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!).

Monday, 26 November 2007

Reviews: Sweet William, Arcola; The Importance of Being Earnest, Richmond; A Night in November, Trafalgar Studios; Dealer's Choice, Menier

Sweet William, Arcola

After engagements in some of the more genteel regions of these Isles, Michael Pennington brings his one man conversation piece to the somewhat unlikely setting of the Arcola in Dalston (and it will play the Trafalgar Studios in February next year), hitherto known for rather more cutting edge work. This is a very worthwhile and interesting evening of somewhat gentle amusement, entertainment and education, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense at all, sometimes a bit of gentility can be welcomed in a world inner city drama and social realist theatre. Listening to Pennington in generally is probably quite interesting, but here, talking about his abiding and consuming passion for Shakespeare, his words really take off. It is such a pleasure to hear somebody as intelligent and experienced as Pennington talking with such erudition and poise about a genuine, infectious passion, one in which so many of us share (though I have only seen 35 of Shakespeare’s plays, unlike Pennington who has probably acted in more Shakespeare parts than I’ve had hot dinners). Pennington (who also directs himself) gives us no flights of rhetorical fancy, overblown acting or ham sandwiches (as one person shows can often do), he gives us often overlooked snippets carefully acted out and naturally flowing from his thoughtful personal monologue. A charming evening, with a true gent of the British stage.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Richmond (tour and then West End).

What has happened to Peter Gill Of late? His production of Gaslight at the Old Vic was abysmal, thought the terrible material doesn’t help, and this rather perfunctory production of The Importance of Being Earnest is not exactly meticulous (I word that I would previously associated with Gill; Look Back in Anger, The Voysey Inheritance, Epitaph for George Dillon, Days of Wine and Roses, Scenes from the Big Picture and The York Realist, all providing me with striking memories of excellent productions, even if the play was lacking as with George Dillon). It alls seems like the cast are just going through the motions (‘oh, a Saturday matinee at Richmond, we don’t have to bother much!’), and I hardly managed to raise a laugh in any of the three acts. Penelope Keith is Lady Bracknell, and she is on autopilot, just like in Blithe Spirit a few years back, I’m sure the audience had all come to see her, but I’d like to see a just a shade of the character in the play, not just the persona the actress constantly portrays (it’s almost commedia dell'arte), why cast Ms Keith in these circumstances I hear you ask? Well, precisely.

The rest of the cast are not up to much either, at least we know what to expect from Ms Keith, and indeed get it in spades, the central male characters (Jack and Algernon, played by Harry Hadden-Patton and William Ellis respectively) were so lifeless I wanted to use the emergency defibrillator in order revive them and bring the into Wilde’s world of brittle comedy (they were certainly less formidable than the wonderful elderly Richmond matrons). Daisy Haggard as Gwendolen was totally miscast, she just has too much of the 21st century about her, and I’ll leave it at that. I sincerely hope that I saw the production on a very off day, otherwise a substantial amount of theatregoers will be paying a substantial amount more (than the relatively tame Richmond prices) to see a flat production which barley merits a tour, let alone a West End transfer and price hike (the sets were also pretty rickety, but maybe they’ll scale up for the West End. Most likely not).

A Night in November, Trafalgar Studios

The television comedian Patrick Kielty makes his stage debut in a revival of Mare Jones’s one map play, set around the acrimonious 1993 Eire v Northern Ireland football match, and the following year’s world cup, which the Republic qualified for and the North didn’t. It is really a paean to Irish brotherhood, which also highlights the disgusting nature of bigotry, racism and xenophobia in sport (and thus wider society) which can all so casually be dismissed as heat of the moment or unimportant the next day, but the play shows that deep seated prejudices are difficult to overcome without actually understanding the other groups point of view (simply suppressing a hatred, coming to a working agreement with those you dislike or mistrust, dose not kill the hatred). I’m no great fan of Jones, but watching this play for the first time (directed by Ian McElhinney), I was impressed at how natural and easy the play seemed (as compared to laboured, or at least conscious, oirish-ness in other works). Kielty is very good as the genial everyman who comes to a better understanding of himself through opposition to what he experiences on the sectarian football terraces and ends up supporting the Republic in the ’94 world cup. Naturally this all come easily, and the open Southern Irish are not at all prejudiced against this nominally Protestant dole clerk from Belfast, but that is a small gripe (and genuinely the Republic is a very friendly place form my experience and the Irish are not bigoted against their Northern brethren as far as I can casually observe). Unfortunately the play lags a little bit for me towards the end (you could happily cut the interval and 10 minutes off the text), but this is despite Kielty’s charming performance. It is strange to think of a grown man in this country never visiting a large section of a city he has lived in for all of his life, simply because of his enforced religious affiliation. Thought this is not exactly a revelatory experience, it is a funny night at the theatre with amiable company.

