Saturday, 29 September 2012

Review: Mademoiselle Julie, Barbican

“A qui la faute”

Lyn Gardner recently wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian theatre blog about her desire to see more British directors taking a radical approach to classic plays. She used as her prime example for them to take inspiration from as Benedict Andrews’ modern take on Three Sisters at the Young Vic which has been by and large rapturously received, whilst I found it a highly problematic interpretation. And ever the contrarian, I was surprised to find that the critical reception for Mademoiselle Julie – whose run at the Barbican has just finished – was decidedly lukewarm, given that I thought it was excellent. Between directorial innovations, re-readings of the texts and the behaviours of our own critics, it strikes me that there’s something odd about such a dichotomy.

I ought to begin by confessing my complete love for Juliette Binoche. Way back last year when this was first announced (along with Cate Blanchett, that was a good day!), I didn’t hesitate to fork out considerably more money that I am used to in order to get some great stalls seats and it was well worth it, for me at least, and not just because of the thrill of seeing Binoche acting in her mother tongue. Frédéric Fisbach’s production was first seen at the 2011 Festival d’Avignon and re-stages Strindberg's play in the coolly modernist setting of a swanky penthouse, superbly designed by Laurent P Berger. Terje Sinding has translated the text into French but without updating it, so there are undoubtedly moments where a literal reading of the words creates tension – the nineteenth century references at odds with this contemporary world – the questions of gender hypocrisy, the transience of sexual desire as the basis for relationships and the potentially transformative power of love remain at the heart of the play. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

Not-a-review: Scenes from an Execution, National Theatre

"Art is opinion, and opinion is the source of all authority”

Not too much to say about Scenes from an Execution as we left at the interval and so any opinion has to take that into account, along with the fact this was actually the first full preview (the previous night’s performance being re-cast as a full dress). Howard Barker’s play, originally written for radio, is centred on Galactia, a sixteenth century Venetian artist who is commissioned to create a giant celebration of the triumphant Battle of Lepanto, but whose strong will and artistic impulses set her firmly at odds with the authorities.

Fiona Shaw returns to the National Theatre to take on this part, directed by Tom Cairns, so it is fair to say that expectations were a little high, but I just wasn't prepared for the utter lack of engagement that came from the first half. It opens entertainingly enough: a naked man spread-eagled on a rock, an artist sketching him with a smock barely covering her up, a narrator figure flying around (literally) in a big white box (kudos to Hildegard Bechtler’s design). But after the initial set-up, I found little of interest in the portrayal of this fictional painter’s trials and tribulations.

Cast of Scenes from an Execution continued

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Noël Coward Theatre

"For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion”

Transferring into the Noël Coward theatre, Iqbal Khan sets his RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing in modern-day Delhi, as a fitting counterpart to the African-dictator-led take on Julius Caesar which is now touring the UK after its London run. It’s a lengthy take on the play which does little by way of apparent editing, which is mighty impressive given the strength of the vision here, but it turns out the commonalities with contemporary India make this a great (arranged) marriage which is full of interesting scene readings which make this an intellectual, as well as visceral, pleasure.

I found lots of to love, but particularly what had been done with the Watch scenes, normally something tolerated with gritted teeth. Here, they are a group of social misfits, almost Napoleon Dynamite-inspired and it really really works, mainly because of the straightness of the bat with which the actors play it. We’re always laughing with, and not at them and they’re never played as stupid – in fact, something rather touching emerges from their determination of purpose. Niraj Chag’s music is also something wondrous to behold. Vivid, sensuous, powerful, it richly enhances the whole production and the six musicians who play throughout the show get a well-deserved bow at the end.

Much Ado About Nothing cast contd

Review: Legally Blonde The Musical, New Wimbledon

“You need to see me in a brand new domain" 

Legally Blonde The Musical turned out to be something of a surprise: a show that I grew to really love over my three visits during its West End run (review #1, review #2, review #3), whilst making a bona fide star out of its leading lady Sheridan Smith. I may not have been blown away by it on first viewing, but it worked its way into my heart and its soundtrack is one that I listen to quite often even now. Capitalising on its finish in London, a national tour of the show has taken up shop in the New Wimbledon Theatre, giving Londoners another chance to dip into the world of Elle Woods, if they’re willing to go to zone 3 that is.

Revisiting something that was so enjoyed though can have its pitfalls, as comparisons are invariably drawn. Some of it is about the realities of seeing a touring version of a show – the set will never be as impressive as in a West End house, but the design here really does come up short on a couple of occasions and the sound quality was shocking in parts. Elsewhere, some performances left me disappointed especially as the casting decisions don’t always seem to have hit the mark. It feels a little churlish to criticise Faye Brookes for not being Sheridan Smith, but her Elle doesn’t capture the loveability that is needed to keep the show swinging through its slower parts and to keep the audience invested. Gareth Gates takes on the thankless role of Warner very much against type and I’m not sure I bought him as the heartbreaker. Both sounded excellent though. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

“And all is semblative a woman’s part”

Mark Rylance’s much-trumpeted double-bill return to Shakespeare’s Globe this summer started with Richard III but it is now the turn of the belated second part to make its bow. Tim Carroll’s revival  of Twelfth Night, originally seen in 2002, largely uses the same all-male company and the same Original Practices approach of ‘doing it like it’s 1601’ for a short run – all sold out – before transferring into the West End. With a view to this, official press reviews will come from the Apollo rather than the Globe, so heaven know if this counts as a preview or not. Oh and in the interest of full disclosure and as heretical as it may be, I am not really a fan of Mark Rylance, just so you know. I do try to test my dislikes though, in the spirit of open-mindedness, something made much more palatable here by the £5 groundling tickets.  

