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Messages - HtoHe

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31
Theatre / Network - Lyttelton Theatre
« on: January 08, 2018, 10:41:01 am »
I was a bit wary of this as I’d found Ivo van Hove’s Antigone uninspiring and his Hedda Gabler very poor so a third dud would have meant no more van Hove for me.  However, when I was offered a free seat at short notice I accepted and, in the end, I found the show ok: certainly not as awful as his travesty of Hedda Gabler and more engaging than his Antigone.  I was, though. surprised to see just how wonderful the critics thought this production.  It was certainly clever and (probably) technically brilliant but it didn’t really add anything to the film on which it is based.  I was reminded of the metaphor of the dog walking on its hind legs – the main impact lies in the fact that it is done at all rather than in the thing itself.  Of course, live action can always best the screen in some aspects – 3d developers have still not got anywhere near convincingly reproducing the effect of Bryan Cranston (very good as Howard Beale) stepping down from the short thrust and taking a seat in row C to watch his own show – but in many cases it requires serious suspension of disbelief and, indeed, this production regularly relies on screened content to simulate the effects that are part and parcel of the, well, screen experience.  This Network doesn’t really attempt the hyper-realism with which The Red Barn simulated the cinema experience; and, given the complexity of the set, the technical difficulties of attempting to do so would surely have been insurmountable. The large Lyttelton stage is filled with props and people throughout: stage left is a restaurant scene complete with diners (presumably ‘lucky’ audience members), stage right is the technical area of the TV studio and everything else takes place in the bustling centre stage which is dominated by a large screen used for effects like close ups and outside broadcasts.  Don't sit too far to one side or you'll surely miss part of the stage.

The action is largely faithful to the film though it reduces the urban terrorist subplot to just a few incidental mentions.  The message is still relevant though, really, this is more a tribute to how fresh it was in 1976 than anything else.  Lee Hall and Ivo van Hove don’t really add anything to Paddy Chayefsky’s commentary on the all-pervading system and its media handservant’s ability to manipulate and absorb public discourse – turning even rebellious and subversive manifestations to its own ends.  It was, however, interesting (and depressing) to see how easily – even in a play based on this admonitory film and four decades on – large sections of the audience could be prompted to repeat the famous ‘I’m mad as hell…’ cry and applaud when the word ‘applause’ was displayed.  It’s almost as if we’ve learned nothing.  In the film Beale’s despairing protest is converted into commercial entertainment and, in 2017, this warning means so little that a (presumably serious) dramatisation of the film is easily turned into a pantomime. 

You might have some trouble getting tickets for this – I was told that even the standing places are going before the day seat queue is satisfied – but returns do come online from time to time and there’s the Friday Rush.  Runs until 24 March

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/network


32
Theatre / The Twilight Zone - Almeida Theatre
« on: December 19, 2017, 10:23:10 am »
This is a light hearted, affectionate tribute to a TV series whose very name has entered English vocabulary and become embedded in Western consciousness.  As the stories no longer pack quite the punch they did when the HUAC was still sitting and nuclear war seemed a very real threat this production takes a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to the episodes.  I thought this worked well enough even if the song and dance number towards the end of the first half was a bit much for me.  Less successful, I thought, was the decision to interweave the various episodes – which not only marred the dramatic tension but, until we got into the swing of it, was rather confusing.  The one episode that is played out more or less in one scene was, I thought, the most effective – but that might be because it was, perhaps, the one with the most relevance for our time; the one where a credible nuclear attack warning sets several groups of Americans arguing over who best deserves a place in the shelter.

The staging is very attractive with the safety curtain turned into a mock-up of an old fashioned CRT television screen.  This does rather close off the sides so the restricted view seats are rather more restricted than you usually get at the Almeida.  I don’t think I missed much from my £10 seat on the extreme left of the front row but I was rather surprised to find the man next to me had paid £25 for a view that can’t have been much better.  The theme of period authenticity extended to the props and costumes and even went as far as trying to reproduce the feel of the black and white picture.  The decision to mic up the performers was rather unfortunate as seeing wires peeping out from performers’ bodies created, in the sci-fi context, something of an ambiguity.  Overall, though, the effects are very good as long as you can avoid taking it too seriously. 

