Monthly Archives: June 2014

KISS ME, FIGARO! – touring, caught at BECCLES

BRAVO BRAVISSIMO!    OPERA-ROM-COM FROM THE HEART

 
I knew I was going to like this operatico-jukebox backstage rom-com (a whole new genre) when Jenny Stafford – as trembling, consumptive Mimi in La Boheme – bared her teeth at Rodolfo and hurled herself backwards in a ferocious thumping faint before sitting up to resume her irritable love scene. Beware the wrath of a miffed soprano whose ex-fiancé – Tom the tenor who cruelly jilted her – has come back to co-star in a struggling touring opera company.

 
This creation for Merry Opera, now recast and near the end of its tour, is the creation of John Ramster, who also directs. What he has done, within the company’s mission to popularize opera and employ rising singers, is to write a romantic comedy of classic shape (meeting, breakup, reunion, tentative rapprochement, misunderstanding, sadness, reconciliation). He then set it in a struggling touring company so he could use real scenes, arias and dramatic passages from Puccini, Donizetti, Mozart , Monteverdi, Handel and Tchaikovsky operas to illustrate and drive the ‘real’ plot. Then he bungs in some modern standards like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and You Made Me Love You, so the cast break into them as a sort of sorbet between the rich courses.

 
So skilfully has he done it that the show can work both as an introduction to opera for newcomers and a rich source of in-jokes for those who already love it. There is a bafflingly lovely quartet mashup of The Pearl Fishers and Lakme, and a lovely swipe at ENO style when director Marcus (Matthew Quirk) is trying to get a reluctant cast enthused about a “high-concept non-gender-specific Mikado with a zombie aesthetic” which involves dressing his glum baritone in a gymslip to join a savagely directed “Three Little Maids from School Are We”.

 
But at its heart, and illustrated in the first half with a comic-opera Donizetti scene and in the second with the more heartfelt griefs and yearnings of Puccini, is the romance. Jenny Stafford has a voice of immense beauty and a modern, pragmatic sincerity, and the magnificent upcoming tenor Thomas Elwin is Tom. All the young singers are terrific, and to hear trained unamplified voices is a treat. The love duet from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea is supremely beautiful, and Elwin’s Una Furtiva Lagrima makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

 

Nice comic moments too: notably Alistair Ollerenshaw as George the gay baritone. As all operagoers know, it is useful for the wicked baritone to make the tenor jealous, and when Jenny hurls herself on his Don Giovanni and deprives him, within a brief duet, of both his fancy shirt and his cherished “rehearsal wig”, you cheer.

 
And so to reconciliation: tragic Boheme conveniently shades into happy Figaro for the purpose, the lovers are united and the seven others manage to sound like a chorus four times the size (musical director Stephen Hose, take a bow).

 

 

Perfect. Now please, Merry Opera, do another of these . Set it in an ENSA army camp entertainment next time, so you can scarph in some rousing bits of Verdi… The only drawback I can see to this strand of backstage-musicals is the risk of making innocent Guildhall trainees think that real opera companies always resolve their personnel and romantic issues by bursting into appropriate recitative and aria. But what a gorgeous double fantasy: opera about opera.
tickets; http://www.merryopera.com
still touring: London The Scoop 18-20 June
Norwich Playhouse 22 June
Kenton, Henley 28 June

RATING:  FOUR4 Meece Rating

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A SIMPLE SPACE – Udderbelly, SE1

BEAUTIFUL BODIES, JOY IN ACTION

 

In circus tradition feats of acrobatic daring and balance are hyped up by a ringmaster – drumrolls, pleas to keep totally quiet lest you distract them, portentous announcements that this is the “first ever” attempt at a triple backflip or whatever. This Australian troupe of seven, called “Gravity and Other Myths” , do have drumrolls and sound. The musician occasionally joins them, not least for a super-speed strip skipping competion which leaves one member naked. But only one word is spoken, and not a boast uttered in this extraordinary hour.

 

Joyful as a romping basket of puppies, the five men and two women play, hurtle, leap, swing, climb and defy probability and sense. Their routines – well paced between breathtakingly fast and elegantly, balletically slow – span clowning, dance, and rumbustious party-tricks. For instance, as if a no-hands headstand (there are dozens) was not enough, one member solves a whole Rubik’s Cube while balancing on his head; others balance head-on-head, occasionally with a girl or two attached at some impossible angle to a bare foot; at one point they issue the audience with plastic balls to hurl at them while they adopt still more crazy balancing poses, and find hands to hurl them back. A few of the front row are recruited to lie on their backs while above them – and from nervous hand to hand – one of the young women beautifully balances and stretches, doing the aerial upside-down splits on one hand on a pole. With a smile.

