Friday, 23 December 2016

Review A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol
Based on the story by Charles Dickens
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Mike Okrent and Lynn Ahrens

Charles Dickens' Ghostbuster

It was out with the fob watch and top hat (and that's only for TLT's automotive theatrical sidekick ...) for that piece of rich seasonal figgy pudding that is A Christmas Carol, this time in a 1994 version of the festive classic.

None can doubt the pedigree of this musical from the pens of composer Alan Menken (Disney's Beauty and The Beast and The Little Mermaid plus The Little Shop Of Horrors), lyricist Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime and Seussical). Their version of the 1843 Dickens' short story A Christmas Carol, with book by Mike Okrent and Lynn Ahrens, is crisp and clear

Just in case you don't know the story ... moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge has long left behind any charitable instincts and has become a miserable, miserly, wifeless skinflint who hates Christmas. Mainly because it interrupts his business and forces him to pay his staff of - oh, at least - two for a day off work. All of which causes Scrooge to coin an expression about the festive season which famously gives boiled sweets a bad name.

Anyway his clerk, poverty-stricken Mr Cratchitt, and Scrooge's nephew Fred each determine to respect the spirit of the season with their familes, including Mr Cratchitt's sickly son Tiny Tim (Arthur Tidbury), despite an employer and uncle who refuses to partake in the festivities and show an ounce of kindness. That is, until Scrooge's past, present and future come literally to haunt him ...

With a mix of young and emerging actors, this lively if uneven production is co-directed by Martin John Bristow and Mark Magill with Piers Garnham's Scrooge as more of a Everyman miser, a stockbroker whose tightwad ways seem more of an executive decision. 

There is some interesting talent on display - our eye and ear first caught like Scrooge by Richard Lounds. As ghostly Jacob Marley, he gives a confident and compelling rendition of the torment his business partner in life is building up for himself in "Link By Link" .

The show itself, while pleasant and entertaining, isn't the most inspired piece in the writers' catalogue. However this production was given some magic by director Bristow's imaginative lighting design which lifted the sometimes clunky staging and erratic recorded accompanying music sound levels.

With some outstanding voices in the cast, the latter proved rather a bugbear. But the soaring vocals of  Katrina Winters as Christmas Past still made themselves known, alongside good work by Toby Joyce's cheery Bob Cratchitt, a very promising musical theatre debut by Joe Brown as Young Ebeneezer and a winsome nephew Fred Anderson from Alasdair Melrose. Young Ella Tidbury as debtor's daughter Grace Smythe and Fan Scrooge also turned in a quality debut performance which succeeded in overcoming the technical difficulties.   

The costuming (James Thacker and Mark Magill) takes its cue from the cartoonish poster with the young Scrooge in elongated hat and his erstwhile employer's wife Mrs Fezziwig's dress being a particularly inventive piece of design.

So there's a lot to enjoy in this seasonal production, even if the sound level problems did prove frustrating, often giving only glimpses of the talented cast's range. Nevertheless, with a welcoming communal feel in the auditorium overcoming any TLT humbugness, it's a lemon sherbert amber light and Happy Holidays to one and all! :) 

 *"Bah," said Scrooge, "Humbug."

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Review She Loves Me

She Loves Me
Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Music by Jerry Bock

Retail Concern

A love letter to the love letter, musical She Loves Me harks back to pre-Second World War Budapest, one of the former capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Based on a 1937 play Illatszertár, also known as Parfumerie, by playwright, and later impoverished refugee who sold away the screen rights, Miklós László

The charming story of She Loves Me focusses on an old-fashioned perfumery store in Budapest. Two of its staff, supervisor Georg (Mark Umbers) and saleswoman Amalia (Scarlett Strallen), unwittingly become lonely hearts' club pen pals. 

They exchange anonymous letters in their search for the perfect mate, fuelled by a love of romantic literature. The rub is that, outside their epistolary affair with "Dear Friend", the two have an antagonistic, fractious working relationship until ... Well, you'll have to go and see the show to find out! 

The original 1930s' play went on to be adapted into two movies, The Shop Around The Corner in 1940, with a screenplay by Samuel Raphaelson directed by Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch, and In The Good Old Summertime, a 1949 Judy Garland vehicle produced by Hungarian Joe Pasternak transfering the action to Chicago.  

Fourteen years later, it was transformed into the musical with book by Joe (later "Cabaret") Masteroff, lyrics and music by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock respectively who, shortly after, would see their best-known work "Fiddler On The Roof" open to worldwide acclaim. 

It seems 1963 was a good year for retail in musicals with She Loves Me hot on the heels of  Half A Sixpence - a drapery store - and Hello Dolly - a hat shop.  In this case, it is an emporium of cosmetic cold cream and scent, proprietor Mr Maraczek (actor and comedian Les Dennis) with a wayward, unseen wife. 

Each morning begins with an assortment of staff assembling before the shop door. Georg, the bold and brassy blonde man magnet, Ilona (Katherine Kingsley), the suave and smarmy Steven (Dominic Tighe),  the timid Ladislav (Alastair Brookshaw) and the brimming-with-the-confidence-of-youth Arpad (Callum Howells), the delivery boy.

Giving more than a nod to Austro-Hungarian light operetta, on one level this is a archetypal love/hate romance embodied in the title song lyrics sung with gusto by Mark Umbers in this production: "She loves me,/True, she doesn't show it/How could she,/When she doesn't know it./Yesterday she loathed me, bah!/Now today she likes me, ah!/And tomorrow, tomorrow.../AAAAAAAAAAAh!"

The eternally-at-loggerheads shop clerks turn out, of course, to be the perfect match and Scarlett Strallen is terrific as kooky Amalia whose saleswoman patter reinvents commercially the whole reason for musical boxes.  While Katherine Kingsley takes the honours as the hour-glass blonde who eventually finds her own equivalent of Arthur Miller in the library, Dominic Tighe turns in a fine performance as all-round-cad and commercial predator, Steven Kodaly.       

The design by Paul Farnsworth is a delight with smooth waltzing revolves taking us from sparkling crystal shop exterior to gilded rococco Louis XIV (or is it Austrian Marie Antoinette?) kitsch interior, with forays into a delicious dark cherry velvet and wood mitteleuropean cafe and a Magic Mountain convalescent home.

Yet the clever staging and choreography of director Matthew White and choreographer Rebecca Howell manages to thread together 1930s' movie Budapest with a 1960s' vibe reflecting the musical's complex subtle subtexts of war and peace behind glossy shopfronts and commerce in art.

There's something made too of the stepping stones to the writers' and composer's later more famous works, Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret, along with the changes in retail with a sly acknowledgement of Avon Lady direct selling.

This is an adorable musical - one has to say for those who like this kind of style - given a polished, energetic performance at the Menier with the orchestra, including Romano Mazzani's accordion,  in its own glass casket led by Catherine Jayes.

That is, notwithstanding tiny more sombre echos - it's 1934 after all. There are glimpses of the influence of the stage version of the earlier (and somewhat darker than the film)  The Sound of Music in shop clerk Sipos's song Perspective.

Beneath a head waiter's (Cory English) comic commercial diplomacy, the showstopper A Romantic Atmosphere catches the spirit of and is a spyhole into the international spider's web of political chaos behind 1930s' - and 1960s' - mitteleuropean gemütlichkeit.  So there's a more bitter drug lacing this seemingly sentimental dragée. It's a delicious production which, in our opinion, deserves a TLT green light.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Review Much Ado About Nothing

Francis Beckett admires a beguiling Benedick and distinctive Don John in the RSC's Much Ado About Nothing but finds the 1918 setting unconvincing

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare

Making A Home Fit For A Hero

The decision to set Much Ado About Nothing at the end of the First World War sounds like a good idea, since the play starts with the men returning from war.

But, like a lot of good ideas for making Shakespeare work better for audiences nowadays, it struggles to survive its confrontation with parts of the text. 

