Friday, 16 October 2015

Review Close To You. Bacharach Reimagined

Close To You. Bacharach Reimagined
Music Burt Bacharach and Lyrics Hal David
Co-conceived by Kyle Riabko and David Lane Seltzer 

The Old Music Master Remastered

The age of downloads has led to an inter-generational appreciation and study of great song writing as never before.   It's also probably led to the popularity of a show like "Close To You", with  twentieth first century arrangements of mid twentieth century classics by octogenarian Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David.
Starting with a spotlight solo "Anyone Who Had A Heart" with Canadian Kyle Riabko  on guitar followed by "This Guy" and the first of a recurring refrain of "What's It All about" (from Alfie), the show follows musical themes and patterns rather than an instantly recognisable musical theatre narrative. Whole songs are embedded with slivers of others,  giving a seamless sonata quality to the musical medley expertly choreographed by director Steven Hoggett.

And, with Burt Bacharach present on press night, maybe one can say there is an outside narrative - real life merging with theatre. Emerging from a demo session when he played new material by the  composer, the show is the brainchild of twenty something Riabko alongside David Lane Seltzer with the old masters, Bacharach and David (before his death), giving their blessing.  Once such protegé back stories were away from public gaze, now it's part of the marketing of the show. 

The talented seven-strong cast play instruments varying from guitar to percussion (ah, rhythm is all!) to piano to ukele to double bass (and maybe shades of an electric organ?). 

While artistes as diverse as Johnny Mathis, Dionne Warwick, Cilla Black, the Carpenters, Whitney Houston, Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jr have interpreted the songs of Bacharach, David and  collaborators, the septet work to bring fresh rock, funk, soul, rhythm and blues, reggae sounds to the thirty three songs in the show.   

Hits such as What The World Needs Now Is Love, Walk On By, This Guy's In Love With You and many more. 

In some ways a musical equivalent of sitcom Friends with Riabko at its centre, the show plunges the cast into an impromptu jam session in a kooky boho apartment. Walls are clad with a higgledy piggledy of  musical instruments, a turntable, even sofas,  suspended above a patchwork of carpet, rugs, chairs, speakers and lamps.  And joining in the cosy façade created by designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis with lighting by Tim Lutkin, some audience members sit on squashy sofas on either side of the stage. 

Inevitably for anyone of a certain age, affecting, nuanced recordings have already colonised the mind. Yet the show's aim is Bacharach reimagined in a style for a twenty first century global audience - the generation of mass musical education, easily accessible downloads of song archives, of Glee,  X-Factor and The Voice. In that it has proved already in New York and an earlier run in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London under the moniker "What's It All About?" very successful. 

And is there more of an affective patchworked narrative within the musical clichés? Or at least a colouring of  music history as the business changes tack from  solo artiste interpreting the songwriter to the rise of singer songwriter, personified in Riabko's vocals with acoustic guitar, then of the group, natural or manufactured. 

Maybe tinges of a "Merrily We Roll Along" story and even the show's publicity image with an almost ironic twist,  reflecting the psyche of music besotted generations:  the image of the magnificently talented ethereal James-Dean like solo singer, eyes on musical heaven, but still a babe magnet

The singers - at first free-moving atoms across the stage - become like rotating figures contractually glued (letters received and torn up) on a turntable, singing however joyously and  beautifully.  

The slivers of story give way to more of a concert second act, a slick and mature rendering of hits echoing the first act but also reflecting organically the amalgam of current musical influences.

Yet this is way too analytical! Give yourself up to the music and your own non-copyrightable musical nervous system, shaped by a century or so of American recorded music,  and life will shape its own narrative. A superior hall of musical mirrors, the change from "What's It All About?" to "Close To You",  gets a green light from TLT. 

