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The Doctor: Almeida Theatre

September 18, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 28th August 2019)

A doctor’s act of mercy sets off a string of events offering an opportunity to explore the roles of race, gender, power and religion in society today.

For Robert Icke’s last production for the Almeida, he takes a scalpel and carves the Statue of Liberty from pure ice with immaculate detail over the course of almost three hours.

A free adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Professor Bernhardi,” the monkey is keeping the entire review deliberately vague, as to reveal too much would spoil entirely the delight of discovery. Simply, this tackles many issues by demonstrating effortlessly how inter-related they are.

The first half sees the actors define themselves with fluidity in a mixture of race and gender assignments shifting as much as their loyalties to themselves and their beliefs.

The second act is a confrontation of those things, as resolutions are reached and the epic set-ups crumble to reveal final shapes.

Casting is immaculate, with Juliet Stevenson’s doctor creating a world so real there are sighs of sympathy for things not ever present, and even greater ones as her life is revealed. Hildergard Bechtler’s design is no more than tables and benches on a revolve, yet once populated the audience has no choice but to believe.

Fine work too from, in particular, Ria Zmitrowicz as a feisty juvenile, Mariah Louca as a manager without power, Naomi Wirthner as a neurosurgeon with race issues and Nathalie Armin as a politician with moral ones.

Playing with situations, the angles changing rapidly as the days continue, what could have become a morality piece digs far deeper into the fundamental divisions between “rational science” and today’s atmosphere of wilful mis-interpretation of sub-text / substitution of self-believe and self-serving narcissism, for consideration of the wider communal good and the normative of mainstream religion.

Even better, this is unafraid to question even the solidity of what we think of as historic bases. An admission that such things are changing in a way clear even to clergy is offered in this balanced take on our modern world.

It is quite possible that this play will prove to be very much “of its time” and even be unintelligible in a few years when our speed of life has moved on and perhaps the attitudes here have either taken hold or been forgotten. For the moment, though, it feels needle-sharp accurate and relevant to our times.

Explosive, compelling theatre.

 

5 stars, standing ovation.

In Conversation with Margaret Atwood: Lyttelton Theatre

September 11, 2019

10th September 2019.

Sometimes you just get lucky, this was one of those times. Drawing number 1 position in the queue when tickets went on sale, I landed one of the £25 tickets on row D. Given that the price included a copy of Atwood’s new book “The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments” with a cover price of £20, that had to be a deal, right?

On the night, organisation was superb. Before the main event, a desk staffed by cheerful folk from Waterstones were checking tickets and dispensing copies of the book. Beside them, another team from charity “Equality Now” (www.equalitynow.org) handed out free programmes, bookmarks and “Misogeny Bores Me” stickers.

Inside, on the “Hansard” set, the stalls bristled with video cameras waiting to beam proceedings to over 1500 cinemas “live” and tens of thousands more later on as global time-zones caught up.

Prompt at 7.30pm, Samira Ahmed welcomed us, and suggested turning off phones as otherwise “The Eyes” would get you… sadly, this was ignored by several folk, and black vans could be seen pulling away from Upper Ground later on…

A brief autocue introduction from Ms Ahmed welcomed the cinema audience, a little sound extract from the original “The Handmaid’s Tale” and video extract (watched on a screen above the stage) from a new documentary about the author’s life and work. This will be seen first in her native Canada, but hopefully broadcast elsewhere at a later date. Particularly interesting were the scenes from the Hay-on-Wye book festival, where Ms Atwood was followed by fans dressed in the familiar red robes.

Back to the live stage and the first major surprise of the evening. An actor stepped onto the stage to read the opening chapter from the new book. The audience was so surprised it didn’t even gasp. Why? Because we couldn’t be entirely sure… we thought it was… it couldn’t be… yes, it actually could… AUNT LYDIA!!!!! Ann Dowd herself, reading about her glorification in Gilead. Obviously worth the ticket price alone, and quite a revelation that the (un)holy terror of the Handmaids in reality is far younger, slighter and considerably less harried in person – but more of that later…

Time for the real star, as Samira Ahmed led Margaret Atwood to a pair of armchairs set to the audience’s right on the stage. The interview proper began with Atwood’s account of writing the first book in 1984 Berlin. Pre-unification, the enclosed atmosphere echoed that of the times she wrote about. The film had shown us how the first 60 pages were written long-hand, with many revisions and notes, before being typed on a rented German-language typewriter. Somehow appropriate, another level of creative restriction to be overcome.

