Friday, June 29, 2007

With A Song In My Hart

After the bitter wallow of The Pain and The Itch I felt in need of something a little lighter, something altogether more lacking in marital discord and genital scabs for my next theatrical outing. This something turned out to be From The Hart at the New End Theatre, an anthology show that celebrates the life and work of lyricist Lorenz Hart.

The show itself is a simple thing, a breezy run-through of 32 classic Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an engaging five-man cast. It managed to provide some interesting nuggets about Hart's life, whilst acting as a superb showcase of the man's astute and intelligent lyrics.

Hart was barely five-feet tall and gay, and the show suggests that he held a life-long unrequited passion for his very heterosexual creative partner Richard Rodgers. He was also very conscious of his perceived unattractiveness, saying: "If I wanted perfection I had to look outside myself. If I wanted love, I had to invent it." He descended into alcoholism that would eventually contribute to his death from pneumonia at the age of 48. But despite the almost text-book tragedy of his life, the show does not wallow in pathos, far from it; instead it keeps exposition to a minimum and allows the songs to do the talking. And since these songs include Have You Met Miss Jones, The Lady Is A Tramp, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, My Romance and Blue Moon (which Hart apparently hated for being far too lyrically twee and obvious) it's not like you need anything else.

John Guerrasio plays Hart with a cigar in hand, trousers hitched high and a thick New York drawl. His performance holds the show together and gives the songs a necessary framework, however this is an ensemble piece and everyone involved pulls their weight in what is a slight but sweet evening's entertainment.

On an unrelated note, the New End Theatre was apparently originally built as a mortuary, a fact that rather delighted me when I found out, possibly more so than is normal.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Back On Topic

So I headed over to the Royal Court last night to see The Pain and the Itch by Bruce Norris. I’d been looking forward to seeing this for a while, partly because of the Mathew Macfayden factor (I was rather taken with his portrayal of Mr Darcy, preferring his awkward and taciturn take on the role over Colin Firth’s) and partly because it originated with Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf theatre company, whose excellent production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the shows that really opened my eyes to what good theatre can be.

Norris's play concerns a well-heeled couple, Clay and his wife Kelly, who are hosting a holiday dinner for Clay’s plastic-surgeon brother Cash and his East European girlfriend, as well as the brothers’ mother Carole – this despite the fact that the brothers seem to actively dislike one another. There’s also the matter of the avocados: something has been taking bites out of them – rodents, or possible raccoons, are suspected – and worry about their young daughter Kayla, who has developed an itch in a rather private place. All of these events are related to a mysterious Asian man, though his role in the story only becomes clear near the end.

Michael Billington called it an “ingenious satire on the American brand of phoney liberalism,” but I guess he’s using the lesser known definition of the word ingenious that means heavy-handed and repetitive. A lot of the jokes felt rather broadly telegraphed and the twists in the plot equally obvious. Satire should unsettle the audience, it should make you question yourself, but this was just too extreme, every character so irredeemably vile, as to undermine whatever impact it set out to have.

Even Cash's girlfriend Kalina, with her Eurotrash boots, her smoking, and her ability to interact with screechy Kayla as an actual child rather than a pet to be praised and reprimanded, breaks into a shocking rant about gypsies just as she seems to be developing into the human heart of the piece.

I know a lot of this unpleasantness is intentional and I suspect part of the problem is the play hasn’t traveled particularly well, but still I felt a little grubby at the end of it all. Matthew Macfayden was brilliant though, shucking off his Darcy-ness quite spectacularly to play the whiny Clay. Peter Sullivan was also quite wonderful as the narrow-eyed Cash, who seemingly had only two vocal settings: sarcasm and disdain. The rest of the cast were strong too, though Andrea Riseborough’s accent as Kalina did seem to wander from the Baltics to the Balkans and back again throughout the course of the evening.

Having sweltered in stuffy pub theatres last week, this time around I was rather grateful that I took a jumper, as the Court appeared to have set their air-con to ‘winter,’ perhaps to coincide with the play’s Thanksgiving setting.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Should Koko

So once again I was Not At The Theatre last night, trading overpriced interval wine for tepid beer in plastic cups (well actually I stuck to gin, but you get my point).

