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Oil – Almeida Theatre.

November 2, 2016

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 29th October 2016.)

From pre-publicity at the time I booked, I was led to believe this would be a 3 hour plus epic, exploring oil and its part in Western Industrialised history. I have to admit I booked a seat with extra legroom… and was quite relieved to find out on arrival that it would run a mere two hours thirty – though the first half would consume one hour twenty of that.

Still, it’s the first time I’ve managed to see Anne-Marie Duff work live on stage, and combined with some excellent performances by Yolanda Kettle as her daughter Amy, Nabil Elouahabi as Mr. Farouk, Patrick Kennedy as Samuel (and name variations across the years) and those around them, there is plenty of talent to see the piece through. Director Carrie Cracknell keeps everything moving as far as she can, and there’s note to for Vicki Mortimer’s simple yet evocative set-design, particularly the opulent Eastern and home kitchen scenes; with actors waiting in full view among appropriate items.

The trouble is, despite all combined efforts, writer Ella Hickson does appear to lose control of her material in the course of attempting to combine stylish structure, thought-provoking messages, moving history and theatrical symbolism – mostly simultaneously.

It would be wrong to condemn her efforts entirely as pretentious, because – “foreign language” interludes aside – they are honest tries from someone whose third scene proves a tremendous ability to write personal relationships and accompanying dialogue.

Sadly, it all seems over-wrought from the start. Beginning in an 1800s farmhouse, with a demonstration of how cold and dark it is for the “peasants” (a “Mr Burns” throwback for audiences, as lighting designer Lucy Carter goes for an all-candle lighting approach) and Ms Duff gets a public cold bath. A hefty “we will buy you” message, and clumsy “hand” device are delivered in six times the length necessary. Oh, and we see an oil lamp for the first time, courtesy of a travelling salesman (dead symbolic – as we travel for oil).

The first crazy “interlude” follows as some weird vocal ramblings and blurry projections transport us – as they will again between the other scenes – through time. Probably there to scare audiences into remaining seated rather than escaping, perhaps…

Scene two, early 1900s, Iran, a colonial plot to get our “hands” on the oil, a nauseatingly silly “theft – look, aren’t I clever, a woman steals, we all steal” moment. Actually, nicely played with Joseph Alford’s movement well executed… but again saying nothing much.

Third scene, most successful. A 70s kitchen, sparky work by all, and the only time the show flowed with a lovely unselfconscious form of play from all. A couple of deserved (if predictable) laughs from the audience too.

A break, then two “future” scenes. Near future, 2021, when a war-torn country shouts at both our patronising approach to them and ‘guilts’ us for interfering in the name of fuel. Logic starts to fail when (from the previous scene) it’s rightly pointed out that the relationship began as mutual aid and that internal politics after that actually caused issues we could sort. Oh, and envelopes of cash again – she really is on it, style-wise, our author.

The final “huddle round a candle” of 2051 was simply a laughable end. A salesman (echo of first scene) turns up with a miniature nuclear reactor solution… to a problem which couldn’t happen as we already use less oil than ever and will continue to develop other solutions. A fact totally ignored by Ms Hickson.

There’s a great 70 minute play wrapped in far too much personal agenda, alas; and I just couldn’t buy a single word of her conclusions, though appreciated the research going into a fairly unpromising premise.

Thematically, it’s interesting, but unless a fan of the actors and director, who are blameless, this really isn’t a ticket worth mining for.

Cameron – v- Ticket Touts

October 26, 2016

With the announcement that “Hamilton” will open in London in late 2017, Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s host as owner of the Victoria Palace Theatre also said that he is trying to make certain that everybody pays the price on the ticket, and no more. He pledges to stop “secondary ticketing” sites snapping up the seats and selling them for “New York” prices.

I’ve only been blogging on all these topics for years, so what’s new? Can it be that finally producers have realised that online touting is such a menace that it is dragging the reputation of an entire industry down? Or… is it that by controlling the flow of tickets, with a handy “dynamic pricing” tool, the producers can still charge a pile of cash… and keep the lot themselves?

That way carries far less risk. Touts lose money on what they can’t sell. Producers only lose if the seat isn’t sold at all. They still lose if they have to sell too cheap – below cost price – but it’s a lesser amount, and they have the advantage of being able to sell at the theatre right up to the moment the show begins.

Consumers will win, in that the tickets will be genuine and if there is a problem, the theatre will be able to track it down and solve it. Also, and more obviously, if the touts can’t get the tickets in the first place, we all have a greater choice of the good ones.

