Archive for April, 2015

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Watching a David Mamet play often feels like sitting in front of a machine gun that is firing bullets in the form razor-sharp lines directly at you; some of them pass overhead, many tickle the ribs, others inflict pain, but rarely do any go near the heart. This 1977 play is set in a second-hand junk shop, realised perfectly in Paul Wills’ cramped and cluttered design. It is run by Don (John Goodman), who, along with “Teach” (Damien Lewis) and Bob (Tom Sturridge), lives his life on the edges of petty criminality; like the contents of the shop, all three have been cast aside by the American Dream. The plot centres around the retrieval of a rare coin (the Buffalo of the title) that Don has been conned into parting with. Daniel Evans’ production captures the tone and rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue to perfection, quite rightly putting the emphasis on the performances. And what performances! Goodman, an iconic figure in film and television, is able to make it all look effortless; the part fits him like a glove and his inimitable presence fills the theatre. Lewis, taking the role last played in the West End by Al Pacino, appears with bushy sideburns and moustache, dressed in a plum-coloured 1970’s suit, complete with flares; “Teach” is a chancer and a bluffer, but Lewis reveals the inadequacy that lies behind the swagger. Sturridge makes the young junkie Bob a memorably pathetic creature, gaunt, pale and with his head shaved, he literally grovels around as he tries to finance his next fix. It is easy to level the charges that Mamet’s writing is cold and clinical, too caught up in its own smartness, but difficult to make them stick when the writing provides the foundation for three such magnificent performances. Yet still there is a sense that the play never quite goes where we want it to take us, walking a path towards greatness, but stopping frustratingly short of the threshold. As the lights dim at the very end, Evans adds a moment of real warmth and the fact that this feels as surprising as the denouement at the end of a very good thriller gives a clue as to what has been missing from the preceding two hours. This is an impeccable production, but it leaves a sense of regret for those of us who find it hard to connect more fully with the play itself and its writer.

Performance date: 29 April 2015

Follies***** (Royal Albert Hall)

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Music, Theatre

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I was privileged to see the 1987 production of Follies, which enjoyed a run of over 18 months at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and I have been longing for it to be revived ever since. If nothing else, this concert staging was a reality check, showing exactly why I have been disappointed for so long and why, faced with the economics of modern commercial theatre, a future revival is very unlikely. What producer will take a risk on a show with almost 20 solo singing roles, a large singing/dancing chorus and a score which requires a full orchestra? This early Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) musical, sandwiched between Company and A Little Night Music, is set in 1971, the year when it was first staged. A derelict New York theatre is about to be converted into a parking lot and the former impresario holds a cocktail party for the stars of his spectacular Follies revue from 30 years earlier – a cue for nostalgia and sentimentality by the bucket load and for a return to the golden era. The principal characters are two couples who re-ignite their tangled past relationships and come face to face with their younger selves. The older versions were played here by Christine Baranski and Alexander Hanson, Ruthie Henshall and Peter Polycarpou. British musical theatre fans are well familiar with the last three, who all did what we know they can superbly, but it was the divine Baranski who stole the show, delivering lines of withering sarcasm as if they were written for her and making us think that there is no other actor anywhere in the World who could ever play this role again. This is a show in which the songs overwhelm the book (written by James Goldman) to such an extent that the book gives up at the interval, thus making the usual criticism of concert stagings – that they diminish the impact of the drama or comedy – pretty irrelevant. This, plus the show’s fragmented nature, means that concert staging may even reveal Sondheim’s masterpiece in a better light. The production, directed by Craig Revel Horwood, made imaginative use of four moveable oblong “doorways” and had, as would be expected, plentiful dancing (choreography by Andrew Wright); if the dancers seemed slightly under-rehearsed, it mattered little because their musical numbers are all about spectacle. Behind them, the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Gareth Valentine. The large company included a variety of well-known names to suit different tastes (or not) and several who it was pleasant to discover are still alive. Performers such as Russell Watson and Anita Dobson have always been outside my personal radar, but the former nailed Beautiful Girls emphatically and the latter, singing and tap-dancing her way through Who’s That Woman with girlish glee, was an absolute knockout. Stefanie Powers donned the guise of a French madam and put her Hart into Ah Paris, Lorna Luft belted out Broadway Baby in a style that would have made her mother proud and Betty Buckley rattled the old Albert Hall’s foundations with the perennial showstopper I’m Still Here. Hanson and Henshall duetted beautifully on the haunting Too Many Mornings and the latter made Losing My Mind even more heartbreaking by reining in her trademark emotional anguish. Eventually, Baranski brought the house down, leading the chorus on The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie and finding time to conduct the orchestra as well as sit in the audience taking selfies. There were many, many more highlights contributing to an unforgettable occasion which, sadly, is not likely to be repeated any time soon.