Worth seeing if only for curiosity and/or nostalgia’s sake.  Runs until 27 Jan:

https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/the-twilight-zone/5-dec-2017-27-jan-2018


33
Theatre / Belleville - Donmar Warehouse
« on: December 18, 2017, 02:53:36 pm »
Imogen Poots was the draw for this.  Although I thought she was rather too pretty for Nick’s ‘mouse’ in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, she still made a good enough impression; and here she, and her co-star James Norton, were very good.  The play, though, while not really bad, was not up to much.   I’m always wary of plays that seem to require explanatory notes; and one of the two articles in the Donmar’s programme is a faintly defamatory description of the 'Millennial' generation as immature and lacking in senses of humour and perspective.  Abby (Poots) and Zac (Norton) are a late 20s couple living in a foreign country – Americans in Paris but not in a fun way – and with a marriage held together seemingly by little other than loyalty and/or inability to conceive of an alternative.  They met at college which is where, presumably, they started calling each other ‘homey’.  The fact that they are still calling each other that perhaps encapsulates their mentality better than anything. 

The play essentially revolves around Abby and Zac’s relationship with the rather underwritten Alioune and Amina (Faith Alabi and Malachi Kirby), their landlords/neighbours basically just a plot device and an example, for the purposes of comparison, of how a functioning adult relationship should be.  Abby & Zac’s is riddled with flaws  - her overt insecurity and his, perhaps more dangerous, concealed insecurity; her often hurtful impetuosity and his protectiveness that too often manifests itself as controlling behaviour.  It’s a train wreck of a relationship sustained by the fact that they can’t seem to distinguish between the important and the trivial.  It’s a situation that could easily have been turned to comic effect but I credit Amy Herzog with having resisted the temptation to go that way as I fear it would make an unoriginal, possibly very feeble comedy.  Unfortunately, though, the route she chooses is take this mildly diverting dissection of a dysfunctional relationship and explode it in a sudden, spectacular but essentially unsatisfactory descent into catastrophe.  It’s the kind of thing that gets tragedy a bad name – the fatal flaw, instead of underlying the drama, is held up for the audience’s inspection so often that it almost is the drama.  It’s sort of: these two are heading for trouble – oh, look, trouble – The End (or, tbf, not quite the end – there is a coda which is not at all bad but, be warned, it’s in French, without surtitles).

Belleville is, the above notwithstanding, not without its attractions; but I couldn’t help feeling that among all the new works failing to get a chance on the mainstream stage with a first-rate cast there must be quite a few better than this one.  Runs until 3 Feb.  My guess is that when the reviews sink in ticket availability will be a lot easier than at present;

https://www.donmarwarehouse.com/production/6326/belleville/


34
Theatre / Cell Mates - Hampstead Theatre
« on: December 17, 2017, 09:22:31 pm »
I don’t know if Simon Gray’s title is a deliberate pun but ‘sell mates’ down the river is something that George Blake seems to do almost automatically in this drama.  It’s one of the characteristics – along with a remarkable capacity for self delusion and an annoying tendency towards self justification – on which Gray concentrates in his portrayal of this enigmatic character and his relationship with – or should we say his parasitism on – Sean Bourke, the man who helped him escape from Wormwood Scrubs.  In the 1980s I read The Springing of George Blake, which Bourke (Emmet Byrne) is seen dictating towards the end of Act 1 Scene 2 of Gray’s play, in the later version which, as the programme tells us, has sections restored after their initial redaction (by Blake?).  There must still be a fair bit of doubt about the strict accuracy of Bourke’s account but there’s no denying that the book is immensely more detailed than the play – which contains very little detail about how things actually happened.  The jailbreak happens in the gap between 1:1 and 1:2, and the separate journeys to the Soviet Union between 1:2 and 1:3.   Even the dialogue tells us very little about the mechanics of one of the most audacious ventures in the history of espionage because, I suppose, Gray decided to concentrate on the two principal characters and their relationship with each other.  This is an obvious weakness but at least avoids the danger of the dramatic structure becoming hopelessly unwieldy.  The weakness is not just a result of the audience wondering too often ‘how did they get there’ but it also reduces the other six characters – decently played by Philip Bird, Cara Horgan and Danny Lee Wynter playing two roles each – to comedy stereotypes. 

