Thursday, 13 March 2008

Review: Major Barbara, National Theatre

After an exciting production of Saint Joan in 2007 (which has just won the Olivier for best revival), the National gives Shaw another try with Nicholas Hytner’s more conventional staging of his 1905 play Major Barbara, also in the large and open Olivier Theatre. Essentially this is a three act dialectical exercise exploring the morality of money and religion (with weapons manufacture and supply on the side), it is also part light comedy and part social commentary. It shows the playwrights famous predilection for weighty, wordy and lengthy argument, but these arguments never bore (and the dialogue has been pruned slightly for 21st century attention spans), leading me to ask myself many questions which stayed with me for a considerable time.

At this point I should come out as an unashamed Shavian; I love his meaty dissection of ideas, his political and social insight, and am always interested in his commentary on British Society (much of which is still pertinent today. Jokes about buying a Peerage anyone?). I thought St Joan was a triumph, with an extraordinary central performance from a strong and unabashed actress (Ann Marie Duff), in a production that was imaginative and psychologically insightful. Unfortunately Major Barbara lack this kind of magnetic central performance; although Hayley Atwell is very decent as the eponymous Salvation Army officer, she is a little too timid at times, and I was unconvinced that her actions always chimed with her personality. Hytner’s direction is, as usual, exacting and intelligent, and the play speaks very much for itself without any gimmicks on the director’s part.

The real centre of the play is Andrew Undershaft (played wonderfully by Simon Russell Beal, a sort of utopian monster), Barbara and her siblings’ erstwhile father and a major arms manufacturer. In a rather uneven first act (less ideas, more light society comedy), the reliably eccentric and diverse upper class Undershafts are introduced. A bland eldest son, a silly daughter and her stupid twit of a fiancée, Barbara and her fellow Salvation Army Officer, professor of Greek and fiancée Adolphus, and of course an imperious matriarch, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Clare Higgins, funny, but trying a bit too hard). Their long absent father, an explanation that he is last in a long line of foundling Undershafts who have been acquired to take over the family arms business, and the fact that he intends to keep this ‘family’ tradition, are all added into the mix.

The second act is the heart of the play for me. We are in Barbara’s Salvation Army Mission in the East End, her father is about to visit (a reciprocal arrangement; she visits his factory tomorrow) and she is dealing with difficult destitutes and the possible closure of her hall. Barbara is a fiercely moral woman, who cannot see the need to compromise or bend in any way to human weakness or the inconvenient realities of society; she and her fellow soldiers could be said to be fighting the status quo of society, but strangely reinforcing its protestant work ethic at the same time. Barbara’s father offers a large donation to save the Mission and Barbara is implacably opposed to accepting it, feeling it is tainted and effectively immoral earnings. It really is a fascinating debate, money versus principals, and principals strained in the face of very useful money. Barbara is the classic absolutist; I would not have hesitated for a moment in relieving a rich man from his burden, even if only relatively modestly, which is exactly what her superior officer does. This moral conflict pushes Barbara to leave the Salvation Army, her ideal view of her own place in the world smashed, as anyone who has ever faced a truly bitter disappointment will be able to understand.

The third act sees Barbara and Adolphus (a wonderful and bearded Paul Ready, long a favourite of mine, giving a performance that grows visibly from scene to scene), back in civvy street, and the family Undershaft visiting the weapons factory (rows and rows of missiles filling the huge Olivier dead space). Adolphus, formerly a meek intellectual, puts himself forward to become the next foundling (his parents were never married legally in Britain, a slightly weak ploy) to run the Undershaft business. An engrossing exchange on the rights and wrongs of the business is conducted, but eventually we are left with the inevitable victory of capital over ideals, and with the kind of capitalism Shaw outlines that is a pretty bleak prospect. But it seems that Mr Undershaft really thinks that giving everyone the gun and grenade might empower the oppressed and eventually stop war. Us post MAD (mutually assured destruction) 21st Century dwellers think this sounds quite mad, but many of the other arguments sill ring true.

Mr Undershaft is an extraordinary man, he is a cruel capitalist, but beneficent employer, a utopian who believes in humanity, yet also one who would sell the weapons to all parties and destroy it. He understands the conflict in the human condition, he has money and power, and therefore he is a potentially dangerous man, and certainly a formidable one. He blasts his son, lecturing him on the true nature of British Government (capitalists like him, naturally), he shrewdly negotiates an heir to his business, and he roguishly charms his estranged wife. I felt that Mr Russell Beal really gave a first class performance of this complex and compelling character, he was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening.

