Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

Maintaining its recent history of strong female-centred drama, the Donmar's latest production is A Streetcar Named Desire and the star name this time round is Rachel Weisz, although she is ably supported by some strong upcoming talent. Not being a fan of old films, I had no idea of the story and I think this added considerably to my enjoyment.


It tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a figure with a tragic past, who turns up unannounced at her sister Stella's apartment in 1940s New Orleans. The apartment is very small but Blanche's personality is most certainly not, and so the pressures on Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski build up, as they struggle to wade through Blanche's smokescreens and ascertain the real reasons for the unexpected visit.
Rachel Weisz is simply superb as Blanche: having no frame of reference for this character, I cannot imagine how it could be bettered. She dominates the stage despite her fragile frame, and from the moment she enters the apartment begins to affect all those around her, either infuriating them with her vanity, comforting them with her well-earned life experience or teasing them with her flirtatious sexuality. She has moments of chilling insight which are then swiftly followed by an innocuous remark about a lampshade and Weisz's ability to endlessly flit between these different moods prove her to be a wonderfully nuanced actress. It is a substantial role, she is rarely off-stage, but Weisz never shrank from the challenge to produce a performance which brought goosebumps to my arms several times.

Ruth Wilson is also excellent as her sister Stella and I loved their relationship, never storybook-easy, but sprinkled with moments of genuine affection. Elliott Cowan needs to work a little on the consistency of his accent, and although he is meant to be loud, he was virtually shouting every line in the first half. Thankfully after the interval, he had calmed down a bit
allowing his movement to do some of the talking as well. His physical portrayal of Stanley is brilliant, he's constantly prowling around the apartment and the menace he brings really adds to the feeling of claustrophobia that Blanche feels. There's also strong support from Barnaby Kay as the would-be suitor who has his dreams dashed, and from Daniela Nardini (an actress who I would love to much more of) as a headstrong neighbour.

The set is beautifully dressed, and the attention to detail with the wrought ironwork decorating even the balcony, is second to none: as soon as you step in the auditorium you really get the feeling of transportation to another place, something that has rarely happened for me at the Donmar. The pacing did take a little getting used to, it is measured rather than energetic (indeed the first half is an hour and 45 minutes), but this felt totally in keeping with the intimate nature of production.

I cannot finish this review without making some reference to the staging, and the lack of thought put into sightlines for the whole audience. I was lucky enough to have good seats facing the action, but the way the set is designed means that people at the side in the circle miss out on much of the action taking part on their side of the stage, and I can't imagine them being able to see the mighty spiral staircase at the back either. This does seem to be a bit of a thoughtless move by the production team, as I would have been seriously unimpressed had I paid for those seats with no warning of my view being impeded.

That aside though, this was a evening of seriously engrossing drama. The Donmar has once again come up trumps with a highly successful production, full of exceptional performances, and one which I imagine could feature strongly come award season. The run has sold out, but seats are available on the day from 10am (albeit with a potentially restricted view).

Review: Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray

Just a quick review for this as it was a couple of weeks ago, and the run has now finished, plus there's lots of lovely pics I wanted to post too! Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray returned to Sadler's Wells after premiering in Edinburgh last summer, with largely the same cast. Taking Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray as its source material, this dance drama updates the action to modern times, so that Dorian is now a beautiful model who becomes an 'It boy' who takes the London fashion scene by storm, the portrait becomes a giant advertising billboard and there are a couple of characters who have switched gender.

I generally do not go to much dance and so cannot comment with much authority on the finer points of the quality of the choreography, but I can say that I found it most entertaining. The combination of the at times classical dancing between pairs and the modern, almost pop video-like group dances worked very well, and there was a surprising amount of humour worked into the dance as well. My lack of dance knowledge perhaps made me focus more on the storytelling, and I find it incredible how well the piece did in relating the action with not a word being said. The only area that needed a little clarity for me was with the doppelganger: I wasn't sure whether he was a real character that had appeared on the scene or meant to just be an alter ego of Dorian himself.

