Thursday, 25 February 2016

Review The Patriotic Traitor

The Patriotic Traitor
by Jonathan Lynn

Men Of Destiny

How to define the tormented character of wartime France? Jonathan Lynn, best known for co-writing goverment sitcom Yes Minister, uses two real life French soldier politicians, judged differently by history, to draw together many elements in his ambitious play The Patriotic Traitor.

Marshal Pétain  (Tom Conti), a farmer's son from the Pas-De-Calais, became a First World War hero. However he later led the French Empire's very own "Parexit" from the Allied to the Nazi cause, accepting the premiership of the now notorious collaborationist anti-semitic government headquartered in the spa town Vichy.

General De Gaulle (Laurence Fox) was a proud nationalist, monarchist, Jesuit intellectual and writer, initially regarding the older man as his technical military mentor

But after fleeing to London, De Gaulle and the Free French disowned the "legal" French government. Following Allied victory and Pétain's post war conviction for treason, the younger man held the power over Marshal Pétain's life or death in his hands.   

Directed by Lynn himself, the set is deceptively simple, but it is also exquisitely designed by Georgia Lowe with pastels reminiscent of Saint Exupéry's Le Petit Prince illustrations or even the gray wash of Jean and Cécile De Brunhoff's benevolent dictator, Babar.

The play begins as Pétain, a womanising, tough Celt, whose geniality hides a streak of ruthless expediency, in Conti's incarnation, backed by a map of France and surrounding countries, awaits the verdict of his trial and it is seemingly structured as a series of his flashbacks told to a priest.

The apprentice simplicities of the first act fuse into a far more complex second act. As Pétain's viewpoint retreats, De Gaulle's sense of his destiny and his literary image of himself washes over the play

Finally a compliant Pétain, whose life De Gaulle saves in a manner modelled on Napoleon's exile, even accepts his former subordinate giving him the words to describe his punishment.

The play, in TLT's humble opinion, belongs to De Gaulle, allowing Fox to excel, even when talking, as became De Gaulle's wont, in the third person. And it is De Gaulle's particular sensibility, writerly imagination and politics which grow to dominate the play.

TLT and her petite bagnole were struck by echos of several parallel European histories and also some graceful tableaux in the course of the action. As if an artist had recorded events with every nuance in an upmarket populist political bande-dessinée before the age of the flash bulb press photographer.

Charting the lives of the two men and their relationship to France, Lynn chooses a dramatically difficult literary and historical path shaded with pastiche. For, despite the seriousness of the subject, there's a skein of humour strained across the continuum of events. 

At the same time, Lynn could have paced  his own work more effectively to tap more fully the dramatic potential of the intricate structure and ritualistic power exchange. 

There is able, precise support from Niall Ashdown, James Chalmers, Tom Mannion with Ruth Gibson as De Gaulle's wife, Calais-born Yvonne, elegant daughter of a biscuit maker and mother of his three children. Nonetheless, mixed feelings remain over this production's strategy and its mapping of the handover of power. 

A slow burner, it eventually rewards an attentive audience in the second act, having woven its coolly intricate web with gunpowder flashes of emotion. But, especially in the first act, this feels like a radio play with Andrea J Cox's sound effects or a piece preparing for a TV drama series or movie, so it's an amber light from TLT.

PS As left wing French intellectuals manqué with a taste for the existential ;), it tickled TLT and her mechanical filly that this production's De Gaulle, five years before his own birth, should watch out for his own uncle  - the would-be assassin of the French president in 1973 movie The Day Of The Jackal ... ;)

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Review Road Show

Road Show
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Book by John Weidman

Brothers Up In Arms

Underneath the arches this time - a trip to the Union Theatre for a lesser known Sondheim musical, Road Show, directed by Phil Willmott, accompanied by a three-piece band led by musical director Richard Baker on piano with accompanying drummer and violinist.

With no less than three former incarnations as Wise Guys, Gold and Bounce, it's based on the true story of American Addison Mizner and his brother Wilson, entrepreneurs or crooks, dependent on your point of view, in the first half of the 20th century.

It's a "can't live with him, can't live without him" tale with the indissoluble ties and irreparable rifts of the two men, artist and conman, at the centre of the story, used as a reflection of American aspiration. 

Urged on by their dying politician father, "It's In Your Hands" and their ambitious mother, the two men take to the road to make their fortunes. Suffering the vicissitudes of won and lost riches as gold prospectors, in gambling dens and various ill-fated business ventures, they finally make their mark with over hyped Florida real estate  - before the property bubble bursts.

TLT and sidekick are "we know what we like" audience members rather than musical theatre experts. And drawing on their previous theatregoing, this musical struck them as having some of the same assets and liabilities as Jerry Herman's Mack and Mabel. The same awkward uneasy see-saw between two protagonists with no consistent focus. A dark true tale  but at the same time a shoo-in archetypal story in conflict, rather than integrated, with the accurate history.