There are some splendid things in it, the best of which is Edward Bennett's witty, sardonic Benedick with a touch of self-mockery and impeccable comic timing.

The first scene of raillery between Benedick and Beatrice is very well done, with every ounce of humour extracted from Shakespeare's very clever dialogue.

When hidden Benedick is gulled into believing Beatrice has declared her love for him, it is laugh-out-loud funny. This is achieved by making the best use of Shakespeare's own funny dialogue and building the business round it.

But it's followed by a dreadfully unfunny scene where the comic possibilities are overlooked in which the same happens to Beatrice. And the relaxed, urbane Benedick contrasts strangely with Lisa Dillon's stressed and ambivalent Beatrice.

The clowns don't work at all. Director Christopher Luscombe seems to have taken the view that the words are not especially funny and he needs to extract his laughs by means of rather too forced and over-the-top slapstick. 

Nick Haverson's Dogberry roars out his lines, and does his best to make us laugh by imitating disabilities which are not at all funny. At one point I was left with the impression he was pretending to have Parkinson's Disease.

Any version of Much Ado About Nothing has to address one main problem: How to make believable and acceptable Hero's passive and grateful acceptance back of the fiancé who, on the flimsiest of evidence, so brutally denounced her in public, at the altar on her wedding day.

Indeed I have never seen a production without nurturing a momentary hope she will give his second proposal of marriage a two-word answer, the second word being "off".

The 1918 setting makes this even harder to pull off. It was the year women got the vote in Britain - only women over 30, it is true. 

But, while Britain was still a patriarchal society, women were not handed over to their future husbands by their fathers like cattle in the way Hero is handed to Claudio.

Rebecca Collingwood's charming but passive Hero smiles and simpers her way through the play. There's not much else to be done, it seems to me. Tunji Kasim does his best to make Claudio's stupidity believable.

The villain of the piece, the man who frames Hero, is Don John. I have always thought him one of the most interesting characters in Much Ado About Nothing, and he is here given a World War One injury that requires him to use a crutch.

Sam Alexander plays him quietly and makes him intriguing as well as menacing. But why is his brother Don Pedro played by someone - John Hodgkinson - who seems, though a fine actor, to be easily old enough to be his brother's father? 

There are many good things about this production of one of Shakespeare's best comedies, but there is too much wrong with it to merit more than an amber light.    

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Review Love's Labour's Lost

Love's Labour's Lost
by William Shakespeare

The Lost Boys

Set in the last heady summer before the First World War, this exquisitely designed production of Shakespeare's early comedy Love's Labour's Lost, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is now presented as a delicious Christmas confection, part of a double bill with Much Ado About Nothing.

Determined to create his own celibate male academic haven, the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) persuades his comrades to join him in his stately home where he sets up his own personal Oxbridge with turretted ivory towers, ordering all women to be kept at bay.

At the heart of the play is a hierarchy of lovers as the best laid plans come to naught. The King and the Princess of France (Leah Whittaker). The King's bluff confidante Berowne (Edward Bennett) and the French noblewoman Rosaline (Lisa Dillon).

The Kiplingesque bespectacled Longaville (William Belchambers) and the French Katharine (Rebecca Collingwood) and aesthete Dumaine hankering after Maria (Paige Carter).  Then Costard (Nick Haverson), an aproned buffoon of a gardener, yet not to be underestimated, and the affected Spanish fop Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) vying for the love of milkmaid Jaquenetta (Emma Manton).

This elegantly-costumed version with musical score by Nigel Hess and live orchestra fuses a whole plethora of literary, variety, theatre and film influences. Gosford Park rather than Downton Abbey with music in the style of Ivor Novello, Noel Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan

There is also a touch of The Importance of Being Earnest in the archness of the Princess of France and her female entourage, dollops of Brideshead Revisited (or maybe its inspiration, the Evelyn Waugh/John Betjeman Oxford set), echoes of Peter Pan  and even some zany Marx Brothers' antics with a glancing reference also to the Edwardian epitome of male physical prowess, Eugen Sandow.

Nevertheless the Shakespearean verse still shines through and it's an enjoyable lucid production with the Edwardian environment thought through but spreading its net further. Moth (Peter McGovern) has the look of a Winslow Boy naval cadet while Costard, the bowls' playing parson (John Arthur), schoolmaster Holofernes and constable Dull could have stepped out of The Vicar of Dibley.

Designer Simon Higlett's handsome stately home and halcyon outdoor sets provide a handsome and vibrant backdrop with lighting by Oliver Fenwick. There are some curious contrasts stemming from the wide variety of references, with a touch of modern alternative comedy thrown in, and the polished singing.

But this hardly matters in a bright and breezy production until the final moments when it switches to the poignant. It's a populist winning production, and we award a sparkling Christmas bauble of a bright green light

Friday, 16 December 2016

Review Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart
by Friedrich Schiller
A New Adaptation by Robert Icke

A Matter of Speculation

It starts with the spin of a coin. The same trick as the matches in the RSC's Dr Faustus but this time cast in female mode with a coin - the decision of who gets to play victor Queen and who gets to play victim Queen. Except in its sober suited arena, a modern political court, in all senses of the word, the role of the coin, of currency adds a contemporary sense of the precarious.

We must confess (it's not a beheading offence!), we'd heard but never read or seen Friedrich Schiller's 1800 verse play, so we bring an eye unversed in other versions. On press night, the resonant "Heads" meant that Juliet Stevenson undertook the role of unwed Elizabeth I and Lia Williams that of the thrice-married and widowed doomed Catholic Scottish Royal, both with short hair, mirroring each other in matching silk shirts and trouser suits.

This is a deft production - a male cabinet government led by a woman, who knows exactly when to glance into the mirror of her compact, takes measured and then increasingly agitated steps across the round wooden stage to spindly metal benches at its edge (set and costumes Hildegard Bechtler).

The curved brick walls of the Almeida both serve as the prison of Mary and enclose the machinations of Elizabeth's court.  Screens chart the compressed time line with a rumbling soundscape in the background (sound Paul Arditti). Director Robert Icke's verse adaptation has an admirable clarity and the modern references are sparse and judicious.

Elfin Mary has been incarcerated with her maid Hanna (Carmen Munroe) for nearly 20 years, having enchanted one jailor (Alan Williams with an old Labourite "This House" vibe) , she must start once again with his more rigid, worried replacement (Sule Rimi).

Her calculations in the world of flux, where she ended up by accident not design on Britain's shores, mean  she claims the legal status of modern international victim rather than nationalist political power player. Nonethless, unlike Elizabeth, she was recognized as legitimate and a Queen from her birth.

Schiller, a Protestant republican in a then patchwork of royal and ducal German states, had lived through the age of the American Independence and the hope, then terror of  revolution in neighbouring France, providing a power vacuum for Napoleon's rise.

So we were interested to see Schiller's take on a turbulent piece of British history. or rather English and Scottish history. As a whole, the Almeida Mary Stuart is lucid and gripping, but in an arc where the faults, foibles and humanity in the two women are kept mostly binary.

There are flashes of anger, unruly emotions rising up in the two women, which feel dangerous and reckless. The reluctance of the more dry Elizabeth to be directly connected through paperwork and action to Mary's death slices through the centuries to current times.The reminders that Mary is a younger, more attractive model.

But we are looking in on life and death issues turned into a political thriller where the parliamentary career politics of our time somewhat overwhelms the differences between the women.

So it is the fictitious character of unstable Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam), introduced by Schiller as the nephew of Mary's jailor, who injects a rush of passion into this version. And it is because of him that we feel most keenly the manic flipside, focussed on the female body, of the cool conspiring male court.  His character also felt to us the most successful nexus of age old and modern concerns.

The subtle choreographed movement, the exaggerated courtly bows, the increasing theatricality to mask political manoevres and executions are visceral and resonant. And reticence and accuracy are no protection  as courtier Davison (David Jonsson) discovers.

