriage. Their brief taste of happiness is short-lived for Jo's fickle and domineering mother, her own romantic hopes dashed, appears back on the scene, determined to drive the gentle Geoffrey from the flat and take over the care of her daughter 

Helen: Lesley Sharp
Josephine, her daughter – Kate O’Flynn
Peter, her friend – Dean Lennox Kelly
Jimmie, a black sailor – Eric Kofi Abrefa
Geoffrey, a student – Harry Hepple

 Creative Team:
Written by: Shelagh Delaney
Director: Bijan Sheibani
Designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting: Paul Anderson

 My only reference point for this play up until now had been an old Victoria Wood sketch, in which she bemoans the lack of sex education she got at school – “I thought you could get pregnant walking along the canal while someone played the harmonica, like Rita Tushingham in that film A Taste of Honey”. So I more or less knew it was going to be an “Its grim oop North” kind of play. I’ve still not seen the film – although a lot of the audience obviously had and were therefore purposes of comparison, rather than taking the play on its own merits. I heard a couple of several slightly sniffy comments at the end along the lines of “Well, its not as good as the film”. Well, I’ve got news for them. You have to take a play like this on its own merits, rather than compare it with what it spawned. To compare the play with a film based on it is like, well, comparing a mother and daughter. Yes, they have obvious similarities, but you cannot say that one is better than the other when they are completely different media. And you surely have to look at the play in the light of the fact that it was written by a 17 year old girl from Salford who was taken to the theatre for the first time in her life to see a dreary play by Terence Rattigan and went home afterwards thinking “I can do better than that”. Which she proceeded to do, presumably not yet knowing her upstage right from her downstage left. And which by all accounts was a massive, massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic. I bet Rita Tushingham never managed that. Granted that Delaney was effectively cursed by the play and barely wrote anything of note for the rest of her life, but ask your average 17 year old to write a play and I bet you won’t get anything like this. (In fact, ask your average 17 year old to write a play and they will probably stare blankly at you and ask you what a play is, and is it something to do with Spotify?) Its not Hamlet, but come on….

Actually, in some respects, its better than Hamlet, because its written with an ear towards the truth. I bet all the characters were based on people that Delaney knew or had seen or had overheard talking on the bus – and Hamlet has fewer laughs. Because although this is, on the face of it, a fairly grim couple of hours, its actually quite heartwarming. We know that, despite her awful mother’s reappearance at the end in order to wrest back control of things, Josephine is going to come through it more or less the winner. Her baby is going to be loved and cared for, and will probably have a better life than Josephine. 

The evening fairly crackles along, mainly thanks to Lesley Sharp’s Helen, who keeps the dialogue coming at a frenetic pace. She plays Helen without asking for a shred of sympathy, which is lucky because the woman is a peroxide monster, selfish, thoughtless and deluded – as my grandma would have said (and often apparently did) “All fur coat and no knickers”, and probably also “Net curtains in the window, nowt on the table”. Kate O’Flynn pulls off the role of Josephine triumphantly – all those Daily Telegraph readers who comment online on articles about the theatre that “those luvvies should go and get a proper job” should think themselves lucky that they don’t have to play this role 8 times a week. Harry Hepple does a nice job with the role of Geoffrey, which could potentially be one of the most stomach-churningly camp roles in theatre, but here its quiet and restrained. 

Him Indoors always chunters about “communistic bowing” (which basically means all the cast coming on to take one communal bow rather than taking individual ones) and generally I nod and say “Yes, dear” sympathetically but I’m with him on this one. Two of the characters are only on stage for, say, maximum 10 – 15 minutes (if that) and O’Flynn is on all the time, with Sharpe not far behind her. Hepple is on for the entire second act. And yet all five cast members get to take a communal bow. That’s not right. The two minor characters should take the first bow, Hepple next, and then the two women together at the end. That’s the only way that the audience can show their appreciation of the fact that these two women have just done the theatrical equivalent of scaling, if not Everest, then at least Ben Nevis.

There is a wonderful, artful and very telling moment when, almost at the end of the play, Lesley Sharp’s character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, asking them “What would you do?” – and then the moment is gone and the play continues. Well, its an interesting question, and our answers today would be very different from the answers that an audience would have given back in 1958. Things were different then – and not only in real life. Theatre was different too – unmarried mothers, teenage pregnancy, infidelity and poverty didn’t appear on stage until the “Angry Young Men” started writing “Kitchen Sink Drama”. Which is pretty rich as it was the Angry Young Women who were chained to that sink until Delaney came along, scooped up the bowl full of dirty dishwater and poured it all over the stage in a wonder act of rebellion.

The set is very evocative, although a little disturbing – what on earth has been going on in the room upstairs? And can someone more enlightened explain the title of the play to me? What exactly is the honey that has been tasted? Is it sex? Freedom? Self knowledge? Something to do with a harmonica and Rita Tushingham?

What the critics thought:
(and if anyone can tell me why my links no longer paste in as actual clickable links, I would be very grateful!)