Nevertheless there's a lot to like in the Union production. Howard Jenkins takes on the role of architect Addison, the fall guy compared to the opportunist rogue Wilson, played with relish by André Refig, variously a gambler, prize fight promoter, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter.

Jenkins as Addison, who finally finds success as an architect of kitsch Spanish-style mansions for the wealthy, leads the audience through the story,  even if he is more youthfully slimline than at least one line of the lyrics suggests.  Steve Watts is suitably authoritative both as the older Addison and the Mizner brothers' father. Meanwhile Cathryn Sherman makes the most of the role of spikey Mama Mizner and Joshua LeClair brings an emotional power to the role of love interest Hollis.   

The problems, like Mack and Mabel, seem to be mostly with the book. Maybe the key lies with the original conception. According to internet sources, Sondheim first came across the story of the Mizners in the 1950s in the New Yorker magazine, but found  the rights to their biography already snapped up by Broadway producer David Merrick. Merrick had Irving Berlin, who had known Addison, on board to write the songs when it was mooted as a possible vehicle for comedian Bob Hope.

It came to naught and Sondheim stepped in again in the 1990s intending to use the template of the popular wisecracking "Road" movies with Hope and crooner Bing Crosby.  A kind of double act Rake's Progress, scenes from lives and eras: the gold rush, to India and then Hawaii, Guatamala, New York and finally Boca Raton, Florida.

If  the Road movie framework had remained  as more of an ironic commentary, maybe it would  have given Road Show a steelier structure and consistency of tone rather than leaving the bare bones linear story of the two men. As it is, designer Nik Corrall introduces a tarnished gilt mirror or picture frame in the background on the ragged Union stage, which along with suitcases and a typewriter, gives a desolate riches to rags "Citizen Kane" feel to the production.

Overall, TLT and her own road companion enjoyed the show, even if at times the choreography felt a little over egged and the story sometimes like a house with ad hoc extensions.

But it was a pleasure to hear unmiked singing in the intimate venue and additionally individual cameos such as Damian Robinson's boxer ensured an engrossing 105 minutes without interval. So it's an amber light for an uneven but enjoyable show.   

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Review Hand To God

Hand To God
By Robert Askins

The Rocky Puppet Show

First of all, there may be those readers who believe wrongly TLT is an online sock puppet. And a sock puppet with its own sock puppet in the shape of her little equally opinionated limo.

Let us clear this up once and for all. We enjoyed this show, Hand To God, though we are definitely not sock puppets. We are a human being and a motorised vehicle with a birth certificate and a current MOT.

And we are not connected in any way shape or form with: Hand To God anti-hero Tyrone, a sock puppet masterfully manipulated by Harry Melling as troubled teen Jason; sock puppets in general; writer cum bartender Robert Askins; director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel or designer Beowulf Boritt.

But we did wonder whether the spectacularly-named Moritz Von Stuelpnagel or Beowulf Boritt really existed from birth, especially when widow Margery (Janie Dee) rips out pages of patriarchal family trees from the bible with relish.

But a quick search of that new bible, the internet, reveals a real Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, an educator as well as director. And, if related, a Von Stuelpnagel family with a serious history.

OK, so it looks as though Askins with his Ubu Roi in Rural Texas romp wasn't talking to his own sock puppet director in rehearsals. But Beowulf Boritt? Surely ... But yes, here's another guy with a serious family history.

Back to the Vaudeville. Pastor Greg (Neil Pearson) asks Margery to put on a performance to showcase the work of the sock puppet ministry (oh ye of little faith, these actually exist) attended by her introvert son Jason, local juvenile delinquent Timmy (Kevin Mains) and girl-next-door Jessica (Jemima Rooper) on whom Jason has a crush. But Jason also has his life taken over by his xxhis own handxx demonic sock puppet, Tyrone ...

TLT and jalopy did wonder if Tyrone had appeared as a cartoon character on the small screen in a cartoon sitcom, it would have been seen as just another of the South Park/Family Guy genre, even with, or perhaps because of, the puppet-on-puppet sex (did we mention that?!).  But theatre is its own powerful visceral medium with a different impact on its audience. And Jessica's reaction to Jason's devilish appendage on stage is - strangely innocent and resourceful - and very funny.

Some of the story threads do feel as stitched together as a character's torn off ear (maybe we're all turning into patched-up puppets?!!!) and of dubious taste, yet this is the gospel according to Tyrone, not Saint Jason, Timothy, Gregory or Margery. 

Give yourself up to the truly mesmerizing performance of Melling as Jason and sock puppet Tyrone  without too much detailed analysis and you'll understand why it's proved an almost cathartic experience for audiences. 

Oh, and Beowulf Boritt's revolving sets, complete with a little limo no less (what's not to like?!), also keep this fable fast and frantic with the puppets designed by Marte Johanne Ekhougen in this hellishly funny sermon.

