GREEK Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI MARVELS AT GREEK PERFECTION AT GRIMEBORN

Like the roar of an older, bolder London, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s GREEK bounces snarling onto the Grimeborn stage, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in the first ever revival of its world premiere production for Munich and ENO, directed both then and now by Jonathan Moore. The significant privilege of reviving such an iconic production of this groundbreaking work with the original creative team (Turnage himself has been attending rehearsals) has given Grimeborn its jewel for this year’s festival, and the Arcola easily one of the hottest opera tickets in London this summer. But this is no historical re-enactment: GREEK is as raw, angry and daring as ever, and the production feels boxfresh. While references to the social tensions of the Eighties (overflowing bins, unemployment, strikes and riots) still express the ‘state of plague’ in “this seething heap of world,” Moore works in touches of today: the London Riots, mobile phones, and wifi, while a huge graffiti wall beside the stage (a giant painted lightbox, used to screen projections of police brutality and civil unrest) proclaims HIPSTERS OUT! Dalston – you heard.

On a black lacquered stage tantalisingly bare of props, framed by a square of piped, colour-changing light running from floor to ceiling, the action unfolds with visceral immediacy. Designer Baśka Wesołowska produces a clear playing space where Moore creates violent aggression with superbly controlled choreography: fights are brilliantly dislocated across the stage, Eddy and his combatants landing (and realistically receiving) coordinated punches from a distance. Immaculate attention to detail is everywhere: as the orchestra tune up, Eddy attempts to enter the theatre, but is thrown out summarily by security. Moments later, he explodes into the auditorium to tell us his hideous story.

Lithe with physical menace as a young hoodlum, gracefully tense as an older, successful man who nevertheless feels he has more to prove, Edmund Danon’s Eddy is spot on: his London accent perfect, his baritone already richly tender, but capable of scorn and challenge, he seems born for this part, sliding from speech to song with confident command, and exploring the arrogance, fastidiousness and impetuousness of his accursed character with skill. Laura Woods is magnetic as his Wife (and Sis), her mezzo of liquid fullness, her hungry longing for her lost child heartbreaking, their erotic connection thoroughly disturbing. Philippa Boyle’s Mum is a tour de force of versatile character acting, her soprano lyrically expressive, while Richard Morrison’s Dad seethes with fragile machismo: the libretto, adapted from Berkoff’s play by Turnage and Moore, interleaves London slang with historical phrases, producing a Clockwork Orange mosaic which builds its own mythological atmosphere, and Boyle and Morrison in particular use a dazzlingly wide range of vocal styles to deepen this effect. A bowl of blood produces a deliciously grisly eye-gouging scene, but the shocks don’t end there, the opera remaining irrepressibly punk to the last. Turnage’s score, vividly delivered by the Kantanti Ensemble with crisp conducting from Tim Anderson, is astonishing: brimming with visual images, perfectly catching the cadence and textures of the London soundscape, setting words with unfailing clarity, combining mastery and humour like a gangster who grips you by the throat while slapping you conspiratorially on the back.

GREEK’s thrusting, vicious defiance feels like a blast from a braver, riper creative moment. It’s dark, edgy, bloody, and disturbing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted: snowflakes may sob with woke anxiety into their ironic gender-neutral moustaches. For the rest of us, it’s a clarion call of what art can, should and must provoke.

Presented by the Arcola Theatre as part of Grimeborn 2018, with generous support from the Grimeborn Funders’ Circle

Until 18 August. Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: Five 5 Meece Rating

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HYMN TO LOVE Jermyn St Theatre WC2

LA PETITE PIAF, REVENANTE..

 

  I grew up with Piaf, a temporary French schoolchild in 1960, skated around the patinoire with my friends snarling along with the endless plays of  “Je ne regrette rien!”, at an age with nothing much yet to regret.  No singer – not the young Francoise Hardy lisping Tous les Garcons,  certainly not Les Compagnons de la Chanson, eclipsed the continuing late-career  power of the “little sparrow”.  The romance of street-acrobat’s kid raised among prostitutes, singing for a few sous on the pavements, entertaining troops on both sides in WW2, was only part of it: it was the gravelly voice, the autobiographical ferocity and power and plaintive street-wisdom of the storytelling in her songs that held us, even at the age of nine.   

