Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Review Twelfth Night [Preview]

Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare

All Aboard The Love Boat!

After Emma Rice's triumphant exotic production of  A Midsummer Night's Dream, she now tackles  Shakespeare's later comedy Twelfth Night, a tale of literal shipwreck and shipwrecked identities. In this case, plus hornpipes, kilts, arran sweaters and golf clubs.

The Shakespearean mash up of the Balkans and England in the Kingdom of Illyria is transferred, Ealing Comedy style, hook, line, sinker, cakes and ale to its very own fantasy Scottish island  1970s' mash up with disco party cruise ship and lifebelts proclaiming the SS Unity Love.

There's also a further touch of the Ealing Comedies in this production. The poshies, the Duke Orsino (Joshua Lacey)  - think Ian Botham complete with mullet hairstyle,  and the Countess Olivia (Annette McLaughlin)  who starts off in  Jackie Kennedy-style with a veiled pill box hat, speak English English.

Sebastian (John Pfumojena, full of soul) and Viola (charmingly wide-eyed boyish Anita Joy-Uwajeh)  make a fetching washed-ashore pair of neatly-turned out, easily mistaken twins in their cruise ship white uniform, with and without their gold-buttoned jackets. 

Meanwhile most of  the lower orders  - morally so in the case of Olivia's uncle kilted, knee socked golfing Sir Toby Belch (a splendid pot-bellied Tony Jayawardena) - all have a Scottish burr.  Maria (Carly Bawden) is a scheming ladette maid with lusty vocals while Fabian (Nandi Bebhe) is a well-defined factotum in Downton Abbey tails.

Feste (Le Gateau Chocolat) is a bearded drag queen master of ceremonies rather than a jester. Clad in a gold lamé Demis Roussos robe, black patent  platforms and fishnets and a vibrant shade of turquoise eye shadow on his lids, his operatic bass tones resonate out from this showboat.

Lez Brotherston's initial deceptively simple set equally tips, slips and slides with the tide into a three tiered set with a gangway leading down to the households under, eventually, a huge moon.

The space below alternates as a 70s' boxing ring where snack munching Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Marc Antolin) swaps Argyle sweater for silken boxer shorts and gown, the two households and  a ship's hold which becomes a prison for Malvolio (Katy Owen). 

Yep, the director Rice's trademark lighting is there and maybe sometimes it seems a little too self-knowing, occasionally limiting the audience's delirium. And exactly where the on and off shore households of Orsino and Olivia begin and end, we weren't quite sure.

But really it doesn't matter, .Just as red-haired Kiplingesque Malvolio slips from Scotch to another UK accent with a touch of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. But Owen's frail androgynous figure importantly does also manage to channel the comedy and the pathos.

In between, there's plenty of fine verse speaking and singing of the famous lines including music being the food of love.  And talking about music, there's original material by composer Ian Ross with additional text and lyrics by Carl Grose with more than a sprinkling of disco hits (it would be churlish to give them away!) with sweet use of blanched morse code flags.

With the descent into and ascent from misrule, there's plenty of visual and verbal humour  (a Bonnie Prince Charlie row boat and an ingenious bit of audience interaction comes to mind) to please the Globe's international audience. We saw an early preview but the show was already in pretty good nick and will doubtless sharpen up.

It's all done in a distinctly less hierarchical fashion than in many a production and nicely ties up echoes of other Shakespeare plays.

Above all, Rice lives up to her promise in the programme to let loose the farce structure of the play while keeping some of the more disturbingly cruel elements and it's a green light for a festivity lovingly crafted with flares.  

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Review Judy!

A trio of singing marvels thrills Tim Gopsill in a musical bio-play about one of the twentieth century's most enduring Hollywood icons.

by Ray Rackham 

Triple Threat

There’s a glaring problem that plagues the producers of all shows telling the life story of a great theatrical artiste: who is up to playing the lead role? All those good enough would have to be stars themselves.

