Sunday, 30 April 2017

Review Romeo and Juliet

Romeo And Juliet
by William Shakespeare

Verona In Voodooland

They've gone down the rabbit hole in Verona and emerged in a dystopia where, it seems, friends are the new family. And the families are feuding.  For it's as if the flatmates have become family and Verona has become the new dressing-up and party capital.

The inhabitants of Verona are like bored Big Brother contestants who strive to have fun in their family units. The Prince (Paul Rider) is the disembodied TV voice dispensing justice. So Juliet (Kirsty Bushell) is a world-weary modern spinster, way past her teenage years but not ready to play the maiden aunt.

Romeo (Edward Hogg) is maybe younger, Bip The Clown with words, even to the point of presenting a single flower at one point but also part of the grunge generation.

Soutra Gilmour's set design is minimal, black netting above, a patch of bright green grass at the front of the stage. The props, clown make up, furniture and music further maketh the concept. Verona has become a kidult's playground - the prologue comes through a loudspeaker with a chorus of kids' voices echoing the adult.

This is also a production that has everything thrown at it and some of it sticks. But some of it just wanted to make TLT and her automotive sidekick roll their eyes and headlights in that middle class way of theirs and toot out, "Oh, reeeeally?!!!!"

Now we're all for having our bourgeois expectations shaken up. However when a newcomer to Romeo and Juliet might well believe, having seen this show, that the lovers don't die and that the tragedy is an out-of-this-world episode of Dr Who - well, to mix our metaphors in the same way, Houston, we have a problem.

On the other hand, there's some value of the concept of an older Juliet and Romeo eternally stuck in pretend student mode before meeting each other and experiencing something real amidst the chaos.

Blythe Duff makes a distinctive Scottish nurse in white face war paint - part Elizabethan Queen and part 18th century duchess gone to seed.

The relationship between Romeo and the female Mercutio (Golda Rosheuvel) and Mercutio with a credulous Benvolio (Jonathan Livingstone) in a Goth daisy chain of family connections gives a certain backbone to the household. Romeo's verse speaking still had a clear lyrical quality which broke through the kerfuffle around him.

But this was a hard-working production trying to do what? The story (has director Daniel Kramer never read Robert McKee. dahlink? ;)) is lost in the gimmickry.

A chorus of Village People's YMCA while dressed in a dinosaur costume? Tick! A piebald faced. chained actor (Ricky Champ) bounding on as the dog of Capulet (Gareth Snook)? Tick! Lady Capulet (Martina Laird) like a tottering black-robed Alice In Wonderland character with a glass of whisky in hand? Tick!  Lots of screeching and screaming and kicking of Doc Martens? Tick!

It's certainly once more unto the the breach - if it weren't marketed as Romeo and Juliet but a play about a process with its cutting and splicing and editing, we might have felt more sympathetic.

But, while we think we understand some of the reasoning behind this rendition of the play, (this is the serious bit) it also seems to take away the very reason for watching a play by William Shakespeare. The love, violence and death is not felt but laughed at. That is the breach with the play and its language.

And, most egregious of all, it felt too long. The schoolkids around us gasped at times and giggled, but  were also bemused - maybe as to whether this was story they had studied. It seemed to make them unsure and uneasy, but not, we think, in a good way.

Anyway, enough of our possible projections on to the younger generation. We like good actors even in an ill-thought-through production but we give a red/amber light.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Review Educating Rita

Educating Rita
by Willy Russell

Trading Places

Just think, back in the day Rita could have studied Computing and Batch Processing at The Open University and Educating Rita would have been a completely different play ... 😵

Before the age of the internet, the Open University was a means for those who had left school at 15 and been in work to return to education part time as mature students working for a degree. It used radio and television, as well as face-to-face tutorials, to teach students arts and science subjects.

Rita (Danielle Flett), born circa 1954, probably was one of the 15 year olds who were never considered to be university material and left a secondary modern school to take up an apprenticeship as a hairdresser.

Now the play is even a GCSE school set text so, in a sense, Educating Rita itself has become part of the pathway to university and a reflection of a changed educational hierachy.

Rita has plucked up the courage to defy the scorn of her husband and start an Open University course in English Literature. Frank (Ruairi Conaghan) is the lecturer and frustrated poet, whose profession at the time is one of the few (journalism in that era was another) which also allows him to be a functioning alcoholic.

The Open University wasn't free, but considerably cheaper than going away for a degree, allowing the student to hold down a full time job and study, attending tutorials at a local centre, in this case one of the redbrick universities.

The play is a two hander written just when cuts and increased fees were making the Open University a little less open. So superficially (that's not a criticism)  it's also a nostalgic look back to a more idealistic time.

Director Ros Philips's production transfers the action from Liverpool to Essex which has seemingly a minimal effect on the script - Formby becomes Maldon.

However it may be worth noting Liverpool University was founded as one of the first redbrick universities in one of the major ports of British Empire trade - it's where Heathcliff is found in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Of course it's possible to make Rita a 1980 Essex girl with origins in London's East End and London's docks, but it needs to be carefully thought through.

The performances themselves are workmanlike but somewhat clunky in the first act. We also felt that the middle-aged tutor would have been more awestruck and flustered - even if trying to hide it - when Rita walks into the room. Their physical types seemed to demand it.

Rita is a stunning, sexy, statuesque brunette in her stillettos with legs up to her armpits whom one feels a model agency talent scout would immediately snap up. He is a shorter grey haired and bearded academic, already living with an ex-student after a failed marriage.

So it felt that a misplaced awe of academia had rather overwhelmed the production and that just the merest frisson and awkwardness from the tutor would have made it more convincing. The two actors took a while to relax into their roles,  occasionally over-emphatic and with  some muffled diction.

This also muted some of the offstage action. We  did want the setbacks to seem more of a disaster,  the obstacles higher and the chance of overcoming them to be more in jeopardy in this production.

Still the humour and  transformation of the play work their magic, as does the clever merging of novels and real life which makes an impact, adding depth without the audience needing to catch on to the literary references. Rita's costume changes, always a vital component in the staging of this play, are simple but effective (the Queen's Theatre wardrobe department under Nicola Thomas).

In our times, with the old polytechnics now respected universities and now many more graduates, the attitude of the first half of the play, without knowing the school and college circumstances of 1980 and before, can feel rather patronizing.

But Rita is already a graduate of a hierachical education system. She's probably an 11 plus reject who teachers regarded as not fit for university. To cap it all, she has an offstage obdurate husband who could be a minor character in an Angry Young Man novel of the 1950s.

There may be ways and means of communicating the upheaval in education in the past without interfering with the script, perhaps replacing the 1970s' and 1980s' music inserted between scenes here.

The second act is by far the stronger for Flett's Rita. We  begin to see her mind whirring as the avalanche of new experiences pours over her and she eventually starts to try and separate fact from fiction.

Conaghan has Frank's wry, dry manner down to a tee with the potential for a tinge of academic malice, but he can afford to tone down some of the drunk scenes as someone who has held down a job for years while drinking steadily until an eventual spectacular lapse.

Educating Rita does require a balancing act. It has both a naturalistic quality (naturally exploited in the celebrated movie) and a darker, much less optimistic symbolic thread, both visually and in the text.  Especially with the distorted image of women both as literary characters or, in the case of female writers, as almost inevitably neurotic and/or spinsterish and tragic.

The influence of this body of literature, going hand in hand with how the medical and legal professions have viewed women, gives the play its heft, particularly in the second act. Even to the extent of there being a veiled suggestion that the power of literary fiction may still be a trap, a malign influence or a means of controlling women, while the men escape scot free.

The power dynamics feel rather blunted in this production. Nevertheless,  perhaps we can thank  the female-dominated hairdressing profession, where playwright Willy Russell started out, as well as his experiences as a mature student, for  some of the darker insights and humour regarding professional and personal issues. For a welcome new production, it's an amber light.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review The Braille Legacy

The Braille Legacy 
Original idea, French book and lyrics by Sébastien Lancrenon
Music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray
Translation by Ranjit Bolt

Joining The Dots

The story of Louis Braille of the eponymous punched dot system of reading and writing for the blind is a fascinating one. Not only as, in musical theatre terms, a triumph over tragedy story. But also for the the blind as the nexus of philosophical, political, professional and medical vested interests in France during the 19th century

If this sounds heavy going, it doesn't need to be and there is plenty to enjoy in the new musical with book by Sébastien Lancrenon translated by Ranjit Bolt and music by Jean-Baptiste Saudray - as far as it goes.

