Sunday, 29 November 2009

Review: Handel's Messiah

"And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed"

Is opera still opera when it is being sung by people in jeans? Having just seen ENO's dramatic production of Messiah, I'm not sure. The full oratorio, not just the first section as is often the case for Christmas renditions, been staged here by Deborah Warner, with the ENO Chorus and Orchestra and also a complement of supernumaries from the population of Westminster. The libretto, from the King James Bible, follows the life and death of Jesus but Warner has superimposed a visual narrative following a modern-day community, challenging our well-established familiarity with Handel's score.

The staging just did not work for me: the action has been located in modern-day London with a backdrop of city life racing by and as we begin, we see a community going about its daily activities. Quite what this has to do the birth of Jesus was not i
mmediately clear, and did not become any clearer as we progressed through the first movement, especially whilst there was a woman who I assumed to be Mary giving birth here, but also an older boy who I thought was Jesus running around making everyone smile at the same time. Additionally, the use of everyday modern dress gave the strong impression of the rehearsal room rather than a show. And finally, if we were to believe that this was a modern-day community onstage, I have no earthly idea where the random modern dance sequences then fitted in, they were just a distraction too far.

It does looks good, the opening suspended golden sunflowers being a particularly arresting image, and the everchanging projections of classic paintings depicting the life of Jesus provided nice visual cues. The orchestra were brightly conducted by Laurence Cummings and what I heard of the soloists was largely good, Sophie Bevan delivered the soprano arias well and Brindley Sherratt and Catherine Wyn-Jones were both in great form. But unfortunately, this Messiah just wasn't engaging enough to keep me there until the end, or indeed past the first intermission: sometimes, the classics should just not be tinkered with.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Review: Sweet Charity

"You know, for a broad, you're real classy"

Continuing their run of reviving classic musicals for Christmas, the Menier Chocolate Factory have turned their attentions to Sweet Charity this year. Stuffed full of instantly recognisable songs like Big Spender and Rhythm of Life by Cy Coleman and Bob Fosse's inimitable choreography, the story of Charity, a girl trying to escape her life as a dancehall hostess and find a decent man is one of the classic movie musicals and so my expectations were high. And I am pleased to say they were largely met.

Tamzin Outhwaite is a revelation here, (to me at least) never having watched anything with her acting I'd had my doubts, but she really is very good here. A brilliant comedic actress, her scenes trapped in the closet and at the diner were laugh-out-loud funny, but she was also effective at conveying the joie de vivre that gets Charity through the trials of life without being at all cheesy. Her singing was consistently good some great dancing skills,

In a curious decision, there's some doubling up of the major supporting cast which isn't always successful. I quite liked the choice to have Mark Umber playing all 3 of Charity's men friends: their appearances were consecutive so he was only ever playing one at any one time and they were characterised differently enough so there was no confusion. Less successful was the decision to have Josefina Gabrielle play both Charity's friend Nicky and the filmstar Ursula. There was a point when she literally ran from one scene on one side of the stage into the next scene on the other side. Had this been a tiny fringe company then this might have been understandable, but there's about five other women, any of whom could have taken one of the roles.

Still, Gabrielle was great value for money, looking and sounding gorgeous and none more so when she was make-up free for 'Baby Dream your Dream' with Tiffany Graves who also gave good solid support. And importantly for any big musical, the ensemble numbers were all top-notch. The company (at least five of them imported from Hello, Dolly!) sounded amazing and were tightly drilled with some fierce dancing going on, Ebony Molina's frugging was an eye-popping standout and I particularly liked the fact that there was a real mixture of body types throughout: for one it gave more authenticity to the brothel scenes and also kept a grittiness to proceedings, anchoring it in some semblance of reality rather than the flightiness of a Broadway dream.

