Wednesday, May 16, 2018

EASTWARD HO! at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - Read Not Dead!

Now that the Globe has emerged from it's extended period of being used as an adventure playground for backward adults, it is safe to return and on Sunday we had our first visit in two years.  But to ease our way in, we went to see a rehearsed reading rather than a fully-staged play.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse within The Globe stages a small season each year called Read Not Dead in which little-seen or known plays get an airing where they are meant to be experienced - on a stage.  The rules of the game are that a director will gather a small cast together, present them with the texts in the morning then in the late afternoon they present the blocked and rehearsed reading to a paying audience; the idea being that the dust will be blown off the pages by the nervous energy of cast and audience alike.

Sunday's re-discovered play was EASTWARD HO! which was first performed in 1605 and was a collaboration between the playwrights Ben Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston, three noted writers combining to give the London stages the latest in cutting-edge satirical City comedy... it proved a bit too cutting-edge: King James I took umbrage at the jokes about the Scots and cash-for-titles resulting in Chapman and Jonson ending up in prison for a few months... luckily Marston wasn't around at the time so wasn't imprisoned!

One would have to know exactly what to look for nowadays to see what could have caused such offence but it fits the play nicely into the Globe's cross-season of plays dealing with stage censorship.  The play has occasionally be revived but they are few and far between - there was even a musical version in 1981 that starred Richard O'Brien (in another attempt to broaden his ROCKY HORROR persona), Belinda Sinclair, Anita Dobson, Philip Sayer and Clive Merrison, with a score by Nick Bicat and ROCK FOLLIES writer Howard Schuman - it lasted 45 performances.

Needless to say, it was all a bit upsy-dutch as we were let in to the auditorium late to be greeted with the rather ominous news that they hadn't finished rehearsing the last act.  The running time was 3 hours plus - towards the end I honestly thought I would have to leave as the purgatorial hard benches were KILLING my back.

I survived however and I must say it was a very enjoyable experience - it indeed had the shaggy, missed cues, stumbling quality you might expect but the cast all pitched in and there was even a memorable performance or two.

The sprawling plot has a goldsmith William Touchstone having apprentice trouble: Quicksilver wants to get out into the world and live an uproarious, drunken life while Golding is studious and diligent in his work.  Touchstone's two daughters mirror this pairing: snobbish Gertrude is desperate to marry into money and be a proper lady while Mildred is rueful and quiet.  The whole Touchstone family are excited when Gertrude seems to get her wish and marry Sir Petronel Flash, a Knight who has a huge estate in Essex.  The trouble is... he hasn't!  He is broke and looking forward to receiving Gertrude's large dowry.

Touchstone chucks Quicksilver out of the house then promotes Golding and allows him and Mildred to marry.  Quicksilver and Sir Flash meet and decide to use the Touchstone dowry to sail to Virginia to seek their fortune with Quicksilver's Jewish money-lender friend Security... the trouble is that the captain and crew are drunk and the ship sinks while still in the Thames!

Needless to say it all ends up in a court but as all are flawed in one way or another, it all ends up happily!  The characters are so vivid, larger-than-life and silly, it is a surprise that the play is not better known.  Director Jason Morell gave it all a winning brio and elicited good performances from Michael Matus as Touchstone (it was fun to see the different uses he had for his catch-phrase "Work upon that now!"), Ralph Davis as Quicksilver (luckily he had clean pants on as he had a lengthy scene with his trousers round his ankles), Tok Stephen as the sober Golding and Nicholas Boulton as the wobbly-kneed, penniless Sir Petronel Flash.

Apart from those damn benches, it was very enjoyable.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

THE WAY OF THE WORLD at the Donmar - dwindling into marriage...

The playwright William Congreve devoted only 7 of his 58 years to the theatre but he left us with a handful of plays that stand with the best of the genre of Restoration comedy: THE DOUBLE DEALER, LOVE FOR LOVE and his most famous work THE WAY OF THE WORLD, which gave the canon Millament and Mirabell, one of the most enduring and sparky of couples.

Under Josie Rourke's artistic directorship the Donmar has frankly overdone the gender-blind, non-traditionalist casting as well as modern-settings for classic plays so I was quietly worried what was going to be pulling focus from the text this time, but director James Macdonald puts no such hindrances in the way of Congreve the playwright and the production was a pure delight.