Richard Winsor as the beautiful, tortured Dorian and Michele Meazza as the coldly ambitious Lady H were both superb in their own rights, but also radiating electric chemistry in their scenes together. Indeed, I think the straight sex scenes were a bit more successful in creating the necessary erotic feel than the numerous representations of gay sex that were thrown at us. I am not sure what it was, but gay sex through the medium of modern dance did nothing for me! Where the piece did succeed though was in the seduction scenes, and the pas de deux (if that is what it was!) between Dorian and Basil with his camera was highly erotically charged and I thought the flashing of the pictures on the wall behind as they were taken was inspired.

So whilst this didn't quite match up to the dizzy heights of Bourne's re-envisioning of Swan Lake, which blew me away when I first saw it a long, long time ago, this was still a most entertaining evening out and made me think maybe I should bite the bullet and go and see more dance shows.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Review: Frank's Closet

I'm not always the biggest fan of fringe theatre: often I find it overpriced and undercooked in terms of quality, but I do try to give some things a chance, as I did with Frank's Closet, at the instigation of a dear friend last Thursday. Unfortunately the show has now closed and does not currently have future plans, but I loved it so much, I still had to write about it on here.

A new musical written by Stuart Wood, it features Frank, who on the eve of his wedding, has been set the challenge of clearing out his closet which is full of rare dresses which belonged to some of the greatest divas of our time. Each dress has a story (or song) to tell and Frank is helped to revisit elements of his past by a procession of divas who help him to fully understand the gravity of the commitment he is about to undertake, and whether indeed this is the right commitment for him to take.

The music goes from witty pastiches of Marie Lloyd, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Karen Carpenter, Judy Garland to Agnetha Fältskog, but the quality does not drop for a moment despite this range. Carl Mullaney is jaw-droppingly good as the multi-faceted Diva, with some what must be lightning quick costume changes, and fully inhabits each of the characters to the extent that one sometimes wondered whether it really was the same guy on stage. His vocal delivery was impeccable and he also showed some excellent movement for each of the divas. The songs are tuneful (a quality sometimes misjudged in new musicals, cf: Too Close To The Sun), but importantly have very funny lyrics as well, so the humour is not just from looking at a man in a range of dresses!

Donna King as the titular Frank is also good. I must admit it took me a little while to get used to the fact that she was playing a gay man, but once the whole music hall vibe of the piece kicked in, it made perfect sense. Portia Emare, David Furnell and the lovely Debbie McGee provided sterling support as the Fabulous Gaiety Girls and there was even some eye candy in the form of Cleo Souza Oliveira and Bruno Serravalle who did a lot of looking pretty in their pants. The ensemble looked very comfortable together and really seemed to be having fun and it made it even more of a pleasure to watch.

The setting of Hoxton Hall is spot on for this show. It is beautiful, and looks just the part all dressed up with a set that looks like an old-fashioned, almost toy-like theatre, perfectly evocative of old-time music hall adventures. The costumes were suitably witty, with Ethel Merman's swan-bedecked outfit a standout. In fact, the only weakness in the whole piece for me was the somewhat unexplained image of the two boys sleeping which both opened and closed the show, I never really understood who they were meant to be and how they related to Frank, but this was a minor quibble.

I also have to mention that after the show, in the nice pub opposite, we chatted to several of the cast and they were all lovely people, happy to share their experiences (and in the case of the Lovely Debbie McGee a chip!), and it put the cherry on the top of what was a delightful evening. I truly hope that the producers are able to find another home for this play as it really does deserve it.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Review: Too Close To The Sun

Too Close To The Sun is a new musical which looks at the final days of the life of Ernest Hemingway before he committed suicide and makes up some things that might have happened then. Set in an isolated part of Idaho, Hemingway lives with his wife and his slutty secretary, when an old friend Rex de Havilland comes to visit with the intention of convincing the writer to sell the film rights to his life. Sounds like fun eh, well you don't even know the half of it!

