Monday, October 29, 2007


Once again I seem to have not been At The Theatre at all this week, in fact I have not even been In London. I’m spending a few days with family in Scotland, up on the north east coast where the sky seems bigger and the air smells of the sea. It’s ridiculously pretty, if a tad nippy. Reality reasserts itself on Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Major Mamet

Bit of gap in blogging this week, due to there being not so much Theatre in my life and instead a whole lot of Other. Most of this Other was rather tedious and involved Strepsils and deadlines and things, but some of it was fun, encompassing beaches and birthdays and bottles that make a pleasing popping noise when de-corked.

There was room for some Theatre in amongst the Other though, namely the new production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at the Apollo in the West End. I sometimes find Mamet a bit too cock-centric for my liking, but there’s something so satisfying about this particular play, it’s a lean, sharp, surgical thing, not a word wasted. Having said that, I was only familiar with it through the 1992 film starring Jack Lemmon, I’d not seen it on stage before. But I really enjoyed James McDonald’s taut production, even if the actors seemed to take a while to warm up to the precise, distinctive rhythms of the language.

The play concerns a group of salesman who are trying to flog Florida land-plots of dubious appeal, all chasing the vital 'leads' that might cement a sale and a chance to win a Cadillac and, more importantly, hang on to their jobs. A strong sense of aggression permeates the writing, the oily lure of money coating everything in sight. The play is short, just over ninety minutes, which includes an interval, though its presence rather punctured the pacing. I suppose it's there to allow for a major set change, from the dreary Edward Hopper-esque diner of the opening scenes to the chaotic office space of the second act (a shift dramatic enough to trigger a round of applause on the night I was in, haven’t seen the set get its own applause in a while). The scenes are also divided by slides showing verdent valleys with evocatove names, like the Glengarry Glen Ross of the title, in a nice contrast to the sludgey, smudgey browns and greys of these men's actual lives.

The acting was also pretty slick with Jonathan Pryce both pitiable and curiously unsympathetic as Shelly ‘the machine’ Levene, a salesman whose best days are clearly long behind him. His eyes still glitter though, when he talks of how it feels to make a sale, to secure that vital signature of some poor sap who has fallen for his patter. I also liked Aidan Gillen’s sweaty, agressive turn as Richard Roma, though I found his moustache unduly hilarious.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Squeak, Whimper, Croak

Eek. I am without voice, in a physical not ideological sense, you understand. It ran away over the weekend and has yet to return. This is not fun, though it does mean I can currently do a rather super impersonation of Kate Winslet at the end of Titanic: “Jack, Jack, I’ll never let you go, Jack.”

Prior to the rebellion of my vocal chords, I finally got around to seeing Punchdrunk’s The Masque Of The Red Death at the BAC, something I’d been looking forwards to for ages. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed much about the experience, I didn’t make it to the finale, (something with hindsight I suspect is not wholly unrelated to my lack of speaking ability); I hit the two hour mark and began to feel distinctly wobbly, something I attributed to the combination of disorientation and the fug of perfume and incense and my innate pathetic-ness. And though a spot of swooning would have been thematically quite in keeping with surroundings, I didn’t really want to chance it, so I had to admit defeat and seek fresh air and a brief perch on the steps outside.

While I’m rather disappointed with myself for not sticking it out (and I do wonder if the narrative tug of the thing had been just that teeny bit stronger, whether I would have sucked it up and persevered) I think I spent enough time in there to get a good sense of the show. Certainly I did my best to explore every nook and cranny of the lavishly decorated space, though I’m far from convinced I saw everything.

Anyway, if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve either been, plan to go or, if not London-based, have read copious articles about it already (here, here or here, for example), so I’ll keep my additional comments brief.

While the design and the lighting have been much commented on, the use of smell was also impressive. The incense, the perfume, it all added to the piece considerably.