On Anna Fleischle's panelled dark wood set, we follow the twists and turns of Congreve's convoluted tale of love and money: Mirabell wants to marry the captivating Millament but there is a problem: to get her full dowry the match must be agreed by Millament's aunt Lady Wishfort - and she hates Mirabell for his licentious lifestyle (and more importantly, she is still smarting from him telling her that he wasn't in love with her when she believed he was).

It doesn't help that Mirabell was once the lover of Lady Wishfort's daughter who he helped marry off to his dashing if untrusted fellow man-about-town Fainall who, in turn, is currently having an affair with the sly Mrs Marwood.  If Mirabell's life wasn't complicated enough, he has plotted that his servant Waitwell is secretly married to Lady Wishfort's maid Foible and together they will arrange a plot: Waitwell will pretend to be Mirabell's rich uncle Sir Rowland who will then woo Lady Wishfort, marry her and then all Lady Wishfort has to do to stop any public shame in marrying a mere servant is to agree to Mirabell and Millament's marriage!  What could POSSIBLY go wrong?  Plenty.

Lady Wishfort has arranged for Millament to be married to the country squire Sir Willful Witwoud who arrives at the same time as Waitwell disguised as Sir Rowland but more disastrously, Mrs Marwood overhears Foible and Mrs Fainall discussing Mirabell's plot and she tells her lover Fainall who sees the perfect opportunity to enact revenge on them all and lay claim to the Wishfort fortune and Millament's dowry.

The plot spins so fast that I admit at times I sat back and waited for it to come round like a carousel and so jump on again but the ride made it all worthwhile.  James Macdonald keeps the characters spinning like giddy tops as everyone's plans fly up in the air only to land finally in a pattern that suits everyone; indeed there are so many resolutions to tie up in the final scene that the engine does finally run down as exposition tops exposition... and then a dance... and then another few lines... but coming so soon after his revivals of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, it's nice to see Macdonald turn his laser-like direction on an English classic.

Macdonald's cast has also had to face some twists since rehearsals: Linda Bassett had been cast as Lady Wishfort but dropped out of the cast for personal reasons a month before opening night and then shortly after the play opening, Alex Beckett who had been playing Waitwell died unexpectedly.  That is enough to throw any cast off-kilter but that they have banded together and are giving such a fine ensemble performance is to their credit.  Standouts included the very funny double-act of Fisayo Akanade and Simon Manyonda as the fops Witwoud and Petulant who excel at getting drunk, Sarah Hadland as the mischievous Foible and Robin Pearce who has taken on the role of Waitwell in such unhappy circumstances.

Jenny Jules and Tom Mison gave us a pair of very hissable villains as the icy Mrs Marwood and the conniving Fainall.  However one of the main joys of the evening was Haydn Gwynne as the aristocratic Lady Wishfort.  As I said she was a replacement during the rehearsal period for Linda Bassett - who I always thought an odd choice - but Haydn Gwynne rose to the challenge superbly.

Lady Wishfort could easily be played as a gorgon but Gwynne gave her a human dimension as well as being very funny - she was in her element in the scene where Lady Wishfort runs through her options in seducing Sir Rowland, should she lie seductively on the couch affecting a languid air or wandering around her room lost in her thoughts - all of which are acted out in increasing giddy desperation?

Mirabell and Millament are on a par with Shakespeare's Benedick and Beatrice - a couple you know will end up together but they have to get over the plot's hurdles!  I must admit it took a while for me to warm to Justine Mitchell's performance as Millament as she played it on a seemingly different beat to the rest of the cast; her slightly arch, hesitant delivery gave me the idea that she was commenting on a performance rather than actually giving one.  Her slight Irish lilt was intriguing too.

However she shone in the play's famous 'proviso' scene, Millament then Mirabell lay down conditions which must be agreed to before a marriage is contemplated. Millament will not get up early, not be addressed to as 'dear' or 'darling', not have her liberty curtailed because she is married, to have her own letters, to keep her tea table for herself.... if he grants them, then she may - in the play's most famous line - "by degrees, dwindle into a wife".  Mirabell then counter-offers that he wants a wife who will not keep company with scandalous women or fops, will not use excessive beauty products, won't partake in strong drinks etc.  It is a gloriously written scene - sparkling, teasing, well-argued, and utterly modern.