When the star is a singer with a mighty voice that stunned generations, it is even harder; but when you have found your singer, she or he has got to act the part as well; and when the star carries a perplexing reputation combining big-hearted generosity, overbearing autocracy and tragic vulnerability, it becomes harder still.

On top of all these, you want to portray the artist’s whole life, and the great Judy Garland already took to the stage as a 12 year old girl. 

At least there's a clear solution to the final problem: you use different performers to play different periods of the star’s life.

In the case of Judy!, writer/director Ray Rackham’s amazing musical bio-play that has just transferred to the Arts Theatre, this solves the other problems too.

Three actors play the part; all can sing – and dance – and have been with the show since it opened at the London Theatre Workshop in Fulham. This was two years ago before a run at Southwark Playhouse.

It's currently at the Arts Theatre, a stone's throw from the former Talk Of The Town -  now the Hippodrome -  where Garland sang her penultimate concert

There is the cocky but tender young girl, born Frances Gumm played by Lucy Penrose, who dreams up her glorious stage name for herself; the neurotic singer - Belinda Wollaston - in her late twenties at the top of her game, launching her unsurpassed 19-week solo run at New York’s Palace Theatre.

Then middle aged Judy played by Helen Sheals, doped up with booze and pharmaceuticals, going down with the ship of her failing weekly TV talk show; always still a grand dame – “I’m a fucking legend,” she yells at CBS executive Hunt Stromberg – she's much too grand to bend to the intimate demands of the small screen.

There is a notable precedent for this way of dramatizing a stage life in Ray Cooney’s triumphant musical Elvis, which had a West End run 40 years ago before a national tour and then being revived in the 1990s. But that had rock 'n roll stars in the two senior of the three roles, Shakin’ Stevens and PJ Proby.

Elvis’s life – somewhat tame to my mind compared with Garland’s -- was told chronologically. However  Rackham’s structural trick, lifting Judy! above the level of a tribute show or run-of-the-mill jukebox musical to that of a serious play in its own right, is to blend the three different eras of life together. The narratives are introduced in reverse order but play continuously, mingling with each other. 

At times the Judys sing together – as when Wollaston's Palace Judy joins in with Penrose's youthful performer singing her first audition number, Jimmy F Hanley's Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.

With the Arts Theatre being a relatively small house, there are no microphones; the natural singing therefore has an affecting nature rarely achieved with banks of speakers in big-theatre musicals. 

But Wollaston could probably sing unmiked in Drury Lane: she belts out Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody (music by Jean Schartz, lyrics by Sam M Lewis and Joe Young)  with some of the ferocity of Garland herself. 

All the music is acoustic. The ensemble has seven of the cast playing instruments on stage: three of them, Joe Shefer as Judy’s father Frank, Christopher Dickens as Stromberg and Tom Elliot Reade as fellow producer Roger Edens, are pianists.

Reade also plays violin. He and Chris McGuigan, playing Norman Jewison, a later triple Oscar nnominee, who survived one week as director of the Judy Garland Show, play reeds.

Don Cotter plays the legendary tycoon Louis B Mayer and the onstage drums and Carmella Brown doubles as both Judy’s devoted dresser Judith Kramer, and flautist in the band.

It may be true that the wonderful music does have the predictable downside that dialogue seems flat and dull beside it. The succession of hapless and handsome producers and directors becomes tedious, with the comings and goings charting her life at three different times, sometimes makes it hard to remember which is which.

Nevertheless,  there is the memorable clash between CBS Judy and TV executives is over her refusal to sing Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's Over the Rainbow, the song from the 1939 movie Wizard of Oz that made her a teenage star; she’s sick of it.

But the intertwined storyline and combination of singers does make for a magical finale. The show ends with Penrose, Wollaston and Sheals singing, quietly and unaccompanied, Over The Rainbow together. The audience goes crazy. 