It is not advisable to stand too close to the actors. I got forcibly shoved aside when I made the mistake of loitering in the wrong spot during a corridor fight scene. And yes, I know, this was probably my fault and I know the performers need to stay in character. But still, while I would rather my theatre didn’t solely lull and suckle, I’d also prefer it not leave me with bruises.

While the sight of all those white-faced figures swarming around is undeniably striking, those masks are rather like the hip, edgy theatre-going take on bowling shoes, aren’t they? I hope the next person to wear mine didn't pick up my lurgy.

It’s probably stating the obvious but to get the most out of this, you really need to be in the right mood, the right frame of mind, you need to be active, to explore, to embrace what the company are trying to do, otherwise it can be rather frustrating experience.

The future of theatre? I’m not convinced, but I’d certainly like to revisit it later in the run, when I’m physically more up to up it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Technical Hitch at the Haymarket

I looked at my watch. 7.45pm. The show was supposed to have started fifteen minutes ago, yet the safety curtain was showing no signs of rising. Hmph. The last couple of days had been really draining and un-fun and I found myself making involuntary grumpy noises. Just as I was starting to ponder exactly when I had turned into my mother, a nervous-looking, black-clad behind-the-scenes person was shoved on stage. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re having a few problems with the sound.” The rest of the audience began to make grumpy noises of their own. She disappeared for a few minutes, before returning, looking even more apprehensive. “I’m afraid we’ve not been able to fix it. But we’re going to go ahead with the show anyway.” As the house lights finally fell, the grumpy noises reached a crescendo…

OK, let’s backtrack a bit.

Theatre: Haymarket. The one with the interior that looks like Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel just mated with Versailles. My Great Aunt would adore it; she’s never gone in a room she didn’t think could be improved by a bit of gold leaf and some cherubim.

Play: Jonathan Kent’s new production of William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, last encountered, by me at least, on an A Level theatre outing, some ten (ten!) years ago.

A swaggering Toby Stephens plays the main character Horner. A known cad, the play opens with him conspiring with his doctor to put around a rumour that he is now impotent having picked up something nasty in the trouser-department while overseas (people keep saying "Oh, he's been in France" as way of explanation and then shaking their head sadly as if that explained everything). Horner has realized that his new found eunuch status will allow him to spend time with other men's wives un-chaperoned, something he intends to take full advantage of. His scheme is rather undermined however when the innocent young wife of his insanely jealous and over-protective friend Pinchwife develops a huge crush on him.

The production looks fantastic, on aesthetic terms alone it’s a winner; I loved Paul Brown's perspective-skewing sets, in bright blues and brighter pinks, doors receding into the distance. The outfits are rather wonderful too, blending historical and contemporary elements to striking effect – the men, for example, wear stunning silk frock coats over super tight jeans and billowing shirts.

Unfortunately the rest of the production struck me as rather muddled, a lot of thought and attention has gone into the surface elements but the dark heart of this tale of the corrupting tug of the city has been overlooked, glossed over in every sense. The farcical elements of the plot have been played up to the point of pantomime. It's all smutty asides, suggestive grape consumption and phallic vases. When it should have an edge, when it should get nasty, like when Pinchwife locks up his young wife and threatens to put out her eyes and carve the word ‘whore’ in her face with a pen-knife, well, it fails to have any impact. The audience greet these moments with the same level of laughter as when Horner jests of one of his conquests, revealing a secret door to his bedroom, that “I’m going in round the back” (this witty play on words is repeated a further couple of times for good measure; well, you wouldn’t want a joke of that quality to just get one airing, would you?)

The lack of shock-factor was partly down to the casting of David Haig as Pinchwife. He’s a great actor and can do panic and exasperation with ease, but is less good at conveying menace. However the real fault is with the decision to push forward the bawdy comedy at the expense of the play’s complexities. I also had problems with Fiona Glascott’s performance as Haig’s young wife. I found her, with her foot stamping tantrums, simply too childish and conversely not nearly innocent enough for the role, a bit too breathy and calculating for my liking. Still the production kept me entertained, kept me laughing, and for all the fuss they made at the start, the missing music in the first half was barely noticeable (they fixed it in time for the second act).

