Sunday, January 21, 2018

BARNUM at the Menier Chocolate Factory - Life Under The Small Top...

It's not for want of productions that I have never seen the Cy Coleman musical BARNUM which I have finally caught up with at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  Michael Crawford, Paul Nicholas, Peter Duncan, Christopher Fitzgerald and Brian Conley have all played the title role in UK productions and now it falls on the lofty shoulders of comedian Marcus Brigstocke.

BARNUM opened on Broadway in 1980 with Jim Dale in the title role and upcoming actress Glenn Close as his long-suffering wife Charity, it was nominated for 10 Tony Awards but so was EVITA which won most of the top prizes, BARNUM eventually ending up with 3, including the Best Actor nod for Dale.

For such a populist and popular musical, my only reference for it was the 1983 skating routine by Torvell and Dean, and I find that odd as I am a bit of a musicals fan.  None of the songs are particularly famous in their own right and I think ultimately it might be because the material is actually fairly thin.  The role of Barnum needs to be played by a charismatic, show-off, starry performer because - not only is he hardly ever offstage - but he needs to carry the thinness of the book.

For all the time onstage, what do we ever learn of P.T. Barnum through Mark Bramble's threadbare book?  That he was a bit of a chancer and believed in flim-flam as much as the punters he was always trying to attract, be it showbiz or politics?  What do we learn of his wife Charity?  That she was that most awful of things - long-suffering - and met all of her husband's outlandish plans with a wry smile and a pat on the hand?  Yeesh.  The workman-like lyrics by Michael Stewart tell us as much as we need to know and nothing more.  Bramble and Stewart both were responsible for the paper-thin book for 42nd STREET so it comes as no surprise that they are similarly bereft of imagination here.

Cy Coleman's music is also fitfully memorable but does finally pull out a showstopper with "Come Follow The Band" but it's sad when one considers this was the man responsible for LITTLE ME, SWEET CHARITY, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY and CITY OF ANGELS, but maybe he flourished better in more hard-nosed entertainment worlds than folksy Americana.

Marcus Brigstocke certainly gives a likeable and quietly-winning performance as Barnum, one that certainly fits within the Menier's limited performing space, but therein lies the production's problem.  As I said before, the role cries out for a performer who is not content in simply inhabiting a space - Dale, Crawford, et al are all larger-than-life, unabashed show-off performers who also have that underlying thread of being unlikeable.  As I said, Brigstocke is likeable which isn't enough for this role.  His singing voice also seemed to remain in his mouth - SING OUT P.T.!

Where the production scores is in it's female characters - for all the afore-mentioned dullness of material, Laura Pitt-Pulford was very good as Charity, the level of musicality seemed to perk up whenever she was onstage and her lovely voice got the most out of her earnest ballads.  The inexplicably busy Rosalie Craig isn't a patch on Pitt-Pulford.

Also hitting their mark are Celinde Schoenmaker as the Swedish diva Jenny Lind - her voice belts out and bounces around the small Menier auditorium so you really feel it's force - and Tupele Dorgu also registers as both Joyce Heth, Barnum's first successful 'personality', and in the second act as a luscious-toned blues singer.

The ensemble seemingly never draw breath as they spin, dance, somersault and cavort around Paul Farnsworth's mini-big top set - mind out for the flame-twirler!  Shining out of them is the remarkable Danny Collins, fresh from Matthew Bourne's EARLY ADVENTURES, whose sinuous physicality stands out in Rebecca Howell's energetic choreography.

Gordon Greenberg, whose Chichester production of GUYS AND DOLLS so impressed, here keeps the action flowing and ingeniously uses every opportunity that the Menier's playing space can provide but, again we have to face the fact, that with such thin material to work with Greenberg has no other option but to keep the show moving and distract us with flames, gymnastics and a constant whirl of movement.

It is a tribute to Greenberg, musical director Alex Parker and the non-stop cast that the show ultimately wins one over - it sure ain't because of the material they have to work with.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

DE PROFUNDIS at the Vaudeville Theatre: Oscar Wilde and the space between...

The first theatre visit of 2018 was to see Simon Callow performing Frank McGuinness' adaptation of DE PROFUNDIS, Oscar Wilde's deeply moving exploration of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, written three months before his release from Reading Prison.

Oscar had begun his prison sentence of two years hard labour in the spring of 1895, being housed first in the London jails of Pentonville and Wandsworth where he soon was physically broken by the poor food, deprived conditions and the meaningless, gruelling tasks that made up his sentence.  In the chapel at Wandsworth, he collapsed and burst his right ear-drum.  He was transferred to Reading jail in the hopes he would be given easier work but the brutal governor made sure he was punished for any infringement.