Visually the move from the illusion of rational cabinet government to a masque dictatorship, where the familiar trappings of the Virgin Queen nevertheless indicate powerlessness rather than power, is another nimble piece of staging, even if we weren't convinced by the accompanying song.

We, of course, only saw one configuration of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. And our appetite is now whetted to see other interpretations of the same play. We give an amber/green light for a modern dress Schiller thriller which proved thought-provoking and multi-faceted for our first encounter with the German playwright.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Review Luv

by Murray Schisgal

The Graduates

The spelling of Luv, according to the New York Times, as "luv" was popularised by New Yorker Murray Schisgal's 1963 manic lampoon on the vagaries of marriage, divorce, success and failure in life. So covering more or less - er - everything.

The play, first produced in London before opening to great acclaim in New York the following year, is a period piece, in its satire firmly rooted in the theatre scene of the 1950s and 1960s and the sensibility of "GI Bill" East Coast writers.

Two former college buddies meet fifteen years later by chance on Brooklyn Bridge. Time has not treated the once brilliant scholar, now desperate, dishevelled would-be suicide Harry (Charlie Dorfman) kindly. It seems life has see-sawed in favour of stockbroker Milton (Nick Barber).

However Milton, who is unhappily married and unable to divorce his wife to live with his lover, sees an opportunity amongst the trash and detritus of Harry's (single) life.

It's less murderous than the later comedy "Throw Momma From The Train" (based on Hitchcock's Strangers On the Train),  but Milton engineers a swap.  Milton, certain they will hit it off and marry, determines to (and does) transfer his wife Ellen (Elsie Bennett) to Harry.

Sure enough, his plan comes to fruition in the absurdist manner of the play which combines social and sociological satire using vaudeville and musical theatre tropes.

Luv turns out to be a rather quaint piece, in many ways an extended sketch, even if a bitter cyclical political and economic allegorical strain lies beneath,  It seems to be drawing on the same atmosphere as Cole Porter's Too Darn Hot  where The Kinsey Report, a sociological report on sexual behaviour, merited a mention in the lyrics.

Even so, while being thoroughly steeped in New York from the same pool as SJ PerelmanNeil Simon and Woody Allen,  French intellectualism comes in as an equal runner in the parody stakes - in the shapely form of Ellen (name shortened to Elle), over-educated for a housewife but torn between a wish for motherhood and a career.

Set against Max Dorey's evocative backdrop with sunset sky and grey bridge girders, this is a play depending very much on sharp direction and the timing and talent for farce displayed by the three-strong cast.

Nicely stylized in both performance and costumes, and despite a short break owing to technical difficulties on press night, the attention to detail pays off.

Nick Barber's Milton changes from flatpack 1920s' jock to a more complex 1960s' creature. Meanwhile Charlie Dorfman manages to embody childlike Harry saved from drowning with deadpan physical humour.  Elsie Bennett as the put-upon Ellen turns from sneering fur-coated kept wife to Left Bank intellectual hottie with aplomb.

We can't pretend we didn't find this a determinist sketch stretched out to two acts, but it still held us all the way through. It's a curio of a play which is just as iconic of a cultural moment as The Graduate.

Yet as TV invaded the homes of citizens then, so we are now living in the age of the internet. There's still room for Luv to resonate in our computerized times and it's an upper range amber light from TLT.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Review Cinderella

Written by Andrew Pollard
Directed by Martin Berry
Musical Director Joshua Goodman
Choreographer Liz Marsh

The Only Way Is Ella

We dusted off our passport to enter the Royal Ancient Essex Kingdom of Hornchurch for Cinderella   - it must be by Royal Appointment because it's at The Queen's Theatre!

This year's panto, penned by Andrew Pollard, nicely channels an Essex (well, Havering) vibe into the well-loved tale. Baron's daughter Ella (Natasha Lewis), left an orphan, is mistreated by her stepmother (Georgina Field) and her two butch designer-brand lovin' stepsisters Kylie (Carl Patrick) and Miley (Simon Pontin).

We saw this production in perfect panto laboratory conditions - alongside an audience of kids from several local schools brought by their teachers for their annual lesson in all things panto! They loved it and so they should ...

This is unashamed "real" glitterball panto. sparkly, cheesy and cheeky with an integrated tale but also a well-judged range of tones to suit punters of all ages.

The jokes come thick and fast and hit and miss - while the kids relaxed, sang along,  listened, watched, cheered and booed, lapping it up in the spacious auditorium for over two and half hours.

OK, it's not perfect. Not all the jokes hit their targets, but this aims to be cornily entertaining and the next deluge of jokes received appreciative gales of laughter.

The placement of the small orchestra slap bang in the middle of the stage limited the stage space and choreography.  That old bugbear, sound levels, meant that some of the singing was drowned out by the orchestra. But, you know what? It didn't matter.

The kids sang along enthusiastically to a range of current hits and ended up learning the lyrics and belting out the bossa nova standard Quando Quando Quando!

One barometer - the mobile phones were out at the beginning of the performance but during and afterwards - not a mobile phone in sight. Really, truly! Cross my heart and hope to die! The power of live performance won through and the busloads of kids were just too busy talking and cheering!

But down to the nitty gritty! A cute ditzy fairy godmother in the shape of Etisyai Philip determines to change the fate of our gutsy ragdoll heroine, Ella whose Dad has passed away.

Poor Ella's been left her in the hands of ultra wicked stepmother cum Eastenders villainess, Babs gone to the Baaaad, Baroness Hardup and two ugly shopoholic stepsisters with only lovelorn but wisecracking Buttons (Alex Tomkins), the self-appointed Justin Bieber of Hornchurch, to care for her welfare.

That's until Prince Charming of Chelmsford (Jamie Noar) makes an appearance, aided by recent immigrant to Hornchurch Dandini (Jonathan Charles), Italian but with more than a touch of Fawlty Towers'  Manuel about him his charmingly slapstick performance.

All this and an additional unique selling point, enough to warm the cockles of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's heart as he seeks to bring more music and musical instruments into the classroom.

The fairy godmother's wand magically transforms into a flute, Cinderella blows a big trombone, Baroness Hardup plays a mean (and we mean mean!) saxophone, Dandini is a dab hand at the fiddle and Prince Charming charms with his guitar strumming skills before twisting again (as he did last summer). .

This, along with some great voices, notably the wicked Baroness and Cinderella, carried on Hornchurch's musical tradition. Was it a fix, we wondered, that one of the teachers in the audience wooed from the stage turned out to be Mrs Robinson? (It's a little-known fact that Hornchurch provided the inspiration for some of Paul Simon's most famous songs!).

It all ended Happily Ever After with even a place for Buttons in the Charming couple's new household in Romford. All super-enjoyable festive fare spreading lots of Hornchurch happiness and we blow our horn for this Cinderella with a sparkly green light!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Review The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters
by CS Lewis
Adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske

The Devil's Doublethink

The Screwtape Letters was a resounding first populist literary success for Oxford don and BBC radio personality CS Lewis. Written originally in 1941 for a Christian periodical, this production has Screwtape (Max McLean, also co-writer and director), a senior devil clad in red and gold smoking jacket, displaying the  urbanity of a Varsity don or an eminently clubbable civil servant.

He leans back in a well-worn leather chair after a college dinner and dictates letters to his personal secretary, a scaly creature called Toadpipe (Karen Eleanor Wight).

His job is to instruct his unseen Junior Tempter nephew, Wormwood, an apprentice in devilry, He advises his young relative in the art and science of luring an earth-bound Englishman away from Christianity into the clutches of the devil and hell.

Ominously the Englishman, as if the demons are unable to turn the hapless citizen into a criminal, is turned Soviet-style into a "Patient" with the diabolical duo of uncle and nephew as psychiatrists-gone-wrong, experimenting on the best way to lead him down the Primrose path.

Indeed Lewis, a one-time atheist turned Christian, himself described the Hell portrayed in his book as "the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern". This adaptation brings in some contemporary concerns  and tries to find some relatively modern (but at least one rather clunky) cultural equivalents.