Dealer’s Choice, Menier (transferring to Trafalgar Studios)

Patrick Marber’s 1995 play receives a meticulous production at the increasingly influential Menier Chocolate Factory, a venue that has had a superb track record of success in only a few short years of operation, and which now has a reach far beyond the London fringe, all the way to Broadway (their stunning Olivier Award winning production of Sunday in the Park With George, directed by Sam Buntrock, is opening at Studio 54 soon, with the original London leads too; get your tickets now).

Sam West (maybe I’ll call him the new Peter Gill?) really has directed this all male piece marvellously, he and his brilliant cast don’t put a foot wrong. In fact the only bum notes comes from the author, and a slightly unfortunate updating of the script, although I should stress that this is a minor quibble and doesn’t affect the overall quality of the production much, but it sure does niggle me (why do we need a Germany ’06 shirt, trips to the Tate Modern and the like? Also restaurants in public toilets in East London, a comedy plot throughout the play, are actually a reality, and any real estate sold for peanuts in the East End would be a shrewd and admired investment. See, the updating really has opened up a can of worms which 1995 doesn’t). The play, set around a late night poker game amongst restaurant staff, is actually all about the interactions of men, and particularly the central father son relationship. Marber has a great ear for detail, and his words could be heard coming from the mouths of men across the country, but his play, in focusing incident and dialogue, as drama generally does, gives us a wonderfully character study of these men. The action of the poker game is genuinely involving, even for absolute novices like me, and the tension really becomes intense towards the end of the game (though mainly due to the story and not the cards or the money it has to be said), and the threat of violence at one point rears its head, it is electrifying. The breaking of trust between father and son (perhaps not for the first time), the ignorance of an innocent, the dreams that will never come to fruition, all these interesting subjects are raised in Dealer’s Choice, but again with the utmost fluidity and naturalness. You can enjoy Dealer’s Choice as a comedy, as a great story, or a superb example of ensemble acting. Certainly a highlight for the West End this Christmas.

Gilgamesh; We Are Shadows; The Investigation; Au Reviour Parapluie; The Blacks; Present Laughter; Rent ; Swimming with Sharks; Glengarry Glen Ross

Round Up

Due to my busy life (i.e. constant theatre going, film watching, exhibition attending and exhausted reading at inappropriate night time hours), and circumstances relating to my pecuniary needs combined with software integration problems (i.e. having to earn some money and buy a new computer, a ‘refurbished’ laptop which I’m not very happy with, for many laptop related reasons), I’ve not been writing anything, let alone the bare highlights of the ups and downs of my theatregoing of recent months. I shall rectify this with some short-ish comments on some of the shows I have seen recently (or not so recently in some cases).

Gilgamesh (The Pit), America Debate, Sicko.

What seems like many moons ago I saw Gligamesh at the Pit, a devised piece as part of the Barbican’s Australian season (Ozmosis 07). The aims of the season (presumably to bring a flavour of the strangely unfamiliar Australian theatre scene to London) is laudable, but overall (taking the season as a whole, plus a few Aussie pieces at the Ed Fest) I don’t see the Australians doing things very much differently than we Europeans (I love the incongruity in saying that, because the London/English/British Theatre culture can still feel totally detached, even isolated, from ‘European’ practitioners and styles, which is a shame; let’s have a bit more meaningful collaboration, not just the occasional visit or curated season, much like this Aussie one at the Barbican). Anyway, I won’t go over the pros and cons show (the ancient Mesopotamian epic legend played out in a large sandpit by a cast of three, with some impressive physical business and imaginative visual devices), I do however want to ask a question to anyone who saw the show or indeed the theatre makers themselves (Uncle Semolina & Friends); was Gilgamesh Saddam or Bush? The show was conceived at the same time as ‘America was leading the Invasion of Iraq’ (according to the programme), and obviously the legend is Iraqi, but I got the distinct impression that the murderous tyrant was Mr Bush not Dictator Saddam (the Star Spangled Banner features briefly in the show too). Now call me old fashioned, or indeed politically wrong, but I think Saddam was doing a little bit of oppression and murdering of the Iraqi people before the junior Bush turned up, and is action (Bush’s) in war really directly comparable with a purposeful regime of tyranny, does George Bush actually want to oppress and kill people (and are the Americans doing the killing in Iraq now, no)? Obviously (of course I’m of the left, I like the theatre!) GWB is a terrible man, the worst US President ever, and absolutely wrongheaded on nearly every aspect of foreign (and US domestic) policy (and the Iraq disaster has been mishandled at nearly every turn, from forward planning, disbanding the army, police and civil service, to prisoner abuses etc), but I can’t accept him being fingered as a hysterical butcher in Iraq with the Saddam years forgotten (and it is also worth remembering British and US complicity in his reign whilst he was a bulwark against the Soviets). I think the attitude displayed towards America is all too often glib and unthinking (i.e. universally, black and white, negative), the US is a great country, it has also got some of the poorest and most wretched people inside it