For it feels like a piece shorn of context and we suspect essential aspects may have been cut to shoehorn the story into an "Anglo-Saxon" model of a musical.

In terms of musicals, it's a story which remains a curiosity with no love interest except if love of culture and learning and teaching counts as a love interest.

This also feels like a musical which has been put on with the basic elements in place but before a dramatic, entertaining way of explaining the particular political and intellectual circumstances swirling around Louis has been worked out.  

Louis Braille was born in the early nineteenth century when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was at the height of his powers and died young, just when Napoleon's nephew, previously president of the French Republic, mounted a coup d'état turning France into a hereditary imperial monarchy. So when a blind boy surprises a sighted Parisian recognizing by touch a coin as "a crown", there's a meaning. But frankly who would know?

The head of the Parisian school for blind youth is deprived of funds, called a "zookeeper" - the huge revolving white set from Tim Shorthall is  the centre of the menagerie - and the blind viewed as freaks.

Yet despite the dilapidated, filthy conditions, the school still gave the best education available to the blind. Against the odds and at a time of violent political turmoil, Louis pioneered there a system of touch writing for the blind allowing them not only to become students but. just as importantly, teachers.

The musical directed by Thom Southerland has only unexplained glimpses of the wider context  affecting Louis (Jack Wolfe). We learn that the French parliament is corrupt and of the fight between those who want to educate the blind and those who seek only to "cure" blindness by surgery, believing giving the blind an education to be a retrograde step.

This is principally shown in a philosophical heads-on between the chief of the Parisian school,  Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon), and an ambitious teacher Monsieur Dufau (Ashley Stillburn). Their struggle is characterised by the attitudes of 18th century enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. Yeah, those two, we all know what they represent, don't we?😲

Watching The Braille Legacy, TLT and her own automotive compatriote (vive le feu tricolore!) had the impression that something was missing or maybe had been cut. There's a stirring score starting with a habitual celebration of Paris, but with more context, the songs could almost be a satirical rejoinder to the heroics of French culture which had lofty ideals for the blind in theory but in practice subjected them to punishing regimes.

The ancient National Library Of France is flattened into a place from where Louis is thrown out. The role of the imagination, the inner life and resources of the blind is mentioned. However the opportunity to bring forth the ghosts of those philosophers, politicians and writers with conflicting views of the blind in a battle of the books with the potential for humor and wit, and the blind children at the centre, is entirely overlooked.

And yet there is just enough there for us to sense that there should be something more, even if the story is diverted into a series of more conventional conflicts: the hostile teacher ready to administer the cane and damage Louis's precious sense of touch; a struggle with fellow pupil Gabriel (Jason Broderick) and with the army captain (Michael Remick) whose "night writing" devised to help soldiers communicate in the dark was the initial inspiration for Braille.

The use of blindfolds to convey the physical state of blindness and the limitations put on the children seems to draw on a famous painting of First World War soldiers called Gassed where, blinded by mustard gas,  the men stand blindfolded in a line with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front.

The monetary burden on the state of paying pensions for members of the armed forces was indeed another reason why a surgical cure was the preferred route but the image alone cannot convey the commercial imperatives which could have added bite to the story.

As it is, another story concerning the children, which almost has the atmosphere of concentration camp experimentation, added in the second act only serves to underline an unevenness of tone and an uncertainty over the plot. 

Still, the band under Toby Higgins and epecially the choral singing of the cast gives power to the tale. Jack Wolfe is a winsome curly haired Louis Braile with a sweet tone to his voice while Jérôme Pradon makes a distinctive Dr Pignier.

The Braille Legacy gives clues that it is also dealing with France's image of itself in the light of  the Enlightment and Revolutionary ideals and its treatment of its blind citizens. It's just a pity more thought hasn't been given to more entertaining and ironic ways into the story.

Maybe this musical will still be given a chance with further development of the book to to match Jean-Baptiste Sauday's score and Thom Southerland's affecting and effective staging, but this appears to have been put on before it was ready. For the performances we give an amber/green light.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Review Home Truths (Cycle Three)

Tim Gopsill watches the bricks and mortar of three women's lives fall apart in a dramatically satisfying, if troubling, final trilogy of plays charting the history of the current housing crisis.

Home Truths
Henrietta by David Watson
Nostalgia by EV Crowe
Grip by Chris O'Connell

A Home Of Her Own

Three plays and  three women’s lives. Each of the plays in the last trilogy of Cardboard Citizens’ intriguing triple cycle of playlets about housing centres on a single woman’s fate.

Henrietta by David Watson begins with the death of a distinguished, real-life town planner, Henrietta Barnett (Caroline Loncq) in 1936.

In some mystical way she is whisked forward in time to 2017 to see what has become of the housing utopia she conceived called Hampstead Garden Suburb, where she envisaged “housing for everyone … the poor living next door to the rich”.

The locals are not fazed at being engaged in conversation with a ghost and readily volunteer the opinion of how dull the place is, with no pubs or shops and all the privet hedges the same height.

There is amusement at the “rich and poor together” ideal, since there are no poor people for miles and all Henrietta’s workers’ cottages are owned by banker and architects.

In real life, of course, it was precisely the progressive middle class professionals like Henrietta who began the gentrification of the Suburb, and she does come to concede, as her little odyssey goes on, that the garden city concept hasn’t worked.

Like Odysseus, she encounters exotic characters of the Suburb. The manic bus driver (Andre Skeete), ranting in Caribbean creole as he lurches the local single-decker \(on the real-life H2 route) through the suburb’s pretty lanes.

A sassy schoolgirl, Rebecca (Endy McKay), who has had a brainwave: a new kind of city where the rich and poor live together. It would be built on a big floating island, on pontoons off Southend on Sea.

Rebecca admits it’s a bit mad and shrugs: “it’s only a project at school.” “And what school do you go to?” enquiries this strange old lady she has got chatting to on a park bench. “Oh,” says the girl, “Henrietta Barnett”.The circle joins up again in unexpected ways.

Nostalgia by E V Crowe is a serious drama, but there is dark comedy in the moving monologues of young woman Anna (a stunning performance from Mariam Haque) as her chances in life and for a home contract. Anna is trying to find somewhere for when her soldier husband returns from fighting, but each move she makes is worse than the one before.

There is ingenious use of The Bunker Theatre's very basic space by director Caitlin McLeod and lighting designer Elliott Griggs,  as Anna speaks writhing inside a sleeping bag.

Her words are punctuated every so often by blackouts as her world literally closes in bit by bit in the light.

Meanwhile a doctor (Jake Goode) won’t listen to Anna’s complaint, a hypocritical neighbour (Loncq again) feigns concern but then does nothing leaving Anna's hapless husband Martin (Richard Galloway) to deal with events.

This all serves simply to let the audience breathe.For Nostalgia – with its short and concentrated span, the actress’s constricted circumstances, the harsh chiaroscuro of the lighting, the poetry and the deadpan tone of Haque’s delivery -- strikingly calls to mind the work of Samuel Beckett.

From Beckett's influence to that of Ken Loach: the third play, Grip, by Chris O’Connell, is a straightforward piece of grim, predicatable social realism. A 50-something tenant Lorna (the third demanding role played by Caroline Loncq) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nevertheless she loses jobs and home when her landlord sells up and she finds she can’t get rehoused by the council – or anyone.

As in a Loach film, we see the other side as well. There's the desperate advice service that cannot help; the council leader prevented from building new homes by government cuts who outsources  emergency housing provision to a well-funded housing association out to buy properties. All this serves to close another circle of selling and buying but Lorna is left out. It's all laid bare, but everyone seems helpless to stop it.  

This is the harrowing world of housing that Cardboard Citizens, have taken on with this series of plays. It is a world in which millions are losing out and hundreds of thousands are in serious trouble – especially, but not only, in London.

It makes you wonder about the theatre company: what do young actors earn nowadays. Not much. So where do they live? It must be hard for them in the capital city. Their hearts must really be in their work. 

