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.