Major Barbara is a play rich in ideas, satisfying intellectually precisely because it really makes you think and weigh up ideas. A fractured society, the morality of the super rich, absolutism and relativism, the world arms trade are all wonderfully addressed by Shaw, and I myself find it hard to come to solid conclusions on some of those key point, or at least I can certainly see two arguments. This is a solid and worthwhile production, one that I would not hesitate in recommending.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Thoughts to Come

Yes, I’ve seen the Vertical Hour, and I’ll post about it soon. In short I thought it simplistic and reductive, with the second act being much more bearable (less political, though there were moments), though the first act sent me to sleep. I’m just not a fan of Sir David Hare of late, I think he is smug and pretentious, plus taking the easy route and preaching to the converted. Also, in this production casting was a problem, I saw Bill Nighy, and poor Anton Lesser doesn’t compare in the charm stakes (which in a way is good, because I think the character is nasty and brutish in a refined English Middle Class sort of way).

I must also mention the new LaBute plays at the Bush in detail at some point. Whilst I like some of LaBute’s work, and thought there were merits to this latest production (particularly the superior Land of the Dead, a 20 minute short), I also think his self regard is a little bit too high of late. Really Neil, you’re not reinventing the genre, you are writing interesting essentially domestic dramas, with bigger themes transposed onto them. You are not writing Brechtian epics or state of the nation pieces (even if you might aspire to the latter).

Much Ado About Nothing, Olivier; The Lover/The Collection, Comedy Theatre; Uncle Vanya, Rose of Kingston; Thoughts on the new Rose Theatre

Round Up

Here is a quick round up of some of the other things I’ve been to seen of late.

Much Ado About Nothing, Olivier

A very decent traditional production by Nicholas Hytner without any gimmick or clever device, just two powerful central performers (Simon Russell Beal and Zoë Wannamaker as Benedick and Beatrice) giving enthralling and intelligent performances, on which the whole of the rest of the play stands. The ensemble is good, though I thought Claudio was a little too wooden, but very winsome, and a decent Dogberry from Mark Addy. I have to admit that the first half of the play is less my cup of tea than the more serious second half, and the play and cast really do come into their own once the situation is established and the characters are allowed to develop. Why oh why do audiences insist on laughing themselves silly for the sake of show (yes, I know you can understand the lines); laughing at the ‘Kill Claudio’ line is all too common but still disturbing (especially after the devastating jilting scene has pulled us firmly away from comedy), please stop it!

The Lover/The Collection. Comedy Theatre

A very welcome outing for these two short early Pinter plays. The cast is top notch, with Gina McKee, Richard Coyle and Charlie Cox in The Lover, being joined by Tim West for The Collection. Both plays are vintage Pinter, dealing with the psychology of identity, sexuality, menace, fantasy and imagination. The Lover is almost absurdist in the rapidly changing relationship between the central couple, whereas The Collection is a more sinister piece, but which also exudes dangerous sexuality (a scene between Cox and Coyle is threatening in tone, but also extraordinarily sexy, and Cox, playing a rescued ‘slum boy’ lounging about on a Sunday morning with his patron and implied lover, West, is trying to dominate the situation with his sexual hold over the older man). I could write a lot more about the excellent cast (and what a discovery Cox is) and the interesting subject matter, but maybe I should just urge you to see the plays, they are compelling and atmospheric viewing.

Uncle Vanya, Rose of Kingston

Sir Peter Hall’s production of Uncle Vanya for the English Touring Theatre opens the new Rose of Kingston. Vanya should deeply move me, it is one of my favourite plays to watch or read, but this production was solid, maybe even stolid, and failed to light up the stage (I should ass that I saw the play in early-ish previews, and no doubt it has improved by now…). Nicholas Le Prevost was simply too high pitched for my liking; he needed to do a lot less declamation. Michelle Dockery was a picture of restraint as Yelena, and Loo Brealey was a very good natured Sonya, these performances being the highlights of the evening for me (incidentally I loved Dockery in Hall’s Bath production of Pygmalion last year, it comes to the Old Vic later this year, and is well worth catching).