I don’t think the above weaknesses can be ignored but it must also be acknowledged that to overcome the inherent difficulties of dramatising the story the play would have to be a masterpiece – and while it isn’t that, this production goes some way towards vindicating Gray, who has always insisted the piece deserved better than the fate dictated by the events surrounding its first run.  For Cell Mates is most famous for being the play from which Stephen Fry went missing in 1995 and which, as I understand it, has not had a revival until now. Rik Mayall was said to have been very fine as Bourke but Fry as Blake, even before he went awol, was unable to cope.  It seems to me that with Geoffrey Streatfield’s performance the play is getting the chance that Gray says it always deserved.  Certainly it’s hard to imagine Fry, even if he had conquered his ‘stage fright’ would have given as convincing a performance as Streatfield – who not only manages to get across Blake’s combination of suavity and toxic self-absorption but also, by facial expression and mannerism, conveys the impression that Blake’s self-delusion might not have been entirely successful.  Streatfield clearly hints that some of the extraordinarily pompous pronouncements Blake delivers to his tape recorder are not fooling even him..  Byrne is a fine foil with the sexual(ity) undertones (does he fancy Blake, Zinaida, both or neither?) subtly hinted at then subtly left unresolved; and there is fine, mostly comic, support from the other three.  The staging is realistic – prison library, disordered bolt hole of a London flat and sombre Moscow apartment – and, to my eyes, convincing enough.  My recommendation is not to expect a masterpiece but to catch the production in case it’s another 22 years before the next one.  Runs until 20 Jan:

https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2017/cell-mates/


35
Theatre / Mother Courage and her Children - Southwark Playhouse
« on: December 04, 2017, 10:45:23 pm »
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about this for fear of coming across as almost spitefully negative.  Even the silver lining – a high powered and intelligent stint by Josie Lawrence as Ma C, Anna Fierling – has the effect of seeming to put a seasoned pro among tyros.  To my shame, I also wondered – given JL’s known skills as a mimic and improviser – whether I’d seen JL as MC or JL impersonating someone playing MC; but it doesn’t do to detract from the one impressive performance.  I can’t, however, get away from my impression that the production and the other performances put an ‘in yer face’ approach and a great deal of noise in the place of drama.  I suppose the setting – the Thirty Years War – is some excuse for bombarding the audience with noise and confusion but you still need to hear the words and that, too often, was difficult – especially in the barn-like ‘Large’ space of the Southwark Playhouse.  It doesn’t help, either, that they encourage people to take drinks into the auditorium but don’t seem to do enough to explain that that doesn’t mean they should treat the place like an alehouse.  Trying to hear what was being said over the sound effects with the chatter of a group in the row behind going straight into my ears was too much.  I left at the interval as I had little faith in a second half improvement.  You might, of course, love it and, if you think you will, you should have little trouble getting seats – which should, in itself, tell you (and perhaps should have told me) something.  If they are struggling night after night to half fill a 200 seat auditorium with a big name like Josie Lawrence on the bill you at least have to wonder why.  Runs until Saturday:

http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/mother-courage-and-her-children/