Judy! could get a green light for that moment alone. It runs at the Arts Theatre until June 17. Beats me why not for a longer run. This is one of those musicals that could become the talk of the town and, like the performances of Judy herself, go on for ever.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Review This Is Not Culturally Significant

This Is Not Culturally Significant
Devised by Adam Scott-Rowley

Tales Of The Unexpected

Part of being a reviewer are the out-of-body experiences. Those moments when watching a show our mind hovers above, hooks into our brain and drags out like a reluctant piece of chewed chewing gum a long forgotten memory which then becomes a cornerstone cultural reference for the review.

At Adam Scott-Rowley's one-man show This Is Not Culturally Significant, TLT had one of those spiritual experiences!

Back in the day, G Wilson Knight wrote Shakespearean literary criticism, The Wheel Of Fire and The Imperial Theme which students borrowed from the college library and dutifully cited in essays. Little did we know that, one day very soon, we would be able to put a face - and other appendages - to the name.

We all filed in obediently, clutching our notebooks, for the distinguished octogenarian's guest lecture on Shakespeare, expecting the usual - and filed out shaking with laughter.

For Wilson Knight's coup de théâtre was the Timon of Athens finale to his lecture when, to illustrate his point, he stripped off completely naked and stood dramatically posed before us.

Remember please, dear reader, this was BTIMP (Before The Internet And Mobile Phones). At that time we thought Madonna was art school avant-garde.

Surely Knight, who was also a sometime actor and vice-president of the British Spiritualist Association, is the inspiration for the spiritualist lecturer in This Is Not Culturally Significant?

And probably in real life, encouraged by others in the then secure tenure of academia, he was also just a little bit bonkers.

Originally from North Wales, Scott-Rowley, has developed his gallery of grotesques since graduating from LAMDA in 2014, performing fully-clothed at the Edinburgh Festival. Now, having returned to London, he has decided to do what we shall now refer to as a "Wilson-Knight" and perform starkers. And it works.

Scott-Rowley has a supple, graceful, well-defined body with daubs of pagan white which  metamorphosizes with rhythm and dramatic musicality from character to character.

There's the American sex cam working girl, her hick father in the deep south, the Glasgow druggie baglady to, yes, the lecturer in Spirtualism who also runs a theatre company, the bereaved Pinteresque brutal husband and his brutalized wife, a mournful lesbian chanteuse, a needy lover, a club bouncer and pleading clubber, a racist Sussex upper-middle-class housewife.

There's a touch of artist Ronald Searle's types brought up to date in the 21st century with something of Kenny Everett, Little Britain  and the late Rick Mayall (though it sometimes feels quite American) but, dripfeeding the politics, out for pathos as well as laughs.    

We suspect this is a show that has growed and growed and a narrative thread gradually introduced.  The title is clever. It can encompass any range of characters in a loose lassoo and also adds a depth of meaning. 

But for us - yes it's imposing those cultural references again! - it also says something about pre-internet academic judgements when academics, the literati and, fie!, even drama critics waged wars about what was and was not culturally significant with a venom which seems almost Game Of Thrones-like in these more corporate times.

The set design is a simple black box - Scott-Rowley's body is his main prop but there's a stool and in a front corner a chain hangs down with a lamp. The expressive lighting conceived by Will Scarnell and developed by Matt Cater gives the show shape changing from character to character.

The strobe lighting and full frontal nudity won't suit everybody. However the show is enterprising, visceral and entertaining and at barely an hour doesn't outstay its welcome. With a narrative still emerging, and pretty well incomparable to anything in the current theatre scene, we award a green light.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Review Love In Idleness [Preview]

Francis Beckett takes issue with the late Terence Rattigan's examination of post Second World War society, but takes pleasure in a splendid cast.

 Love in Idleness
by Terence Rattigan
Adapted by Sir Trevor Nunn

The Times They Were (And Are) A Changin'  

It’s a sign of reactionary times when we hear a lot about how the great Terence Rattigan was unjustly cast into the outer darkness by the emergence of the radical playwrights of the late 1950s – John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and the rest. As David Hare once put it, “in rightwing times, rightwing art flourishes.”