It is difficult to know where to start, there were just so many terrible elements to this thing. The songs were simply horrific: not a tune in sight and just the weirdest progressions, I don't think any of them actually contained a chorus, it was kind of like twisted musical freestyling combined with verbal diarrhoea. I have to say that the two women, Helen Dallimore and Tammy Joelle, did their best with the material and at least had strong voices, but the two gentlemen, James Graeme and Jay Benedict, were just jaw-droppingly bad. They were landed with the worst songs for the most part, but their delivery was just so bad, that I struggled to keep a straight face any time either one opened their mouth to sing (which given I was on the front row, was a real trial). There was no sense of integration between the play and the songs at all, quite often they would just pop up and then disappear as quickly, leaving you dumbfounded.

Not even the story could save this either though. It is just chronically bad, and this was crystallised for me in the exchange between the two ladies about blue cheese and hot sauce: it went on forever and ended somewhat cryptically with Dallimore saying "I don't trust that pirate girl".

Perhaps as a portent of the play's prospects, I witnessed one of the funniest things I have seen on the stage in quite some time, a genuine blooper. Midway through the first half, two of the cast members sat on a wicker table and went right through it, they quickly extricated themselves and carried on regardless, but soon lost it completely when a line something along the lines of "came down like a ton of bricks" was uttered and there was some serious corpsing going on for a few minutes. We were then treated to repeated references and jokes about the table for the rest of the first half, as many things had to be altered due to the table being altered. They should probably work this in to the actual play, God knows we needed the comic relief.

Too Close To The Sun truly is a treat: it is so bad that it is unbelievably good fun to watch, you just cannot believe that it is being performed in the West End. Catch it quickly before it is snuffed out!

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Black Album

Based on Hanif Kureishi's 1995 novel of the same title, The Black Album takes up residence in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National. It's a look at a Asian student's experience of going to university in London in a pre-9/11 world, specifically around the time of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the beginnings of the radicalisation of some extreme groups. Originally from Kent, Shahid is torn between the fun student life, complete with affairs with lecturers, that he discovers there and the pressures of his Muslim friends who want him to retreat from the excesses of Western living.
The story has taken on a much more powerful resonance in this post 9/11 world and as such, has the potential to be an incisive examination of British Muslim identity and the pressures it faced at a time of crucial change. And whilst the play does deal with some of these issues, it never really tackles them head on and it sometimes felt like there was a little lack of conviction about the proceedings. There's never a real sense of just how ominous the direction that the extremists are heading in is and whilst I can't say that I did not enjoy the play, I just feel like it is a bit of a missed opportunity.



As the student Shahid, Jonathan Bonnici makes an impressive stage debut, initially full of wide-eyed naïveté and enthusiasm for university life, but soon becoming weighed down by the gravity of the choices that he is forced to make. Tanya Franks is good as the lecturer in some horrific nineties threads, but Nitin Jundra was guilty of some excessive hamminess as the brother, and I hope he tones it down before the opening night.

The play is staged quite inventively, with three blank walls having a range of video projections on them to demonstrate the different locations (it looks better than it sounds honest!) but the constant hefting around of the desk by the cast drove me mad by the end. One issue was that the lighting was extremely dark: I could barely see onstage and I was in the fifth row, so I can't imagine how people further back fared. And the soundtrack, provided by Sister Bliss of Faithless, is quite obstrusively loud at times and sometimes misplaced.
Hopefully some of these issues will have been ironed out by the end of the preview period, as I do think there is a good play in there somewhere.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Hamlet

When the Donmar first announced its West End season, taking residence in the Wyndhams theatre, there was a special offer if you bought tickets for ll four productions at the same time, so incredibly, I've had a ticket for Hamlet for over 18 months! Indeed the entire run had been sold out for quite some time before it even opened, such was the draw of Jude Law's name as Shakespeare's eponymous Dane.