It also adds the scaly creature called Toadpipe, barely mentioned in the book, who acts as Screwtape's scribe, climbing a spiralling ladder to push the letters into a pneumatic tube - a brightly coloured stream of neon light signalling delivery. 

It is tempting to think that Lewis was intent on solely bringing theological arguments in a populist style to a wide audience. The novella and play suck us into a reverse world where Hell is the establishment, the boss Satan is "Our Father Below" and God is only named as "The Enemy".

However, listening carefuly to the fairly faithful stage rendition of this epistolary novella, it dawned on us Lewis in his own way seems to be commenting on the state of the world, including shifting alliances, during World War II. 

Indeed we even picked up resemblances to the later work of another BBC radio personality George Orwell. The theatre programme offers us Lewis's comment that the Screwtape Letters deals with "... the Managerial Age, in a world of 'Admin'" A very Orwellian image, Orwell, like many of his contemporaries, being influenced by James Burnham's analysis The Managerial Revolution.

Orwell also uses the biblical drink wormwood at the end of 1984 and, as in 1984, there may be a touch of the BBC hierarchy as well as an Oxbridge Senior Common Room in Screwtape's quarters. This seems to have been picked up in this production's design decision to add a pneumatic letter tube, commonly used by the BBC at the time and in Orwell's 1984.

Meanwhile devils, we learn, have previously feasted on human souls, but now Hell, like Britain in time of war, is on short rations. And of course, instead of Big Brother, we have Our Father Below, along with a subtle propagandist in Screwtape who advises, "... the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without milestones or signposts".

Yet the propagandist Screwtape also has to negotiate a tricky path through the internal politics of hell with its infernal police and intelligence agency. 

Of course this is all very well for an analysis of the text, but The Screwtape Letters in this case is a stage adaptation.

The play takes place on the larger of the Park Theatre stages, but feels as if  it should be in a more intimate space.

The design by Cameron Anderson subtly uses small paving stones as partial concentric circles  of Hell with skulls and bones piled up in the backdrop reminiscent of the Cambodian and other twentieth century genocides. But, powerful and distressing as they are, these become on stage static symbols.

They are densely packed in, in the same way as the letters and their arguments are packed into the script. The reflections on social change, the intertwining of theology, domestic and international politics and human nature are blunted off the book page in what is essentially, a series of lectures.

While Toadpipe is also tacked on as a symbolic Everyman (and, more rarely, woman) figure as well as amanuensis to provide variation, the action on stage becomes increasingly repetitive rather than gaining in visceral power.

Nevertheless the premise of the story has undoubted power. It even seems surprising to us that early on after publication filmmakers never picked up on The Screwtape Letters as the springboard for a movie, for example, in the style of Powell and Pressburger's later A Matter of Life And Death.

In the meantime, while it might send the curious to read the book, it's a lower end of an amber light for a play where the devil is overloaded with verbal detail. 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Review Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

by Eric Potts
Director Chris Jarvis
Choreographer Katherine Iles
Musical Director Pierce Tee

The Wake Up Call

"Turn off your mobile phones and turn up the volume of your children," booms an off-stage voice at the start of Richmond Theatre's Sleeping Beauty. And the assorted kiddies in the stalls within our sight range certainly seemed enchanted with this traditional picture book version of the fairy tale at a glorious Frank Matcham theatre.

Maureen Lipman, channelling her back catalogue of Agony, Joyce Grenfell, BT adverts with a nod to Mozart and a current political leading lady,  is the star attraction for adults in sparkling slinky black, slit to the thigh, but additionally doing the business for the children as wicked fairy Carabosse.

Cbeebies' Chris Jarvis, who also directs, as Chester The Jester ably corralls the audience into fits of laughter, along with Nursie, Matt Rixon (who last year was an ugly sister with his Dad Matthew Kelly) as dame, cracking those groan-inducing jokes with verve.

It's probably fair to say this family-friendly show is squarely aimed at the Cbeebies' age group, with  topical and Richmond-based gags added for others. The costumes are delicious as if the characters had just stepped out of a lavishly illustrated picture book.

A villager - part of the dance troupe - somersaults in the first few moments of the show during an energetic routine choreographed by Katherine Iles with the faery tale towers in the background. A  blonde pretty-in-pink princess - Lauren Hood - and a valiant prince - Dan Partridge - even if he is a bit of poseur, both display strong voices and nifty footwork.

The usual bit of audience participation, in this case gently done, adds spice for a panto equally gently drawing on some of the golden age of variety and vaudeville. A touch of the Max Wall drum rolls in a hide and seek scene. The Bandwagon's Triplets in the nursery scene and even some Will Hay mortar boards during a schoolroom scene.

There's also a fair sprinkling of time travelling songs, accompanied by a live orchestra, among them a Whitney Houston standard, a Rocky Horror Show hit and even drawing on the 1920s  for the opening sequence of the second act. This is the kind of panto where sketch comedy scenes, ticking all the boxes of panto, drive the plot.

The little girls, at least the little girl sitting near me with her Mum, will adore the pink and white and glittery princess dresses. Nursie also goes through her own fashion time machine, a pink wellie Glastonbury grunge outfit or a 1960s' blond(e) beehive compete with glittery pink mini skirt amongst others.

Tania Newton also hit all the right notes, as Queen Britney. A commoner consort for old codger and straight-out-of-a-playing-card-set, King Hector - Graham James. While Tilly Ford as the Lilac Fairy mitigates the evil spell with graceful aplomb.   

The spontaneity of the four kiddie audience volunteers - Hermione, ad-libbing Solomon, Sapphire and the little lad whose name I didn't quite catch - brought a different kind of delightful energy on stage, skilfully compèred by Chris Jarvis.

For me, the panto felt a little template-ish with turns neatly inserted. At the same time, it's still a magical introduction to live theatre for children in a TV and internet age and the chance to see the ever-popular Maureen Lipman.

Cheerful about all the generations from the Sugar Plum Fairy dance of the toys sequence to a zimmer frame oldies' routine,  it obviously aims to fit like a comfortable slipper (to mix our panto metaphors).

So with singalongs, boomeranging toilet rolls (not guaranteed every night but you might strike lucky!),  jokes ranging from those darn corny Christmas cracker puns through twerking to Honey G and, inevitably, Donald Trump, it's an amber light for an altogether wide-awake sunny midwinter treat of a Sleeping Beauty

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Review Thebes Land

Thebes Land
by Sergio Blanco
Translated and adapted by Daniel Goldman
Based on a literal translation by Roberto Cavazos 

An Immodest Proposal

Before the days when TLT had her own little theatre reviewing jalopy to transport her, she well remembers the trudge to Belmarsh from Plumstead station. At the time, TLT was a press agency reporter and Belmarsh is not only a high security jail but also part of a complex including Belmarsh magistrates' and Woolwich crown court.

So that shows TLT is well-qualified to review a show created by Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco which centres, in this translation and adaptation by director Daniel Goldman, on visits to a Belmarsh Prison inmate. And you should of course take every one of TLT's words as gospel. 😇

Thebes Land, we are told, originated as an attempt to give an authentic audience experience - a lifer convicted of murdering his father, on stage in a cage at the Arcola Theatre after a commission by an off-stage character called Mehmet Ergen.

That authenticity apparently was eventually undermined by the authorities withdrawing permission. So an actor Freddie replaces prisoner Martin (both embodied by actor Alex Austin) to act out a script put together by the increasingly odd and fussy playwright "T" (Trevor White).

If it sounds somewhat far-fetched, well we think it's meant to be. Imagine the headlines in the newspapers if a serving prisoner, a murderer to boot, were allowed on a London stage, given a platform to voice his views, even pre-scripted, and then paid a fee. Compare the uproar over possible profits for Mary Bell, the family of Fred West and fee-charging government public servants out of literary exploitation. 