For many, the right to adequate housing, part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is less of a certainty now than for the past generations portrayed in the two previous sets of Home Truths' plays (here and here). The circle has again joined up, but in the opposite direction. It's a green light from me for an engrossing cycle of new plays.

Review Nuclear War

Nuclear War
by Simon Stephens

The Waste Land

Let's put aside the play text  introduction by playwright Simon Stephens to the twelve pages of the Nuclear War script - quite why he wants to set himself up as a paragon for playwrights who knows how to work with a director and actors while he says others, by  implication, don't, we know not.

Suffice to say, he sets out a working methodology which doesn't feel particularly original to us. But at the same time we may have whetted your appetite to buy or borrow the play text to find out what the hell we're talking about.

And if you go to Nuclear War expecting bombs and confrontation between world powers, you may be disappointed. For, as Simon Stephens has correctly pointed out on his twitter feed, you're more likely to get that in real life. But "Guys. it's a metaphor."

Yet we must concede that Nuclear War is kinda interesting in a world where we are increasingly bombarded through technology with disembodied voices. And our own individual, as well as Britain's, place in the world, feels constantly in flux and increasingly indefinable.

Ostensibly, this is play about the loss of a loved one and  a day in the life on the seventh anniversary of time spent at a hospital bedside. A day atomized into moments filtered through the mind of an unnamed woman,"All I can hear/Are the thoughts scratched onto the inside of my head".

The room is bare, the props stark (designer Chloe Lamford). The audience is seated around the walls, so that when we hear the words, "I can't help feeling you're in my room ... Watching me.", one immediately sees the faces of others in the audience watching.

The voice comes through in a pre-recorded narration by an unnamed Scottish woman played by Maureen Beattie who sometimes breaks into "live" speech varying the mixture of textures. 

Also watching are a four-strong chorus - Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Andrew Sheridan, Beatrice Scirroccchi. They whisper, they chant, they sing. They are like living furniture handing the woman, for instance, a cup or a biscuit.

They weave shapes and populate the mundane scenes of city life on a train, in a coffee shop and more fantastical underworld-type scenes where they mutate into black hooded prisoners or hounds like creatures out of Greek mythology.

A red heater also glows with red bars and the woman mounts a large black box amplifier, with trailing cables, at one point. She builds a shrine of bricks lit by an old fashioned fringed table lamp with a china cat and discarded flowery porcelain tea cups nearby, all seemingly from another era.

The USP (unique selling point) of Nuclear War is supposedly that the playwright is letting the director Imogen Knight, who is also a choreographer and movement director, and the actors to use the text in whatever order they choose and to bring choreography as an extra layer of meaning.

In the end, the process doesn't make much difference to the audience watching this brief piece, however much it makes a difference for those involved.  At 45 minutes, there is no danger of the piece outstaying its welcome and it does have a visceral quality with washes of red, yellow and blue light from lighting designer Lee Curran.

There are cryptic moments. For example when the chorus puts stockings bank robbery style over their heads and stuff mandarins into their mouths. But there is a story there and at one point Andrew Sheridan with headphones round his neck becomes the embodiment of the lost love.

TLT is not the only reviewer to have thought of TS Eliot in connection with the text - we saw it the day after press night.

The choreography of the chorus clad all in black does meld with atomized environment of the woman, the never being able to turn the clock  back in the striking image of grains of sand never able to fly back together after sandcastles are knocked down. And we feel the momentum of the city, no longer a whole but filled with new people and elements, always pushing forward, never looking back.

This all has an intuitive quality but we certainly won't pretend this is a piece that will suit all tastes. However it does also have an affective, sometimes threatening, sometimes poignant lyrical quality on every level and it's an amber light for the depiction of a world losing its nucleus and disappearing into darkness and movement.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Review Home Truths (Cycle Two)

Veteran journalist Tim Gopsill has worked in newspapers and radio, reporting, reviewing and editing before becoming editor of The Journalist until 2009. Now, after 50 years in journalism,  he joins us at TLT Towers and reviews Cardboard Citizens' second trio of plays bringing home the struggle of finding somewhere to live.     

Home Truths
The Table by Lin Coughlan
Put In The Schwarzes And De-Stat It by Nessah Muthy
The House With The Yellow Front Door by Anders Lustgarten

The Foreclosure Of A Dream

“A house is not a home, it’s a dynamic”, says the exuberant mortgage adviser Steven (Mitesh Soni) to the gullible 1980s' council tenant Michael (David Hartley), who believes him – and. more to the point, believes Margaret Thatcher – who buys his home, takes on more and more debt and ends up ruined.

The play is The House With The Yellow Front Door by Anders Lustgarten with tenants-turned-owners suddenly free to paint their entrance whatever colour they like, signifying that the property is now all theirs.

The House With The Yellow Front Door is in the second cycle of three 45-minute dramas that comprise Home Truths, a series of nine plays presented by Cardboard Citizens at Southwark's Bunker Theatre.

All the plays focus on housing problems, particularly for younger people through the 20th century up to the present day.

The obvious risk with enterprises of this kind is to lapse into didacticism or worse: propaganda. The evening opens with the company of ten players strutting through a rather predictable and wooden routine drawing on Gus Elen's Cockney music hall classic If It Wasn’t For The Houses In Between, segueing  into the first piece, Lin Coughlan's The Table, set in the south London of 1919.

But The Table is a clever and finely crafted piece, contrasting a young couple's idealism looking for a post-World-War-One Home Fit for Heroes  with a confrontation between same-sex partners in 2017 over their divergeant attitudes to housing, one being a home-maker, the other a wanderer.

The two scenes, skilfully directed by Adrian Jackson, run parallel, on the same open stage, interweaving but never confusing. There are strong performances from David Hartley again as Eddie, the idealistic husband in 1919, and from Cathy Owen as Freda, the housewifely contemporary woman.

The same two-plays-in-one format works in the second playlet, Put in the Schwartzes and De-Stat It by Nessah Muthy, which tackles the scourge of 1950s' and 1960s' "Rachmanism", named after its allegedly most notorious perpetrator.

Landlord practices to extract maximum profits included moving in nearly arrived unwitting Afro-Caribbean immigrants to force out long-standed rent-protected white tenants, stoking racial tensions in the pursuit of profit and leading to the Notting Hill Riots.

These are clues to the problematic and racially sensitive theme of the piece: the exploitation of poor people, black and white alike, by unscrupulous West London landlords in the  1950s and 1960s..

Here the two-plays-in-one are not a century apart but precisely contemporary and in the same place:  two rooms in the same building, with a black and a white couple, pawns in the same game, whose lives intertwine but never meet, not even in the final ghastly representation of the race riots.

This is dangerous territory but director Caitlin McLeod steers firmly through the racial minefield, and the piece is ingeniously introduced with pastiche Pathé newsreels projected onto the wall to establish the background.

Endy McKay and Adrian Skeete as Eliza and Lyron Emmanuel are convincing as the bewildered newcomers, a Jamaican couple who cannot comprehend the racism. “We will have to be nicer to them,” she says.

The House With The Yellow Front Door, the third play, is a parable on greed and does veer in the direction of caricature: the plausible agent, the dumb home-owner and the violent Northern Irish debt collector with his baseball bat. But this is political theatre, after all.

The strength of these plays is that they don’t preach about housing policy but use it as the setting for deeper human dramas: jealousy, envy, loyalty and moral dilemmas. It's an amber/green light for an  absorbing evening of drama about a necessity for us all.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Review Home Truths (Cycle One)

Peter Barker admires the passion behind a trio of plays seeking to chart the history and current state of putting a roof over our heads.

Home Truths
Slummers by Sonali Battacharyya
The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency by Heathcote Williams and Sarah Woods
Back To Back To Back by Stef Smith

Underneath the Arches

There are over 200,000 homes lying empty in the UK, while more people each month are sleeping in boxes on the street, taken for granted as part of the city landscape,  or making up the ranks of the hidden homeless, sofa surfing.

Housing is a subject affecting almost everyone and three one-act pieces form part of Cardboard Citizens' Home Truths, a festival of nine new plays in The Bunker Theatre running until mid May.