Trevor Nunn, who directs Love in Idleness, writes in the theatre programme: “Kenneth Tynan’s excitement at seeing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 was understandable, but then his constant rejection and derision of Rattigan, in favour of ‘angry young man’ plays, was a mistake.”

David Hare nailed this rubbish as long ago as 2011, writing: “It has become a commonplace of commentary to turn him [Rattigan] into some sort of public school victim whose fall from grace can be put down to nasty goings-on initiated by yobs at the Royal Court and Stratford East in the 1950s.”

The truth is that the new playwrights spoke to the generation of the Attlee settlement. Rattigan didn’t.  That’s not to deny that Rattigan at his best was a thoroughly accomplished and, in his own way, rather radical playwright.

The play now at the Apollo Theatre, after a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a composite. He wrote a play called Less Than Kind in 1944, then altered it at the behest of the famous acting duo Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt and renamed it Love in Idleness.  Years later he regretted this, and  Nunn has now reworked the two plays into one.

If Nunn is right – and I have no reason to doubt it  – to suppose that this play is at least something approaching the work Rattigan would have produced if left to himself, what it tells us is that the playwright was on the wrong side of history.
Written and produced as the Second World War ground to an end, it addresses, as every writer worth his salt was addressing at that time, the sort of post war world that was going to emerge. 

But while some writers were looking forward to a new and better world, Rattigan, on the evidence of Love in Idleness, was looking forward to business as usual; to a return to the status quo ante, when the rich knew how things should be done, and the poor knew their place. 

He thought the Beveridge Report was so much froth, and the new world that the Labour Party dreamed of creating would turn out to be, as one of his characters puts it, “the same as the old world but spring cleaned a little.”

He was wrong. Between 1945 and 1948 the Attlee government carried out the only real social revolution Britain has ever seen, and Beveridge provided their blueprint.

If Rattigan felt like sneering at it – and he did – that places him in the sad harrumphing old tradition of William Douglas-Home, who wrote a very successful and entirely vacuous play, later a film, around the same time called The Chiltern Hundreds, about a butler who stands for the Conservative Party and defeats the uppity socialist.  (Message: the working class salt of the earth know their place.)

In Love in Idleness, Sir John Fletcher, a rather conservative (with both a small and capital c), Canadian businessman, has been drafted into Winston Churchill’s war cabinet as Minister of Tank Production. 

Presumably Rattigan had in mind the Canadian newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, whom Churchill appointed as Minister of Aircraft Production in 1940. Yet this is odd because he paints Fletcher as a terribly decent chap, and Beaverbrook was a shit.  

Sir John has parted from his much younger wife, whom we are encouraged to assume is a gold-digger, and is living with the widow of a dentist, whose son is serving with the army in Canada. 

But when the son comes home, he is distressed by this arrangement – both because it makes his mother a kept woman, and because he disapproves of Fletcher’s right wing politics. 

None of the characters rang true to me. Sir John is a wise and kindly multi-millionaire; his widowed lover, Oliva Brown, a charming, rather dippy social climber; and her son Michael a selfish and self-absorbed 18-year-old who has adopted some foolish ideas about making a better world which we are encouraged to hope that he will grow out of soon.

They are played with matchless professionalism and conviction, Sir John by Anthony Head, Olivia by Eve Best and Michael by Edward Bluemel, but nothing these fine actors can do, and nothing Sir Trevor's assured direction can do, will make them anything other than unbelievable standard-bearers of a complacent and reactionary political point.

Nonetheless, it is always a pleasure to watch such very good actors at the top of their form in a well plotted play, so I’m happy to give it an amber light.

Review Richard III

Richard III
by William Shakespeare

Living The Dream

Near the end of the Arcola Theatre's Richard III we gained a glimpse of what this production could have been.

Richard (Greg Hicks) has just been visited in his sleep by those he has wronged and murdered. Suddenly the pangs of conscience cripple him. Hicks's Richard in a nuanced soliloquy envelops us with the cold sweat of the villain as both his past and future merge and he turns his frightened gaze round the audience.