The choice of interpretation might strike a casual observer as typical for the Globe, even a little unimaginative, given the wide variety of Shakespearean re-imaginings on offer, but that would be underestimate the incredible level of detailed work that has gone on here at all levels. Liam Brennan imbues Orsino with a much greater deal of personality than is often granted to this lovesick Lord, making him a constant point of interest; Colin Hurley’s Sir Toby Belch reins in the boisterousness to construct a much more interesting character; Feste’s presence possesses an intriguing ambivalence in Peter Hamilton Dyer’s hands; and James Garnon makes one notice Fabian more than I’ve ever done before.

Continuation of Twelfth Night cast

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

CD Review: Julian Ovenden – If You Stay

“We will hear the song no-one's ever heard"

Fans of Julian Ovenden have had rather a good year of it: he’s about to star in the musical version of Finding Neverland in Leicester (I’m there in a couple of weeks), he’s popped up in concerts such as this one, and twice at the Proms (I’ve still got it on my iPlayer so may get round to seeing it soon), oh and he’s released an album called If You Stay. It’s a collection of largely 1960s songs and if one has to categorise it, it’s probably easy listening, but easy listening with a lot more orchestral bombast than might be expected.

Right from the outset as stirring strings announce an arrangement of 'It Hurts To Say Goodbye' that turns it into a Bond theme, complete with powerful vocals that glide effortlessly like smooth toffee. It’s clearly a favoured method as other songs are equally 007ed, 'In A Broken Dream' responding particularly well. Chirpy summeriness abounds on tracks like 'Up, Up and Away' and 'You’ve Made Me So Very Happy', 'I’m Not Coming Home' has a swinging confidence that I love and John Barry’s 'Just To See Each Other Again' is given a lovely treatment here, making much of the album a pleasant listen.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Review: Sunset Baby, Gate

“Life goes by with a bunch of confusion and impossible moments that nobody can explain”

Forming the final part of the Gate Theatre’s RESIST! season, Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby is a fierce ball of familial recriminations, fatherly regret and flawed characters. Kenyatta Shakur, along with his wife Ashanti X, was a figurehead of the Black Revolutionary movement and not even fatherhood could mellow him as he continued the struggle and served time inside for his trouble. His wife died from her drug addictions and all that is left is Nina, his daughter, whose feelings of estrangement burn brighter than ever, even when he begins the process of trying to reconcile with her.

Michelle Asante’s Nina is a bolshy, self-assured presence, adamant in her unshakeable view of the world that she constantly rails against. With her boyfriend Damon, they deal drugs and run robbery scams together, and she does not take kindly to the reappearance of Ben Onwukwe’s Kenyatta in her life, especially once she figures out what she thinks is his ulterior motive. Ashanti left a stash of love letters from her husband to Nina in her will and having had their considerable value assessed, she’s unwilling to let them go without securing the right price.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Review: Thom Pain (based on nothing), Print Room

"Enough about me, let's get to our story"

John Light’s performance in bringing this hour-long Will Eno monologue to life has to be one of the most mesmerising experience currently available to theatregoers. Simon Evans’ revival of Thom Pain (based on nothing) at the Print Room in West London is an unrelenting search for the self which, initially at least, balances the prolonged processing of existential angst with a vein of scabrous, self-lacerating humour to inspirational effect.

Alone on the stage, Pain is a man telling us stories. Amusing anecdotes from a klutzy childhood, the travails of a failed relationship, but the darkness that lies behind his troubled psychology is never far away and as the drama (metaphorically) rolls up its sleeves, it reveals the long-lasting scars these experiences have left. But Eno is less concerned about a pat reveal of early trauma shaping a man’s life, his focus is more on the survival mechanisms, the way in which people deal, and then continue.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar, O2 Arena

“Tell the mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong"

Having gone down the road of television casting once again for one of his shows and quite possibly killing off the genre at the same time, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s much-touted revival of his 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar will hopefully have the same effect on staging theatrical productions in cavernous arenas like London’s O2. Director Laurence Connor’s concept has been to relocate the loose retelling of Jesus’ last week to a modern-day context, pulling out strong allusions to the Occupy movement, riots, Guantánamo Bay and reality television. 

Tim Minchin’s Judas is the undoubted highlight of the show, a stirringly confident rock vocal of fierce conviction that near perfectly captures the essence of what Lloyd-Webber is trying to achieve but elsewhere there is much less strength. Ben Forster’s Jesus mauls Gethsemane almost beyond recognition but fares better elsewhere where his falsetto is more aptly deployed and his angst not so overplayed; Melanie Chisholm’s goth take on Mary Magdalene is anaemically thin and utterly forgettable; Chris Moyles’ highly gimmicky Jerry Springer-esque King Herod – he hosts a show called Hark! with Herod, a rare flash of genuine humour – is thankfully brief; Alex Hanson’s Pilate is a quality performance that stands out from a hard-working ensemble, but too often the wide lens of the show means that their efforts pass by unnoticed.

Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar continued

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Review: This House, National Theatre

"We have traditions, gentlemen's agreements...things to help us to the best we can"

It’s always nice when karma works out in your favour. A clash in the schedule meant that I had to return my original ticket for This House and as the run was completely sold out, I was doubtful that I’d get to see the show. But as it turned out, standing tickets in the pit had just been released and so for the princely sum of £5, I was able to take in an early preview of James Graham’s new play for the National Theatre.