As you may have guessed, and will definitely realise if you are sitting in the audience, this is all a fiction with "T", a forty-something career playwright, serving as the unreliable narrator, inquisitor, and maybe even implicit self-ordained father figure.

Not only unreliable but as the piece goes on (and it does go on for about two and half hours), he and his presentation to us of Martin definitely gets weirder and weirder, imbued by an over-active literary and art history imagination. The writer "T" may well be totally bonkers.

In fact, read this carefully, we will say this only once - this play seems constructed so that "T" seems less a writer - even if he draws on, amongst others, Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Franz Kafka, an apparent Wikipedia entry on the fork, Whitney Houston, a popular Mozart piano concerto, a song by the Foals. a quote from French philosopher Georges Bataillea paraphrasing of FIBA basketball rules, the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Roland Barthes, Freud and Sophocles's Oedipus plays  - but an actor taking on the persona of a writer and still succeeding in the playwriting world of the play.

So "T" tells us he meets prisoner Martin at Belmarsh in court. Not one of those courts to which TLT used to trudge, but a basketball court. In a cage. Watched on cameras by prison wardens.

Does HMP Belmarsh have a basketball court or is it purely a snatch from American television prison dramas, we indeed wondered? After a google on the internet, yes indeed, since at least 2014 HMP Belmarsh has a basketball court. They've obviously watched those American serials as well.

However we are quite willing to countenance also that there is maybe something to be said about the gambling competitive tactics of the sports field and the adversarial nature of courts, if that is the reason for placing the meeting there. But in any case we are in danger of overweening pride in our ability to google and our multi-faceted superior knowledge of human nature 😉.

So we have to confess: We have read Crime and Punishment but not the Brothers Karamazov and didn't know until we googled that its author, Dostoevsky, suffered from epilepsy; We didn't know the origins of the fork; We've never been overly keen on Whitney Houston; We'd never heard of the Foals; We'd only vaguely heard of Georges Bataille and, we hang our head in shame, our knowledge of basketball rules was formerly confined only to the Harlem Globetrotters cartoon.  

"T", who admits his moniker is deliberately Kafkaesque (Hurrah, we possess and have read the Penguin complete short stories and novels!), nevertheless doesn't admit to a sense of humour, Kafkaesque or otherwise. Even though we are invited to laugh at his asssumptions and pretensions as he whips out his notebook to note down his subject's (or is it his object's?) words.

There's a glance at the tug of war between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (although it leaves out the ambiguous feudal role of the Lord Chancellor). The constant mention of the governor, we realised, is a tease in itself. There are various types of governor in a prison. So without actually lying, our playwright is possibly hoodwinking us into thinking his contact is the highest in the hierarchy. But to what end? 

The problem with any such satire, for that is what it surely is, is that it is in danger of becoming that which it seeks to deconstruct especially as it relies on a certain background knowledge.

The unreliable narrator, the playful undermining narrative, the attempt at documentary authenticity is of course nothing new. It's the stuff of many a centuries' old novel and many a students' conversation into the wee small hours.

But we're now in the age of the internet, of "fake news",  where we can be suspicious and gullible, trickster and tricked, all at the same time. And it made us wonder whether this play was fundamentally anti democratic. Surely in our times it is possible to find a new form or adapt an old structure in a manner rather more generous towards its audience and less secretive about its politics and literary allusions than in a previous more censored age.

Of course in the old days of Cold War censorship, pre-internet, it was much simpler. The audience of the oppressed was more homogenous, shared a common vocabulary and metaphors could bring a satisfying urgency, immediacy and catharsis.

We don't know, naturally, how much is Sergio Blanco and how much has been added and subtracted in translation and adaptation. The acting is committed, detailed and altogether excellent but the premise feels well-worn and, despite a glance towards digital content at the end, rather dated in its concept.

We did perk up at the mention of press censorship, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

We were waiting for some clever development of this and also the possible influence of American dramas. reality TV and television drama in general on the justice system.  Which may be there but, if so, it's vastly diluted in an overlong piece.

As it is, the play seems to remain very much mired in the process and drawbacks of verbatim playwriting and workshopping, a certain type of bureaucratic artistic creation (fuelled, in part, some would say, by the turning of writing and acting into over-subscribed, impossibly competitive mass graduate professions).  In other words, not particularly engrossing for a general audience, unlike, for example, Edmund White's prison drama Terre Haute which we remember enjoying some years ago and which, we suspect, would stand the test of time.

We guess if the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (gosh, we had to google hard to find that latest incarnation of the old Department of Trade and Industry!) had put pressure on us to award our most coveted rating for the sake of cheap oil, we would have had to submit for the sake of the nation. 😉  As it is, it's an amber light for a play, the content of which would have been far more persuasive if it were shorter and any wit compressed. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Review Sleeping Beauty

By Susie McKenna
Music Steven Edis
Musical Director Mark Dickman
Choreographer Carl Parris


Kick Ass In Fairyland

Panto time! Oh, yes it is! 😁

Hackney Empire triumphs in its unashamedly musical theatre-slapstick-mixture take on Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm's Sleeping Beauty with Alexia Khadime as Tahlia, the princess with powerhouse finger tips and vocal chords.

An auditorium of big and little kids (and one tinsel-trimmed baubled automotive reviewer) settled down to watch, cheer, boo and sing along with the citizens and Royals of Hackneytonia headed by benevolent widowed King Eric the Undecided (Tony Whittle).

Along with a trio of powerhouse fairy godmothers (Sharon Ballard, Georgia Oldman and Kiruna Stamell), King Eric and Dame Nanny Nora (Gavin Spokes) stick together to defy the curse on the unwitting princess by an uninvited naming ceremony guest ... OK, you probably know the broad brush strokes of the story.😉

We loved the Arthur Rackham combined with Disney-style set design by Lotte Collett,  sliding  on the deep Hackney Empire (architect Frank Matcham) stage during seamless scene transitions.

There's a vampish and vampire-ish villainess in the maganificent Sharon D Clarke as wicked fairy Carabosse with a Caribbean accent and a penchant for a, however reluctant, toyboy prince Gabriel (Wayne Perrey) who luckily enough has a princess to rescue him ...😊

Yes, there's a bit of politics (what's a kingdom without politics?!) but even this remains (no pun intended!) just about all-inclusive. Dame Nora's final costume wittily encompasses all sides of the Brexit question and still has enough bright colours and humour to keep even the littlest kiddies in a fit of giggles and engaged in the performance.

There's Denzil (Kat B) a cute orange and red dragon audience favourite who, like a missing character from The Wizard  Of Oz, is searching for his puff. An exremely ogre-ish ogre (Leon Sweeney) and a wonderful time-lapse growth and cutting away of those pesky thorns enveloping the sleeping kingdom (oh dear, have I given the plot away? 😜!!)

By the end of a fast-moving evening, a quick ongoing unofficial referendum amongst the kids in the stalls - whether any of them were sleeping, crying or seemed bored - drew a thumping majority of wide-awake youngsters. Helped of course by the optional glittery, illuminated merchandise sold at a stall tucked away discreetly at the back of the stalls.

It's a loud (the Hackney Empire is a huge, cavernous purpose-built music hall), brash and breezy production with lots of song, dance and spectacle.  There are some impressive sets of pipes ringing the rafters, from Alexia Khadima, Sharon D Clarke, Wayne Perrey's Prince Gabriel and an unusually sweet-voiced Dame Nora from Gavin Spokes. So it's a rootin', tootin' green light for a scrumptious seasonal feast of fun, frolics and a princess with superpowers. What's not to like?!!! 😊

Review Buried Child

Hidden family and state-of-the-nation secrets combine in Sam Shepherd's American Gothic comico-tragedy to give Francis Beckett a thrilling and disturbing evening.

Buried Child
by Sam Shepard

Secrets And Lies

Buried Child is a powerful play by Sam Shepard, an American theatre writer who knows his business, and director Scott Elliott gives it a production at the Trafalgar Studios that plays to its strengths, together with an almost perfect cast.