Slummers concentrates on the 19th century housing crisis, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency on the squatters' boom of the 1970s and Back To Back To Back brings the housing story up to date, touching on mortgages in tandem with redundancy and babies.

Also thrown into the mix are projections spanning three centuries and music spliced by fragments of real-life stories.

Sonali Bhattacharyya’s Slummers directed by Caitlin McLeod focusses on an East End family living in the most squalid part of Shoreditch in the late Victorian era.

They rely on the kindness of others for their housing, early social housing projects founded by social reformers and philanthropists. But they are  trapped within a system which defines the poor as deserving and undeserving and the radicalism of Cathy Owen's matriarch Ada almost excludes them from being rehoused.

This Cockney kitchen sink drama manages to avoid working class stereotypes, even if the disembodied voice of the charity official feels like merely merely a cypher for unpleasantness.

Heathcote Williams’ and Sarah Woods' The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency has a completely different starting point - the experiences of Williams himself as a 1970s' London squatter when anarchist and hippy movements discovered direct action.

Despite a rather clunky framework of a young woman drawn into a squat and a past seen through rather rose-coloured spectacles, this piece, directed by Adrian Jackson, is tremendous fun with ideas spilling all round.

With a bravura performance by Andre Skeete as street-wise Pius,  the anarchists and hippies win out (hoorah, and spliffs all round!) defeating the forces of convention, that are the landlords.

The final piece, Stef Smith’s lyrical Back to Back to Back is the most ambitious of the plays, tackling some of contemporary housing's complex problems.

An Asian husband and wife and a lesbian couple  are neighbours in a mixed estate of social housing and private ownership. While the latter own their own home, their hopes for a family are cruelly undercut by the cost of their mortgage. Their neighbours seem at first more secure renting but even this also proves illusory.

The evening has a makeshift quality with rackety furniture both on and offstage and there is plenty of energy and some wit. Yet, despite meeting a vital subject head on, dramatically the plays overall feel uneven and simplistic and, even with obvious passion behind this project, this trio of plays only  just about makes an amber light.

Review The Philanthropist

The Philanthropist
by Christopher Hampton

Through The Looking Glass

First performed in 1970 at the Royal Court,  The Philanthropist, which TLT and her automotive graduate protegé have now seen for the first time, seems curiously prescient.

For nearly a dozen years later, a ruthless civil war erupted in Cambridge University's English faculty. Not that anyone would ever confuse Philip - lead character in the then young Christopher Hampton's early play - with academic Colin MacCabe and his travails

But the mix of naivety, preciousness, viciousness,  potential for violence and grotesque undertones do give a snapshot of a bygone age of ivory tower academia. For this was when students cushioned by grants became postgraduates and then lecturers with relative ease.

Safely ensconced in secure tenure and often given university accommodation, it was possible for a don to have little, if any, experience of outside life and financial worries. All of which didn't preclude some very weird mindsets, vicious infighting and a rash of student suicides.

Philip (Simon Bird) is the embodiment of his linguistic specialism. His very name Philip has partly the same root as his subject, philology. His literal minded manner is not so much honesty, but concentrating solely on words in isolation is his sole compass in life.

Hampton's inspiration was the Molière "type" where a misanthrope is misanthropic, a miser is miserly, a hypocrite hypocritical and Phil the philologist is defined by his love of words. - literally, as philology is from the Greek for "love of language".

The play begins when a would-be playwright (John Seaward) has buttonholed both Philip and Philip's colleague Donald (Tom Rosenthal), known of course, very literally, as Don, for an opinion on his play. The play and the writer's dramatic fate echoes all through the play, as do various iconic staples of French and English literature.

There is a death, a dinner party, a couple separates, another love affair begins and so it goes. While Molière may have been The Philanthropist's inspiration, the most gruesome parts of the play have much more in common with the satiric tales of Saki, author of short stories, novelist and political sketch writer.

For The Philanthropist struck us as a covert state-of-the-nation play written when membership of the then European Economic Community seemed a distant prospect and theoretical academic clashes had taken to running battles in the streets of continental Europe but left England's ancient universities almost untouched. 

It is very much a period piece from an age when Oxbridge and the political establishment seemed to be in an infinite loop -  and in that respect we were reminded of another later play from the Royal Court Theatre, Magnificence.

However the cast of television actors in this production directed by Simon Callow skate over the intricacies of the play and flatten out its complexities. Simon Bird's Philip is sufficiently gawky and chirpy but it's a permanent glaze without any inner moments of anguish.

Tom Rosenthal's Don gives the most spirited performance with a mixture of cynical languidness and puppyish excitement at new developments. As Philip's fiancee, Charlotte Ritchie is suitably brittle with cool, clear banter but never gives any indication as to why she would have been with Philip in the first place.

Lily Cole's damaged nymphomaniac Araminta with an impossibly posh voice certainly has visual stage presence and there's a neat moment when she reminded us of Liza Doolittle after her transformation into a lady (The Philanthropist, we noticed, is a comedy with a very heterogeneous approach to its literary references).

There's also a grand entrance by Matt Berry as infuriating novelist Braham in luscious velvet suit but he also infuriatingly falls into a rhythm, losing much of his lines' meaning. And both he and Cole have problems with pacing and pauses.

Intertwining English and French literature, the play requires razor-sharp timing combined with a shallowness which masks deep despair. This production is apparently the first one which casts all younger actors who are the ages specified by the playwright.

Well, we feel the director of the first production may have understood that the otherwise implausible relationship of academic Philip and his graduate fiancee Celia needed the age difference to conjure up the febrile tutor-tutee atmosphere.

Equally designer Libby Watson's gleaming white set  may reflect the elegant lines of 17th century furniture in 1970s terms but it felt way too chic and abstract for a 1970s' suite of college rooms.

All in all,  this production overall loses its perspective rather than showing an academic life which has lost all sense of perspective. We had but brief glimpses of what it could have been in a better paced production.

Maybe it's only a matter of time before there is a comedy drama on the shenanigans in 1980s Cambridge when the lid came off the pressure cooker of Eng Lit academe, but in the meantime it's a lower range amber light for a superficial take on Christopher Hampton's absurdist comedy of manners.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Review Ready Or Not

Carolin Kopplin finds a new play by a Bruntwood Prize-winning playwright touches on urgent issues of isolation and community in the age of social media.

Ready or Not
by Naylah Ahmed

Virtual Truth

When a young man knocks on the door of a retired primary school teacher in a British suburb, he little expects to be lured into a home-made torture cell.

Yusuf (Adam Karim), a Muslim, is collecting signatures for a petition against drone warfare. His captor, Pat (Joan Blackham), has seen news of yet another terrorist attack, this time in the German city of Frankfurt am Main.

One of the perpetrators has supposedly fled to the UK and Pat immediately suspects Yusuf to be one of "them".

This political thriller by Naylah Ahmed deals with how "We have to be vigilant" can mutate into violent paranoia fuelled by the bubble of social media and "alternative facts".

Blinded by her addiction to the internet, fake news and her own anti-Muslim prejudice, Pat puts her thoughts into action by taking Yusuf as her hostage.

She interprets his refusal to eat her oxtail soup, along with his traditional garb, to be further proof of his guilt. She destroys his mobile phone with her cricket bat and pours the oxtail soup over his head.

Yusuf remains admirably calm and tries to reason with his captor, to make her see him as a fellow human being: "There aren't just ISIS and western warmongers, there's stuff in between".

There is humour in these exchanges but, under the circumstances, they do not come across as particularly funny, even if one views the play as a dark comedy.

As Pat and Yusuf debate terrorism and security, drone warfare and collateral damage, Pat's temper occasionally flares up and she turns to home-made torture instruments, including a bowl of dishwater, to get back at Yusuf.

Some of the argument seems rather stilted even though valid points are made. Yet Yusuf's memories of growing up with the sense of being an unwanted stranger in his own country does feel very real as is Pat's antagonism towards people who do not conform to her narrow ideas of being British.

The play raises some very important questions but Helena Bell's production lacks tension and cohesion. The intense dialogue between Yusuf and Pat is interrupted by video projections with voiceovers, featuring letters from Pat's late son Jack, from whom she was estranged, that were never sent.

