Thursday, 31 August 2017

Review Hamlet

More about kin than kings, Peter Barker is pleasantly surprised by an odd, but intriguing,  fast-moving Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Everything And The Kitchen Sink

Keep It In The Family could be a tongue-in-cheek alternative title for Hamlet, but the Brandreth family take it literally as the cue for their cut-down version of Shakespeare’s most celebrated play.

It's the tale of Hamlet, a self-examining Danish prince increasingly out of sync with his times after his father’s death and the sudden marriage of his mother to his uncle.

Updated to the modern age, directors Simon Evans and David Aula with script editor Imogen Bond have produced a 90-minute one-act play which has the speed of a TV drama  or movie.

We're in an affluent middle-class kitchen, an attractively detailed set from Polly Sullivan,  with oak cupboards, other pine furniture and a handy set of knives, just in case they're needed.

Benet Brandreth tackles the role of Hamlet, while his wife actress Kosha Engler and his Dad, Gyles, former MP and current media personality, split the rest of the roles.

By day (when he's not doing the matinées!) Benet is an intellectual property lawyer and an expert in rhetoric working with, among others, the RSC.

As might be expected, his delivery is very clear, but it's also a very different kind of interpretation - an unsympathetic, bad-tempered, entitled public schoolboy who, deliberately, often shouts his soliloquys at the audience.

Yet, he is relaxed and witty on first meeting an old university friend. Plus his rendition of "to be or not to be",  first read from a philosophy book and then turned into a debate with himself, worked for me. 

Gyles Brandeth captures Claudius's man-in-power hypocrisy and oily charm, as well as the complacent pomposity of Polonius, notably in the funny and realistic exchange with his son Laertes.

But here a minus kicks in. Having actors double up on the spot left me wondering if this was a dialogue between father and son or father and daughter - with both of Polonius's children acted by the otherwise excellent Kosha Engler.

Despite some entertaining programme notes by Gyles, I did wish I'd brought a Hamlet crib for my companion who came knowing nothing about the play.

We both pondered the script and directorial decisions which left Engler, for instance, doing a confusing immediate switch from garlanded Orphelia to her vengeful brother Laertes - also complete with garland. Similarly the switches between Claudius and Polonius were not always clear.

Nevertheless, there's a certain wit to the staging and a daring knife game which gives an adventurous twist to the fight scenes, sustaining the pace and tension.

Preconceptions about Brandeth senior dismissed, this proved to be an entertaining, if sometimes confusing, evening. The relatively short running time and swiftly moving action kept me hooked.

There's a certain panache to the performances of the trio and, dare I say it, Gyles Brandeth proves his acting chops and I wouldn't mind seeing more of him on the stage.  There are flaws but I still enjoyed this Hamlet enough to award an amber/green light.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Review A Fox On The Fairway

A Fox On The Fairway
by Ken Ludwig

Of Clubs And The Man I Sing

Think a perfunctorily put-together 1970s' sitcom and you begin to get a flavour of Ken Ludwig's more miss-than-hit golfing farce A Fox On The Fairway receiving its British première.

It's set in the bar of Quail Valley Country Club on the eve of and during the annual tournament against a neighbouring club.

A club with the bizarre name of Crouching Squirrel - TLT did wonder whether it was a case of crouching squirrel, hidden fox,  as the vulpine meaning of this piece's escaped her.

Henry Bingham, the director of Quail Valley overplays his hand, foolishly accepting a wager offered him by the rival club's director, putting all the Bingham assets at risk.

Crouching Squirrel's "capital, capital!" Dickie Bell wears - ho, ho - a variety of outrageous pullovers and - ho, ho - mangles a plethora of well-known expressions.

The characters are well-worn stereotypes - the bungling head of the club, the sex-starved blonde wealthy divorcee, the Essex girl waitress out for evening class literary self-improvement, the dim but well-meaning new executive assistant with hitherto hidden talents and the battle-axe wife.  

A saying attributed to the well-known golfer 😉 Karl Marx states, "History repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce".

Unfortunately here this laboured farce repeats farce only as a dim echo of more distinguished predecessors with clumsy set ups and very creaky gags.    

Nevertheless, the cast is pretty good despite the intensely irritating characters they have to embody. However, the action, directed by Philip Wilson, simply isn't fast enough to whip the audience up into the frenzy of laughter which is an intrinsic part of the farce experience.

There is a chance that this will bed in during the run, increase its pace and raise a few more laughs. There seem to be a few scattergun  metaphors going on, a lashing together of some  novelistic and filmic tropes and maybe the mention of the master of the silly-ass character PG Wodehouse gives a clue.

However, it's only unpredictable in that many of its self-conscious, supposedly hilarious, cartoonish scenarios come completely out of the blue, even within the skewed logic of farce.

Still, Damien Matthews does a more than decent job as Bingham, the hapless director who is the prey for the predatory Simon Lloyd as property developer Bell out to win by hook or crook.

Natalie Walter does her considerable best with Pamela Peabody (her name seems to combine a novel's virtuous chambermaid and a surname synonymous with philanthropy). Yet she still falls  victim to the clunky scenarios, especially in a golfing version of William Tell's apple, and some hoary  gags. 

Ottilie Mackintosh is forced to be supremely grating as the waitress Louise given to narrating events as a Homeric epic (it sounds better than it is in practice). Yet there is some pay off and, thinking it over, she may be the reason for the fox in the title.

Equally Romayne Andrews' Justin feels wasted (in all senses of the word after a hospital cocktail of drugs for - er - a broken arm) as the easily upset suitor of Louise  and Sarah Quist does what she can with Bingham's "Sherman Tank" wife Muriel who harbours a secret passion.

Besides the louder outfits, there are some surprisingly subtle costumes and styling, especially when it comes to Muriel Bingham.

The set designed by Colin Falconer is an ingenious, impressionist golfing green of paint and carpet superimposed on the club lounge and a final change of scene is a very impressive, if rather lumbering, coup de théâtre.

However TLT and her own little automative caddie were unsure, particularly in the first act, whether the translation of the American country club culture into purely English terms really works.

It's not a hopeless case, as it has a very good cast. Even so, A Fox On The Fairway raised only the occasional unregulated chuckle, rather than giving a novel twist to the farce genre and making TLT laugh her socks off. It's a lower range amber light.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Review Windows

by John Galsworthy

Through A Glass Darkly

What a curiously engaging patchwork of a play John Galsworthy's Windows, first performed in 1922, turns out to be!

It starts out as an obviously self-censored Edwardian drawing room London melodrama set in the aftermath of the First World War about a young woman, a figure of pathos, deflowered out of wedlock and the consequences of her pregnancy.

Yet  it finally shifts to a more caustic tone before transforming into  a play as symbolist as Chekhov's The Seagull and focussing on the mistress of the household and an international outlook.

The March family live in Highgate: father Geoffrey (David Shelley) is a newspaper pundit and otherwise a freelance writer and idealist given to muttering about "the government".

Mother Joan (Carolyn Backhouse) takes on the practical duties of running a household with a firm grasp of reality. Son Johnny (Duncan Moore) writes poetry and dreams of chivalry, a disappointed idealist and tormented veteran of three years' in the trenches while his sister Mary (Eleanor Sutton) keeps a level head and confers with her mother. 

The family employs an in-house cook (Janet Amsden), as well as another outside blue collar tradesman. Joe Bly (Vincent Brimble), an ex-seaman turned window cleaner who seems to owe something to G Bernard Shaw's Alfred Doolittle.

He has a philosophical bent and turn of phrase. This includes mulling over imperial concerns about Ireland and India. Yet closer to home, he also has a daughter Faith (Charlotte Brimble), newly released from prison after escaping hanging for smothering her baby.  .

Windows, like Just To Get Married, the Finborough's previous success, deftly weaves together the personal with national and state-of-the-world concerns, but keeps its own distinctive voice.

Geoffrey Beevers directs a measured and sure-footed production with strong performances from the cast of nine.

As Faith Bly, Charlotte Brimble is a tough cookie who eventually shows a glimpse of vulnerability but somehow, intriguingly, knows she must live up or down to a literary and newspaper stereotype.

As the men of the house, David Shelley and Duncan Moore, father and son respectively, are pipe-smoking would-be reformers in their different ways.