And that is what is most successful about this production for me, it never loses that bittersweet touch that elevates this musical into one of the true classics for me. It never shies away from the truth of what Charity does for a living, but remains both funny and sad whilst telling us, and above all it is an abundantly tuneful work. The Menier definitely have another winner on their hands here and I'd be extremely surprised if this doesn't transfer into the West End, following La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music, as it really does deserve it, and the bigger audience a transfer will undoubtedly bring.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Review: La Clique at the Roundhouse



Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews
If Avenue Q is best described as an 18 certificate version of Sesame Street, then La Clique is just like the circus, albeit reconceived for an adult audience. After a highly successful 9 month run at the Hippodrome near Leicester Square, including winning the Best Entertainment Olivier Award, and then a world tour, La Clique has returned to London for an 8 week season at the Roundhouse in Camden: not bad for a show which has its beginnings at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Described as a "heady cocktail of cabaret, new burlesque, circus sideshow and contemporary variety", what makes La Clique unique is that no two shows are the same. They have a rotating roster of entertainers and performers with a variety of tricks and stunts which ensures each evening has its own special spin. It is set up like a circus in the round, with various options for seating in different rings: chairs at ringside, cabaret tables with waitress service, standing, and of course, regular seats, which means you can pick what kind of evening you would like to have, a nice touch.

And so to the show: it is a rapid-fire collection of turns ranging from acrobatics, illusions, songs and insane roller-skating antics. Highlights for me were Carl-Einar Häckner’s hysterical Swedish illusionist who had me in tears of laughter each time he came on, Ursula Martinez’s highly revealing striptease with disappearing handkerchief and the incredible roller-skating acrobatics of the Skating Willers which quite literally needs to be seen to be believed. Incidentally, having never seen any kind of nudity on stage until the weekend, 2 of the last 3 shows I've seen have now stolen my innocence from me!

The changes between the acts were seamless, big credit to the backstage crew for executing these with lightning speed and efficiency, and this helped to maintain the party atmosphere which permeated the entire venue from the moment the lights went down.

On a final note, if you have ringside seats, make sure you wear something washable! I was splattered with beer, bits of banana and even some blood, all in the name of entertainment, and even helped one performer, Mario Queen of the Show, to crowdsurf over our heads! It all added to what was a hugely enjoyable experience, and one which feels genuinely fresh and unique, but above all, good fun.



Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Review: La Cage aux Folles #3

"Judas...Traitor...Het-er-o-sexual!"

When it was first announced that John Barrowman would be taking one of the lead roles in
La Cage au Folles, many, including myself, instantly called this a crazy decision. Having seen this show twice already with different casts, and it remaining one of my favourite things I have seen on the stage this year, I had my doubts about this particular casting decision but when a family delegation (including 3 major Barrowman fangirls) expressed their interest in coming down to see the show, tickets were booked.

The obvious criticism is that John Barrowman is too young and good-looking to play Albin, especially given the actors who have played the role here previously, but by casting an equally younger-looking and handsome Simon Burke as his lover, this production has been cleverly reconceived. Instead of being a meditation on a drag queen at the end of his career, the focus here is more on Albin's insecurities about his relationship with Georges, the comment about not being able to play Salome any longer becomes more of a bitchy aside than a sad statement of truth. There has been a considerable injection of raunchiness into
this production, with some very suggestive croissant eating that was dangerously close to the bone (fnarr fnarr) for a family show. However this more overt sexuality played very convincingly with the younger coupling and led to some hilarious scenes.

Barrowman was actually much better than I thought he would be, fitting easily and comfortably into Zaza's heels and working the audience like a dream. The only downside for me was his rendition of 'I am what I am': beautifully and emotionally sun
g in the first verse, the man described as an "Entertainer with a capital E" in the programme then slipped into Singing a Showtune with a capital S and lost much of the emotional impact that the song should have, reclaiming it only with the final dramatic flounce out of the theatre past his distraught lover.

For me, Simon Burke was the real revelation here though. Only ever having seen him as a serious act
or in straight roles, his Georges was probably the best one I have seen yet. His singing was superb, his MCing was genuinely funny and he works really hard at creating the meaningful relationships with his lover and son that form the heart of the show. His chemistry with Barrowman is a delight to see, they obviously revel in each other's company and their final scenes together were beautifully touching. Tracie Bennett remains great fun as the bawdy Jacqueline, and the Cagelles still wow with their eye-popping routines.