Luckily the wonderful Geoffrey Streatfeild was playing Mirabell, and he was a delight from start to finish; his Mirabell could play the dandyish man-about-town but he was also the cleverest man in the room, secretly holding all the cards and, although the final scene where all the subplots are resolved, was a bit long-winded, he pulled the surprise resolutions out of his hat with great style.  He is a class act and his dry, witty performance was excellent.

I am glad my first time seeing this Congreve classic was with such a fine production, one that any future versions will have a hard time measuring up to.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

MANON at Covent Garden: Love, Death and MacMillan

In 1731 Abbé Prévost published "L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescault" to instant notoriety and it's print run banned in France.  Pirated copies filtered out to an eager public and Prévost's tale of the tragic love affair of Manon and des Grieux went on to inspire writers and to be referenced in novels such as "The Lady of The Camillias", "The Red and The Black", "Venus In Furs" and "The Portrait of Dorian Gray".

The tale is also the basis of seven silent and sound films, four operas, a Japanese musical and two ballets!  The last of these dance versions was choreographed by the great Kenneth MacMillan for the Royal Ballet in 1974 and although it was greeted with unfavourable reviews, it became an instant hit with audiences and last week I saw it's 274th performance at Covent Garden.

MacMillan had been looking for a new, sweeping ballet which would show off not only the Royal Ballet stars but also give the ensemble a chance to shine, and the teaming locations of Manon and des Grieux's love proved ideal.  It was to be the first original work after his controversial ANASTASIA and it can be seen as a further exploration of where the physical boundaries were for the female and male dancers of his time (and after).

"Manon Lescault" had been suggested to MacMillan as a subject by the designer Nicholas Georgiades although it had been on the choreographer's mind since it had been mooted to the previous Royal Ballet supremo Sir Frederick Ashton but he had rejected it as he felt it was too close to his "Camille" ballet MARGUERITE AND ARMAND.  There's only so many demi-mondaines to go around...

MacMillan asked composer and conductor Leighton Lucas to compile a score from the work of Jules Massenet whose opera version of the tale was in the Royal Opera repertoire and it is a remarkable achievement as it does seem like a whole unified score.

I will agree with the criticism levelled at the piece that it's hard to feel totally engaged with the characters but maybe it is down to the performers dancing on any given night, I am sure if Steven McRae had been dancing des Grieux I would have been more involved in his character but he was unable to dance due to an injury.  Instead we had fellow-Australian Alexander Campbell as des Grieux and Akane Takada as the eponymous anti-heroine.

Young Manon is on her way to a convent when her coach stops at a bustling inn outside Paris; there she meets her brother Lescault who promptly notices a fellow-passenger is lusting after her, Lescault, an enterprising heel, takes the passenger into the inn to sell his sister to him.  In the courtyard Manon meets young student des Grieux and the pair - of course - fall in love at first sight.  They decide to flee to Paris immediately, leaving Lescault high and dry - and the old man penniless as Manon has stolen his money!  Another rich man, Monsieur GM, approaches Lescault and offers a reward if he too can have Manon.  Lescault takes up the challenge...

In Paris, Manon and des Grieux are living in his lodgings and, despite their obvious love for each other, as soon as Lescault and Monsieur GM track her down and entice her with Monsieur's riches Manon chooses diamonds over love.  Some time later, at a debauched party at a brothel, the four meet again and Manon intimates to des Grieux that she still loves him.  Attempting to deprive the rich man of his cash, des Grieux is discovered cheating at cards and they flee to his lodgings, where Monsieur appears with police to arrest Manon as a prostitute; in the melée Lescault is killed.

Deported to New Orleans as a common prostitute, Manon is singled out by a lecherous gaoler, but des Grieux, who has followed her to America, murders the gaoler and, again, the couple are on the run but in the shadowy swamps of Louisiana their love reaches it's tragic climax.

Any difficulty in emotionally engaging with the relentlessly shallow characters is offset by the glorious sweep of action that MacMillan conjures - his production is recreated here by Christopher Saunders and Julie Lincoln.  MacMillan's wish that his MANON would showcase the ensemble is fulfilled as they give colour and life to Manon's world.  Georgiades' designs also help MacMillan's subtext that the opulent world that Manon aspires to sits like a bubble on top of a society of desperate poverty and danger, his sets are always juxtaposed against backdrops of decaying clothes hanging as silent witnesses to the corrupt world of Monsieur GM, where people can be discarded if they overstep their class or usefulness.

