Archive for January, 2014

A frequently heard comment about Stephen Sondheim is that few of his songs have a life outside the shows to which they belong. So, taking fish out of water, here we a have revue consisting of Sondheim numbers that draws its title from a song about a painting technique. Indeed, for anyone familiar with the shows, it is very difficult to hear the songs without associating them with their original context – when two men duet on the ravishing Pretty Women, one of them really needs to be slitting the other’s throat to bring out the full irony. But how would someone who is not already a Sondheim fanatic perceive the songs in a show like this? Happily, that is not a question which I am qualified to answer but I’m guessing that there would be quite a lot for them to enjoy. The setting is a sophisticated Manhattan cocktail party with a six piece band in the background and the song choices are largely (but not entirely) from shows that would fit such a setting – Company, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along. We hear a succession of bitter-sweet love songs, as would be delivered by affluent New Yorkers and, whilst these choices do not do full justice to Sondheim’s extensive range, there is room for more obscure songs to be performed at the expense of obvious hits; for once, Send in the Clowns is nowhere to be heard. The five performers are all seasoned actors who can sing rather than just singers, vital for interpreting some of the greatest lyrics ever written. Janie Dee breaks our hearts with Every Day a Little Death and later turns super bitch to spit out The Ladies Who Lunch. David Bedella, Daniel Crossley and Caroline Sheen take turns to stop the show, belting out numbers comic and sad. Then Damian Humbley, fresh from almost a year in Merrily…, gives the best rendition I have ever heard of Marry Me a Little, reminding us of how desperately London needs another revival of Company, preferably with him in the lead role. There are a few misjudgements, such as an ensemble performance of Being Alive, belying a lyric which is a deeply personal debate between one man and himself. However, on the whole, this is a slick celebration of musical theatre genius.

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Written when he was still at school and first performed in 1781, The Robbers is German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s debut play. Here The Faction ensemble is reviving it as the third in its current repertory season, all performed at this theatre by the same company of actors. It joins Hamlet and Thebes. Franz and Karl are brothers whose lives have taken very different paths. The former is ruthlessly seeking wealth and power, the latter is a Robin Hood figure, taking refuge in a forest and leading a gang of robbers whilst striving for social justice. The return of Karl, in disguise, to his family home triggers a bloody chain of events, although the brothers do not meet during the course of the play, which seems a curious omission by Schiller. The play has been described as the first European melodrama and therefore ahead of its time. However it represents a style of theatre that is very difficult to interpret for a 21st Century audience. Director Mark Leipacher’s route to solving this problem comes with balancing the melodramatic style, which includes exaggerated displays of emotion and ill- explained actions, with the simplest possible staging. In fact, the staging is so simple and the costumes so nondescript that the production has the feel of a technical run-through in a rehearsal room. As a result, the spotlight is entirely on the performances and what we see is vital and imaginative ensemble playing from a mostly young company. Andrew Chevalier’s Franz, slight of build, his body misshapen and his face frequently contorted, comes a little too close to resembling a typical Richard III, but every melodrama needs a dastardly villain and he is it. In contrast, Karl, as played by Tom Radford, is a dashing romantic hero. The character’s motivation often comes across as rather confused, but his scenes with his father (Alexander Guiney) and his lost love (Kate Sawyer) wield considerable emotional power. A little plodding in the early stages, the production gains momentum as it progresses to deliver a stirring second half, building to a chaotic climax on a stage strewn with corpses. A new translation by the director and Daniel Millar blends traditional dialogue with modern urban language, although there is nothing that associates the production with a specific era. Enthusiasts for classic European drama will relish the opportunity to see this rarely performed piece which touches on class, religion and social inequality. Claims that theses serious themes, as presented in the play, have modern relevance are somewhat tenuous, but, thanks to some fine acting, The Robbers at least stands up as engaging entertainment.