Perhaps surprisingly for some, this production has really has breathed new life into the franchise and it is the perfect vehicle for Barrowman's talents and current public persona. It remains a cracking trip to the theatre, with as fun an atmosphere as you can currently find in the West End: there was even some heavy-duty corpsing thrown in for good measure which just added to the fun inside the Playhouse. Douglas Hodge and Philip Quast reprise their roles from 30th November, but when this closes on 2 January, the West End will become a duller place for sure.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Review: The Line

"I understand painting, literature, music and France. What else is there to understand?
'There's love'."

Written by the delightfully monikered Timberlake Wertenbaker (more proof that my name is indeed too dull to be a playwright!),
The Line claims to tell one of the "great untold stories of modern art". Edgar Degas' (Henry Goodman) life is disrupted by the arrival of a young, self-assured woman, Suzanne Valadon (Sarah Smart) who is possessed of much artistic talent, but wants tutoring. Their relationship develops from master and pupil to something more despite their differing views on the future of art and their paths diverging over the next 20 years: the pair are watched over all-the-while by Degas' housekeeper, Zoé Clozier.

The ever-flexible space at the Arcola has been converted into an artist's studio, with canvasses strewn all around the walls which gives a great sense of atmosphere and there's furniture placed in the centre of the stage, representing the drawing room in which much of the action takes place. It is staged in the round (or more accurately the square) which is largely effective, but does prove slightly problematic towards the end as Valadon shows some of her work to Degas and so it is only displayed to one half of the audience.

As the ageing Degas, Henry Goodman gives a cracking performance full of irascibility and a real sense of great devotion to the pursuit of his art, at the expense of all other human comforts. His physical changes as the years pass are utterly convincing, culminating in an amazing scene as he traverses the streets of Paris. Sarah Smart brought a delightful sparkiness to her developing artist who struggles in negotiating the fine line between pursuing her own art in the way she wants to, whilst trying to remain faithful to the memory of the traditions that her mentor holds so dear. She's also having to balance this with her dogged survival in society as a mother and woman of low birth.


The most surprising performance for me though was Selina Cadell's Zoé: as Degas' housekeeper, she was a tower of quiet strength, often spending entire scenes watching in silence, but acting just as much anyone else onstage. There's an air of resignation about her as she's fully aware that she will not go down in history despite being Degas' rock and working just as hard as he does, she's an artist in her own right too.

Presented in 15 short scenes, this play could feel very disjointed but it felt seamless due to the swift scene changes and the strong acting: the only bum note was the poorly projected dates indicating the passage of the years which felt clunky, but hopefully this will have been tightened up before opening night. The Line offers a fantastic opportunity to see some truly first class acting up close and personal, and with some great deals on tickets floating around, this is one you shouldn't miss.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Review: The Roman Tragedies

"Who amongst us here would not want to be a Roman?"

At first glance, this might not seem the easiest way to spend an evening: three Shakespeare plays back-to-back, lasting six hours and performed entirely in Dutch. However The Roman Tragedies is probably one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences of the year. Presented here at the Barbican by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the foremost Dutch theatre company, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are performed consecutively, as per their timelines which gives a pleasing flow to the evening: there's a real sense of a grand narrative to the whole evening, of the developing nature of politics and democracy and how it is communicated to the masses.


It opens on a large stage with the cast spread over a number of sofas and ministages, and the play is delivered in a normal fashion with surtitles provided on a large screen above. Then as the first break approached, some consuls appeared in the middle of the audience to deliver their scene, giving you the first indication that this would be no ordinary production. During that first break (rather than normal intervals, the action is interspersed with short breaks), the audience were invited to come onto stage and watch from the sofas: there was also a bar where you could buy a drink and computers to check your email, you could really immerse yourself in the action and become part of the play, a citizen of Rome if you will, whilst the political debates of war and democracy rage around you. I particularly loved the scrolling news flashes which reminded us of the length of time until the deaths of each of the key characters, it was so witty I didn't even mind that it was 295 minutes until Cleopatra's death!

