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Pretention or just pretend?

March 15, 2017

In the space of one month last year I saw two productions, “No Man’s Land” and “Nice Fish” – plays with star-driven casts and no immediate plot.

“No Man’s Land” warranted a “The Wonder Years” rating on my scale, while “Nice Fish” ended up as “Bug Juice.” Both were about characters, rather than stories, yet one worked as it has for decades, the other had me wondering who the co-author paid to get it into town.

Pinter’s classic “sang.” The wordplay was intelligent, every syllable adding to the depth of our understanding of the person saying it. Each line justifying being spoken because it was a truthful revelation about something intangible. It didn’t have to hold immediate meaning, but it resonated on some deeper level so that long after the curtain fell, the mind went back and made some connection that made the whole event worthwhile and live again in subconscious thoughts.

“Nice Fish,” stank. Supposedly based on “lyrical poetry” – which means long descriptions of a type that would get you a decent grade in “O” Level English in my day, and a fail at University creative writing level in the UK, though probably a Masters (well, a run in a West End theatre) if you happen to be from a country that has lower standards – to say the least.

To add non-sequiturs and lines that go nowhere, fail to add insight beyond the obvious meaning, “I was found out,” – OK, and you are telling me this, why? Did it shape you, does it mean something, are you a convict enjoying the open air or an idiot or what? Annoys the audience, and gives us nothing back for our attention in trying to understand the intention of both actor and author.

The difference is that we have to believe that beneath the surface is something not only solid to hold the play up, but deeply satisfying if we are willing to look there and find it. The actors construct our mineshaft to it as we watch, and the script is conduit through which what they discovers will flow. If they sink a shaft and there is nothing there, and we know pretty soon that they are simply digging a hole as the script fails to fill the gap they are creating, the result is one black evening with nothing to show for it.

If that sounds angry and disappointed, yes, I was. I’ll happily take a piece about thoughts rather than one with a trite tale, but please, make it like Pinter and give me something to think about rather than tell me that you were able to get some messy mental output staged, just because the co-author is more than a bit famous and talented in his own right. Thank you.

 

See Me Now (Young Vic Theatre)

March 8, 2017


(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th March 2017)

From Katrina Kindsay’s inspired “Amsterdam ‘Red Light District’ Shop Window Booths” design emerge prostitutes. Real ones, not actors. Well, one is, when she can get the chance, but this is her “day job.”

There follows an hour and a half of truth-telling that is by turn funny, sad, shocking, amusing, upsetting, surprising, painful (you would not believe what a dominatrix has that can go where a man… anyway…) and always, always captivating, enthralling, and deeply, deeply moving.

Forget those sensationalist “Channel 4 documentaries” which are mostly of the “come look at the freaks” variety, or at least have a snide “we are better than you” edge to them (“Flynt” recognises and filters out their researchers when they call!). This is the real thing, and the cast are simply people like you and me, who happen to be doing a job. As “Rick” points out – it’s better than being scared and attacked at work… and he is talking about his time as a supermarket assistant.

Some chose the life, “Flynt” found that he could entertain,


“Peter” (above) at 67 works waiting, cleaning and prostitution jobs – and finds the last the least interesting (another stranger wanting to, well, anyway, when he really can’t be bothered, but has a mortgage to pay). “Beth” uses it to deal with drama school debts – and (thanks to a conviction during which police humiliated her worse than any client, she says), she can’t even work in acting much any more; while “B” used it as a sideline and “Governess Elizabeth” as a springboard for academic research (and teaching others).

Others fell into it,


addict Jane (above), and broke singer Dee found a way to make money as life crumbled. “Pan” found acceptance through it, in a world where gender identity fluidity can be a positive. Two others, “Adorable” (who lives up to her name) was trafficked from her home country, while tiny and talented dancer “Zariya” came the “abused as a child” route that might just be the one audiences most expect. The fact she is “owned” by someone for a brief period makes her feel, in a twisted way, safe.

This is no litany of “who did what to me and when,” but a fully-fledged performance.

Stories are told, equipment demonstrated, talents for music and character acting revealed. “B” – a sort of Matthew Lucas clone – plays an ancient courtesan, Nell Gynn and “Madam Cyn,” with the audience (literally) involved… for the record, I was NOT at the party as she claimed… and I can prove it… I think… if I can find the luncheon vouchers… er.. moving quickly on…

The tenderest moments are the noisiest, a party sequence with outlines on the floor; the use of light and movement to describe emotion – and a final chair-top revelation. All by real people, no performances. In fact, as I remarked to the person beside me, I’d even like to see it with actors, just to examine the text for interest. A blank look was the response, but there is a second piece here, underlying the reality, that I think would bear a parallel drama experience.