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photo-73Spanning almost 12 hours, including intervals and meal breaks, over 7 hours of actual performance, this is a theatrical endurance test, giving rise to fears that some in an exceptionally aged audience might not survive through to the end. The production, written and directed by Geoffrey Beevers, is an adaptation of George Eliot’s huge novel, set in a rural English town in the 1830s amongst the landed gentry. Instead of telling the story chronologically as in the novel, Beevers has separated out three narrative strands to create three plays which either stand alone or, as here, can be seen together. The plays are: Dorothea’s StoryThe Doctor’s Story and Fred & Mary. The adaptations are clearly a labour of love, using chunks of Eliot’s prose and bringing out her humour, so that much of the production plays like Jane Austen rather than the grittier works more associated with this author. Some scenes are repeated in different plays, cleverly giving a changed perspective on events, adding depth and meaning; gossip in one play becomes fact in another, etc. The arcs of the three main stories are similar, meaning that, by play three, we can see where we are heading well before the half-way mark. Nonetheless, the stories are all engaging and embellished with fascinating period detail. A company of eleven share all the roles, the only confusion coming from the same actor taking leading roles in two of the plays, with nothing to provide a visual distinction between the characters. Almost every actor gets a turn in the spotlight and mostly they are excellent. Played in the round with few props, the lighting and costumes are first class. This is an ambitious project, well crafted and it would be a shame if it does not have a life after its limited run at this small venue.

Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson 3Having always struggled with Shakespeare’s Roman plays, I approached this with some trepidation, but, knowing that £2,500 was being asked on the internet for a pair of tickets, I felt an obligation to attend. The inflated price is largely due to a film actor, Tom Hiddleston, taking the title role, but Josie Rourke’s vivid and lucid interpretation has far more to offer than just star casting and is packed with current relevance. A Shakespeare play about power politics with a dystopian urban setting, it reminds a little of Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth, seen in London a few months ago. Not time specific, the whole production has a modern urban feel with graffiti staining the rear wall and Coriolanus going into exile dressed in a hoody. Pyrotechnics enliven a battle scene and there are several unforgettable images of violence, but, overall, this version of the play is intimate more than epic, putting it across strongly as a political thriller. Coriolanus is a successful military leader who, when crossing into politics, lacks the tact and diplomacy to win over the populace in Rome’s burgeoning democracy. He is the sort of man who, in the present day, would need a swift media make-over. It is a big ask of a charismatic movie star to convince as an uncharismatic politician and, Hiddleston, younger than the role is usually cast, looks more a Blair than a Brown. However, he does well and is eclipsed only by Deborah Findlay’s powerfully impassioned Volumnia. Josie Rourke’s reign at the Donmar at last seems to be getting into its stride.

photo: Johan Persson

 

Frank SkinnerAfter a six year absence, this show marks the return to the comedy circuit of the man best known for his sharply observed anecdotal comedy, relaxed style and impeccable choice of footballing allegiance. He comments that he is one of the few grey-haired celebrities still at liberty and invites us to cherish seeing him live, adding coyly “while you still can”. Frank is well aware that his star has waned slightly since the days of seven figure television contracts and he uses this as a theme running throughout; the title derives from the suits that he was allowed to keep after each BBC show that he hosted and which he now wears constantly, even using them as pyjamas; he agonises over the moral dilemma of whether he should give most of them to Oxfam or give the charity the boosted proceeds after selling them on E-Bay as belonging to him; he argues that failure to take the egocentric route could cost lives in Africa. Perhaps Frank would now struggle to fill the arena venues favoured by some comics, but his conversational style suits a more intimate setting much better and it was a real privilege to see him up close in this small cabaret room. Maybe he can eventually be persuaded to scale down further and perform as a dinner party guest, which would be his perfect milieu. Of course, the routine is rigorously prepared and structured, but it is the mark of Frank’s skill that his delivery always feels improvised; however, when dealing with a lively group of friendly hecklers at this performance, he still had numerous opportunities to display his quick-wittedness. After over an hour, he reflects on the absence of risqué jokes and, thereafter, reverts frequently to his past norm. So, the show is two unbroken hours of laughter and this performance took place on a rare Saturday evening when, not having played, even Frank’s football team could not have dampened the mood.