PS Video of Burt and the cast outside the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus - for once it wasn't raining in London for Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head! Ah memories of those heady pre-video and internet days when TLT queued (yes, queued!) to see Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid at her local fleapit, even if she later abandoned her bike for the engine beneath her theatregoing wings ... :)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Review French Without Tears

French Without Tears
By Terence Rattigan

Entente Non Cordiale

A group of young gentlemen gather in Villa Miramar in France to learn French for the diplomatic corps entry exams. Coming from a line of toffs himself with a diplomat father and once earmarked for the same career, playwright Terence Rattigan was obviously writing, to cite an old adage "what he knew" in 1936.

And that year was a rum old twelve months for diplomacy.  George V died to be succeeded by Edward VIII who within a few months had abdicated in favour of his brother. Stalinist purges swept the Soviet Union.  France elected a left-wing governmentThe Spanish army of Africa rose up against the left wing Spanish Republican government,  Syria gained partial independence from France,  the Italian army marched into Ethiopa,  Japan and Germany signed an anti-communist pact  and  National Socialist Germany reoccupied the Rhineland

And aged 25, Rattigan scored his first theatre success, inspired by his own experiences at a German crammer, after honing an economic  writing technique penning dialogue for quota quickies at Teddington Studios. Luckily for us, this  Hi-De-Hi boarding house school for toffs, distracted by the fairer sex, channels the more frivolous side of this era in a delicious production directed by Paul Miller at the Orange Tree Theatre.

And my God, doe-eyed Diana (Genevieve Gaunt) , an English rose cum Hollywood femme fatale, does cause havoc at the crammer college of M. Maingot (David Whitworth).  As she exercises her own seductive divide-and-rule ruses,  the men tumble for her like diplomats unable to resist the most powerful she-nation.  

Ambassador's son Hon Alan Howard (Alex Bhat), already fluent in French, destined by family for the diplomatic service but a novelist and pacifist by inclination, becomes increasingly embittered. Stoked by Diana, his relations with the more sentimental Kit Neilan (Joe Eyre) and bluff Royal Navy man Commander Bill Rogers (William Belchambers) also become more than strained, eventually coming to blows.

Meanwhile the demure tutor, Jacqueline (Sarah Winter), daughter of the proprietor,  and Kenneth (Patrick MacNamee), Diana's cadet brother, are also victims of unrequited affections. Indeed, apart from M. Maingot and the maid Marianne (perfectly French Laila Alj), only hearty Englishman Brian Curtis (Tom Hanson), with sterling qualities and sex not love on the brain, keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs.  

Like all the best farces, this has more serious undercurrents. Claws lurk beneath the cut glass accents, cod French (anyone else remember Punch's Let's Parler Franglais?), irregular verbs and present definitely tense as Bastille Day arrives with carnival celebrations at the local casino.

Genevieve Gaunt's timing (and claws) as predatory Diana are spot on, raising the temperature and laughs backed by - what else but - French windows.  The sparsely-furnished yet expressive set, from Simon Daw, suits the performance space topped by blackboards fronting the balcony chalked with French exercises.  

The costumes  are satisfyingly recognizable types while the transitions are pleasingly lit by Mark Doubleday to pass time on the in-the-round stage with music by David Shrubsole.   

The male characters all make their mark and throw out their own point of view: Alex Bhat as Alan, seemingly in control but with demagogic tendancies and increasingly frantic behind his copy of Le Monde while Joe Eyre's Kit has an underlying vulnerability; Tom Hanson makes barrel-chested Brian,  for whom it is almost always business as usual, stride through the wreckage; William Belchambers convincingly turns from love struck suitor to bodyguard, while Patrick McNamee embodies nervy Kenneth.

David Whitworth cuts an appropriately professorial figure, donning his Carnival fancy dress with aplomb. Delicate Sarah Winter is  sweetly besotted as daughter "Jack" (from Jacqueline rather than Frère Jacques) who by the end shows her own claws in a Oscar-Wilde-like scene with Diana. Even with sometimes slightly dodgy French accents, there is a charm as the farce unravels.  