There is much use of multimedia so many scenes are recorded and played live on a selection of small screens and a big screen upfront, giving you the choice of watching the big picture, or the video close-up and there were often times when you wanted to watch it all. The beauty of this interpretation, in stripping back these plays to the political struggles and excising all the battle scenes, meant that whilst you were witnessing high politics play out, you were also able to watch the impact it had on the other characters: the pain on Coriolanus's wife's face as he is exiled, the unease of the Senate as Mark Antony eulogises the fallen Caesar, Cleopatra's ladies-in-waitings' anguish at their distraught queen.

Acting wise, there's so many excellent performances it is hard to pick out some: the lead performances were all strong and these players were generally rested in the other sections, but the supporting players had much to do in each of the plays so they were working extremely hard: Marieke Heebink in particular was rarely off-stage and gave great pathos as Casca and then comedy as Charmian. Elsewhere, Frieda Pittoors' indomitable Volumnia and Renée Fokker's icily manipulative Cassius were great treats. But the true standouts for me were Hans Kesting as Antony and Chris Nietvelt as a simply astonishing Cleopatra. Kesting was recently injured but gamely performed with a plaster cast on and in a wheelchair but this rarely interfered in a stirring performance through his two plays, mixing a touching nobility with a raunchy virility which gave his relationships a real authenticity: none more so than with Nietvelt's Cleopatra. This was an impassioned performance which often transcended language, there were times when I just watched her instead of the surtitles and I knew exactly what she was saying.

There's only one night left of this, but by jove I recommend it (despite the live snake on stage, eek): a theatrical experience like no other that will remain with me for quite some time.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Review: Public Property

"Young boys should be enjoying Nintendos, not old newreaders' c*cks"
Tucked away in the basement of the Trafalgar Studios, Public Property is a new play, a "dark comedy", written by Sam Peter Jackson. With a very attractive cast of Nigel Harman, Stephen Webb and Robert Daws, it is a sharply observed look at the world of celebrity scandal and spin doctors, and poses the eternal question: is all publicity, good publicity.

As a married but closeted, high profile newsreader with a new autobiography to sell, Geoffrey Hammond finds himself embroiled in a sex scandal when photographers catch him engaged in salacious activities with a 16 year old rent boy in his car. He turns to his publicist Larry to try and spin him out of what seems to be an impossible situation, but all is not what it necessarily seems as the long night goes on, revealing layers of deceit, the machinations of media spin and debates about the scandal-hungry press.

As the PR man Larry, Nigel Harman is excellent: wannabe Machiavellian in temperament and sharply dressed with a rapier wit, he spits out comic lines with verve and his interaction with his beleaguered client is a delicious exposition of a shifting power struggle in which there are no real winners. He also demonstrates a gift for physical comedy with some impressive leg muscles, I'll say no more! As the homosexual newsreader, Daws is also good, petulantly defiant about public opinion on his private life, though craving their money through his poorly-received book and their adoration as a minor celeb. Although I did take issue with the underworked relationship with his male lover who was only made reference to intermittently despite allegedly being the love of his life, especially as this didn't seem to fit with his emotional interactions with the rent boy Jamie. And given his desperation for his book to sell, I struggled to believe that he wouldn't have had more inclination to use the situation as best to his advantage, his was a dubious moral centre to the play.

It is excellently written, with rapid-fire witticisms being thrown out almost non-stop for the vast majority of the play, and the ever-shifting relationships between the three men are well drawn, remaining convincing whilst still making us laugh. The only issue I had was with the way in which the plot contrived to create a bit of a happy ending which didn't feel in keeping with the play in general.

Steven Webb has had a major haircut inbetween the publicity shots for this show and its opening, but it is an effective one as it makes him look all the more effective as a teenage scally, even if I did have to blink twice to see whether it was still him. His Jamie is vulnerably played, capturing the desperation for someone to hold in his search for a father figure, and being all too easily exploited. Rather amusingly, I was told this anecdote in the break, he was apparently one of the children onstage with Michael Jackson when Jarvis Cocker rushed the stage and was actually knocked off by Cocker and suffered a broken rib!