I wrote the following about the Rose of Kingston on in response to a Guardian blog, but it (sort of) makes sense on its own anyway:

The Rose Theatre, Kingston

I personally think that the space is difficult; it is a very wide open stage with what look like only little doors leading to the backstage areas. Will touring production, made for more conventional pro arch spaces, be comfortable here? As You Like It a couple of years back seemed to fill the space better than the current Vanya does (a reasonable production with a bit of over enthusiasm in places in my view), which is interesting as it was created for the space (but then also to tour afterwards). It’s not that drama needs to necessarily fill a space, but that a difficult, large or remote stage can take away from the drama and sometimes even damage the actual performances (actors will tell you about special spaces and difficult spaces).
On the bigger issue of artistic leadership and policy, I’m sure Stephen Unwin will create some great theatre for The Rose (and I’ve enjoyed much of his work with ETT), should the money be available for in house productions to be produced (which is not certain). But we also have to think about the local audience; genteel elderly Surry folks will not be after challenging cutting edge work (of course a minority will be, but not in huge numbers and not 5 or 6 times a year I would imagine), rather the classics and dependable names, plus middle brow touring productions are what is wanted, and saleable. Theatres should challenge and try and develop their audience if they want to be more than mediocre, but The Rose has no subsidy and cannot take the risks that I’m sure Mr Unwin and Sir Peter might have liked, at least from the start anyway.
On design, I don’t go in for imitations of Elizabethan theatres, especially ones that use modern theatrical techniques and have a roof (at least there is a mad purity to The Globe, but thank god there is only one of them). Actually at the Rose of Kingston, I found the action on the stage can be quite remote from some parts of the house, more so than in a conventional space with the same number of seats, but situated closer to the stage. They should have gone for a more Swan (RSC Stratford) like configuration, intimate and ‘historical’, but everyone gets a seat.

Of course it is a victory to have a new theatre built, and particularly in the temple to shiny consumerism that is Kingston, and even better to see full houses (as when I saw Vanya), but to entrench itself in the local theatre ecology and gain a loyal audience, compromises need to be made (and hey, who said Blond Bombshells, The Tempest, Mr Green and Sweet William are bad things in themselves? This is not the National!). The Orange Tree over in Richmond gets it right by giving a classical programme (including discoveries and oddities, but which fit into ‘classical’ prejudices usually), with a real house style and artistic ethos, and they have found a loyal breed of, and I want to say small c conservative, elderly ladies and gents to support them over the years (but they have less the half the number of seats to fill). But of course The Rose is entirely a different creature then the Orange Tree, so I’d better stop there.

Sondheim: Sweeney Todd at the cinema; Assassins, Landor Theatre; Merrily We Roll Along, Watermill Theatre


I’m a great admire of the work of Stephen Sondheim, his output is extraordinary and varied, and his musicals are amongst my favourite (and inspire devotion, bordering on obsession, in many people). Sondheim’s shows are effortlessly witty and far more intelligent than your average musical theatre fare, he has also written in a dizzying array of styles and created some truly groundbreaking musical theatre (I love the musical genre, but I’d say that Sondheim’s shows are more like plays with songs, and he’s also had some pretty brilliant collaborators and book writers to help him along the way). So it is a delight to see three examples of his work within the space of a week.

Firstly Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has finally hit the big screen, in a production that matches Sondheim’s music with the equally singular talents of director Tim Burton. I was going to say ‘grotesque and dark’ director Tim Burton, but the musical is already replete with those qualities in its original stage form. I’ve loved Sweeney since I first heard it, and have enjoyed several stage versions over the years (particularly John Doyle’s actor/musical version a couple of years ago), but seeing Sweeney on a cinema screen is a totally different experience. Firstly, it is much altered from the stage version, with songs (including the ballad, effectively the chilling chorus) totally cut or severely truncated. This works well, and the action moves apace in the 2 hour movie, though of course I do miss my familiar favourites. Actually at times the story moves a bit too fast, and I wonder whether those less familiar with the story will understand the specifics. The world Burton has created is truly Grand Guignol, with slit throats spurting blood almost into the audience, and the dream sequence (By the Sea), in which Mrs Lovett imagines blissful retirement to the coast with her beloved Sweeney, is beautifully realised in vivid colour, as opposed to the grime of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop and a bleak Dickensian London, but the song, and the film as a whole, is also acutely funny. Johnny Depp is a delight as Todd, and you soon get used to his rather strange accent and singing voice (yes, a David Bowie impressionist sound-alike), Helena Bonham Carter is also great as sexually frustrated and ever resourceful Mrs Lovett. The supporting cast is generally in fine voice (better than the leads if I’m honest, but the acting makes up for the slightly weak singing), and Ed Sanders as Toby, Mrs Lovett’s kitchen boy, is a particular delight (he is reportedly 14, but I would have guessed 12. Certainly a great child actor, with a strong voice). Sweeny Todd on screen delivers more gore, close up nuances and a realistically grim setting than the stage can deliver, so be prepared to be immersed in blood for a couple of hours. The film is not perfect, but it is highly enjoyable and a credit ton the original musical.