That brings me to Sicko, Michael Moore’s latest film. I agree with Moore about Gun ownership and Guantanamo, but not about his conspiracy theories elsewhere, I also think he can be, to put it mildly, unsophisticated and over the top (as a presentational device, I have no doubt that he is in no way unsophisticated personally, which is demonstrated in his grasp of propaganda and the importance of the overall message and not subtlety in mass communication). So I came to Sicko with caution, but ended up agreeing with him (almost) wholeheartedly, which is his talent. I didn’t end up agreeing with him in reality, I already held firm views on ‘socialised’ healthcare, he just pushed all my buttons and shot some compelling film on the subject. He also took a step back and didn’t make the film all about him (insofar as this is ever possible with him), his incredulous gasps and na├»ve repeated question to NHS, French or Cuban doctors, did end up a little irritating, and his Guantanamo stunt was not really very effective, but the tales of poor and not so poor people being denied adequate healthcare in the US is shocking and made me very angry. The NHS isn’t perfect, but it is worth defending (in both principal and from verbal, intellectual and political/financial attack).

We Are Shadows, Albany (Deptford)

This was a brilliant, exciting and highly enjoyable new play for young people (and I was any people) by Fin Kennedy, that I was lucky enough to catch in Deptford as part of a short tour by the Half Moon theatre company. I have already gone on far too long about one play and one film (above), so I’ll keep my comments brief. Firstly, the three young actors who related various (mostly) monologues about the interlinked lives of young people in East London (based on Mr Kennedy’s in-depth research in the community), are so terrific, they embody the verve and absolute commitment that enable us to briefly visit the lives of the characters the are portraying. The simple production (directed by Angela Michaels) isn’t negative or downbeat as some ‘inner city’ plays can be, but nor is it rose tinted, the play is a real view of varied and sometimes difficult young lives, which can be funny and touching, it reminded me of David Grieg’s Yellow Moon which entranced me at the Edinburgh Festival this year (which I mean as a compliment), both Grieg and Kennedy seem to have the ring or reality in their dialogue and the simple but often elusive ability to hook us with an exciting and engrossing story.

The Investigation, Young Vic

The Investigation at the Young Vic was a remarkable and moving theatrical experience. A group of Rwandan actors performing a play edited from the testimonies of holocaust survivors (and the accused) at a post WWII trial. Hearing these actors, who had lied through their own countries bloodbath was always going to be an emotive experience, and the words of the survivors were brutally and uncomfortable, but there was an added edge sitting in the Young Vic. The audience. When there is a specific ‘ethnic’ play put on, that group often turns out in force, so a Caribbean play at the Tricycle usually has a big black audience, so here at the YV we had a sizable Jewish audience and African audience (the night I went anyway), I was sitting between a old African lady and a Jewish family that had lost family members in the Shoah. A simple and effective night at the theatre (bare stage, no props, unfashionably words had the most meaning), made more poignant by the cultural connections in the audience.

James Thierree, Au Reviour Parapluie, Sadler’s Wells

What a wonderful title James Thierree’s new show has, but it doesn’t work in English at all (‘I’m just off to see Goodbye Umbrella, I can’t wait’). A visual treat, with the surreal, madcap, juvenile and silly all combining to make a brilliant evening of beautiful movement, dance and hyper theatrical scenes. Charlie Chaplin (the creator’s Grandfather) would have been proud.