First produced in 1979 and set in Illinois, the state of Shepard's birth, the play is being sold as a political commentary on the seventies in the USA, but is just as relevant about the dark heart of middle America, as it was then and is now.

It's a long play - three acts, two intervals - with a transfixing first act, establishing the loneliness and nastiness of life on a failing farm in the middle of the vast American continent, confined in the small living room of husband and wife, Dodge and Haile. The play never leaves the room and Dodge, unable to walk, cannot even leave the sofa.

You have, right from the start, the claustrophobic feeling of being cooped up in that horrid, ugly room with the sick and dying old man, his brittle wife and his two sad and useless grown-up sons.

The second act offers us menace in that small space as the rain comes down in great sheets outside. A new person is in the room: a young woman from the city, Shelly, who cannot escape the two strange sons and their strange, crippled father.

In act three, the rain stops, and the young woman grows in confidence and forces the family to face its darkest secrets.

The play confronts us with a Middle America which has lost its soul and its humanity. The old man fights furiously over a blanket with one son, the son who has lost a leg, punching him viciously and repeatedly with all his failing strength. He fights over a bottle of whisky with the other son, who has lost his way, his nerve and perhaps his reason.

"You think just because people propagate they gotta love their offspring?" Dodge growls. It's not true among animals, he says, so why should we be different? And in that small room, the difference has indeed disappeared.

Yet even after the dreadful thing we learn of him in the play's last few minutes, we do not believe Dodge is entirely a bad old man. He is just lost amid the dust and poverty and misery and rain and hopelessness.

A fine cast is headed by Ed Harris (for whom Shepherd wrote Fool For Love) as Dodge. It's a wonderful, draining performance dominating the play, beginning to end, from the sofa except for the moments when he is on the floor.

Amy Madigan puts in a fine performance as his wife Haile, with only her piety to stand guard between her and the squalor around her. Barnaby Kay and Gary Shelford are convincing as the two sons, Bradley and Tilden.

Jeremy Irvine does the best an actor can do with Dodge's grandson Vince, hampered because the playwright's convenience requires Vince to behave in occasionally inconsistent ways. Jack Fortune makes the most of a nice cameo part as Haile's priest.

But apart from Ed Harris, the acting honours of the evening belong to Charlotte Hope as Shelly, turning slowly from dippy city girl to the strong catalyst who makes this dysfunctional family finally face what they have done to themselves and each other and what America has done to them.

The first two acts are marvellous. The third makes a few too many demands on our ability to suspend our disbelief - among other things, Vince has to go from roaring, fighting drunk to sober and reflective in a very few minutes. And the loose ends are not satisfactorily tied up.

But leave any awkwardnesses in the storytelling aside, for the end remains very troubling. For me it is not, despite the theatre's publicity, saying that Middle America was like this in the seventies. It is saying: This is Middle America, get over it.

The last few moments with Vince - I will not spoil it by telling you what they are - seem to imply Dodge will be replaced by someone just like him. The bestial patriarch's grandson will be the next patriarch.

In our current times, the play left me with a vision of the dark heart of Middle America. A great, grey soulless centre of a vast continent loathing the rest of the world, and even the rest of its own nation, filled with hopelessness and hate, which has now given us all a Donald Trump presidency, even though it knew in its heart that it had nothing to gain. A green light from me.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Bianco: Here Be Dragons

Bianco: Here Be Dragons
Nofit State Circus and Firenzi Guidi

Walking In The Air

Bianco is a human circus of aerial acrobatics that grew out of the 2012 Eden Project. Its Big Top has now landed at the Southbank Centre's Winter Festival with its unique cluster of solo and group performances.

We must admit this was the first outing to a circus act since TLT cried in terror when a clown offered her a giant comb many years ago or maybe we can count the Harrogate inland end-of-the-pier show around the same time with acrobats tumbling into a swimming pool in between turns by comedians.  

But back to Bianco. It's strenuous and spirited and bills itself as an immersive, promenade spectacle designed by Saz Moir with Adam Cobbley on lighting.

So it's standing room only to watch this group of 17 travelling players, along with a certain amount of corralling around the mobile towering scaffolding by good natured roadies who occasionally engage in a friendly word. Punters can wander off to the bar but once the show  begins, most, if not all, stayed, drink in hand, to watch.

At times, narrative strands seem to be winding themselves into a story, only to be disrupted by a new scene with other performers at its centre. In truth, there's little story - only a reflection of the performers' lifestyle as a modern vagabond group.

There's certainly plenty to watch. Hoopwork reminded TLT and her own automotive flying machine of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Meanwhile there's aerial acrobatics, tightrope walking, juggling, fire-eating, trampolining and contortionism with a variety of props.

That swimming pool tumbling act TLT saw as a youngster in Harrogate was extended and aerialized (is there such a word?) but still with the Edwardian-style swimming costumes and sense of fun.

Live music is provided by a five-piece band headed by Dave Murray with original material. Our main gripe is that it felt over long, especially without a progressive narrative thread.

Bianco's Here Be Dragons feels still very much a work-in-progress but that's often more a virtue than a criticism, as there's an endearing studiousness combined with a joie-de-vivre. It's an amber/green light for   a democracy of performers and performances capped by a breathtaking finale of spectacular winter wonderland beauty. 

And, in a break from tradition, going along with the spirit of the show, here's a list of the performers:
Augusts Dakteris, Blaze Tarsha, Cecilia Zucchetti, Delia Ceruti, Edd Casey, Ella Rose, Felipe Nardiello, Francois Bouvier, Jani Földi, Jess O'Connor, Junior Barbosa, Lee Tinion, Lyndall Merry, Topher Dagg, Danilo de Campos Pacheco, Enni Lymi, Joachim Aussibal

Review Dr Angelus

Dr Angelus
by James Bridie

The Ladykiller

Set in 1919, but written 28 years later, Dr Angelus is a comedy thriller about a Glasgow family doctor with murder in mind.

Originally conceived by James Bridie (the pen name for doctor turned playwright and screenwriter Osborne Henry Mavor) as a vehicle for character actor Alastair Sim and Sim's protégé George Cole, it was a big success and was even recorded the following year for the BBC.

Based on the real-life 19th century case of Dr Edward William Pritchard, but updated in the play, Dr Angelus (a suitably flamboyant and sinisterly humorous David Rintoul) has just taken on a new English junior partner, George Johnson (Alex Bhat in a nicely-judged performance).

While George is grateful for the partnership, there are niggles, shared by a seductive lady patient in a seemingly unhappy marriage, Mrs Corcoran (Lesley Harcourt) whose businessman husband has had dealings wih Dr Angelus over share dealing and insurance policies.

Nevertheless, George, eager to make a success in his first position as a general practitioner suppresses any disquiet he has about the plain weird behavour of the senior partner.

However he still finds himself embroiled in suspicious circumstances when Angelus's off-stage mother-in-law and then his wife (Vivien Heilbron) die in quick succession and, in a Dr Shipman-like twist, Dr Angelus asks the young medic to sign the death certificates.

A psychological thriller, Dr Angelus is as much about the mentality of a medical profession built in hierarchy and, in the case of general practitioners, where money was usually needed to buy into a practice

The consultant Sir Gregory Butt and the police inspector McIvor (Malcolm Rennie playing both roles) only serve to underline the oddity of a self-regulating profession and the curious calculations of a constabulary when it comes to medical malfeasance. 

We found it interesting that this beautifully-constructed play was written on the cusp of the introduction of the National Health Service in  the year a separate National Health Service (NHS) bill was passed for Scotland. Dr Angelus himself, we learn in passing, had refused to join the previous government National Health insurance scheme (covering mostly working men and excluding married women).

Set the year after the First World War's end, it's also reasonable to assume Johnson may have served in the armed forces. So the play seems deliberately positioned to echo the position of 1947 ex-soldier-doctors and welcome the National Health Service with the Secretary of State taking over ownership of medical records and giving a degree of supervision over GP practices.

