Thursday, 24 December 2015

Review Around The World In 80 Days

Around The World In 80 Days
By Laura Eason 

Odds On London Fogg

Before the internet put a girdle round the world in nano-seconds, TLT and her own Passepartout automobile recalls David Niven and Shirley MacLaine  on the telly floating in the basket of a hot air balloon in the 1956 movie.

It seems curious and remains unanswered in any way by this play, why a Frenchman Jules Verne would write a book about English gent Phileas Fogg with a British Empire Bank of England featuring majorly in the background.  However now American playwright Laura Eason  has adapted Verne's 1873 episodic adventure story Around The World In 80 Days into a tongue-in-cheek play directed by Lucy Bailey.

Phileas Fogg (a suitably phlegmatic Robert Portal), a London gentleman of mysterious independent means who lives a life of  mathematical precision attended by recently recruited French valet Jean Passepartout (an engaging Simon Gregor), accepts a £20,000 bet from his Reform Club whist pals.

Namely that he can travel the world in 80 days by rail and steamer clutching his copy of Bradshaw's Guide  - the world tending to mean the dominions of the then British Empire apart from the breakaway USA

But with any good book, it turns out what sounds most topical is in the original Jules Verne's novel : the Bank of England robbery, the gas left burning, the incompetence of Inspector Fix (Tony Gardner playing it with a touch of One Man Two Governors)  chasing the wrong man with his warrant.

While adventures rather than deep characterisation dominate the book, it remains a stonking story harnessing 19th century fascination with travel, Empire and exploration with a touch of the later Sherlock Holmes and an attempted nemesis in Fix who believes Fogg to be a gentleman thief.

This cheery pantomine-like version held the attention of the youngsters in the audience. A detailed set by Anna Fleischle adapts well enough to above ship and round-the-world locations while below deck the show starts with live piano playing.  The rest of the eight strong cast including Liz Sutherland and Eben Figueiredo inhabit a range of roles with a breezy comic competence.

Enjoyable but not perfect. The saloon style piano player features in the first few minutes but never appears again. and with the feel of a children's show, it did make TLT and her companion wonder whether the play could work just as well with an unadorned stage while keeping the ingenious props.

The grumpy old men in the Reform Club, an elephant ride led by Lena Kaur as the pachyderm's keeper, a  Hong Kong opium den and a turn by Tim Steed as an American colonel stick in the mind. But, the first act particularly sometimes felt less than varied in staging and pace once the initial character traits of the lead characters were established.

Still the testosterone-fuelled events are suitably softened with the rescue of widow Mrs Aouda (a graceful Shanyana  Rafaat) from the funeral pyre and Gregor's Passepartout enlivens proceedings in the second act when the actors break out of the fourth wall.

So it's another 80 days to add to the canon: A 1946 Orson Welles/Cole Porter flop (:o!!!) musical; a foxy 1972 Australian animation series; a 1984 mini series with Piers Brosnan and then Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan in a very loose adaptation.  All preceded by a 1919 silent German film Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen.  

This skittish adaptation has plenty of playfulness, even explaining with the lightest of touches the lack of a hot air balloon. Yet it felt as if it could have explored more the impetus behind the book, threading in its literary allusions and social background. All this may have lent more variety to its staging to match the energy of the acting ensemble. An amber light. 

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Review Evening At The Talk House

Evening At The Talk House
 By Wallace Shawn  

Farewell To The Theatre

TLT and her jalopy have never entered The Gay Hussar restaurant but somehow images of mahogany panels with its Cold War intrigues came to mind looking at the set of the Talk House dining club of Wallace Shawn's new play about the thespian world. 

But in the alternative science fiction universe of The Talk House, the theatre of war takes on a sinister turn enveloping the whole of showbiz.

A decade on from the premiere  of theatre flop Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars, composer turned jingle writer Ted (Stuart Milligan) has arranged a reunion at a once favoured post theatre venue, The Talking House, run by blowsy bohemian Nelly (Anna Calder-Marshall), helped by waitresss/resting actress (Sinéad Matthews),  Caught in time, somewhere in the no man's land between New Haven, the Royal Court and The Princess Bride.