There is an unexpected amusing cameo scene as the television is switched on to show the unfolding crisis on a breakfast news programme with a couple of rather recognisable faces as the presenter and 'talking head': I won't spoil the names, even though many other reviews have, as it is all rather fun. Which is how I felt about the play in general, it is lots of dark comedic fun, very well acted and stuffed full of killer lines: it is a bit of a shame that the plot couldn't have been fully executed in the manner in which it started.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Review: Marilyn and Ella


Originally reviewed for thepublicreviews.co.uk


"In 1955, there's one rule for white folks, and one rule for black folks."

After a run last year at the Theatre Royal Stratford, Marilyn & Ella arrives in the West End, playing for five shows over three consecutive Sundays at the Apollo Theatre. Written by Bonnie Greer, recently seen giving Nick Griffin short shrift on BBC 1’s Question Time, this is essentially a two-hander which explores the friendship and connections between Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald. This revival is also quite timely as this month marks the 75th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s debut in a theatre in Harlem which lead to a long, illustrious career.

In 1955, Marilyn Monroe was responsible for convincing the owners of a major Hollywood nightclub, the Mocambo, to book Ella Fitzgerald for a five night run at a time when racial segregation was still the norm. A friendship was thus born and parallels are drawn, if not always successfully, between each woman’s struggles: Monroe’s efforts to reinvent herself as a serious actor and Ella’s daily battles against racism. The play is mostly delivered in monologues by each character, with only a few scenes in the second half played together, perhaps betraying this play’s roots in radio. The action is interspersed with songs from the Great American Songbook, which sometimes served to illustrate the action but also sometimes seemed randomly selected in order to shoehorn in a well-known song (see ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’).

The staging is minimal with just two chairs, and a large mounted picture frame on the rear wall, which changes once to indicate the location and then finally to reveal a real photograph of the two legends. However, Warren Wills’ jazz quartet are also placed onstage which adds a vital energy to the show, under Wills’ superb musical direction. There’s some great arrangements of the classic songs which add freshness to some well-worn old favourites, but the band also provide some beautiful incidental music throughout, and the most incredibly authentic sounding phone ringing, as played on the piano, which has to be heard to be believed.

Hope Augustus’ Ella Fitzgerald is the main star of the show: she has the lion’s share of the performances, a beautiful rendition of ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’, and the famous improv around ‘Mack The Knife’ were the highlights of the whole evening, and Augustus wisely steered clear of straight impersonations, instead allowing for her own interpretations to be sufficiently inspired by Fitzgerald. She does however also appear onstage intermittently throughout the show as herself, commenting on Ella’s situation, a device which as well as being completely unnecessary, was very clumsily directed by Colin McFarlane as it was never immediately apparent when these sections started or ended.

Suzie Kennedy’s Marilyn Monroe felt underpowered by comparison, her musical numbers were competent, but lacked the oomph to match her fellow performer. And whilst her portrayal of Monroe is uncanny, or maybe even because of this, she struggled to give Marilyn any real dramatic impact onstage, especially when espousing on civil rights issues. In their main scene together though, their first ever meeting, they spark off each other showing the two all-too-human figures behind the showbiz legends to great effect, and it is a shame that in a play about their friendship, this is one of the few times their characters actually interact.

An unexpected addition was Stephen Triffitt as Frank Sinatra. Originally slated to provide pre-show entertainment, he took the stage to give us a number that introduced the show, reappeared in the show introducing Ella’s first show after singing a song himself, and then reappeared once more for a rendition of ‘New York, New York’ at the finale which was little short of cringeworthy, especially as he hogged all the vocals. In a show which is called Marilyn & Ella, Sinatra’s presence on stage ended up feeling very intrusive.

The publicity for this play clearly identifies it as a “play with songs” and the inherent snobbery contained therein identifies the main problem with this play. As a straight drama, it simply isn’t strong or substantial enough, and Greer’s unwillingness to fashion a proper musical out of this material, despite utilising some of the best known songs of the era, left this viewer disappointed on both fronts.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Review: Blood Brothers

"Tell me it's not true, Say I only dreamed it, And morning will come soon"

Full disclosure: I love this musical lots. Lots and lots. It's one of the earliest musicals I remember seeing and I had a copy of the soundtrack taped onto an orange cassette which accompanied many a family car journey. That said, I hadn't actually seen
Blood Brothers for quite a few years since even just thinking about 'Tell Me It's Not True' brings a tear to my eye, so when the slightly surprising announcement that Melanie Chisholm, formerly of the Spice Girls was taking up the lead role, I decided it was time to revisit this stalwart of the West End.