It's a highlight of an otherwise mostly over-emphatic production directed by Mehmet Ergen which nevertheless has other instances of clarity and ingenuity.

Mark Jax's suddenly repentent murderer is both comic and affecting. There's a modern chime to Jim Bywater's Mayor of London, puzzled but then expediently adapting to all the twists and turns, as well as when we hear from Peter Guinness's savvy Buckingham the reaction of the London crowd and the city wives.

Annie Firbank's fine Duchess of York, Richard's mother, conveys a clear-sighted doughty aristocrat, becoming a spokeswoman for the grieving Royal widows dislodged by the son she abhors.   

However, at other times we found the inconsistency of the mash up strange and distracting.

The start of the play places us in Italian café society with Richard in black leather  - part mafiosi, part Stasi - sipping on wine and spinning a tiny top. When he stands up to the cawing of crows, we see the chain extending from flexed foot to his hands to help him walk. Bespectacled Matthew Sim as Catesby extends the sense of a Communist apparatchik or Fascist henchman carrying out Richard's instructions.     

At another time we wondered whether we were in the midst of artisans who decided a change was needed from usual mystery plays, deciding instead to put on the arch-Machiavel's story. Yet the concept seemed tried  - and then left behind.

The overpowering television-style sound effects also struck us as intrusive, sometimes unnecessarily disturbing the rhythm and tension of the play.

We've nothing against a production paced television thriller style. But we were far too aware of the sound effects rather than the sound being seamlessly part of the background. In one instance, a very loud cock crow was followed by the information that - er - a cock had crowed.

Anthony Lamble's two tier design is fine as far as the lower space goes, surrounded by the audience on three sides. However, sitting in the seats stage left, we had major sightline problems for the upper tier. The raised walkway running above our seats blocked our view of the second tier at the back of the space and the actors above mainly had their backs towards us. This felt like a thoughtless piece of staging.

Hicks certainly has the potential to be a great crow-like Richard III but we felt he was hampered by more than his chains in an uneven production which needed more variety in its pacing. Individually there were some fine performances and good moments but overall it's an amber light.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Review Manwatching

by Anonymous

Female Intuition

At this very moment, somewhere in California 60 research scientists are working on how to read your mind. OK, to be more accurate, Facebook is working on technology to type messages direct from the brain to what they term "a conversation partner" rather than to go phishing for random thoughts.

But wouldn't it be so much easier for the companies involved if we all thought within a recognized grid? A variation of 'If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, then Mohammed will come to the mountain'?

And, while we are open to new experiences, by the end of Manwatching, this thought, amongst others, entered our mind in our irritation with what seems like a clumsy gimmick with which we are supposed to alternatively identify or applaud as insightful. 

TLT and her like-minded automative Tonto do not suggest that the deliberate plan is to run roughshod over our own thought processes but it seems one logical conclusion to commercial pressures.

Manwatching the play, not to be confused with the 1980s' book club bestseller by Desmond Morris which we remember as a similarly rather bemusing read, is apparently by an anonymous female playwright and dwells on her sexual evolution from a kid to whereever she is now.

We're instructed not to give much away - there's a definite authoritarian streak to Anonymous which makes one wonder why she ever allowed the text to be published in the first place. Is it really all a weak satire? We can't tell, damnit, and we're meant to be critics!

It's a simple set up. A man, a printer, a script, a lighting operator (lighting designer Jamie Spirito) directed by Lucy Morrison.

Anon instructs that the text should be sight read by a man - in our case it was a personable young comedian called Liam Williams with a deceptively diffident, self-deprecating manner.

After a brief introduction, the man launches into the script which uneasily mixes the female writer's description of sexual desire with alleged experiences and fantasies.

It seems from the introduction to the play text (handed over only at the end of the evening) we're not the only ones to wonder if it's all a bluff written by a coven of men.

To be fair, the monologue does touch upon some serious issues but we found the approach conventional and lacklustre.  It's ok if you're prepared as an audience member to smile gamely and look serious when appropriate, which is also more or less what Williams also did.

