Thursday, May 31, 2007


After Tuesday’s Adventures in Noh, Wednesday night saw a return to more conventional West End fare, as I had tickets to see the Sheffield production of Fiddler On The Roof at the Savoy Theatre.

I took my mother, as it’s one of her favourite musicals, so no bribes of wine or promises of young men in tight white sailor suits were required to coax her up out of the suburbs.

Lindsay Posner’s production is a conventional one that retains most of Jerome Robbins’ original Broadway choreography. And if you take it on those terms, if you’re not expecting it to twiddle with the text in any way or do anything particularly new with the material, it makes for an enjoyable evening. Reliable. Solid. (It's perhaps not surprising then that Lyn Gardner liked it not so much). Henry Goodman makes a decent Tevye, though he rather dominates the other cast members and relies a little too much on silly voices and panto double-takes for my liking. Even so both my mum and I enjoyed it considerably – though we both thought they rather fumbled the (much shorter) second half, when the big familiar musical numbers give way to darker ground. The emotional kick that the destruction of the village and the family’s separation should deliver was rather lacking.

Our experience was also slightly tainted by the family behind us, who midway through the (admittedly long) first act began to unpack a Pret a Manger bag stuffed with crisps, flapjacks and fruit pots – a veritable picnic – which they started to consume well before the interval. Now I’ve spent evenings in Richmond Theatre, home of world-class handbag rummagers and ice-cream spoon twiddlers and ‘Oh hello Gladys, I haven’t seen you in months, why don’t you tell me all about your new granddaughter, right here during this pivotal moment of play’, so I understand that complete silence in the stalls is probably asking to much, especially during a big, popular show such as this, but this takes the (Pret A Manger carrot and walnut) cake. There was also a chap a few seats along from me, busy subjecting his girlfriend to a kind of Judaism 101 all through the show: “that’s a mezuzah”, “that’s a prayer shawl”, “look, they’re going to smash a glass now,” which was sort of sweet, but again this went on all through the show, so no, bad. Grumble.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Noh Doubt

Yesterday, after work, I hopped on the Central Line and made my way over to Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre to see Ben Yeoh’s new work, Nakamitsu an adaptation of a classic noh play.

Having done some hasty wikipedia-ing before I left the office, I now know that Noh is a major form of classic Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. But, if I’m honest, even armed with this knowledge I still had a very hazy idea of what I was actually going to see. My brain was picturing something very stylised and visual along the lines of Kabuki – so I’ll admit to being a little bewildered, on first entering the theatre, when I set eyes on the rather buff fellow in a school boy’s outfit who was parading up and down the stage, coquettishly slapping his bottom and doing suggestive things with a banana, as the audience filed into the narrow Gate performance space.

However after this slightly disorientating opening sequence (during which the dancer peeled down to his tiny, shiny pants – Lisa, again you were foolish to sit this one out) everything suddenly snapped into place. Following an unbearably tense scene set in the strip club, Yeoh takes the piece back to its traditional roots. The story is simple but harrowing – when his master flies into a rage at his only son, who has squandered his education, Nakamitsu is left to make a terrible choice between love and duty. What follows is gripping, exciting and visually striking. I don’t want to give too much away but it involves samurai swords, great swathes of coloured silk, and a really big drum. Yeoh manages to make it very accessible without undermining the play’s dramatic traditions. The performances were all engaging. And it was less than an hour long. Still daylight as I left the theatre (something that will please these chaps no end).

My not exactly thorough wikipedia-based research (which may well count for nothing as this: “article or section does not cite any references or sources.”) tells me that noh has a rather unique rehearsal process in which the actors practice their roles independently without interacting. I’d be fascinated to learn more.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Gathering

Lisa and I did have a party on Saturday. A Start-Of-The-Summer party, which was rather foolish/optimistic of us given the weather this weekend. Still people did come and eat and drink and talk until the early hours of the morning. And there was Pimms. And Cocktails. Lots of cocktails. And Lisa's homemade lime cheesecake. And a boat-load of Damson gin.

Sunday, unsurprisingly. was rather foggy and lethargic. But it was worth it. Oh yes.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Cuban Grooves

After a pleasantly aimless week of No Theatre, I ended my drought by drifting over to the boxy, character-free Peacock Theatre, Sadler’s Wells city-centre sister venue, to see their new show Havana Rakatan.