In an opening monologue author Robert (Josh Hamilton), now a successful TV screenwriter, describes the fantastical medievalesque premise of his play. But this is already unsettling - more reminiscent of a now mundane open-ended computer game than a play by a promising writer.

Alongside Nellie, seemingly vulnerable waitress/resting actress Jane welcomes star actor Tom, a suavely convincing Simon Shepherd, with Joseph Mydell's producer and talent agent Bill playing every twist and turn to the hilt. 

Also accompanying Ted, wardrobe supervisor Annette (Naomi Wirthner), whose  fashion sense, although not her murderous activities when entertainment sector employment is hard to find, is reminiscent of a recent newsworthy figure.

And then from under the rug on the couch emerges cartoon-like Dick, embodied by Wallace Shawn as some bruised down-and-out Simpsonesque Mr Burns. Once a star of sitcom and advertising, now an apparent loser until he grasps the opportunity to read a speech from the play with all the aplomb of a writer as well as an actor or perhaps an actor making the most of what he is given.  

Alliances and careers have prospered, foundered and may still reverse. No talk here of marriages, divorces and children or even  about the artistic content of current media successes. 

This is an entertainment Parliament or Senate discussing the market and stock value of individuals and companies, where products feel more like snacks rather than the main meal and everyone may devour the other at any moment.   

And are we really to take at face-value Robert's speech to the house, his dismissal of the "theatre going impulse" (What?! This is Trafficlighttheatregoer!) and jarring interpretation of the theatre audience experience as a group of passive staring cows chewing cud?

Smartly directed by Ian Rickson with evocative set design by Stephen and Timothy Quay, it's an odd hotch potch of a piece with an actorly improvisational feel which, like many pieces on stage now, may well work better in the close up, edited medium of film, even the first episode of a scifi soap.   

Nevertheless, TLT and her horsepower chariot rather liked it, even if they did not love it. It's curmodgeonly, it's spikey with themes and an atmosphere that stays with you. And as we are all in a way actors now in front of surveillance cameras and repositories of valuable data for advertisers, there is the sensation of, if not the definition why, the play is relevant.

Not easy-listening at the Talk House but worth catching the last couple of performances before Christmas and then it runs until March 2016. An amber light.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Review The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape
By Eugene O'Neill

A Stoker's Progress 

Off to the palladial Old Vic to catch up on somewhat of a curiosity - Eugene O'Neill's 1922 satiric Expressionist play The Hairy Ape - a gorilla (as opposed to a guerrilla ;) ) play, eleven years before King Kong graced our screens.

Descending into a ship's sulphur yellow engine room, meet "Yank" (Bertie Carvel), the lead stoker or fireman, characterised by his brawn rather than brains as he mechanically shovels coal.   Part Popeye, part Marlon Brando, both later incarnations. 

But what surprised TLT and her free-thinking hatchback  is the resemblance to a reversed Rev Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies with Yank  like "the little black gorilla" chimney sweep literally below the surface. It's almost as if Irish American O'Neill engaged in a debate with Protestant English Victorian clergyman Kingsley, at the same time artistically embracing but also fearful of succumbing to social Darwinism.

However, unlike the begrimed chimney sweep of the fairy tale, Yank is a Frankenstein water baby who never finds redemption in this one-act 90 minute play.  

In eight scenes rhythmically directed by Richard Jones, Yank is propelled towards his fate via encounters with marionette-like church and party-going New York bourgeoisie and a book-driven workers' movement. 

Finally killed by political sentiment, deluded into a sense of brotherhood and commonality with an ape (Phil Hill deserves more than a mention for a memorable performance!), his bones are snapped like a puppet or clockwork doll by the animal whom he believes he can embrace and free.

In between he is a workhorse spurred into a kind of awakening. First by a lyrical whisky-drinking Irishman Paddy (Steffan Rhodri)  recalling the days of sailing clippers dependent on weather not machines.   

Then his own reverse Water Babies' Ellie, chaperoned steel heiress Mildred Douglas (Rosie Sheehy) who, wishing to play out academic social work theories learned at college, descends to the stokehold, only to seal Yank's fate, branding the fireman "a filthy beast" before melodramatically fainting.

Indeed it almost felt like The Truman Show before its time - with so much foreshadowing and characters testing out Yank's reactions before the inevitable end. 