It did, however, take me an absolute age to realize that the music the cast take their bows too was a period-appropriate reworking of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun.

There was also a cameo by a Real Live Bunny in a hutch, though this clearly doesn’t top The Rose Tattoo’s scene-stealing goat moment in regards to pointless use of animals onstage.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Post Almost Wholly Devoted To Food

Ah, Arcola. I was back over there on Monday night to see their new production of Mustapha Matura’s Meetings, a play set in 1980s Trinidad.

It’s an intriguing but rather stilted play about a well-off, career-minded married couple who employ a cook so that the husband can reacquaint himself with the foods of his childhood. The play isn’t just about food, of course, it’s also about how economic prosperity can make people feel cut off from a more simple, tradition-driven past. But, as I’m sure the themes will be discussed more eloquently elsewhere, I, perhaps predictably, am going to focus on the food.

Designer James Humphrey has installed a working (Ikea) kitchen in the Arcola’s smaller studio space, complete with oven, sink and dishwasher – but it’s not just any kitchen, it’s a magic kitchen. Oh, yes. When Elsa, the young girl employed by the couple as cook, starts to prepare her meals, she opens up pots and pans to reveal lots of pre-chopped food. Actually I don’t really think this is meant to signify anything mystical, rather it is a time-saving device on the part of the director. Unfortunately, having all this food secreted around the set, was rather distracting – I kept thinking, how come this couple never noticed they had bread rolls in their dishwasher before?

Also the (teeny, tiny) portions that Elsa puts on the plates – and that actor Nicholai La Barrie duly eats – never resemble the tempting dishes they’re supposed to be. So she announces the fact she’s made something like ‘hearty, warming Trinidadian sausage and bean stew’ and then serves up a small puddle of watery, tomato-y liquid. I guess this is because it would be difficult to whip up said stew on set, even with most of the ingredients hidden in saucepans beforehand, but this disparity seems like a crucial flaw in a production that revolves around the evocative power of food. It just seems like such a shame; here we have a play – that, at least, superficially – is about food and a working kitchen - and all the food we see looks so miserable, so uninspiring. And this just a week after I saw ordinary (egg on toast, pasta) but at least edible looking fare, cooked up on stage at Soho Theatre in Pure Gold.

In addition to Elsa’s dubious dishes, the couple in Meetings also get through numerous slices of the most anaemic looking toast I’ve ever seen, a carton of chicken and chips, and bottle after bottle of radioactive-hued Caribbean soda (I think there may have been some sort of sponsorship thing going on here, as there was with Ikea for the kitchen). Not that they actually eat all of this, the actors pick and nibble, making yummy noises where necessary, before scraping most of it into the bin. Which could be taken as a comment on the wasteful habits of the wealthy, though I suspect it has more to do with actors not wanting to gain half a stone over the course of the run.

And the play itself, aside from all the food-related issues? Well it was an odd one, initially intriguing, but strangely paced and saddled with a bizarre subplot about Toxic Killer Cigarettes, a heavy-handed moral metaphor if ever there was one. But it was the use of food that lingered the longest and that I found myself thinking about as I rode home on the Big Ol’ Bus of Loud Shouty Drunks.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Winning Hand

So, I went to the Menier last Thursday for their revival of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice. Though – small admission – I wasn’t really looking forward to it; I was curious yes, I’d not seen the play the first time around and was intrigued, but I wasn’t really open to the idea I might enjoy it. After all, the usually reliable Menier tends to flounder when it comes to non-musicals, as the stodgy All Mouth attested, and though I’ve seen several good fringe productions of Marber’s best known play, Closer, I’ve never really warmed to it, indeed have come to actively dislike its unrelentingly bleak outlook. But one of my friends is seriously into poker, a game I’ve never really got to grips with, so hoping for insight, I went along.