The discussion ranged over the reasons for the new novel being set later – the author wanted to bring in new voices and angles that couldn’t be discussed by a “handmaid” who would have known nothing of the regime’s inner workings. Parallels were drawn with historical figures including Oliver Cromwell, and Atwood demonstrated her breathtakingly wide knowledge of history and political science as well as anthropology.

What particularly struck me was how different she seemed when able to present in the relaxed auditorium. Frankly, from previous television interviews, I’d expected a rather wild eccentric caricature “elderly mad-woman writer.” Margaret Atwood is none of those. Quietly spoken soft Canadian accent, exceptionally quick-minded and thoughtful yet direct and concise with each answer, utterly fascinating.

Time for two more readings. At microphones on stage to the audience’s left, Sally Hawkins read first, one account – testament – from a youngster of Gilead. Lengthy, but with sustained interest. Lily James followed, a second testament delivered with relaxed confidence.

Following them, Ann Dowd took the stage once more, with a terrific moment. Before commencing with her final reading, she fixed both young women with an “Aunt Lydia” stare. Yes, out of nowhere, Dowd transformed with a simple lift of the head into that dragon. The hard appraising look made both victims flinch visibly – and had exactly the same effect on those of us sitting that side of the auditorium. The moment passed, and we heard a few more chilling words.

Back to the interview, and the final segment became philosophical as Atwood discussed meeting “Resistance” workers from World War Two. Why did they risk themselves to shelter victims of an evil regime? The only conclusion one survivor could suggest was that it was so that they could live with themselves afterwards.

Concluding with a trio of audience questions, Atwood couldn’t think of a indicator that Female Equality had been reached. Her feeling was that we would simply know. Having read her books, seen the television adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and been present at this remarkable event to launch her new book, perhaps a suggestion: maybe it will be when women feel free – and are allowed to be free – to be themselves? That they can go about their daily lives as men do, without fear or judgement. It’s a thought.

Quite an evening, and what a way to begin a new chapter in the world-renowned universe one woman has created.

5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Lea Salonga In Concert: London Palladium (and touring)

July 24, 2019

(seen at the evening performance on 21st July 2019).

Explaining the postponement of this much-anticipated concert from February until now due to a skiing accident, Salonga remarks ruefully, “what is a Pilipino doing on a ski-slope anyway?”

Her first huge laugh of the evening, and the Palladium theatre magic kicked in. For those who don’t know, the Palladium’s stage is enchanted and always has been. It will make anyone who makes the effort look better than they are, and magnify the faults of the lazy. A good show will be great, a mediocre one humbled. This night was firmly in the first category.

Unusually for a concert, musical director Larry Yurman gave us an overture – a potted history of Lea’s life in music, familiar snippets setting the scene for her arrival on stage in a beautifully-cut jacket outfit. Thirty years on, the lady is as fresh as the girl who took London by storm in 1989, and she was going to make the most of it.

“Feeling Good” told us of her mood, and “Go the Distance” her intention for the night.

Chat, how she hopes her work will inspire others of her ethnicity to live their dreams as she does hers is underlined by “Reflection” from “Mulan” – one of three Disney movies which lead to Disney declaring her a “Disney Legend” in 2011.

A slightly odd change of pace with “Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman) and “Drops of Jupiter” (Train) follow. The latter slightly more effective and an introduction to both for this monkey.

“Human Heart” from Broadway show “Once On This Island” brought us back to show-tune territory, rather suggesting how strong a song must be for a theatre professional to get the most out of it.

Another “left field” selection, “Story of My Life” – a “One Direction” number demonstrated her range and also some risk-taking that paid off. Another risk – her own on relationships resulting in her beloved daughter – lent personal meaning to her spotlight moment closing act one, “I’d Give My Life For You” from “Miss Saigon.” And the audience knew she meant it.