The Blacks, Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Genet’s anti colonialist play should make a white audience uncomfortable, and question their part in imperialism and racism, but Stratford East’s production curiously turns that on its head and makes it a black conformation of presence or strength, this is simply because the audience is almost totally black at the theatre (rather than a conscious objective of the directors I should think). So, I, as the only white person in the stalls perhaps should have felt some awkwardness at watching a murder being re-enacted by ‘the blacks’ for a condescending white audience (themselves black actors in white-face, as the playwright intended). But actually I didn’t, because the black audience (and implicitly the actors I thought), were so good as showing up white superiority as a sham and bristling at the thought of deference to Her Majesty (one of the white/black spectators), that I couldn’t possible take any talk of back savages as a real slur. Perhaps I should be mortified at this, because racism and inferences of racial superiority are not far from the surface in modern Britain, from dislike of the Eastern European immigrants to out and out violence and discrimination of black people. So I can’t say that this production actually did much to challenge these modern problems, but it was a stylish and funny production (a ‘remix’ version, with rapping the like, directed by Ultz and Excalibah, the latter who also led the all black cast), certainly a singular sensation (especially when some articulate and highly engaged young black audience members talk to Her Maj when she asks questions to the audience).

Present Laughter, National

I barely laughed in this tortuous, or should I say laboured, production. Somehow I managed to laugh with Simon Callow in the role on tour a few years back, but Alex Jennings is somehow too straight for the role of seductive actor Garry Essendine (the problem being, that I’m projecting Coward into the role). A rare miss for director Howard Davis…

Rent Remixed, Duke of Yorks

Is there any worse excrescence on the London stage at the moment that this monumentally misguided and thoroughly misdirected revival or Rent? The remix part of the title refers to the de-rock-ification of the music; it is now ear bleedingly bland pop rather than ear bleedingly indifferent soft rock. I wont name the poor director, or maybe I should, because the occasional theatregoers who save up for a night out up West are far more wretched than this celebrity choreographer turned director, as they have spent their good money and wasted their precious time.

Saying that, there were a good many ‘rent-heads’ clearly enjoying themselves at the performance I attended, so clearly someone likes this derivative mind numbing drivel, but the majority of sane people will not. The cast are nice to look at and the singing actually often decent, so I’m not blaming the unfortunate actors, they are only doing their best to earn a living. The set however is a totally vile white concoction, a poor mans Ultz design you could say. A flaccid updating of a musical that was hardly a classic in the first place (I’ll kindly call it a product of its time), this is an totally pointless production, devoid of any substantially entertainment (forget character or genuine emotion), with horrible music and some grievous directorial errors (like a screen with the names of AIDS victims scrolling across it, are only the famous dead worthwhile?). Unfortunately the production is not even of comic value as so many errant musicals are.

Swimming with Sharks, Vaudeville

Another rather pointless spectacle, thought not half as grievous as Rent. This Christian Slater vehicle, directed by Wilson Milam, is an adaptation of the film of the same name, and it really was far better off staying on celluloid alone, what is the point of these increasingly popular film to stage adaptations (despite being a rhetorical question I can give you two answers; familiarity and bankablity). The story of a ruthless Hollywood movie exec and the 'education' of his assistant is familiar stuff, and it is decently told in the slick production, but just don’t go looking for anything more then received wisdoms and glossy shallow storytelling, nothing as complex as motivations or character is explored. One for an unthinking night out, thought not altogether abysmal.

Glengarry Glen Ross, Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue

A brilliant and beautifully directed revival of Mamet’s modern classic, with a cast led by Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen. A snappy almost brutally brisk play about low end real estate salesmen in Chicago (who sell parcels of land in far away states, which may be worthless), they are desperate and failing men, both macho and pathetic at the same time. Some people will see the swearword filled dialogue and sharp judgements as a celebration of these men (as I hear this is the hot tickets for estate agents and sales people at the moment, seriously), but of course that is to totally misunderstand the whole piece. This is a cry of pain from men (and it is an all male cast) unsure of their worth, constantly having to prove themselves, the sales work that they do, often unsuccessfully, is brutal and sordid and certainly nothing to be proud of. The world they have been forced to inhabit, could spit them out just as easily as keep them in a job, it really speak volumes for a certain type of capitalistic endeavour. Some brilliant acting is on show, and the Director James MacDonald gives us a flawless production (credit also to the set designer Anthony Ward, and lighting by Howard Harrison). Gillen is so convincing as the go ahead salesman that I would happily have signed a contract with him then and there, and Pryce as a doomed failure is also highly convincing with his haggard everyman persona. Glengarry is a highly enjoyable piece of theatre, which also says something about our sometimes tough consumer society and what exactly we should value.