That bit of theatrical philosophy on my part dispensed with, the truth is that this can only be done with those who created it, and it makes it the unique experience that it is. If only one point can be taken, it is that each and every person on the stage is no different to the people watching. If B and Jane and Pan in particular may turn heads or cause a wider berth to be steered… this production begs seeing them – along with the work they and the others do – with fresh eyes in future.


It’s an un-repeatable and bold piece of experimental theatre, and one of those productions that makes me fall in love with the theatrical all over again. Real people being honest and communicating uninhibited, unbiased and uncensored ideas drawn from life experiences, to an engaged audience, is all that theatre should be. If only there were a way to transfer it to a wider audience, but such is true theatre, it is fleeting.

An enriching experience, that truly brings a whole new perspective on life to all who were lucky enough to see them now.

 

Photo credit: Matt Humphrey. Used by kind permission of the Young Vic Theatre, and indeed the performers, whose privacy is theirs even as they share their lives with us.

 

Evita (New Wimbledon Theatre)

March 1, 2017

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Seen at the afternoon performance on 25th February 2017.

With an extreme jolt, I realised it was exactly 31 years since I saw the original London production… and that was around 8 years after that had opened. Anyway, I am pleased to report that an old friend is in very good shape indeed.

The pernickety may feel the columns in Matthew Wright’s set are a trifle insubstantial, but they have to tour the country; and anyway, they work perfectly  – for the closing tableaux, in particular. The rest of his set is mostly highly impressive – his balcony, combined with Mark Howett’s “stellar” lighting provides a glorious dignity in the key scenes, while his “bus” and “debating chamber” match the theatricality of the originals. Only quibbles here are the rather perfectly shaped protest signs… and Evita’s dressing table being the same 1970s design as my mother’s.

The show itself holds up even better, feeling relevant in present times – occasionally uncomfortably so in its reliance on “alternative facts.” David Steadman produces a superb sound from the orchestra pit, and Dan Samson’s trade mark care ensures we hear it and the actors clearly.

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In the title role, Emma Hatton produces probably the most dissembling Eva ever. Her “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” surely ranks as one of the least truthful performances in musical theatre history – in the best possible way. Lying her head off through the entire “big number,” she was. When I find myself stifling a laughing snort at the line “All you have to do is look at me to know, that every word is true,” I know the actor has hit her target. If at times she had an odd resemblance to Elaine Paige both physically and vocally, her own interpretation was clear – and her detailed growth in confidence and raging despair at premature decline were impressive.

Her husband, Peron (Kevin Stephen-Jones) manages the difficult task of concealing who holds the real interest of the people, and makes the insertion of film-written “You Must Love Me” seem almost welcome – no mean feat.

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Gian Marco Schiaretti finds the dry sarcasm in commentator Che with ease.

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His connections with Eva are calculatingly, chillingly static – poisonous yet with the grudging admiration of one aspiring leader to another. One unfortunate “Alvin and the Chipmunks” moment in “Oh What A Circus” ignored, also a faultless vocal performance.

A special mention, too for Mistress Sarah O’Connor. An absolutely definitive “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” gave this over-done number a fresh vitality, deep meaning and show-stopping significance.

Oscar Balmaseda’s creepy Magaldi is another highlight, remaining an absolute loser to the end, in an amusingly strong characterisation.

In the smaller roles, Lewis Barnshaw’s Priest wisely resists the temptation to sling holy water in time with the music, and frankly Aristocrats George Arvidson,  and particularly snooty ladies Jessica Ellen, Kellie Gnauck, Kate Leiper and Chrissie Perkins deserve all they get. Particular praise for Bill Deamer’s choreography, their dance numbers were inventive and beautifully executed.

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Directors Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright have created an Evita that may flow a little more Latin-paced than the busy Hal Prince original, but retains a bite hotter than a chilli-pepper when required. A large cast in a well-conceived version, this has to be worth travelling to see, if it comes within striking distance of your home town. Trust me, it’s one ticket worth rolling in for.

 

(On Tour continuing: Oxford 7th to 11th March, Salford 14th to 18th March, Cardiff 20th to 25th March, York 28th March to 1st April, Sunderland 4th to 8th April 2017). See www.kenwright.com for details.