Over at the Landor Theatre (above a pub in Stockwell), a young company called West 72nd presents Mr Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, which premiered in 1990, but is fondly remembered on this side of the pond for its 1992 Donmar production (I was only 10, so I missed out). Again, this is a show which I love (but have only seen once before in a very decent Sheffield Crucible staging), and this production did not disappoint. The musical is an interlinking tale of the people who have either killed a US President, or tried their hardest to do so, which might sound a difficult premise for a musical, but it works chillingly well. What are these peoples’ motivation asks the show, and the answer seems to be a kind of perverse fame, recognition at any cost, and a desperate desire to prove their worth (the most powerful man in the world being a convenient vehicle to do this), and by the way, it is likely that most of them were insane. Political violence is as old as the hills, but these assassinations were not organised by great political movements or sinister powers, they were carried out by individuals (or small groups) who seem to utterly believe in the malevolence of the president and the rightness of their cause however dotty it may seem to ordinary people, they are angry little people, typically deluded you could say. So the show is ambitious, it is epic, it represents some important moments in American and world history (from Lincoln to JFK’s murder), so staging the show at the tiny Landor might seem foolish, but with most of Sondheim’s shows they adapt very well to intimate stages. A cast of 14 fresh faced performers play the various killers and presidents, directed by Ben Carrick, and they all suit their roles astonishingly well from a physical point of view. Jeff Nicholson and Sebastian Palka stood out for me in particular, portraying Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield in 1881) and Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President McKinley in 1901, and also the subject of a fascinating play Americans, by Eric Schlosser) respectively, both having good acting talent and strong voices (not always a given in musical theatre on the fringe). Mr Nicholson represented the deranged Guiteau with great panache (‘I am going to the Lordy!’) and his singing voice is a distinctive and pleasing instrument. The rest of the ensemble cast were also of good quality (and the actor playing Lee Harvey Oswald is really the spitting image). The production has some slack moments, particularly towards the end, but overall the production is highly entertaining and skilfully performed.

My third Sondheim treat of the week was Merrily We Roll Along, a noted 1981 Broadway flop with a book by George Furth. Staged at the charming and bijou (yes I mean tiny) Watermill Theatre in a picturesque pastoral setting a few miles outside of Newbury, complete with running water and ducks, by John Doyle in one of his now familiar actor/musician production (and I’ve loved many of these staging, including the Sweeney which I mentioned previously, and a 2006 Company on Broadway which had some absolutely spine tingling brilliant moments). This is Sondheim, and indeed Doyle, at their best. The story is of a disaffected composer, Frank, who has sold out his theatrical ideals for a place in Hollywood, and it is told backwards, from a glamorous, but empty party in 1980 to his arrival in New York in 1955, ready to forge the friendships that would shape his life, and with high hopes of artistic fulfilment. It is a brilliantly poignant story about friendship and art, with the imperative of money and success poisoning both. Frank’s story, at first seemingly successful and certainly financially comfortable, becomes more and more interesting and painful as we see how he has ascended to his current position. The acting is first rate, as is the singing, and the music provided by the cast is (as always) surprisingly good, with playing of instruments, acting and singing all coming together to great dramatic effect. Doyle uses the small stage cleverly, with little or no sets or props, and non naturalistic staging (and I don’t mean impressionistic), keeping costumes fixed and ornament to a minimum, it is musical theatre in the raw you might say (no tap numbers, no elaborate costumes or overpowering sets, the acting and emotion speaking for themselves, as well as setting the various scenes). The cast are superbly talented (can you move, act and play an instrument more or less at the same time?), with Sam Kenyon giving a brilliantly coherent and never over acted portrayal of Frank, which genuinely moved me (I should admit that I though Kenyon brilliant, but I didn’t recognise him at first. Now looking at his credits I realise I’ve seen him in several productions, but he finally is allowed to come into his own in this meaty leading role). A fine production and an exceedingly pleasant trip to the countryside (but how it made me want to be in New York City!).

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Thoughts on Blogging and the Theatre


What is the use of the blog? What am I using the web for, and how have (and how will) our social interactions be changed by the net? These questions have been in my mind over the last few months, partially due to circumstances leaving me less time to write for my blog (or no time really), and partly because I am a longstanding social networking refusnik with a mixed attitude towards the merits or otherwise of universal self publishing.

Ronan McDonal, author of a new book called The Death of the Critic, gave an interesting interview to theatrevoice, explaining his views on the internet revolution amongst other things. And in the Guardian on Monday there was an interesting, if perhaps overplayed, piece by Tom Hodgkinson about the (concerning) political and philosophical thinking behind the internet giant. I also have the feeling more generally, and from only anecdotal evidence, that some people are getting tired of the tyranny of social networking and the mind numbingly banal blog, though of course millions of people every week are also rushing towards these mediums.