This is one of those big dance extravaganza type things that Sadler’s Wells likes to stage from time to time. The last one was Brasil Brasileiro, which I saw last summer, and this new production does for Cuba’s musical heritage what that show did for Brazil’s.

Havana Rakatan is a kind of chronological trawl through the country’s musical history, so we get opening scenes devoted to Cuban music’s colonial and African influences, with a second act concentrating on mambo and salsa, with a little chachacha chucked in for good measure. And it was entertaining, as these things go, though I often find these shows work as a kind of two hour build-up to that bit at the end where they want to get everyone on their feet and clapping in unison. Something I whole-heartedly detest, being both a natural introvert and a bit of a snob. Still despite my resistance to the enforced enjoyment factor, the sheer energy of the musicians and dancers made it nearly impossible not to get swept along by things - at least a little bit anyway.

I was however distracted by the dancers’ costumes on a number of occasions: in the earlier tribal set-piece, one chap appeared to have scalped Bungle and be wearing the results on his head, while later on, one woman was sporting, not only an Ed Wood-worthy mid-riff exposing angora sweater, but also these bizarre billowy satin hot pants that resembled, rather disconcertingly, an adult nappy. No-one else on stage was thus encumbered. I think she may have lost a bet or pissed off the costume designer.

There were also a large number of toned, shirt-less and sweat-slick torsos on display, Lisa, I suspect will be rather sorry she sat this one out.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Withdrawal Symptons

I've not set foot inside a theatre for seven days now, I am starting to get The Shakes. (Which, of course, has nothing at all to do with the three cups of coffee I've had today).

Monday, May 21, 2007

Inspired Casting

Thumbing through the Culture magazine of the Sunday Times yesterday over cereal and coffee, I came across an interview with Tim McInnerny about his forthcoming role as Iago in the Globe’s new production of Othello. It was fairly predictable stuff: blah, blah, Blackadder, blah, blah, proper actor actually. But then I read something that got me rather excited, something that had passed me by up until now – I read that the Othello to McInnerny's Iago will be played by a certain Eammon Walker, best known, to me anyway, as Kareem Said from the bonkers HBO prison series Oz.

How fantastic is that! Shakespeare with added shankings! Or something. Possibly. I'm slightly loathe to admit it, but I used to be a teeny bit obsessed with this show and how it consistently managed to be so, so wrong, yet so oddly watchable at the same time. I'm really looking forward to seeing him tackle the role and think the Globe should give serious thought to extending their HBO inspired casting further. How about Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths as Lady Macbeth? Or James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano himself, in doublet and hose?

PS: There will be slightly less theatre this week due to the stubborn insistence of people I know on having birthdays and warming their houses and such like.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Scenes from Russian Life

What better antidote to a grim, grey May Thursday then a piece of deeply bleak Russian theatre? No, seriously. It doesn’t sound promising and I’ll admit when I read the synopsis, which made liberal use of the words ‘harrowing’, ‘uncompromising’ and ‘human spirit at its lowest ebb’ I wasn’t convinced that this would be quite the thing to haul me out of my current vague malaise. But actually I was pleasantly surprised. Phil Willmott’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s second play, The Lower Depths is a spirited and compelling production. It’s on at the Finborough in Earls Court, one of London’s best pub theatres (though, having said that, this actually the first time I’ve been there in something like two years now).

The play is set in a provincial pre-revolutionary Russian doss house inhabited by a thief, a prostitute, a gambler, an alcoholic former actor, an elderly vagrant, and various other characters on the lower margins of society. The set is appropriately grubby, a muddy collage of browns and greys. And things don’t exactly begin well - the play starts with death of a young woman and an awful lot of wailing, making me immediately regret not making better use of the ‘pub’ part of this pub theatre and stealing myself with a pre-show gin (or vodka for that matter, which at least would have been thematically in keeping with the play). However due to Wilmott’s agreeably earthy adaptation, some fine ensemble acting and a healthy streak of black humour, this wasn’t the misery-fest it could have been and it successfully lifted me out of my self-induced fug.