Some Sondheim opened act two, with “Another Hundred People” from “Company.” Arguably the strongest performance of the night, simply up there with the original, Bernadette Peters and a very select few others. “In A Very Unusual Way” was a sensible lower-key transition into an amusing audience sing-a-long “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” Even without a small daughter, yep, knew all the words… but couldn’t get up to anything like the notes our hostess managed.

Inviting musical theatre performer Rachelle Ann Go onto the stage, “I Know Him So Well” had the monkey wishing this duo had been cast in last year’s London Coliseum revival. Both women demonstrated acting skills and understanding of the song way beyond the usual cabaret cover it has become.

Another whiff of 1980s nostalgia followed with Chris Allard on guitar accompanying a ballad arrangement of A-Ha classic “Take On Me.” One that should be recorded if it hasn’t been already.

“Burn” from “Hamilton” signalled the final run-in as show business called again – and if they are looking around for a third sister, they have one here.

Looking around the auditorium, New Zealander Charlie was chosen to duet on “A Whole New World.” Fortunately, a bit of a wit as well as able to carry a tune, the result was a fun interlude.

Back to the real business, with a “Les Miz mash up” of “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Both delivered with the weight of someone who knows the show intimately, and sagging only with the endearingly naff on-stage school disco lighting design (fortunately un-credited). The Palladium’s own wonderful team on spotlights were perfection, the rest, well, amusing anyway.

Two encores, yes, two, for the crowd. “This is Me” stood up well against the original the monkey had heard just a month ago at the Hugh Jackman concert. “The Greatest Love of All” closed the show, reminding us that whatever else, Lea Salonga’s voice is still up there with the best – high and crystal clear. If anything her diction has become even more polished with time, more than capable of dealing with the occasionally punchy sound design obviously intended for a lesser venue’s capabilities.

A special evening with one of the leading ladies of musical theatre, played to a crowd of adoring home ex-pats and British musical theatre enthusiasts. Salamat musika, salamat Lea Salonga.

 

5 stars, standing ovation.

 

And that’s it for the summer. Taking a “ blog break” now until 11th September. Back when the leaves start to fall. Watch twitter for details.

Creatively Alienating Mainstream Audiences

July 17, 2019

“Colour / gender blind casting.” A hot topic in the theatre industry for a while now. Let someone from the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community play someone “white.” Let a woman play a Shakespearian King. It gives people a chance at jobs they’ve never been considered for before.

To be totally clear before anyone reads any further, both this writer and website are 100% behind it, totally supportive and won’t have it any other way. That’s the stance, stated with absolute clarity here from the start.

What follows is discursive about how to bring others into line with that thinking – and is in no way whatsoever critical of it. A disclaimer felt necessary in a climate where discussion isn’t always welcome when it is needed and should be so.

As a theatre professional, I’ve now seen a fair selection of productions cast in this manner. Sometimes (Glenda Jackson as King Lear) it’s utterly thrilling. Sometimes alas it’s very evidently a desperate craven attempt to correct an imbalance by tokenistic “virtue signalling” – horrible to watch as the actors themselves are so clearly uncomfortable in unsuitable roles, and the director has left them hanging without a vision to justify anything at all. Mostly, though, it’s as it should be – un-noticeable, unremarkable and it’s a troupe of actors just going about their jobs. As life for everybody should be, all the time.

What worries me, the middle “tokenism” one aside, is wondering if those working in theatre totally lose any awareness that mainstream audiences in particular are not only not as “woke” as they are, but are actually feeling repelled by something they don’t fully comprehend.

In other words, they genuinely don’t understand why casting has happened in that way, and see only something they find plain peculiar, unsettling and just plain “wrong” in a way that not only ruins their evening, but puts them off going to the theatre again for life – even if they are currently happy “twice a year, wife’s birthday and Christmas” stalwarts on which box offices rely.

My reason for highlighting this is reading feedback about shows on the Londontheatredirect.com ticket agency website. The website takes a feed from “Trustpilot” the huge consumer reviews website. It’s a genuinely informative read, and quite an eye-opener in how the ordinary ticket buying public perceive the shows they see and how they buy tickets. Quite surprising nobody within the industry really takes notice – there’s plenty of useful stuff out there for absolutely all.