Yet there are sly satiric hints about both father and son in Windows, for all their high ideals about social change, just reparations and their wish to give pretty Faith a fresh start in life as a live-in parlourmaid for the March family.

Carolyn Backhouse's Joan March assumes the role of fierce gatekeeper and bears the brunt of responsbility for most matters, principally protecting her husband and son. Yet there are moments when a veil is almost drawn back. Geoffrey, and Johnny are sharply ambivalent figures even if a more tawdry undertow remains a subtle subtext.

This feels like a play sometimes more interested in weaving together issues with some unexpected combinations of the personal and the political than with the characters which are deliberately drawn as literary stereotypes.

Galsworthy in his more famous series of novels The Forsyte Saga, as far as was possible in the era in which he wrote,  often had a subtext touching on contentious subjects in a male dominated society.

Here there is a strange, deliberate scene when after an incident causes disquiet, Mrs March lets the young woman go and appears, highly unusually for a married woman at that time, to swiftly write out a cheque for Faith.

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House revolves around financial restrictions on wives but Mrs March appears to have her own cheque book and seems to believe the ex-parlour maid can cash the cheque. She also promises the young woman more money if necessary.  

Faith eventually reverts to the role of a stock melodrama bad 'un  who cannot break out of the legal personality and character the law and literature have created for her.

In so doing, she keeps the play within the bounds of the censor - but her comments retain a sharp, barbed, satiric tone which lift the play away from conventional melodrama.

There are other clues planted throughout that all may not be what it seems. When Mr Bly reveals his daughter has never divulged the name of the baby's father, he thinks "the better of her for that".

Mr March replies, "Shake hands, Mr Bly. So do I. Loyalty's loyalty - especially when we men benefit by it."

And as the short three acts continue (unusually for plays now there are two intervals), there's also a further very pleasing modern self-conscious sensibility about theatrical conventions.

The action of the play revolves around family meals and periodic window cleaning or, as Bly says, "Ah! Food and windows! That's life" or Mr March remarks in the final act, "We always seem to be eating!".

Intrigued? We certainly were, and, even if writer John Galworthy was no political radical, our interest was certainly piqued after seeing the play and reading about the circumstances surrounding Galsworthy's own marriage.

Rightly or wrongly, it planted in us a suspicion the Nobel Prize winner's wife, who had a chequered past, may herself have been unfairly characterised by others to fit a feminine and legal stereotype.

Windows sardonically examines a gamut of social and  political issues, not least how women's roles are often defined by literature and the law feeding into each other. It's a green light for a surprisingly worldly and sprightly artistic experiment with form played out over two days in a Highgate drawing room. 

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Review Late Company

A compelling dinner party drama laced with dark humour grips Peter Barker with its dissection of parental responsibility and grief. 

Late Company
by Jordan Tannahill

The Blame Game

Late Company is a searing tale of how adults and their teenage children behave when driven by anger, grief, love, and confusion.

Debora (Lucy Robinson) has arranged a dinner party so that she and her husband Michael (Todd Boyce) will finally meet Bill (Alex Lowe) and Tamara (Lisa Stevenson), as well as their son Curtis (David Leopold), a classmate of the hosts' son  Joel. 

It's a year since, at the age of 16, Joel killed himself leaving heart-broken and uncomprehending parents.

The Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill sets this  drama in contemporary Toronto where Joel's father Michael is an ambitious Ontario government minister while mother Deborah is an artist, producing challenging  molten metal sculptures.

A work she calls “Thatcher" looks  like a cross between a Francis Bacon painting and a failed chemistry experiment.
The son of the guests, Curtis had by his own admission, along with others, bullied Joel, a self-proclaimed gay outsider. 

Debora has taken a leaf out of a psychology self-help book and the dinner is part of the plan inspired by it for all of them to move on. This proves a recipe for disaster.

Yet under the surface charm and social graces,  Robinson in a compelling performance as the grieving Debora is both frightening and fragile. Eventually as the meal progresses, her rage drives the action.

In spite of their barely suppressed sense of superiority beneath a polite exterior, the hosts are wrongfooted when they discover Bill has the same level of university education as Michael. 

Director Michael Yale serves the playwright well, carefully pacing the 75 minutes one act play as Tannahill unravels with skill a complex situation, ranging from the viciously funny to the thoughtful knotting and unknotting of issues and personalities.

Michael is a smooth and initially somewhat unsympathetic politician.

However, Boyce's performance also gradually and effectively conveys his hurt and how deeply he cares matching Debora's vulnerability under her priggishness..

David Leopold as Bill and Tamara's hockey-playing son is a stand out. He captures a teenager's surly intelligence as he is forced to confront the reality of his involvement in a death and watch adults all at sea with the situation. 

His moroseness, insecurity, innocence and finally tenderness become the foil sharpening Debora’s anger and ultimately beginning the process of melting that anger.

As Curtis's father, Lowe gives three-dimensional life to a man dealing straightforwardly with an intractable situation.

Stevenson's Tamara reaches out to Debora. However she finds the total desolation of what has happened too much to handle and here one of the play's most wrenching, visceral truths emerges.    

Late Company is as much, if not more, drama than comedy. However like Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Moira Buffini's Dinner, Late Company is driven by a strong woman in a grotesque, self-made situation as the engine for the action. Nevertheless Debora eventually gains the audience's sympathy as a multi-faceted woman. 

Tannahill wrote this play at the age of 23 and it's an impressive, accomplished piece fully deserving its transfer from the Finborough Theatre to Whitehall's Trafalgar Studios.

It's a green light for the twists and turns in this absorbing, stimulating production where the dinner party leads the bereaved couple to discover solace in an unexpected place. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Review Loot

by Joe Orton

It's An Unfair Cop

When TLT was a little nipper, art lessons at primary school were left to our young imaginations.

Inevitably the drawings and paintings often depicted an open window, a burglar in traditional horizontally striped jumper, mask, flat cap and a sack with LOOT stitched on it in large letters.

What he (and it was always a he) did with the loot and whether he subsequently got away with it, we knew and cared not.

Just the deliciousness of a comic book villain unashamedly carrying a bag proclaiming his misdeeds was enough for TLT and her schoolmates. OK, sometimes it said "SWAG" but mostly it was "LOOT".

There is of course something of the same flavour to Joe Orton's 1960s' farce Loot where two rather older nippers have tunnelled from the local undertakers to the vaults of the neighbouring bank but, here, we are faced with possible CONSEQUENCES.

A staple of amateur and professional theatrical companies up and down the nation, Loot is now given an uneven revival at London's Park Theatre directed by Michael Fentiman on the 50th anniversary of Joe Orton's death.

The two hapless bank robbers (Sam Frenchum as Hal or Harold and Calvin Demba as undertaker's assistant Dennis), unlike TLT's frozen-in-time burglars, have the problem of what to do with the - er - loot.

The play begins in the home of Hal, or rather Hal's father, Mr McLeavy (Ian Redford), a devout Catholic in mourning for Mrs McLeavy, Hal's mother, a stalwart of the WRVS and the Mothers Union. 

A rather over emphatic production starts with the voice of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse. If anything - and we're not sure the play needs such addition -  a news item about The Great Train Robbery would have been more apt.

The boys have stashed the money away in the deceased's coffin - the deceased of course being Hal's mother or "Mum" as a large wreath tells us - while the body ends up in a variety of undignified positions.

Of course there's more to Loot than this. Meanwhile petite feisty blonde Nurse Fay (Sinéad Matthews) is busy seducing the widower, no doubt to add him to her portfolio of ex-husbands - who have also all exited their mortal coils.

Then comes the arrival of Inspector Truscott (Christopher Fulford) of Scotland Yard with the lightest of disguises as an official of the then nationalized Water Board.

This production  proved to be a game of two halves with a much stronger second act.We did feel an abstract towering black, shiny cathedral-like set from Gabriella Slade did the play no favours.

It took a while to orientate ourselves to the fact that we were meant to be in a 1960s' home rather than a funeral parlour or church. However, we were watching from the circle, so it may have seemed more intimate yet surreal from the stalls.

Listening from the circle, there was also some unclear diction in the first act, particularly from Demba and Matthews. Nevertheless this improved 100% in the second act where the cast seemed much more at home with the rhythm of the script and the zingy one-liners finally met their mark.
Maybe the household owes something to Galton and Simpson's earlier Steptoe and Son with a son also called Harold and to Billy Liar  and its funeral parlour, as well as Oscar Wilde.