Performance date: 28 April 2015

a-new-play-for-the-general-election-mainThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Traditionally, the theatre has been a place for escaping to during tedious Election campaigns, but no refuge can be found at the Finborough whilst this play is running. Chris New’s new work (is the word “new” in the title meant to be ambiguous?), devised with the cast, is set on the eve of the 2015 General Election and looks at modern politics through a very distorted lens. Daniel (Jumaane Brown) takes as a hostage “Tom” (Charlie Holloway), believing him to have been involved in the disappearance of his girlfriend Sonya. The hostage’s face can barely be seen, as he is trapped inside a hideous effigy of George Osborne, who, it transpires, he actually is. The early exchanges take the form of an interrogation in which a question is followed by reiteration; example – Daniel: “Where do you live now?”, Tom/George: “Where do I live now?” This pattern is repeated over and over again, serving no obvious purpose other than to get under the skin of the audience and the two actors themselves seem uncomfortable speaking the lines. When Sonya (Emily Houghton) arrives on the scene, she brings in tow another boyfriend, Richard (Tim Pritchett), who insists that her real name is Maggie, suggesting that some genuine political satire may be on the way. Alas Sonya/Maggie turns out to be no more than a hysterical young lady who rants incoherently, pausing regularly to vomit. And so the nonsense goes on. Presumably, New intends his work to be seen as a parable, alluding to a disadvantaged and disorganised electorate, mired in spin and false promises, coming up against a privileged elite who will not be dislodged whatever the outcome of the vote. But that is a guess, because the play is so oblique and so divorced from reality that it becomes difficult to extract any clear messages from it. If New wanted to model this absurdist piece on works by Beckett or Pinter, he has failed miserably. The play has neither the loaded dialogue nor the rippling undercurrents to merit comparisons with those writers. Perhaps he intended it all to be tongue in cheek, but again he fails, with hardly any humour at all rising to the surface. It is quite an achievement by all involved here to have created a 45 minute play that feels as if it is longer than King Lear. So it’s back to the telly; the Election itself has got to be more entertaining than this.