As I said, while technically excellent, Takana and Campbell were low on star wattage but the pas de deux that define their relationship were thrilling to watch: full of the passion and desire of new love, then more hesitant and incomplete as Manon wavers between the worlds of love and wealth, then the desperation of love in the face of death.

The supporting performances shone brighter: James Hay was excellent as the opportunistic Lescault and was well partnered by Yuhui Choe as his mistress, Thomas Whitehead brought his own air of menace to the lethal Monsieur GM and Kristen McNally also gave the Madame a suitably decadent panache.

MANON, an enduring testament to the genius of Sir Kenneth MacMillan.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

HAMILTON at Victoria Palace - In The Room Where It Happened...

There is an odd alchemy that happens in a theatre that is the home for a hit show; the audience are excited that they are the lucky ones in the seats while the cast - especially within the first few months of opening - are confident in their show and their contribution within it and can relax in the joys of a good run.

It is always an exciting atmosphere to experience, it's happened a few times for me in the National Theatre: Richard Eyre's original production of GUYS AND DOLLS, the premiere of WAR HORSE, and the recent revivals of ANGELS IN AMERICA and FOLLIES; in the West End there were the original casts of 42nd STREET, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE BOOK OF MORMON and on Broadway there was Patti LuPone's GYPSY and WICKED.

And now I can add HAMILTON at the Victoria Palace...

As the World and it's significant other knows, HAMILTON is Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop musical biography of the American founding father and first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a man who could obviously start a fight in an empty room and who ended up dead after a duel with the Vice-President and longtime adversary Aaron Burr in 1804.  However the term 'hip-hop musical' does the show a dis-service as Miranda's punchy, intricate score incorporates rap, hip-hop, r&b and pop but all filtered through a definite Broadway musical idiom.

While appearing in his earlier Tony award-winning musical IN THE HEIGHTS, Miranda read Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton and was taken with the idea that this controversial historical figure had been a poor white immigrant from the West Indies who had risen to the higher echelons of American power.  After a lengthy workshop period HAMILTON opened off-Broadway in 2015 and quickly moved to Broadway later that year, winning the Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tony Awards.  The London production has just won 7 Olivier Awards. 

The show is totally sung/rapped-through but not for Miranda the dreary, bum-clenching  recitative beloved by Lloyd Webber but his tricky, intricate rhymes are spun across the stage with fizzing dexterity by the cast which keep you involved in the fast-moving action of the plot of Hamilton's rise from poor immigrant to George Washington's secretary and then onto the USA's first Treasury Secretary.  I had "Aaron Burr, sir" stuck in my mind afterward...  I hasten to add, Owen and I appeared to be the only ones in the theatre who did not know the score: the girls next to me screamed with laughter ON every joke line and knew every swerve of the music.

Thomas Kail's production is a whirl of inventive movement and, certainly in the first half, conjures up the feeling of a country in the tumult of changing times.  The second half - as the plot concentrates on Hamilton's personal and political troubles - feels becalmed with one too many standard love songs for Hamilton and his wife Eliza.  It's a natural consequence of telling a tale of life after war but it is noticeable.

As good as Kail's direction is, equal praise must go the non-stop choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, the ensemble helping to shape the story through dynamic moves and martial line-ups.  David Korins' tiered wooden stage certainly gives the show a strong look, Paul Tazewell's costumes help define character - I particularly liked Jefferson's flashy mauve and purple outfit which immediately gave his cocky, larger-than-life character a Prince-like sheen.  Our seats in the upper circle also gave us the chance to fully appreciate Howell Binkley's excellent lighting.

My main problem with HAMILTON was with the female characters.  Eliza and her sisters Angelica and Peggy are introduced with the swaggering "The Schuyler Sisters" - think Destiny's Child in hoop skirts - giving them the persona of liberated women who want to be in the thick of intellectual company.  Eliza marries Hamilton while Anjelica hides her unrequited love for him in writing letters.  At the end of the first act Anjelica leaves for married life in England but as she is a much more interesting character than dreary Eliza, the show suffers for her being sidelined.  Hamilton, of course, has an affair with a married woman which bring shame on him and Eliza but apart from a solo number along the lines of "You Hurt Me And I Hate You", all Miranda can have her do is mope around the stage being noble.  For a show that aims to be radical in it's story-telling, Miranda's stereotypical female characters are disappointing. Owen also pointed out that the female ensemble's costumes of figure-hugging leggings and tight bodices was all the more obvious against the male ensemble's loose clothes.  A CHORUS LINE's 'tits and ass' song seemed all too relevant.