And TLT, having reported on many inquests in her time, knows the treatment of the body (a game Anah Ruddin) is not quite the figment of an outrageous blackly comic imagination as some might think.

What is also interesting about Loot is how, we presume, Orton's criminal conviction as a library book defacer and his experience as a gay man provide a glimpse through the keyhole at the corruption of those in authority in the 1960s before it became headlines many years later: West Midlands and Metropolitan police corruption, council and Catholic Church shenanigans, the Shipman case with the signing of dodgy death certificates.

This provides grist to the mill and heft for sharp black comedy in the fictional situation within the McLeavy household and in the second act a throwaway threat even stretches transatlantically to a political situation across the pond.

Yet  bringing in now more explicit homosexual references takes away some of Loot's artfulness. Secrecy and deceit is intrinsic to the art of a play written because of censorship both in theatre and, to use a BIG word, society.

So there's a rather sluggish first act with a worthier final act. Eventually, this production of Loot just about gets away with it and so we award an amber light. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Review Against

by Christopher Shinn

A Silicon Valley Candide

In a world of quicksand, more and more divorced from "real" life by the screen, Luke emerges to tackle Something Big.  

We know tantalizingly little about him. He's a new tech billionaire. He's built his fortune on rockets, solar power, artificial intelligence. He was born abroad and his Dad died when he was young. 

And, he says, God has spoken him directly and told him to go where there is violence. 

Christopher Shinn's new picaresque drama is itself tantalizing and frustrating. It's set in America, a country which has always been an artificial construct of affiliated states. Once, it could be said, the perception of citizens was that the country was bound by the American Dream and family values. 

Now, this play seems to say, it's perceived as bound by motiveless violence and corporatism. As a college student says after a tutorial which has turned from her work to the social network of the tutor, "It feels off".

Shinn has written a play and a series of encounters where everything feels "off", where technology and higher education instead of increasing discovery and a sense of community makes everyone, whether they like it or not, adopt a self-enclosing agenda.

Ben Whishaw plays Luke who grows  literally more and more self-conscious as the story progresses. He's not so much a messiah as an ideal of neutrality and empathy which in the end he cannot possibly sustain.

In a world increasingly dominated by the binary and virtual reality which nevertheless cannot deny the frailty of flesh, Luke emerges unknowable and yet a human being brought up in strange times. 

A world where everyone can tell competing stories but many feel they have no voice. A world of ruthless competition, often under an over-polite exterior.  

Luke's journey starts in his own workplace and ends in the corporate warehouse of a business rival. His encounters begin with the parents of a schoolboy who has gone on the rampage at his school. 

Then a prison where a prisoner has become a victim. Here he also meets the gun-toting father of a child abused by a basketball coach before he moves on to a college campus with a history of mishandlng complaints of rape where a student latches on to him. 

He then listens patiently to the Big Ideas of a client of a drug dealer. His journey ends in an Amazon-like warehouse where the employees, at the mercy of an arbitrary hierachy where many are bosses but nobody is the boss, wear Guantanamo orange polo shirts packing goods and pricing them.

If this all sounds intangible, TLT has done her job in conveying what Against feels like. It has the sterile atmosphere of a human being, the undoubtedly delicately charismatic Whishaw, enmeshed in a computer game going from level to level. 

As is TLT's wont, she wondered whether it would work better on screen. Yet the play, directed by Ian Rickson, does remain, or maybe is pulled back to be, distinctly theatrical in shape even if it starts with a typical police procedural or TV news story crime scene. 

But, despite the fine performances and a structure shaped for the stage, it's also deeply unsatisfying at a rather deep psychological as well as theatrical level.  Maybe it's because it manipulates vocabulary and character in a rather algorithmic way.

Besides Whishaw, there's intricately calibrated work from Naomi Wirthner's anguished mother of a killer,  Kevin Harvey as a rather dangerous professor in charge of student minds, Adelle Leonce as a conflicted warehouse worker, Emma D'Arcy as the student who becomes a boy scoutish acolyte of Luke and Fehinti Balogun, as the fellow student of the school shooter, who admits to trying to manipulate his friend's emotions.   

There's pared back design by ULTZ using the brick walls of the  Almeida - a simple wooden floor, often only chairs and eventually a white bed rising up in the second act keep it simple. 

Yet this is a play and a Candide-like fable in the end held together by characters and their traits while the plot remains not just elusive but irritatingly so. It's an amber light.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Review The Odyssey

An adaptation of The Odyssey with a bijou cast and inventive outdoor staging delights Peter Barker.

The Odyssey
Adapted by Phil Willmott From Samuel Butler's Translation Of The Ancient Greek

More Hit Than Myth

Mythic characters from ancient Greek literature spring to life in this year's free open-air performance at The Scoop amphitheatre on the South Bank by London City Hall

The Odyssey is a Greek epic attributed to Homer. Now writer/director Phil Willmott has adapted Samuel Butler's Victorian translation and presents a fast-moving, enjoyable version of The Odyssey in three parts, each lasting one hour with intervals in between.

Unless London experiences a Greek summer weather-wise, warm clothing and a thermos of something hot or cash for food and drink stall purchases are recommended. Cushions and blankets are available for rental - otherwise again bring your own. 

The first part during the early evening, A Great Big Greek Adventure, is pitched at children.

Odysseus, the poet king of Ithaca, played by a muscular bearded Henry Wyrley-Birch, leads his band of warriors to victory against the Trojans before the homeward-bound journey to the strains of The Lightning Seeds's Three Lions with the words slightly adapted - "The Greeks Are Going Home".

The Power of Love, the second part at sunset leads us into the dangerous enchantments of the bewitching Sirens and seductive goddesses trying to tempt Odysseus and his ship’s crew who struggle to keep on course for Ithaca.

Finally night-time brings The Homecoming. Years have passed and Odysseus returns to Ithaca, only to have to fend off many suitors for Queen Penelope before reunion with his wife and the son who has grown up in his absence

Wilmott directs a pacey production with a versatile cast. Nine players playing multiple characters and breaking the fourth wall when they become a chorus commenting on events.

The three-level plywood set, painted with a map of the Aegean, designed by Philip Edolls has a pop-up feel. The styling with costumes by Penn O'Gara and the choreography of movement director Francesca Bridge-Cicic are also reminiscent of easy-to-understand cartoon versions of the Greek myths created for children,.

Staging, with lighting by Phil Supple and sound by composer Theo Holloway, is done with small resources but much imagination.

Odysseus and his crew's encounter with the many-headed sea monster Scylla - Lawrence Boothman - and the giant Cyclops - Lincoln James - encompasses inventive physical theatre as well as puppetry. Billowing blue sheets conjure up the clash with the sea god Poseidon while the battle where Queen Penelope's numerous suitors are driven off is both ingenious and magical.

Rebecca Laydoo is a dignified and beautiful Penelope while Adrian Decosta proves his versatility as Oydysseus's loyal son Telemachus while also winning the audience's hearts on all fours (mostly) as Odysseus's loyal playful dog Argos.

Molly Crookes makes a blonde and lithe goddess Athena and PK Taylor is both the sea witch Circe and Odysseus grown old. However the cast are an ensemble and plaudits must also go to Toyin Ayedun-Alase and Alec Porter who equally take on several different roles.

The Odyssey at The Scoop is certainly a pleasure to watch with an easy-going drop in and out ethos where anyone can choose to stay, leave and then even return again (like Odysseus!) at will.
This is fun evening, that passes far quicker than its three-and-a-half-hour running time. It's highly recommended for families, children and adults. And, just as good, it’s free, so it's definitely a green light!

Monday, 21 August 2017

Review Salad Days

Salad Days
Book & Lyrics By Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds
Music By Julian Slade

Dancing In The Park

In 1955, so Wikipedia tells your theatregoing duo,  The Pajama Game won the award for Best Musical. However, tellingly, British musical Salad Days received the award for Most Enjoyable Show.

With an original story by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, Salad Days evokes nostalgically a fantastical 1920s' world around a well-connected toff and his equally upper class female pal. Although the latter, while a university graduate like her male counterpart, is destined for debutante balls and marriage rather than an influential public role.

Sunny-natured Lowri Hamer and gawky Laurie Denman make a fetching pair of chaste yet fun-loving graduates, Jane and Timothy.