Performance date: 27 April 2015

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received_10205533765199458This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Film noir has just got plus noir. Whilst in Hollywood researching his last show, The Tailor- Made Man, writer/director Claudio Macor began asking himself the question: what would classic films of the 40s and 50s have been like if they could have escaped the straightjacket of the dreaded Hay’s Code, which regulated everything seen on screen? This show results from answers that he came up with. Some would argue that the Hay’s Code did film noir a favour. Perhaps suggestions of the forbidden – gestures, glances, coded conversations – could set the imagination racing and become far more potent than explicit words or graphic images. Happily, Macor does not discard these elements altogether and, aided by Paul Nicholas Dyke’s gloomy sets and Richard Lambert’s atmospheric lighting, he generates a mood and feel that is faithful to the genre. What we see is not exactly in monochrome, but it seems as if it is. The time is late 1945, the setting is the small coastal town of La Roca, somewhere in South America, that is rife with drug traffickers; Nazis are fleeing Europe and almost everyone else is escaping something from the past that is better forgotten. Elvira (Judith Paris), hardened and world-weary, runs the Bar Tangeros, distilling illicit tequila and acting as a mother figure to two prostitutes who work for her – the handsome Massimo (Jordan Alexander) and the seductive Rita (Susannah Allman), who sits with her long blond hair draped over her shoulders in the style of Veronica Lake, declining a glass of water on the grounds that it will give her a hangover. Ross Harper Millar is wonderfully sleazy as Martinez, a small-time drug dealer who lurks around, vermin-like and malodorous, besotted with Elvira; “did your mother give birth to you or did she vomit you up?” she asks him venomously. Elvira in turn is bitter over a past affair with a corrupt town official, Falchi (Ned Wolfgang Kelly). Macor’s script is lit up by the sort of cynical, barbed dialogue which typifies film noir, but he does not overlook another essential ingredient – romance. Rita is wooed by Raoul (Tristan Robin) and Massimo rekindles an affair with Leandro (Matt Mella), son of the local Mr Big; both couples sense that their relationships are ill-fated, being able to survive only within the amoral cocoon that is La Roca, which itself could be doomed. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this show is its stunning use of Latin American dancing, integrated perfectly into the drama. A prime example is the all-male Tango in which Leandro first seduces Massimo, but several ensemble routines also stand out, choreographed superbly by Anthony Whiteman to original music by Paul Boyd. In fact the dances are so good that we want more and they have the effect of making the scenes that follow immediately feel pedestrian. The show’s main problem is that the central narrative, played out mostly offstage, is not strong enough to propel the drama through stodgy patches, particularly in Act II when there is less dance; it always seems secondary to the romantic sub-plots and it produces unsatisfactory endings to all the strands. In the Dead of Night is imaginative, absorbing and, occasionally, thrilling entertainment. Yes, it needs modifications here and there and a bit of tightening up, but there are times when it creates an irresistible magic and it has the potential to become a really terrific show.

Performance date: 25 April 2015

Photograph: PND Photography

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clp 0260 So the old cow that grazes in Bristo Square, Edinburgh every August has made her way down South again for the Spring and early Summer! She still hasn’t found a way to stop noise from the surrounding bars creeping through her thin skin during performances, but, otherwise, a big welcome to her and to the Edinburgh-style programming of short and varied entertainments. A Simple Space is an hour-long acrobatic display created by the Australian ensemble Gravity and Other Myths. Simple? For the watching audience yes, but for the performers far from it. Showing strength, agility, balance and sheer guts, the seven acrobats (six men, one woman) fall, rise, leap, gambol, somersault, spin and contort themselves, hardly stopping to regain their breath for the show’s duration. They pile on top of each other to form columns, pyramids, squares, arches or just piles and a very competitive game of Strip Skipping could well set a new trend. The loser, who also serves as a musician, later goes on to use his own body as a percussion instrument. All this could have been fairly monotonous without dashes of humour, but there are generous helpings of it, all without a single word being spoken – these guys (and gal) know how work an audience and build up tension without resorting to speeches. The result is a show which flows seamlessly and never outstays its welcome. The show runs until 24 May, so a good idea might be to pop into see it after work and then grab a beer outside as the sun sets over the Thames, making sure that the next show’s audience hears you. Simply perfect!

Performance date: 23 April 2015

Photograph: Chris Herzfeld

Dead Royal*** (Ovalhouse)

Posted: April 23, 2015 in Theatre

Dress Rehearsal image - Dead RoyalThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