At the same time, this is an enjoyable old (post) war horse - including a deliciously duplicitous serving maid cum lover (Rosalind McAndrew) - with some strange, fascinating twists and a kind of social conscience contrasting the explicitly explained help given to the young doctor and the implicit fate of the servant.

Despite the elements of Gaslight-style  melodrama, Dr Angelus seems ripe to be considered as a predecessor to some of the major Ealing Comedies. Not least for the overblown character of Dr Angelus himself and the identification with issues about the welfare state consensus. Jenny Ogilvie's production perhaps could do with a little more pep and confidence in the first act, but it's an amber/green light for a solid revival of an interesting play.     

Review The Children

The Children
by Lucy Kirkwood

Even Little Boy Gets Old

 In 1945 the nuclear bomb which devastated Hiroshima was famously called Little Boy. Whatever the morality or justification for its use, it initiated the start of the nuclear age, the source of seemingly limitless electricity. And then it came back to bite us with disquiet over the building of reactors in the Middle East, part of the road to war.

The retired nuclear scientists in Lucy Kirkwood's new one-act, nearly two-hour play, The Children, directed by James McDonald, have more immediate concerns. Robin (Ron Cook), who now farms, is a little boy grown old who is apparently intent on saving his cows.

He and his wife, earth mother Hazel (Deborah Findlay), who met in the lab, now rent, amidst power cuts and cliff erosion, a coastal cottage. Why? They've been forced to leave their farm - and the cows with their soulful brown eyes - after an earthquake and tidal wave causes a Fukushima-type nuclear disaster irradiating the surrounding area.

Ron returns every now and then, at some risk, to the farm in the exclusion zone, he says, to tend the cows while mother of four Hazel has settled down to her life, listening on a wind up radio to Radio 4, continuing with her yoga, fielding telephone calls from their seemingly needy 30-something eldest daughter and dealing efficiently with the lack of power.

Even this strange existence can become routine in the golden glow of a basic but comfortable country kitchen in which we meet first Hazel and an unexpected visitor, glamorous childless Rose (Francesca Annis). Rose has returned from the United States and is looking up her former colleagues.  Only blood is trickling down her top.

It turns out when she came up behind Hazel, the latter inadvertently bashed her on the nose. An accident but it sets up a tense dynamic between the two women who, it emerges, have a past rivalry.

We enjoyed the sparky dialogue which provided plenty of laughs from the start of the play with a witty and touching performance from Deborah Findlay as the wife who finds her routine and peace of mind shattered by the arrival of Rose.

There were times it felt overly long, as if there were an agreement to go from A to B to C etc, one point to another and some of the bits in between felt a little like padding. The relationship with almost middle-aged daughter Lauren, whose character and conversations are reported rather than verified by the audience, finally seems introduced, only to be short-circuited. 

Still, there was definitely enough in it to make us wonder whether Rose, even after supposedly revealing her reasons for surprising her erstwhile colleagues was far more deceitful and  had different plans. And to have question marks over her exact current relationship with Robin - neatly played by Ron Cook.

We only have Rose's word that her health problems needed surgery and were not the cosmetic vanity and fear of an ageing single woman. Indeed, for a play which does indeed have two juicy parts for women, the gender politics  could be interpreted as retro as the country kitchen - a male bull and two cows circling him.

Yet we did sense an intriguing incipient theme of fake, imitation and reproduction, especially in the final moments, between Rose and Hazel. It's an amber/green light for a play which got somewhere in the end with many sweet moments.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Review Sheppey

by Somerset Maugham

Jesus Wept

It seems Charlie Chaplin's barber in 1940 movie The Great Dictator was at least third, possibly fourth in line, in introducing a barber with a revolutionary streak. His own brother Sydney before that had created a barber who takes on an oppressive regime. And Charlie Chaplin himself settled out of court with a writer who claimed plagiarism.

But in 1933 Somerset Maugham wrote his last play bringing to the stage Sheppey (John Ramm in this production, while originally, some would say, miscast with Ralph Richardson directed by John Gielgud).  Sheppey's a Camberwell barber in this deceptively gentle piece with a razor sharp subtext.

Sheppey's only vice, apart from the more than occasional drink in a neighbouring pub, is buying a ticket produced by printers for the Free Irish State-government-sanctioned Irish Sweepstakes.

Although not spelt out in the play, this was ostensibly raising money for Irish hospitals but was eventually exposed as often lining private pockets.The sweepstake was illegal in Britain and the United States but the authorities turned a blind eye, even so far as allowing the results to  appear in newspapers.

Well, Sheppey has one more barber shop vice, although some would call it a commercial virtue,  persuading customers to buy a German hair restorer, sold at the Jermyn Street premises of his boss (Geff Francis) where he dreams of one day becoming a partner. Promising a medical miracle, he's got a neat line in salesman patter to persuade gullible hair-challenged clients to part with their cash. 

His other modest ambition is to lodge his family in a cottage on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. A happy-go-lucky long-term employee, he nevertheless finds himself troubled when asked to be a witness in a Police Court case where he suddenly develops a social conscience, believing the assortment of criminals he sees in the dock being victims of circumstance during an economic slump rather than villains.

When his Irish Sweepstakes' ticket comes up with the princely sum of over £8,000, he, perhaps unwisely for an illicit operation, allows himself to receive publicity in the press but also determines not to keep the winnings for personal profit but to follow the example of Jesus, who as he points out was only a carpenter, just as he is a hairdresser, and distribute them to the needy in his local parish.

He gives a home to petty thief Cooper (Tom Peters) who inspired his channelling of money for relief of the poor. Prostitute Bessie LeGros (Dickie Beau  giving an added frisson to the female role), his drinking partner, also enters the household - is her name a sly dig at Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, originally Lucille LeSueur?

Yet Sheppey's plan goes horribly wrong when his prospective son-in-law, county council teacher and aspiring politician, Ernie (Josh Dylan), with a very different view of community, and daughter Florrie (Katie Moore), who has quit her job in the City to be married, dragging along Sheppey's wife Ada (Sarah Ball), conspire with family doctor (Brendan Hooper), presumably a pre-NHS panel doctor, who makes it clear his motive is commercial, profit rather than welfare.    

Sheppey has the construction of an old fashioned play - it may move a little slowly for some tastes now  - but with very modern concerns and a twist in the tale late on worthy of the much later musical Cabaret in Paul Miller's production.

John Ramm makes a convincing Sheppey, almost coming across as a more benevolent Alf Garnett in his rhythms and justifications.  Katie Moore as the upwardly mobile typist daughter Florrie nicely combines lurking vulnerability with  steely determination that nothing will get in her way. Sarah Ball's Ada manages the tricky balance between loving, long suffering wife who still gives way to the plot against her husband without losing our sympathies. .

Director Paul Miller retains the three-act structure in a careful production, aided by Max Pappenheim's sparingly and effectively used soundscape.Simon Daw's design neatly conveys the tiled barber shop with advertisement billboards above the in-the round stage area, while a subtle use of phrenology gives added resonance in the second and third act set.

There's a touch of the supernatural reminiscent of HG Wells's short stories combined with the sharp satire of Saki, while other literary references are explicit.

Certainly the audience doesn''t need to know the history of Irish Sweepstakes to be drawn into a secular fable of gambling, greed and then altruism brought down. Even so,  it becomes far more double-edged and reflective with an understanding of the subtext of 1930s' world politics, economics and possibly the abuse of parish-based mental asylums when national public scandals rise to the surface.

This is a well-cast seemingly simple piece of a certain pre-World War Two genre,  but also accompanied by a more complex undertow. It's an amber/green light for a precise production with a sting in its tale.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Review The Tempest

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

Braces, Soil And Tears

For its first foray into Shakespeare, The Print Room, itself a magical, eccentric theatre capped by a cupola, has chosen one of the most magical of the bard's plays, The Tempest.