In 1897 a new governor Major Nelson was installed and made a point of visiting his infamous prisoner and bringing him a book from his own library, a small act of kindness that reduced Oscar to tears.  Oscar had not been allowed to write anything while in prison but Nelson soon arranged for him to have a page of paper at a time to write to friends and his legal team, an important lifeline to any prisoner approaching the end of their sentence.

Apart from the surroundings and the debilitating nature of his punishment, Oscar had been emotionally distraught that he had heard nothing from Lord Alfred Douglas, his volatile young lover.  With time to dwell on the catastrophic nature of their relationship, Oscar slowly worked on a letter to 'Bosie' which took the last three months of his confinement, each page was taken away when completed.  He was not allowed to send it to Douglas or Oscar's close friend Robbie Ross but Major Nelson gave him the many pages when he was released.

On release he gave it to Ross to have a copy typed up and the original sent to Douglas but Ross wisely did the reverse; Douglas burnt his copy without bothering to read it.  The first publication was in 1905, five years after Oscar's death from Meningitis, believed to have been a result of the fall in Wandsworth.  It is a bitter irony that Lord Alfred Douglas was himself imprisoned for six months in 1923 for libelling no less that Winston Churchill.

Alone in his cell without any distractions, Oscar cast his memory back over their three years together and reveals to Lord Alfred - and himself - that their relationship was always one-sided with Oscar becoming just a pawn in the power-play between members of the poisonous family and, once he was no longer of use, was discarded...
HM Prison, Reading
Dear Bosie,
After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain ...
Oscar recalls with bitter clarity the times when his generosity wasn't reciprocated, most notably the occasion, when staying in Brighton, when he nursed Lord Alfred through a bout of influenza but when Oscar caught it 'Bosie' left him alone to suffer alone and when asked to simply fetch some water for him, Oscar was met with screaming rage.  He also recalls the times when rooms were hired for him to meet a deadline for a play, only to be distracted by an insistent Douglas to take him out to many dinners.

Oscar constantly returns to the misery he inflicted on his wife Constance and his sons Cyril and Vyvyan and his misery in the knowledge that a court order forbade him from ever seeing them.  He contrasts this with the damaging relationship between Lord Alfred and his dangerously vindictive father The Marquess of Queensbury.  After Queensbury's eldest son Francis was found dead, a suspected suicide, having been implicated in a homosexual relationship with the Prime Minister, Queensbury pursued Oscar and Lord Alfred until Oscar fatally sued him for slander.  Citing that Bosie had wanted to revenge the abuse that his mother had suffered at the hands of his father, Oscar tells Bosie he just has to see how Constance is a woman truly destroyed by a husband's actions.

Remarkably, despite his situation, there are still flashes of Oscar's preening ego at what the world has lost with his fall from grace.  He writes well on the that great leveller, Pain - he remembers the disgrace he felt when he was surrounded by a jeering crowd while left to stand on Clapham Junction to the way to prison, and also the heartbreaking pathos of seeing his friend Robbie Ross raise his hat to him in salute as Oscar was led away from the courtroom. The sting in the tail is that on release he still wishes to see Bosie again, even after all that he now understands of their relationship. They did meet again three months after his release but lived together only for a few months in Naples before parting forever due to family pressures and their own disenchantment with each other.

Simon Callow certainly caught all the shifting emotions Oscar conjures up in the letter seated most of the time in a hard-backed chair, occasionally trudging around the stage as Oscar would have walked around the prison yard.  It was a very powerful performance aided by Frank McGuinness' adaptation of the text.

It was well paced by director Mark Rosenblatt and the stark overhead lighting was courtesy of Paul Keogan.  With two more breaks between productions in Classic Spring's year-long Oscar Wilde celebration at the Vaudeville, DE PROFUNDIS might just come back for another limited engagement.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Dvd/150: SUFFRAGETTE (Sarah Gavron, 2015)

The struggle to win the vote for British women in the early 1900s oddly fits into a genre of British film: working-class group make a stand against their lot eg. MADE IN DAGENHAM, PRIDE...

SUFFRAGETTE is expertly directed by Sarah Gavron but Abi Morgan's script at times feels obvious.

Morgan's fictional heroine is Maud, an East-End laundress, wife and mother. While witnessing suffragettes smashing shop windows, Maud recognizes co-worker Violet among them. When the government refuse to change the law, a brutal attack by policemen leads to Maud's arrest and jail sentence which confirms her as an activist; her loss of job and family cannot make her betray the cause.