candide_menier_chocolate_-446545Another “problem” musical for the Menier to tackle and another miracle performed by them. Here the problem is almost entirely related to the source material – the work of 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire which tells the story of Candide (Fra Fee) and his odyssey around Europe and South America, accompanied at various times by his love, Cunegonde (Scarlett Strallen), his teacher, Pangloss (James Dreyfus) and an old lady with one buttock (Jackie Clune). On their way, they encounter natural disasters, pestilence, torture, multiple deaths and multiple resurrections. For sure this is a comic satire, but it is more than two centuries out of date and, at several points whilst these characters are globe trotting, they leave the audience behind them. Hugh Wheeler’s book cannot overcome the fact that little of Voltaire’s wit and philosophising is relevant to the modern world and calling the story a problem might be charitable; being blunter, it is complete and utter tosh. But enough of the negative. The show is primarily a vehicle for the music of the great Leonard Bernstein and, whilst it is certainly not his greatest work, it is still a significant achievement. In his masterpieces – On The Town, West Side Story, the On the Waterfront soundtrack – Bernstein was on home territory, drawing from the unique influences of New York City. Whilst his score here ranks far above the ordinary, it does not contain anything that is distinctively Bernstein. Richard Wilbur’s lyrics are variable, bland in the romantic ballads, but occasionally – as in The Best of All Possible Worlds and its counter The Worst of… – touched by genius; the credit given to Stephen Sondheim for “additional lyrics” provides a clue as to who that genius could be. The performances are perfection, the highlight being Strallen’s hilarious rendering of Glitter and Be Gay as she plucks jewellery from a chandelier. However, the greatest credit has to go to Matthew White’s staging, choreographed by Adam Cooper. The entire Menier space is transformed into a central European town square, with the audience seated wherever they can fit in on all four sides and what we see is less a show than an exuberant carnival of colour and spectacle. The configuration allows us to view the expressions of childlike delight on the faces of fellow audience members from all age groups and to realise that, for much of the evening, quibbles about the storyline are rendered irrelevant. Problem solved!

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

How often do we go to see a play and find no credit for the playwright on the posters or in the programme? Okay, so we all know who wrote this one (don’t we?), but it would be interesting to learn if the omissions for this production were due to an assumption of universal familiarity or to a cunning attempt to lure unsuspecting audiences with the promise of American popular culture and then to astound them with the riches of the Bard. If the latter, the producers have been as conniving as Iago, but their motives are surely laudable.  Recent productions of Othello at the Donmar and the National have set the bar very high and it would be unreasonable to expect a small studio version such as this to clear it. What we are entitled to expect is something fresh and imaginative and that is largely what we get. Music from the Glenn Miller Orchestra ushers us in and a torch song, weakly performed, gets things rolling. What follows is a more or less straight reading of Shakespeare’s text, but set in the 1940s and played in the style of film noir, a genre most commonly associated with Los Angeles. So here, possibly, we have the Moor of Venice Beach, although there is actually very little that feels American about the performances. Radical reinventions of classic plays, setting them in new eras and locations, can result in either triumph or disaster. Novelty alone is not enough, any interpretation needs to work in harmony with the play and shed new light on it. In this case the results are mixed. On the one hand, we have to grapple with incongruities such as characters in a 1940s American setting speaking the language of Tudor England and civilians, wearing double-breasted overcoats and trilbies, advancing to wage war in Cyprus. On the other hand, the context justifies the creation of an ambiance which rather suits the play, particularly once it has veered into melodrama. Libby Todd’s set design, with a backdrop of curtains lit in rich red, purple, green and gold evokes the film noir style well and uses simple props that are readily adaptable for multiple purposes. The staging is slick and fast moving, helped by the play having been trimmed by at least a third in a version which skims over sub-plots, all to no great loss. The diverse elements in Rebekah Fortune’s production come together perfectly for the murder scene, the staging of which is electrifying. The two great enigmas that any interpretation of this play needs to tackle are Othello’s gullibility and Iago’s motivation. Stefan Adegbola’s Othello is of modest demeanour, showing neither the intellect nor the power of a military leader. His blind acceptance of Iago’s lies and his insane jealously seem to be rooted in insecurity rather than wounded pride, but it is a performance that grows in stature, building to a stirring climax, and the actor interprets and speaks Shakespeare’s dialogue beautifully. Peter Lloyd’s Iago is a Northerner who might have wandered in from a night at the Rovers’ Return. He colludes with the audience like a loveable rogue, which suggests that his mendacity springs more from mischief than malevolence. It seems unlikely that Othello would have been seduced into buying a used car from this Iago, still less have been taken in by lies about his wife’s infidelity. Iago proclaims “I hate the Moor”, but as to whether this hatred is driven by envy, racism, psychopathy or some other force, the production gives few clues. Gillian Saker’s Desdemona, pale and with flowing red locks, is casually flirtatious, oblivious to her impending plight. Amongst the lesser roles, Gemma Stroyan, appropriately coiffed like Veronica Lake, stands out as a passionate Emilia. Coming from Orangutan, a young company, this production is occasionally uneven, but, overall, it is highly imaginative and deserves to be seen, hopefully widening the audience for its uncredited writer.

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