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Inside Pussy Riot: Saatchi Gallery

November 22, 2017

(seen at the morning performance on 16th November 2017).

Those of a certain generation will remember the huge “Christmas Grotto” setups in the major department stores of the land each December (or as early as the managers thought they could get away with it). A large section of the stockroom was boarded off and the window-dressing department got the chance to create a load of wood and cotton-wool scenes (with plenty of silver foil if the theme that year was “Space.”) Parents would hand over a pretty fair chunk of cash and “Tracee from Stationery” would wear her best elf outfit and guide the tinies past the “nodding reindeer” and into Santa’s beery lap. Quick prezzy from the barrel and that was your lot. With a bit of imagination, though, it was magic.

Kind of appropriate, then, that in a festively bedecked Saatchi Gallery, Les Enfants Terribles are presenting something pretty similar, but with a political edge. Concieved by Peter Verzilov, with a script by Oliver Lansley (assisted by actual Pussy Rioter Nadya Tolokonnikova), this “immersive theatre experience” follows the process of protest through trial, conviction, hard labour and eventual release, in an hour-long series of “walk-though” interactive scenes.

To describe the actual events would be to take away the major impact of the event – the “not knowing what will happen” element. I won’t do that, but suffice to say that with a good group (sadly, mine was a bunch of disinterested young students) it’s impossible not to experience some kind of emotional reaction to the experience.

Do be aware that “shrinking violets” and those not willing to participate to a degree (nothing more than following instructions – easier than not, is the point they make – and a little solo shout) should give this a miss, and claustrophobics are also advised not to take part, for good reason.

Director Christa Harris makes time move fairly quickly, with some nice ideas – your journey really is personal, based on a few facts gleaned at the beginning, and Designer Zoe Koperski does what she can within the budget – fibreboard bars are pretty convincing, even if some of the later joinery and soundproofing are rather budget.

The script occasionally veers “off message,” and one scene in particular fails to deliver anything like the satirical impact it was intended to do. Another scene is also confused as too much is delivered too quickly (and slightly inaudibly), while poor design hampers the final pay-off – the actor sadly coming out of character rather than improvising around it, too.

The major issue, sadly, is that many of the actors lack the authority to instil the required emotions into the entire group. Two unruly teenage boys and some rather under-educated teenage girls in my group were lost by much of the surrounding symbolism, and not helped by the unaggressive approach of the cast. Their outbursts rather spoiled many of the effects for the rest.

Done with more creative energy, the result could have achieved greater impact. As it was, it was actually a relief at one point to be given private time to reflect. During that time, much of the show made a deeper sense. There is truth in this – and a strange gratitude overwhelmed me as I was on the tube home and realised just how many choices I could make even within that single journey.

The message, then, must have got through, and in a way I’d be curious to experience the whole event again once the cast have had time to go deeper into their roles, and without the same nagging fear of what might happen next…

… and that’s the point – we take it for granted that we know, and feel no need to guard it, or demand change as required. The need to riot is reserved, but certainly the will to do so if totalitarianism threatens must remain. This show, if nothing else, reasons it out, loud and clear.

Three Stars.

Cilla The Musical (New Wimbledon Theatre)

November 15, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 11th November 2017).

Apparently conceived around the same time as the noted television biopic, Jeff Pope makes deft work of adapting the same material for the live stage. Bill Kenwright and co-director Bob Tomson give the thing a smart pace, with a simple and atmospheric set by Gary McCann and some (non-period, but life-enhancing) lighting from Nick Richings.

Scott Alder and Marc McBride bowl the famous tunes to the audience, the arrangements of “Zip-a-dee Doo Dah” and “Twist and Shout” are particular highlights. If choreographer Carole Todd is a little reluctant to let the “kids” free-style to the early numbers, once they relax, they dance up a storm.

And yes, I’m playing games with the person reading this… you all want to know about Cilla herself, right? OK, so, one Kara Lily Hayworth. Sounds like Cilla, has the same warmth as Cilla and – if not the same physical stature – is pretty much perfect in the role. Had the show opened in the West End, her acclaim would have been assured within the popular press and industry as a whole. As it is, I’m certain she will find her place in the top flight in due course anyway. Her “Liverpool Lullaby” in particular confirms the talent.