As I said, the cast are feeling pretty fearless as they are in THE show to see so there are plenty of eye-catching performances.  Jamael Westman certainly commands the stage with his rangy height and swagger but Hamilton remains a cypher; everyone says what they think about him and we build up the character through the reactions of others to him but he remains ultimately unknowable, so his fate left me unmoved.  It's a knowing irony that Hamilton goes through the show telling the world he's not going to throw away his shot... but he does in the end.

Westman is easily overshadowed by the sheer star quality of Giles Terera as Aaron Burr, an actor whose time has definitely come and who steals every scene he is in.  His Burr is the respected man who cannot quite make the top table, who loses out to the flashier, more headstrong Hamilton for the big jobs and whose needling jealousy only grows with every slight.  Playing Salieri to Hamilton's Mozart, Burr finally gets his chance to influence affairs and they come to an irreversible breaking point.  Terera's watchful reserve explodes in the second act with the number "The Room Where It Happens".  Tipping a silent nod to Sondheim's "Someone In A Tree" from PACIFIC OVERTURES, it's about how it's all about being in the right place at the right time.

There is also a teasing, lip-smacking performance by Jason Pennycooke: he is a passionate Lafayette in the first act but really explodes in the second act as Hamilton's other béte noir Thomas Jefferson.  Embodying the cocky swagger of Prince or James Brown, his Jefferson turns up from the safety of France after the Independence wars are won and sings the jazzy "What'd I Miss?"  Jefferson then locks horns with Hamilton over the latter's finance bill - the verbal spats in Congress nicely played as rap turf battles.  It is when Burr and Jefferson both run for President that Hamilton, having to chose between his two evils makes a fatal choice.  Along with Terera, it's great to see Pennycooke finally have a role to show off all his talents.

Obioma Ugoala as George Washington certainly had the gravitas to play the role but his voice was more suitable to singing than to the rap recitative.  As I have said above, the roles for the women are frustrating in that the roles are imbalanced: Rachel John tears the roof off the Victoria Palace with her mid-first act number "Satisfied" - a real showstopper - but then has little to do but join in group numbers while the Steam-Whistle Soprano Of Death that is Rachelle Ann Go commandeers the second act as Eliza.  Her big solo "Burn" doesn't so much shred our hearts as our ear-drums and she also takes the main part of the last song "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" - an honour which really should go to Rachel John.

There are many witty put-downs in Miranda's lyrics but there are few musical moments where you can just sit back and enjoy them - the brunt of the songs are rammed with exposition - but luckily for us (and the show) there are several musical interludes from the quite delicious Michael Jibson as King George III.  He is absolutely hilarious in King George's dummy-spitting vignettes, they have the same tune but the attitude changes:  "You'll Be Back" has George in a snit that his subjects have chosen Independence, "What Comes Next" has the King scoffing at the idea the Americans can govern themselves, and finally "I Know Him" has George rubbing his hands in glee at the internecine fighting following Washington's retirement.  Jibson just won the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Musical Actor and it is justly deserved, despite only 9 minutes stage-time.

The booking method for HAMILTON has come in for criticism for the mouse-in-a-maze way of actually getting to your seat.  We booked when the tickets went on sale but no actual tickets were issued; Owen had to turn up with the original e-mail confirmation, the credit card used and a Government-issued ID!  Just to get in to a theatre...  The reasoning is that it will ensure that the seats go to paying punters and not ticket touts.  But is this really about people power or just a way for Cameron Mackintosh to get every single pound?  Owen discovered the day before that the card he booked with so long before the show had been thrown away when it expired, luckily a call to Ticketmaster got a substitute card put on the booking!  We had to queue for about five minutes to get to the door, they checked the e-mail and card, ticket stubs were printed using a PDQ-style machine... and we were in.  "Allow an hour" to gain entrance?  It took about 15 minutes all-in-all.  Though they never asked to see the passport... go figure!