Everyone’s a Critic

So where do I stand (and what a typically self centred blog comment that is)? I believe in an open, even encouraging, public discourse (I am sure there are interesting, even original, voices out there waiting to be heard, and the opportunity is slim elsewhere), but I also believe in expertise, experience and excellence (we can all aspire, can’t we). Blogs uniquely give those not in the mainstream media the chance to air irreverent views, to upset the status quo or to simply impart their wisdom on the rest of us. But I don’t want to listen to Tony from Truro’s view on The Lion King and how much little Lucy enjoyed herself, so, as the internet you experience is entirely self controlled (no reading a review or comment piece because that is what the commissioning editor decided on that day/week), and you can ignore these inexpert views, or indeed use them as an interesting barometer. Therefore those ‘in the know’, simply become a somewhat self selecting group (and I don’t think there is a huge appetite for serious theatre blogs, although some have mainstream cultural or entertainment value wider than the core theatre types), but this can still be a forum for interesting, constructive and informative debate, and indeed polemics (as well as deliciously destructive and vindictive stirring). Thus such diverse attractions as the West End Whingers, View from the Gods and the Arcades Project all regularly catch my eye (and I wouldn’t have read many of the heated debates and forthright opinions on those sites in any newspaper). I also think the blogs of established critics and theatre commentators like Mark Shenton (and Lyn and Michael on the Guardian from time to time) can be immensely interesting and useful, often giving us an insight into the working lives (and minds) of our critical fraternity, and complementing their reviews, genuinely expanding the discussion, or even just airing some thoughts (usually a good thing).

So generally, I think all these people know what they are talking about (even if I greatly disagree with them on a multitude of subjects, or even object to the way they fundamentally look at thing on some occasions), and I look at their work regularly and know their provenance, as far as you ever can on the web (I think I’ve even seen the mysterious Whingers by chance at the theatre once…). The problem (and the possible joy) comes when you are looking outside of your own field of interest; does the world wide web actually open up new opportunities? Well, yes, clearly it connects people around the world, and lets a musicals fan in Borneo talk with a stage-door Johnnie turned message board poster in New York City to their hearts desire. Blogs can be rubbish, but then any printed material can also be dodgy and published for a variety of reasons, not always honest or artistic. Indeed the level of debate and coverage of the theatre in most of the national press is derisory, even in the broadsheets theatre reviews (never comment) are short, often giving the critic little time to discuss the play further than the plot and the cast/creative team names. So I think that anything which adds to this, quite shameful state, is a good thing. Sure newspapers do big splashes about celebrity casting and ticket stampedes, but little else (many highly intelligent and culturally literate people wouldn’t now the difference between a commercial theatre, a subsidised building or touring company; forget a national debate about the ACE grants or the importance of theatre. Although I’m sure a few people know that something is going on.). Indeed theatre seems to be more and more fashionable as the days go by, the British stage is hardly in a bad state in terms of numbers (especially in the West End), money and even quality (though the quantity of quality and where it is focused is another story), but we are not really engaging in a debate about what we want the theatre to be, what part the arts in general should play in our lives. Do we want commodities or great experiences? Is the theatre delivering what the audiences really want, and what the audiences can embrace (and indeed are we leading people in the right way to be able to enjoy theatre? Is there a right way, and should anyone be doing the leading? Do we want to encourage a culture of artistic excellence in the traditional sense, let the commercial sector take over, or indeed let new forms take over? More precisely what balance that should take).

The Direction of Theatre?

