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Ten signs you are becoming an older theatregoer

June 20, 2018

Last week, I tweeted that I knew I was getting older when I was offered a choice of sitting upstairs or standing downstairs at a pop concert for the same money… and was delighted to get a seat.

The number of “likes” for that tweet suggested either empathy or the “Great British Mickey Take” (not sure which, though several I’d considered ‘friends’ until then). Anyhow, it made me realise that there are many other signs to look for… and I needed a quick blog, so a listicle it is:

1) You remember when the current revival was originally that cutting-edge smash hit… starring actors who have now passed away.

2) You are now older than practically everybody working on “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom Of The Opera” both on stage and off. Indeed, most of the cast wasn’t even born until way after you’d seen the show at least for the third time.

3) You choose your seat for a combination of few stairs to get to it / enough legroom and backrest not to aggravate the muscles / proximity to the exit / dashing distance to the loo. You also remember when they had ashtrays on the backs.

4) You actually need the loo before, at the interval and after the show.

5) You book a midweek matinee because you don’t have to work – but still hope it is over before the rush-hour.

6) You make a game effort with Google, but still don’t have a clue who the “star name” that ensures a sold out show actually is.

7) You use ear-plugs even at a Rogers and Hammerstein revival.

8) You are mildly irritated that afternoon tea, served to your seat, is no longer an option.

9) You remember when phone and photography warnings were not required.

10) Most of all, you remember when your seat cost less than the souvenir brochure does now… but heave a sigh of relief that you are in on the ‘senior discount’ anyway.

The Rink: Southwark Playhouse

June 13, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 9th June 2018)

Finally caught up with this show, a mere 30 years after first securing a ticket… for a performance 2 weeks after the original London production at the Cambridge Theatre ended. Back then, I was restricted to school holiday theatregoing… now…

Cutting to the chase, this is one for musical theatre connoisseurs, one of those memorable rewards that those of us who love musical theatre with the depth of an oenophile very, very occasionally receive.

The seaside boardwalk is being torn down. Under the roller-coaster, near Caterpillar and Waterslide, the Antonelli Roller Rink has been sold and the wrecking crew arrives. Anna is off to Florida with Lenny, the current boyfriend, in a half-hour… until 7-year-absent daughter Angel arrives. Demolition is delayed as old times are dragged up and just why the place is both blessing and curse for all is revealed.

It’s a deceptively simple Kander and Ebb, right up there with “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman and “The Scottsboro Boys” in complexity and hidden meaning. From the “instruction sign” – as much a guide to life as to rink users – to trenchant observations about objects making buildings a home. The importance of such items in family history, and the relationships they engender and sustain, are given intimate dissection. We are all “going around the rink” and it is how, where and with whom that keeps us moving, forward or ‘reverse,’ ‘all skate’ or ‘ladies’ only until ‘intermission’ or ‘clear floor’ are lit.


Caroline O’Connor (Anna) is in overdrive. Mother, schemer, survivor. Each given powerful vocal and choreography (Favian Aloise on major creative form for the whole show) demonstrating skills and experience rarely seen in London.

Gemma Sutton (Angel)  may be the daughter from hell, but her performance too is a remarkable achievement. “Colored Lights” stops the show in the first half, “All The Children In A Row” stops the show again in the second. Her beautifully-judged final revelation and subsequent scenes stop the show (and break the heart) to conclude the story on an unforgettable moment.


The pair don’t have the superlatives sewn up, either. Stewart Clarke (Dino) may be a failure on many levels (particularly moral ones), but he is an actor, singer and dancer of rarest ability. I was lucky enough to be in a seat so close as to be practically taking part in some of his interactions with his wife and daughter – and it was an absolute privilege and thrill to study his work at such close quarters.


With a small cast and many roles, there is no room for ballast, and the team rise to the occasion. Ross Dawes (Lino) gets a beautiful scene as a father rightly angry at the rejection of all he has worked for. Michael Lin (Lucky) not only has a lovely moment at the Prom, but also a lot of skating talent in a joyous ensemble number in the second half – think a budget “Starlight Express” with far more humour. Jason Winter (Tony) and Elander Moore (Benny) also getting nods for some fine work – Winter making a rather good nun, if truth be told.