 

Photograph credit: Pamela Raith. Used by kind permission of the New Wimbledon Theatre.

She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

February 22, 2017

Seen at the Afternoon performance on 30th December 2016.

I have fond memories of the 1990s Savoy Theatre production, an elaborate turntable affair with Ruthie Henshall and John Gordon-Sinclair. Now, with Scarlett Strallen (Amalia) and Mark Umbers (Georg) to buy her ice-cream, could the magic live again on a far smaller stage?

The answer is an emphatic yes, and it’s at least partly down to director Matthew White’s decision to use British accents to delineate the “class” aspect of the show equal to the love story. Katherine Kingsley’s “common” Ilona is the lynchpin in this idea. Arguably one of the cleverest musical theatre performances of the year, her scenes not only register, but resonate throughout the evening as anchor to the concept.

Callum Howells (Arpad) – a delivery boy seeking advancement – is her male counterpart, more proof that in this show, it is the small roles driving the plot, and keeping it from diabetic-threatening supersweetness.

That isn’t to say the villain Kodaly (Dominic Tighe – nicely judged and balanced) doesn’t neatly spoil the atmosphere, but in general it’s as upbeat as perfumer Maraczek (a muted Les Dennis) could wish, to drum up business.

Some good designs from Paul Farnsworth keeps the action moving from shop to exterior to restaurant, and there’s a sense of light humour even in the darker moments. Strallen and Umbers extract every ounce of fun and fury from their characters – the “Ice Cream” scene is as highly effective as anyone could wish (though oddly Amalia is a member of British 1970s / 80s book club phenomenon BCA, going by the pile by her bed, but anyway)…

A lovely ensemble give Cory English’s restaurant waiter plenty to do, and later a choral to consumerism, again taking this series of meetings in new and fun directions.

Sure, there isn’t much book, or even much in the way of a hit score – “Ice Cream,” “Tonight At Eight” and “Twelve Days to Christmas” the best, “Good Morning, Good Day” and “Please Call Again” nice ear-worms. Still, it’s good-natured, with a few thrills and an expert cast under a sensible director.

Probably never a commercially viable revival in the West End, this proves it should have a life outside it, and this is a good a template as I could hope for. A lovely acquaintance renewed.

Promises Promises (Southwark Playhouse)

February 15, 2017

Seen at the afternoon performance on 11th February 2017.

After the relaxed pleasure of “Close To You” in the West End, and the inestimable joy of seeing the Great Man himself in concert at the Festival Hall last July, I was keen to see his only stage musical – and grateful as ever to Southwark Playhouse for its policy of playing shows London has rarely, if ever, seen, in as full a production as space and budgets allow.

In that department, this is no exception. Simon Wells (with help from Ollie Last) gives us a versatile office and restaurant on wheels, plus a glide-in apartment, furnished “in period” as best they can (Chuck’s Apartment gets BBC2, according to the listings magazine by his telephone, interestingly). Costumes and style of the times are perfect, too, and Ben M Rogers gives us helpful – sometimes humorous – scene setting projections.

There’s an outstanding performance by John Guerrasio as Dr Dreyfuss too. The man (who uncannily resembles my old history teacher, weirdly) saves the entire show with an hilarious delivery and great acting style in the second half.

For this is a show that works against the best efforts of the cast. A thin story – of a man who loans his apartment out to randy co-workers, and pines for one co-worker he can’t get – is sprawling and repetitive in the first half, and only springs to life when the focus narrows, as it should on Chuck (Gabriel Vick) and object of desire Fran (Daisy Maywood).

They make the most of duet “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” and do produce a fairly convincing happy ending. Trouble is, they have to get through act one first. Director Bronagh Lagan opts for a cinematic approach, complete with “freeze frames” that kill audience empathy stone dead as nothing connects as a stage (rather than this screen) effort should.

With a far looser hand on the tiller in the frenetic second half, suddenly the warmth begins to appear – a nod to Alex Young, whose drunken Marge had to be rescued by a member of the front row – as we spend more time on fewer characters and the set-up develops.

The score, sadly, is as sub-standard as the book. A notable injection of a well-known Bacharach number props up the first half, but really, would the show have suffered losing “Turky Lurky Time” (outside of giving Emily Squibb, Natalie Moore-Williams and Claire Doyle a chance to prove they can entertain)?.