Actually regulating ticket flow comes down to two things. First, making sure the buyers are genuine and second, giving those genuine people a means to return tickets if they can’t use them.

The “secondary re-selling” websites survive at least in part due to unwanted non-refundable seats being sold on. Mostly, though, it’s professional sellers (and the site owners doing deals with venues), but still, it is a means for the public to recoup a loss they can’t make up in any other way.

Verifying genuine fans isn’t that hard. A database of previous transactions show who are the regulars, for a start. Requiring pre-registration of payment cards to be used may help, again weeding out multiple users. Doing the whole thing by post, and mailing in a photo to be printed on the ticket is my favourite, but it doesn’t draw headlines.

Whichever is chosen, it is at least a step in the right direction, and good luck to those getting tickets too. I for one am looking forward to it.

Shopping and F**king: Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

October 19, 2016

(seen at the afternoon performance on 15th October 2016).

This production made just one fatal error. It decided to sell one of those combined “programme and script” books, in place of the simple programme. That allowed me (who missed the play first time around) to examine it properly after the show…

… and discover, to my frank astonishment, that there was a far deeper, more coherent and cohesive play in that book than managed to reach the stage.

That said, there is plenty to like. Sophie Wu has proven her worth after her early promise in “Table” at the National Theatre, becoming a high-energy yet always perfectly controlled young actor to watch. Lovely work too from Sam Spruell as addict Mark and Alex Arnold as Robbie.

Existing in a world half 1990s – the script; half ambiguously later – the staging using plenty of “green screen” video camera work which wouldn’t have been prevalent at the time; and, oddly almost 80s video and captioning, the production rather over-reaches.

Catalyst Brian is played by the female Robin Soans, lending an early scene a lesbian feeling which almost dilutes the male gay atmosphere too far. Worse, playing a “job interview” as a “lecture / pupil” scene utterly distorts the meaning and made it incredibly hard to follow the beginning of the major plot theme.

Other switches in the text, and an utterly incomprehensible “audience participation” gambit compound the feeling that Sean Holmes should have trusted the original and kept it considerably more intimate in both feel and visual look. It really is about young energy, and there is plenty of it, if only he would let it carry the evening.

Had there been an effort to harness words and text to a something set completely in its period context, the play would have been revealed as a perfect time-capsule of both the mid-1990s and indeed mid 1990s theatre. Everything had become about money, was for sale, yet we hadn’t quite developed the means of instant trade and riches the story hinted at.

Left alone, Ravenhill’s writing would have been applauded last weekend for prescience and accuracy. Swamped by a wealth not yet seen at the time of writing, the audience had to work unnecessarily hard to dig for that clever message.

Ultimately still an interesting play, but one for directors to handle with greater caution, I feel.

 

It’s a National Theatre Production

October 5, 2016

I catch myself saying it often, and it’s lazy, insulting to the producers… and, I’m afraid, often true, whether positive or, ‘not a National Production.”

So what do I mean by it?

Simply, when the National Theatre do anything in their own home, or move it to the West End or further afield, it’s always the same. No matter how good or bad the script, they put everything in to it, in a way that few other producers – Disney and Cameron Mackintosh to mention two – usually do.

You get the biggest cast, sets and costumes which are immaculately conceived and executed, lighting of the highest order and an overall air of ‘self-confidence’ like they’ve just graduated from Oxbridge via Eton.

Never do you seem to hear a producer murmur, “can’t afford the extra chesterfield / third fairy / 12th stagehand.” Sometimes, in fact, you wish they would hold back a little, as there can be a tendency to ‘overkill’ (“The Hard Problem” being a case in point, with scenes physically shifted so often, you started to notice which crew member had which job each time).

The fact is, though, it’s become theatrical shorthand, round here at least, for ‘they’ve put everything they have into the show;” and that’s the right thing to do, every time.

Absolutely any production, professional or amateur, West End or Little-Piddling-In-The-Wells Playhouse needs to convince the paying audience that they are worth watching from the start. ‘Looking the business’ is the way to do that.

If you seem well-produced, with confident acting and a director who has found something interesting in both cast and script, you can do no wrong. A fringe production with no more than a few chairs, or a musical with flying carpets – if it doesn’t look like anyone has taken a “heck, it’s theatre, we do the very best every night and hope you love it” – then there is nothing to believe in, and audiences won’t.

Yes, it works the other way, and “The Suicide” at the National ranks as, well, one of the rankest afternoons I’ve ever spent in a theatre, anywhere… but even then, they spent cash so that it looked good. Whether it was too late by the time the thing went into full production to call a halt, I don’t know (and of course, a fair few liked it), but the fact was, it was done with conviction.