We hasten to correct this - we obviously can't read his mind and he did prove to be an adept sight reader after a hesitant start. We guess also that the title Manwatching is double-edged as it's mostly about watching the comedian tackle the task and watching him react to the words he's given.

If you enjoy seeing an unprepared stand up comedian up close and personal embracing a female persona, this may be your bag. But for us, it's a red/amber light.

Review Dyl

by Mark Weinman

Troubled Waters

Dyl is a hallucinatory, kidulting comedy drama ambitious in concept, but clumsy in execution. James is a pent-up young oil rig worker in the once thriving oil-rich city of Aberdeen.

Earning good money, his life revolves around the "two weeks on, two weeks off" cycle of labouring on the rig, then returning from the sea to dry land.

This debut play of writer Mark Weinman attempts to mix different genres and marry them with modern pressures on a young man's psychic space.

So there's some odd couple humour with his Aberdonian flatshare, the physicality of his job is on display as well as the tentacles of  the literary along with pop music, television and movies invading and wrapping themselves around the mind of a twenty something.

What emerges are some perfunctory, but still effective, laughs interspersed increasingly with still moments of visual anguish which work like televison close ups before an abrupt change of tone and the final reveal.

However this all feels very stretched out over the two-act play, with the plot points very far apart and various strategies used to fill in the gaps with issues parachuted in.

Lurking behind it all, Weinman has something worthwhile to say about our boom and bust era and a generation immersed in computers and screens. 

This is reflected in the slick, click together set designed by Jemima Robinson, even if the play's jigsaw construction doesn't quite click together as fluently and feels clunky.

Director Clive Judd brings together two alumni of his enjoyable production of a 1960s' classic about pent-up young men, Scott Arthur as Welshman James in his own Never-Never Land and Laurie Jamieson as the Scottish office worker flatmate from whom he rents a room on shore.

Joyce Greenaway is James's Mum trying to build an emotional bridge for her son while Rose Wardlaw is an unexpected, wish-fufilment visitor who apparently allows the various pieces to be slotted neatly into place and gives a kind of deus-ex-machina closure.

Weinman has a clever idea that can equally be a surreal shorter play or several episodes of a sharply edited TV soap.

Nevertheless, in its present form it has a frustratingly unbalanced and laboured structure, overpowering a potentially more dramatic and poignant analysis of a generation within a shuttlecock economy.

Dyl (with apologies to a famous American children's classic) is a little play that could. At the moment though, while it shows off the ample abilities of its cast, it's an amber light.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Review Out There On The Fried Ridge Road

Tim Gopsill passes the time watching a hit-and-miss redneck comedy set in rural America.

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road
by Keith Stevenson  

Welcome To The Motel West Virginia

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road - wacky name for a wacky comedy that feels like a sitcom set in rural southern America. For a British equivalent, think The Young Ones rather than The Good Life, with the same compulsive lowlife-ism.

Fortunately it is short, just over an hour and stops before the buffoonery starts to pall. If anything does, it is the relentless good humour and benevolence in the way the characters interrelate.

Writer Keith Stevenson couldn’t go wrong when he decided to assemble an oddball set of characters around big bearded, tartan-shirted country hick JD. He's rumoured to be the offspring of immaculate conception via an Italian prostitute. In reality he's actually conceived, written and played by Stevenson, a true West Virginian.

So take a quiet, liberal unemployed out-of-towner (Michael Maloney) looking for a room share. Add the over-the-top violent sexist poet (Alex Ferns), his screaming crack addict painter girlfriend (Melanie Gray), a brutal racist landlord (Michael Wade) and the big gentle benign drop-out who just happens to believe he is the Son of God.

Then plonk them in a squalid motel room on a remote and weirdly-named road which really does run straight through Stevenson's home town.