So Texas may be famous for its lone star, oil wells, the Bush family, cattle, the assassination of a president, cowboys, as the buckle of the bible belt, Enron and the burrito. But it can now can add Tyrone the devil sock puppet to its Wikipedia list. Aw shucks, Hand To God's not perfect, but humans ain't perfect neither, so it's a yee haw amber/green light from us.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Review Bad Jews

Bad Jews
by Joshua Harmon 

Jews Behaving Badly 

There's a scene in Sleepers with Woody Allen (born Allen Koenigsberg) visiting an outfitters' emporium in a dystopian future - with robots programmed to play out the roles of stereotypical Jewish tailors.

TLT and her convertible were reminded of this take on Jewish identity after motoring along to the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Joshua Harmon's dark comedy Bad Jews which has already completed a couple of successful runs in Bath and London before going on tour and returning to the capital. 

The self-conscious twenty something grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor cram into a New York studio apartment overlooking the Hudson River following his funeral.

Long-held resentments erupt in an almighty battle between two of the cousins for possession of the gold "Chai" (meaning "life") pendant belonging to their "Poppy" which he had kept hidden while in a Second World War concentration camp, apparently under his tongue.

Bad Jews tackles troublesome matters within the framework of a farce. While religion has clearly shaped their lives, the economic and gender divide proves just as important a catalyst for the Titanic struggle between born-again Jew Daphna (Ailsa Joy), a clever Vassar student, and her more secular wealthier cousins, Liam (Ilan Goodman), her main adversary with blonde non Jewish girlfriend Melody (Antonia Kinlay) in tow, and  Jonah "I don't want to get involved" Haber (Jos Slovick).

The play has a schematic feel with some obvious comedy set-ups. But it's a speedy and engaging no-interval 100 minutes with plenty of scorching below-the-belt dialogue and a subtle historical subtext for a post credit crunch generation cut adrift in modern globalized America and the world.  

Director Michael Longhurst keeps the action moving in the apartment and the corridor in an evocative set designed by Richard Kent and manages the broadstroke comedy without sacrificing the underlying seriousness and knotty issues. 

If the play itself is sometimes as self-conscious as the generation it portrays, there are scattergun visceral moments of insight, especially when Daphna is obviously fighting as much as a woman told to shut up as for her side of the family and her place in the world. 

An amber/green light for a fast-moving, if sometimes flawed, thought-provoking piece.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Review A Steady Rain

A Steady Rain
By Keith Huff

Silence Of The Cops

As if obeying a celestial director with cloud-seeeding powers, the heavens opened as TLT drove up in oilskins and galoshes to the Arcola Theatre for A Steady Rain. This is the Chicago-based 2007 two-hander that proved the breakthrough work for Wisconsin writer and Windy City resident Keith Huff who went on to pen TV's Mad Men and House of Cards.

The piece charts the lives of two Chicago cops, friends since Catholic school and church, working the same beat as partners in the police force. So far, so stereotypical. But this is no standard police procedural but a sly sleight-of-hand stage play dependent on the testimonies of the protagonists and off stage action.

Gradually, through shifting monologues, interspersed with interaction between the two, we learn Denny, a family man and moral crusader with shades of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, nevertheless finagles protection money from prostitutes and cheats on his wife. 

Meanwhile Joey lives alone taking solace in the bottle, nurturing a hidden passion for Denny's wife. The two are linked by their chosen career, immersion in the Chicago underworld and their grievances at lack of promotion. Yet they are lives also shaped and buffetted by politics, media headlines, real estate, drugs, murder and mayhem, movies and TV, the two men coming from a generation shaped and united by televison, its ideals and its exposés..

This production premiered at the East Riding Theatre in Yorkshire directed by Anthony Pearson with Vincent Regan reprising here the role of Denny Lombardo and David Schaal as Joey Doyle.  

The stage area is a black box designed by Ed Ullyart encased in the round by banks of audience seats on three sides looking down on a platform, slightly raised from the floor, sloping to street drains. On the back wall projections evoke the wider world but also a more claustrophobic sense of looking through a letterbox. 

A Steady Rain works as a straight forward anti hero plot tracing the disintegration of the partnership, a marriage, a man's sanity, painting a portrait of life on the Chicago streets.  But it's far more intricate than that with its interactions between TV drama, crime that hits the headlines and compromised real lives.

The play grips with its two performances by Regan and Schaal ratcheting up the tension, although it's a tricky balance to maintain with the story filtered through the characters' own words rather than shown. The stuff of TV melodrama and poetically biblical archetypes seep through like water from overflowing drains.

For the most part, director Anthony Pearson manages to keep the equilibrium of the play. 

As the characters move into extremes, a fatal mistake leads to a gruesome cannibalistic murder of a Vietnamese child inspired by the Jeffrey Dahmer murders and eventually breaks brotherly bonds forcing a tragic private and public repositioning.

By the final scenes we are drawn into the psychological world of the relentless beating rain coming into earshot (sound uncredited in the programme).  At times, the play almost becomes a little heavy handed, but the dark subject matter of A Steady Rain has a redeeming wit and a political nous for which we award our coveted green light.