I came out of it quietly thinking I would like to see it again.  But knowing the clamour for tickets I would probably get tickets for the 383rd cast change with Aston Merrygold from JLS as Alexander Hamilton, Kenny Lynch as Aaron Burr and Sinitta as Angelica.  Maybe they will have filmed it by then?  Lin-Manuel Miranda said last year it was on the cards, now THAT will be a casting feeding-frenzy...

So there you are... HAMILTON not only lives up to the hype, it transcends it. An abiding memory of the show is the explosion of applause that greeted the line “Immigrants, they get the job done". This American cultural immigrant does just that.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

TWANG!! at Union Theatre - when revivals go twong...

From the mid-1990s to the mid 2000s, The Bridewell Theatre just off Fleet Street developed quite a reputation under artistic director Carol Metcalfe for staging musicals that might not get a West End airing.  Using a smattering of well-trusted performers, the productions were a bit basic but it was a good way of seeing shows that otherwise might not be seen.

Since then, that mantle seems to have moved south of the river to, primarily, the Menier Chocolate Factory and, more recently, Southwark Playhouse.  The Union Theatre also stages little-seen musicals but their productions are so bargain-basement, they can be painful to sit through.  Step forward, Lionel Bart's TWANG!!

After the runaway success of OLIVER! in 1960, Lionel Bart's next two musicals were both English-based working-class subjects: BLITZ and MAGGIE MAY which both opened at the Adelphi Theatre in 1962 and 1964 respectively.  His East-End working class roots still appealed to his former FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE collaborator Joan Littlewood and she agreed not only to direct his next musical - a comedy based on the story of Robin Hood - but also to cast regulars from her Stratford East productions such as Howard Goornay, Bob Grant, James Booth and Barbara Windsor.

But Littlewood was soon disenchanted with Bart's TWANG!!; Bart's erratic progress on the show - he also co-wrote the book - was not helped by an increasing addiction to drugs and drink and soon they were at loggerheads, sparking arguments with other members of the creative team.  Meanwhile the cast struggled to breathe life into the characters that changed in daily rewrites, James Booth frustrated that his lead role of Robin Hood had little to do while Barbara Windsor's sexy lady-in-waiting Delphina soon over-shadowed Toni Eden's Maid Marian.

It went from bad to worse: Littlewood walked out on the show and was replaced by the American writer Burt Shevelove who co-directed with Bart.  The show struggled on to it's opening night just before Christmas 1965 to unsurprisingly bad reviews and it closed just over a month later, one of the more famous West End flops.

TWANG!! had a disastrous impact on Bart who had invested his own money into the show - a foolish action he repeated with the 1969 Broadway production of his musical LA STRADA and in 1972 Bart, the most famous British musicals composer of the 1960s, was made bankrupt.  By then he had sold the rights to all his shows, including OLIVER!

And so died TWANG!! apart from an original cast recording.  However in 2008, Bart's estate allowed Julian Woolford, the head of Musical Theatre at Guildford School of Acting, to totally rewrite the book and produce it again at Guildford with extra Bart songs shoe-horned into the score and this is what is presented at the Union Theatre.

I have to report that the curse of TWANG!! is still alive and well.  Woolford's book is a clanging meta-musical, snatches of famous musical numbers are belted out to get a knowing laugh from the peanut gallery but with each one my heart sunk.  It's like FORBIDDEN BROADWAY wedged under a Sherwood Forest bush.

Also - groaningly - there is a heavy gay sensibility going on... oh look Little John fancies Robin, oh look Will Scarlett marries Alan A-Dale.. but it's done with such a clanging "look-at-me, look-at-me - aren't I being Modern?" feel that it nearly turned me homophobic.

The show is directed by Bryan Hodgson and I suspect he sat in the rehearsals and run-throughs too busy laughing at the antics of his cast to actually see that there was more mugging going on than in 1970s New York and rein SOMETHING in.

The cast gallop over a truly ugly set by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust - yes it took two people to make something this fakakte - and as usual, the Union draws it's cast from the wealth of cruise ship entertainers, understudies and other play-as-cast performers that is their usual talent pool.  It was with a heavy heart that as usual at productions like these the audience of family and friends whooped and screamed like they were watching the second coming, or the first going.