Set in the halls of Westminster across the incident-ridden 1974-1979 parliament, This House occupies that strange ground of fictionalised reality that so many playwrights seem to love. Graham has taken inspiration from the real events of the time – the hung parliament, economic crises, changes in leadership and a surprisingly high mortality rate among MPs – and created his own version of events. His focus lies with the whips on both sides and it is from their perspective that we see events occur, as they troubleshoot left, right and centre, struggle to control their wayward members and do deal after deal with their opposing counterparts, observing the age-old traditions and principles that serve in place of a constitution.

Cast of This House continued

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Review: Lost In Yonkers – Watford Palace

“It’s not so important that you hate me, it’s only important that you live”

Neil Simon's play Lost in Yonkers starts in August 1942 and after their mother dies of cancer and their father has to take on a job away from home to pay off the debts for her treatment, young teenagers Jay and Arty Kurnitz find themselves deposited at the door of their grandmother’s flat on top of a sweet shop in the city of Yonkers. But there’s no warm family embrace waiting for them, Grandma Kurnitz barely spoke to her son and initially doesn’t even want to take in her grandchildren. She finally relents and so the boys stay there for a year, learning a whole new set of life lessons as she rules the roost with the harshest rod of steel and they get reacquainted with the aunts and uncles they hardly know. 

Trapped with no chance of escape, the trials and tribulations of Jay and Arty are highly amusingly played by Jos Slovick and the playful Keith Ramsay, the misfortune of their situation more than tempered by their teenage concerns and constant mini-battles against the strictness of their new life regime. Some light relief comes in the form of the presence of their childlike Aunt Bella, their dodgy Uncle Louie and the later arrival of Aunt Gert complete with random speech impediment and the boys find themselves fitting into an entirely new family dynamic and one which their presence subtly changes. 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Review: The Busy Body, Southwark Playhouse

“I’m not showing you my monkey”

Miranda loves Sir George Airey but wants to make him work for her hand whilst fending off her lecherous guardian Sir Francis Gripe, whose son Charles is in love with Isabinda whose marvellously named mother Lady Jealous Traffic is determined to marry her off to a Spanish merchant. There's also a monkey, or is there? Such is the set-up for The Busy Body, a 1709 period comedy by Susanna Centlivre which was one of the most popular plays of its day but has remained unproduced for over 100 years. Continuing their close relationship with the Southwark Playhouse, Red Handed Theatre have alternated emotionally devastating dramas (Palace of the End, Someone To Watch Over Me) with sparklingly refreshed Restoration comedies (The Rivals, The Belle's Stratagem) to great effect and director Jessica Swale's adroit adaptation looks set to continue that exceptionally strong run.

What really makes it work though is the immense attention to detail. It is a comedy for sure, but one which is played true and so delivery remains deadpan throughout, no matter how random the plot turns - Michael Lindall's Spanish dress and raised eyebrow as the disguised Charles the best example here, though Alexandra Guelff's (Miranda) determined protection of her monkey comes a close second. And comic flourishes abound at every turn – Ella Smith's Isabinda in particular is fearsomely, inventively funny in every single scene she is in and Henry Shields doubles to brilliant effect as Charles’ man Whisper and Lady Jealous’ butler – and the fourth wall is well and truly smashed (shy wallflower types might want to avoid the front row!) Directly addressing the audience is nothing new but the conviction and skill with which it is essayed here, both when being played for laughs and cleverly also in the more tenderly emotional moments, means that every beat seeks to involve and include us all. 

DVD Review: Christopher and His Kind

“As far as I know, Lenin said nothing about buggery”

I was told that I simply must watch Christopher and his Kind after really enjoying I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, as it covered similar ground in recounting novelist Christopher Isherwood’s residency in Berlin in the early 1930s as his search for boy-fuelled hedonism comes up hard against the ugly rise of National Socialism. The film’s timespan and geographical scope also extends well beyond that of the play to create a neat companion piece which is also notable for featuring current Doctor Who Matt Smith in the sexually adventurous lead role. 

It is pleasingly frank in its depiction of the gay sexuality that was missing from the play: Isherwood’s first stop upon arriving in Berlin is to be squired to the Cosy Corner, an underground gay bar of sorts, by Pip Carter’s wonderfully glacial Wystan, or WH Auden as he is better known and few blushes are spared with sex scenes (wouldn’t have imagined he was a top tbh) and deliciously scathing humour. The relationship between Auden and Isherwood is beautifully played by Carter and Smith and I wish we had seen more of it as their encounters are wonderfully scripted – the banter about…size is genius – but I guess that was the whole point about their general reticence of emotional intimacy. 

Short Film Review: #5

The Reward
THE REWARD from Sentinel Productions on Vimeo.
Written by Joel Horwood, The Reward definitely ranks as top amongst this bunch of shorts.  Gorgeously filmed by Lucy Patrick Ward, its opening shots set up its two main characters perfectly: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s numbed woman having just lost her father, and Anatol Yusef’s gym instructor working out the pain of the loss of his beloved dog on his hapless aerobics class. When fate throws the pair together, their meeting seems charged with almost unmanageable emotion, but what Horwood conjures is a moment of powerful but truthful cathartic release that is just beautiful. Waller-Bridge is fantastic (I want to see her in more modern roles on the stage soon) and Yusef also convinces in suggesting his pain lies more than just in the loss of a pet. Watch it now!