They master the musical's restrained yet joyous style with Hamer's strength being a lucid soprano while Joanne McShane's choreography makes the most of Denman's windmill athleticism.

Jane and Timothy however defect from the destiny mapped out for them and search for a job on their own, well before the age of uni careers advice, online recruitment, zero hours contacts and Uber.

The two emerge from the idyllic years at, presumably, Cambridge University, throwing their lot together on a railway platform after graduation - cue the lovely duet "We Said We Wouldn't Look Back." The two like-minded chums subsequently also secretly contract a romantic, yet still rather convenient, marriage.

Lo and behold, in London they find themselves temporary caretakers on £7 a week for Minnie, an unlicensed magic piano, the plinking plonking notes of which incite a viral outbreak of rebellious dancing in everybody who hears them, "Oh Look At Me, I'm Dancing".

This all signals the start of some amazing earth- and air-bound adventures within a revue sketch structure.

The beauty parlour scene with Jane's mother Lady Raeburn (Sophie Millett) on the (non mobile) phone could have come straight out of a Joyce Grenfell sketch.

Yet the second act segues into Cleopatra nightclub (after all, the musical is named after a line from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra and Timothy's uncles seem to have "Egyptian" connections).

Meanwhile a scene reminiscent of sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still transforms Maeve Byrne's vocally statuesque nightclub singer into a space alien.

A mention of 1950s movie bad girl Diana Dors brings in another futuristic note to a musical otherwise populated with good 1920s upper class gals like Jane and Fiona (Francesca Pim). 

Designer Catherine Morgan transforms the Union Theatre space into a cross between an English park and a Coronation street party with colourful bunting, a wooden bench and graceful twirly white seats reminiscent of the original (English!) Mary Shephard illustrations for Mary Poppins on an expanse of manicured green lawn. 

Add to this, Mike Lees' delightful costumes crisscrossing the decades to arrive at the 1950s with a detour again with Emma Lloyd's Rowena first into Mary Poppins' gingham territory and then capitalizing on the script's Wizard of Oz reference to produce a yellow road Dorothy in the second act mash up.    

On first blush, directed by Bryan Hodgson, Salad Days is a quaint, frothy fairytale asserting Englishness in an uncertain era when the United States had come to police the world and dominate the entertainment business.

Maybe the subversive notes also emerge more clearly in the Gilbert and Sullivan-like Hush Hush with Karl Moffatt playing one of a variety of Timothy's string-pulling, influential uncles.

"Don't ever ask where the Empire's gone ... Double cross your double locks ... Never reveal your age or sex .. Don't ever ask what the war was for/It's hush hush."

Equally so with the singing and dancing of the police inspector (Stephen Patrick) and his subordinate PC Boot (Tom Norman) to whom, we're told, the buck is always passed for the nefarious goings on in the park.

Salad Days evokes an innocent Zuleika Dobson world mixed with cheerful, if rather upper class, costermongery influenced by Noel Gay and Vivian Ellis, as well as Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. However there is also a light touch but very definite patina of Cold War, sexual and old-boy-network politics.

It of course also pre-dated the jolly ambience in American movie musical Mary Poppins, similarly endowed with an English park ethos 😉, and held the fort for British musicals until the onset of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop and then record-breaking Oliver!.

The show reflects its Bristol Old Vic origins, where musical director Julian Slade and actress Dorothy Reynolds built the musical Salad Days around the talents of their company.

The catchy songs here have a charming simplicity and directness played by musical director Elliot Styche's three-piece band with actor musicians Tom Self, Laurie Denman and Lewis McBean variously on piano accompanied by bass and drums.

This is a cheerful piece reflecting a mix of seemingly traditional flapper musical with the concerns of 1950s Britain within a weather vane summer confection.  The digs at the status quo are sly but never undermine the musical's jolly, fresh air ambience as a family show.

Even though Monty Python's Flying Circus famously and bloodily lampooned Salad Days, surely the groundbreaking 1960s and 1970s satiric sketch show owes something to its dancing and hugging police officers?   Ah, that was the musical that was 😉! An upper range tuneful and sunshiny  amber light!

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Review The Boot

Peter Barker is amused by a new angle on a love triangle when a husband decides to spice up his wife's sex life.

The Boot
by Peter Briffa


A sex comedy with a twist, The Boot is a neat one-act piece which at 50 minutes doesn't outstay its welcome.

White-haired Bill describes he and his younger, curvily attractive wife Julie as "swingers". but at the same time has to admit that their own sex life has fallen into the doldrums.

However when he meets an old flame of Julie, Germanic hunk Ray, in the car park while shopping at a certain Swedish furniture store, he makes an indecent proposal, changing the course of his marriage.    

The Boot is an undemanding, but enjoyable new play performed as part of the Camden Fringe at the Hen and Chickens Theatre.

There are quite a few laughs in The Boot, directed by Paul Blinkhorn, and an intriguing plot, even if I found the ending rather unclear. Yet the theatrical journey to it made my own trip to the theatre worthwhile.

Looking back, some of the plot points seem a little implausible but in performance they do work. Derek Hicks as scouser Bill, Fiona McKinnon as Julie and Michael Wagner as Ray kept my attention giving nearly an hour of amusement.   

It's a conventional, linear, easy to watch piece with a few surprises along the way. I saw the first performance and there were a few hiccups - hesitancy over some lines and the scene changes on the minimal set need to be quicker.

McKinnon makes a slinkily sexy Julie (even when wearing a surgical boot!) while Wagner has a charming presence in his stage debut as Ray but needs at times to project his voice more.

Briffa’s script goes from car park to car boot sale, never taking itself too seriously, delivering some funny moments and allowing the hidden baggage to emerge. 

While there's solid staging by director Blinkhorn, keeping it simple with a back backdrop and few props, it did occur to me that this is a play with radio potential.

It manages to give a conventional dramatic trope an unclichéd makeover, keeping me entertained, so it's an amber light for a play that runs until Sunday, August 20th

Friday, 18 August 2017

Review 13 The Musical

13 The Musical
Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book By Dan Elish & Robert Horn

Your Town Becomes Our Town

There's a young newcomer in an Indiana town at Dan Quayle Junior High and within this institution's walls are the jocks, the popular girls (aka mean girls), the nerds and the geeks - and now there's Evan.

13 is probably every fish-out-of-water comedy drama/sitcom and middle and high school musical you've ever seen (or not seen) with a touch of South Park to boot.

Yet this is a true children's musical -  all the roles are the age of the title - and the show therefore relies on the charm of its cast.

Luckily the present production has a cast, directed and skilfully choreographed by Ewan Jones, with spadefuls of it, even as the show itself lays on the clichés in digger truck loads.

Evan is just about to turn 13 and apart from a zit or two, life seems unproblematic in metropolitan Manhattan. Then pow! His parents divorce and kapow! His mother whisks him off, for unexplained reasons, to Appleton, Indiana.

At 13 such problems may be magnified into a horror movie in teenage minds (there's Carrie, that other high school musical to verify that). 

So we follow Evan, hailed and then derided as "the Brain" and two other young misfit Indiana natives, Patrice and Archie, in their various The Wonder Years' missteps and victories until everyone gets their priorities sorted and are ready to start on the business of Life with a capital L.

Milo Panni makes an exceptionally cute Evan who finds himself the victim of his own schemes to make himself popular. Madeline Banbury as fellow outcast Patrice proves a polished, confident performer right from her first solo "The Lamest Place In The World".

Ethan Quinn, previously seen in Ragtime, is an engagingly kooky Archie, a cross between Tiny Tim, the lame boy in the Pied Piper of Hamelin and a dark-humoured stand up comedian in "Get Me What I Need".and "Terminal Illness".

There's able support from Lewis Ledlie as the school jock and Chloe Endean as the school's cheerleading object of desire. Isabelle Pappas also delivers the goods as the jealous friend whose power of rumour mongering in "It Can't Be True" would be the envy of many an underhand politician 

There's an entertaining-in-its-own-right backdrop (along the lines of Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover) design from Tom Paris and excellent lighting and sound from Edward Pagett and Andrew Johnson.   

Now the nitpicking.This production embraces the conventional tropes of the high school genre, life-and-soul-of-the-party popularity, "All Hail The Brain!", finding who your true friends are. "

But maybe the clever ceremonial but heartfelt message and juxtaposition in Becoming A Man in the midst of acrimonious divorcing parents "I don't know what a man means/The rule book grows, but noone knows/What all the rules allow" and the final "A Little More Homework to do"  become a bit lost.