I sometimes think I give the Union a bad rap but then I go to a production there and the heart sinks again.  What is annoying is that TWANG!! was no doubt seized upon to revive with the idea that it could all be reduced down to banal camp but where is the brave theatrical soul who will revive Bart's wartime BLITZ - albeit that is a huge undertaking - or his Liverpool docker's musical MAGGIE MAY - two shows, I hasten to add, that have stonking lead roles for women?  Not with this tide I fear.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

THE SELFISH GIANT at the Vaudeville - a Chambers piece...

Constant Reader, you will remember that I have made a few trips to the Vaudeville Theatre recently as this is where Dominic Dromgoole's Classic Spring Theatre Company are staging their year-long Oscar Wilde season.  So far they have all been enjoyable productions, I guess they are forgiven the eventual miss-step.

THE SELFISH GIANT is billed as a folk opera but I think that might be pitching it a bit high.  It seemed more like a glorified schools production.  The cast certainly put their all into it but I found it all rather unmemorable.

Unlike his plays that are leavened by his epigrams and memorable characters, Oscar Wilde's fairy tales hit you with the high-minded, moralistic tone of his Victorian times.  THE SELFISH GIANT is no different.

A Giant owns a lovely garden which is used by a group of school children in his absence.  But when he returns, he is angry that they play there so he builds a wall around it, his actions resulting in the garden being visited by a long cold Winter.  The children manage to get through the wall but run away when the giant reappears, all but a boy trying to climb a tree so the giant helps him up into the branches and tells the children they can play there anytime.  The wall is knocked down, bringing the return of Spring.

He is saddened that in the following years he never sees the boy he helped climb the tree again until, late in his life, he finds the boy under a new tree.  The boy has stigmata on his hands and feet and says to the giant that as he once let the boy play in his garden, the giant can play in his garden in Paradise.  The Giant dies happily....

Bill Buckhurst's production is all very bright and bouncy on a set of step-ladders and balloons, with cardboard archive boxes used as the wall.  The cast of eight who play the children are all very 'up' and grinning while Jeff Nicholson as The Giant stomped about looking glum and singing - a little unsteadily - in a deep bass voice.

Guy Chambers was playing the piano in the onstage band and seemed happy with the response from an audience who I suspect were mostly friends of the cast.  We were given little pen lights going into the auditorium to help give the show a starry night, which was fun.

So there we go, at only 70-odd minutes it hardly outstayed it's welcome but it was all a bit school-play for me... if they could find some genuine pain or pathos in it, it might make more of a lasting impact.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

FANNY AND ALEXANDER at the Old Vic - life and death on stage....

Ingmar Bergman, one of the handful of visionary directors whose surname can sum-up a genre of film, was also a renowned theatre director so I suspect he would be bemused that some of his most intensely cinematic works have been adapted for the stage.  Unsurprisingly Ivo van Hove has directed three Bergman adaptations - CRIES AND WHISPERS, PERSONA, AFTER THE REHEARSAL - while there have also been stage versions of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE.

The most well-known Bergman adaptation was in 1973 when Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler transformed his 1955 film SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT into the musical A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.  Now Matthew Warchus' tenure at the Old Vic gives us a new stage version of Bergman's 1982 epic family drama FANNY AND ALEXANDER which won four Academy Awards, a remarkable feat for a non-English language film.

When I heard about the stage play I did wonder how on earth they were going to make Bergman's highly cinematic semi-autobiographical family comedy-drama which is shot through with themes of supernatural and haunting magic realism work on stage.  What Stephen Beresford - who wrote the wonderful Matthew Warchus film PRIDE - has done with his adaptation is to make it a highly theatrical production with stage effects, jokey front-cloth warnings about the play's length, and choreographed movement replacing realistic playing. 

This immediately makes Beresford's adaptation it's own entity - the original cinema release was shorter than the play - but it's three and a half hour running time swept by thanks to Max Webster's involving production; no mean feat when one considers there are roughly 23 it. 

Fanny and Alexander are the young children of a theatrical family; their parents Emilie and Oscar Ekdahl own a theatre in Uppsala, Sweden and also are the stars of the theatre company.  Their extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins all live in a large townhouse which is presided over by their Grandmother Helena, a former lead actress who now condescends to playing featured roles such as mothers and queens.  Attended by devoted servants, the Ekdahls gather to celebrate Christmas and plan the upcoming production of HAMLET, also at the table is Helena's old friend and admirer Isaak Jacobi, a puppetmaker.