 
But it is the ensemble grace of the troupe all together which captivated me most. They treat one another as gym equipment – trapezes, swings, skipping-ropes, vaulting horses; sometimes they find immense grace, sometimes merrily pile up their confreres in odd-shaped, ludicrous heaps and dance or spin on top of them. Or they toss one another up and down, create a towering arch of humanity, swing one another by leg-and-a-wing like toddlers.

 
The whole hour is a delight, and it is unsurprising that they won the physical-theatre palm at the Adelaide Fringe. But for all the subsequent brilliance my favourite memory is of the opening. All seven dash around, making sudden pyramids or handstands, but each suddenly snapping the one word of the evening in turn. “Falling!” – “Falling” . As each topples rigidly backwards as if in a trust exercise, or dives from a high perch on the shoulders of two others, he or she is deftly, affectionately caught by a companion. It is curiously moving. Beautiful. You leave with a lighter step.
http://www.londonwonderground.co.uk to 6 Jul

then Edinburgh Fringe 1-15 August

rating  five (note the acrobatic fifth mouse)     4 Meece RatingMusicals Mouse width fixed

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MR BURNS – Almeida, NW3

BART SIMPSON’S LEGEND SURVIVES THE APOCALYPSE: DO WE CARE?

 

 

A child of the Cold War, I have read post-apocalyptic fiction all my life: from John Wyndham and Kuttner to Nevil Shute – even E.M.Forster had a go. New girl on the bleak old block is Anne Washburn, with this serio-comic “post-electric play”. It’s about East Coast USA after a nuclear catclysm (the hand lettered Act I sign says SOON). The power stations are going up one by one, and the first-act characters huddle in (real) firelight in equally real pitch darkness, telling tales.

 

 

The idea, much chewed-over in programme notes, is how remembered myths and legends grow, as the oral tradition adorns stories to make sense of life. That could have been very interesting: manna to theatre-addicts hooked on live narrative. But her prediction – and a very depressing one it is too – is that the only thing everyone, even educated East-Coasters, can remember will be The Simpsons cartoons. So they sit round the fire for twenty solid minutes attempting, with a painful disjointed slowness which I fear the author thinks is Beckettian, to remember one episode frame by frame. One parodying a Scorsese film. Very hipster. A lone stranger arrives and joins the gang (after a quite poignant little moment when the others ask whether he has met any survivors they know). He remembers an important line from the episode.and can sing a relevant bit of Gilbert and Sullivan referred to in it.

 

 

In Act 2 (“seven years later”) the same bunch, in a makeshift HQ, have developed their obsession into am-dram reconstructions of Simpsons shows, with amusingly makeshift costumes and an empty TV set as a shrine with a mirror and candle in it. The characters do develop, a bit (Adrian der Gregorian, Demetri Goritsas and Jenna Russell particularly). We learn that there are rival groups – “The Rewinds” and “Primetime Players” – and that turf wars rage over the trading of remembered lines. They do commercials too, yearning for Diet Coke and bath-oil, and perform an excerpt from FAME on a home-made wooden pink Cadillac. We suspect they won’t live long.

 

 

The third act gives yet more scope to Tom Scutt’s nicely wild design: it is set 75 years later when the whole Simpsons shenanigan has evolved into a chanted operatic solemnity. Robed priests, acolytes and a resplendently golden family enact a bizarre cross between African folk-dance and Aztec ritual, taking in bits of the earlier memories including the G and S, and some nice creepy harmonies by Orlando Gough and Michael Henry. The evil Mr Burns – boss of the nuclear plant in the cartoon, but done up like a geriatric Russell Brand – has a final confrontation with Bart. Some moments are quite moving, thanks to the music.

 

 

The Almeida sometimes has a knack for polishing up base metals until you leave thinking hey, maybe there was gold there after all. Until you remember that there wasn’t. However dodgy the play, its staging and performances are invariably fine. When it’s a stunner like Ghosts, 1984, Chimerica or The Dark Earth and the Light Sky then content and presentation combine to shine brighter than any stage in London. When it is just ironic fashionable misogyny like American Psycho, or an undercooked news-quizzy script like Charles III, you at least come away pleased at the high production values and performances.