There are similarly impressive performances from the other people in her remarkable life. Her Bobby (Carl Au) matures impressively through the story, and (for those who remember him from “Waterloo Road”) has a surprisingly good voice – “Shy of Love” and “Taste of Honey” a lovely moment in the show.

The always reliable Andrew Lancel (Brian Epstein) is a man on the edge, leading a double-life of which he is not always in control. The inevitability of his downfall is not just in the writing, but the clues Lancel sows in his performance. Similarly nuanced (and with added trumpet) Tom Sowinski’s scenes as precise George Martin are another highlight.

In smaller roles, Amy Bridges (Rose) and Billie Hardy (Pat) capture Liverpool youngsters to perfection, while back in the White household Paul Broughton (John White) serves up a proud “man of the sea” father to “could have been” wife Pauline Fleming (Big Cilla).

With sound work from the team impersonating the Beatles – Bill Caple (Ringo), Michael Hawkins (John Lennon), Alex Harford (George Harrison) and Joshua Gannon (Paul McCartney), and some fun from Alan Howell as Gerry Marsden and Burt Bacharach (a well-conceived “Alfie” sequence), there’s some great extra songs and decent humour too.

The necessities of giving actors time to rest between big numbers and the crew time to change the scene results in a slightly long 2 hours 50 minutes running time (counting 20 minutes interval), and it’s always pretty clear where the “breathers” are in the show, but it really doesn’t matter. The cast do their energetic best, the music is a never-ending flow of timeless hits and the star performance is a glittering diamond doing justice to the memory of a showbiz legend. A lorra, lorra fun.

4 stars.

Albion: Almeida Theatre

November 8, 2017

(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th November 2017).

There will for sure be a slew of plays about “Brexit.” One will stand out as definitive – and I’ve a feeling it won’t be written for at least a decade, at which point something dry, rueful, reflective and balanced should win the day. Meanwhile, this allegory, set in an English Country Garden, fires the starting gun for the respected modern writers.

Mike Bartlett dips into the stereotypes folder (the best line in the play is a clever acknowledgement) and gives us a wealthy shop magnate and her husband moving from London to the country village of her memories an hour outside, much to 23 year old publishing-work-experience daughter’s chagrin. In tow is the “partner” of deceased soldier son. Waiting for them are the long-serving yokel couple of the house, young student writer neighbour and a Polish cleaning entrepreneur. Naturally, the incomers have ambitious plans, and conflict follows as they reject local ways.

For a play about gardening, the first observation is that there’s around 20 minutes of undergrowth worth hacking away. The first two scenes drag, and two interminable “planting / unplanting” (it’s a word, well, it is now) sequences are possibly director Robert Goold’s biggest error.

That said, much of the three hours is fairly engaging – Miriam Buether’s thrust stage garden set, with live border, ensuring audiences have a voyeuristic relationship with the action.

Acting honours are evenly split between the senior and junior members of the company. Victoria Hamilton (Audrey Walters) is a credible businesswoman with drive but little time for social niceties. Helen Schlesinger (Katherine Sanchez) outdoes her, particularly in her first scene, as an old author friend whose loneliness is masked by eccentricity. There’s sound work, too, from Margot Walters (Cheryl) and Christopher Fairbank (Matthew) an utterly believable working couple.

Down a generation, ambitious cleaner Edyta Budnik (Krystyna) has a wonderful energy and stage presence. Luke Thallon (Gabriel) makes an empathetic gawky, trembling window-cleaner / writer / student impressed by Sara (Charlotte Hope), who gives a disdainful youngster some colour by the end of the evening – trickier than it sounds. Vinette Robinson as widowed Anna makes the best of an unforgiving act 1 climax, displaying an expert sense of timing and rhythm.

There are elements of preaching in this, some uncomfortable swipes at those lower down the ladders of wealth, power, education and even motivation – without regard to opportunity costs. Ideas are either flagged or left under-developed, with plotlines sometimes feeling like off-shoots that could have been pruned.

That said, it’s all recognisable enough as a setting out of questions regarding the relationship between ownership of our past at personal and national levels, and how that should carry forward to the future.