It takes a while to keep track of all Fanny and Alexander's housemates but through some sharp playing one soon got to know that Uncle Gustav Adolf, although married with a daughter also has designs on the maid Maj - to which she happily complies - and Uncle Carl who is always complaining about his chatterbox German wife Lydia. 

Alexander's worrying visions of a cloaked figure tragically portend Oscar's sudden death from a heart attack which leaves Emilie worried what the future holds for her and her children.  Not long after the funeral however, she announces to Fanny and Alexander that the local bishop Edvard Vergérus has asked her to marry him and she has accepted.  Vergérus, a seemingly gentle if overly-pious man, insists that Emilie and the children move with him to start their new life in his own home where he lives with his infirm aunt, his spinster sister and a maid.

Emilie and her children discover their new home to be a cold and emotionless one, ruled by Vergérus with a puritanical iron fist.  He forbids them from seeing their former family and singles out Alexander for punishment.  When locked in their bedroom, Alexander sees the ghosts of two drowned girls who tell him they are the drowned daughters from Vergérus' first marriage.  The spiteful maid Justina reports this to the bishop who beats Alexander mercilessly.  Emilie manages to escape to see her former mother-in-law Helena to confide her unhappiness but also that she is now pregnant.

Emilie confronts Vergérus and asks for a divorce, he refuses and tells her that if she leaves he will claim custody of Fanny and Alexander on the grounds of desertion.  But there is a greater power than Vergérus' chilly morality... Helena asks her old friend Isaak to help the children escape from their pious prison through his magic illusions and hide them in his puppet workshop.  While there Isaak warns them about his strange nephew Ishmael, who is locked in his own room for safety.

A defiant but weary Emilie tells the angry Vergérus she will never return her children to his house and tricks him into drinking a glass laced with her sleeping powders so she can escape... at the same time as Alexander is drawn to the locked room and meets the mysterious Ishmael who illustrates how thoughts can become reality... 

As I said Max Webster's production remained fast-moving and involving at all times, managing to balance the bleak Vergérus world with the more emotional Ekdahl one; he also knew how to vary the tone from Vergérus' abuse of Alexander to the hilarious scene where Uncles Carl and Gustav Adolf attempted to meet the bishop to try to resolve things only for Gustav Adolf - who had been warned to hide his anger - to explode in foul-mouthed disgust at Vergerus' hypocrisy.  His linking device - of having the servants narrate the events, while putting great emphasis on the different menus served for dinner in each household - was a clever one.

Tom Pye's stylish but simple set designs conjured up Fanny and Alexander's different environments superbly as did Mark Henderson's nuanced lighting.  From a rotating cast of four pairs of child actors, Zaris Angel Hator as Fanny and, in particular, Guillermo Bedward as Alexander were very good.

Among a strong cast, there were fine performances from Thomas Arnold as the mournful Uncle Carl, Karina Fernandez as the drab maid Justina (although not outshining Harriet Andersson in the film), Vivian Oparah as the life-affirming maid Maj, Lolita Chakrabarti as the icy Helena Vergérus, Catherine Walker's passionate Emilie and Sargon Yelda as the fated Oscar.

In a trio of excellent performances, special praise to Jonathan Slinger as the fun-loving and volatile Uncle Gustav Adolf, Michael Pennington as the genial but mysterious Isaak and Kevin Doyle as Edvard Vergérus, who while making you hate him, suggested the emotionally-scared man behind the monster.

But ruling the stage - as well as her character ruled her family - Penelope Wilton was a glorious Helena: it was all there, the former stage leading lady irked at no longer getting the glamorous roles, the indomitable matriarch, and the woman who realizes she is still able to love and be loved.  It was a role made for her to play as it echoed the strong no-nonsense women she has played in THE SECRET RAPTURE, ...BERNARDA ALBA, TAKEN AT MIDNIGHT and THE CHALK GARDEN.

An excellent choice to celebrate Ingmar Bergman's centenary, and his wonderful all-too-human characters, and the perfect production to do it with.  After all, Bergman himself said that film "was the costly, exacting mistress" but theatre was "the faithful wife".

I want to see the film again now!