[Just a few comments on those questions mentioned above; Firstly I do believe that we should aspire to have the widest possible audience for theatre, but not just a commercial audience, but one that spans the Western cultural cannon and beyond. I’m not afraid to say that schoolchildren and adults alike should learn to love Shakespeare, that any person should not think of Chekhov as not for them, that theatre should be challenging, political, beautiful, sensory, small and austere (although generally not all at the sane time), as well as entertaining, frothy and big. I want kabuki theatre or a modern French company to tour the regions and not just visit a London fringe venue for a week. We should champion all that is best in world culture alongside, and not above or in exclusion from, more ‘popular’ culture. Crucially though, and I think this is often overlooked, the new should be encouraged, and failure allowed. I think we can be far to perfectionist and quick to blame in our society, and we are not half as open to genuinely new experiences as we think we are (and I’m not talking about blithely backpacking in South Africa or deciding to swing both ways, but thinking, empathising, looking around us. Which all sounds rather wet when I write it down, but so be it), and I am certainly guilty of it sometimes. Another big question is about the form of the theatre (words versus the senses is the provocative version). That is to big for me to discuss now, I don’t have the energy, but is does provoke bitter battles, perhaps I’m a bit too Billington in my thinking, but I too like Shaw and words, I even like modern words which is a shock to some on the ‘other’ side of the debate. But then again, I do like ‘experiences’, and beautiful, bold, sexy, repulsive, smelly, loud and quiet, so I don’t quite know what some people want to make such big divisions. I have had some of my most memorable experiences outside of a traditional theatre, I am a constant habitué of the fringe, and the Edinburgh Festival is just about the most exciting thing in my year, but then again lots of words can be used in all of those places, so it proves nothing. But I do feel like a 100 year old reactionary when I tell people my views on the Mask of the Red Death or A Matter of Life and Death (both overrated if not awful). Now I really shouldn’t get started on theatre buildings, because I am actually quite fond of them and am not in favour of holding all performances in caves and the local high street, though I have enjoyed performances in a lift, a car, a toilet, a swimming pool (one actually in a filled pool, others in empty ones), a council chamber, numerous churches, a homeless shelter, numerous government buildings and palaces, etc etc. I eve enjoyed one in a theatre once.]

Back to Blog (the Critics)

Knowing the experience of critics and commentators online comes with time, just like when reading a newspaper critic (but there is supposedly a presumption of quality amongst those fortunate enough to be paid by our fine newspapers. Still, I get to know my critics and calibrate my response to their views in accordance with this). More formal blog sites like the Guardian’s Comment is Free are generally interesting and well argued, though occasionally fatuous and silly, and we must note that this is paid work and not quite the same as a self published venture. Blogs are like anything else, and some are brilliant, but the majority are not (I’m guessing). Banality is never far away in life, and the same is true in cyberland (and we’re not talking scintillating but everyday stories by Chekhov or Carver, or existentialist thought). Streams of consciousness (a bit like this one) can be interesting, but listing the minutiae of every moment is too much. I love the observation of ‘real life’, but I do have my limits.

Social Networking Hell

Social Networking sites are another world of hell. I am a young man, and nearly everybody I know within twenty years of my age either way, are avid social networkers. Form tweenies to fifty something professionals, Facebook, Beebo and My Space have taken over a part of these peoples lives. I am happy to do things on my own; in fact most of my theatregoing is of the solo variety. I am a very social animal too, but (in a rather 21st century selfish way I suppose) I also want to do what I want to do without having to conform to other people constantly. I don’t want to go on holiday and tortuously decide what to do, I don’t want to consult on which film to see, I want to do it, and frankly I generally want to do a hell of a lot more than most of the people I know (to such an extent that I get told off for it). As a bit of an aside, I invite people to come to the theatre with me, and I invariably have my own ticket well in advance, so I’ll either get them one or they’ll buy their own; some people I know have been so disturbed by the idea of sitting alone (in a play!), that I can no longer ask them as it induced far and panic, which I find totally astounding. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out with people, attending parties and, in particular having robust and boisterous conversations on theatre and politics with friends (and enemies!), but I don’t see the need in having my choices validated by a group mentality, I am prepared to strike out on my own. So seeing people staying in to communicate with their ‘friends’ online, hearing about endless messages of mind numbing tedium constantly updating those friends on your every move, actually gets me a little bit angry. These people are not your friends (really, are they?); you will surely genuinely see friends (and when you do, you’ll talk about what you did since the last time you saw them!). I’m not saying that the net isn’t useful for getting in touch with people, keeping up long distance friendships and starting friendships, but it should be a means to an end, and the level of discourse is often so reduced and pitiful that it is almost pointless (twittering, god save us). I do actually still email people, which is becoming increasingly rare (as opposed to writing on a wall or sending an instant message), but mostly to arrange other things, and the things I do mention will be above tying my shoelaces level, or that I’m feeling happy, or whoever minute rubbish is transmitted over increasingly ubiquitous websites. Neither would I use a blog to update friends on my thoughts or movements, if I did I’d never have time to see those friends, see the plays or have the thoughts (that’s another question, is social networking etc ushering in conformity, increased commercialisation and taking us away from our own time and thoughts, keeping us constantly occupied by not thinking more deeply than an instant urge…. Discuss.).