Review: Passing By, Finborough

“You’d better show up.
‘Don’t worry I will, you’ve got my wine’”
Marking its first production in London in over 35 years, the Finborough has revived Martin Sherman’s 1972 play Passing By for a very limited run. Steven Webb’s Toby is a neurotic New Yorker, a complete klutz who’s making ends meet working in a wine shop as his artistic career stagnates. A chance encounter with former Olympic diver Simon, a lithe Alex Felton, in a cinema leads to a one-night stand but the fast-moving world of the big city, a rare spark of connection means their relationship develops into the potential for something more as something unique is shared. Exactly what is shared though is a little unexpected, with consequences that keep the pair together for some considerable time, and so what unfolds is a delicately gentle encounter between two souls each looking for something more.
On first appearance they are a totally mis-matched couple: Toby’s highly strung Woody Allen-esque persona rubs up, in more than one way, against the physical über-confidence of his far-hotter lover, but as they each begin to let their guard down, we see that even Simon has his own issues too. And over the course of the single act, Sherman has his characters dance ever closer to the possibilities of real connection through the comic haze of their enforced circumstances.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Review: Hedda Gabler, Old Vic

"They may say what they like, for aught that I care"

There’s something rather pleasing about watching the upwards trajectory of an actor in front of our very eyes, the sense that we are witness to a genuine star in the making. From Little Shop of Horrors to Legally Blonde to Flare Path, Sheridan Smith has worked up a list of much-lauded theatrical credits, in the face of much scepticism it has to be said, which sits next to a television career which has also deepened and broadened in the types of roles that she is taking on. It was still a little bit of a surprise though to find that she would be taking on the title role in the Old Vic’s production of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s complex character oft being considered one of the juiciest roles for an actress to take on. 

Anna Mackmin directs a new version of the text by Brian Friel whose main focus seems to have been to imbue the play with a much stronger vein of humour. It is a decision of which I was not particularly fond as it diminishes much of the impact of the first half of the play. Being encouraged to laugh so much at the characters by whom Hedda finds herself surrounded in what is meant to be her newly-wedded bliss means that there’s too much of a disconnect when the more serious business post-interval kicks in. Adrian Scarborough’s husband is the biggest victim here, we’re never really invited to see him as a real man beyond his wife’s distaste and though his grand moment plays well to his comic strengths, it feels entirely incongruous. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Review: Macbeth, Crucible

"I go, and it is done"

They appear to be creatures of habit up in Sheffield. Just as big musicals pop up at Christmas, a high profile Shakespeare forms the centrepiece of their autumn schedules and powerless to resist once again, I made my way to the Crucible, this time for Macbeth. Last year’s Othello was an extraordinary success – John Simm’s Hamlet the year before somewhat less to my tastes – and the casting news of Geoffrey Streatfeild and Claudie Blakley whetted my appetite for what lay ahead in Daniel Evans’ production.

But part of the problem in investing too much expectation in anticipated performances means that one can end up blinded to the more general merits of a production through the haze of disappointment. And so it was here as the central casting just doesn’t seem to work. I have no problem at all with atypical interpretations of characters, such subversions often lead the way to sensational new insight, but I simply couldn’t get a handle on what was trying to be done here. Feeling an uncomfortable presence for most of the first half, Streatfeild lacks credibility as Macbeth as warrior or tyrant, missing the cold driving ambition that should underlie his bloodthirsty path to power as does Blakley, who barely scratches at the darkness of Lady Macbeth. My disappointments aside, I was most surprised at the ordinariness of the verse speaking from both, sometimes palpably ill-at-ease. 

CD Review: Melanie C - Stages

"Tell me it's not true, say you didn't mean it"

With her 2010 performance as Blood Brother's Mrs Johnstone gaining her an Olivier-award nomination and a forthcoming turn as Mary Magdalene in the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, erstwhile Spice Girl Melanie C’s connection to the world of theatre is a genuine one and so the release of a CD of musical theatre songs could well be seen to be more than just paying lip service. Recorded with long-time collaborator Peter-John Vettese, Stages is, according to the official website, “a collection of songs from the theatre that have been important to Melanie at various stages of her life”. Songs, from the theatre. Remember this. 

Over a confused and unimaginative track-listing, which covers a bewildering array of songs whose connections to the theatre are often far from apparent, this seems destined to be a collection that will disappoint fans of both Melanie C and of musical theatre. What this album wants to be – and arguably should have been – is a collection of easy listening soft jazz. Chisholm is a much more effective singer when relaxed, her distinctive nasal tone appears far less frequently, and so the gentle swing through the Gershwin-penned Aren’t You Kinda Glad We Did from The Shocking Miss Pilgrim is rather pretty, and renditions of I Only Have Eyes For You and My Funny Valentine are quietly efficient.

Cast of Macbeth continued

CD Review: Madalena Alberto – Heart Condition

“He does’t have to be a prince to give me butterflies”

Though she has performed in many shows before and since, Madalena Alberto is most likely to be recognised for playing Fantine in the hugely well-received 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables. She has since been in London in shows like Godspell and Jekyll and Hyde both at the Union, and now the Portuguese-born Alberto is taking the opportunity to stretch her wings as a singer-songwriter with the release of her debut EP Heart Condition.

Over the four tracks recorded in Lisbon with producer José Canela, there’s just a snapshot of this artist here but an intriguing one at that as her self-penned songs embrace a wide range of styles. The layered theatricality of the title track bursts with a surprising complexity as it incorporates globe-trotting influences and a most alluring honeyed vocal, but this is neatly contrasted with the relaxed simplicity of the guitar-led Fairytale and the beguiling Rainbow and the Sky, the highlight of the collection with its gorgeously crafted lyrical imagery and captivating melody. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Review: Rent, Greenwich Theatre

“In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife”

Just a brief note on Rent as it is closing tomorrow and sadly I could find little constructive to say about it. I somehow have remained immune to the charms of Jonathan Larson’s show despite it gaining a fanatical following amongst some and so the prospect of seeing it filled me with much less anticipation than it did my companions for the evening. And for me, Paul Taylor-Mills’ production at the Greenwich Theatre did little to convince me to change my mind. 