36
Theatre / Glengarry Glen Ross - Playhouse Theatre, London
« on: December 03, 2017, 03:11:30 pm »
Christian Slater is the big name put up to sell this show but the appeal of Robert Glenister, Kris Marshall, Stanley Townsend and Don Warrington – all of whom have impressed me in past stage performances – was enough to get me to the Playhouse.  That said, Slater, as Richard Roma, is a magnetic presence – indeed, this is almost a disadvantage as, when he’s on the stage, he’s almost never inactive even when he’s clearly not meant to be the centre of attention.  Even during an exchange between two other characters you (or, at least, I) are drawn to Slater’s body language response. Roma is top man in the ferociously masculine Chicago sales team so it could be argued that Slater has a head start when it comes to making an impression.  Townsend as Shelly (the Machine) Levene has a more complex task portraying the fading star of deal closure at the company and he pulls it off very well; likewise Marshall as office manager John Williamson, reviled as a desk jockey but with a sinister ruthlessness of his own.  David Mamet’s play is beautifully structured so that while none of the sales team – with the possible exception of the dilatory George Aaronow (Don Warrington) – is sympathetic, you end up identifying with the nightmare life they have chosen as a means of getting by and thriving in a cutthroat system.  By putting the characters in ‘screw or be screwed’ pairs – Levene and Williamson, Aaronow and the feral Dave Moss (Robert Glenister), Roma and the hapless mark James Lingk (Daniel Ryan) – Mamet ensures you are reduced to feeling for them in spite of yourself.  The performances (better, for completeness’s sake, mention Oliver Ryan as the cop Baylen) are all top notch and the dialogue spot on. It’s the kind of piece for which the term ‘tour de force’ might have been invented and to see it delivered so well – at least as far as the acting is concerned – is a wonderful experience.

There are a couple of drawbacks that must be mentioned.  For a start, this is a play that, at barely 90 minutes of performance time, cries, out for the modish interval free presentation.  A cynic might suspect that putting an interval after the very short Act 1 is a capitulation to the demands of the bar and sweets trade but it might just be because the Playhouse stage hasn’t got a revolve.  If that’s the case, it would be rather hard to switch scene from the opulent restaurant to the burglary-ravaged office without a fairly lengthy break.  As for the set itself, the ransacked office was very impressive and made quite an impact – not least because it offered plenty of scope for characters to occupy themselves while the focus was off them – but the Act 1 set was rather problematic.  The flashy restaurant was lovingly imagined but a great deal of it was redundant because the booth(s) where all the action takes place dominated the front of the stage and, I’d say, hid much of the stage from almost everyone in the stalls (it certainly blocked our view from the front row).  To be fair, this hardly matters in a play which is famously all about the dialogue and where the main, the only major, event happens off stage but if you want to see everything you might want to consider getting an upstairs seat.  On balance, though, I was happy with my £25 front row day seat – not least because it offered a great view of the facial expressions of actors at the top of their game.

Mamet is not in fashion these days and seems unlikely to embark on a charm offensive any time soon so it is surprisingly easy to see this fine production of a very powerful play.  Runs until Feb 3.  Recommended enthusiastically:

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/glengarry-glen-ross/playhouse-theatre/


37
Theatre / Miss Julie - Jermyn Street Theatre
« on: December 03, 2017, 12:45:31 pm »
I can’t remember a better Miss Julie than this – indeed, the last time I saw the play I wondered whether Strindberg had any real lasting relevance.  While I still think Ibsen is more important, Howard Brenton’s version, and this production from Cumbria’s Theatre by the Lake and JST, brings out the timeless themes in Strindberg's best-known play.  The sell-out JST run is now finished but it will be a sinful waste if they don’t find a transfer space to allow more people to see it (Trafalgar Studios, perhaps?) so I thought I’d deviate from my usual practice and do a quick report.

Space and budget considerations might have been behind the decision to restrict the cast to the three speaking parts (no stray revellers staggering in as in some stagings) and the set to the kitchen, with the Midsummer’s Eve shindig reduced to background noise.  Whatever the reasons for it, the stripped down approach is perfect.  It’s hardly minimalist – the kitchen itself is a masterpiece of detail – but confidently authentic with no pretension to expanding on Strindberg’s original.  Brenton sets out his stall eloquently in the programme/playtext (a bargain at £3 with its Waterstones-ready £9.99 printed on the back cover!):

It's a fashion for playwrights to 'bring their own worlds' to classics, which means mucking them about to make them 'modern and relevant'. This is an age that craves instant, twittered moral messages. But there are no easy messages in Strindberg - it's visceral writing...
...Put a modern mask on him and you'd muffle him.