This whole situation gets to a point whereby people are astounded that you are not on facebook, it actually makes them unsettled that you are not part of their ‘world’. Meeting people who say ‘I’ll add you on facebook’, which in itself can be a disingenuous statement, is quite amusing, just like telling people you don’t eat sushi or ski! I wish however, that I could wear this as a perverse badge of pride, but there is actually so few of us left that the facebook lure, that despite the increasing personal stories told to me describing annoyance and alienation because of the networking sites, very few seem to actually leave them. It really is a drug, almost a sinister cult (certainly part of our increasingly expressive/conformist society. Try wearing a suit on a Saturday, people will actually ask if you’re a lawyer and ask ‘why’ all the time), and the saddest thing is that many people really do give me hateful or more often expressionless stares when I tell them, gently, that I prefer to see my friends.

I Am What I Am

So ultimately I regard experience as the most important thing in life; I’ve not updated my blog, not because I’m lazy and can’t b bothered to write, but because doing what I love (i.e. attending the theatre, cinema and galleries, as well as reading books and newspapers and watching and a dose of TV on the side. Also know as living my life) is more important than regularly telling a tiny, or nonexistent, audience my views on the theatre (which is nice on the side, and I enjoy the writing part in itself). I’d love to be a critic and commentator, but, that is a full time job (the theatregoing bit, as I match most of the critics for number of shows seen, is actually almost a full time job too, certainly a totally consuming passion), and I wish I could get one!

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the many things I mentioned in this unexpectedly long post.

Review: La Cage Aux Folles, Menier Chocolate Factory

La Cage Aux Folles at Southwark’s intimate Menier Chocolate Factory, is probably the most infectiously joyous musical production I have seen on the London stage since Trevor Nunn’s 2002 revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. This 1983 Tony Award winning Broadway hit, with a book by Harvey Fierstein (himself and actor and Tony Award winner) and lyrics and music by Jerry Herman, is given a rip roaringly entertaining, beautiful looking and hugely amusing production by one of our leading living playwright turned directors, Terry Johnson, in a startlingly successful theatre that has given me many an evening of theatrical bliss and intellectual interest since it was launched in 2004, and is now an integral part of the London theatre landscape (their superb revival of Sunday in the Park with George is about to open on Broadway, and the importance of the theatre continues to grow).

Firstly let me say that La Cage is not a deep, particularly insightful or penetrating show (nor is it meant to be), it is a musical firmly in the light comedy tradition, it is not comparable to a Sondheim masterpiece (coincidentally Sunday in the Park débuted off Broadway in the same year as La Cage); it is essentially a divertissement with a side order of celebratory life affirmation, which is not to say that the production lacks moments of considerable pathos. The story is simple; young man wants his gay parents (a French Riviera nightclub owner and his partner and star attraction of their club, a wondrous drag queen called Albin/Zaza) to disavow their lifestyle and relationship in order to fool and thereby placate their son’s fiancée’s conservative and fiercely homophobic parents (her father is a Deputy in the National Assembly and the ‘moral conscience of the Riviera’).

The musical makes a strident and unashamed statement about difference, and in particular some (rather fabulous) homosexual life choices, and it certainly reflects the different morality of the early 1980s, which actually makes the show even more escapist for a 2008 audience (we see the central dilemma of social concealment versus flagrant honesty in a much more casual light than in the dark days of President Reagan, conservative values and AIDS, which is not to say that a rightwing President, conservative values and AIDS aren’t all still with us today, but the world has changed radically all the same). The show was written at a time when the fundamental need of homosexuals to shield their lifestyles and bow to conventional morality was beginning to wane, after the gay sexual liberation movement became more mainstream in the 1970s; the show say we’re here and we’re queer after initially going along with, and then revealing as false and untenable, the easier path of lies and concealment, a life which would have been familiar to many of the 1983 gay audience members.

The show takes us on a journey onto a glamorous world of transvestite show girls, red velvet curtains and hedonistic enjoyment, which firmly takes us away from the everyday experiences of our (or at least my) everyday lives. But as well as being a traditionally escapist show, it also highlights the importance of celebrating and accepting difference and indeed yourself (as shows like Wicked and Hairspray continue to do now), but again the show also has a traditional moral view of the importance of family life (even if that family is unconventional), and at its centre a committed and long term relationship (although between two men). The creators of this show are not only singing a hymn to different lifestyles and asking for unconditional acceptance of that difference, but it is also demonstrating that homosexual morality, whilst on the surface may be different, can be in essence linked to heterosexual morality, and that people yearn for the same things ultimately. This point was made forcefully to me, when leaving the sold out performance I attended, seeing elderly men and women praising the show to the rafters, now seemingly totally comfortable with a musical about family loving flamboyant homosexuals (this is no Ravenhill shocker!).