This production of The Tempest, directed by Simon Usher, certainly has its eccentricities and, on rare occasions, brings magic to the Notting Hill venue. Yet at other times, it remains as solidly earth-bound as the soil covering the ragged stage.

The story is archetypal - a Duke, usurped by his brother but saved by a courtier, is washed ashore on an island where he brings up his daughter, unware of her noble lineage, while exercising his power over two supernatural creatures. For this Duke has long made a study of a (never appearing) book of spells and possesses a magical cloak and staff with which he can control his island domain.

Fate - or is  it magic? - intervenes and the play starts with the conspirators, those also who acquiesced to the coup, albeit an innocent prince among them, and the faithful courier shipwrecked on the island 12 years after the enforced exile of the rightful Duke of Milan.

Yet we feel the abstract representation of the shipwreck, with a rope laid on the floor and heads ducked in buckets of the water, may have totally befuddled those who are newcomers to The Tempest.  The concept behind this version of the play remained elusive for us, although we noted how the director references Italian and Swedish translations and performances of Shakespeare in the programme.

It's the younger generation who emerge in the sharpest focus in the lens of The Print Room's production, even if this attractive interpretation is rather thrown away by the play's end. 

Bearded Kevin McMonagle, clad at first in muted gray high waisted tweed trousers, braces and shirt before he dons his enchanted seaweed cloak, is a strangely subdued. softly spoken Scottish Prospero. He's almost bureaucratic in his influence on the course of events, rather than enchantingly transformative.

Indeed further on in the play, we did wonder whether we were inhabiting the psychic space of Prospero, an old man imagining his island realm. Certainly there is a mash up in the costumes spanning the centuries and, we think, in acting styles.

Charlotte Brimble, her tones strictly received pronounciation with maybe the slightest trace of her father's burr, is at first a sturdy, Robinson Crusoe-like Miranda in grubby shorn denim trousers and top, a child of the earth. She's unused to the male gaze until the arrival of scarlet-jacketed Ferdinand (Hugh John who brings a much-needed clarity and vitality), the guileless King of Naples' son.

Unless that is, we include the unwanted attentions of Caliban (Billy Seymour), himself the monstrous "mooncalf" child of a witch and dubious paternity.

Prospero's treatment of Caliban, who comes over as a vulnerable, almost Frankenstein-like innocent, also seems wholly dubious in this version with the previous kindly treatment of Caliban betrayed by his  attempted sexual assault of Miranda downplayed.

The other supernatural creature on the isle is the enslaved Ariel pleading for her liberty - Kristin Winters in pure white tunic as if stepped out of 1920s' abstract art. As the tale unwinds, she seems more and more drawn into an early silent movie, all of which comes into its own at the beginning of the second act in a stunning visual effect.

Indeed with consistently beautiful lighting from Ben Omerod and a backdrop of waves and sky, easily becoming an embedded stage within a stage, from set designer Lee Newby, there are some gorgeous moments, particularly the masque sequences.

However the moments of beauty sometimes suffer then from over-playing and too often strike one as parachuted in. Some of the relationships also are not clear. For example, while Antonio (Callum Dixon who doubles as washed-up butler Stephano) is obviously the man who deposed Prospero, for someone who doesn't know the story, it's less than easy to understand that they are brothers.

Still, while some of the verse speaking seems to take too literally Ariel's promise to carry out Prospero's demands "- to - the - syllable", there are some pleasures.

John as Ferdinand sparks the play into more supple patterns of speech. Stephen Beard's white-haired professorial Gonzalo, Prospero's saviour years before, also has a naturalness in his delivery, overcoming the somewhat cryptic staging around him.

Paul Hamilton (who doubles as Alonso, King of Naples) also makes the cut as gangly beanie-wearing jester Trinculo. Community actor dreadlocked Herman Stephens has a distinctive, lucid debut on the professional stage as the mariner finally bringing good news.

But themes embracing, for example, the complexity of freedom and oppression, which should be distilled in a famous short episode where Ferdinand and Miranda suddenly appear playing chess, often feel truncated.

So it's an amber light for a curious curate's egg, rather muffled production redeemed by a few interesting design and staging choices and several engaging performances.  


Friday, 25 November 2016

Review After October

After October
by Rodney Ackland

The Wolves of Hampstead

At the end of the "The Wolf of Wall Street", an ex-rogue trader holds up a pen and invites the multicultural participants in his global touring seminar to invent a good story to sell the product. (32 seconds into the video link).This scene popped into our thoughts as we watched Rodney Ackland's 1936 play, After October.

Of course, the recent movie is about financial wheeler dealing and only one off-stage character in Ackland's screwball comedy is a convicted thief, although there is some 1930s' product placement.

Still, this two-act semi-autobiographical piece is filled with stories and plots brought to the impecunious Hampstead household by the widowed, still attractive Rhoda Monkhams (a nicely judged performance of grace under pressure by Sasha Waddell), a former Gaiety Girl, and her children including playwright son Clive (boyishly intense Adam Buchanan).

The play follows the trials and tribulations of the debt-ridden family. This includes Clive's sisters Joan (Allegra Marland), a would-be artist currently the lover and secretary of hard-drinking married text book publisher Alec Mant (Jonathan Oliver);  and Lou (Peta Cornish), whose musical theatre ambitions have melted into the reality of being a taxi dancer while her charming but lightweight husband Armand (Andrew Cazanave Pin), cast adrift by his family, serves in a wine shop.

All their hopes are pinned on Clive, a Grub Street hack  and aspiring playwright, whose anti-war play is about to be put on. Even if, in a play set in 1935, during the Spanish Civil War, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and Winston Churchill warned about Nazi Germany, it's perhaps not the most auspicious time.

If Clive succeeds (strange as it may seem now, a West End hit at that time could turn a struggling writer into a millionaire) it could also trigger a chain reaction in other directions.

The career of his working class fellow writer,  dark and brooding poet Oliver (lugubrious Patrick Osborne), could also twist around if Clive follows through on his promise to be his financial guarantor. As it is, he's reduced to selling bristle brushes door to door and has a penchant for entering the Monkhams's home through the bay window like a spy or a burglar.

Their housekeeper Mrs Batley (Josie Kidd in a finely tuned understated performance) appreciates her treatment by Rhoda for whom she keeps unpaid tradesmen sweet. But she has her troubles, retreating to the cinema to avoid her bullying Mussolini-loving son-in-law, and could find a new role if Clive succeeds.

It's only eccentric Marigold Ivens (Beverly Klein), seemingly the woman least likely, who appears to be coyly laying little claim on Clive. He enjoys her company, even if she harbours her own, apparently vague, thespian ambitions.

Now we admit to having a soft spot for Clive, especially as he's left-handed like your very own reviewer and his chaotic paperwork with orange Allen Lane Penguin paperbacks scattered round his writing space reminded us of something closer to home.

Clive himself would like to join the moneyed rentier class, with his name up in lights over a hit play. He would also be able to marry the lodger, the  manicurist Frances (Jasmine Blackborow), whose rent helps supplement the family's meagre income, grabbing her away from stick-in-the-mud retired colonial civil servant Brian (Stephen Rashbrook). 

The snug Finborough space is transformed cleverly by designer Rosanna Vize into a light and airy Hampstead living room complete of course with bay window. After October is fluently directed by Oscar Toeman with only a few lapses of pace, perhaps owing to the almost cinematic nature  of the piece.

There's a feel of Noel Coward's Hay Fever and, transatlantically, George Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family while retaining its own feather-light individuality.

For, despite the the superficial frothiness of the plot, there are clever meaningful literary pastiches and a subtle gender mash up. One character when told Clive has written a drama even innocently asks if it's a musical comedy or a detective story. Plus ça change ...

This proves to be far from a playwriting equivalent of a quota quickie, even if Ackland himself seemed to have suffered the burdens of and enjoyed little of the success of his illustrious playwriting circle. With its acute grasp of the entertainment industry's line of dependency and sly, sharp but humane sense of the ridiculous, After October sold itself to us and it's a TLT green light.