For him poker is more than just a hobby, he would certainly snort at my use of the word ‘game.’ No, to him, poker is a beautiful thing, a pure and perfect exercise, demanding wit, skill and empathy from the player. There was nothing that happened in his life that couldn’t be summed up with a poker metaphor and he talked about his poker experiences with intensity and passion, often employing a near-impenetrable poker-centric language, peppered with references to Hold 'Em and Omaha and wild cards and what not. He often tried to convey what it was about poker that made him feel so awake, so connected, but though I nodded along, I don’t think I ever really got it.

And I’m still not sure I do. But I am a little nearer. Marber’s play really gets across what poker means to those (men) who play it, the power it exerts. The play is set in a London restaurant where the staff hold weekly Sunday poker sessions, run by the restaurant's owner, the calm, meticulous Stephen. These games are also the only time he sees his son Carl, so they have particular significance to him. The remaining players consist of a young waiter called Mugsy, an eternally optimistic fellow with a mad scheme of turning a Mile End public lav into a posh restaurant of his very own; the other waiter, Frankie, is a bit more together; and there’s also a cook, Sweeney, (played by Ross Boatman, who I gather is a bit of a poker legend himself) who’s divorced with a young daughter and hopes to cry off that night's game so he can save his cash to take her to the zoo the next day. (It’s giving away little to say his good intentions come to nothing).

The first half carefully sets up these characters, the way they interact and their various motivations. It's deftly done, the material enhanced by some genuinely superb ensemble stage acting, particularly from Malcolm Sinclair as Stephen. I really liked his measured, controlled performance – you could sense so much going on beneath the calm exterior. I also liked Stephen Wight’s Mugsy, a man whose mouth seems to be permanently two steps ahead of his brain. I suspect it takes really great timing to play dim with such proficiency. Roger Lloyd Pack was also entertaining, exuding deadpan menace as Ash, the professional poker player to whom Carl owes a hefty sum of money – though there’s something a bit wrong about seeing Trigger from Only Fools and Horses calling a man a cunt..

The already simmering tension builds up considerably in the second half when the poker game proper begins and the striking restaurant kitchen set, with its mirrored back wall, is replaced by that of the basement poker room. (I came back from the bar in time to see them changing the set around, a complex process involving ramps and motors and winches and things, fascinating, but I thought rather too susceptible to things snapping or sticking or generally going awry). The play runs at well over two hours but it flits by, every moment used wisely. I didn’t look at my watch once, and while I still couldn’t tell you what a river card is, or anything like that, I came away feeling I understood a little more of what this 'game' means to my friend.

Oh, and more musings on matinees here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Precious Metal

Over to Soho Theatre last night, which is conveniently very near my office. However, what with my working late coupled with some general faffery, I had just enough time to nip over to Chinatown and grab a red bean bun before the show started.

Oh, and the show? That was Talawa’s production of Pure Gold, a play by Michael Bhim. It concerns a married couple, Simon and Marsha, who are seriously struggling with money after Simon loses his job as a bus driver. As a result, Marsha has had to give up her studies (in, um, something. Actually, I don’t think we ever find out) to take a job in a supermarket, and their young son Anthony, a smart and talented kid, considerate but still essentially a twelve-year-old boy, is asking for a piano for his birthday, not realising the pressure this is putting on his already stressed parents.

Further pressure comes in the form of Simon’s cousin Paul, who offers him a driving job – not mini-cabbing as he tells Marsha – but ferrying illegal immigrants into the country, and an envelope full of cash to do it without asking too many questions. And though Simon makes a big show of talking about choices, the importance of doing the right thing, of taking action and not making excuses, the pull of having all that money in his pocket is just too strong.

While I really liked Golda Rosheuvel’s performance as the infinitely calm Marsha, other aspects of Bhim’s play felt rather raw and underdeveloped. There were some superbly tense scenes between Simon and Marsha in the second half, but while these domestic scenes resonated, a lot of the remaining writing felt in need of a good red pen session. The inclusion of the illegal immigrant thing was a clunky plot device, nothing more, and the brief appearance of a local Irish villain (intended to be menacing I suspect, but really, really not) felt wildly out of place.