I was watching Zach Condon, and his perhaps unwisely monikered band Beirut, play Koko in Camden. If you’ve yet to encounter him, Condon plays a kind of jazzed up take on the music of Eastern Europe. Actually, no, it’s more wide-ranging than that. There are touches of Klezmer and Celtic in there. But basically we’re talking accordions and mandolins and ukuleles. Vocals distorted through a loudhailer. And much trumpet.

What was fairly downbeat and mournful on his album, Gulag Orkestar, came wonderfully alive on stage; there’s something surprisingly joyous about this kind of music and Condon, despite being a twenty-something be-fringed fellow from Sante Fe, manages to evoke the heart and power of real-deal Balkan gypsy gods like Boban Markovic without coming off like a bandwagon-jumper.

So, yes, I enjoyed that a lot, though I find there’s something a bit offal-y about Koko, something about all that red that’s like, as I think I said once before, being trapped in the belly of a big gay whale. Also I had managed to position myself on the beer corridor, the path through the crowd that everyone automatically follows from the bar to the stage, so there was a fair bit of side-stepping and shuffling and ‘sorry, excuse me’ dancing with chaps juggling five tumblers of lager. But still, good fun.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Perfect Sunday

And no, it’s not actually theatre-related. Instead Lisa and I went along to the Billy Wilder double bill at the Curzon Mayfair: Double Indemnity followed by Sunset Boulevard, it doesn’t really get much better than that.

I’ve not been to this particular cinema before, so was delighted to discover it has the most impressively 1970s interior I’ve seen in a while. Low ceilings and lots of orange and brown, almost oppressive – yet something about it rather chimed with my intermittent longing to live my life like a character in a Woody Allen film.

We followed the double-bill with a long ambling walk through the streets of Mayfair before ducking into a pub for a gin or two. Wonderful.

Now does anyone know where I can buy some black soap?

PS. Do nip over to the Whingers' site, where there's an interesting discussion in progress about the AA Gill attack on theatre critics in this week's Sunday Times. Oh, and there's a brilliant riposte from Andrew at The Arcades Project too, which sums it all up nicely.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fringe Things

I have written about Theatre 503 before. This studio space above the Latchmere pub in Battersea is one of my favorite fringe venues – and not just because it’s a ten minute bus journey from my front door.

At the moment they’re showing a play called Future Me by Stephen Brown. To steal a term from the press blurb, the play is about ‘ordinary monsters,’ men who do unspeakable things. The main character, Peter, is a young barrister with a promising career ahead of him and a loving girlfriend who he's about to move in with. So, clearly, the laws of drama dictate that his life is about to fall spectacularly apart. This happens by way of an email – he accidentally forwards an attachment to his entire address book that includes a pornographic photograph. Child pornography to be precise.

The play then goes on a journey that covers a number of years. Peter goes to prison where he is kept in a separate unit (his crimes, it seems, went to more than just pornography, he touched as well as looked), he attends group therapy sessions, is released and has to adjust to life on the outside once more. The play also concentrates on the impact Peter's crime has on the people around him. Though initially horrified, his girlfriend Jenny deals with things in a very level-headed fashion, unable to fully relate the man she loved with the man in prison for child molestation.

Stephen Brown’s play is commendable on many levels; it has a detached but not overly clinical tone, and for the most part manages to maintain the difficult balance between the intellectual and emotional. It allows us to question whether some crimes are too horrific to forgive, and whether forgiveness, acceptance, is even desirable. It’s very well written, often very incisive and entertaining, though not without flaws, some of them quite fundamental. The crucial scene where Jenny interviews Peter, ostensibly for a feature she's writing, and Brown takes the opportunity to remind both her and the audience of just exactly what Peter did, should leave you shocked. By hitting home the contrast between Peter’s articulate, sensitive demeanour and the truth of what's he capable of doing, has done in fact – well, it should leave you as bruised and betrayed as Jenny feels, but it doesn’t quite manage it. You never fully get under Peter’s skin as a character.

Two and half hours is a long time to spend in a (very) stuffy studio above a pub on a summer evening, but this is an intelligent, thought-provoking and often unsettling piece of theatre and more than worth it. Good performances too, especially from David Sturzaker as the unnervingly calm and articulate Peter, though he appears to have stolen Simon Amstell’s voice, which was a tad disconcerting.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Domestic Bliss?

“Please, keep off the grass,” said the rather stern usher as we filed into the Cottesloe auditorium. Now, these are not words you usually hear as you enter a theatre, but the National obviously had a bit of turf left over from covering the flytower with the stuff, as there was indeed grass – a whole suburban garden in fact had been assembled, complete with plastic paddling pool and patio furniture.