 

 

Here, theatrical skill does its absolute best, but can’t crack it. The final operatic act and the silly Cadillac dance are memorable for goodish reasons – we love a spectacle. The rest is frankly excruciating. Which is ironic, since the brilliance of Matt Groening’s TV Simpsons is that it never milks a joke or outstays its welcome. For all her encyclopadic familiarity with the canon, this lesson seems not to have sunk in to the playwright.

 

 
box office 0207 359 4404 to 26 July Supported by ASPEN

rating two2 meece rating

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PRISON WINGS – Intermission at St Saviour’s SW1

A KNIGHTSBRIDGE REDEMPTION….

 
Quotes from critics are always helpful. This one has “Drop dead funny and informative” on its flyer: not from a Spencer or Billington but signed “Inmates from Brixton Prison”. It was taken in there a year ago, and now this unlikely theatre, youth and mentoring outfit in a once ‘redundant’ church behind Harrods has a fresh production. That inmate imprimatur is significant because Darren Raymond, Artistic Director of Intermission, sets his 80-minute piece inside a modern UK prison, mainly in one cell. So it had to feel right: to catch the sweaty pointless claustrophobia, despair, disgrace and bravura bitterness of jail, and the black humour of men locked up.

 
Which, I reckon, it does. The opening parole scene with a weary governor and a severe, sarcastic woman officer (Janine Gillion) fairly catches both the mouthy indignant frustration of prisoners and the half-despairing patience of the staff who deal with them. We see the hero (played by Raymond with a staccato, rap-speed stroppiness) messing up his parole interview with a refusal, as the weary governor jots down “to comprehend the definition of punishment”. Nor does he admit any responsibility for the arsenal of guns found in his possession or the consequent death of a 12-year-old. He snarls that the officers are all just “police rejects and fat kids who got bullied at school”. He despises everything.

 
He has also, in an overcrowded prison, managed to be so violent and uncontrollable that he has had no cellmate for ten years of his sentence of eighteen. Gillion, with persuasive bribery, manages to get him to accept a young rookie, Charlie (Eddie Thompson). The first hint of strangeness, in a nice detail, comes when the officers can’t make the ID machine take Charlie’s photo. He comes up blank…

 
But then in the cell the play becomes a two-hander between this angry inhospitable Ryder, violently possessive of everything from his second bunk to his soap, and the naive lad who has to be told about prison ways like trading cigarettes for double ‘canteen’ credits to get luxuries like orange squash. Quite early on, Charlie says he won’t be there long because he is, in fact, an angel: to which a furiously horrified Ryder cries “A bible-bashing Jehovan’s witness wacko!” and dismisses him as crazy. Eddie Thompson, honed by five years with Intermission Youth Theatre and now in the full company, puts in a superb performance in this enigmatic part: naturalistically naif, good-humoured, nervous in a way which could mean he is a real inmate but could also denote an angel on a first mission. There are some good shivery moments as Ryder slightly softens towards his “nutter” cellmate over several days: not least when Charlie seems supernaturally to know the name of the older man’s wife, and we think “aha! an angel”. But “It’s tattooed on your arm” sputters the youth..

 
Raymond himself was inside many years ago – indeed first encountered the transformative power of theatre there with the London Shakespeare Workout projects. Since then he has matured into a serious and accomplished actor and created with Intermission some fabulous riffs on the Bard – HMP Macbeth, and before it the “Playground” version of a Midsummer Night’s dream. Here, though, he has gone back to a direct, naturalistic portrait of a prison world, and frames it in his own vision of redemption. And yes, in the final moments the redemptiveness gets you. The over-suave might find its religious underpinning and happy conclusion sentimental. But they’ve never been locked up for years and really needed to believe in hope.

 

In a week when we learned that reoffending by ex-prisoners has doubled, a good one to see.
020 7823 8979 info@intermissiontheatre.co. to sat 14th

4 Meece Rating

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FATHERS AND SONS – DONMAR WC2

NUMRICH AS A NIHILIST HOUSEGUEST…
It is a universally recognizable moment: an idealistic student home for summer with revolutionary theories and an adored, even more revolutionary, flatmate. Arkady – Joshua James, earnestly puppyish – is back from St Petersburg and thrilled to introduce his bumblingly incompetent Dad Nikolai (Anthony Calf) to Bazarov. As a sultry, arrogant nihilist with collarlength hair Seth Numrich is perfect casting (even better than in Sweet Bird of Youth last year). At first he is magnificently arrogant in his scorn for everything the estate represents – except old Nikolai’s irregular liaison with his mistress Fenichka, which he approves. As he becomes unwillingly attracted to a rich widowed neighbour Anna (Elaine Cassidy) he shades back to show that the ardent, confused youth still lies beneath the political fervour. It’s beautifully done; so is Elaine Cassidy’s bitter self-containment as Anna, veteran of marital compromise, and the corresponding unreadable quietness of Caoilfhionn Dunne as Fenichka, the “healing presence in this uneasy house”.

