Thursday, 25 June 2015

Review The Seagull

The Seagull
by Anton Chekhov

The Rivals

The Seagull! Squawk! In a new version by writer Torben Betts directed by Matthew Dunster! Squawk! At Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre! OK, enough of these seagull noises!

Of course, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre made its name with the once annual play-within-a-comedy by the English bard, “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”. Here we have a Russian classic, Anton Chekhov’s human comedy and viewed as the first of his theatrical masterpieces. 

And it seems like a dream location, outdoors: water (a man-made stage lake), trees, sky.

The Regent's Park stage is reflected by a huge angled mirror suspended from the heavens for a play with a bitter yet loving satiric edge, It’s a clever touch by designer Jon Bausor in this most self-reflexive of plays about life, theatre and art, where all the characters also reflect each other in one way or another. And all just as relevant in our virtual age!  As the characters stroll on stage, the mirror, hanging like Nature's camera, gives a bird’s eye reverse view, yet frames the figures like the French and Russian paintings of the time.

TLT and her horseless scarlet troika have only ever read The Seagull and were keen to experience this early Chekhov classic tableaux 1895 play of unrequited love, disappointment, life, theatre  – oh, yes and comedy :).
Writer Torben Betts who adapted this version made quite a splash with crowd-pleasing Invincible. But Chekhov is pretty funny too in his poignant and, in TLT’s view, subtly political sort of way. If fans of Invincible come to this, they may be surprised to learn that most of the best jokes come from Chekhov. 

Irina Arkadina (a finely drawn and gracefully humorous performance by Janie Dee) returns with her lover Boris Trigorin (Alex Robertson), a successful novelist, to the family estate, home of her bachelor brother retired state councillor and lawyer, Peter Sorin (a suitably curmodgeonly Ian Redford). 

Also living on the estate are Irina’s fretful student drop-out and would-be avant-garde playwright son Constantin (Matthew Tennyson) alongside the farm manager Ilia (Fraser James), his wife Paulina (Lisa Palfrey), their disenchanted goth-like daughter Masha (Lisa Diveney). Wandering in are idealistic young Nina (Poldark’s Sabrina Bartlett), living on a neighbouring estate with her landowner father and stepmother, the old lothario of a doctor, Eugene Dorn (a relaxed and engaging performance from Danny Webb) and impecunious schoolmaster Simon Medviedenko (Colin Hoult). 

Like a seagull, the play is a delicate but tough old bird winging its way through stage conventions, symbolism, images, impressions, politics, history, the constant merging yet separation of  life and theatre.  Still, a play is a play and birds don’t normally get reviews ... ;)

While much critical writing dwells on Constantin as artist, his passion for Nina, and the mother-son relationship, perhaps the play is just as much about the rivalry between two actresses.
The women are the centre of attention (much to Constantin’s chagrin) but their positions are always fragile.  For example, in spite of her selfishness and self absorbtion, why should we doubt Irina’s assertion that her costumes use up much of her cash?  Nina, infatuated with Boris but also playing her hand against Irina, makes the decision to go to Moscow and take to the stage when she learns the actress and her lover are leaving.

Boris does leave Irina for Nina but finally abandons the young actress and his child to go back to Irina. In the end, Irina is seemingly successful,  Nina  made to drudge from one small town to another with the implication of possible prostitution to make ends meet. Yet both have lost the fathers of their children and, in a final (off stage) coup de théâtre, their children.

In fact, if it one wants to veer towards theatrical artificiality and a detective story, it’s almost as though other characters deliberately lure Nina to her fate of repertory company drudgery:  Irina herself, her brother the lawyer, the doctor all lavish Nina's acting with praise. Boris, indulged by Irina, seduces Nina, then returns to Irina and uses  the young actress’s life, made into tragedy, for his own purposes.    

Part of the unblinking toughness and poignancy of the play is the attraction and resistance to theatrical symbolism, the guying of melodrama, yet the conceding of the truth melodrama reveals. All back-to-back with hard-nosed money matters.

Seeing this production in final preview, TLT and her cabriolet were taken with the ingenious design, especially the play-within-a-play and the soundscape using recorded voice overs giving a satisfyingly visceral resonance. 

But the mash-up and experimenting with styles felt less successful. 

Nina’s pivotal final tussle against identification with the main symbol of the play, to retain her sanity, her dignity, to face reality and continue, did not come through for us. The production therefore lost its rhythm plus some of the play’s clear sightedness about human relations set within the context of a fast diminishing Russian Empire hierarchy. 

In our opinion, it felt sometimes too muddled to turn the audience into fellow travellers, enthused enough to sway at different times in favour of one character or another or to follow the story’s delicately incremental, viciously funny yet tragic development. 

Perhaps the open air location, particularly with some deliberately jarring sound effects, and large stage didn’t lend itself to the style of production. Nor is it surprising to read that director Matthew Dunster comes from the Young Vic and maybe it all would have worked better in that space. Still, an amber light for a stronger first act, ingenious design, some stand out performances and of course a spectacular park setting.