A 90s pop-rock updating of Puccini’s La Bohème, the focus becomes a community of bohemians in New York’s Lower East Side as HIV/AIDS spreads its lethal influence as they all struggle to hold onto their dreams. There’s undoubtedly a dated feel to the material, something exacerbated by the low budget design of set and costume which feels rough around the edges but not in a way which really worked with the show.

DVD Review: Bright Young Things

“Reader, be glad that you have nothing to do with this world. Its glamour is a delusion, its speed a snare, its music a scream of fear.”

Whilst recently sitting through the 1930s-set play I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, I had that frustrating sensation of being reminded of a film that I couldn’t quite recall, mainly in the carefree attitudes of its lead characters. A post-show drink or three finally got me there, the film was Bright Young Things and so I popped it onto my Lovefilm list as it had been quite a while since I last saw it and I was keen for a rewatch.

Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies which written in 1930, the film marked the screenwriting and directorial debut of a certain Stephen Fry. Positioned as a satire on this section of society, the plot circles around a fast-living decadent set of aristocrats and bohemians living the high life of cocaine and champagne-fuelled parties completely divorced from the realities and responsibilities of the real world around them. Would-be novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes and party girl fiancée Nina Blount are the central couple whose wedding is forever being put off as he keeps losing the money for it, but the Jack and Karen in their lives – the Hon Agatha Runcible and the fey Miles – are much more fun. 

Bright Young Things cast contd.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Review: The Magic Flute, ENO at the Coliseum

“Is it me who’s hard of hearing,
there is no-one volunteering”

The ENO’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute returns to the Coliseum for what will be its final ever performances. And in this Engilsh-language version - now remarkably 23 years old - originally directed by Nicholas Hytner with this revival with Ian Rutherford and James Bonas at the helm, the combination of fairytale adventuring, earthy comedy, magical instruments and glorious singing still casts an enchanting spell of huge enjoyment.

I particularly love that seeing the show reminds me of what to me, is one of the biggest incongruities in opera. One of the most famous tunes from The Magic Flute, possibly one of the most recognisable arias in all opera, is the Queen of the Night’s second act aria is "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" whose crystalline trills are impeccably, gorgeously sung here by Kathryn Lewek and generally sound just heavenly. But the title actually translates as "Hell's vengeance boileth in mine heart" and in it the Queen urges Pamina to kill a man or else she won’t consider her her daughter any more – not quite what one might have expected from listening to the gorgeous coloratura.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Review: King Lear, Almeida

"This is the excellent foppery of the world" 

Considered one of the defining roles for actors d'un certain âge, there never seems to be a lack of King Lears on our stages and in 2012, it is Jonathan Pryce's turn to wear the crown in this Michael Attenborough production for the Almeida. Such is the potential for great quality at this North London theatre that when they get everything right, there's a beautiful marriage between the epic and the intimate (as advertised) and this is largely what we get here.

Pryce's Lear is a father first and foremost, and losing some of the distance that accompanies an overly regal bearing results in a rather effective focus on the emotions of the man rather than the monarch. Thus the rage, the tenderness, the regret, the pain that he feels - elucidated with some masterful re-readings of the text - is always accessible and persuasive. The look in his eye during 'I know thee well enough...' cuts to the very core; his bantering relationship with his Fool borne of a genuine connection between the pair, Trevor Fox's native Geordie accent a perfect fit to the riddle-me-dees and sharp observations and really demanding full attention.

King Lear cast continued

Monday, 10 September 2012

Review: Three Sisters, Young Vic

“It’s like a nail being hammered in my head”

Back when the Young Vic announced their forthcoming shows as being A Doll’s House and Three Sisters, I was a little surprised at how safe the programming seemed, on the surface at least. For as it turned out, Ibsen was revitalised by Simon Stephens to stunning effect in one of the shows of the year so far and so expectations were high for Chekhov’s turn, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews, the Australian auteur whose Cate Blanchett-starring Big and Small proved to be somewhat divisive.

And this production, set in an abstract modern day, also seems set to provoke strong opinion. From Helen Rappaport’s literal translation, Andrews has thoroughly modernised the language of this story of three young women trapped in a stultifying provincial Russian town, dreaming of heady love affairs and escaping to the Moscow of their childhoods yet unable to fully wrest control of their lives from the cruel twists of fate. But dislocating the play from the social and economic context in which Chekhov conceived it seriously undermines a central aspect of the drama. 

Cast of Three Sisters continued

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Review: Love and Information, Royal Court

“What do you mean when you say it has meaning now?"

One of the things I love most about blogging is the honesty with which it allows one to write. So much ‘official’ theatre reviewing (as in for a publication) is predicated on the basis of a perceived authority, on the acceptance of received truths, which due to space constraints are rarely articulated. But I’m not bound by any that here and so I can say I honestly don’t get what all the fuss is about Simon Russell Beale – I’ve yet to see him myself, in a performance that is worthy of being named one of our greatest ever actors – and likewise, I can say that I’m not sure that I get Caryl Churchill as a playwright. I don’t doubt or challenge her position as one of the UK’s most influential playwrights or her impact on contemporary theatre but rather, in the six plays of hers that I have seen, I haven’t had that kind of epiphany that made me stop in my tracks and say ‘this is amazing theatre’.