This sketchy but affable one-act hillbilly farce started off in Los Angeles where it was something of a success with the metropolitan audience spawning two sequels, eventually given the collective name of The Fried Meat Trilogy. Its broad brand of humour has now crossed the pond, first to Kennington's White Bear Theatre and now at Whitehall's Trafalgar Studios.

Director Harry Burton has everybody leaping about and thunderously slamming doors to a degree that almost appears to endanger Simon Scullion's wood panelled set on the tiny stage of the venue's smaller studio space. 

Ferns as the manic trouble-seeking gangster/poet Tommy exudes the most menace and Melanie Gray as his girlfriend Marlene gets the most laughs. She whines at Tommy’s infidelities that they are all with women called Marlene “because he’s too dumb to remember any other names”.

The current one, she yells, weighs 500 pounds and “can’t get out of the door of her trailer.” Indeed Tommy has to demolish it for the purpose; he puts the other Marlene in the back of JD’s car which he’s “borrowed” and then runs out of control down a hill and flattens someone’s gazebo. Yes it’s that kind of humour.

Maloney as Mitch is the nervy, nicely understated straight man to the caricatures around him. There is plenty of embarrassingly funny stuff which does elicit chuckles and guffaws. Nevertheless if you are easily offended at sexist and racist gags uttered by some sexist and racist characters, you might want to give this show a miss.

Out There On The Fried Edge Road does have a very good joke at the end. However, much as I laughed, my traffic light theatre rating is firmly stuck at an amber light.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Review Three Sisters

Peter Barker is swept along by an epic production charting the lives and longing of the three daughters in the Prozorov household

Three Sisters (Три сeстры)
by Anton Chekhov

We Didn't Start The Fire

There's something greater than energy alone in this Russian language production of Chekhov's 1900 classic family drama. The heartfelt outbursts, arguments and anger seem to explode in great fires in contrast to the more philosophical interludes.

For the three sisters, schoolteacher Olga (Olga Drozdova), unhappily married Masha (Alyona Babenko) and playful youngest Irina (Victoria Romanenko), the past is glamorous and meaningful. The present is mundane and even unpleasant, defined by the realities of their lives.

Director Galina Volchek teases out the psychological nuances and waves of the drama both with the performances and the staging by Slava Zaitsev and Petr Kirillov on a bare stage with only furniture to evoke the household.

However, it's the revolve which underlines the confusion and inner turmoil of the sisters when their passions rise and their fates bear down on them. In one memorable moment Irina runs to save her fiancé from his fate, charging onward but getting nowhere.

In a Russian production with English surtitles, Babenko captures Masha's complexities, along with her warmth and passion.

Romanenko’s girlish, passionate Irina makes the jump to adulthood with her raw anger at unwanted male advances and the direction of her life. Drozdova's controlled performance as Olga, the eldest and the rock for her sisters,  delicately conveys her strength without an arsenal of  emotional fireworks.

While Moscow is an historical reality, the three sisters' home in their youth, it is also a state of mind -- a brighter future, a more fulfilled life. 

Around them in the provincial garrison town are men who are all in some ways either lacking or wanting -- the sisters' brother, the weak but academic Andrei (Ilya Lykov) doting on his child married to the ghastly Natalia (Yelena Plaksina).

There is the resigned and drunken doctor Chebutykin (Anatoly Uzdensky), the aggressive young officer Soleny (Ilya Drevnov), the refined lieutenant Baron Tuzenbach (Shamil Khamatov), Masha’s inadequate husband Kulygin (Sergei Yushkevich), and the new garrison commander Vershinin (Vladislav Vetrov).

This is a thrilling production of a classic play and altogether a grand theatrical experience. Galina Volchek, also artistic director of Sovremennik for nearly half a century since it was founded during the Khrushchev thaw, deservedly took a standing ovation.  