Carey Mulligan is wonderful as Maud with fine support from Anne-Marie Duff as Violet.  Helena Bonham Carter never quite convinces as a politicized pharmacist but there is a marvellous cameo from Meryl Streep as Emmaline Pankhurst.

Shelf or charity shop? A keeper in the dvd limbo of a plastic storage box.  No room sadly to mention the fine support of Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson or that Helena Bonham Carter is the great-grand-daughter of Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister who refused the suffragettes the vote!

Monday, January 01, 2018

and the envelope please...

It's the end of the year so apart from comedy fireworks going off everywhere it also means it's time for the 11th Annual's the one that they want.

BEST DRAMA (Original/Revival)
THE FERRYMAN - Jez Butterworth (Gielgud)

ANGELS IN AMERICA (Lyttelton) / THE GLASS MENAGERIE  (Duke of Yorks) /

 BEST MUSICAL (Original/Revival)
 FOLLIES - Stephen Sondheim (Olivier)

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (Dominion) / EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE (Apollo) / 42nd STREET (Drury Lane) / THE LIFE (Southwark Playhouse)

 ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND - Christopher Wheeldon (Covent Garden)


 ANDREW SCOTT - Hamlet (Almeida)

BRYAN CRANSTON (Network) / CONLETH HILL (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

IMELDA STAUNTON - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter)

LAURA DONNELLY (The Ferryman) / CHERRY JONES (The Glass Menagerie) / 
 AUDRA McDONALD (Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill) / RUTH WILSON (Hedda Gabler)

BEST ACTOR (Musical)
 PHILIP QUAST - Follies (Olivier)

ROBERT FAIRCHILD (An American in Paris) / ALEXANDER HANSON (...Committee...)
/ TOM LISTER (42nd Street) / JOHN McCREA (Everybody's Talking About Jamie)

 IMELDA STAUNTON - Follies (Olivier)

JANIE DEE (Follies) / CLARE HALSE (42nd Street) / 
SANDRA MARVIN (...Committee...) / JOSIE WALKER (Everybody's Talking About Jamie)

NATHAN LANE - Angels In America (Lyttelton)

STUART GRAHAM (The Ferryman) / JOHN HODGKINSON (The Ferryman) /  

DEARBHLA MOLLOY - The Ferryman (Gielgud)

BRID BRENNAN (The Ferryman) / SUSAN BROWN (Angels In America) / 
 KATE O'FLYNN (The Glass Menagerie) / JULIET STEVENSON (Hamlet)

PETER FORBES - Follies (Olivier)

MARK HADFIELD (Pinocchio) / CORNELL S. JOHN (The Life) / 
CHRIS KIELY (Yank!) / ANTHONY O'DONNELL (...Committee...)

 SHARON D. CLARKE - The Life (Southwark Playhouse)

DAWN HOPE (Follies) / LUCIE SHORTHOUSE (Everybody's Talking About Jamie)

AKRAM KHAN - Desh (Sadler's Wells)

DANNY COLLINS (Early Adventures) / STEVEN McRAE (The Dream) / 
STEVEN McRAE (Rubies) / LIAM MOWER (Cinderella)

 ZENAIDA YANOWSKY - Marguerite and Armand (Covent Garden)


DOMINIC COOKE - Follies (Olivier)

MARIANNE ELLIOTT (Angels in America) / IVO VAN HOVE (Hedda Gabler)
JAMES MACDONALD (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) / SAM MENDES (The Ferryman)

 VICKI MORTIMER - Follies (Olivier)

BOB CROWLEY (Alices's Adventures in Wonderland / BOB CROWLEY (An American In Paris) / IAN MacNEIL (Angels in America) / JAN VERSWEYVELD (Hedda Gabler)

  PAULE CONSTABLE - Angels in America (Lyttelton)

PAULE CONSTABLE (Follies) / NATASHA KATZ (An American In Paris)
NATASHA KATZ (The Glass Menagerie) / JAN VERSWEYVELD (Hedda Gabler)

 BILL DEAMER - Follies (Savoy)

TOM JACKSON GREAVES (The Life) / KATE PRINCE (Everybody's Talking About Jamie) / RANDY SKINNER, GOWER CHAMPION (42nd Street) / CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON (An American in Paris)

CRYSTAL PITE - Flight Pattern (Covent Garden)

FREDERICK ASHTON (Marguerite and Armand) / KENNETH McMILLAN (Mayerling) / KENNETH McMILLAN (The Judas Tree) / CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)