There was also a bit of unevenness in diction with a couple of the male leads at the beginning which did wear away as the show progressed. There was certainly a good balance between Chris Ma's four-piece band of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums.

But this is  TLT and her (sole) automotive clique member being picky, This is an intricate show, needing spot-on timing, mastered well by an accomplished young cast.

It's certainly an enjoyable show with enough edge (especially in the light of current events in the USA) to keep a wide age range entertained during the school summer holidays and it's a green light. 

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Review King Lear (PREVIEW)

King Lear 
by William Shakespeare

Pop Up Britain

Would the rain hold off? That was the question in TLT's mind as she slalomed her way through the crowd towards the edge of the Globe stage with its pillars swathed in tarpaulin for Shakespeare's play of fractions and factions.

Of course a storm at the appropriate time would be nature's seal of approbation for one of the then Jacobean playwright William Shakespeare's most famous scenes - the storm scene both inciting and reflecting the madness of King Lear in the play first known to be performed in 1606.

Kevin McNally, best known for his role as Joshamee Gibbs in the Pirates Of The Caribbean movie franchise,  takes on the title role in the Shakespeare's Globe production directed by Nancy Meckler.

He's a very neat, one could almost call him dapper, Lear with a snowy white manicured beard and designer tattoos.

This Lear dresses in a not-quite-a-military uniform as if he were a corporate man with a penchant for vodka shots who has turned to a fashion choice of freshly laundered and ironed jacket and trousers in shades of khaki brown and beige.

There's a huge KEEP OUT daubed on the nailed up doors of the stage (designer Rosanna Vize) torn down by the motley crew of performers invading the stage with their shabby suitcases and creating a makeshift pop up Britain for this King Lear.

A goods trolley roll container from a warehouse (maybe in the age of the internet it's also warehouse Britain) lies on its side ready for them.

So these squatters zip up their windcheaters, turn their baseball caps, pull their beanies down over their ears. And lay a golden cloak and golden circlet crown on the ground for Lear, King of the Britons.

The daughters of Lear stand on crates, ready for their father to address them while the King's Fool (Loren O'Dair)  is a delicate Pierrot musician with a tear painted on her cheek, playing the violin.

Gloucester (Burt Caesar) is a credulous complacent astrology-believing  senior courtier in an Edwardian red velvet smoking jacket whose good and bad sides are embodied in his sons, all-too-gullible Edgar (Joshua Jameson) and driven, bitter illegitimate Edmund (Ralph Davis). 

The Duke of Kent becomes "Our Lady Of Kent" (Saskia Reeves), a bespectacled sensible woman politican in white jacket, skirt, blouse and court shoes, holding a large black book of accounts or minutes of the Royal court proceedings  or maybe a version of the Domesday Book, a book of land deeds.

She narrowly avoids a throttling when her position is ripped from her after she dares to question Lear's wisdom in giving up his kingdom in favour of his daughters and, more pertinently for a patriarchal monarchy, his sons-in-law.

There's Goneril (Emily Bruni), thin and sallow with pursed red lipstick lips, hair scraped back in a bun, a small cape around her bony shoulders.  Regan (Sirine Saba), black hair streaming down her back, is fleshier, more voluptuous in a silky white halter neck, a fur pagan pelt stole and long velvet skirt.

They pile on the flattery.  Cordelia (Anjana Vasan) famously says nothing, a small figure in over sized, virginal white high waisted robe and silver adornments,  all ripped from her by her angry father to reveal a plain slip which could pass equally for a 1960s dress.

This is a solid, vigorous flat cap production with clear verse speaking - ideal for exam students who, despite cuts, want to hear the text. At the same time, it didn't blow TLT or her own automotive courtier away.

The use of  the cage-like warehouse roll goods container for the tearing out of Gloucester's eyes by  Cornwall (Faz Singhateh), the changing of Edgar and the pitting of sister against sister over their deceitful lover Edmund felt rather laboured.

The best things about the production?

Saskia Reeves's sturdily loyal Kent with extra resonance when disguised she answers the question, "How now, what art thou?" with "A man, sir".

 And  Joshua James's loose-limbed scampering Edgar, the only character who via a lunatic vagrant disguise, really gets low down and dirty truly gaining the sympathy of the audience and credibly transforming into a thoughtful statesman by the end.

Otherwise it's altogether too clean and laundered and  a lacklustre mash up of the traditional and the modern in dress and delivery.

This otherwise conventional production of King Lear does extract a fair amount of comedy out of Lear's contradictions and his realisation of his two elder daughters' treachery, but it does feel this is at the expense of power and pathos.

Having said this, there is a gesture towards homelessness in a corporate Britain, with a courageous military soul drained into pointless voilence, and the Kingdom's division did make us think of the union, Brexit and the implications for the island of Ireland.

The rain held off and, while this wasn't top notch for us, this brisk and admirably clear (and maybe televisual?) version of Lear is still an excellent upper range amber light introduction for those coming fresh to the Bard.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Review The Trial Of Le Singe

A show inspired by Napoleonic War monkey business ultimately disappoints Francis Beckett.

The Trial of Le Singe
by Matthew Jameson  

Funky But Clunky Monkey

The Trial of Le Singe, directed and written by Matthew Jameson, is a rough and ready reconstruction of a Napoleonic Wars legend.

A monkey washed up on a beach near Hartlepool in a cage was apparently mistaken by locals for a rascally French spy.  Promising material for what could be a thought-provoking but hilarious show.

Or just a damn good piece of slapstick. But here’s the thing about slapstick.  It has to be funny.  Constantly, achingly funny.  Otherwise, it’s tedious.

Here’s another thing.  Just doing a slapstick sort of thing, like putting a man with hairy legs into a miniskirt and blonde wig and having him mince about a bit ... You know, it isn’t in itself funny, however well it’s done (and in this production, Bertie Cox does it  magnificently.)

It’s made funny by the context and, however absurd, the motivation for it, and if you don’t provide either, you’ll find that no one laughs.

I first learnt this as a boy when I was reduced to helpless mirth watching the patron saint of detrouserment,  Brian Rix  losing his trousers on stage. Why it was funny, I didn't understand at the time. Only later did I realise detrouserment is only funny when a writer constructs a scene around it to make it funny.

Here’s a third thing about slapstick.  It doesn’t suddenly become satire when someone mentions Brexit.

Of course the content of The Trial Of Le Singe  can easily lend itself to some comments about the foolishness of Brexit.

The farce that emerges at The Water Rats contains lots and lots of slapstick and a few good lines – the best I think being: “The one ‘orse in this town were a donkey, and that were shot before I were born.”

The show certainly does boast six very young, very talented, hard-working and enthusiastic actors, five of them being graduates of E15 Acting School.

Lloyd McDonagh makes a wonderfully agile, sympathetic, but definitely simian French monkey. Meanwhile Leah Kirby is the only woman cast member, but  she doesn't play the only woman character, instead making a convincing sad, lonely village idiot.

Matthew Jameson himself is excellent as a gruff and cynical landlord – he seems to be a much better actor and director than writer – and Eddy Larry is a fine town drunk.

William Hastings as the toff is hampered by some unconvincing dialogue and a rather puzzling costume decision which has him wearing a frock coat above a pair of tights.

Good as they are, they struggle to raise laughs in a shipwreck of a show. All of them are reduced by the end to bellowing their lines in the hope of raising a few laughs which, in a tiny venue like The Water Rats, is jarring rather than funny.

Well done to the company The Heretical Historians for realising this local legend is strong material for our times, but it's let down by the execution and, in the end, I can only offer a lower range amber light.

Review Dangling

by Abigail Hood

Charlotte's Web

Dangling tries to cover a lot of issues - missing children,  fathers who are wrongly suspected, those who may have and those who have committed crimes, abusive relationships, the effect on marriages, all interlaced with hints of recent sex abuse news stories.

Charlotte is a London escort girl who may once have been a runaway and has ended up in the hands of a manipulative pimp Matt (Christopher Lane). Her world collides with Greg (Jasper Jacob), a teacher and father of a missing girl and then also Greg's wife, Jane (Tracey Wilkinson).