In other news, my lemon tree has gone all wilty again - my excitement over its resurrection was clearly premature.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Dead White Men"

So, in case you missed it, Nicholas Hytner got a bit snippy about the middling reviews for A Matter Of Life And Death and laid into the critics for, not only being past it, but for also being a little bit sexist, referring to them as "dead white men."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, messers Billington, De Jongh et al took against this, while the Guardian's Lyn Gardner agreed with Hytner that theatre criticism is indeed too male-dominated.

David Eldridge, who of course has had work staged at the National under Hytner, says his bit over here and the guys at Theatre Encore Magazine wade into the debate here.

Me? I think Hytner has a valid point that he rapidly undermines by flinging accusations of misogyny around. The world of theatre criticism is currently far too insular - I remember Mark Shenton blogging some time ago about how a large number of the top critics went, not just to Cambridge, but to the very same college at Cambridge. Which inevitably makes for a rather narrow critical spectrum.

It's just a shame this discussion was sparked by the reviews for A Matter Of Life And Death, a bloated, unnecessary production, where I found myself heartily agreeing with a number of the dead white men in question!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Death Row Drama

Ah, that’s more like it. After a run of duds and disappointments, I was beginning to wonder whether I was becoming unduly cynical and difficult to please. After all there were so many good reviews in the press for the overblown A Matter Of Life And Death, I was starting to think that the fault was mine, that something in me had, you know, soured.

Thankfully I saw something this weekend to lift me clear of my black little pit: Terre Haute by Edmund White was an engaging and thought provoking piece of theatre, a concise yet powerful play.

White has been inspired by the idea that, during his last days on death row, Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh entered into a correspondence with the essayist Gore Vidal. White uses this as a springboard to “imagine” a scenario where an elderly writer, much like Vidal, visits a young man in prison, who much like McVeigh, has been convicted for the mass murder of 168 people.

These characters are called James and Harrison to differentiate them from their real-life counterparts, but James is played (superbly) by actor Peter Eyre in a way that makes it difficult not to think about Vidal as you watch. Despite this White manages to successfully steer through the reality/fiction issue and produce a play that is easy to appreciate on its own terms.

The character of Harrison is articulate, intelligent and utterly without remorse - far more than the red-neck, survivalist stereotype he could have been. He’s played deftly by Arthur Darvill – in fact, both his and Eyre’s performances are first class. White draws some interesting parallels between the men – both are having to deal with their own mortality, as a result of old age, for one, and imminent execution for the other.

The play does not shy away from the reality of Harrison’s crime either, and the scene where James is no longer able to maintain his studied detached demeanour and screams at Harrison about the sacredness of human life, trying to illicit some reaction, some regret, is particularly powerful.

So, in short, strong but compelling stuff, though I rather wish White didn’t cloud things by adding a narrative strand about the bisexual James’ attraction to the younger man. I agree with theatre blogger John Morrison's view that White seems a little more interested in the Vidal character than that of the prisoner, something White more or less concedes in an article in the Guardian, saying that in the process of writing the play, the character came to reflect his own fears, anxieties and "confused amorous-paternal feelings towards a younger man in trouble."

That’s a small criticism though, Terre Haute is an excellent production, and at less than 80 minutes, one that hits you hard and leaves you hungry for more, rather than checking your watch and fidgeting in your seat (a quality in short supply of late). It’s playing at the smaller of the two Trafalgar Studios until June 2nd and is well worth seeing.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Heaven Can Wait, Gin On The Other Hand...

Two hours and ten minutes without an interval! Not a good sign. It’s not that I need that half-time gin, but, hey, this thing ain’t called Interval Drinks for nothing. So it wasn’t in the best of moods that I entered the Olivier in the National to see what Emma Rice’s Kneehigh theatre company had done to one of my favourite ever films, the classic 1946 Powell & Pressburger movie, A Matter Of Life And Death.

The film tells the tale of RAF pilot Peter who is forced to bale out from his burning plane without a parachute. To do so will mean his certain death, something both he and the American air control girl he is speaking to over his radio, know. This opening scene has me weeping every time I watch it. “You’re life and I’m leaving you.” Fantastic stuff.