Almost 3 hours long, and it feels it, alas. Fifty years ago, this show was revolutionary. Now, it isn’t strong enough to be a classic, but this revival proves that there could be a better show to be had – if anyone were brave enough to trim the script and raid Mr B’s back catalogue.

One revival in need of a revisical, I feel.

Truly “Accessible” Ticket Prices?

February 8, 2017

Inspired by an online discussion at http://theatreboard.co.uk/thread/610/angels-america-nt, where regular contributor Abby pointed out, “It’s interesting you mention the ROH/ENO as something that has always annoyed me is rich privileged people (not anyone here!) going on about how accessible opera is because the cheapest seats are £10 – they clearly haven’t ever sat in those seats if they think that’s a good way to experience opera, let alone dance. I’ve got to an age where it’s the best or second best seat or else I don’t bother because for me it’s just not worth being uncomfortable and frustrated in a lousy seat.”

I’d been thinking how to express that about theatre for ages, and I have to thank Abby for getting it out there so clearly. Quite simply, I think it really is all too often total rubbish about “making our show accessible to a wider audience” when the said “cheap seats” are going to provide an experience vastly inferior to the one those who can afford to pay for decent stalls seats are getting.

I always cringe when I see showbiz reporters trumpeting a potential starry hit that will be advertising “hundreds of £10 seats.” Sometimes, rarely, they are actually pretty good seats – ends of front rows or the back couple of rows of the stalls and dress circle, in the theatres that have a reasonable view back there. More often, though, they are the second and third balcony, and really restricted view stuff elsewhere…

The cynic in me suspects they are priced that way because someone has calculated that those seats will fill them with people who won’t know how to complain – but will remember not to buy them in future…

The result is that you get a first time theatregoer to come to the theatre. They sit in those grotty seats, can’t see or hear properly, and have to be winched out of them at the end… of course they don’t come back.

I grew keen on theatre thanks to “student standby.” In the days before “day seats” and discounts, you rolled up an hour before the show (longer, if you knew the play wasn’t doing well and they wanted every penny they could get) and you’d be sold the best available seat. That meant stalls and dress circle, and quite often if you were nice to them, you could even pick your pleasure, more or less.

When I grew up (Matilda) and had to pay full price, that was quite a shock. Luckily, even before I created Theatremonkey, I had the resource of all my notes to home in on the cheap but good seats – something I do to this day… and I think I could say from my 16 years online that I’ve helped many others do that too.

Once more, I wonder if the David Pugh philosophy is far better. “The Girls” has reasonably priced seats in all parts of the theatre, so there’s no need for a stunt discounting of a few cramped ones at the back. Prices are fair, and for a musical keen to attract a new audience, I think that will work very well.

Be interesting to see if others adopt this fairer, but less headline-grabbing approach. For the sake of building the theatre audience of the future by acknowledging successful method of the past, let’s hope it works and they do.

The Goodmonkey Awards 2017

February 1, 2017

They’re here. Called by “The Stage” newspaper the “awards we’ve never heard of, and wouldn’t cover if we did,” by the Society of London Theatre’s Olivier Awards Committee, “the only theatre awards in West End that our governing body actively deny,” and the only awards in the world where the “nomination envelopes” are marked “return to sender,” here they are, anyway, as is traditional, most important first:

 

Theatremonkey Gold Medal of Honour. To Disney Theatrical Productions and Delfont Mackintosh Theatres. On June 13th 2016, a vigil was held outside the Prince Edward Theatre in Soho, in memory of victims of the Orlando Killings. Despite it being a vitally important performance of new musical “Aladdin,” Disney and the theatre owners replaced all electronic canopy signage with the Pride flag, and organised a silence within the building, matching the one outside.

 

A silk Kigurumi: To the make-up team at “Linda” at the Royal Court. It elicited a genuine gasp from me as the skunk outfit fell to reveal… very, very impressive.

 

The Kidney and Ball Valve: to Charlie Russell for that sequence every night during “The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.” Concurrently, a bar of Lifebuoy and toothbrush to the noxious 10 year old boy (seated behind me) making a disgustingly crude “skill to pay the bill” remark during said sequence at the performance I saw.

 

A personal “You, dear Boy” from the Great Man himself: to Duncan Macmillan and Barbara Marten of “People, Places and Things.” Writer, and characters of doctor / mother, neither got the Olivier they should’ve, so should get to be told in person.