Led by Long (Callum Dixon), the galley's Marxist agitator, into Manhattan's consumer society, Yank finally loses his passivity and registers with a political party after reading a newspaper in prison. But then turned on by his comrades, he's branded a possible spy and ends up in the zoo in front of the ape's cage.   

One can't help thinking such filmic and art school disenchantment may also have helped pave the way for mid twentieth century dictatorships and propaganda.  

It's a hair shirt of a play, five years after theory had also driven the bloodshed and famines of the Soviet Revolution.  Striking design by Stewart Laing (plus a stonking gorilla outfit, Stewart!), lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, choreography by Aletta Collins and sound by Sarah Angliss all drive Yank's progress. 

Even if the inaudibility of some of the Brooklynese (deliberately so, we think) adds to that hair shirt feeling, Bertie Carvel gives a virtuoso performance as Yank. Yet the combined design, lighting, choreography and sound in some scenes felt a tad too self-conscious for TLT's taste. 

 Was the play ever conceived to be a silent film (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was released in 1920), we wonder? Anyway, a few stills from the original stage production with Louis Wolheim are here   and here.  And an amber/green light for this simian fantasy and four days still until November 21 to see it.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Review Mr Foote's Other Leg

Mr Foote's Other Leg
By Ian Kelly

Perruques And Prosthetics

You couldn't make it up - an actor-manager and satirical playwright Samuel Foote should surely have been a character in one of his own plays. Running with a fast and ruthless upper class crowd, including the future George III and his brother the Duke of York, Foote loses his leg taking on a bet. Yet he made a comeback as a one-legged thespian with the apt singular surname  worthy of the celebrated Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch which his story may have inspired.

And there's an amputation scene, strenuous but not unduly bloody, yet TLT did wonder whether Mr Clint Eastwood or Mr James Caan might want to take on the role for an American production ...

Ian Kelly adapted his own biography of Foote into the play "Mr Foote's Other Leg", now transferred from a sell-out run at the  Hampstead Theatre to its natural home at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. For Samuel Foote, played in this production by Simon Russell Beale with Kelly striking as his patron Prince George,  operated from the Little Theatre In The Hay with a Royal Patent in the 18th century, a forerunner of the current venue. 

In addition, he managed to evade the licensing and script censorship of the Lord Chamberlain  by claiming amateur status for his company, charging for tea or chocolate at his "tea parties" rather than audience tickets and performing improvisations including his own drag acts. 

TLT and her horse powered carriage was particularly intrigued by the theatrical premise of the play, having discovered the torrid rivalries of official and unofficial theatre companies doing research for her review of The Beaux Stratagem

And sure enough the play does encompass rivalries between Foote the comedian and David Garrick the tragedian (a finely judged performance by Joseph Millson), the competition from opera and  Hanoverian import G F Handel and the rise of the pleasure garden entertainment.  

Alongside themes emerging from Foote's possibly ambiguous sexuality, his relationship with his leading actress Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan), his surgeon John Hunter (Forbes Masson), his Jamaican dresser Frank Barber (Micah Balfour)  and scientist and American statesman Benjamin Franklin (Colin Stinton). Not forgetting Foote's big theatrical break after the manslaughter of actor Mr Hallam (Joshua Elliott).

Past and modern literary, light entertainment, historical and current affairs parallels punch well beyond the 18th century into our present day.  But it's the gamut of themes, allusions and characters, each worthy of their own play, which proved problematic for us. 

The play is directed at a filmic lively pace by Richard Eyre with sumptuous design and costumes by Tim Hatley.  Russell Beale holds the play together as best as he can, but  it did feel like a skate through heterogenous elements of several plays and then some alternative comedy yoked self-consciously together rather than an organic whole.  

Perhaps there's a clue in the mention of Laurence Sterne's shaggy dog story Tristam Shandy but the play lost its focus for TLT and her sidekick.   The night time search after Foote's death for his amputated leg among the pickled relicts of medical student curiosities never fulfilled its initial promise of concentrating on Foote, the man exchanging the law for the stage yet embroiled in a complex web of interests including his own.  

Nevertheless TLT did catch some more thought provoking strands such as Miss Chudleigh, a pleasingly cast Sophie Bleasdale stepped fresh out of a Gainsborough portrait.  First an ingenue actress and then a cackling villainess - at least as filtered through Foote's viewpoint as we never hear her side of the story. But such possible complexities never reach an apex and are easily missed. 