Ah yes, and TLT had no idea until her trip to the West Coast of France via the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond that Mr Rattigan had already bagged the red, amber and green light idea as his own in French Without Tears. Listen out for it in the second act! :)

While this may seem like a frothy piece of almost-juvenilia, Rattigan himself was at pains to point out it dealt with matters close to the heart of the young idealistic 1930s' playwright. This production has a pleasing clarity working on many levels with at least two young children in the audience enjoying the farce element of the show as much as the adults. A green light from TLT and her bagnole, but not quite as Rattigan meant it in his play!

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Review Measure For Measure

Measure For Measure
by William Shakespeare

They Tried To Make Me Go To Rehab

First of all, TLT and her motorised equerry should make it - beep, beep! - clear, this was a preview.

Duke Vincentio (Zubin Varla) surfaces from a warehouse sea of blow up sex dolls on to the triptych-framed stage  (design Miriam Buether) to announce austerity has come to Vienna's brothels.

Why, we never quite get to know. Maybe the lender country has called in its loans after the (ahem!) bottom dropped out of the consumer market for their goods, hence the surfeit of scarecrow-like sex dolls?!

This is a heavily edited (dramaturge Zoë Svendson), no-interval Measure For Measure directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins with Varla as its magnificent lynchpin.  Part art installation/performance arts, part US police procedural or thriller, part (or maybe full) crack den as well as movie studio complete with omnipresent over-the-shoulder cameras.  

A surfeit also of video shot - maybe for future transmission,  maybe for archiving, maybe for the cutting room floor. Pulsating sound (Paul Arditti) out of TV drama backs the action.

Duke Vincentio, though  middle-aged, seems only to  just have emerged from a years' long house rave/orgy. There is no Mistress Overdone (cutting room floor obviously!)  but the Duke is literally undone at the beginning.  And, having buttoned himself up, he appoints the next generation to do the dirty work of cleaning up the city.

Angelo (Paul Ready),  media-ready, dresses (credibly) more like a head croupier or an estate agent than a puritan to head the crackdown on lechery but slyly smarmy, sharing secrets, from the first: " Always obedient to your grace's will, I come to know your pleasure ..."

Meanwhile Escalus (Sarah Malin), all efficient suit and high heels, hovers like an advisor from The West Wing or executive seconded from a corporation in a state where execution can take place by "private message" and prisons are hidden behind sliding doors at the back of government offices.

This is a hit-and-miss surveillance state. After the Duke dons his Friar disguise, the confession box becomes a video box with faces looming large on projections (video: Chris Kondek). 

And is that a state cop or from a private security firm (Hammed Animashaun)? Or even an out-of-work actor who fits the role and has the uniform with large letters PROVOST on the back and an American accent out of police procedurals?

Isabella (Romola Garai), dressed in a blue shift and white triangular scarf covering her head, has almost stepped out of a Vermeer painting into the stage frame, although her previous ostentatious bird-like swoop into prayer may also indicate an awareness of the cameras. 

With a "That's well-said",  it's as if Angelo finds her fresh PR techniques of persuasion,  rather than just her body and his power,  the turning point sexy turn-on.

More problematic, as  TLT noticed also in The Globe version of the same play, is to sustain any erotic tension and follow the arguments once the characters of Angelo and Isabella are established and the novice nun argues her case.  

While this scene is nicely bookended with naturalistic touches, we noticed a dip in attention in the audience. This may have been a production waiting to bed down in preview and find a rhythm  but two productions with the same flaw doesn't feel like a coincidence - something lacking in the productions rather than text. 

After all, the deputy ruler of Vienna is blackmailing Isabella for sex and even when he's over her like a dog on heat on all fours, it feels just - well - choreographed.

The close up projections also have the effect of flattening the emotion at crucial points.

Nevertheless, there's some beautiful verse speaking and the video projections emphasize the rhetorical nature of Shakespeare's Vienna. 

Only in Angelo's soliloquies and Julietta (Natalie Simpson), made pregnant out of wedlock by Isabella's brother Claudio and shying away from cameras, is the public declamation more suppressed in a culture swinging like a pendulum between private pleasures and public naming and shaming.