Anyway, the biggie which made me write this blog was the recent casting in “Les Misérables.” The Cosette at the time was played by a young black woman. Earlier in the show, however, the child playing Young Cosette was white. Personally, that doesn’t bother me. Provided both actors can perform to the highest standard the West End demands, get on with it, I say… and I was annoyed that I wasn’t able to see that casting when I went last week, as I’d heard excellent things.

From Trustpilot, though, it appeared that the general theatre audience felt very differently. They turned up for a night at a show, to relax, enjoy maybe a repeat visit or experience a musical they’ve heard a lot about for the first time – and were seemingly feeling alarmed, cheated, or just plain confused that skin colours change half way through a show and nobody explains why.

One of theatre’s major tasks is to examine and commentate on society at the time, and it’s a powerful tool to dissect ideas and attitudes. By presenting totally inclusive casting, it’s a way to confront attitudes and maybe normalise change. After all, at its baldest, “Mr Humphries” in “Are You Being Served” arguably made being overtly “camp,” the label “gay,” acceptable in almost every home at a time when his sexuality was (and how crazy it seems now) illegal.

My question is simply, do current theatre-makers need to sometimes be more aware of the wider picture? It’s obvious that they are on the right path – the Royal Shakespeare Company in particular really know what they are doing, I feel – but is there a risk of too fast, too soon and a massive “stuff the P.C. brigade” backlash that will harm not only the box office take but society itself by dividing rather than bridging, as intended?

What’s normal within the theatre bubble may not be so for some audiences. In reaching out and trying to be inclusive, there may be a danger of which those already “clued up” are unaware. It is vital to act as shepherd, bringing the flock together and leaving nobody behind, no matter how slow. A point to consider, to ensure that not just good work is being done, but being understood as well.

Death of a Salesman: Young Vic Theatre

July 10, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 29th June 2019).

Rarely has a production of this Miller classic explored with such bleak clarity the inner mind of salesman Willy Loman. The impressive jagged grey Anna Fleischle set is exploited by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell to shed entirely new light on the person worn out by the system and his responsibilities (and assumed responsibilities) towards it.

There’s fine work from the entire cast. Wendell Pierce is a Loman on the edge. His grip is allowing the final sands of his life to slip ever more quickly through his fingers, and there is startling numbness where there should be pain.

That pain is transferred all-to-visibly to wife Linda (Sharon D. Clarke). Her final moments are such that she needs a real “moment” to recover at the final curtain. Before that, her good-natured indulgence of her ill-used husband descends into unbearable blackness when he leaves for work.

The difficult roles of Biff (Arinze Kene) and Happy (Martins Imhangbe) are cast with fine young actors. Kene gives Biff rare intelligence, not just the usual football meat. The revelation of his self-inflicted defeat builds until the last moment, with Imhangbe providing both the questions and calibration of the event. Their meeting with a pair of “ladies” (Jennifer Saayeng and Nenda Neurer) is also a fittingly sordid one.

In smaller yet pivotal roles, Joseph Mydell is the mythic Uncle Ben, whose ethereal appearances do much for both atmosphere and dramatic pace. Maggie Service plays her part in Loman and son’s downfall with conviction, Femi Temowo is the father who sets the wrong direction from the start, while Matthew Seadon-Young and Trevor Cooper as Howard and Charley are perhaps what could and should have been.

By opting for inner dialogue, there is a possibility that the rawness of the story is slightly glossed over. The significant musical element is perhaps overly soothing what should be nerve-jangling – though there is also an argument it in fact lends an underlining contrast.

What is certain is that the play has not just been revived, but re-thought with a unifying concept, and not just for the sake of exploring characters from an angle dreamed up by a directorial vision. This takes the well known people and attempts to understand the leading character and just what he represents to those around him, and to the nation in general, to the great satisfaction of the audience.

5 stars.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs): Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

July 3, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 8th June 2019).

According to the programme, this is a deliberate attempt to take John Gay’s 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera” back to its roots yet updated to the present. The original reflected a real-life world audiences could relate to, and so in the 21st century should they to this new version.

The title comes from an urban myth spread by the internet. The characters come from Gay’s imagination, slotted into Carl Grose’s new script and augmented with music in a variety of modern styles from ska to rap by Charles Hazlewood.