 
This year already the Old Vic has reminded us of the tragicomic brilliance of Ivan Turgenev, who like Chekhov can make the affairs of 19c Russian estate-owners shake 21st century hearts. For all the costumes and polysyllabic names a good adaptation makes us directly kin to their tenderness, disillusion, longing for love and bearing of “the insolence of life”. This time it is a novel which Brian Friel adapts: elegantly compressed, scenes months apart succeeding one another in musical semi-darknesses. Director Lyndsey Turner holds the mood, often keeping one set of characters frozen in their last emotion, looking on like ghosts as the next group move in and assemble in the beautiful, impressionistic barn-plank set by Rob Howell. It gives the play, taut as it is, a novel’s sense of saga as a long summer wears on to harvest. Friel distils its humanity until what could have been a period piece sings its sad song to us all.

 
The political gap between the young men speaks to all ages too: as Bazarov snarls at Arkady “Your heart never forsook the gentry, the decencies…well-bred indignation, well-bred resignation” the eternal radical confronts the eternal liberal. But the play’s heart is not political. After the central tragedy – not showy, but sorrowfully real – deep moments lie before us: notably an old couple clinging together (Karl Johnson as Bazarov’s old father is enchanting, heartbreakingly bufferish even in deep grief). There are the dry unspoken sadnesses of compromise too, and moments of high humour, as when Bazarov’s first exposition of nililist philosophy goes down very badly indeed with the dandyish Uncle Pavel (Tim McMullan hilariously stiff as his military moustache and silver-topped cane). Susan Engel as the aged Princess Olga only has about eight lines, but every one is a winner (“Do you like October, Princess?” “I detest every month”). Her brief strictures on horsebreaking – hit them in the face with a crowbar – and the need to whip accordion-players are treasures.

 
Underlying it all is a sense of “the proper order of things”: routine, discipline, normality, and a gentle mourning both for its fragility, and for the way it shuts out bigger dreams. Friel’s treatment ends with – literally – harmony in Nikolai’s house. But it is a harmony which makes your heart turn over in pity.

 

Box Office 0844 871 7624 to 26 July Sponsor: Barclays

rating  Four  4 Meece Rating

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BETTY BLUE EYES – ON TOUR

THE PIG TAKES ON THE PROVINCES, AND WINS      Touring Mouse wide

 

I reviewed the West End premiere of this new Stiles-and-Drew musical, directed by Richard Eyre and passionately backed by Cameron Mackintosh (the man was happily obsessed with his animatronic pig, which sang in Kylie Minogue’s voice at the curtain call). My Times review (£ paywall http://tinyurl.com/lhacvz5) was enthusiastic: the story of post-war rationing and snobbery defeated – based on an Alan Bennett TV play – was “witty, rude, lovable, warm, dramatic, hilarious.” I said it “beautifully evokes that Bennett north, preoccupied with good dinners and bad feet” . It was also timely, with its theme of a town preparing a banquet to mark Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, just as William and Kate revved up for theirs.
But for all the affection poured on the show, despite Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith in the lead, it did not run and run. I rather mourned it, with its lovely tunes, its English self-aware nostalgia and bicycling chiropodist hero (few musical lyricists would tackle the words “fetid fungal growth” or hymn verrucae with such elegance). I hoped it would find an afterlife, and suspected that an out-of-London tour was its best hope. Away from the West End audiences are more relaxed, pay less, and perhaps have a little more generosity of spirit.
So I have been wanting to catch up with Daniel Buckroyd’s recast, touring production. And it is lovely. I caught it in Oxford – though an unavoidable late start sadly made me miss the denouement in favour of a train – and can confirm that there’s real joy in Buckroyd’s version, slightly re-tweaked and presented with what he calls a “make do and mend austerity aesthetic.
It may not have major stars but it has even more personality: Tobias Beer booming a ferocious bass as evil Mr Wormold the Food Inspector , Haydn Oakley enchanting as Gilbert the chiropodist, the humble worm that turns. Amy Booth-Steel is plaintively bossy as his wife, dreaming of social advancement, one of those who like Bennett’s portrait of his own mother, will always long for roast pork but suspect that their life will always be spam.
The illegal pig, whose personality, theft and final consumption lie at the heart of the show, is not the clever but limited half-robot of the West End: this time she is a thing of cloth, manoeuvred by Lauren Logan with that magic puppetry which works so surprisingly well on stage ever since War Horse taught us that it could. And my favourite song of any recent new musical made me softly happy again, especially so soon after the D-Day commemorations and the renewed appreciation of that generation. As Gilbert tends the bad feet of war-widows and weary, hungry ration-era wives struggling to hold families together in 1947, they sing their gentle chorus of appreciation: “He reminds me of my husband as he was before the war…he has magic fingers, magic hands..”.
Daft, homely, but tears in the eyes. I’m glad it’s roaming onward and will last. Yorkshire and Liverpool next. Go for it.