The weight of expectation must have been huge on Law's shoulders. Not only was he following a superlatively-received Hamlet at the RSC with David Tennant, there has been a case of somewhat diminishing returns on the Donmar's experiment, with Madame de Sade in particular disappointing many after Ivanov's excellent start. So the sound of gleeful knives sharpening was strong, with a lead actor more known for his looks than acting talent these daystaking a lot of flak before he had even started his run. And so how does he do? Well, I was hugely impressed. Many forget he is a classically trained actor, and he appeared in many great films before his failed attempt to break into Hollywood's leading man category (the Talented Mr Ripley is a personal favourite), and this performance should help to remind people of his talent. He has a great mastery of the text, and so the many uber-famous passages that this play contains seem fresh and new and intensely personalised to Law's Hamlet. "To be or not to be" in particular is convincingly rendered, against a startling backdrop of falling snow, uncertain at first but increasingly confident, mirroring his own movement along the path of self-discovery throughout the play. His is a very physical performance, there's a lot of movement as he constantly rages against the situation, and if one were make any criticism, then it would be that there needed to be a touch more vulnerability introduced into the register to better show the torment that means that play last for over three hours, rather than being done with in one swift act of revenge.

Amongst the supporting cast, Penelope Wilton stands out as a truly superb Gertrude. She is quite often onstage without speaking, but her looks are she takes in what is happening around her are simply priceless, and when she does open her mouth, she is more often than not heartbreaking: her line about "you have cleft my heart in twain" was almost worth the entrance fee alone. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ophelia with a nice subtlety, almost underplaying it too much perhaps, one doesn't feel her presence quite as much as I thought we would. And Kevin McNally strikes the perfect note as Claudius, brimming with a confident arrogance until Hamlet's actions start to chip away at his position.

The staging is typically Donmarish (Donmarian?): simple, pared-back and with eye-catching flourishes which do wonders in evoking atmosphere. Here the bare stones of the castle of Elsinore are beautifully enhanced by some superb lighting, switching us from room to room inside the castle with the minimum of effort. The dropping of highly coloured curtains provides drama: a see-through one is used as the hiding place for Polonius, which allows us to see his tragic death all the more clearly, and the aforementioned snowfall is most effective, all the more for it being quite unexpected.

So the Donmar can congratulate themselves on a job well done. Hamlet provides a fitting conclusion to what was quite a daring experiment which has been highly successful in terms of box office with very affordable ticket prices, if not always with its choice of production. As already mentioned, the run is sold out, but returns and day tickets are available and I would make the effort to see it as it is a most accomplished addition to the West End.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Jerusalem

My heart sank when I saw the running time for this play: another play at the Royal Court over 3 hours long. After Grasses of a Thousand Colours sucked the life out of my companion (he left after two hours) and numbed my bum unforgivably, I even thought about shifting these tickets to someone else. But upon reflection, I remembered that the playwright, Jez Butterworth, was also responsible for the excellent Parlour Song which I enjoyed hugely at the Almeida earlier this year, and so off I trotted to Sloane Square.

Jerusalem is a new play, a dark comedy, which purports to be a critical look at what it means to be English in these times and specifically explores this issue of identity in rural England. Set on St George's Day, the central character is a man called George Byron who lives in a caravan, and who has built up a little community of sorts around him, living a life of general hedonism and with little care for traditional ideas of society. However, Byron's easy life looks to be coming to a halt as the walls start closing in on him: his children, eviction notices and angry fathers are just some of the things he has to face up to.
The banter between the cast is excellently scripted and excellently acted. It is funny, extremely so in places, and the shared comic timing amongst the ensemble was spot on, apart from a few fumbled lines by Mackenzie Crook, but they'll have been ironed out by the end of the previews. And this, combined with the incredibly authentic looking set, creates a great sense of atmosphere and camaraderie within the group. The humour makes the time fly by, and so there was no clock-watching, at least not for the first two hours.

However, once the more dramatic elements of the story kick in, my mind did start to wander, and I became rather keen for the final curtain to drop. The main problem for me was the unlikeability of the central character of Byron. Mark Rylance is very good and utterly convincing as the Pied Piper-of-sorts, but he is such an irresponsible waster, that I wasn't sure whether one was meant to sympathise with him or not. Since I did not, then I had no real interest in his plight and so I left the play somewhat dissatisfied.