Charlotte Hamblin, as Julie, gives a tremendous performance with an exploration of the dom/sub complex far more convincing than anything you’ll see round the corner in Venus in Fur*  and there is also superb work by James Sheldon as Jean and Isabella Urbanowicz as Kristin.  It is a little tiresome to hear the underlings, yet again, identified by the device of giving them northern accents but, that apart, I felt these two got to the heart of the characters commendably.  You can’t, of course, write out the social class element just because it’s far less clear cut these days; but I thought these performances subtly put the emphasis on the power/dominance relationships rather than the strict master/servant.  Urbanowicz in particular gets across Kristin’s indomitable faith in her own moral superiority while Sheldon has a good handle on Jean’s fondness for talking the talk rather than, literally or metaphorically, walking the walk.

Look out for any news of a transfer:

http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/miss-julie/

*that’s no criticism of Natalie Dormer.  I just mean that Strindberg’s take on the psychology rings truer than David Ives’s

38
The Concert Hall / Re: Liverpool Concerts 2017-8
« on: November 24, 2017, 05:01:31 pm »
Thanks for the write up, chivhu.  I'm afraid a combination of circumstances has kept me away for some time.  Not only have I been called south more often than usual but heavy colds made me miss the Sibelius violin concerto and the Gershwin piano concerto which I had intended to hear.  Now I find nothing really appeals for the rest of the year.  I might have considered a £30 rear circle seat if Bryn Terfel had been singing Wagner, but Verdi doesn't appeal even at ordinary prices.  And the magic of musicals and Xmas specials are all a bit of a turn off.  Frustratingly, the two things that most take the eye - the Guy Barker/Clare Teal concert and the The Last Waltz event in the Music Room are on while I'm away.  But next time I'm at the Phil I will report as usual.

39
The Concert Hall / Re: Sorabji: Organ Symphony No. 2 in Hamburg
« on: November 24, 2017, 04:46:31 pm »
I don’t want to pour cold water on anything but my Dutch friend went to the Elbphilharmonie a few weeks ago and at that time people were booking anything just to get in the hall.  I do hope the performance doesn’t attract too many people who don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for.  More optimistically, though, it could just be the rarity value coupled with the prestigious venue attracting lots of people who are genuinely interested.  I’m thinking of the Proms' Gothic Symphony which was an instant sell out and a full house in an even bigger (though certainly not better!) hall – something, one can confidently assert, that wouldn’t happen if opportunities to hear that work cropped up every month – or even every year!

40
Theatre / The Slaves of Solitude - Hampstead Theatre
« on: November 23, 2017, 05:52:32 pm »
I haven’t read the Patrick Hamilton novel on which Nicholas Wright’s play is based but I strongly suspect it’s rather better than this adaptation which could, with a degree of generosity, be described as adequate.  For one thing I suspect the characterisation was better in the novel.  On the stage Fenella Woolgar really shines but, fine as she is (I remember her performance opposite Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler very fondly), one has to say she has the huge advantage here of playing the only well written character.  Woolgar plays Miss Roach (that’s what the programme says – she’s quite sensitive about her forename so to reveal it would be something of a spoiler), a reader for a firm of publishers in Bloomsbury. It’s 1943 and, bombed out of her London flat, she’s living in a dreary boarding house.  For some reason Wright seems to have replaced Hamilton’s fictional town* with Henley-on-Thames which made me wonder how practical it was for someone to commute so far in wartime (or perhaps they did everything by post).  Single in her thirties (there is a background to this which, again, I’m not going to reveal) she finds things very tedious as the only person of her generation among the doughty widows and mildly annoying older men  - one a drunken ex-thespian, Mr Prest (Richard Tate); the other an irritating bore, Mr Thwaites (Clive Francis) who fancies himself despite the fact that everyone else can see how pathetic he is.  Onto the scene, by a pretext so implausible that I imagine it, too, is Wright’s invention, comes a GI, Lieutentant Dayton Pike (Daon Broni).  Wright makes a feature of Pike’s being one of the black GIs stationed in the UK (something else I suspect is not in the novel) but unaccountably fails to follow through with a realistic depiction of the kind of prejudice he might have faced,  Indeed the resentment of the white GIs towards black people being (officially, at least) treated as equals, though mentioned in the programme notes, isn’t really shown on stage at all.   Miss Roach’s impeccably liberal approach to Vicki Kugelmann (Lucy Cohu) – a German woman who settled in England long before war broke out – attracts rather more resentment; but, again, Wright makes Mr Thwaites the prime mover in this whereas I believe the novel has him as a Nazi sympathiser.  The programme notes, too, hint that Thwaites is a monster whereas, to my eyes, he comes across as more comic and pathetic than anything. 