Written by Willy Russell, this musical pits nature versus nurture in the story of two two non-identical twin brothers, Mickey and Eddie, who are separated at birth due to the financial difficulties of their mother and end up following completely different lives. Adopted by the mother's well-off employer Mrs Lyons, Eddie becomes an Oxbridge-educated success whilst Mickey languishes on the breadline, struggling to maintain employment and to stay out of jail, yet their unexpected friendship manages to survive. However, when they both fall in love with the same girl, it proves to be a strain too far.

First things first, how does Sporty Spice fare? Having signed up for a six month contract as the matriarch Mrs Johnstone, she is clearly taking this seriously and it seems a natural fit, she's the first native scouser to take up the role! And vocally she is superb: she always was the strongest singer of the Spice Girls and her singing performance here reflects that. She uses a pop voice, which brings a lovely clarity to her songs and a refreshing lack of showiness which works really well in her flirtatious opening numbers and importantly in the final showstopper. Her acting was fine, though clearly not her strength, but this is an accomplished debut.

Despite the star billing though, for me the heart of this musical is Mickey and Eddie's relationship, depicted beautifully here by Stephen Palfreman and Richard Reynard. Normally, the thought of adults pretending to be kids on stage gives me the chills, but here it is done with such genuine warmth and humour, it really is quite affecting. One really feels the spark of friendship between the two despite their disparate upbringings and it is done with restraint and never becomes silly. There is also good support from Vivienne Carlyle as Mrs Lyons, helpless to stop the truth from affecting her relationship with her adoptive son, and from Louise Clayton as Linda, caught between the two brothers.

If I'm being picky, then the only real complaint I have is that every other character is aged effectively throughout the show, Chisholm's Mrs Johnstone seems to simply put on a coat and so it didn't feel like they had made sufficient effort to show the passing of time on her character. Whilst it is clearly easier to show the transitions from childhood to late teens, even Mrs Lyons goes through a transformation, which made it even more obvious.

I have to say I was somewhat bemused by the warning notices dotted around the theatre warning of two gunshots in the second act, I know the show starts by foreshadowing the final scene but there's nothing like giving the ending away is there?! Anyhoo, I would heartily recommend this musical, there is a reason it has lasted for over 20 years, but make sure you take plenty of tissues with you.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Review: The Habit of Art

"I want to hear about the failings of great men"

The Habit of Art is Alan Bennett's first new play since the juggernaut that was The History Boys and is his fifth for the National Theatre in total. Having sold out its first run in a matter of weeks, this world premiere has been eagerly anticipated, despite the late withdrawal of one of its main stars, Michael Gambon, due to minor ill health.

The premise of this play is around an imagined meeting between old friends Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) and W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths taking over from Gambon) as Britten is seeking advice and reassurance about his new opera, Death in Venice. However, this is not all Bennett wants to talk about, so he uses the framing device of us being backstage at a theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about this meeting, as witnessed by Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), a man who was later to write biographies about both of them. Thus the stage is set for an examination of the creative process of collaboration, whether between these two legendary figures or between the acting company representing them.

This set up allows Bennett to insert much of his trademark humour, especially with Frances De La Tour's long-suffering stage manager (the look on her face as she begins "I am a mirror..." is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time), as we witness the company at work, dissecting the play whilst rehearsing it, debating the writing with the author, questioning the actions of the characters, and generally hamming it up. There was a moment of magic for me about two thirds of the way through the first half, when all of this fannying about is dropped, and we witness the reunion of Britten and Auden, and the scene is just played straight: Griffiths and Jennings captivated me entirely in this scene and I felt the whole play coming together, and when they broke for their interval (and indeed our interval), I desperately wanted them to continue. Unfortunately, the play never recaptured this intensity of feeling for me, as the scenes in the second half were regularly interrupted with the actors slipping in and out of character and joking, which was a shame as I felt it kept the audience at arms length from what I had thought would be the key emotional relationship of the piece.