I’m constantly educating myself theatrically though and that’s where the informality of a blog - my theatrical education in progress if you will – comes into its own, tracing how my opinions can change (I’ve learned to love Chekhov) or not (I still dislike Ibsen, in the main). Thus I happily took the opportunity to see Love and Information, a new Churchill play at the Royal Court, her first since 2009’s controversy-baiting Seven Jewish Children, not least because it features an ensemble cast of extremely high quality.

Love and Information cast continued

Short Film Reviews #4

And so it continues... The world of short films has truly got me hooked and I'm loving the number of favourite actors I am getting to see more of in this way. As ever, tweet/email/blog me links to other films you think I might like.

Imaginary Friend
Imaginary Friend: 35mm Short Film from David Mercer on Vimeo.
The medium of short film is still relatively new to me and so I’m still feeling my way round a bit. The focus thus far for me does seem to have been on the more light-hearted side – due to the choices I’ve made clearly – and the experimentation of film-makers. But Imaginary Friend, written by Reece Dinsdale and directed by Ian Bevitt, is a storming piece of straight-up drama, featuring a tour-de-force performance from Maxine Peake who is just sensational here. As the title suggests, we follow Pauline – Peake – as she sets about on a day trip, accompanied by Margery, her friend whom we never see. As ever I can’t say too much without ruining it, but the way in which the tone gradually darkens through this piece is expertly measured, Peake’s slow unravelling becomes ever more chilling, Bevitt’s direction keeps a wonderful tension about the whole affair and it resolves extremely satisfyingly. This is probably one of the best films I’ve seen since I started watching them and Peake’s performance is just unmissable. 

Cast of Tinker Tailor continued

Saturday, 8 September 2012

DVD Review: The Line of Beauty

"So what are you doing about sex just now?"

As a young gay, reading Alan Hollinghurst novels felt like the height of sophistication, and whether true or not, there was an air of exclusivity about those of us who knew him (at least in the circles I moved in). So his ‘breakthrough’ with winning the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty was a validation tinged with disappointment that I now had to share that something special. His journey into the mainstream was completed with the requisite television adaptation, but with Andrew Davies at the helm for BBC2, it did feel like the right hands were on the tiller.

Hollinghurst’s story centres on a five year period in the life of Nick Guest, a fresh-faced Oxford graduate who moves to London in the summer of 1983. His offer to house-sit for the family of a university friend leads into an odyssey of personal and sexual discovery as he becomes a full-on lodger, thrust into the world of Tory politicians and old money, around which he fits furtive encounters with men as he explores his sexuality in a world in where homosexuality is far from being widely accepted in public. Thus the two main strands overlap and complement each other: Nick is given a window into the privileged lives of the wealthy upper classes in the Thatcherite boom years and in which he is allowed to play his own supporting part, but in the shadow of the emerging AIDS crisis, he discovers just how barely tolerated gay life is and just how hypocritical this society can be. 

Cast of The Line of Beauty continued

Friday, 7 September 2012

Review: Thirteen Days The Musical, Arcola

"You used me, you were lying,
you are only here for spying”

The Grimeborn Festival is now in its sixth year of providing a very East London take on opera at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, but wrapping up the programme this year is a new piece of musical theatre – Thirteen Days by Alexander S Bermange. A rather ambitious piece of work set around the Cuban Missile Crisis, not only does it tell the story of the brinkmanship between the three leaders of Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, it dramatizes the conflict in miniature in the form of a love triangle between a Cuban, a Soviet and an American, and thirdly also attempts to portray how the events affected the populations of each country. 

In painting his canvas so broad, Bermange – in charge of book, music and lyrics here – sets up a considerable challenge for himself, one which is not helped by his writing style. He is very much of the old-school British musical theatre school which stands him in good stead for the second of the above strands, the intimate love story of the Cuban student engaged to a Soviet engineer but whose head is turned by an American visitor whose intentions are, initially at least, less than honourable. The stirring balladry that comes out of songs like ‘Anyone But You’ and ‘More Than A Memory’ feels ready to take up residence on a West End stage, as does the storming Act One finale – the mark of many a good musical past. 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Review: I Am A Camera, Southwark Playhouse

Written in 1951, John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera will trigger moments of recognition for many more people than will initially be expecting it. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, it formed a major part of the inspiration for the Kander + Ebb musical Cabaret in its depiction of a 1932 Berlin whose Bohemian excesses are beginning to be curbed by the rise of the Nazi party to power. Suffering from writer’s block, Isherwood happily allowed himself to get side-tracked in the decadent whirl of the Weimar Republic and right in the heart of the storm, taking him along for the ride, is his great friend Sally Bowles.

Spread over a few months, Van Druten gives us vignettes of Christopher and Sally’s hectic lives, as well as those who are drawn into their orbit, like the inscrutable Fritz, the intense Jewish Natalia and the dashingly charismatic American Clive. It is Isherwood’s story, so we delve in and out of his memory – Nicolai Kornum’s lighting crucially good here – as tales of love and friendship play around the hopes, ambitions and trials of this group of people. The combined effect is one of a beautiful portrait of quietly observed humanity in all its complexity. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Review: You Me Bum Bum Train 2012

Having ridden You Me Bum Bum Train twice before, and reviewed the show on both occasions, trying my best not to give anything away, I am demurring from a substantive third review - after all , there are only so many ways to skip around the same subject whilst attempting not to reveal too much. I was actually the victim of good karma in this for once: I'd initially bought two pairs of tickets the very second they were released on the Barbican website with the intention of allowing friends who had not experienced the show before to have a go. As it was, the enforced rescheduling of one of the pairs meant that I had to give those away to other people, but in the midst of all the discussing and transactions, I was offered someone else's spare ticket at the last minute, and so off I went to Stratford, unable to resist one more time.