Seemingly running parallel are the lives in Oldham of Danny (Philip D McQuillan) and his younger sister, Kate (Charlotte Brooke)  with an unstable mother Helen (Maggie Saunders) and a violent jailbird father Ken (Ian Gain).

This new play by Abigail Hood. who also plays Charlotte, attempts additionally to include a psychological filter of 20th century screen culture through Danny's friend Kev (Stephen Boyce) and parent Helen.

Dangling has a strong cast and some powerful moments. However ultimately this is is a play that becomes a prisoner of its own concept and has what feels like a mix of devised drama shoehorned  into a schematic framework.

On hooks from the ceiling dangle objects from the characters' lives and director Kevin Tomlinson uses long grey benches at first effectively to create the different stage spaces on an otherwise minimal set with few land-level props.

Nevertheless the scene changes with different bench combinations, alhtough ingenious, become a little wearisome when this theatre piece reveals itself increasingly to be written mostly as a televisual and not a stage drama

The actors also have to grapple with clumsy shifts in tone. In addtition to soap style drama and melodrama, there are some, admittedly quite subtle, surreal time shift mash ups and the sudden introduction of an element which reminded TLT of a celebrated plot from now defunct soap Brookside with a touch of Tennessee Williams  and Joe Orton  thrown in for good measure.

TLT did wonder whether the lives of blonde Charlotte and dark haired Kate might eventually merge into one as there is the implication of a circular trajectory to the piece, but this never happened, at least not explicitly.

Instead there are  heartfelt moments, with some effective lines probably garnered from research, and every member of the cast is given an opportunity to shine at some point during the play.

However it's a patchwork of issue driven drama about missing and abused children, while certainly all subject  matter deserving examination, and ready-formed characters yoked uneasily together rather than an organically grown plot.
There is an intriguing ambivalence in the character of Greg but ultimately this feels like the first draft of possbilities for a TV drama trying to adhere to a stage format  rather than a thought-through stage drama in its own right and it's an amber light.

Review Tales From The Arabian Nights

Tales From The Arabian Nights
Adapted by Farhana Sheikh

Love Is A Many-Storied Thing

Kings, grand viziers, masters and slaves, courtiers, talking animals, royal executioners, auctioneers, princesses, rich merchants, kitchen boys and beggars all inhabit the compendium of stories known as The Arabian Nights.

London Bubble Theatre and writer Farhana Sheikh also conjure them up in what must be one of London's loveliest settings on a clear summer's evening - Greenwich Park with its slopes and hills filled with greenery and birdsong.

This promenade version of the Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian tales picks out a scattering of the  stories.

We are led through the "sadness and cruelty of  kings", magical happenings and some individual and communal happy endings before we come to the best known story of vizier's daughter Shahrazade who weaves tales to save her life. 

Director Jonathan Petherbridge and designer Yasuko Hasegawa Fujihara keep the design and the props simple with the costumes mixing 18th century European peasant Sunday best and the wide sashes of oriental dress.

In this version, the Shahrazade story is itself framed within and is  part of the story of King Shariya who discovers the infidelity of a favoured wife and vows revenge on women.

The seven-strong cast, some of whom also play instruments, inhabit a range of characters. Among these, there's the princess (Rose-Marie Christian) who finds herself affianced to a goat (Nicholas Goode who is also the piece's composer),  but then it turns out ...

Aha, it's only proper that we leave a Shahrazade cliffhanger and not give everything away in a review.

Suffice to say Russeni Fisher as Khalifa is pulled this way and that, like his own fisherman's net, with tempting magical offers and reversals.

As well as plucking music out of various stringed instrumens, Laurie Jamieson is the slave who tells a story once a year against a stunning twilight backcloth of the Thames with the glimmering lights of gleaming London skyscrapers.

Joyce Henderson is a celtic talking ape and Simon Startin plays several vainglorious monarchs while Leila Ayad plays the beguiling storyteller Shahrazade herself.

It's a performance that starts with a store of copious goodwill. However the promenade element eventually breaks up any fluidity as we took ourselves from location to location.

While the route, positioning of the various grassy stages and lighting had obviously been thought out, the script and staging feels increasingly scrappy and piecemeal. So that the addition of songs and dance does not have the richness and beauty one would expect.

Much of this is also because it's a two-act show of about three hours which should be much shorter and without an interval, especially as it's also marketed as a children's show.

Even if the natural scenery in Greenwich park is stunning, there also needed to be something more in the design to evoke the exotic atmosphere of the orient.

It may be that Sheikh's play with its mercantile allusions and magic would work better entirely in the light and on the flat.
However TLT has to judge from what was presented. The show, although becoming sometimes more and more talky, along with its audience lost energy as it stretched on in the dark.
It's the kind of subject matter which raises great expectations of a magical mix of the literate, raucous and the erotic with mercantile and imperial realities catering with supple humour for both adults and children.

There certainly is a magic in the park surroundings but Tales From The Arabian Nights needs a tighter, more coherent framework to make it a truly spellbinding performance and it's a lower range amber light.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Review Catastrophists

A new comedy catches the zeitgeist but fails to live up to its initial promise, says Francis Beckett.

by Jack Stanley 

Apocalypse Soon
I so wanted to like Catastrophists.

The idea is rich with comic possibilities. Husband and wife Harry and Raf, well paid employees and denizens of leafy Barnes, go to their second home in the Cotswolds and invite the neighbours to dinner. 

In this case, it's Peter and Claudia from the field next door, with a carbon-neutral yurt to call home. A couple who live as part of a survivalist commune and also believe the end of the world is nigh

Catastrophists has three good performances and a brilliant one (Elizabeth Donnelly as the monstrous Raf).

Director Cameron Cook with designer Beth Colley have created, in the very small space available to them, a set you can believe is the living room of a second home in the Cotswolds.

The play opens well, with a truly funny and entirely believable argument between Raf and Harry (Alexander Stutt) about whether to serve crisps or flatbread with the guacamole. 

When Claudia (Patsy Blower) arrives, Raf says: “I love your hoodie. It’s so… unapologetic.” In deference to her guests, Raf has dressed in what she calls “hippie chic.”

But after half an hour or so, the script by Jack Stanley loses its way. The more we get to know about the characters, the harder it is to believe in them, until by the end even these four good actors - including Edmund Dehn as Peter - are reduced to bellowing their lines in this tiny venue.  

It is not clear – and there's nothing Ms Donnelly can do to make it clear – why Raf is so desperate for her guests’ approval. Peter and Claudia never quite make sense.  And when Raf has been built up as a rather strong character who knows her own mind, it is not at all clear why the sight of a goat through the window reduces her to a gibbering wreck.

 The White Bear Theatre deserves support. It’s survived the gentrification of its host pub with nothing worse than a move to a tiny but workable theatre upstairs, and it has a coherent new writing policy.

However, this script badly needs someone being cruel to be kind. I have an idea there is rather a good play hidden in there somewhere, but Jack Stanley hasn't written that script, and I can just about muster an amber light for the play that has emerged..

Review Armide

A seventeenth century temptress lures reviewer Peter Barker into a tempestuous evening of operatic delight.

Music by Jean-Baptiste Lully
Words and Text by Philippe Quinault

The Battlefield Of Love

When a Middle-Eastern warrior princess meets a Western soldier, we somehow suspect no good will come of it.

And so it turns out but, perhaps surprisingly, this is the plot of an elegant yet passionate seventeenth century Baroque opera, one of the latest offerings in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival.

Armide, here in an enchanting revival by the enterprising Ensemble OrQuesta and Brazilian director Márcio da Silva, is generally recognized as one of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully's masterpieces composd towards the end of his career in 1686.

With librettist and playwright Philippe Quinault, Lully had already developed a pioneering complexity of character development through declamatory recitative and soliloquies.

Armide is an Islamic warrior princess who, possessing irresistible sexual charms for men while remaining immune to love's dart, defeats and captures knights of The Crusade.

Nevertheless love conquers the temptress for the first time when she encounters the Christian knight Renaud, who alone amongst the crusaders, remains unvanquished by her.

Armide, who is also a sorceress, summons up all her powers of enchantment to bind Renaud to her, but her passion is real while he is bound to her by sorcery alone. 

Through Armide's torment, this opera becomes an exquisite Baroque treatise on the nature of  desire with the conflict between vengeance and love framed within the innovative tragédie lyrique form.  