So, in fairness, I was always going to be difficult to please with this one, but I’ve liked Kneehigh’s work in the past, and I was more than willing to give it a chance. Indeed, both Lisa and I thought their take on Nights At The Circus was one of the best things we saw last year. However in that show, their particular brand of theatre – cluttered stages, aerial stunts and rather ramshackle live musical accompaniment – gelled perfectly with the source material. Here almost identical techniques are trotted out with little thought given to how they might enhance (or overpower) the story. So we get cycling nurses and flying beds and small explosions and annoying Scandinavian chappies and some really quite bad music. Just far too much stuff. I quickly began to regret not smuggling in a hip flask. Then remembered I didn’t own one, a huge oversight on my part, I wonder how much they cost?

Anyway, sorry, distracted there, back to theatre stuff.

I’ll admit the production delivered a couple of visually striking set pieces (I enjoyed the slo-mo table tennis game and the camera obscura scene), but that wasn’t nearly enough to save this production from its own excessive approach. Plus they’ve tampered with the ending. When Peter takes his case to heaven’s version of an appeal court, to argue that – having fallen in love during the extra time on earth mistakenly awarded to him – he deserves to stay alive, he is now confronted not only by his dead father, but by the victims of the Coventry and Dresden bombings.

The production hits you about the head with the message that love, however pure, rarely triumphs over the indiscriminate brutality of war. Yes, War is Bad, and good people die and, yes in this respect, war in 1945 has much in common with war in 2007. It’s not exactly a message you can argue with, but surely there were other ways of making this resonate with modern audiences, by giving the play a contemporary setting, or, I don’t know, creating an original work that didn’t involve pissing all over one of the best British films ever made?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Page To Stage

Another bank holiday sprints into the distance, bringing with it summer rain, cake and coffee, evenings down the pub with friends, and various other hurrah-not-at-work type happenings. Oh, and Vernon God Little, the Young Vic’s staging of DBC Pierre’s Booker-winning novel.

I’ve read the book and remember liking it for its Technicolor prose style, though the actual plot faded faster from my memory then, well, a fast-fading thing. It was just one of a glut of novels based around school shootings that came out a couple of years ago, and not the best one at that. Fortunately this didn’t prove to be to much of a problem – unlike some page-to-stage adaptations, Rufus Norris’ production was easy enough to follow, whether or not you had any knowledge of the book. I’m just a little puzzled as to the point of the exercise.

Shorn of Pierre’s prose style, the story feels clumsy and cartoonish in the extreme: Vernon Gregory Little, a teenager from a small town in Texas, has been falsely accused of being an accessory to mass murder after his friend Jesus opened fire on his high school class mates before turning the gun on himself. As a satire of media mores and excesses, it already feels dated, a fact compounded by the recent appalling events at Virginia Tech. It also unfailing opts for easy laughs. Americans you see, they’re funny because they’re stupid. And fat. And greedy. OK, the book swiped at the very same targets but these were easier to take in the context of Vernon’s first-person narration

The set was something of an oddity too, consisting mainly of a moveable platform – seemingly made of sticky-backed plastic – that was raised and lowered at various points in the production. And the Young Vic got to play with their exciting new toy again, the ceiling heist – so Vernon spends the closing scene wearing a harness over his fetching pink shirt. The cast were great though, tackling multiple roles with ease, and Colin Morgan made an engaging Vernon, baffled, angry, horny, a plausible teenager in an impossible situation.

The whole thing was at least a whole lot slicker and more entertaining than Absolute Beginners. But whereas that was an interesting idea, ripe with potential, let down by poor execution, I just couldn’t grasp the reasons for bringing this to the stage.

Spotted in the audience on the night I was in: Mark Lawson, Lionel Shriver (who of course wrote the similarly-themed We Need To Talk About Kevin) and the Scottish chap with the lime green turban whose name escapes me, so I’m guessing this will be under discussion on Newsnight Review on Friday.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Back To The Beginning

So, yes, Lyric Hammersmith last night, with the man who for reasons best know to himself prefers to be known as Juice, to see Absolute Beginners, Roy Williams adaptation of Colin MacInnes’ novel set in 1950s Notting Hill.

I’d been looking forwards to this one considerably; I have a lot of time for Williams, having seen one of his plays, Little Sweet Thing, tame and engage a theatre full of rowdy, gum-chewing and generally disinterested teenagers a couple of years ago. I also have a personal interest in the subject matter as my family lived in Notting Hill during the time the play is set, after coming to England from what was then Yugoslavia.