Ben Redfern (Lenny) deserves special mention. Playing a character at various ages, plus a lovely moment in drag during a show highlight “What Happened to the Old Days,” he is a major reason for the show’s emotional success, the understated yet crucial scale against which decency is measured, frequently difficult to determine in other characters. He makes an excellent reference point.

Bec Chippendale’s dilapidated rink is perfect – the period American feel and aforementioned dilapidated sign board in particular. Extending even under the seating, row A should watch its toes. Joe Bunker keeps the pit band up to scratch and Libby Todd’s costumes deserve a particular note for both the amazingly green trouser-and-pullover ensemble Angel is forced into (I suspect a bet was won) but also coming up with actual personalised dog-tags for Dino, impressive use of the budget on a detail few will notice, but those who do, admire.

Rarely seen, the perfect cast in the perfect show in the perfect theatre with the perfect creative team. No wonder the audience rose as one at the end, and I was proud to say I was one of the first on my feet.

5 stars, standing ovation.

 

Photo credit: Darren Bell. Used by kind permission.

 

Beautiful, The Carole King Musical: New Wimbledon Theatre (and on tour)

June 6, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 26th May 2018).

Oddly, a show I missed in the West End, for one reason or another. Still, now I know why it ran so long at the Aldwych Theatre and on Broadway. This is one classy jukebox show.

To get the negatives out of the way first: it’s sanitised, if the programme “timeline” is anything to go by. There are divorces and other tragedies, and the show stops with the release of “Tapestry” and performance at Carnegie Hall. Further, it got a trifle wearing just how often someone significant was “just passing by the office” or was a “friend of a friend.”

The good news is that the show is all about the music, and it’s an education into just who created all those solid gold songs I know and love today. Take your pick – “Oh Carol,” “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Locomotion,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” and many, many more by Ms King, her collaborators and friends.

True, you only get tasters of many, but this cast make them live and shine as if new.


As Carole King, Bronte Barbe is suitably 50s-girl ditzy, growing up fast in the music business but never really losing the innocent edge. Many vocals required, and all but one handled with style (a few odd notes on “One Fine Day” at the end of act 1 probably understandable tiredness).

Husband Gerry Goffin is given credible weakness by Kane Oliver Parry. A talent running out of control, too young to be tied down and unable to cope with success.


By contrast, neurotic fellow song writer Barry Mann (Matthew Gonsalves) is endearing, and finally “gets the girl” himself – his lyricist Cynthia Weil, played by Amy Ellen Richardson. Ms Richardson is easily the highlight of the show, gifted both vocally and as an actor, to a level explaining her lengthy list of credits – and likely to expand considerably in years to come.


There’s strong work too from the ensemble, Carol Royle is an amusing Genie Klein, while Adam Howden makes music mogul Donnie Kirshner both straight-talking and compassionate. Vocally, in various impersonations and sequences, Leigh Lothian, Khalid Daley, Paige Miller and Ben Morris notably catch the eye at one point or another.


Particularly remarkable is the presentation. Derek McLane’s touring scenery is West End standard, Alejo Vietti’s costumes, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Brian Ronan’s sound design enhancing all. Marc Bruni’s direction is always sharp, keeping scenes moving as Josh Prince re-creates the choreography of the era.

If, like me, you are playing “catch up,” this is going to be the perfect chance to rectify the issue. A few miles up the road, at West End prices, the entire show would be completely justified. “Beautiful” more than lives up to its name, for sure.

5 stars.

Photo credit: Craig Sugden. Used by kind permission of the New Wimbledon Theatre press office.

 

Remaining tour date information: beautifulmusical.co.uk/tour/

Chess The Musical: London Colisuem

May 23, 2018


(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th May 2018).