In the Summer of 1981 the Duchess of Windsor invited to her secluded villa in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, the 19 year-old Lady Diana Spencer who was about to marry the Prince of Wales. Well maybe she didn’t, but Australian writer/director/performer Chris Ioan Roberts imagines such a meeting and makes it the basis for this 50 minute one man show. Wallis, The Duchess, is intent on dispensing pearls of wisdom, whist Diana has been sent on a mission to retrieve pearls of Queen Alexandra, “stolen” by her hostess years before. Both ladies have come to be regarded as ill-used, tragic heroines and fashion icons, making them ideal subjects for the high camp treatment given by Roberts, who plays both. His Wallis is a faded, embittered Southern belle who sees herself as Scarlett O’Hara, although another Vivien Leigh guise, that of Blanche DuBois, comes more readily to mind. Tara’s Theme plays in the background as Wallis quips that her life story could be entitled “Gone With the Windsors”. She is scornful of the ITV series Edward and Mrs Simpson, but still plays back VHS tapes of episodes and mimes to the lines. Her snobbishness runs to being unable to admit to having a seafood allergy because it could be regarded as “common”, preferring to make herself ill, regularly. The meeting that we all want to see is, of course, impossible with this format. Instead, halfway though the show, Roberts makes a slow change of costume and wig to become Diana, who is still blissfully unaware of what the future holds for her. She too has a link to Gone With the Wind, copping out of reading the paperback that Prince Charles has given her, but finding that her attention span does not run to watching the entire film either. This is a show of rich humour but little depth. With both characters, Roberts finds a good balance between refinement and vulgarity, but, whilst there is a natural pathos in his demeanour, he explores neither the sadness of Wallis nor the vulnerability of Diana. His portrayals are not impersonations, nor do they represent the two women exactly (for example Wallis came from the Baltimore area and not the Deep South); more he is mocking their public images and giving them very little in the way of dignity. The show works best as a vehicle for a string of very funny jokes at the expense of our Royal Family. Roberts’ Wallis delivers the sort of bitchy material that the late Joan Rivers would have been proud of, shooting from the hip at Princess Margaret, the Princes Andrew and Edward and, of course, the Queen Mother (“face like yesterday’s Eton Mess”). His Diana has fewer targets – Charles and, unwittingly, her own limited intellect. Wallis was not to know that the best advice she could have given to Diana would have been never to return to Paris. Roberts takes his show back to Brisbane next, but his return to our shores will be more than welcome.

Performance date: 22 April 2015

Photograph: Patricia Oliveira

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Caryl Churchill’s account of the English Civil War from the perspective of a group of insurgent agricultural workers tells a story which resonates still in the modern world. Her writing always seems acutely aware of this and the use of costumes that are not time specific in Lyndsey Turner’s production underlines the point. Yet, still this is a play that is packed with factual detail and its only driving narrative is that given to it by history. The common people are Saxon and they are spurred on to rise up against their Royalist masters, of Norman descent, because of poverty, brutal repression and the belief in a new Jerusalem beginning in 1650. Once the Royalist rule has ended, something has to replace it and almost a third of the first act is taken up with the Putney Debates of 1647, presided over by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn), in which protagonists line up across the stage and present their cases. The scene draws from actual records, but it is debate more than drama and it seems interminable. The arguments are elementary – in modern parlance, capitalism versus communism, rule of law versus anarchy – and there is a feeling throughout the play that, when Churchill is not using the actual words spoken, the fluency and colour in her writing masks their simplicity. The second act culminates in another long discussion on the influence which religion has in society. Churchill seems to conclude that Christianity had inspired the insurgents and given them a glimmer of false hope, but it is adept at wriggling free from any blame for failure. Turner’s staging, with sets designed by Es Devlin, is spectacular. Act I takes place on a banquet table covering almost the entire Lyttelton stage, with Royalists gorging themselves around the edges; for Act II, the table becomes farm land and the diners are replaced by Puritan scribes; an enormous overhead mirror reflects events throughout. Symbolism abounds, without adding very much to a play which has speaking roles for close to 30 actors and uses almost as many non-speaking extras (referred to as the “Community Company”). Extravagance indeed, but to what end as this is a work which is nearly all words and hardly any action? Occasionally and very fleetingly, some engaging performances emerge – Ashley McGuire and Alan Williams as resourceful vagrants, Joshua James as an evangelistic “gentleman”, Trystan Gravelle as a cynical fighter – but Churchill fails to flesh out their characters fully or to give them strong storylines and they fade back quickly into the mists of Turner’s bloated production. Churchill’s central point is that, here and throughout history, uprisings may disrupt things temporarily, but, for the lowest echelons of society, the status quo returns quickly. In this case, the names and faces of rulers and landowners change, but the poverty and repression continue and even the Monarchy is restored. Churchill’s history lesson is all good and worthy, but her messages would have been more easily digested if she had been able to wrap them in a gripping drama.

Performance date: 21 April 2015