Just when there seems to be some kind of rapport between the two characters, their conversation is interrupted by an interval that precedes the arrival of a third character.

Jack's girlfriend Holly (Natasha Rickman) enters. Whilst Yusuf is locked up in the cellar, the focus shifts to the relationship between Pat and Holly, bickering about Jack's letters.

Joan Blackham convinces as Pat, now grieving as she lives cut off by choice, her life ruled by the internet and fake news. Adam Karim gives an engaging performance as outgoing Yusuf, eager to communicate with people to reach a better understanding.

Sophia Lovell Smith's set is very plain, a domestic space where a person just exists, not really lived in or cherished as a home. Although the voiceover and letters disrupt the trajectory of the play, Daniel Denton's video design is skilful.

This is an intriguing drama raising vital issues. Even if the playwright would have done better to keep the focus on Yusuf and Joan without an interval, it's an amber/green light for a thought-provoking evening.

Review How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert
Based upon the book by Shepherd Mead

Made In America 

In 1937 Tennessee Williams lost out in a University of Washington playwriting contest to several classmates, who were placed above him in the competition.  One of them was Edward Shepherd Mead. 

Mead, while working in advertising, went on to write the 1952 best-selling tome How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying satirizing office politics and the craze for self-help books. 

This became the source material, with the addition of the compulsory musical theatre romance, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 musical of (amazingly!) the same name - even in French!

Williams, whatever happened to him? If only he had bought and read How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying before entering that play contest! ;)

Anyway, TLT and her own transportation widget were full of curiosity to see for the first time live the full-blown musical, which we hereby shorten from now on to How To Succeed. 

This musical, in an uneven production but still wonderful vocals at Wilton's Music Hall,  turned out to be as relevant today with the internet producing off-the-peg wisdom as it was over 50 years ago with the advent of television for the masses. 

It's a shammy-cloth to chairman-of-the-board tale. J Pierrepont Finch, like fictional elevator boy Thomas Krull,  starts off on the rise - in Finch's case as a window cleaner and stays upwardly mobile using the How To manual plus an improvisational instinct.   

The firm is the World Wide Wicket Company. Along the way he inadvertently makes an implacable enemy, the boss's nephew Bud Frump (Daniel Graham),  acquires a love interest Rosemary (Hannah Grover) and negotiates the temples of conspiracy that are the coffee machine, the men's washroom and the (all-male) boardroom.  

In the first act we did have rather overpowering doubts about the design. Sure, How To Succeed is a cartoon but if we were to find a British equivalent, it would be more in line with Bristow than the colours of children's TV. 

We really weren't sure about the fluorescent hair colours, elongated mens' shoes of unlikely colours, a personnel director who favoured the look of a Texan cowboy and we felt this all rather softened the edges of a sharp satire on something recognizable. 

For us also, Pickering's dark looks rather militated against the gentle, cherubic aspect of Finch. While Finch's adversary, Daniel Graham's Bud Frump has the more open-faced, all-American boy looks.  

Shepherd's book was subtitled A Dastard's Guide to Fame and Fortune. Without having seen it, we did wonder if this production was influenced by rhe recent Broadway hit The Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder based on the same source material as the movie Kind Hearts And Coronets, also with a go-getting lead character. 

Andrew C Wadsworth plays the most consistent card as president of World Wide Wickets with the rousing Old Ivy and old-style duet Heart Of Gold with night club cigarette girl turned secretary Hedy La Rue (a statuesque Lizzii Hills).

And this  production with musical direction by Ben Ferguson and choreography by Lucie Pankhurst finally does come good but, my goodness, it takes its time.  

It redeems itself with a much smarter and better timed second act. Pickering's Finch with the love-song- duet-changed-to-solo song I Believe In You and Grover's Rosemary Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm (for the atmosphere of the time see Woman's World), amongst others, hits the spot.

It's an interesting show. Both book writer Abe Burrows, who drew on experiences working with Revlon, and Frank Loesser, himself the president of his own thriving music rights' company, Frank Music, had to be persuaded to take it on. 

Both were celebrated enough to have the leeway to build the musical around the original Broadway actors, as well as staying more or less true to the source material. The pirate treasure hunt element in the show was even built around a young choreographer's one forte while Bob Fosse did the majority of the work.

The echoes of other musical are not just there for show, we think, but a more complicated dramatic discussion about the - er - business. The song Rosemary for example guys all those songs which riff off a woman's name. 

It also comically samples Grieg's piano concerto in A, while maybe hearking back to one of the all-time greats in money-making musicals. And is there a sly glance even at West Side Story's Maria?  

And what Paris Original implied, where Rosemary buys a so-called exclusive creation to wear to impress Finch and then finds several work colleagues have bought the same, for creatives in the then era of burgeoning television hungry for material and now implies even for politicians and their spouses in the internet age - as Melania and Donald Trump found out ...  

We Brits are prone to think that we brought satire to the USA via the Cambridge Footlights. However there was healthy mockery there already in the 1960s,  also the era of MAD magazine and Tom Lehrer. Even the stage version of The Sound of Music has its psychologically satiric moments. How To Succeed comes from this tradition.
This is isn't a perfect production by any means but it has its own outstanding musical moments. A rip roaring finale of the revivalist-hymn-style The Brotherhood Of Man when Finch, JFK-style, draws the company together and also manages to save his own skin, gives us also the benefit of vocals from Miss Jones (Maisey Bawden). 

The audience, including your own president and vice-president of TLT, Inc, certainly left with smiles on their faces and we give this How To Succeed an upper level amber light. 

Friday, 14 April 2017

Review Guards At The Taj

A tale of 17th century young soldiers experiencing comradeship and peril guarding a shining jewel of India architecture exposes for Francis Beckett something about our times.  

Guards At The Taj 
by Rajiv Joseph

If You Seek A Monument, Look Around

The fine new £4.3 million theatre space the Bush now has at its disposal is perfectly suited to this stark, simple two hander by American playwright Rajiv Joseph about two soldiers assigned to guard the Taj Mahal while it is being built, and to make sure no one sneaks a look at it.

After its construction in 1643, there is a story that the emperor Shah Jahan had the architect killed and cut off the hands of all 20,000 construction workers, so that nothing of comparable beauty could ever be built again.

Most historians seem to think it’s not true, but it’s believable of an absolute ruler who flung all the resources of his country into a monument for his favourite wife, and it makes a marvellous premise for this play.

For me, the great thing about this 80-minute drama is that the two young men, who must keep their backs to the building they guard and never look at it, on pain of death; who are subject to brutal and arbitrary discipline, and who serve a brutal and arbitrary emperor, and who are eventually assigned to cut off the hands of the workers, are just two ordinary young men.

Humayun and Babur are friends, who care about each other, one more rebellious and adventurous than the other, more inclined to believe that those in charge know best.  They have moments of black, unintended humour:

“Wait, wait, wait. He’s going to cut 20,000 hands off?”


The theatre space fits the play like a glove, with a little help from designer Soutra Gilmour and director Jamie Lloyd who build the oppressive environment in which the two young men laugh - and fear.

But this is a play which depends crucially on the two actors, and it is blessed with brilliant performances, sensitive and sure-footed, from Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan.

The chemistry between them is just right, and whatever terrible things either of them do, we care what happens to them, from the moment we meet the two young men to the moment they lose each other.

They may be in India in the 17th century, but they could be from Wandsworth this April.

As definite a green light as I’ve ever awarded.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Review Broadway @ The Leicester Square Theatre - Audra McDonald

Broadway @ The Leicester Square Theatre
Audra McDonald
With Special Guest Will Swenson
And Seth Rudetsky As Pianist And Host

Drama Queen

TLT and her little jalopy powered by its own tuneful critical engine have to admit finding the correct adjectives for a show without repetition from previous reviews is sometimes something of a chore. This time though the task is finding the uncorny superlatives to describe the majestic leading lady of American musical theatre that is Audra McDonald.

She returns to the Leicester Square Theatre for a short run  in cabaret and conversation with piano accompanist Seth Rudetsky before her London West End musical theatre debut as jazz legend Billie Holiday in  Lady Day At Emerson's Bar And Grill   

Between the songs demonstrating the musical and dramatic range of her expressive, lyric mezzo soprano voice, there is relaxed showbiz banter, reflections on her life and career with host Seth Rudetsky.