To paraphrase Tim Rice’s usual sparky lyrics, ‘each production of “Chess” means there is one less variation less to be played.’ This one is quite clearly the “let’s not take ourselves too seriously” gambit. If it isn’t, then it really should be.

With any luck, Stephen Mear will choreograph the Palladium’s panto this year.


Surely nobody else on the planet could come up with more hilarious tepsichorials than his staging of “Merano” as (rather attractive) chorus members bound about in a “Heidi on Schnapps” way. Almost topping that, the Soviet* Army is in huge trouble if that’s how they march – making Julian Clary look like Rambo; while the final “walkdown” at the end is clearly representing after the board has been upset.

Luckily, the “Embassy Lament” has an amusing moment – but also a jarringly sexist one with the men treating the women as coat-stands.


Video designer Terry Scruby is clearly in on the fun, with smart animations but an odd “mirror effect” (possibly intentional, but distracting) and sound sometimes out-of-synch with the action. Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe’s “tease the cat” blobs for “Where I Want To Be” are amusing, but even better is designer Matt Kinley’s “earthquake simulator” downstage lift, that shakes most convincingly as soon as it is stepped on.

There are some pretty good intentional jokes too SPOILER ALERT the best being “Thank You For The Music” by a jet-setting accordion player, and the sad tale of an American tourist in Bangkok. Watch for both. SPOILER ENDS. Sadly, some may throw accusations of “Cultural Appropriation” at the sequence (it can’t be beyond budget to find actual Thai actors, surely) but that is by the by.

On the upside, they’ve pretty much solved the complications of the second act book, by removing most of it and leaving a linear story. Not saying it is interesting any more, but it is at least clear.

Director Laurence Connor also makes a very brave attempt at “I Know Him So Well.” The concept makes sense, but sadly the emotion is lost by the use of two very different settings that keep the women too far apart for such an intimate number.


Out of the mad choreographic clutches and set pieces, the cast fend rather for themselves. Michael Ball (Anatoly Sergievsky) sensibly doesn’t bother with the accent and vocally makes mincemeat of the score. It is a tribute to him that for the first time in years, I’ve not cringed at “Anthem.”

Opponent Tim Howar (Freddie Trumper) is equally impressive, his “Pity The Child” holding centre stage in iron grip. Cedric Neal (Arbiter) is also in good voice, maintaining a firm line. Philip Browne (Molokov) manages likewise, credible ideologist with gravity.


Cassidy Janson (Florence Vassy) shows her usual musical theatre skill, “Heaven Help My Heart” landing as it should. At this performance, I did wonder if her voice was all right, as she swallowed the odd syllable in a way she never usually does – well done for singing through the illness if so.


Alexandra Burke (Svetlana Sergievsky) is less experienced, and only that is the reason she could not always figure a way out of the static situations she was put into. Her “Someone Else’s Story” was static – vocally decent, but only half acted. Later scenes demonstrated that the skills are there, but on this occasion only sporadically harvested.

Money was invested in this, and it did fill the stage. It is also probably the most comprehensible version of the show to date, and the orchestral sound possibly definitive. Unfortunately, it also rather confirms that the show isn’t the strongest, and will, like “Mack and Mabel,” be one known for a few numbers rather than a cohesive classic.

Unintentionally amusing, but well-meaning and done with spirited gusto.

3 stars.

Not Russian at that time – as helpfully corrected by Moscow reader Stasia.

Photography credit: Bringkoff Mogenburg. Used by kind permission.

 

On a blog break next week, back blogging on 6th June.

 

Crave: Barbican Pit Theatre

May 16, 2018

 

(seen at the evening performance on 10th May 2018).


Competing a “double” with “4.48 Psychosis” last week, this leaves just one Kane play (“Phaedra’s Love”) for me to see, now.


Once again, we are in experimental territory, as Julie Cunningham and Joyce Henderson fuse drama and movement to present the most difficult of all Sarah Kane’s plays in a new form.