(Not that this interest had extended to actually reading MacInnes' book you understand, but I knew of it, and at least I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Sample interval conversation, heard several times over: “so, have you read the book then?” “No, but I know of it.”)

Anyway, point of story being: expectations high, perhaps too high. Things started well enough. Visually the production is spectacular – the set is a Mondrian-esque collection of blocks that drift about the stage giving the city a kind of stylised vibrancy, London depicted as playground and party town, really quite striking. These blocks in turn open up to reveal rooms and spaces within spaces. Unfortunately the look of the thing sets the bar a little too high and the actual meat of the play never really delivers on this initial promise.

The unnamed hero – a wannabe photographer and a part of the ‘teenage generation’ that had suddenly sprung into existence – dashes about town in an attempt to scrape some cash together in order to impress his girlfriend Suze. He encounters an array of characters: shady media types, Teddy boys and beatniks, as well as some nasty Keep-England-White thugs; Soweto Kinch's tinkly jazz score plays throughout. The elements are all there for a thrilling evening of theatre, but for all its promise, it just didn’t work. Nothing clicked. The dialogue was flatly delivered and the pacing felt all off. The episodic first half was little more than a primer on 1950s London and the Notting Hill race riots, while at least giving the second half more of a dramatic focus, were portrayed by means of a Dance Sequence. Yes, that’s right. Lots of chaps twirling and tumbling. I know this was in keeping with the production’s overall stylised atmosphere. But, still. No. Bad.

The play was crying out to be grimier, to be tougher than it was. True, there was a scene towards the end, where the hero and his black friend Cool get into a fight over Suze, which had the requisite intensity that the rest of the play lacked, but it was too little too late – even the constantly shifting and sliding boxes, so exciting initially, had started to grate at that stage. So, to summarise, I was bit disappointed in this one. It felt like an opportunity missed. Plus one Notting Hill social group were significant, to me anyway, by their absence – where were all the Eastern Europeans? Because obviously that’s what this needed. A load of shouty Slavs, that would have helped I’m sure.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Beautiful Thing

“Wasn’t that wonderful?” said the woman next to me as the house lights went up, and I had to concede that it was.

I was at the cosy Bush Theatre to see odd couple comedy Elling, a play based on a cult Norwegian film, adapted for the stage by Simon Bent and directed by Paul Miller. A play that happens to star John Simm, which of course had nothing to do with my decision to see it - no, I was here through a love of live theatre. Not to see That Thing With John Simm In It. Well maybe a little bit. But I was definitely not here because of Life on Mars, as, due to a mild phobia of that evil test-card girl and to over-praised telly in general, I only ever watched about an episode and half of that. My Simm obsession stems from watching Tony Marchant’s Never, Never and Paul Abbot’s brilliant State Of Play. So I am obviously better than all those people here to see that bloke from Life On Mars. Obviously.

Anyway, Elling is a good-natured comedy about two of society’s outsiders who, having been released from a mental institution, have to work out how to adjust to living independently. Simm plays Elling, a prissy self-declared mummy’s boy, prone to story-telling, who hides in wardrobes when things get too much for him. He wears sensible beige trousers that match his sensible side-parting and is the antithesis of his friend Kjell Bjarne, played by Adrian Bower, a lanky, hairy chap, who dislikes washing and wearing trousers, and who says “Holy Shit” a lot. Bjarne, that is, not Bower.

Given a flat to live in by the state and assigned to a social worker, the two men soon discover the joys of phone sex and takeout pizza and, with the help of a heavily pregnant woman and an aging poet, actually start to reengage with the world. Elling discovers poetry, and the fact that he may have some real talent, and Bjarne gets to touch a real live woman who doesn’t immediately have him arrested.

With his prim measured way of speaking and pink-scrubbed face, Simm is barely rescognisable, completely wrapped up in his character. The bond between the two men is touchingly and entertainingly conveyed, with Simm having a great rapport with the amiable Bower, and the play is stuffed with highly quotable dialogue - lines with more than a touch of the Withnails to them, like: “Mother did the shopping, I was in charge ideology.”

Elling is warm and compelling and a pleasure to watch. This was delightful stuff, very funny but with an occasional edge of poignancy, and it left me so uplifted that even the interminable journey from Shepherds Bush back home seemed more of a pleasure than a chore; indeed I positively bounced to the bus stop.