Archive for June, 2017

La Strada (The Other Palace)

Posted: June 10, 2017 in Theatre

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In a haunting final scene, director Sally Cookson finds exactly the right blend of beauty and sadness that is the essence of Federico Fellini’s 1954 film masterpiece La Strada. However, if the scene proves to be the lingering memory of this disappointing “musical” adaption, it will very much flatter the production as a whole.

I have admired Cookson’s past works in which she has adapted classics for the stage, and her trademarks of fluent movement and impressionism are here, but the paucity of her material lets her down. The adaptation is devised by the company, with Mike Akers credited as “writer in the room” and original music composed by Benji Bower. Yes, there is music, but very little of it and what there is is incidental to the story, rather than integrated into it. Branding this show as “a musical” means taking a great deal of licence.

Set in the post-War era of austerity in Italy, we see young Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) being sold, effectively into slavery, by her mother to Zampanò, a travelling entertainer with a strong man act, played with menace by Stuart Goodwin (why do so many brutes need to have Northern English accents?). They tag onto a circus and Zampanò forms a rivalry with a cruel, mocking clown (Bart Soroczynski). Katie Sykes’ set design, a couple of telegraph poles on an otherwise empty stage, represents a barren picture of the Italian landscape and there is little of the flavour of a colourful and passionate country to be found. If Cookson chose to replicate Fellini’s black-and-white format, perhaps she made a mistake.

There are bursts of energy, but far more patches where the show drags, badly in need of the life that musical numbers could have injected into it.  The core element, the mutual dependence of the ill-matched travellers, shines through, but only occasionally and a tale that should warm the heart leaves us cold, until near the very end. If Cookson likes the idea of adapting Fellini for musical theatre, maybe she would do better by taking on a long overdue revival of Maury Yeston’s Nine.

Performance date: 8 June 2017

Working (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: June 8, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

In the eyes of America’s current President, the triple whammy of globalisation, de-industrialisation and illegal immigration has snuffed out working life in large parts of his country. Therefore, there can be nothing more timely than the reminder of the values of work that comes from Stud Terkel’s interviews with US workers, first published in 1974 and augmented by further interviews in 2007/08.

This is not the sort of material that we would expect to be adapted into a musical, but Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, with additional contributions by Gordon Greenberg, have done just that. Song contributors range from veteran James Taylor to the new golden boy of musical theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show was seen Off-Broadway in 2012 and now gets its European premiere here. Turning the Large space at Southwark Playhouse into a factory floor may not have presented too much of a challenge for designer Jean Chan.

Young and old, blue collar and white collar, management and managed, the show cuts across professions, each segment featuring one of six performers portraying an interviewee, many centring on a song. A fast food delivery boy and a builder’s labourer appear and then a teacher for 40 years (Gillian Bevan) laments Nobody Tells Me How in a song by Susan Birkenhead and Mary Rodgers. A trolley dolly (Siubhan Harrison) serves lukewarm coffee, knowing that her plane is two hours away from a crash landing and a truck driver (Dean Chisnall) hits the road singing Taylor’s Brother Trucker. The excellent songs are sung beautifully, Krysten Cummings, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne being the remaining performers.

A frequent problem with verbatim pieces is that the production can easily mock the words of its subjects, but director Luke Sheppard makes sure that we laugh only with the characters whose simple, natural wit shines through. They are given respect and dignity in a production that is filled with heart and energy. The result is an uplifting celebration of the tiny cogs in a massive wheel and of the human spirit. Choreographed by Fabian Aloise, a singing and dancing chorus of six supports the featured performers and Isaac McCullough’s small band provides backing in the varying musical styles.

Without a linking narrative thread, the show risks seeming fragmented, but the adaptors provide cohesion in neat ways, as when a socialite raising money for charity appears alongside a hooker. Pride in work is a consistent theme, brought out most movingly in Craig Camelia’s The Mason and most amusingly when a waitress likens her work to performing on stage in Schwartz’s It’s An Art. The driving force of characters wanting better for their children also recurs many times. In Micki Grant’s Cleanin’ Women, a mother, the fourth generation of cleaners in her family, commits to a different life for her daughter and, in Schwartz’s Father and Sons, a father glows with pride at his son surpassing him.

In a nod to the modern day rust belt, Polycarpou brings tears to the eyes as he goes through his daily routine following redundancy in Miranda’s A Very Good Day, adding to the mix of pathos and humour that are balanced perfectly throughout the show’s 90 minutes. Working could seem so unlikely a musical that maybe it has no right to work, yet somehow it does beautifully.

Performance date: 7 June 2017

Punts (Theatre 503)

Posted: June 8, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

The hardest part of parenting can be letting go, as Antonia and Alastair eventually come to realise in Sarah Page’s new one-act comedy. Their 25-year-old son Jack has learning difficulties, so perhaps they feel justified in keeping him on a short lead, but are they going too far when they decide to organise his sexual initiation?

Set in an affluent, leafy South-West London suburb, the play begins with refreshing candour as Antonia prepares Jack to receive his visitor, a prostitute selected by her with meticulous care from a long list of possibles. Christopher Adams captures Jack’s diffidence as he anticipates the event with the same enthusiasm as for a trip to the dentist. Antonia goes out and the prostitute, Kitty (real name Julia) arrives, instructing Alastair to turn up the volume on the television before she goes upstairs.