Seeds have been planted, and I will be interested to see how, in the coming years, this particular garden of theatrical themes blooms.


4 stars.

As good as the National, so?

November 1, 2017

Last weekend, I very much enjoyed the beautifully crafted “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” at Wyndhams Theatre. Sadly, it wasn’t as busy as it could be, and I noted on message board, and in my own opinion, that had it been at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, it would have sold out instantly… interesting that the producer is an NT alumni too, of course.

The National Theatre seems to attract a certain audience. Fiercely loyal, frankly, usually white and middle-class, middle-aged to elderly, with a few well-brought-up younger theatre fanatics taking advantage of various membership schemes to nab the good tickets first and at low prices. The theatre can programme practically anything and know that the early performances at least, will sell, and that only a rare flop will have many empty seats for the rest of the run.

In the commercial West End, the audience is a little more mixed. The ‘popularist’ crowd get a bigger choice of musicals, lighter plays and the odd star in a Bill the Quill job.

The problem, as “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” seems to be finding, is that you can put on a “National Theatre” quality production… but without finding easily an audience… perhaps because they are all ‘at the National’?!

For me it ticked every single box. Well produced and outstandingly well acted, with an intelligent script and engaging story and characters. Had it originated in the Dorfman Theatre, like recent predecessor at Wyndhams “People, Places and Things” I do rather suspect the National’s audience would have followed it over, and extended rather than shortened the projected run.

There are far more theatres south of the river, so maybe everyone feels no need to get out their passports for the crossing. It can’t be the same ‘snob value’ that killed off the Savoy Opera experiment, when it was found that opera goers only went to Covent Garden or the ENO and wouldn’t change their habits, surely? Yes, the National does lay on the odd champagne shindig for sponsors, but it has never been somewhere to just “be seen,” it isn’t that smart. In fact, if you were after that, Drury Lane or the Haymarket Theatres are far grander all round.

If only there were a way to harness “National Theatre” quality productions with “National Theatre” audiences, a lot of great shows would have a far longer run, I think.

Metropolis The Musical: Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre

October 25, 2017

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd October 2017).

Of all the famous West End flops of the 1980s and early 90s, I guess this is the one I remember best and was keenest to see again. After years of having just the double vinyl album – and then upgrading to CD – this is an unmissable chance to hear the score sung live once more.

They’ve made the odd update – noticeable ones like trimming the show to a tight 2 hours including interval, and minor but amusing ones – worker records are “downloaded” (unimaginable in 1989) rather than fetched.

What survives though, is the musical sound of the era, as well as the slavish following of the “Les Misérables” show structure that sunk many a “serious attempt at moving people and thus moving the cash from their pockets like Mackintosh.” A trick far harder than it looks, as many a destitute producer and investor soon found.

Aaron Clingham’s musical direction and 4 piece orchestra – himself on piano, Ashley Blasse on guitars, Ollie Davie on bass and Janette Williams on percussion produce an excellent rendering of the score, against which Tim McArthur directs a quite remarkable revival.

The opening scene manages to overcome the major fault of the original – making the show human. Replacing the (then outrageously expensive) original £1m machinery set that dwarfed the cast, actors bodies are used. Moving in choreographed piston and push / pull relay, it instantly scales the show to real struggle and creates the atmosphere to carry the entire first half.

And it really is a show of two halves. The first builds the story with decent speed and economy. Metropolis is powered by human muscle – huge number of slaves dying at subterranean generating machines. Above, the elite lead frivolous lives, and John Freeman (Gareth James – though I suspect really Ian Hislop, or his twin – pottering in highly self-satisfied manner) rules all.

Freeman’s son Steven (Rob Herron) is set to inherit, but is forbidden from knowing what goes on underground. He descends anyway, finding rebel Maria (Miya Alexandra) teaching workers’ children of the better life above. Naturally they fall in love, father hates it and gets evil inventor Dr. Warner (Kitty Whitelaw) to create a mechanised clone of Maria, one Futura, and dispose of the real thing.

By act two, Futura is sent down to fool the workers into submission. Instead there is rebellion and it all ends with the social order never being the same again. Pretty much.