So an intriguing story and although there are glimpses of something darker drawing modern parallels, the play pulls in too many directions despite the best efforts of actors, including a distinctive performance by the playwright himself, director and crew. An amber light.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Review Close To You. Bacharach Reimagined

Close To You. Bacharach Reimagined
Music Burt Bacharach and Lyrics Hal David
Co-conceived by Kyle Riabko and David Lane Seltzer 

The Old Music Master Remastered

The age of downloads has led to an inter-generational appreciation and study of great song writing as never before.   It's also probably led to the popularity of a show like "Close To You", with  twentieth first century arrangements of mid twentieth century classics by octogenarian Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David.
Starting with a spotlight solo "Anyone Who Had A Heart" with Canadian Kyle Riabko  on guitar followed by "This Guy" and the first of a recurring refrain of "What's It All about" (from Alfie), the show follows musical themes and patterns rather than an instantly recognisable musical theatre narrative. Whole songs are embedded with slivers of others,  giving a seamless sonata quality to the musical medley expertly choreographed by director Steven Hoggett.

And, with Burt Bacharach present on press night, maybe one can say there is an outside narrative - real life merging with theatre. Emerging from a demo session when he played new material by the  composer, the show is the brainchild of twenty something Riabko alongside David Lane Seltzer with the old masters, Bacharach and David (before his death), giving their blessing.  Once such protegé back stories were away from public gaze, now it's part of the marketing of the show. 

The talented seven-strong cast play instruments varying from guitar to percussion (ah, rhythm is all!) to piano to ukele to double bass (and maybe shades of an electric organ?). 

While artistes as diverse as Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black, the Carpenters, Whitney Houston, Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr have interpreted the songs of Bacharach, David and  collaborators, the septet work to bring fresh rock, funk, soul, rhythm and blues, reggae sounds to the thirty three songs in the show.   

Hits such as What The World Needs Now Is Love, Walk On By, This Guy's In Love With You and many more. 

In some ways a musical equivalent of sitcom Friends with Riabko at its centre, the show plunges the cast into an impromptu jam session in a kooky boho apartment. Walls are clad with a higgledy piggledy of  musical instruments, a turntable, even sofas,  suspended above a patchwork of carpet, rugs, chairs, speakers and lamps.  And joining in the cosy façade created by designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis with lighting by Tim Lutkin, some audience members sit on squashy sofas on either side of the stage. 

Inevitably for anyone of a certain age, affecting, nuanced recordings have already colonised the mind. Yet the show's aim is Bacharach reimagined in a style for a twenty first century global audience - the generation of mass musical education, easily accessible downloads of song archives, of Glee,  X-Factor and The Voice. In that it has proved already in New York and an earlier run in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London under the moniker "What's It All About?" very successful. 

And is there more of an affective patchworked narrative within the musical clichés? Or at least a colouring of  music history as the business changes tack from  solo artiste interpreting the songwriter to the rise of singer songwriter, personified in Riabko's vocals with acoustic guitar, then of the group, natural or manufactured. 

Maybe tinges of a "Merrily We Roll Along" story and even the show's publicity image with an almost ironic twist,  reflecting the psyche of music besotted generations:  the image of the magnificently talented ethereal James-Dean like solo singer, eyes on musical heaven, but still a babe magnet

The singers - at first free-moving atoms across the stage - become like rotating figures contractually glued (letters received and torn up) on a turntable, singing however joyously and  beautifully.  

The slivers of story give way to more of a concert second act, a slick and mature rendering of hits echoing the first act but also reflecting organically the amalgam of current musical influences.

Yet this is way too analytical! Give yourself up to the music and your own non-copyrightable musical nervous system, shaped by a century or so of American recorded music,  and life will shape its own narrative. A superior hall of musical mirrors, the change from "What's It All About?" to "Close To You",  gets a green light from TLT. 

PS Video of Burt and the cast outside the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus - for once it wasn't raining in London for Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head! Ah memories of those heady pre-video and internet days when TLT queued (yes, queued!) to see Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid at her local fleapit, even if she later abandoned her bike for the engine beneath her theatregoing wings ... :)