Performomh in French with English surtitles, Rosemary Carlton-Willis makes a captivating Armide with a fierce yet tender performance demonstrating intelligence and vocal range.

As Renaud, Guy Withers brings charming presence, a bright tenor and precise lyrical characterisation.  

Da Silva, as well as directing, displays a fine baritone in the role of La Haine, the demon of Hate invoked by Armide to overcome her feelings of love with vengeance.

As director he also shows resourcefulness on an obviously limited budget. Candlelight, for example, ingeniously reveals an underworld of monsters during the travails and terrifying journey of two knights, Ubalde of baritone John Holland-Avery and the Danish Knight the tenor Hiroshi Kanazawa. 

The set and props are meagre - two  battered chairs, a tarnished candelabra and a throw cast over several stage plinths convey Armide's fantasy world.

Nevertheless, the minimal staging is more than made up by a memorable musical performance. This includes the small six-piece orchestra of harpsichord, archlute, violin, viola, gamba and cello  conducted by Matthew Morgan.

The Arcola production is a rare outing for a thrilling opera which in the seventeenth century proved a crowd pleaser and broke new ground with its psychological portrayal of Armide's dilemma.

Ensemble OrQuesta's version does justice to this fascinating piece with accomplished instrumentals and vocals. With only one performance left, this comes highly recommended and it's a green light for a night of rapture and tragedy.    

Friday, 11 August 2017

Review A Spoonful Of Sherman

A Spoonful Of Sherman
Music & Lyrics by Richard M Sherman & Robert B Sherman
Al Sherman and Robert J Sherman
Book by Robert J Sherman
Conceived by Robert J Sherman & Colin Billing

Worth A Lot More Than Tuppence

Awww, back in the day when TLT was an motorless tricycle learner driver, she treasured her mini-cache of  LPs (remember those?) amongst which was The Story And Songs From Mary Poppins with an illustrated booklet.
So even though she'd never seen the movie and the album (ah, those old fashioned words!) wasn't even the Disney film soundtrack, TLT and her very own like-minded chitty of an automobile can sing along to all the songs such as supercalifragi - califragi ...  califragi- er -lipstick  ... well, you know the one she means.

Now comes along an 85 minute celebration of the Sherman family tune- and wordsmithery, A Spoonful of Sherman. 

The title puns of course on another of the most famous Mary Poppins's songs, A Spoonful Of Sugar, apparently inspired by the polio vaccine sugar lump but ask TLT's seven year old self who wrote it - she probably would say, "Mary Poppins of course!".

No, dear, it was in reality written by the  New-York Sherman Brothers whose fame unusually lies in songs for movie musicals with the stage shows coming only relatively recently after the celluloid fact.

Yet the brothers were only  the fourth musical generation of an emigrant family from Stepantsy near Kiev in the Ukraine which arrived, via by-royal-appointment freelance musician posts in the Austro-Hungarian Emperor's court, in the musical melting pot of 1906 New York.
Musical director Christopher Hamilton at the piano with vocalists (with more than a smidgeon of subtle yet spot-on choreography as well directed by Stewart Nicholls) Helena Blackman and Daniel Boys join a fifth generation musical Sherman, Robert J, at the Brasserie Zedel's Crazy Coqs cabaret room.

Musically the show begins with granddad Al, born  in the old country, who became a successful Tinpan Alley composer, in an age dominated by music publishers and  song sheet music.

Al was a master of in-demand upbeat ditties such as Save Your Sorrow (For Tomorrow) with Buddy De Sylva and anthem to sports and dating (surely an American high school surefire hit!), "You Gotta Be A Football Hero", written with lyricists Al "Blueberry Hill" Lewis and Buddy Fields.

At the same time, with fellow songwriters Nat Burton and Arthur Altman, he could also turn his hand to a wistful wartime song There's A Harbour Of Dreamboats.

This song put TLT in mind of another celebrated 1940s' contemporary song - Walter Kent's and, ahhh, that's why!, Nat Burton's White Cliffs Of Dover.

However it's the brothers who certainly as the show puts it, wrote "The Songbook of  Your [TLT's] Childhood" and since, as far as TLT can remember, the booklet had the words and possibly the music on the long playing record, it's no exaggeration!

Not being musical specialists, TLT and her little jalopy had no idea 60s' bubblegum pop classic You're Sixteen was written by the fraternal duo in 1960  - beating Neil Sedaka's Sweet Sixteen by a year, even if The Sound Of Music's Sixteen Going On Seventeen  was a year before.

Indeed putting in context the songs (including lyricists' rhyming dictionaries!) was all part of the fun of this solidly enjoyable show for your own automotive duo. 

For this reason, it was the inclusion of the brothers' grandpoppy's roots in Austro-Hungary (where the waltz king Johann Strauss and all those operettas come from) and the brothers' pop Al Sherman (who also had a hobby later incorporated in another famous song) with Robert J's more recent works such as Music Of The Spheres which made A Spoonful Of Sherman a full-bodied experience for us. 

Helena Blackman soaring soprano easily encompassed a range of 20th century song styles from perky 1920s to near operetta to the limpid notes and musical hall idiom of Sherman Brothers' songs.

Meanwhile Daniel Boys put his own Eastenders stamp on chimney sweep Bert's songs from Mary Poppins and the doowop jazzy Jungle Book numbers (which TLT originally learned through  Kenny Ball and His Jazzman on the Morecambe and Wise Show).

Nevertheless it's the beautiful, tender harmonies of Blackman and Boys, especially with Feed The Birds (tuppence a bag!) which will stay with us.

However, a further surprise when Robert J took to the piano and sang the River Song from the 1973 musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer - TLT is certain there was reference to the very first word of James Joyce's epic and very musical novel Finnegans Wake (Robert B - Robert J's Dad, keep up at the back! 😉 - was a literature major!).

It's a practically perfect introduction drawing on a family fistful of songwriting characters, sadly missed and still living.

A family spanning  the change from songsheet publishing to movie technology - in a different way from, say, another Imperial Russian emigrant songwriter, Irving Berlin - with an inextricable golden link to movie mogul Walt Disney and the influence on the soundtracks of numerous films which have followed. So we're saving our sorrow for tomorrow 😀 and it's a green light.   

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review boom

by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

From Here To Eternity

boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is not to be confused with Boum!, French singer Charles Trenet's pulsating song and ode to life and love where biology has taken over marked by a thumping heartbeat.

But this is the surreal enforced household of Jules - who has reinvented his name as a tribute to French science fiction and surrealist novelist Jules Verne -  and his visitor - female Jo (aha, did you really think it might turn out to be Jim for - er - Jemima - ? - to carry our artificially imposed French theme?).

Jules, a marine biologist, under the pretext of an online lonely hearts ad promising "intensely significant coupling" has lured to his student pad cum lab cum bunker,  Jo. She's a world-weary journalism student from England who is careless about whom she couples with, looking to churn out an article for an assignment.

But Jules has found out that, through his study of fish, that the earth's population is about to go boom! in the negative sense of the word and, driven by a biological and intellectual imperative, is set on saving the human race.

There are a few not insurmountable difficulties.

Jules, who calls a fish in tank Dorothy after the Wizard Of Oz heroine, is gay, even if he recognizes the necessity to create a huge family tree out of a little bush sprig.

While Jo, who also suffers from periodic blackouts, definitely does not want to procreate and a bond between the two seems highly unlikely. .

As the comet approaches the earth, it looks like Jules may be running out of options.

But wait, who is that - that mouthy, percussive museum worker with an array of levers and whose drumbeats intermittently frame the action?  That's Barbara who is your unreliable narrator tour guide to the end of the world and new beginnings.

This three-hander was first performed, and well-received by critics, in New York in 2008 the year the lever was pulled, bursting the credit bubble with the crunch.

The deliberate artificiality, the farcical destruction and creation myth obviously hit a nerve when scientist Jules recounts how his mother "couldn't have picked a worse time to go on a tour of unreinforced masonry in California".

However director Katherine Nesbitt seems unsure of how to hide the flaws of this energetic, raw piece.

Nicole Sawyerr as the journalist in training is clear and focussed but never seems to really get a handle on Jo's determination to turn the random into journalism and her lapses into unconsciousness.

Will Merrick gives good value as theorizing Jules, nicely inept as the graduate whose best laid plans go wrong from a combination of his own incompetence and outside circumstances.