The disparity between those three paragraphs of plot summary is the reason for the show’s troubles. The strongest songs and most interesting encounters are in the first half, with the second petering out and almost falling into a plot-hole before the rather charming end.

Theatrical problem solving aside, this is the key reason to catch this production. There is a genuineness about the entire cast, doing a show that clearly excites all of them, that is entirely irresistible.

Herron and Alexandra make the most of their solos and duets – Herron in particular has a flintiness suggesting leads further down the line. Slightly amazingly, this is Alexandra’s professional debut. While not of course Broadway veteran Kuhn in the original show, she provides a performance way in excess of her previous experience.

Among the rest of the cast, the show goes for a female scientist, with Whitelaw’s Warner cornering the market in “evil maniac inventors.” Not only in character – this lady “looks the part” too. Her programme biography notes extensive work in panto; if she is the “witch” at your local one, probably leave the kids at home… scary.

Mark Mackinnon (Groat) makes a hefty works foreman, with a strong voice to match. By contrast Alex Ely (Jeremiah) is a sly whisp, nicely creepy. There’s particualy good work from both him and Michael Levi (George – the confused and oppressed worker caught in the middle of love) with both defining the disparity at the centre of the show.

The original show featured real children. Here, talented Michael Larcombe, Laura Hyde, Tami Stone and Kieran Wynne manipulate pipe-armed puppets with broken-mouthed mask faces to heartbreaking effect. A credit to their abilities and those who trained them.

In other multiple recurring roles, there’s fluid ensemble work featuring strong dance and physical acting from Annabel Edwards, Shannon Kavanagh, Mikey Wooster, Natalie Jayne Hall, Tom Blackmore and Freya Tilly as they alternate between the showy dresses and vain dance of elitism, and the numbered boiler-suits of the oppressed.

Costume designer Joana Dias allows a certain wit to creep in with the number on one boiler-suit (you need to sit front row to spot it, obvious, but still fun) and just maybe another considerably more obscure Beatles reference, too. Dias does, however, make a rather curious choice in making her robot an inadvertent Woody Allen tribute (not spelling it out, as it’s a family blog) when the simple muslin shift of the original would more than suffice. Still, as with Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s inventive set and video and Vittorio Verta’s intelligent lighting ideas, it all contributes to the production.

Not just for the benefit of nostalgic (of which half the audience seemed to be), this is a blueprint for any theatrical group, amateur or professional, and particularly school to follow, and hopefully help even more people re-discover this tuneful curio.

This was my first visit to this venue, and won’t be the last, as regulars around me assured me that this is the usual standard they receive at every performance here.

4 stars.

Train to act or not? I don’t know!

October 18, 2017

With the return of “Stage School” on E4 (no, me neither – one series was enough. Though I do wonder about those who appeared in the first series coming back to have their careers trashed before they begin… again) it seemed like an idea for a blog…

Until I realised that I’ve honestly no idea. A quick straw poll of the TV I watch seems to suggest that most actors either go to one or take a University course and end up doing stand-up comedy which leads to acting in the end.

There is also the fact that a massive bill is racked up, which is re-payable at earnings of £21 (soon maybe £25) thousand a year. For most actors they can relax. 30 years down the road, they won’t earn that and the debt is written off. Of course, the write-off means they won’t get the hip replacement required from too much “circle-forming” (thanks West End Producer) as there’s no cash, but it won’t be hanging over them, and the mortgage isn’t a worry on a Thames Embankment box.

My best guess, though, is that no amount of sitting in circles, discussing Brecht or channelling Stanislavsky is ever going to shape someone who isn’t instinctively an actor.

You may (or may not) do as I do at every theatre I visit. Spotting the actor who is ushering just to be in a theatre is pretty simple. There’s a look in the eye, an expressive openness that sings out – and, if they are playing their chosen role properly – is utterly charming every time. I’ve had many a great chat over the years, as well as the pleasure of recognising the odd familiar face making it to the stage. Side note: it can work the other way – and that drives me nuts (also, don’t stare too long, it can get you thrown out, but that’s another story).