And the chiaroscuro lighting (lighting James Farncombe) on Isabella during the "fear of death" speech of her brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) as they sit on the prison ground, with Claudio intently watching her reactions, does summon something new from the text.

Part of the understated key to this production is surely the casting of a woman as Escalus, carrying out the orders of the Duke manoeuvring through the play. One wonders, since there is an ambitious woman who does the business and is prepared to let citizens die, whether in different circumstances  Isabella would have done the same?

Soft-spoken Scottish Lucio (John MacKay), the pimp turned hangman, seems equally at home directing, tutoring and prompting Isabella, at times a crouching animal at the side watching forensically the action. Pompey  (Tom Edden) channels 70s' Huggy Bear  and Woody Allen, as both he and the Provost seem imports from American TV into Vienna.

It ends with an uneasy family portrait with two of the protagonists chased out of the picture to jail. One is left to wonder whether the elaborate charade was only to get rid of those characters without the possiblity of blackmail and to contain Angelo's power. 

And is there some other kind of relationship between Angelo and the Duke to make Isabella and Mariana (Cath Whitefield) decide it is in their interests to prevent his execution?

It's a flashy, thought-through, fast-moving production for the Netflix generation with Zubin Varla  managing affairs like some Ducal Andy Warhol. There is something lost in the execution but also something found. We've had the pilot. Maybe we'll have the series - the Duke and his young bride as squabbling crime investigators, complete with sidekicks, in Vienna?! An amber light.

CORRECTION The Duke, was played by Zubin Varla not as previously published ... 

Review Consensual

By Evan Placey

Cuckoo In The Nest
Along to the Ambassadors Theatre off Shaftesbury Avenue for the coming generation and the production of Consensual by Anglo-Canadian playwright Evan Placey, developed with the  National Youth Theatre Repertory Company.

And it all revolves around  teacher Diane (an excellent Lauren Lyle) as she navigates the classroom minefield and her relationship with pupil Freddie (Oscar Porter-Brentford growing in confidence as the play progressed) against a background of sexually charged music and media. Diane's subject being PSHE.


It's many years since TLT's schooldays when she and her 11+ contemporaries indulged in minor vandalism changing with the inky nibs of their cartridge pens  the title of text book The Road To Latin to The Road To Eating ... Anyway,  according to the first sentence in the Wikipedia entry PHSE was created in 1990 by Harry Styles.

In case you hadn't realised,  we think this may be the online equivalent of TLT's textbook graffiti (catch it, before someone corrects it, now we've pointed it out!).

PSHE stands for Personal, Social, Health And Economic, part of the National Curriculum since 2000, and by the look of it covering - just about everything which isn't otherwise in the syllabus. 

In TLT'S day, teachers taught the content of books. Now it looks like they have to teach - life or something like it. 

But isn't this often what a good play covers, personal, social, health and economic - in short life?

Directed by Pia Furtado with original accompanying music by Jim Hustwit, the play begins with pupils, seated in school chairs, their backs to us, as an audience. Before they break out from passive consumers to actors with, to use a cliché of youth theatre but in this case true, raw energy.   

The action takes place in two time zones. A drink in the pub in the present day. Bank employee Freddie accuses his former teacher 29 year old Diane, now heavily pregnant with her second child, of grooming and having sex with him seven years previously when he was a troubled 15 year old. 

 And Freddie has made a statement to police. 

Diane, at the time a teaching assistant, denies everything and this obviously catches the currency of the times

Meanwhile in her class there are swirling theoretical discussions amongst the kids intertwined with their personal insecurities, surrounded by porn, computer games and aggressive competition. 

Outside the classroom, the income tax affairs of Jake (Cole Edwards) Freddie's car mechanic brother  and Diane's well-connected husband Pete (Conor Neaves), enough of a new man to don a red apron for housework when necessary, tangle up to shape the conclusion of the case. A sub plot with a Pastoral Assistant Mary (Megan Parkinson) and sexually precocious schoolgirl Georgia (Grace Surey) mirrors Diane's and Freddie's tangled story as the scenes flash past us.