All in all, and assuming you’re able to avoid taking it too seriously, it’s an entertaining enough yarn but I strongly suspect Hamilton’s novel makes more of themes such as the comforts and dangers of drink, the stultifying boredom of conventional existence especially in times of severe austerity and various others I won’t list.  The performances, for all that Woolgar’s really dominates, are pretty decent – look out for Gwen Taylor playing identical twins; and the staging, while not particularly remarkable, is workmanlike for a piece with so many scene changes.  To be honest, I only went to see it because there wasn’t much choice of Wednesday matinee (for some reason the Harold Pinter has switched to Thursday for Oslo and Albion would have left me with 25 minutes to get from the Almeida to Euston for my booked train) so have to concede that it could have been worse.  Only a few performances left if you want to catch it:

https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2017/the-slaves-of-solitude/


*I got brief details of the novel from Wikipedia.

41
Theatre / Re: Coming up....
« on: November 09, 2017, 02:38:57 pm »
Just spotted this.  Could be a disaster but I think it's unmissable!


http://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/harold-and-maude

Ruth Gordon will be a hard act to follow but if anyone can....




42
Theatre / Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle
« on: November 07, 2017, 09:03:12 pm »
Bizarre as it might seem, this play has a major problem – its title.  Honestly.  I’m not being facetious – to call this mildly amusing romantic comedy Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is, at the very least, to invite charges of pretentiousness and to confuse audiences by making them wonder if they missed something.  Or to put it more pithily as my neighbour did on the way out: “if he was aiming for profundity I think he missed it by a mile”.  It also invites (and Simon Stephens surely knew this) comparison with Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen which features Herr Heisenberg and his principle and, most would say, manages to achieve a pretty effective fusion of profundity and dramatic impact.

All this is rather a shame as, taken for what it is rather than what the title proclaims, Stephens’s play was probably the most balanced of the three I saw on my latest trip to London.  It was also, I thought, the best performance I’ve seen from Anne Marie Duff since her superb Alma Rattenbury in Cause Célèbre  several years ago.  Duff is Georgie Burns (I gave up trying to work out if the name was significant though, again, the author must know that an American called Georgie Burns would set some trains of thought in motion) a rather manic American living in London.  Kooky and impulsive (I kept expecting her to say ‘la de da, la de da’ at any minute) she kisses an elderly male stranger on the neck, ostensibly because he reminds her of someone, while he’s sitting on a railway station bench and thereby sets in train a series of events that changes the course of both their lives.  And that, apart from a namecheck for Werner H, is  just about the only connection this play has to uncertainty principle – or, at least, the only connection I spotted.  The man is 75-year old Alex Priest (again: significant name or just authorial tease?) played by Kenneth Cranham, who could hardly be expected to better his performance in The Father but who puts in his customary excellent work in this rather slighter piece.  Georgie is in her early 40s.  Well insofar as we can believe anything she says, she’s in her early 40s and her appearance tells us she’s much younger than Alex while still being too mature for him to be accused of cradle snatching.  Duff and Cranham really spark off one another in this two hander – indeed to watch them skipping off arm in arm after the curtain calls you almost wonder whether they’re inhabiting the roles a bit too literally.  What seems clear is that they are having great fun playing these characters and, once you stop wondering why the hell the play is called Heisenberg…, you can have great fun watching the touching relationship develop.  If ever there was a case for a change of title this is it (though please don’t call it anything too soppy – I cringe every time I see Howard Brenton’s In Extremis billed as Eternal Love).