The special guest just happens to be one Will Swenson (her spouse), taking time off from Broadway musical Waitress,  making this of course a family affair. Unseen backstage, she tells us, is her teenage daughter and her almost new-born baby daughter. It's a well-honed format showing a healthy and straightforward appreciation for the audience which queued round the block on press night.

Starting with the political love song When Did I Fall In Love from Jerome Weidman and George Abbott's Fiorella, she brings her clear but always warm and emotionally rich voice, to a wide-ranging repertoire of songs.

While her repertoire includes Kander & Ebb, Lerner and Loew, Sondheim, Gershwin, Rogers & Hammerstein, Amanda McBroom and Neil Diamond, she also brings to the fore newer musical theatre composers and lyricists such as Fred Ebb Award-winners Adam Gwon and Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines, along with Gabriel Kahane and Jason Robert Brown.

Trained as an opera singer at The Julliard School (where she first linked up with Rudetsky when he was her accompanist on the piano), her classical background - she mentions Mozart - gives her performance power and precision. But at the same time this flawless technique is also combined with an ease and sensitivity as an actress with natural breaths and conversational tone hitting the  emotional - and comic - notes

She embraces the melodic storytelling in redemptive love song I'll Be Here from Gwon's Ordinary Days and I Won't Mind from a still-to-be produced musical The Other Franklin from Blumenkrantz, Kessler and Saines to Kahane's modern witty twist on the Lieder with 21st century poetry from, er,  Craigslist ads. It really works.

Her diverse but subtly-themed range of songs  is an education in itself  with the well-known in the joyful intensity of I Could Have Danced All Night and thrilling performances of Climb Every Mountain and Summertime, as well as terrific renditions of Maybe This Time from Cabaret and The Rose from the movie of the same name.

Of course we feel a TLT accolade  is up there with the half a dozen Tonys for straight acting and musical theatre and a couple of Grammys and so we tear open our envelope to announce the  TLT  sparkling green light goes to Audra McDonald. Catch this glorious yet intimate show while you can - it runs until Saturday

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Review The Plague

The Plague
after La Peste by Albert Camus
Adapted by Neil Bartlett

The Cycles Of History

A couple of days after Marine Le Pen, French presidential candidate, denied French state culpability for the rounding up of Jews and imprisonment in the Vélodrome D'Hiver in 1942, the French cycling stadium, TLT and her four wheeled buggy went along to Dalston to watch Neil Bartlett's adaptation of the 1947 novel The Plague.

It was rather eerie watching and hearing this tribunal-style drama and chronicle of contagious disease, written as fiction by Albert Camus,  a metaphor for amongst other things, the step-by-step poisoning of the atmosphere before the occupation of France and its colonies and the reaction of the population including post-war denial.

Of course there is always the question "What would you do?" and there is currently a play touring a about the occupation of Jersey where some UK citizens hardly acquitted themselves with glory.

But TLT knows for a fact that it was far more step-by-step -  refugee Jews were already rounded up in 1940 before the German army invaded Paris under the pretext that they were originally from "Greater Germany". In reality the were mostly stateless Jews and the women were put in the "Vél' d'Hiv'".

While this round up was more hysteria by the authorities after the invasion of France than  direct murderous intent, it was the first step towards isolating a portion of the Parisian population. 

We say this not to boast about our knowledge (although maybe that's part and parcel of being a reviewer ;)) or to condemn the French. In this play (we haven't read the novel), Camus, a Franco-Algerian was probably reflecting on the fate of the Algerian city of Oran. But it also seemed to us to trace the steps towards and then away from what had happened to Paris during the Second World War, the capital of France and a symbol of something much more than France.

The play begins like a modern press conference or, superficially, public enquiry: five citizens sit at a long table with microphones in front of them. Doctor Rieux (Sara Powell) , Mr Grand (Burt Caesar), the town hall registrar of births, marriages and deaths, Raymond Rambert (Billy Postlethwaite), a journalist, Jean Tarrou (Martin Turner), a seemingly affluent outsider with Spanish friends who lives in a hotel and Mr Cottard (Joe Alessi), a doomsayer who discovers an unexpected talent for profiteering during the plague.

The Doctor leads the enquiry from her notes, setting the agenda, as she relates the initial signs of dying rats, the first victims including an infected landlord and eventually how the city becomes a closed off ghetto and a police state.

We couldn't help thinking, despite a well-paced production directed by the book adaptor, Neil Bartlett, using the lighting of Jack Weir and sound of Dinah Mullen to maximum effect, this felt like a radio play. In a way that we never felt, for example, when many years ago we watched Peter Weiss's verbatim courtroom drama The Investigation with Rwandan and Congolese actors.

We also felt that some of the ironies and ambiguities, which surely are present in the novel, are lost on stage.

For example, the armed police entering the poorer areas, where "Arab" immigrants also live, and dragging out people, to the pleas of their families. Surely it is also about the potential for the abuse of and settling of scores with some of the uninfected under a pretext of being infected?

The rat may also well be a carrier of plague but its association with Jews and Soviet Communists would not have been lost on a 1947 readership.

Maybe it works better in musical adaptation as a trawl of youtube uncovered a 1960s' choral work The Plague using some of the novel's words.

Still the sincerely intense diverse cast gives the sense of a modern city. In fact, the term city state, with many cities now separate business entities, does not go amiss in our times and the carrying on, having to stop for some kind of hell and then resuming business as usual has a clear resonance.

We wondered whether we could even detect a more literary antecedent in its ironies with the 17th century La Fontaine satiric fable Les Animaux Malades De La Peste (The Animals Sick Of The Plague).

There's certainly a poetic rhythm to the play at the Arcola  Dr Rieux has seen the writhings of the dying, joined a committee, kept knowledge back along with other doctors, watched as the panic circulated in rumours and eventually emerged in the newspapers, the setting up of quarantine camps and experienced the failure of a pharmaeutical serum, seeing a child die in agony.

Finally she expediently recites scripted blandishments to aid the psychological reconstruction of a society and to fit in with the world status quo, saying:  "... when you live through the time of plague, ... there is more to admire about people than to despise or despair of." This is an intense and thoughtful play, even if as a theatrical experience, not totally successful and we award an amber/green light.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Review Out Of Blixen

Out Of Blixen
Created by Riotous Company
Dramaturg/Writer Paul Tickell

Behind The Veil

Cryptic yet enchanting, Out Of Blixen is a devised production inspired by the story telling and life of 20th century Danish adventuress and author, Karen Blixen, who famously ran a Kenyan coffee plantation.

Mixing verbal and physical theatre, accompanied by piano and percussion of Nikola Kodjabashia, it's a piece tailor made for the dilapidated gilt glamour of the Print Room At The Coronet and this tangential introduction to the life of this intriguing figure.

Some of her life, in Africa, has already been chronicled in a 1985 movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford but TLT and her own sidekick in theatre adventures has never seen it nor read any books of Karen Blixen (aka Isaak Dinesen)

So it came as surprise to find that Blixen wrote intricate fables - if we were to find an equivalent English author, maybe, somewhat to our surprise, the Oscar Wilde of The Happy Prince and other tales would be the nearest in our minds but also with a playfulness of Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy.

The production reflects the delicacy but sabre-edged tone of four Blixen stories and in between we have tiny fragments of Blixen's life thrown in like piercing glass shards.

Floating white voile curtains descend from the ceilings in a simple but evocative set designed by Luis F Carvalho and lighting by David Plater picking out the flashes of colour amidst the theatre's pillars and decadent ornamentation.

Flashes of colour come also with the appearance of a small girl (Kathryn Hunter who also directs) in blue Edwardian sailor dress who bonds with a young cabin boy (Marcello Magni) on shore leave before the couple are torn apart.

The piece includes integrated moments of aeriel silk work (Mia Theil Have) at a point where birds, angels and a graceful young woman on a swing meets.  Sea voyages, Russian sailors, Persia, Scheherazade-like linking of tales through the frail figure of Blixen (Kathryn  Hunter again) and the cruelties and expediencies of 18th century feudal Denmark with a mother's self-sacrifice all figure.