And the original charge? Innocence, criminality, wilful negligence, entrapment? Sex as a contract between two parties signifying consent or a battlefield in a larger arena?

Crouching below the stage, the students (after all maybe Sondheim got it just about right about children) watching like nesting chicks. Participants, a Greek chorus, a jury,  a paying audience consuming edited entertainment or any of these changing at will?

As we learn what may be the truth of the fatal attraction in the bedsit second act with its deliberately more traditional staging, Cecilia Carey's set design and costumes referencing another age give us a clue that all may not be as it seems.  

So lots of (satisfying) question marks in a filmic play by Evan Placey  reflective and self-reflexive channelling the concerns and vulnerable characters of the screen-led age, energetically and perceptively handled by ensemble cast and director, with Lauren Lyle giving a central absorbing performance as Diane. An amber/green light.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Review Barbarians

by Barrie Keeffe

Lonely Hearts

TLT and her Made-In-Britain hatchback chugged along to a Tooting Arts' Club  site-specific performance of Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians, a trio of 1977 plays, the evening the death of  1970s' former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey was  anounced.

At face value this dynamic production is about three school leavers from Lewisham in South London scrapping against rejection and unemployment at the time Healey was in government, using a subtext of topics ripped from the headlines. 

But the pieces also harness the energy and satiric techniques of centuries-old city comedies which segue seamlessly into the era of cold-war punk, bovver boys and Britain's post industrial landscape and politics.

Director Bill Buckhurst, reviving his production of 2012 with a talented cast of three, cleverly stages the production, designed by Simon Kenny, in adjoining rooms on the third floor (only accessible by stairs) of the old Central St Martins' Art School, soon to be converted into flats. The grunge setting belies precise lighting (Rob Youngson) and sound including cutting-edge music of the disaffected 70s (Josh Richardson).

The audience sits at desks in a graffiti-daubed classroom for the first  piece, Killing Time, where the three  teenagers meet up. Jan (Jake Davies) fresh from the Job Centre (the name incidentally, freshly rebranded from employment exchange in the 1970s) , Paul (Thomas Coombes) with criminal and extreme right-wing connections and Afro-Caribbean Louis (Josh Williams) by necessity more intelligent and seeking to improve himself but equally directionless. 

The audience, escorted by the cast as Mr Punch-type policemen through a railed area for the second (and earliest written) play of the trilogy, Abide With Me, then plant themselves on football terrace-style seats. 

The three lads are outside Wembley Stadium on the day of the FA Cup Final. 

Desperate for tickets, they have pushed their way through the touts to the ground's periphery but find it impossible to have a butcher's at the match over the corrugated fence. 

Tribal Manchester United football fans, albeit with a more globalized outlook after travelling with their teams, they are still in the hands of others as they await Jan's dodgy "Uncle Harold" who has promised to get them in.

The riotous stock rises, culminating in the dark, smokey reversals and uncomfortable titanic violence (fight director Bret Yount) of third piece In The City. 

Set during summer Carnival in Notting Hill, Paul claims to have set up dates through a Lonely Hearts' column as army recruit Jan prepares to embark for Belfast. Nevertheless, unresolved ugly tensions splinter to the surface when they accidentally meet upwardly mobile Louis.

Part of the plays' disturbing beauty is the tender but brutal relationship between the three characters veering between visceral neediness, broad satire and high-octane physicality. 

Jake Davies brings a delicate susceptibility to the role of Jan, the most dependent of the three. A veteran of the 2012 production, Thomas Combes menaces as Paul, damaged yet always willing to inflict damage. Meanwhile Josh Williams remains touchingly aspirational but vulnerable, even when taking on more easily the clothes and technology of the coming Thatcherite era.

Barrie Keeffe's Barbarians, written in the age of football hooliganism headlines, the exploitative New English Library, and plays banned from TV, still has ample resonance for audiences in the twenty first century.

Lusty, angry comedy, subtle literary, historical and social subtext combine in a gritty yet lyrical production with finely modulated performances. An unadulterated green light from Traffic Light Theatregoer.