PS  What is it about seagulls? It did occur to TLT that a near contemporary of Chekhov, German nonsense poet Christian Morgenstern wrote a famous cryptic poem about seagulls  Do these writer chaps know something about gulls that we don't?;)

Friday, 19 June 2015

Review Face The Music

Face The Music
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Moss Hart

Police Follies

It's showtime and TLT and her trusty four-wheeled steed took a detour from their usual West End and fringe venues to  venture into the exotic East. That is E17, namely Walthamstow  and Ye Olde Rose and Crown.

This pub theatre has built up a reputation, like the Union Theatre in South London, for resurrecting lesser known musicals. Indeed, this musical was truly “lost”, painstakingly excavated by the US musical archivists’ team from the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization. (There’s a bit of industry inside knowledge for you gleaned from the internet – the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization also represents the Irving Berlin copyrights!).

Certainly quite a few musical theatre afficianados, all of whom are on the venue’s mailing list,  sat alongside TLT at this first preview, eager to see a re-discovered piece directed by Brendan Matthew in its UK première, Face The Music 
No, not the other Irving Berlin show with the famous song "Let’s Face The Music And Dance”. Rather, an earlier revue-type musical written four years before  in 1932 with a topical book by Moss Hart  about – er – police graft in the Depression ... 

Yes, you read correctly Irving Berlin wrote a score which underneath all the gags and sunny satire is a pretty angry show about police  and mayoral graft, prostitution, money laundering, fixed court cases  – and, oh yes, putting on a show. 

From the outset, one has to say this was a very unbalanced (especially as regards sound levels) production but there was enough in it to make TLT wonder what it could be. 

At the same time, there was the frustration of a small orchestra often overpowering the voices in the cavernous hall serving as auditorium in this shoestring theatre, plus some strange staging choices affecting sightlines in the first act.

But the costumes (designer Joana Dias) are ingenious and the dance routines (choreographer: Sally Brooks)  satisfyingly witty with plenty of floor space for hoofers to hoof, cutting some particularly cute vaudeville silhouettes. 

The casting and styling too felt ingenious. Alessandro Lubrano as the juvenile lead Pat Mason, hair slicked to one side, actually looks like Irving Berlin in a chirpy performance with a clear singing voice including one of the better known songs “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”. He’s matched by Joanna Hughes as Kit Baker as his love interest, maybe a little hampered by an underwritten role, but with equally sprightly vocals. 

And to continue the likenesses, Ceris Hines as vaudevillian Pickles Crouse, with a passing resemblance to Betty Boop/Julia McKenzie, gives an engagingly kooky and strong rendition of “I Don’t Wanna Be Married”, hoofing pleasingly with partner Lewis Dewar Foley as Mickey Rooney Joey Malarkey. While James Houlbrooke’s besotted police officer even managed to remind us of another James --  Jimmy Stewart. 

Whether or not these resemblances were intentional, it gave a satisfying resonance for this audience member.  

Joanne Clifton, of BBC’s ballroom hit Strictly Come Dancing fame, showed the expected grace in dance routines but also considerable singing chops and sincerity as actress-turned-street-walker in the satiric Torch Song and on the witness stand. 

“The producer came to me/That’s the night I lost my [pause]  modesty ...the business is dropping/The show is not liked by the mob ... And judge, I needed the job!” 

It’s that kinda raw show, it’s that kinda life as the show was first performed during a real investigation into New York City police  and magistrates’ courts corruption with its litany of bribery, perjury, framing of the innocent, fraud and  false imprisonment.  
Sure, the impressario Hal Reisman played by Samuel Naughton manages to put on a show, where in a piece of legalistic ventriloquism, the police, lousy with ill-gotten cash, launder their money and then have to raid the show for indecency after expected failure turns to success.   

Then in the second act he puts on a sop of a court case (“on every front page and they don’t even charge for admission”). So naturally there’s a happy ending for the manacled-together criminals, show people, court officials, judge, police chief (David Anthony) and wife (Laurel Dougall) – all rigged by the impressario of course.

Perhaps influenced by 1920s’ Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil without the overt socialist critique, it’s also as tough in its own way as Mel Brooks’s The Producers thirty years later which it obviously influenced. And maybe it stretches forward even to the 1975 John Kander and Fred Ebb Nowadays premise of Chicago
Anyway it was a raggedy sort of experience in Walthamstow with TLT and jalopy straining to follow the story and lyrics, but foiled much of the time by the sound levels and sometimes a little too much comedy mugging.   

One hopes now some of the flaws are ironed out as it enters mid-run. The audience, in an L-shape around the performing space, all seemed to relish, like TLT, the quality choreography and sporadic high points. So despite misgivings over sound levels, it’s an amber light for an intriguing piece. 

And  come to think about it, perhaps we’ve been misdirected about Irving Berlin by Fred Astaire’s pristine top hat and tails and Ginger Rogers’ high heels and feathers ...  “Before The Fiddlers Have Fled” could be construed as  pretty damned angry ...  

PS Having gone to see the first preview, TLT and her horsepower scarlet sidekick felt it only fair to forgo posting a next-day review but wait until further into the run.