The play raises some interesting questions about the nature of national identity and what it means to be English, but to be fully engaged with the material, one has to connect more with the central character underpinning the whole show, and so for me, it was ultimately a little disappointing, despite the rich vein of humour running through it. And although I didn't really notice the length of the play for the most part, I consider 3 hours and 20 minutes is still too long when the majority of that time is spent on comedic banter, which whilst entertaining was ultimately non-essential.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Waiting for Godot

Featuring two very acclaimed actors in the lead roles, Waiting for Godot has been somewhat of a surprise success in the West End this year, extending its run right through the summer. This is clearly partly down to the calibre of the leads, Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are two major dramatic heavyweights, but it has also been a bit of a triumph for a straight drama production in these troubled economic times.

Apparently voted the most significant English language play of the twentieth century, Waiting for Godot is a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon who are, unsurprisingly, waiting for someone called for Godot. We never get to meet Godot, or find out who he is, and so the titular 'waiting' forms the backbone of the play as we watch these two men pass the time in a multitude of ways, whilst debating the meaning of life and existence. Twice, they are visited by a man called Pozzo and his slave Lucky.

Out of the two leads, Ian McKellen gave the stronger performance for me as Estragon: he inhabited his role with greater ease and seemed more at home with the physical comedy side of things. Patrick Stewart was good too as Vladimir, but seemed to hold himself a little stiffly at times and lacked some of McKellen's easily shambolic nature. Simon Callow seems to be having a ball of a time as an almost pantomime like Pozzo, and Ronald Pickup as his slave does an amazing job with an incredibly complex stream-of-consciousness soliloquy.

In the end, I think I just want a bit more from a play. I was a little bemused to find numerous different potential interpretations on the Wikipedia page for the play, and I think this kind of summarises the problem that I had with it. The material is just so open to any manner of interpretation that unless one goes with some preconceived idea of what it is about, the play will just leaves you scratching your head, and wondering what it was all about. I have a similar problem with much of modern art, I know what I like, and quite frankly this just isn't it!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Top five plays of June

Here are my top 5 plays for the month of June (not counting second views of things):

1. Arcadia
2. Sister Act
3. Phedre
4. The Cherry Orchard
5. Carrie's War

and the top 10 (+5) plays of the year so far, seeing (La Cage again made me reconsider its position):

1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. La Cage Aux Folles
3. The Pieta
4. Arcadia
5. A Doll's House
6. Duet For One
7. Sister Act
8. The Last Five Years
9. Burnt By The Sun
10. Parlour Song

11. All's Well That Ends Well
12. The Observer
13. Dancing At Lughnasa
14. Phedre
15. Time and the Conways

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Carrie's War

From the Nina Bawden book of the same name, Carrie's War is the latest play to open at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Telling the story of a sister and brother who are evacuated to Wales during the Second World War, they get swept up in a Gothic world of ghosts, curses, and skulls and when the intrigues of the family with whom they are billeted spill into their lives, decisions are made which haunt Carrie well into adulthood.
It is quite a gentle production, but I do not mean that in a patronising way. It really reminded me of the kind of dramas one used to get on a Sunday afternoon on the BBC, like Tom's Midnight Garden, Moondial and The Railway Children. This is enhanced by the fact that the 15 characters are played by just 9 actors, so there is a little exaggeration of characterisation, especially with the local yokel types, but not to any negative effect.

Sarah Edmondson is excellent, very convincing as both the older and the younger Carrie, and she has great chemistry with John Heffernan as Albert Sandwich, her fellow evacuee in the village. Prunella Scales is good as a ghostly Miss Haversham-like aunt, and Kacey Ainsworth exudes real warmth (and a great Welsh accent) as the kindly Aunty Lou who takes in Carrie and her brother.
The set is quite compact, but both of the houses look very effective, and the space inbetween becomes very evocative of a battlefield at times, which never lets us forget this is a wartime piece. But my favourite innovation is the constant use of Welsh hymns and songs, performed live by the cast, which provide a fantastic sense of atmosphere.


Carrie's War is quite a curious piece: I was totally enchanted by it and really enjoyed the nostalgia it evoked, both of the time and my own childhood. And the message it carries (no pun intended) is really quite a good one, about how we are all human and make mistakes, and it is never to late to atone for them. For people, in particular children, who are new to the material, I wonder if it might not prove a little too old-fashioned for them, although it would surely be a shame if they were to choose going to see the new Transformers film over this.