Florence Roberts’ Kitty is calmly assured and professional and Jack duly rises to the occasion. Accepting that the subject matter is delicate, Page still tiptoes around the initiation scene too much and the play’s humour, grounded in awkwardness and embarrassment, begins to lose the bite that it had promised. This sets a pattern and much of what follows feels like a routine, toothless domestic comedy which Jessica Edwards’ production fails to ignite..

Jack calls himself “spazzy”, but, although Adams plays him touchingly, Page gives him dialogue that is more savvy than seems right. With the play’s core theme dealt with in a few short scenes, the writer then embarks on exploring the consequences and does so in stages of decreasing plausibility. Having tasted the fruit once, Jack asks for a return visit, risking becoming too close to Kitty/Julia, but, with newly found confidence, he can now start a tentative relationship with a “spazzy” girl. We are left uncertain as to whether this is a good or bad thing.

Graham O’Mara’s too virtuous to be true Alastair is, predictably, tempted by the allure of the seductive Kitty and he sympathises with her plight when she is revealed as a vulnerable Julia. He has another Julia in mind when the prostitute inspires him to act out a scene from Pretty Woman with his wife and Clare Lawrence-Moody’s controlling Antonia has, by now, jumped from being the eager force behind her son’s treat to a possessive mother who is resentful of Julia. When Julia accuses Antonia, a stay-at-home housewife, of being a whore herself, she seems to hit her Achilles heel.

Page touches on some interesting themes, but they are under-developed and scattered, so that the later parts of the play lack focus. Punts is well-intentioned and it starts out looking edgy and irreverent, but its efforts to err on the side of good taste end up making it feel bland.

Performance date: 5 June 2017

Photo: Claudia Marinaro

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The Octoroon is an 1859 melodrama by the Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, set on a Louisiana plantation. Here we have An Octoroon, a modern re-working by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, first seen in New York. The rarely used word in both titles means one-eighth black.

It is doubtful if Jacobs-Jenkins would claim that either the original or his own version is a great piece of literature, but what he has created is an extraordinary work of theatre and Ned Bennett’s ferocious production quite literally tears into the foundations of the Orange Tree. Jacobs-Jenkins himself (played by Ken Nwosu) appears in his underwear for a prelude, introducing  a playwright (Kevin Trainor) who is developing a production based on Boucicault. Nwosu (a black actor) then paints his face white to alternate as two slave masters and Trainor (a white actor) paints his face red to play a native American. Another white actor, Alistair Toovey, blacks up to play a crippled old slave. Colour blind casting has become a norm in modern theatre, but this is colour altered casting.

While increasing the tone of melodrama, the greasepaint has a startling effect, aimed at unsettling a modern audience and, in unexpected ways, using ironic humour to challenge us into confronting lingering prejudices surrounding the abominations of slavery, racism and sexism. Bennett augments the tension with alarming stage effects, using this small in-the-round theatre as probably never before. A second act scene change (a stage change to be precise) halts the play as repeated variations in pace unsettle us further and encourage us to expect the unexpected.

In contrast to the parade of grotesques formed by the men, the women are all played conventionally. Vivian Oparah, Emmanuella Cole and Cassie Clare are touching and sometimes funny as the slaves whose spirit survives their degradation, Celeste Dodwell is prissy as the wealthy young lady of the plantation and Iola Evans is sweetly romantic as the octoroon herself, white enough to fall for the heir to the plantation, but black enough to be denied her freedom. The company is completed by a cellist (James Douglas) and Clare appears at intervals as Br’er Rabbit to add a further dash of absurdism. Perhaps the play occasionally loses its way and feels too self-indulgent for its own good, but, for originality and dramatic effect, it scores top marks.

Performance date: 3 June 2017

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All that the Menier forgot to lay on here was the log fire, foot stools and carpet slippers. Otherwise, the cosiness is complete for a nostalgic wallow in theatre about as old-fashioned as it can get.  Robert Jones’ sumptuous sets establish the tone for the evening and a play that takes us into a world that no longer exists, if it ever did.

In the mid-80’s Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage appeared on Shaftesbury Avenue as a vehicle for Maggie Smith, with the late Margaret Tyzack as her sparring partner. Felicity Kendall and Maureen Lipman now step into their shoes and they fit comfortably. Shaffer’s central notion is that history is best appreciated when given added colour and not too weighed down by inconvenient facts. Well, the writer of Amadeus would argue that way, wouldn’t he? Lettice Douffet (Kendal) is a tour guide at a stately home, who, drawing on her theatrical background, revels in making up preposterous stories about the building for the enjoyment of her parties. Lotte Schoen (Lipman) is the stuffy administrator who fires her. The pair make up over several litres of Lettice’s “quaff” (a concoction of vodka, lovage and other things) and unite to re-enact famous executions from history. It has to be said that Lipman does sozzled particularly amusingly.

Shaffer’s secondary bugbear, the carbuncles that pass for modern architecture, is articulated by Schoen, who puts her head on the chopping block in the manner of Charles I, while sounding like his modern royal namesake. It is all very silly, but there is little to dislike about it, apart from the length – three (yes three!) acts – and there are times when the urge to shout at the stage “get on with it” becomes almost overpowering.  Trevor Nunn directs languidly, but, with these two formidable actors on stage, it seems possible that he would have had very little to do.

Performance date: 31 May 2017