And once again I loved it. It pushed and challenged me, and thrilled and excited me in equal measure - again I did something I never thought I'd ever do and such a feeling is wonderful to experience, especially in the heady rush that is the speedy journey on the train. Familiarity with the concept does dull some of its effect though, even just knowing the kind of thing to expect means that one can prepare a little for it which robs some of the spontaneity that made the first time so special. What replaces the sense of fear, for me at least, is a more relaxed attitude that means you can play with the format and push the boundaries a little - I was determined to make at least two sets of performers corpse, as I did last time, and I managed it ;-)

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Review: Blink, Soho Theatre

“Love is whatever you feel it to be”

Phil Porter’s Blink is about as close to a lo-fi indie flick as a play can get. Transplanted into the upstairs studio space at the Soho Theatre following a successful run in Edinburgh, it’s a poignantly observed pseudo-love story that balances its romantic intentions with a healthy dose of quirky realism. Jonah and Sophie have much in common, not least that they’re both social misfits, so their journey together, as we see here, is predictably highly unconventional but most winningly presented.

Their lives are marked by coincidences: Jonah’s escaped life from his Pennine religious sect and Sophie left the quiet of the Isle of Man, both have tragically lost a parent to cancer, both now possess more money than they really know what to do with. And as they end up living in the same building in Leytonstone, the scene seems set for romance to blossom. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Julius Caesar, Noël Coward Theatre

“Men may construe things after their fashion clean from the purpose of the things themselves”

I hadn’t originally intended to take in Gregory Doran’s all-black version of Julius Caesar for the RSC, not for any particular reason than just that it didn’t really appeal. It seemed that my instincts had paid off when it was announced that, with a rather odd sense of timing, the production would be filmed in Stratford-upon-Avon and shown on television before it made its transfer to London’s Noël Coward Theatre and then on to a UK tour. But upon watching this televised version which mixed location shooting with action filmed on-stage, I was utterly seduced by Doran’s reinterpretation which sees the play relocated into some unspecified modern African dictatorship. 

Most of what I said about the production in my review of the film still holds true so I won’t repeat myself too much. Having been spoiled by the intimacy that television cameras provided, it was a little difficult to readjust expectations in light of being seated in the rear stalls. Missing so much of the detailing, and indeed the clarity of much of the text in a couple of heavily-accented places, meant that I never felt quite as connected to the action as I had previously been, an interesting thing to discover given that the live experience is the one that is always trumpeted. Michael Vale’s crumbling set design did look impressive though, with its looming statue an ever-present reminder of the seeming inevitability of oppressive leadership. 

Cast of Julius Caesar continued

Film Review: Anna Karenina

”I’d rather live life wishing I hadn’t rather than wishing I had”

Today I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Joe Wright’s new film, Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley in the title role, which is certain to be divisive with its unique approach. Tom Stoppard has been employed to distil Tolstoy’s weighty tome into something more manageable and his adaptation clocks in at a shade over 2 hours. Remaining largely faithful to the novel, Stoppard’s focus is on exploring different kinds of love, and so whilst the focus is mainly on Anna herself as she negotiates the tumultuous affair with a young cavalryman that sets her against her husband and the might of Russian society, he also ensures that the subplot featuring the agrarian Levin’s attempts to woo the object of his affections is kept in to provide a neat counterpoint.

Presented with a classic of literature and wanting to avoid predictability as far as period dramas are concerned, Wright’s main conceit has been to reconceptualise the whole thing in a deeply theatrical manner, literally. He treats the story as a piece of theatre, sometimes being played out in front of an audience, sometimes as backstage drama, but always with a defined fluidity and through-line. This exceedingly stylised and highly choreographed approach has a huge cinematic sweep which I adored, but it does soon calm down into something more measured and at key moments, it opens out with some breath-taking transformations.

Cast of Anna Karenina continued

Cast of Anna Karenina continued

Cast of Anna Karenina continued

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Not-a-review: Troilus and Cressida, RSC and Wooster Group at Riverside Studios

“The common curse of mankind, - folly and ignorance"

For those unclear, the ‘not-a-review’ title usually pops up on the rare occasions that I don’t make it to the end of a play. I usually try and stick it out as it is difficult to have so firm an opinion on something as to blog about it if one hasn't taken in the whole shebang, but occasionally, just occasionally, a play makes its bafflingly misguided intentions so apparent from its opening moments that I knew within the first minute that I wouldn't be staying beyond the interval. It was the running on the spot with a sideways leg motion, as comedic a thing you might see yet executed with deadly serious intent that got me (I didn't quite laugh out loud unlike some people further along my row though), quickly making me realise I wasn’t going to enter the correct headspace for this production of Troilus and Cressida.

Ostensibly a co-production between the RSC and the US-based Wooster Group of this noted problem play of Shakespeare’s, the approach to this production was to redefine the nature of collaboration in a way to complement the play itself. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, the Americans, playing the Trojans (although re-imagined as Native Americans), rehearsed separately from the British company, directed by Mark Ravenhill after Rupert Goold withdrew, who took on the Greeks, and the two were only brought together late in the game to capture something of the clash of civilisations that lies at the heart of the Trojan War-set drama.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Review: Fred’s Diner, Theatre on the Fly Chichester

Whereas Chichester Festival Theatre should most definitely be applauded for stretching its artistic remit with the construction of the temporary Theatre on the Fly to give it a much-needed shot in the arm of contemporary drama, it could still do with a look at the scheduling. By putting shows on at 8pm, especially ones which run for nearly 2 hours 30 minutes, they’ve instantly nixed any chance of people coming to see it via public transport unless they make it to a matinée performance. As it was, I was headed this way(ish) en route to Brighton Pride and I love me some Cush Jumbo so I was willing to make the effort to see Penelope Skinner’s latest play Fred’s Diner.