Instead of looking at the collaboration around art, Bennett is much more preoccupied with analysing Auden's and Britten's homosexuality and the effect this had on their work. The result is something which ends up feeling quite fitting into Bennett's oeuvre, but yet ultimately not wholly engaging as nothing new is uncovered and what we do know is simply reiterated, for example Britten's predilections for younger boys is touched on but not examined. Alex Jennings in particular deserves praise for his excellent portrayal of Britten and Henry the actor playing him, and whilst Richard Griffiths was by no means bad, but I did rather feel I had seen much of this performance elsewhere, there wasn't much new brought to the table though he wasn't helped by playing such an irascible character. The wider discussion around the nature of reputations and theatre suffered the same fate since we had no emotional engagement, the final speech in particular being insufferably self-referential.


Adrian Scarborough is criminally underused here: what he does have he uses very well, but there is no depth to his character which given Carpenter's actual exploits seems a little harsh. I was pleased to see John Heffernan onstage again, after loving him in Carrie's War, and his scenes with Frances De La Tour as the talking props and words and music were excellently executed. And I also enjoyed the sharply suited Elliott Levey as the play's author, even if it does feel like he pops up in a large proportion of the National Theatre's productions!

One mildly annoying factor for me was the audience's eagerness to laugh loudly at every single hint of a funny line. For sure, the writing in the first half was largely amusing, but it was mainly chucklesome, yet people were practically rolling in the aisles: one gets the feeling you could have just said "Alan Bennett" and they'd've been laughing their heads off...
In the final analysis, this is a good play which is acted well, but it is a very cerebral play and looking back on it, I don't know how much I felt I actually learned from it. I did enjoy The Habit of Art, but perhaps I should have managed my expectations better.

The Habit of Art premieres on 17th November, tickets up to January have sold out but February and March dates go on sale to the general public from 2 December.


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Review: Life is a Dream

"Is the craft of our mind's eye so skilful in its artistry, the fake becomes the thing itself?"

Written in 1635 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La Vida Es Sueño is considered one of the most significant plays in Spanish literature and enjoys a stature similar to Hamlet. It is presented here at the Donmar Warehouse in a new translation and version by Helen Edmundson and entitled
Life is a Dream. Despite being nearly 500 years old, its central issues of the nature of reality and the possibilities of freedom in a cruel world have a remarkably current feel.



Set in Poland, the play focuses on Segismundo, played here by Dominic West, the young heir to the throne who has spent his life imprisoned in a tower because omens foretold that he would one day overthrow his father, the king. Given the chance to prove fate wrong and released into court, the prince lives up to his savage reputation and so is swiftly returned to jail where he is persuaded that all he thought he saw was a dream, hence the title. When he is then released a second time, events take a different turn as Segismundo has matured and learned about the consequences of his actions, especially as a future king, but also he realises that if indeed life is a dream, then it should be lived to the full.

West is excellent here as Segismundo, equally convincing as the unsocialised animal unequipped to deal with freedom, crouching in his throne but also as the courtly heir to the throne his father so desperately wants him to be, with all the statesman-like froideur necessary in a king. Also superb was David Horovitch as the courtier who provides the link between the main plot and the sub-plot who dealt with his countless speeches of exposition with aplomb.

This version mainly uses blank verse with numerous long speeches (mainly in the first half) which threatened to slow down the action intolerably, but once the scene has been well and truly set, the pacing remained admirably swift. Helping this was a surprising amount of humour throughout the play, and not just from the designated clown, Clarin: Kate Fleetwood imbued her indignant Rosaura with a great humanity which frequently brought laugh-out-loud moments from a sub-plot that sometimes seemed a little unnecessary, hers was a cracking performance though. As the aforementioned clown Clarin, Lloyd Hutchinson brings a great sen
se of levity to proceedings, with a very modern feeling comic turn, and I also enjoyed Rupert Evans' preening Astolfo. The only disappointment for me was with Malcolm Storry's King Basilio, a performance which I found to be underpowered and not quite regal enough.