The Sovremennik version is an absorbing and sometimes shocking three hours, demanding and getting total attention. Done with flair, pace and passion, this is an affecting and riveting production is certainly worthy of a green light. Catch it before it finishes on Saturday, May 13!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Review tick, tick ... BOOM!

tick, tick ... BOOM!
Book, Music And Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

The Next Big (Fat-Free But Tasty) Musical

What, reviewing the late Jonathan Larson's early musical when one hasn't even seen Rent, his celebrated riff on La Bohème? TLT and the engine beneath her wings feel they should come clean but, on the other hand, they come to Tick, Tick ... Boom! with a clean slate and ready to be entertained.

Tick, Tick ... Boom! appears to be an apprentice musical in more ways than one. Larson, who was also an actor, performed it as a solo rock show from 1990.  It slides, deliberately we think, from beginner's promise but structural clunkiness into something more sophisticated as the song styles and book grow in complexity.

It's highly autobiographical - the central character is a struggling aspiring songwriter called Jon who, like Larson, waits on tables while he awaits his big break. He is turning from 29 to the big 3-Oh (that's oh-oh!). His dance teacher girlfriend Susan aches to break away from tutoring weathy little 'uns for her own big break. But she also longs for the stability of marriage and suburban life.

That's not to be confused with Jon's (and Larson's) first attempt at a musical, the unfinished scifi Superbia, one song of which, Come To Your Senses, David Auburn, who revised Tick, Tick ... Boom!, incorporated into the later show.

Auburn turned Tick, Tick... Boom!, after Larson's premature death, from a solo musical monologue to a revamped chamber musical three-hander, its present form.

Jon (Chris Jenkins from The Burnt Part Boys) spends his time working in a diner, smoking joints on the rooftop of his Soho apartment in between working on his musical.

However spiritually he agonizes as his birthday approaches and his dreams of a produced musical remain unfulfilled.

He is still close to Michael (Jordan Shaw) with whom he grew up and went to summer camp. Michael though has long abandoned his own dream to become an actor to chase the mighty dollar in a Madison Avenue advertising firm, gain a coveted swish car (hey, what's wrong with that?, demands TLT's automotive sidekick indignantly!) and a luxury pad.

Director Bronagh Lagan's production takes a little while to setttle down with a few technical  hiccups - Jordan Shaw gives the most consistent performance from start to finish but all the cast come good with eventually outstanding performances from Jenkins and Saker.

The song most often picked out from this youthful work is the diner parody Sunday of Jon and Larson's real-life mentor Stevie's Sunday from Sunday In The Park With George where the order of Art (with a capital A)  becomes an order of an omelette with no yolks, "That why you're a wait-er!".

That's Stevie as in Stephen Sondheim, not Stevie as in Stevia the sugar-free substitute. A sugar-free substitute being the product at the centre of a doomed advertising industry opportunity which Michael sets up for his friend

But the song we loved was the fast-paced psychobabble of the phone call song with a Country & Western twang, Therapy, yet is there also a touch of old style classic musicals and Sesame Street?

Nik Cottall's excellent versatile set goes a long way to giving the production an atmospheric shape, changing seamlessly from apartment to rooftop to diner to office space and even workshop area.. Ben M Rogers' matches him with (pardon the pun!) spot on lighting which also clearly defines the locations of the various scenes but also adds emotional depth when needed. 

Musical director Gareth Bretherton on keyboards is seen through a gauze screen while the three other members of the band on guitar, bass and drums are up above on the balcony. At one point they also  become participants in the Madison Avenue brainstorming parliament - even those musicians perched above away with the birds! 

This is one of those fascinating evenings where non-cognoscenti like TLT and her motorised chariot (and nearing the end of this review, we still haven't seen Rent!) can appreciate some of the technical processes of a developing musical theatre writer without their eyes glazing over.

Because we also pride ourselves that in terms of musical theatre, we're the ordinary punters with unlearned opinions who nevertheless can google and gather knowledge, we know now that Jonathan Larson sadly died as a result of  undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome.

Despite a few technical glitches and Philip Michael Thomas's choreography feeling a little squeezed into the space, the whole experience, whether with or without the woeful background, was a green light from us - oh, and we look forward to catching Rent if not on the current tour then in a future incarnation!