Maybe that’s what I mean. If it’s good enough for the cast and production team to invest maximum time, effort and ability so that it looks the best it can, then it’s worthy of being shown to the nation. A “national” theatre production indeed.
 

 

No blog next week, back on the 19th October.

Those “Emperor’s New Clothes” moments

September 28, 2016

I saw “No Man’s Land” at Wyndham’s Theatre last Saturday, and can’t stop thinking about it. What did it all MEAN?! I decided that it was about death. The first half was a musical, old men singing their lives as the curtain falls. The second, the afterlife struggle with devils, trying to regain lost power. That was my reaction and conclusion, partly reached during the performance, partly after much thought afterwards.

The thing is, though, something else also niggled at me…

… had I been duped? Was “The King in the All Together?” Was either Pinter having a laugh at the expense of well, basically, everybody – or have I simply joined the ranks of those who don’t dare to question, but accept that the finery is all there?

Put bluntly, was I paying good money to sit through a right load of old w**k – basically a bunch of disconnected words with a decent knob gag and comedy magic routine thrown in? More to the point, was I being a total pretentious t*at for not realising, or being willing to “go along with it all, because it is the-ay-tar, dar-ling?”

I think I was having one of those moments when I perhaps saw theatre as, well, those who lead their lives in wildly different ways to me might see it.

A couple of weeks ago, I surprised a person I was chatting to, when they asked, “what do you see,” and I replied “literally everything, I love panto as much as Shakespeare.” But I want to go further. I’m also a huge fan of “Coronation Street” (the “senior soap”) and also have never missed an episode of “Hollyoaks” either – a soap so vacuous half the cast asphyxiate in the lack of oxygen within the script. But I love it.

I’ve also not yet missed an episode of the infamous “Stage School” – a “reality TV show for producers who can’t get a job on proper reality TV shows,” and am already blacking out my autumnal Saturday evenings “The X-Factor” as always.

My point is, what would others who watch those TV programmes and enjoy them as much as I do, make of Pinter’s two men telling tales in few words and making little sense, to a silent audience hanging on every syllable and paying up to £125 for the privilege.

I can think of quite a lot of people I know – even one or two friends – who would have either left the theatre after 10 minutes (pausing only to torture the box office staff until they got refunds), fallen asleep, or simply started heckling to a point where police intervention would be required.

And my question is, would they be right? Maybe, and obviously, not to the extremes I’ve outlined for comic effect, but I mean in seeing that collection of words for what it is? It’s not like there was a story (unless you invent one for yourself) nor a point, moral or fable. It was people talking, drinking and eating, and not even people you could relate to in everyday life – they weren’t even speaking naturally, for goodness sake!

And yet, the label reads “art,” no “f” before it either, and the play has seldom been out of production since the 1970s. Should all “art” be inclusive and “intellectually accessible” or are those who consider themselves “intellectual enough to access it” in fact a bunch of deluded prats with a god-complex? I honestly hope not, and that rather like the play itself, I’m putting an interpretation on it…

…but still, I have to wonder, is there such a thing as a “G-String for the mind” – a thought processes we put on a play, covering something which isn’t there or that we’d rather not see – and do us theatregoers employ it rather more than we would like to admit? Like I said, I wonder…

Shows that exist due to internet hype?

September 21, 2016

Back in August, when the next block of Potter tickets were released and sold in hours, I reminded younger readers on theatreboard.co.uk of the mid 1980s and early 1990s where we would wait a year or more to see “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables” and “Cats.” Technology meant the tickets sold a little slower – you could only book by post, phone or in person back then – but the result was the same. As I was typing that reply, however, the thought suddenly struck me, “how did we know they were worth waiting for, and does the internet now play a part in keeping even mediocre shows busy now?”

Back then, a far greater audience read the same few newspapers and heard the same messages on TV and radio, concentrated into a very few stations. With less choice, I guess the hype could build and, rather like Patrick “American Psycho” Bateman, kudos was gained by being first in your social group to have tickets.

Now, the “official voices” are diluted by fan sites, many obsessive. I remember in the early 2000s being highly amused by one such “Les Misérables” site on which a teen girl, not even born when the original opened, painstakingly spelled out every abbreviation for characters that we needed to know, apparently, to be a fan.

It’s also obvious on discussion website theatreboard.co.uk that “Wicked” is by far the most discussed show – and the one I get most day seat reports from too.