 

A copy of “Zen and the Art of Stage Management”: to “In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel” for a minimalist scene change. During the (unnecessary) interval, a stage hand comes on and exchanges the flower on an upstage table with one on a table downstage. That’s all, folks! Concurrently, a copy of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” to the London Coliseum crew at “Sunset Boulevard,” who put on a proper “Laurel and Hardy” act when trying to use too short a ladder to retrieve a streamer left hanging centre stage after act 1’s “New Year’s Eve” sequence. They did it, and the great British public duly rewarded them with an ironic round of applause.

 

The Oliver Twist Bowl (and Spoon) for classiest beggar: to Gemma Arterton, for her beautifully polite appeal for donations at the end of “Nell Gwynn.” Her leading man was running the marathon the next day, and hadn’t done much about sponsorship. Ms Arterton stepped forward at the end of the show and “knew that tickets were expensive” but “could we spare some loose change or notes.” No politics, just a plea for help. I went out of my way to do so.

 

A Dali Sketch (for most surreal complaint): to the person behind me at “Show Boat.” Julie was in the middle of singing “Bill,” when there was a rustling of a couple standing, and an elderly voice exclaiming, “we are moving because we can’t stand the smell of your onions.” Concurrently, the Fawlty Moose-Head for Inexplicable Behaviour to the person, several seats away in a row behind me, who managed to flick a hair-band across my eye-line during the battle scenes at “Henry V” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

 

Livingstone Newt (For subtly concealing racism): to Lez Brotherston and team, for dropping the “N” word from the libretto of “Show Boat,” but cleverly replacing it with a Confederate Flag. Chilling and inspired staging.

 

“Two Paws on Shoulders’ (for nicest welcome to a theatre): to the Front of House teams at the Playhouse and Palace Theatres. At the Playhouse, warm first words for every customer at the door, ticket checked, and directed to the exact staircase – plus (on request) the nearest gents’ – all in not just efficient but a “glad you are here” way. At the Palace, a delightfully witty lady usher engaging everyone with a charming line in chat – and also a security team who assisted me with what could have been a slight issue regarding my bringing an essential dietary pack with me. Pre-arranged and worked on the day, deeply appreciated. Every theatre should be like this.

 

Dyson-Kenevil Wheelie for innovation: to Howard Panter and Adam Speers for the first ever attempt at West End “Stunt Writing” by getting Matthew Perry to pen “The End of Longing.”

 

Hyacinth Bucket Bouquet: to the Savoy Hotel for “moving on” an early arriving day-seater for “Funny Girl,” who was eating his breakfast on a pavement (owned by them) in front of the theatre while he waited. Their street, their rules, apparently…

 

The Shenton Suggestion Box, for review idea of the year: On the ticket agency londontheatredirect’s website, a “Show Boat” customer reviewer posted: “”The 4 main singers / actors were outstanding. Staging was good & cleverly used. Our seat with restrictions was great at the price . Shame there was not a final sing along at the end.” That was in July. Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and Florenz Ziegfeld will have stopped whizzing round in their graves by now… probably.

 

The Rose (Bruford) for Most Fragrant Actor: To Joanna Vanderham (Lady Anne in “Richard III” at the Almeida). Her choice of toiletries continuously delighted the nostrils of all sitting along the aisles through which she made her entrances and exits.

 

The Keys to Arthur Daley’s Lockup: to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, for ingenious “dynamic pricing” of programmes. In July 2016, a “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” programme cost £6 Monday to Thursday… £8 Friday and Saturday. Hilarious! And hope it doesn’t catch on.

 

A melted Lego Brick (for terrible “blocking”): to Tom Sutherland for placing a key song in Southwark Playhouse’s “Allegro” on a high ladder… so that the view from my seat (A10) had an uninterrupted view… straight up singer Ms Katie Bernstein’s skirt. I looked away of course, but placing the platform just a few inches more centrally would have spared blushes all round.

 

An NHS Contract: to “A Pacifict’s Guide to the War on Cancer” for selling a programme, complete with hospital notes cover sleeve. If only the show had been half as inventive and interesting…

 

The Al Murray “Landlord’s Wave”: to Christina Bianco and the house manager at the Charing Cross Theatre. The performer tried bravely to incorporate a sozzled beyond reason woman in row C, into the show, before being rescued at the interval, when the house manager managed to convince the drunk to leave – peacefully and with almost imperceptible persuasion. There’s skill on both parts.

 

And that’s about it. Probably the only 2016 awards not to give Harry Potter anything for the actual play, but it’s about the whole experience. As audiences run riot, there’s still plenty to reward, so here’s to next year. See you in the stalls…