Mandi Symonds's green-suited Barbara, regulating the action, making the Wizard of Oz persona her own, gradually becomes more and more part of the story. Even if her inivtation for the audience to take her into its confidence and purchase the institution's "pamphlets" plant increasing seeds of doubt.

However the play is alternately thought-provoking and tedious with the incomprehension and isolation of Jules and Jo becoming grating.

Meanwhile Barbara's downfall and (dubious) resilience feels a long time coming. There's something there but, although some aspects of this tall tale grew on TLT, it felt spread mighty thinly over an eternity of 90 or so minutes. A lower range amber light.

Review Mrs Orwell

Mrs Orwell
by Tony Cox

Gentlemen's Relish

Post-Second World War. In the Soviet Union citizens were used to everything being in short supply and whispered about the corruption of those in authority who got more than their fair share plus access to foreign goods.

In Britain, paper rationing had just ended in 1949 but other rationing continued. The writer known as George Orwell had become the author of a bestseller Animal Farm, having eventually hit a post war Cold War zeitgeist, and then 1984, a sensation in the western publishing world.

The bio-drama Mrs Orwell begins with the male writer and essayist rather than the eponymous second wife, Sonia Brownell.

She is a 31 year old, glamorous blonde, as luminous and perky as a sunflower and the efficient literary magazine assistant editor to which Orwell was a contributor

Mrs Orwell, as the title and name implies (although George Orwell was a pseudonym), is for good or ill defined by George Orwell.

Orwell of course was a pseudonym (or  "mask" as one character remarks) for novels and especially essays which caught the imagination of a post-war generation - the persona of a plain speaking Englishman with socialist tendencies espousing values of decency.

This play by Tony Cox rather cleverly but far too subtly, in the opinion of TLT, seems to be a dream of Sonia as conjured up by George Orwell (né Eric Blair) and the male gaze.

Cox is light touch on Sonia who was the writer's second wife, marrying him in his hospital bed three months before his sudden death from a haemorrhage, who hasn't always had a good press.

It is also believed, the author partly based the character of Julia in his most famous novel 1984, although the play decides not to explicitly mention this.

Instead  Cressida Bonas has the difficult task on stage of embodying Sonia Brownell through the filter of Julia - becoming a creature of the famous writer's imagination addled by illness prescription drugs and eventually also a Scotch haze. 

In this Bonas, suitably svelte and cut-glass, does exceptionally well, as far as it goes, in spite of it being a tough ask.

But there is a vacuum at the centre of the play. In this, by coincidence, it rather resembles the fictional matriarch of Apologia where a reputation precedes a woman with hardly any supporting evidence..

Nevertheless in the case of the play Mrs Orwell and real-life perceptions of Sonia as a stereotype grasping and unstable widow in charge of the literary estate after her husband's death, this isn't necessarily wholly a criticism.

The personality of the excitable Orwell (or should we say Blair) is far more filled out  matched by a beguiling performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer who embodies the public schoolboy enthusiasm, including a taste for comfort food such as dumplings and Gentleman's Relish, which turns interestingly into something more hard-edged in the second act.

Rose Ede as the nurse has to cope with a stereotyped role but still manages to give a glimpse of underlying scepticism about the various visitors filing in to see the celebrity writer whose work Hollywood was by this time clamouring to put on screen.

She also shares a moment with the writer's new wife where the audience can glimpse the generous, practical side of Sonia's nature.

Publisher Fred Warburg is portrayed by playwright Cox and played by Robert Stocks as a stolid, methodical businessman balancing the interests of Orwell and keeping some secrets for Sonia yet excluding her from the male club.

This part of the play doesn't always add up  (and is somewhat at variance with the real Westminster School, Oxford-educated, First World War army officer publisher) but may again be explained by the prism of Orwell's imagination. Even so, he is given a clunky expositional speech in the second act which rather breaks up the fluidity of the production.

Edmund Digby Jones gives a charismatic if creepy performance as artist Lucian Freud. Yet he's introduced to us first with Orwell which again rather skews the audience's view of Sonia's close relationship with him. We never get to know that she had known Freud from her days as an artist's model.

So Sonia remains an enigma with her radiant photogenic film star good looks. No mention is made of her shared heritage with Eric Blair, both born in colonial India before returning to England. Or her schooldays with future film star Vivian Leigh, although it may explain an otherwise cryptic desire specifically referenced at the end of the play.

Mrs Orwell is neatly directed by Jimmy Walters keeping up the momentum with Jeremy Walmsley's music bridging the scenes. There's a deceptively simple and effective hospital room design by  Rebecca Brower. Nevertheless the corridor windows also transform themselves almost into cinema screens for some of the action.

However there are a few elements which marr the theatrical experience, chiefly the assumption that an audience new to the story will be able to pick up on the name dropping. By the same token, it may be  a play that has been thinned down and some necessary information left out.

Whatever, lack of background sometimes leaves holes in an otherwise skilful  patchwork and out-of-context jusxtapositions do undermine a more complex dramatic and humanly credible analysis.

It needs a little more like the piquant moment when Sonia is dragged by her husband, his publisher and Lucian Freud, who sees the opportunity for a loan, into a business arrangement and when we realise just how vulnerable and how potentially dangerous the situation is for her. An amber/green light.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Review Apologia

by Alexi Kaye Campbell

The Last Supper

It's a luxurious country kitchen on the birthday of Kristin, an American-born divorced Marxist academic in her sixties. She's awaiting a fellow veteran of radical 1960s' politics and  her two sons, whom she hardly ever sees, with their partners for a celebration dinner

Peter who is in banking arrives punctually with his physiotherapist girlfriend Trudi while Simon, preceded by his TV actress wife, creeps in more surreptitiously.

Kristin was an activist during the anti-Vietnam war marches in Grosvenor Square and the Paris student demos of 1968. A bundle of hurt and recriminations soon emerges triggered by Kristin's just published memoirs, which she claims were written only to chart her professional life, where her two children fail to get a mention. 

This play was originally staged in 2009 on the intimate stage of the Bush Theatre before it moved to its present venue. It may be something is lost in a larger venue. There's nothing wrong with what is there, but this family drama feels frustratingly under-developed.

Frustrating especially because the juxtaposition of banking, evangelical Christianity, television fame, academia and the legacy of 1968 with the personal cost to a woman and her family is an attractive and thought-provoking premise. 

Nevertheless it remained for TLT  a play of five characters in search of a plot.  Jamie Lloyd directs a solid, straightforward production. There is a marvellously detailed widescreen set from Soutra Gilmour with just a glimpse of a corridor through an open door and a Renaissance portrait with a young woman's telling glance.

However while Stockard Channing is fine as blinkered old leftie and mother Kristin, she is a curiously passive character around whom the others circulate and comment.

Laura Carmichael as Christian evangelist Trudi shines brightest of the satellites with a naturalness in  turning often unforgiving lines into thoughtful responses in  this family drama.

Otherwise Joseph Milson doubles as Kristin's sons, Peter and brother Simon, both isolated in their own way by their parents' actions. Freeman Agyeman is the actress, increasingly estranged from Simon, who reveals her own motivations in life as well as art. Desmond Barrit makes the best of a stereotypical wisecracking gay best friend, a veteran also of the 1960s' protesting frontline.

Our googling reveals the term apologia - from the Greek - to be "A formal written defence of one's opinions or conduct", a rhetorical format not to be confused with apology as an expression of regret.

In some ways, TLT felt, this play tries to combine the two with the unrepentent activist having put forth in print a defence of what she calls her professional life and her sons yearning for something more from her - perhaps something less a defence and more an apologetic understanding of what has happened to all of them.

Yet the nitty gritty exploration is not there - the trial, just or unjust, a show trial or a genuine investigation - never comes. We're never quite sure about the nature of Kristin's past actions or her perceived fault in anything but the most general terms.

The characters are there, but the issues seem thinly drawn with digressions, even if we may suspect the play teeters on the verge of asking whether if she were a man and a father instead of a mother, the same reproaches would be there.

The potentially most interesting relationship is that between Kristin and her prospective American daughter-in-law Trudi, who doesn't pretend to be an intellectual and met Kristin's son Peter at a prayer meeting. However this is a drama which may have looked better on the drawing board than on stage. 

Practically each character has his or her own moment of "apologia" but, for us it felt stretched out and it's an amber light.