The latter with the well-travelled rational nephew of a Danish feudal estate owner  (Femi Elufowoju jr) who is sorrowful but keeps in mind the intial injunction of the reminiscing sailor in play's first few lines, "We must all look after ourselves!

At just about 80 minutes, this is an elliptical take on an enigmatic writer who eventually may have expired from syphilis (par for the course in the artistocratic circles into which she was born) or may have been infected by the cult of celebrity which eventually enveloped her. The piece unpacks itself like a set of exquisite Chinese boxes and we award our own jewel-like green light for Out Of Blixen.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Review Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers
Devised And Performed By Hot Coals Theatre

Bringing Up Baby

The set is small scale delight, Pharoah & Daughter's Junkyard combining the vibe of a tree house, Wendy house with a climbing frame and even an ensuite of sorts which provides a recognition of the mundane with laughs.

The good things continue: the starlit sky, the slightly mucky friendly rodent-like creatures. One is very definitely the harried and sometimes stern but still affectionate comically bespectacled father figure of the scavenging household (Clare-Louise English in ratty Groucho Marx nose and glasses).

The other is the daughter (Jo Sargeant) who hides a bear, with baby accoutrements, in a trunk that she mothers. But she then has to put those skills and her own affections to work after an unexpected discovery, accompanied by a note expressing words even those with very basic reading skills can understand.

There's the repetition of equally basic everyday activities which any child and grown up can also recognize  causing giggles and guffaws of delight.  Another character is graceful and dignified enough to entrance but is very definitely a human  young woman (Claire-Louise English again) in a coat and scarf.

By the end of the play, directed by Caroline Parker, the daughter has had the strongest arc but a sense of loss was nicely dispersed by the final energetic final bow of all the characters and puppet back together and smiling.

But then ... We really weren't at all sure about the relevance of the title Finders Keepers - however much we tried to make it fit in our minds. The same goes for the story of Moses in the bulrushes on which the show is said to be based.

It perhaps wasn't such a good idea to provide the bible story premise before the show, as it was a source of mild frustration for TLT and her Sunday Schooled jalopy to find that the biblical story didn't correlate that much with what was placed before us.

Far better, we thought, to let the audience be intrigued by the name of the junkyard and a newspaper headline, picking up their own clues and, maybe, such disparities wouldn't matter so much.

Also, if, for instance, parents read the original story with their child beforehand as either a secular or religious text, knowing that they were going to this show, both might end up rather confused. This bewilderment rather overwhelmed the more grown-up elements introduced in the titles of books held up for us to see.

In fact, there were times, especially with the costuming of the young human lady that it felt more like a World War II  evacuation or a refugee story.

There are lots of wonderful moments with a lovely picture-book set (original design Laura Merryweather, adapted for the Park Theatre by Jo Seargeant and James Humby with lighting by Marine Le Houëzec), but we felt this was a play more targetted at the very young with its repetitions and very slight storyline.

The puppetry was delightful with a feel-good subtext that anybody can be part of a loving family, even if not blood kin.

However the play was more about character than story and once the characters were established, it felt as if there were nowhere to go. It might also be worth mentioning, while it does have an all-female cast, the roles are traditional with Dad venturing out to the outside world every day.

As a barometer, the kids in the audience, from very small to top primary school age loved the initial establishment of the junkyard daily routine (as did we!) but seemed to also sense that the story lost its way at times.

Nevertheless the happiest and saddest parts were pitched at the correct level for the children, even if it felt like a jigsaw not quite fitting together but quite colourful and characterful enough to attract a TLT amber light.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Review This Joint Is Jumpin'

This Joint Is Jumpin'
Music by Fats Waller
Co-Conceived by Michael Mwenso and
Michela Marino Lerman
Book by Jeremy Barker and Patrice Miller

Don't Give Your Right Name, No, No, No

Ah, Fats Waller, TLT has been a fan since seeing the original London productions of Ain't Misbehavin' and Bubbling Brown Sugar back in the day. So your intrepid reviewer was delighted to hear that the son of Hoagy "Rockin' Chair" Carmichael, no less, was producing a show about the great fella at The Other Palace.

The show features both the songs of Waller and the tap dancing skills of Michaela Marino Lerman and Joseph Wiggan and it's all hosted by Sammy Slyde (Desiree Burch), cleverly outfitted in a tribute to Fats's style  (costume: Candace Lawrence).

Although labelled a musical, this is far more a cabaret with the barest outline of Fats Waller's short life. TLT has to say she knows more about Fats's life than the couple of facts thrown out during the show. But the musical arrangements are often fascinating, bringing the versatile Fats Waller tunes (often matched by the exceptional lyrics of Andy Razaf) a modern vibe.

A five-piece band The Shakes is headed by New York-based pianist Mathis Picard, of Franco-Madagascan origin (the latter rather like Razaf) with a fetching trilby and a line in humorous expressions. He's joined by tenor saxophonist Ruben Fox, Mark Kavuma on trumpet, Dion Kerr IV on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, each idividually with an impressive musical CV.

There's enough here musically with vocalists Michael Mwenso, Vuyo Sotasha, often with a R&B spirit,  and Lilias White making her London debut and The Shakes, along with the full volume tap of Lerman and Wiggan to more than hold the attention.

There's the slightest of storylines in a rent party  - Waller himself having played many a time to earn an extra buck at Harlem rent parties, musical entertainments raising rent money.

There's also a nod towards the disregard of copyright since the advent of the internet, but the comparison with the fate of much of Waller's work which often appeared under people's names, is never developed. We hear also of an encounter with gangland (surely not uncommon?) but the mention of a  famous white vocalist is again left hanging in the air except for a general comment about anti-black prejudice.

For our own summary of Thomas "Fats" Waller: Waller was the son of a Harlem minister, and a mother who was an organist, who showed a precocious talent on piano and organ - Bach was a particular favourite -  and was master of stride piano. A man of large appetites for drink, food and sex who often sold the copyright in his songs for very little money, he died at the early age of 39, but not before having also toured England in 1938-1939.

Fats Waller was never a political protestor but pure showman although his songs do have a satirical edge and he was a magnificent performer of his own and other people's songs.

From the moment Michael Mwenso starts off with a bluesy version of Sweet Thing, it's a show that's driven by the music. The London Suite is never explained, but played.

One of the highlights is Broadway veteran Lillias White's rendition of Black and Blue, against the background of the violent, segregated Southern states (not said in the show, but Waller's own family came originally from Virginia).

This is a solid introduction to one of the greats of American music but it feels a bit like a trailer to the main event. It's a piece which perhaps needs a bit more work on the book to make the joins less visible, to drip feed some more information about his life and to integrate the tap dancing into the show, but it's never anything less than engrossing.

We give it an upper range amber light - and the title of this toe-tapping review? The phrase is not in the show where the singers make Fats Waller's songs (in a good way) their own but it's how the Waller's dulcet tones end the recording of rent party song "The Joint Is Jumpin'" with the cops raiding the prohibition era party ends ... "Don't give your right name, no, no, no!"

Friday, 7 April 2017

Review 42nd Street

42nd Street
Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble
Music by Harry Warren
Lyrics by Al Dubin
Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes

A Chorus Line

Showbiz, it's a tough life. The rejection,  the money, or the lack of it, the predatory men, the hoofers slaving in endless rehearsals, the out-of-town slog, the sex, the drugs, the gangsters, the threats ... It's all there in the musical 42nd Street.

Ok, maybe in the Michael Stewart/Mark Bramble version, those elements are sometimes rather glossed over and the black and white grit of the Warner Brothers movie taken out.

In the movie, after gruelling rehearsals, the sugar Daddy of the production and the leading lady has to admit, "After three weeks of this, a leg is just something to stand on."

There's no equivalent of such world weariness in this Tony-award winning stage musical  originally choreographed and directed by Gower Champion, but this is a dancefest of the highest order driven by those dancing feet.  Indeed the curtain raises first of all a few inches, revealing shapely tap dancing female legs.

Based on a rather sleazy potboiler novel about backstage life by dancer and writer Bradford Ropes,  it's the thinnest of plots. Peggy Sawyer (hey, Tom wasn't a cute little doll who could tap dance, but Peggy sure can!) arrives in 42nd Street in Depression-America from Allentown, PA.