These shows have a massive marketing spend, of course, but the fact new generations are finding new ways to spread the word has to play a part in keeping them open, doesn’t it. These fans generate repeat visits, sometimes obsessively, which fills seats even outside the main tourist season, and even hands the baton to yet another generation too.

My question, though, is if this obsession crowds out other shows? Far harder to find “fan sites” about “The Go-Between,” for example. Mr Crawford, of course, but not the show. Likewise “Bend It Like Beckham” in its day and others. I’m not saying that either would have run longer, necessarily, or had much of a future life after closure, but it is weird that few new shows seem to attract the same “critical mass” online as those of my own teenage times.

Are there ways of seeding the web that have not been explored – I don’t mean handing tickets to illiterate bloggers, nor fake or illegal websites being set up posing as fans. I’m talking about sustained campaigns to build awareness, and really involve the obsessive generation in a show. Maybe allow off-shoots from the official show website, letting fans post pages and share comments? Marketing campaigns where they will see them on the latest social media rather than common Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat?

I don’t know why one show “takes” online any more than why one runs or not, but it’s interesting, isn’t it.

Ghost: The Musical (On Tour)

September 14, 2016

Seen at the New Wimbledon Theatre at the afternoon performance on 10th September 2016.

For various reasons, I never saw the original London version at the Piccadilly Theatre, so, unlike (seemingly) most of the audience that afternoon, I have nothing to compare it with. I’m told that the original was a spectacular multi-media effort, with magical illusions to make the producer of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s” wand wilt.

According to the programme, this is a new version of the show, based on an American small-scale revival – and it is also designed for a national tour. So, I was prepared to accept the compromises… and there were. A superb sound design (Dan Samson) made up for Nick Riching’s rather spare lighting – notably lacking whenever an actor was condemned to leave up or down, alas – though mostly adequate. Mark Bailey managed to give us a sense of place with only minimal flat scenery and no projections, and a decent enough finale backdrop too.

Sadly, Richard Pinner’s illusions were reduced to the smallest scale, and those on the left of the auditorium emitted laughter at the “walking through the door (which conveniently has a sliding panel)” effect, and woeful “spirit leaving body” scenes. Also, could the budget not have stretched to authentic looking hospital and subway signage? Really disconcertingly poor artwork there.

The story itself is as gripping as the original movie, with enough sniffing from the audience around me to suggest the end found its mark. The first half has both pacing and choreography (Alistair David) issues, particularly in the ensemble dance numbers which fail to hide the lack of bodies for the scene and evoke no New York Street energy at all. From the emergence of fake psychic Oda Mae onwards however, things look up.

Oda Mae (Jacqui Dubois) is the real deal. Hilarious, all singing, all dancing and making the unlovable a real character, hers is the performance of the night. A nod to, for her acolyte, huge voiced Louisa (Tarisha Rommick).

For the men, this is Leo Sene’s evening, as evil a murderer as you’ll see on stage – an amoral triumph of characterisation. Notes too, for Sam Ferriday as Carl, his evil employer, and forlorn rapper Garry Lee Netley as the Subway Ghost.

So, with the supporting cast working hard, what of the leads, Sam and Molly? Andy Moss as Sam took a while to get comfortable and find his place on stage. His early scenes are sketched in, which doesn’t help, and the “big number” is hinted at then fizzles out at least twice (and, sadly does so again when its time finally comes). For all that, he’s a likable presence and a hint of real musical theatre ability happens when left alone on stage in the second half.

As Molly, Sarah Harding returned for the performance I saw, following treatment for a reported “Upper Respiratory Tract” infection – ironically” Miss Adelaide’s” complaint in “Guys and Dolls.” Ms Harding cuts a highly attractive figure (there is even an opportunity to observe her torso tattoos, for those into that sort of thing).

Her vocal skills could well have been affected by her problems earlier in the week, as she struggled with every higher note and found the “break” between high and low a struggle to negotiate. Theatre songs also require breathing and timing to transmit their message, and again, her health issues saw her pushed to make the required pauses and emphasis, which sadly proved beyond her capabilities at the time.

Probably down to the stress of it all, her songs were mostly delivered seated, in a rather “pop video” way, and her emotions were held firmly in check throughout, probably to prevent the exhaustion that performing a two and a half hour show after illness will surely cause. A little burst of dance near the end was a nice release for all, though. Still, it may be that the strain of unfamiliarity with musical theatre and its requirements are taking their toll early, with a substitution perhaps going to be required at some point if her health and abilities cannot be found.

In summary, this is an ensemble who try hard, has some outstanding cast members and a tale to tell which proved more than adequate reward for my cross-London trek.