TOURING

12 June – 5 July     West Yorkshire Playhouse
Tickets: 0113 213 7700 or http://www.wyp.org.uk

9 July – 2 August     Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Tickets: 0151 709 4776 or http://www.everymanplayhouse.com

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DEALERS’S CHOICE – Royal, Northampton

POKER AND PATERNITY: A WOMAN QUIETLY DESPAIRS…

 

Poker, like good drama, requires an ability to transmit or conceal “tells”: moments of facial or body language revealing or hiding truth. So it’s no bad subject for a play. And if you belong to a poker school, if smoky late-night strategy and risk is your drug of choice – controllable or addictive – this 1995 play will be half treat and half Awful Warning.

 
Staged at the National Theatre in 1995, and written by Patrick Marber (whose screen persona throughout the Alan Partridge series always did tend towards a pallid, sleepless, morosely superior unwholesomeness) it has a blokey, high-testosterone feeling. Interestingly, that same year Jez Butterworth’s gangster-nostalgic MOJO came out – maybe the disillusioned late-Major years were fertile ground for chic, weary machismo.

 
Today, its story of one day and night in a restaurant whose staff – all male – have a Sunday night poker game with the proprietor feels a little dated, off-kilter. Indeed when in between braggartly poker-chat even the most sympathetic character, casually asks his mate “Did you give it one or not? The blonde bit?” and Frankie replies “Got the clap”, I found myself strangely glad to know that since then, cool blonde Victoria Coren has wiped the floor with all such wannabe Cincinnati Kids by becoming European poker champion – twice. Ha!

 
Enough of this female wincing: what about the play ? The long first half sets up personalities: Stephen the wearily paternal boss (Richard Hawley, in a fine performance reminiscent of Roger Allam) is at the centre. His gambling-addict son Carl, who he sees only at the weekly game, is played with nice defiant vulnerability by Oliver Coopersmith; the chef Sweeney is Carl Prekopp, an access-Daddy struggling not to gamble away the money and sleep-hours he needs to take his small daughter to the zoo in the morning. The two waiters are Frankie, dreaming of Vegas, and the even more delusional Mugsy: a moronic enthusiast for poker triumphs and business dreams played with manic, writhing, enjoyable overstatement by Cary Crankson. He is trying to get funding to turn a public lavatory on the Mile End Road into a restaurant. Which these days, would be a hipster haven and get backers in no time; in the play the idea is the source of rich and enjoyable mockery. Indeed Crankson carries, almost singlehanded, all the best verbal comedy. And good it is: Marber cracks out some beautiful lines especially for Mugsy.

 
Into this group intrudes Ash (Ian Burfield, deploying a sort of still violence which is genuinely unsettling). He is a professional gambler determined to fleece them, and get the hapless Carl or his father to pay a big poker debt. The second and more tautly strung act, sharply staged by director Michael Longhurst, sees them all at the baize table in the basement. Conveying the sense of a long night, scenelets are broken by balletic jerky moves, amplified rattling of chips and slapping of cards, and demonic lightning-flashes on pale tense faces. The men’s various fates conclude, though it is hard to care much about any of them except Stephen. And that owes much to Hawley’s tired, likeable, damaged loneliness. Would like to see more of him.

 

 

BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 TO 14 June

rating:  three 3 Meece Rating

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