 

         So I felt nervous of  seeing Elizabeth Mansfield’s solo performance, not least because Annie Castledine and Steve Trafford have translated the songs (all but one, we’ll come to that..).   The translations are actually excellent,  though I miss “une fille du port, une ombre dans la rue”.  And most importantly   it is a fine, and sparing,  script,  set in bursts of rehearsal-room reminiscence , sorrow or flashback (a haunted telephone gives a good odd moment) .  She recalls the death of her greatest lover the boxer Marcel;  shouts a little at her pianist (Patrick Bridgman),  gradually  fires up, song by song,  to the moment of her last US performance.

 

 

     In the plain black dress and clumping shoes,  Mansfield is at moments the eternal timeworn resolute figure of any concierge booth in old France;  at others a star of instant ferocity and musical passion.  With the slight stoop and the worn, passionate manner  she catches that Piaffian “howl of  a wounded animal”, and that pose which sometimes forgets the cabaret gesticulations and keeps her hands on her thighs “like lizards on a rock” as she did in fear at her first audition.  

 

    There are 13 songs –  of dissipation, prostitution and  headlong reckless love, of tenderness for a lost legionnaire or accordioniste.  But always  “Ecoutez la musique!”.    Faint cloudy projections behind her in the tiny theatre resolve into newsreel footage of her Marcel and herself.  Finally there is the unforgettable, the untranslatable, the final  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  In French. And the illusion is complete, and Piaf walks the pavements and the stages once more.  A phenomenal 90 minutes.  

 

box office  jermynstreetheatre.co.uk     to 18 sept. Best get in there quick.

rating four   

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LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS THE BOYS GET ALL THE DRAMA AT GRIMEBORN

Lucia di Lammermoor is an opera of shocking brutality, with savage emotional aggression rivalling physical violence throughout its fast-paced plot. Fulham Opera’s reduction for Grimeborn brings Donizetti’s dark, doomed characters to vivid life with some glorious principal singers, supported by a dramatic piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward. Foremost is Alberto Sousa’s passionate, difficult Edgardo, a man torn between his sworn vengeance on the scheming Ashtons and his love for their daughter Lucia: the intimate setting of Arcola’s Studio 2 (rather too small for this production) only magnifies the supreme emotional and musical detail of Sousa’s harrowing, exhilarating performance. Snapping at Sousa’s heels is a magnificently cruel Enrico from Ashley Mercer, able to throw grit or gossamer over his penetrating bass-baritone in a brilliantly dramatic performance which proves bel canto also works with serious attitude. Nicola Said’s Lucia copes with Donizetti’s challenging soprano writing, producing a ravishing “Egli è luce ai giorni miei”, the very image of a headstrong teenager in love, and a musically lyrical Mad Scene; Said’s Lucia is a lost little girl in a vortex of male vendetta, a not unjustified interpretation, though her acting can flicker when silent. Rebekah Jones’ handwringing Alisa, Simon Grange’s anxious Raimondo and John Wood’s wonderfully clear Arturo complete the picture.

The emotional and musical success of this production, however, is countered by practical glitches. The surtitles misbehaved throughout on opening night, and Jim Manganello’s screened translation is ungenerously brusque with Cammarano’s libretto. Daniel Farr’s lighting is surprisingly clunky, and Anna Yates’ design isn’t helpful: Lammermuir Castle seems to be a messy building site, with pointless minor scene-fiddling delaying the action, while costumes are contemporary, but similarly incoherent. Lucia has a fit of teenage sulks in pyjama bottoms and slippers, but mysteriously later remembers to put on shoes (!) and a man’s (bloodstained) shirt for her mad scene: are we supposed to imagine she allowed Arturo to rape her, then dressed herself in his shirt and only then stabbed him? This is an opera where sides are a matter of life and death, and Donizetti moves the plot so fast that we need to conceptualise and believe Lucia’s predicament quickly, usually conveyed through design, but the main difference between Enrico and Edgardo here is suit versus Barbour: hardly murder territory. The chorus start in anoraks, more Neighbourhood Watch than gangland acolytes; their presence is never fully legitimised on stage by designer or director, and becomes particularly confusing as they pretend to be Edgardo’s ancestors, then rise up and tell him about Lucia’s fate, a zombie interpretation at odds with the libretto. Director Sarah Hutchinson’s management (or lack of it) of the chorus is a perennial issue, as is her disorganised placing of characters on stage: this close-quarters production offers us a rare, intimate perspective on the finely-honed structure of Lucia di Lammermoor, with its many private parallels and fascinating internal reflections, but we can’t detect that in the stagecraft, which leaves the Fulham Opera Chorus weak and exposed, and puts too much on the shoulders of its admittedly fine principals.

Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 11 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here (returns only)

Rating: Three 3 Meece Rating

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ARISTOCRATS Donmar, WC2

DREAMS AND LEGENDS OF DECAY

 

Brian Friel’s gift is humane ambiguity, refusing to allow  tidy judgements on his characters .  Or even – though his theme is Ireland’s history  -on the social structures they inhabit.  Here the ‘great house’ and family above humble Ballybeg, now reaching decrepitude in he 1970s,  is not a Protestant Ascendancy mansion lording it over the Catholic peasantry.     It is something rarer, more tribally cramped: a once affluent Catholic family ,  one of those who rose after the 1829 Act of Emancipation through the legal profession .   Now in four generations it has fallen,   from a  Victorian Chief-Justice down  to a county judge and finally a failed solicitor, the nervy, fantasising Casimir.     As Eamon the outsider (a spirited Emmet Kirwan)  cruelly observes, the next logical step down should be to a criminal.

 

So they belong neither to the old Anglo-Irish ruling class nor to the ordinary people of Ballybeg: theirs is an isolated grandeur. All the siblings were sent off at seven to board, the absent Anna is a nun in Africa;  a brother and sister  ran off to fight in the Civil Rights battles over the border in the North.   But Judith has come back, after surrendering an illegitimate child to a nunly orphanage.  She is nursing   their confused and angry tyrant of a father, whose rants  we hear over a baby-alarm on the wall, and watching over Claire the youngest (a touching Aisling Loftus) whose musical career was thwarted by her father and who, depressed and nervous, is heading for marriage to an ageing widower.      Casimir, named for a Polish saint, claims a possibly invented family life in Hamburg;    alcoholic Alice alone mixed with the village and married Eamon, whose granny was a maid in the Hall.

 

   

     If this back-story sounds cumbersome I am wholly to blame. Friel as usual delivers it with casual pinpoint delicacy,  dropping clues, as they gather together in the crumbling house for the wedding and, it turns out, a funeral.   Director Lyndsey Turner is adept at bringing Friel’s world to life with spare, haunting precision: it is set on a clear stage , though Es Devlin’s design makes great effect with a fragmented mural finally torn loose, and  a miniature dollhouse around which the family legends of old-posh-Catholicism are related to a visiting historian.   On this spot GK Chesterton fell over while impersonating Lloyd George, here Gerard Manly Hopkins spilled tea while reciting the wreck of the Deutschland, here Belloc sat, or Newman, or the Papal Count crooner John McCormack….using the tiny house emphasises the futility of it all,  as fragments of past glories are rattled out by Casimir in a stunning, sad, tense performance by David Dawson.  His impossible memory of Yeats’ eyes, and the moment when he claims his   grrandfather heard Chopin play at Balzac’s birthday party in Paris while he was avoiding the Famine fever are with awkward tact  questioned by the American visiting historian.  You wince. 

 

Casimir is at the heart of the play, the most damaged, his bullied inner child flailing for past glories.  Eamon at first mocks them, yet in the end he  too needs the Great House, with a startling, perceptive Irish plaint :  ”Peasants…we were ideal for colonising”he cries despairingly “there’s something in us that needs the aspiration”.   Elaine Cassidy gives his wife Alice a fragile, angry misery, and David Ganly as Willie Diver, who farms their bog and rocky land,   brings a baffled fond solidity.  But the ensemble, the real sense of interlocking relationships,   is what brilliantly locks you in to this damaged world.  

 

     Calling Friel the Irish Chekhov is trite now. But it is all there: the grandeur and delusion, the pull of a half-invented past, the drink and despair, the  half -lives and lies, hope and the humour .    And at last, redemptive, an unexpected harmony.  

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624  to 22 sept

rating  four   4 Meece Rating

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BRING IT ON Southwark Playhouse SE1

HIP HOP HURRAH ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS

 

Here’s a hot one, in every sense.  Clapped till my hands stuck together at this youthful, truthful, touching and funny tale of acrobatics, acting-up and capital-A Attitude.   With Hamilton the city’s hottest ticket it was sharp work by Southwark to host this earlier musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Amanda Green and Tom Kitt for extra lyrics and music).   A very room-where-it-happens bit of programming, it has all Miranda’s gift for words and for sudden lyrical slowdowns between rock explosions and rappy rhymes (Glitter/ Twitter/bitter…Pastime/shake-yo-ass time). Not 18c politics this time which drive it, but the featherlight yet anguished world of teenage ambition.