Four characters, A, B, C and M are each represented by a dancer and an actor – one moving to the rhythm of, the other speaking, the text. Nell Catchpole’s sound composition, a collection of sound effects, plays over it at times, the bare studio with just two chairs, a few lines on the floor and an open door given harsh angular light by Johanne Jensen.

Simple work / dance clothes dyed from white through grey to blue provide the only other colour, designer Alexa Pollman working with Julie Cunningham on them. At a post-show discussion, Cunningham admitted they were chosen for the mood more than anything, and it proved a shrewd decision against the background.

The end result is something of a treat for Kane and contemporary dance fans alike. It isn’t perfect by any means, but as a way of presenting what is basically a poem for 4 voices, it is original and solves quite a few of the inherent difficulties with quiet intuitive intelligence.


Henderson, in post-show discussion, admitted that the initial idea of linking individual dancers and actors went on the first page, third line. Monotonous and indeed undermining the objective of fusing text and movement, the chosen solution was to allow for inter-relation. Thus, if actor A is speaking, the link is made to how that affects dancer B, and so on. For the audience, it means some striking “mirror” moments, and has the desired effect of amplifying the meaning of a harsh word or callous rejection.

Growing from the first entrance of the audience, with the actors stretched out on the stage, occasionally stretching as if waking or even simply evolving, there’s some impressive staged set pieces. One seduction sequence on a chair sees two dancers share bodyweight even while moving horizontally at a distance apart.

 
A deeply moving moment representing a child being raped by her grandfather in the front seat of a car, while her father encourages from the back seat is deeply affecting, the simplicity of two cast members side-by-side radiating not just hurt but the sheer confusion, shame and injustice accompanying it.


Strong too are the therapy sequences, the cast encircling a speaker, wordless reaction as effective as spoken. work in a whole new way. Contrasting in the difficult times with a regression to foetal states only to grow again is another exciting motif.

It’s quite possible that anyone who sees this version will struggle now with a more static production. Sure, it is possible that without writhing bodies there may be more attention paid to words alone, but this is far more – not just an aural representation of the writer’s cerebral state, but a physical one as well.

Hopefully, this will be revived, but for those lucky enough to have snagged a ticket, it has to rank as high as any presentation of Kane’s work to date.

 

4 stars.

 

 

Photo credit: Chris Nash. Used by kind permission of the Barbican Press Office.

4.48 Psychosis The Opera. Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

May 9, 2018

(seen at the Evening performance on 2nd May 2018).

I don’t “do” opera. As regularly blogged on here, I find it almost impossible to understand, alas. On the other hand, I remain a huge fan of Sarah Kane. Unlike many, I can back up my assertion that I saw the original Royal Court Theatre Upstairs “Blasted” with an actual ticket stub… trust me, it’s a “Kray Brothers at the Blind Beggar Pub” situation – the place would have to have been the Tardis to accommodate all who claimed to have been there. A form of psychosis…

… see what I did there. Philip Venables is even smarter, integrating a modern opera score with this amazing swansong play.

For those familiar with the original text, it is Kane’s most personal, but also possibly least immediately accessible. It is the interaction of a woman in immense mental anguish with those who would wish to help her – but more importantly, with herself.

As a play, it has jumping rhythms, scene to scene as depression ebbs and flows. Add music, and suddenly a whole new perspective is added to the actions.

Most effective are the Pierre Martin video scenes, throwing conversation projections onto a wall as Lucy (Lucy Schaufer) attempts to analyse a distressed Gwen (Gweneth-Ann Rand. Beats, even sawing, accompany the exchanges, and are the most enthralling part of the performance.

Around them, four other performers Jen (Lucy Hall), Suzy (Susanna Hurrell), Emily (Rachael Lloyd) and Clare (Samantha Price) are friends and supporters, medical staff and sometimes interpretative chorus, amplifying feelings with repetitive noises.

Hard to make out the words – surtitles helped considerably at times – but the voices were pure, contrasting with the horrors being expressed in often the strongest language and physicality.