Impressario Julian Marsh (Tom Lister) has managed to put together a show with a redneck theatrical angel Abner Dillon (Bruce Montague). The only catch is that Marsh then has to bring in almost has-been Dorothy Brock (Sheena Easton), Dillon's current squeeze, as his leading lady. Until she breaks her ankle and little Peggy (Clare Halse) steps in to save the day and become a star.

Toss in the the music of Harry Warren (born Salvatore Antonio Guarangna) and lyrics of Al Dubin which do retain some Warner Brothers grit and it's an evocation of the Hollywood/Broadway machine at its best. Plenty of sparkle and glitz, the irony more in the kitsch costumes and dance routines rather than the by-numbers book.

The stage musical also takes far more of the Warren/Dubin songbook than the movie adding the iconic We're In The Money and the Lullaby of Broadway from the Gold Diggers' movies, There's A Sunny Side to Every Situation and I Only Have Eyes For you amongst others. Using movie choreography as source material, it cleverly transposes some of the routines to the stage show for a musical spectatcular which whirrs along, every cog and chain in place.

It's all about the dance performed with military precision drawing on the heyday of Busby Berkley.. The darker sides of the story are toned down to produce a distinctly strange, truncated 1980 book.

Julian Marsh plants a smacker on Peggy to put a rocket under her performance almost like Joey "the Lips" Fagan in The Committments. However unlike with the latter, it goes no further. In the movie, Marsh is dying and the last alleyway scene has the implication in the lyrics of "You're Getting to Be A Habit With Me" and is not that far away from the troubled life of lyric writer Al Dubin.

The stage version is much more non-stop jaunty with long dance numbers rather than quick cut scenes.The cast is slick and pitch perfect - Clare Halse makes a perky Peggy and Sheena Easton, whose own discovery we remember, is a revelation with a great musical theatre singing voice as diva Dorothy Brock.

With an 18-piece orchestra and a cheery conductor in Jae Alexander, go for the impeccable dance and the songs. It's a slick and sassy amber/green as TLT and her sidekick dream of seeing their own names in showbiz reviewing lights!

Review The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia

A wonderful cast, director and designer cannot totally redeem for Francis Beckett a play that milks one idea over the course of nearly two hours.

The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia
by Edward Albee

For The Kid

A man is having an affair and his wife finds out. It’s a commonplace story. Except that the co-respondent is a goat.

That’s all really. Except that the couple’s gay son is as shocked and angry as his mother, and there’s a rather melodramatic denouement which I shall not disclose.

As it happens, just around the corner from the huge, splendid Haymarket Theatre, you can see Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, also featuring a husband and wife tearing chunks of flesh out of each other, at the much less grand Harold Pinter Theatre. I have not yet seen that production, but it’s a magnificent play, and I wondered whether Who Is Sylvia would match up to it.

It doesn’t. It’s entertaining, gut-wrenching in parts, and magnificently served by cast and production team, but Who is Sylvia? is not Albee at his best.

There is a lot of clever, witty dialogue, and the comic possibilities of a distinguished architect explaining his sexual liaison with a goat are milked mercilessly.

Making him erudite and pedantic is also a useful way of getting additional laughs from the situation. It allows the author to have him interrupt the most emotional or horrified outpouring with a grammatical correction.

Having him go to a support group provides a richly comic scene, beginning with his wife’s description of it as “goatfuckers anonymous.” Of course, all the people at the support group have had affairs with different animals.

A lot of the time, it’s wonderful fun.  My fear is that Albee intended the play to be something much more elevated than wonderful fun. Every so often I felt I discerned a message creeping malignantly around, but I was never sure what it was.

But Albee did subtitle it “Notes Towards a Definition of Tragedy”, and a programme note from Dr Helen Eastman of Oxford University tells us the play looks “right back to ancient Greek tragedy and reinvents the form for our chaotic times.” I expect it does, squire, but I’m damned if I saw it.

“No doubt” continued Dr Eastman “it made Albee smile that the word ‘tragedy’ (trag-ōdia) in ancient Greek  literally means ‘goat song."  No doubt it did.

What I saw was quite an entertaining evening at the theatre, watching over-the-top but mostly almost believable characters.

In less capable hands, I fear this play could be tedious, for it makes one idea stretch almost to breaking point.  But director, designer and cast combined to make this a truly magnificent production.

As architect and wife, Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo turn in wonderful, noisy, hilarious, sensitive performances.

In the hands of these masterly performers, simple events like Lewis forgetting the name of an old friend’s son or Okonedo smashing a plate in anger can make you laugh and cry at the same time.  And though it is an all-English cast, the American accents of all four actors are flawless.

Director Ian Rickson makes the best possible use of the space, of the actors, and of Rae Smith’s brilliant set, all spacious living and bare brick, unmistakeably the home of a prosperous American architect.

Not quite top marks, but an amber/green light for an interesting and entertaining evening at the theatre, watching top-class actors at the top of their game.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Review Caste

by TW Robertson

The Book Of Esther

Caste is like a solid piece of 1867 Victorian furniture brought out, dusted down and polished in this winning production from youthful theatre company Project One.   It's a play that's surprisingly shrewd with a deceptive simplicity which masks a sophisticated take on its own literary craft.

Indeed a certain critic named GB Shaw calling it "epoch-making" said at a 1897 revival, "'Caste' delighted everyone by its freshness, its nature, its humanity ... In the windows, in the doors ... in the kettle, in the fireplace, in the ham, in the tea, in the bread and butter ..."

The Honourable George D'Alroy (Duncan Moore), a moustachioed army officer, has transformed himself from backstage Johnny to adoring husband when he marries below his station chorus line ballet dancer Esther Eccles (Isabella Marshall).

George's mother the haughty "Brahmin princess" Marquise De St Maur (Susan Penhaligon) is horrified when she learns of the marriage, rejecting her daughter-in-law who is left almost destitute with a child when her husband goes missing presumed dead on active service in India. Suffice to say, there is a twist and turn before a Happy Ending.

Caste deals in stock characters and styles, melodrama, burlesque and the sentimental, but with knowing self-referential glances and with a claim to pioneering stage management in its use on stage of more realistic scenery and props, "a cup and saucer" drama. 

What is also surprising is like Douglas Jerrold's earlier Black-Eyed Susan, Caste turns from melodrama to genuine second act social critique in an unlikely mouth of the workshy drunkard, Esther's father Eccles (Paul Bradley in mutton chop whiskers).

One can even detect a direct line to Shaw's own Pygmalion and other later movements such as the Manchester School  and the Angry Young Men generation of playwrights.

Equally this is all pitched with genial humour and a discussion of its central theme of caste or class made more complex by the inclusion of military, colonial, political, financial and inheritance circumstances.

As Captain Hawtrey (Ben Starr), "a swell" and D'Alroy's brother in arms, puts it, "The inexorable law of caste ... commands like to mate with like ... forbids a giraffe to mate with a squirrel ... all those marriages of people with common people are all very well in novels and plays on the stage ..."

Meanwhile would-be shopkeeper Sam Gerridge (Neil Chinneck) takes the boundaries of different stations in life more literally, "Life is a railway journey, and mankind is a passenger - first class, second class, third class".

Robertson uses feisty, flirty quick-tempered  Polly (Rebecca Collingwood), Esther's sister and Sam's intended, to conjure up pictures of life outside the Eccles's London home. This not only provides burlesque amusement but gives the audience a sense of panorama, almost like cinema trailers of other types of entertainment.

Charlotte Perkins directs a nicely paced production which takes seriously the social issues without stinting on the laughs deliberately threaded in by the playwright.

We weren't convinced by the introduction of a photo studio element but this is a minor quibble in a very enjoyable hour and forty five minutes which never descends, as it so easily could in less skilful hands, into parody.   

Over 50 years ago a young actor, a certain Ian McKellen, grew to appreciate the craft in the drama when he played gasfitter Sam Gerridge. We're now in the 21st century and theatrical metaphors can be unravelled for the audience.

It's part of actor-manager's Tom Robertson's art that he knowingly carves for the audience a tasty large slice of ham, along with barnstorming melodrama but also bread and butter realism. It's a green light for a production which keeps the kettle on the boil to produce a satisfyingly strong and entertaining brew.