The performances are excellent, with the superb Douglas Hodge perfectly playing Albin (the drag queen) with so much camp flair and knowing wit, and making his torch song ‘I Am What I Am’, an electrifying end to act one. Philip Quast as Georges, the patron of the nightclub, is as ever, in fine voice, I only regretted that we didn’t hear enough of his memorable singing (what would be enough?). Les Cagelles, the mostly male chorus at our eponymous nightclub are a formidable presence; you would certainly not want to cross these large and beautifully done up men in a dark alleyway. Una Stubbs also makes the most of her small part with a memorable transformation as the right wing politician’s wife.

Johnson’s director is nifty and uses the small stage space to great effect, but the design by David Farley and invigorating choreography by Lynne Page also deserve star billing. The music is almost besides the point, whatever the 6 Cagelles and Zaza (Albin) sing in their outré costumes (by Matthew Wright), would make a great impression on the audience, but luckily the tunes are catchy, with a band of seven musicians, sitting above either side of the stage, giving the score some Broadway vigor.

This production certainly deserves a West End transfer, for such an exuberant and brilliantly performed entertainment cries out to be seen by a larger audience (despite suiting the intimate venue perfectly). A must see for any lovers of the musical, or just those in search of an almost flawlessly enjoyable night out.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Hairspray (Shaftesbury)

Arriving in the West End after several successful years on Broadway (it was the 2003 Tony Award winner, and is still running) and a film version, this musical is itself a based on the cult 1988 John Waters film of the same name. I have to say that I enjoyed the original (non musical) film, but the film musical was a little too bland for my tastes (general early 60’s pop tunes that won’t scare anyone, composed by Marc Shaiman), the music certainly has its catchy moments, but I still needed some convincing. So seeing the stage version at long last was very interesting indeed; I undoubtedly enjoyed the music onstage more than hearing it in the film (as is generally the case with live music versus recorded in my experience), and it helps that the cast are bright, likeable and tuneful in person.

Hairspray is about an overweight teenage girl in 1962 Baltimore, and naturally she finds true calling (dancing), gets exactly what she wants (including national TV fame), and along the way accepts herself, whilst of course also bringing people together through her innate charm and chutzpah (breaking down segregationist barriers); basically this is a show aimed at every teenage girl who has felt in someway insecure about her looks or social standing (so that would be all of them then, not to mention nearly everyone else in the western world I). It is sort of a Wicked for teenagers who actually like musicals and not just utterly crass overblown spectacle (where the very idea of a fat leading lady would give the producers a heart attack. Actually do producers have hearts?), so at least Hairspray score marks on the ‘slightly less plastic than wicked’ front, but that isn’t really too difficult. This show however will appeal to a wider demographic than just the self empowering teens; it is absolutely right for a safe family audience, perfect for a trip to town to see a show. By all this you will have gathered that I don’t think Hairspray is one of the greats works of the dramatic stage, and it isn’t, but it does its job in entertaining people, providing some not unpleasant music and more than anything providing some wonderful character parts for Mr Michael Ball (as Edna Turnblad) and Mr Mel Smith (as her husband). In fact the whole cast is pretty good throughout. Ball as Edna is something of a shock, he has such a singular look in real life (actually I am referring to the artifice of the stage as ‘real life’, this being my main contact so far with Mr Ball, but I mean when not in drag as ‘real life’), that I actually didn’t realise that he was onstage at all for some minutes (and this is whilst he is singing), and this is with foreknowledge of his on stage transvestism and the character that he was playing, so it is quite a transformation into a large and common sense Baltimore housewife circa 1962. Leanne Jones as Tracy, the teen heroine, is marvellous and a newcomer to the professional stage. She is perfect for the irrepressible character of Tracy, and boy can she dance. The original Broadway director, Jack O’Brien, once again does the honours, and his production is slick but not lavish (sets by David Rockwell). I should credit Mr O’Brien, the cast and writers with some genuinely infectious moments, but not enough to sustain a level of joy that I can easily slip into during a great musical (at Guys and Dolls or Parade for example).

Hairspray is not emotionally insightful, socially important or infectiously joyful (for me anyway), but it is enjoyable, and a perfectly pleasant and undemanding way to spend an evening, the cast certainly make the show much more watchable than it easily could have been.

More to come...

I have to finish writing now in order to sleep, but I'll continue the round up later in the week with the likes of Vincent River, Statement of Regret, 42nd Street, Free Outgoing, The Arsonists, Cloud Nine, The Giant, The Brothers Size, Water and even King Tut at the Dome/The O2 Shopping Mall (aggh!).