Director Ted Huffman and movement directors Sarah Fahie and RC-Annie split movement between the realities of restraint on a psychiatric ward, smoothness of soothing and erratic of the disturbed soul. Sometimes focussed, sometimes distracting – the set is simple, to clear it seems redundant at points (and removing shoes at the end, the symbolism escapes me) – but almost always matching the kinetic themes of music and text.

For only the second modern opera I’ve ever seen (the first was “Zoe” – go Google) I doubt I could have chosen much better. I’m still unsure of it as an art form, perhaps unwilling to risk classical opera still, but I will concede that emotions are heightened in a quite different way to a musical, even “pop opera” type, and that is fascinating.

Sarah Kane always promised a very different experience with each play she wrote, and this is certainly a different twist on even that aim.

 

3 stars.

Masterpieces. Finborough Theatre.

May 2, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th April 2018)

Time passes far more quickly than any of us realise. Social attitudes change, ever more rapidly in our web-connected times. Indeed “internet pornography” is one of the current buzz-words of the moment, perhaps making this revival of a 1983 play even more appropriate.

Rowena (Olivia Darnley) is a social worker married to Trevor (Edward Killingback). The action stems from a dinner party they attend, hosted by Rowena’s mother Jennifer (Sophie Doherty) and partner Clive (Nicholas Cass-Beggs).

Rowena’s old school friend Yvonne (Tessie Orange-Turner) and her husband Ron (Rob Ostlere) are also present, and the men begin swapping “rape jokes” that were inappropriate even then, fell thankfully out of favour but are now back on the ‘alternative’ circuit of today, alas (not that I’ll sit through any performance featuring one, though).

Yvonne moves on to how teenage boys produce regularly pornographic magazines (of the early 1980s era) in her class as she tries to teach. Rowena admits never having seen one, but her eventual sight of some provokes a spiral of increasingly extreme reactions. A sub-plot sees Rowena helping a prostitute back into mainstream work, only for the woman to be thwarted by the male ego once again.

On a brilliantly simple Verity Quinn “Adult Magazine Store” set, with period outfits by Leah Mulhern and effective sharp yet shadowy lighting from Jack Coleman, Sarah Daniels examines just where pornography sits in the lives of those who come into contact with it, and considers the wider impact it has on the relationship between the sexes in general.

Knowing where we have ended up some 35 years later, my reaction to this play was divided deeply. Taken as being of the time it was written, it is hard not to add a mental “if you think that’s bad,” and also to dismiss the dénouement as careless fiction – for there is no evidence of that one-time ‘moral panic’ scenario.

One line in the second act, however, is sufficient to make instant contemporary sense of the entire work. Rowena rages at her husband that to men, “women are just three convenient holes.” On so many levels it summarises the difference between genders, in perception and communication, explaining just why the debate Daniels raised all that time ago has still not even reached the foothills of discussion.

The two sides cannot even communicate. There isn’t any speech, no common language, in fact, no actual means of making noise nor hearing it nor interpreting those sounds in a way that could lead to ideas being formulated, transmitted, let alone exchanged, interpreted or ultimately acted on.

Against this, the cast are magnificent. Acting honours go to Sophie Doherty, working at a level rarely seen even on the largest and most sophisticated stage. The combination of Darnley and Orange-Tuner is also well chosen. The first is adept at spare emotion, adjusting the levels for maximum effect. The latter has a stillness drawing in an audience on pure narrative at will.

Killingback finds depth in some fairly thin writing, skilled at working off reaction. By contrast, Cass-Beggs manages a fascinating presence even when his major requirement is to be withdrawn and selfish. Ostiere rather combines the attributes of both other males, only stopping a millimetre short (probably at wardrobe and stage management request) of actually exuding physical slime. Exhausting but compelling to watch.

This could be a lesson from history, and director Melissa Dunne certainly keeps the pace of the period. Some of the key touchstones are dated, and yet, and yet… we are reminded repeatedly that we have so much still to consider, and that this mere opening of the debate remains closer than we would like it to be.

 

4 stars.