I did like Mike Britton’s set though. He's the man responsible for the design of Ben Yeoh’s Nakamitsu and the fantastically evocative indoors-outdoors orchard look of Hampstead Theatre’s Comfort Me With Apples. The family's council flat was very naturalistically depicted, with a working kettle and sink and a shabby sofa, but the furniture was housed in this concrete-effect box, that rather made it appear as if Marsha and Simon were living in some random corner of the National Theatre. And, were they not currently in Peru, I’m sure the Whingers would have delighted in the onstage cooking and consumption of a fried egg on toast plus some sort of pasta concoction.

Oh, and the role of the couple’s curmudgeonly but kind-hearted neighbour George is played by Leonard Fenton, who was Doctor Legg in Eastenders. I know this because I was sitting near the front and when he came on stage for the first time I heard an amusing verbal ripple of ‘Ooh, it’s Dr Legg’ travel back through the audience. Which just goes to show you can do all the Beckett and Shakespeare in the world but you can’t escape the ‘Enders.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Matinees And Musicals

I do like matinees. There’s something rather illicit and exciting about doing during the day what one normally does in the evening (intensified considerably if it happens to be a midweek matinee).

I have a whole other routine with matinees as well, facilitated by the welcome lack of post-work dash – I potter, I dawdle, I browse, I caffeinate myself in an agreeably lingering fashion, and arrive at the theatre with ample time to spare and not breathless and watch-wary and flustered as is often the case in the evening. I used to see a lot more matinees when I lived out in the Surrey suburbs, and a journey into town required a long, crawling train journey, but now, well, my day job precludes daytime cultural activities during the week, and my weekends tend to be eaten up by stuff.

So I was looking forward to seeing Saturday afternoon’s staging of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse. I knew it wasn’t likely to be the cheeriest of things, but I’d enjoyed Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years when it played at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year and was eager to see how you could possibly tackle such a grim subject in song.

Parade is set in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early years of the 20th century. On Confederate Memorial Day, a 13 year old girl is found raped and murdered in the pencil factory where she worked. Suspicion falls on the factory superintendent, Leo Frank, a Jewish man from Brooklyn, an outsider in every sense. He is arrested, tried and sentenced to death. According to the play, a hysteria built up around his case, with several other girls who worked in his factory accusing him of inappropriate behaviour. The police also found an eye witness (an African American former convict) to testify to his guilt. Eventually however his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. Perhaps predictably, this does not go down well with the local community, who are eager to blame someone for the girl’s death, and they exert a 'justice' of their own – the kind of justice that involves hoods with eye-holes and a long length of rope.

So, there you go. Frothy it is not. It is however very well done. Bertie Carvel is simply superb as Frank, all anxious and twitchy; cold, nervy and somewhat prim. Lara Pulver was also excellent as Frank’s wife Lucille, but I found her character harder to get a handle on, her total devotion and abundant stoic dignity was a little too neat for my liking. Going on what I remember of Five Years, I don’t think Brown does women very well. Frank is such an intriguing, ambiguous figure and Lucille just seemed a bit flat in comparison.

There is much to admire about this production: vocal performances (though I thought the pretty blonde chap in the cheesy civil war prologue was a little shaky), choreography - everything is very well done. There’s just something about the whole enterprise that didn’t sit very well with me. It’s not that musicals need to be all fluff and uplift (indeed those are the shows I usually avoid), but in the case of this complex story, I think I would actually have preferred a more conventional dramatic approach.

Interesting critical split on this one too, with Michael Billington applauding its eloquence and Christopher Hart getting all squeamish about the subject matter - I think I fall somewhere in between (I’d much rather this than Wicked any day), still, it was relief to emerge after two-and-a-bit hours of such darkness to find it still daylight outside.