Bunny Christie’s set is clever, if a little on the gimmicky side – all sliding walls and minimalist scenery.  I think the play would work just as well with conventional scenery and props but this is fine – and modish enough to attract a certain type of audience member in itself.  The front row day seats offer a clear view (well, as long as you don’t have too prurient an interest in what they’re getting up to in the bedroom scene!) for £20 and were remarkably easy to get.  Runs until 6 Jan but there’s an outside chance it will close early.  Although the performance I saw was fairly well-attended there were rather more empty seats than I expected to see on a Saturday evening:

https://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/tickets/heisenberg/index.php

 

43
Theatre / A Woman of No Importance - Vaudeville Theatre
« on: November 07, 2017, 10:11:34 am »
The draw of Eve Best and Anne Reid, coupled with the opportunity to see Eleanor Bron and Emma Fielding on stage pretty much made this production unmissable for me.   Their performances – and a few others in the production – were as good as could be expected but neither they nor innovations like the songs between acts could really cover up the fact that this is a rather weak play.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen A Woman of No Importance before. I must have read it because the story was familiar (and, anyway, I’m pretty sure I’ve read all Wilde’s major plays) but on the page the sheer wit of the text probably masks the dramatic failings of the piece.  On stage, I’m afraid, Acts 1 & 2 come across as open mic night at The Epigram Store and in the second half, when he finally gets round to giving us some kind of a plot, the last two acts present us with a melodrama at which, to paraphrase Wilde himself, you’d need a heart of stone to avoid laughing.  Obviously, one is meant to laugh – it’s a comedy – but I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to be quite so amused at the preposterousness of the plot developments.  If I’d wanted that I’d have aimed at Young Frankenstein round the corner as Mel Brooks is rather better at that kind of thing than Oscar Wilde.

The performances, though, are adequate compensation.  Best doesn’t get the same opportunity to shine as with Cleopatra or the Duchess of Malfi but she fleshes out Mrs Arbuthnot as far as is reasonably possible considering the author’s failure to supply any kind of back story other than that she’s a brave, wronged woman.  Bron is an outrageous Lady Caroline with Sam Cox (in possibly the most entertaining male performance) providing sound support as the long-suffering Sir John.  Reid makes Lady Hunstanton almost the central character – a necessary thing given that Wilde doesn’t even introduce Mrs A until near the end of the first half.  She also, with instrumental support from other cast members, sings the comic songs that cover the scene changes  - and, perhaps, divert attention away from the inadequacies of the drama.  For me, though, the most impressive performance comes from Emma Fielding who, despite the text’s inadequacies, almost makes the flighty Mrs Allonby into a rounded character.  I was less taken with Crystal Clarke whose mannered depiction of Hester Worsley missed the opportunity to give the play a sympathetic, well-drawn character.  This HW sounded less like a breath of fresh air come across the Atlantic to blow away the cant of polite society and more like a schoolmarm addressing a mildly naughty classroom. 

The men, despite the fact that the central event of the play is Gerald A (Harry Lister Smith)’s employment by Lord Illingworth (Dominic Rowan) are pretty much second order characters.  The performances (if you can ignore the suspicion that Lister Smith uses Boris Johnson’s hairdresser) are decent enough with Rowan somehow managing to keep Lord I from being just a pantomime villain. Still it’s Cox as Sir John who takes the male laurels for me.  It is, admittedly, an even more mannered performance than Clarke’s but, unlike Hester, Sir John is a stock character and part of the enjoyment of the play is the anticipation of one of his mannered responses – particularly his correction of Lady C when she, yet again, gets Mr Kelvil (Paul Rider)’s name wrong.

£20 day seats were surprisingly easy to come by (I was second in the queue at 0940) and the front row offers a very decent view.  I bet it won’t be that easy for the Kathy Burke/Jennifer Saunders Lady Windermere’s Fan next year.