Angela Davies's design is starkly simple, with a highly effective back wall coated in gold leaf which shines to reflect the prevailing mood: sometimes a bright gold; sometimes an ominous deep red. The lighting by Neil Austin and Dominic Haslam's eerie score also combine to create the requisite atmosphere of isolation needed for the prison scenes and indeed Segismundo's dominant feelings.


This is a production which lives up to the Donmar's usual high standard, and even when the play seems to be heading for a saccharine sweet happy ending, the final couple of twists leaves a sufficient ambiguity to make it bittersweet at best. And the final chilling image of a slumped chained prisoner is one which echoes earlier imprisonments, perhaps indicating that one man's dream can be another man's nightmare.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Review: Little Fish

"I had never known what I was really like until I stopped smoking, by which time there was hell to pay"

I was looking forward to this, if only because it was my first trip to the
Finborough Theatre: tucked away in Earl's Court, this tiny fringe theatre has a sterling reputation and always has a hgihly varied programme, so off I went along the District Line to see what all the fuss was about. The play in question was Little Fish, advertised as the European premiere of a new musical by Michael John LaChiusa (a great name for a playwright, obviously I need to change mine so that I too can write musicals, Foster just ain't exciting enough!)

The story is based on 2 short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, and revolves around a single New York gal, Charlotte, whose decision to give up smoking leads her down a path of startling self-realisation, as she comes to terms with her troubled past to try and deal with her current unhappiness and finally learn how to enjoy life in the city. It is presented in an episodic form, with key scenes from Charlotte's past being interspersed throughout the modern day storyline of her trying to find activities to help keep her off the tobacco. I loved this portrayal of urban life as it felt so much more authentic than any number of television shows would have us believe, and the difficulties in maintaining friendships in the face particularly rang true.

If I am being picky, I think there could have been more differentiation between the flashback scenes and the modern-day action. As admirable as the pacing was throughout the swift 90 minutes, it sometimes took me a little too long to work out exactly when we were, though this is only a minor quibble. The larger question that I had concerned whether the 'little fish' concept really worked or not, i.e. Charlotte being a little fish in the big pond of NY and learning not to 'swim alone'. During the swimming scenes it worked ok, but almost every other time it was mentioned, the references felt forcibly shoe-horned in and didn't fit smoothly with the rest of the scenes. For me, this theme was overplayed and in the end, was not even necessary as the story stood up for itself even without this motif overlayed on the narrative.

LaChiusa clearly has a talent for writing multi-part songs and the opening number was absolutely superb, with some great choreography thrown in there, despite the tiny stage. Personally I would have preferred a few more of these bigger numbers, but Julia Worsley's central performance as Charlotte is excellent, being unafraid to be spiky and believably unlikeable in her Sondheim-like solo numbers, and slowly beginning to thaw out during the process of self-discovery and the warmer songs of the final third. Elsewhere, as the best friend Kathy, Laura Pitt-Pulford was provided great support, as did the under-utilised Lee William-Davis as the gay friend, but the hardest working seemed to be Ashley Campbell who played a number of minor roles in very quick succession.

I certainly enjoyed my first trip to the Finborough, there's a great pub downstairs with some extremely friendly bar staff. Little Fish itself was an intriguing experience: by no means perfect, but diverting and entertaining enough, to earn a recommendation. And quite frankly, any play that features onstage eating of pierogi and the dance move 'the running man' is a keeper!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Top five plays of October

Here's my top 5 plays for the month of October

1. The Spanish Tragedy
2. Inherit the Wind
3. Judgment Day
4. Power of Yes
5. An Inspector Calls


And the top 20 of the year so far

1. Our Class
2. When The Rain Stops Falling
3. Hello, Dolly!
4. La Cage Aux Folles
5. A Streetcar Named Desire
6. Arcadia
7. A Doll's House
8. Enron
9. The Pietà
10. Duet For One
11. Hamlet
12. Sister Act
13. The Last Five Years
14. Burnt By The Sun
15. Parlour Song
16. All's Well That Ends Well
17. The Cherry Orchard
18. The Spanish Tragedy
19. Inherit The Wind
20. Speaking in Tongues