The area of the theatre jungle (monkey pun, so there) that I inhabit – somewhere in the marketing zone, I’d guess, is also full of actors who trained but preferred to be paid more by doing something more commercial in the business. Trust me, you’ve no idea the level of talent that exists among those who ensure the show happens every day and keeps the entire industry going.

Here, stage school is as much an advantage as my own business training. Again, if someone has studied how to create a persona and environment, how to stand in a room and not be phased by 500 people staring at them, and how to come up with a reply in a split second – at the very least a place on “The Apprentice” beckons. It’s the old “transferable skills” thing, and that is why I’d be pretty unphased if any young person I know wanted to try for RADA over Cambridge (RADA over Hull, of course, another matter – Blackadder).

Life experience is what really hones the person, and if it is done in rehearsal blacks or a suit doesn’t matter. So, as you fill out your UCAS form, my simple advice is, “3 years is a long time, fill it with something you love, I don’t think you can go that wrong.” And I’ll see you in lights – either West End or John Lewis department. Good luck.

Would KISSING bring the public back to theatre?

October 11, 2017

For those who don’t know, the West End went through one of its toughest Summer and Autumn seasons ever this year. Even “hit” shows had empty seats – yet the city was full of tourists and everybody was ignoring those idiots, you know the ones I mean.

Thing is, I think it goes deeper – a thought confirmed to me in a chat about the state of ticketing in general, in which the feeling was expressed and agreed that it’s now “simply too dang difficult to buy a ticket.” Yet, the industry has spent a fortune on new booking websites, and as never before you can choose a seat and have the ticket in your hand before you even close the browser window.

So, what’s gone wrong? My suggestion is that some things are now too illogical for the casual “once a year on the wife’s birthday” visitor to follow. A bad experience, and they are off forever to find some other means of celebrating, as it were.

To that end, I’m thinking that the entire industry should consider that old management phrase “KISS” – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

A few ideas to do just that may include:

1) Becoming pro-active about website names. Still, the name of a theatre with a dotcom on the end all to often goes to a ticket agency – either legitimate or not – that adds a massive service fee on a narrow range of tickets. How can a regular customer be expected to know that in the West End, most theatre chains rather than individual theatre names are used to access the box office? If you want to see “42nd Street” is the place to be – do customers always know that?

Appealing to get the name back is costly, but perhaps worth it? Failing that, what about venues clubbing together to buy the “toplevel” ending “dot officialtickets.” That way, they have control over who can create names like, say “Harrypotter.officialtickets” and have total control of the sites they point to, as only the official venue owner or producer can buy the name – and it can be withdrawn at any time if abused. On the same subject, there are websites who are not members abusing the STAR logo, time for a crackdown?

2) Fix those prices. As in, let’s stop them zooming up and down like a faulty Canary Wharf elevator. At the very least, end the horrible patchwork quilts where three adjacent seats are 3 totally different prices for exactly the same view. Give customers confidence that booking early will always save them money. Amazon does, and it is the reason I buy from those, yes, well, moving on.

3) Think again about how far in advance customers book. The trend now is for even big shows like “The Book of Mormon” to dribble tickets only two or three months ahead out. That’s fine, makes a lot of sense in some ways as sales increase nearer the date and you can put the prices up… but for those “sure fire” holiday periods when folk plan further ahead, it can be a real problem – at least to those who contact Theatremonkey.

4) Have a long think about the spectacular “new period on sale” rush. If your machinery can’t cope, the next day’s news is not happy reading. Pre-register (not ballot, let all those who want to have a chance) but do it in a way that limits numbers. For example, I want to book in April, so I register for the April period – and have an allocated date, time period and access code that will let me and only as many others as the system can handle, book for that month.

5) Kill the touts. I’m thinking heads on pikes along Shaftesbury Avenue. No, I’m meaning let’s ban those re-sale sites in favour of something that gives the venue full control of tickets and pricing. A whole other blog I’ve written before, but anyway.

And finally, as we have followed Broadway with the horrors of extreme “dynamic pricing” how about letting London have the same protection Broadway gives customers over stars not appearing. If the name is above the title but the name is under the weather, let’s follow America and allow an exchange.

All fairly big stuff, but sometimes a KISS is a pretty good start, I think.