Booking until 30 Dec:

https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/a-woman-of-no-importance/


44
Theatre / Venus in Fur - Theatre Royal, Haymarket
« on: November 06, 2017, 09:48:58 pm »
I haven’t seen the Polanski film or read Sacher von Masoch’s novel* and had never heard of David Ives’s play so I didn’t really know what to expect from this production.  The appeal was mainly due to Patrick Marber’s director credit.  Disappointment with Don Juan in Soho hadn’t made me forget the triumph that was Travesties so with front row day seats available at £15 (the TRH even make these available by phone once the morning queue is served – a tremendous boon as I was able to secure my Friday evening ticket before I left home on Friday morning) this was an easy choice.

Set in the rather cluttered office of playwright Thomas (David Oakes) the play introduces us to Vanda (Natalie Dormer) a character who, very appropriately, ahem, dominates the narrative.  There is, I suspect, a deep irony here as Thomas, when we meet him, is expressing his frustration at the impossibility of finding anyone to play the role of Vanda in his treatment of von Masoch’s novella.  With auditions closed and the actor hired to read Severin gone home along comes a candidate with a broad (New York?) accent who claims to have been delayed en route but who doesn’t seem to be on the list at all.** 

We are obviously being invited to consider the likelihood that this candidate isn’t a real person but a projection of Thomas’s doubts about the casting process – and his play, his fiancée, his life  (just about everything, in fact).  As ‘Vanda’ is given the opportunity to read for the part the drama develops into not just a play (or a rehearsal) within a play but a veritable Russian doll of plot within plot.  It even seems to embrace some of the story of Masoch’s own creative process (according to Wikipedia the original novella is based on a woman who insinuated herself into his life under false pretences)  Before the end it does rather threaten to vanish down the orifice of its own ingenuity but is rescued by a decent performance from Oakes and a very impressive one from Dormer (who I’d previously only seen in an episode of a very poor TV series, The Tudors, in which she played Anne Boleyn).  Oakes, of course, hasn’t a chance of being the star.  For the play to make any sense Vanda must command attention throughout and Dormer succeeds in this.  And, pace a couple of rather bitter feminist critics, this is not just because of her outfit.  The stockings and pvc get-up is no more provocative than you’d get in any of a dozen camp musicals but I bet Dormer would command the attention just as much in a radio broadcast.  The timing, the switching between accents and personae, the sheer charisma of the character are all far more imposing than the costume.

It might be that there are layers of meaning I missed so it’s perhaps unfair to point out that I thought the play struggled to pull all its strands together entirely convincingly in the end; but at about 90 minutes without interval it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  And the performances are very good.

Runs until 9 Dec

http://www.trh.co.uk/whatson/venus-in-fur/




*I don’t know many people who have actually read Masoch or Sade for all their notoriety. 

**SPOILER ALERT And she’s called Vanda.  And she’s wearing bondage gear under her mac.  And she has a copy of Thomas’s script that could only have come from an insider.  And, as things develop, it transpires she knows a lot about the background to the play and has her own ideas about how it should be played – and even a scene or two of her own to contribute. 

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Theatre / Re: Young Marx - Bridge Theatre
« on: November 02, 2017, 10:44:48 am »
I don’t know if they run a day seat scheme but can advise that if you’re going for the inexpensive side gallery seats you might want to avoid being too near the stage if you want to minimise the problems I mentioned above.

I see details of day tickets up to Nov 12 have now appeared on the theatremonkey site.  My guess is that your £15 will be better spent on one of these than on a restricted view gallery seat like I had; but you still might want to be wary of anything too far to the left or right for fear of being stuck looking into the wings for much of the time.

Have I mentioned theatremonkey's day seat page before?  It's a very useful guide but beware of putting too much confidence in it.  In my experience it sometimes contains errors such as getting the box office opening time wrong.  In general, though, it's worth knowing about.  The feedback feature can provide an invaluable guide to how early you should turn up to give yourself a good chance of day seats.

http://www.theatremonkey.com/dayseatfinder.htm

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