 
It was inspired – with many tweaks – by a Kirsten Dunst movie, one of those US high-school tales which exert such a powerful fascination on this side of the Atlantic (think School of Rock, Clueless etc: and HEATHERS  looming next month in the West End). Teen passions being strong, the genre is a  a grand way to explore ambition, betrayal, leadership, failure, friendship, class, race, redemption and – in this case rather beautifully – forgiveness. St Trinian’s, only with better legs and morals.

 
Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) has beaten her rival in senior year Skylar to captain the school cheerleading squad (“Truman girls, superhuman girls”) with its shiny- haired moppets, hunky jocks  and the marginalised, hopeful, chubbier girl Bridget humbly cavorting as mascot in a parrot-suit.  Young Campbell runs a tight ship, informing new recruit Eva that it is like joining the Marines, “you sign your life away”.

 

 

But to her dismay she gets transferred to the rougher and more diverse Jackson School , up the road, where the cheerleaders were disbanded years earlier .   Bridget, an endearing Kristine Kruse with a belting voice and proper scene-stealing funnybones, touchingly assists the prim, preppy middle class Campbell because she has lots of “experience in not fitting in”. But Jackson school, which scorns the ultra-white robotic wholesomeness of cheerleader squads, has a hip-hop crew instead and takes Bridget to its heart. Fabulous they are in their diverse energy: notably glorious Danielle (Chisara Agor) who flips burgers at night and burns with ambition and proud scorn. And among the boys La Cienga (Matthew Brazier) is a long skinny streak of androgyne attitude in a sharp Mohican, minikilt and bare tummy . They make Campbell earn her cred and come down a peg by wearing a humiliating leprechaun suit. Betrayed by her former schoolmates and sore at her loss of cheer-champ ambition,  she then talks them into trying for the national contest and attempting the  “cheer face” instead of the hip-hop scowl of defiance.

 
It goes well, then badly, then well again in the classic romcom pattern, though self-discovery and friendship not romance are to the fore.  Wonderful soft rock numbers turn up between the vivid hip hop , notably Danielle’s anthem of forgiveness and Haroun Al-Jeddal’s “Enjoy the Trip” as he persuades the unhappy heroine that teenage disasters are not lifelong.  But always just when you fear it might get saccharine there always comes a real joke – a look, a line, a number, a Bridget moment or a Lin-Manuel line – which has you laughing and punching the air. It’s a lovely thing. And it’s a youth production by the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible theatre training for under-23s. If BTA keeps on releasing onto the dramatic scene performers this adept, joyful, determined, humorous and (yesterday) amazingly heatproof, salute it.

 

box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 1 Sept
rating four  4 Meece Rating

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THE PROMETHEUS REVOLUTION Arcola, E8

GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS REVOLUTION NOT GOING FAR IN A WORLD PREMIERE AT GRIMEBORN

Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to ensure human progress, and met with a grisly eternal punishment as a reward: Zeus’ eagle devouring his liver daily. Keith Burstein’s new opera The Prometheus Revolution attempts to engage with this Greek myth through a story of modern-day capitalism and revolt. Peter (Alex Haigh) redirects two trillion pounds from the City to the Prometheus Peace Movement, revivifying a socially rebellious organisation which he founded, but left to become a successful banker or deep undercover rebel agent: his erstwhile partner in the Prometheus Movement, Aaron (Robert Garland), can’t be sure which, as the (mainly sexual) tensions of their youth threaten to break the Movement apart just as civil war finally gets going. Fulham Opera field a dazzlingly strong young cast to give Burstein’s opera its world premiere; singing is lyrical and compelling throughout, piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward richly expressive, direction from Sophie Gilpin clear and clever. Sunny Smith’s pared-down, efficient design uses a grid of steel ropes on a platform in the centre of the playing space to suggest the glass and steel of a City office, or a prison cell; the addition of blinds, swags or banners suggests meeting rooms, hotel balconies and Movement HQ. However, despite music, design and direction all being on point, The Prometheus Revolution is a severe test of performance, and ultimately only the strength, charm and skill of Fulham Opera’s company carries us through this piece. The opera is unfortunately stymied by its weak, derivative and repetitive libretto, which loses sight of its myth early on: the point of Prometheus’ rebellion was the foundation of human technology, a revolutionary achievement enhancing life for billions and possibly worth an eternity of pain for one. We never hear of Peter’s trillions accomplishing anything useful or tangible for anybody. Nor is his punishment permanent (a quick death, stabbed by a spurned lover and a political rival).