New ideas include the corrupt election of a corrupt mayor (in which those, like myself, in the front corners of the stalls voted – the other options being a dead man and Nigel Frottage, hilarious) and the actual dog causing havoc.

Mr Punch (Sarah Wright – sadly no swazzle, so the voice really wasn’t there) is our master of ceremonies for a different romp through politics and theatre history.

Michael Vale gives us scaffolding, moving platforms and a slide on which offices, factories, prison cells and nightclubs appear. There’s puppets of all types and actor / musicians playing everything from electric guitar to washboard.

Dominic Marsh is his usual commanding self as cock-sure Macheath, never going to be caught for long either by police or women. As the former, Giles King’s manic Scottish officer Colin Lockit is amusingly competent though inaudible more often than expected. On the other hand, he has delinquent daughter Lucy to deal with. Beverly Rudd plays her to perfection as always, comedy and dramatic timing faultless as her fans expect.

The strings of Macheath and Lockit are pulled – via unlucky factotum Filch (lovely Baldrick-work from Georgia Frost) – by the Peachum family. Head of household Mrs Peachum (Rina Fatania) is scary enough to run the bent election already mentioned. Husband Les (Martin Hyder) is a satisfied wide-boy who misses the bigger picture. Together, they are the most recognisable of the modern characters. Daughter Polly (Angela Hardie) has a sweet singing voice and wide range as an actor, with notable transformations as required.

The trouble is, the show was written in 2014, and rather feels its age. Theatre has moved on, and it’s very obvious how wonderful ideas back then have now become common-place, so that viewing the original seems a little stale at times. The puppetry in particular seems a little lazy now, and if you aren’t going to produce the correct voices (which would have given a real edge to proceedings with the painful screech the material deserves) then why bother?

The musical styles are now familiar too, overly so. Events have inured us to corrupt politics as well, and the rigged election seems almost mild compared to the current fallout. The result is something in itself heading towards museum status.

Still, it’s well cast and never dull, and fresher than both the original source and indeed the last “Threepenny Opera” the National Theatre produced. If you happen to be near the tour, it’s well worth checking out. You might even want to take a milkshake along to enjoy with it.

3 stars.

King Hedley II: Theatre Royal, Stratford East

June 26, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 1st June 2019).

One of August Wilson’s “The American Century” cycle, this uses descendents of characters first seen in “Seven Guitars.” A son, King Hedley II (Aaron Pierre) is trying to re-build his life after prison.

Living with mother Ruby, he schemes with friend Mister (Dexter Flanders) to corner the stolen refrigerator market, and move on to higher things.

When wide-boy Elmore (Lenny Henry) turns up to woo his mother, and Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) arrives, things take even more sinister turns, portents commentated on by Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer) who lives next door.

The entire cast have poor black Philadelphia nailed, with Claudette Williams a fine dialect coach and a remarkable Peter McKintosh designed backyard set.

It’s a strikingly long play – 3 hours 30, with just 20 minutes interval. There’s no disguising that there are longueurs either. Life for these people meander, and sometimes it does for the audience, as relationships are not always clear and connect – with obvious significance, but not always clearly for audiences – to off-stage back-stories.

Strong acting overcomes the most part, and the audience that afternoon was enlivened with a mis-firing gun causing much hilarity. Even better, an exchange early in the second act required reference to the mal-functioning weapon, to the joyous laughter of all present. That this all lifted the action does rather underline the lack of raw humour to lighten the pain.

For this is about unrelenting pain, and the various ways of dealing with it. Education, “you need to know” about your environment, even if from donated old newspapers. Scamming, crime, repression, religion: all are explored as options and each shown clearly for what it is in the scheme of things, the beauty of Wilson’s writing intertwining them.

Whether there is a sharper play here, if it were to lose some of what gives the unique texture, this monkey isn’t sure. It does know that this is a play to be seen if only for the acting and sense of something deeper that lingers long after the curtain falls. It’s significant, and deserves to be treated as such.

The fact it deals with the 1980s USA, when the issues it raises are relevant to London, particularly London’s Black community in 2019 is vitally important and truly upsetting. One for every politician to view, for certain.

 

4 stars.