 Fred’s is a 50s-themed motorway restaurant, a failing slice of Americana in the West Midlands in which acts as a cul-de-sac for troubled souls. On the staff, Heather is an ex-con desperate for the opportunity to prove herself, Chloe’s a bit of a drifter even at 30, work-shy and only really there to pay off her debts and the bills from her late ‘gap-year’ to Thailand, and Melissa dreams of studying law at Oxford. But Melissa is the daughter of Fred, and as the play evolves, we see the horribly tense dynamic that exists between father and daughter and realise how trapped all the women, but particularly Melissa, are beneath their matching uniforms.

Spy Weekend

This collection of DVD reviews was inspired mainly by my visit to Democracy back in June and remembering that I hadn't gotten round to watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's a genre I really do love and of which I haven't sampled a great deal lately, so I took the opportunity to rent and borrow a few (mostly modern) examples and watch them over the past few weeks. 

Up for your delectation we have the recent film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the David Hare-penned Page Eight, an adaptation of The 39 Steps from a few Christmases ago, and as my Twitter followers will know, the BBC's Cambridge Spies which I simply adored.

NB: At the beginning of the year, I was determined that these weekend posts would be a regular thing, but that just hasn't happened for a variety of reason. So they will continue to pop up on a random basis for the most random of reasons, just so you know.

DVD Review: Page Eight

"There's a fine line between calculation and deceit"

A rare foray into television for David Hare as both writer and director, Page Eight was broadcast on the BBC in 2011 but as ever, I missed it at the time - most likely I was in the theatre. On it went to my lovefilm list and up it came just in time for my little spy-fest. Career intelligence analyst Johnny Worricker has his life turned upside down when his MI5 boss and best friend dies suddenly of a heart attack, having revealed the explosive contents of a file which threatens the UK/US alliance and the future of MI5 itself. His artist daughter has something important to tell him, his strikingly attractive neighbour Nancy Pierpan has suddenly appeared on the scene with a (not-so) hidden agenda and the well-oiled wheels of the slippery government are determined to oust him whilst keeping its secrets. Old-school to his core, Worricker is confronted with a series of dilemmas, political, moral, personal, as he faces up to this contemporary world and his place within it.  

Aside from the obvious thrill of a new piece of writing from David Hare, Page Eight also contained some utterly luxurious casting and an exceptional, tailor-made central role for Bill Nighy as Worricker. Ineffably cool as only Nighy can be, the art-collecting, jazz-listening, women-seducing figure at the centre of the story was a perfectly convincing presence but the real star was Hare's writing. Though undoubtedly a contemporary spy story, it eschewed the glossy thriller territory of Spooks for a no less compelling, intelligently intertwining yet thoroughly believable sequence of events. Shocks and surprises still came, but from people and actions rather than exploding helicopters or extended chase scenes and so it had a deeply satisfying quality that demanded, and rewarded, the attention.

DVD Review: Cambridge Spies

"Ponces and spies, Anthony. The people with most to hide never have moustaches."

In retrospect, I can’t even begin to comprehend why it has taken me so long to getting round to watching Cambridge Spies (the obvious lack of time given how much theatre I see aside) – a quality BBC drama with a properly thesp-heavy cast about spies, with gayness involved, and Imelda Staunton as the Queen (Mother). But regardless, it has taken me this long and of course I’m kicking myself as I thought it was a brilliant piece of drama. Over four parts, Peter Moffat takes us through the key years of four of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies from their recruitment at Trinity College through to the defection of two of them nearly 20 years later.

It was a story I knew little of, so there was a genuine frisson in watching how it all unfolded, not knowing what would happen next, but the real thrill was in the excellent character work from the four leads – Toby Stephens as Kim Philby, Tom Hollander as Guy Burgess, Rupert Penry-Jones as Donald Maclean and particularly Samuel West as Anthony Blunt. From their idealistic anti-fascist student days when the Soviet Union seemed like the only real option to stand against the encroaching terror, the wisdom of the KGB’s recruiting plan was borne out by the ascendance of these four into the higher echelons of the British state, from where they would be able to provide the most important of secrets.

DVD Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

"Things aren't always what they seem"

My anticipation levels for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were rather high, I didn’t make it to the cinema but its award-winning pedigree backed up by several people recommending it to me, assured that I would love it. And though it is a genre I have neglected, I do love a good spy thriller. That said, I’d not read the 1974 John Le Carré novel it was based on or seen the TV show, so I was coming to it with completely fresh eyes. I’d been warned that I’d need to concentrate so I took care to ensure that distractions were kept to a minimum as I watched the DVD, but I have to say that I really wasn’t carried away by the film or swept up into its world of intrigue.

When an MI6 agent is gunned down mid-meet in Hungary, the head of the secret service Control and his lieutenant George Smiley resign in acknowledgement of the failure, but Smiley is soon covertly rehired to look into the possibility that it was a mole that gave the game away. With the help of two colleagues, he begins to investigate the shortlist of suspects to find out who is the one who has betrayed his country. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson brings a measured solemnity to the densely complex plot which comprises of a bewildering number of characters and details which I struggled to take in and sustain the requisite level of interest.