This is an opera which constantly tells you what it is doing without ever actually doing it, nor showing you why it needs doing. Though we get endless sloganising about peace, love, truth, equality and so on, we never quite understand what the Movement truly entails. It certainly includes universal love, mainly focused in Peter: everyone (it seems) is passionately jealous of Peter’s sexual favours, and his relationship history is trotted endlessly around the stage like a tired beach pony. Nor can we perceive what social evil they are fighting, beyond generalised comments about the State not respecting the individual. The libretto lurches from cliché to cliché, repeating characters’ names endlessly without establishing any credible inner life, indeed repeating itself generally. Gender dynamics are exceptionally dated, with men making all key decisions while women coo admiringly, smoulder tactically or plot jealous revenge. The plot is so dense that no action can find any emotional context, bashing ever onward with all the subtlety of handwritten capitals in thick black permanent pen, despite a cast who can act their socks off and cope magnificently with its leanest opportunities for expression, even when Burstein (regularly) sets text of one mood to music of quite another. Caroline Carragher’s Wona is outstanding; James Schouten’s Des, brilliantly vivid; Nick Dwyer’s oily Zapruder, eye-catchingly charismatic. Burstein’s inconsistent, lumpily quote-laden score (the ghost of “Nessun Dorma” becoming ever more curiously insistent as we reach the underwhelming finale) doesn’t honestly deserve them.

Fulham Opera’s upcoming Grimeborn Lucia di Lammermoor (already sold out) is the hotter ticket. But what they achieve with this piece is seriously impressive, given its flaws.

~ CHARLOTTE VALORI

Presented by Fulham Opera

At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 10 August

Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here

Rating: two 2 meece rating

 

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Vaudeville, WC1

A HANDBAG?  

 

You’re not often given a  surprise by Lane the butler in in his short appearance,  as he delivers those immortally celebrated cucumber sandwiches to the piano-strumming young master Algernon.  But when Algy has given him a couple of kisses, hand and lips, lit his  cigarette for him and sat down matily beside his gentleman’s gentleman to listen to Jack,  you think again.  And you couldn’t choose better for  Lane than Geoffrey Freshwater: a dubious, battered paternal figure, serving himself a sherry and maintaining a classic RSC deadpan expression on those senatorial features.  Algernon may be about to pursue Cecily, but as marriage material…? Well, Oscar was, and loved his sons, so fair enough.

 

It has been a Wilde year, with Rupert Everett’s stunning film about the playwright’s last years and Dominic Dromgoole’s curated season at the Vaudeville: the last opening, An Ideal Husband, proving the crowning glory. It has been a  treat.  But this, Wilde’s epigrammatically nonsensical final squib , is the toughest task.

 

It is worth doing, though.    It  is almost an amoral parody of romantic comedy and has – if,  like director Michael Fentiman,  you look at it in the context of the author’s imminent downfall –  a real  whiff of sulphur round the edges.  Unlike in Wilde’s more probable plots, here we do not wish or need to imagine the future marriages of the young characters, based as they are  deliberately on  whimsy. And so well known are the top lines – the diaries, the HANDBAG, the muffins, the Fall of the Rupee etc – that there have been times, for all the deployment of Denche or Suchet quality, that you wish The Importance could be given a rest for fifty years or so, to come up fresh.  Indeed the last version  I wholeheartedly enjoyed was Joanna Carrick’s, framed as the memory of an old  butler and containing, among other joys, a unique  sense of guilty sexual chemistry between Prism and Chasuble…

 

But never mind. Fentiman’s cast got unforced guffaws on even the most well- expected lines, despite  an opening-night audience who must have known them. So there is a fair chance that a new generation coming to it will love it to bits.  Sophie Thompson has just the edge of  lunatic authority that one needs in Lady B, and Fiona Button is an absolutely glorious Cecily. Fehinti Balogun – on a West End debut – is the unnervingly sexually fluid Algernon, at first a little stilted but coming  into his own in the second scene as he saunters, louche and irresistible in a tilted hat, into Cecily’s sheltered life.  He eats muffins  to perfection and is, by then, very funny.

 

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd is Jack, more conventionally the Woosterish man about town and a nice foil to his cleverer friend.  And Fentiman’s grace-notes (heaps of tottering luggage, furious food-stuffing and diary-ripping, as well as the sexual ambiguities – keep the pace up. So yes, fun. Though I can’t think what Oscar’s audience would have said about Algy pinching Jack’s bum.

 

Box office 0330 333 4814. To  September

Rating. Three.

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