This was the set for Matt Charman’s new play The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder, a knotty but involving comedy about polygamy. Well polyamory actually, as the play takes pains to point out that nothing illegal is going on, but nonetheless this is very unusual family set up. Maurice is a Lewisham scaffolder who lives with Esther, Fay and Lydia, as well as Fay’s son Vincent and Lydia’s baby Fergus. On every other level this is a normal family, they have their rules, their quirks and their customs (big family dinner every Tuesday and so forth) and their domestic arrangements, though idiosyncratic, seem to work just fine for them.

Even the arrival of a fourth woman, Rowena, young, pregnant and just out of an abusive relationship, doesn’t appear to rock the boat too much. Charman is an engaging writer and he succeeds in making the Pinders into a plausible family unit; you can believe in the way these women interact with one another (despite the fact they have a rota for who has, um, bedroom duties with Maurice on any given night), and while I thought the character of free-spirited Reiki healer Lydia was a dip too far into the clichĂ©-cupboard, the relationship between the older women, Esther and Fay, was very well sketched.

Having made a semi-convincing case for this kind of lifestyle, Charman then turns things upside down in the second half, with the arrival of sensible, cardigan-clad office manager Irene. This is a wife too far for the other women and the careful balance of their family is upset. Ultimately Charman’s position seems to be that such relationships are appealing but untenable, though he takes a rather muddled road to reach this conclusion.

Still, this is a fresh and often very funny piece of writing, that as they say “raised some interesting questions”, about love, about commitment, and so forth. Though, having said that, I was never able to fathom exactly what it was about Maurice that was supposed to make him so irresistible – something of a crucial drawback.

Anyway, I eschewed my interval gin to watch the set dressers at work – a process that was actually rather fascinating. A whole brick wall was built and there was one girl running around with a watering can to give the set a just rained-on look. Not quite worth skipping the gin for, but interesting to watch all the same.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Question

Anyone have any clue what the deal is with Kingston Theatre? As I understood it, a summer 2007 opening was on the cards, but having checked their website, it seems they’re still in the process of, you know, building the thing. It seems like ages ago now that I saw Rebecca Hall doing her Rosalind in the half-finished auditorium (a rather inspired idea as it turned out, all the exposed concrete and wires made a brilliant backdrop – shame the production itself was so conventional.)

Anyway the theatre is a space with potential, and I like the idea that you’ll be able to pay a fiver and sit in the central carpeted space in front of the stage, it seemed like a relaxed, inclusive set-up, and it could be a great community resource, but that’s only if it ever actually opens.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Jazz Hands (Well, Feet Actually)

So, the soundtrack to my Wednesday evening went a bit like this: Tap. Tap. Tap. Tippety, tap. Tippety, tappety, tippety, tappety. Tap, tap, tippety, tap. Tappety, tappety, tappety. TAP. TAP. TAP.

I was at Sadler’s Wells, watching Savion Glover make his London debut. Glover is a big name in the US tap scene, though his name was new to me (apparently he had something to do with that icky, animated penguin syrup-fest Happy Feet, but I shan’t hold that against him - though someone, somewhere should surely pay).

Anyway, being a creature of habit, I went to the Tinderbox CafĂ© on Upper Street first, as I usually do when seeing anything at Sadler's, and had a big, frothy mocha – because they serve it in 1950s milkshake glasses and that’s really all it takes to make me happy – and read a few chapters of my book before heading over to the theatre.

The posters for the show had led me to expect some kind of big dance spectacular but actually the show was very minimal in its approach and it was all the better for it. There was no set to speak of, just a four piece jazz band gently noodling away. Glover came on, dressed all in white save for a pair of bright green tap shoes, and, head down and dreadlocks bobbing, began to do his stuff, tapping away in time to the music. It felt more like a jam session than anything else, with the rhythms made by Glover’s feet forming an integral part of the music.

This idea – the body as instrument – was taken further in the livelier and longer second half, where he was joined on stage by three supporting dancers – they each had their solo moment, taking turns to create riffs, but in his own understated way Glover was the star. In my rare brushes with traditionally staged ballets, I’ve always come away feeling in awe of the dancers’ evident technical skill but unable to connect emotionally with what I had seen. On this occasion I was able to do both. I left the venue feeling pleasantly uplifted though, unlike some other audience members, I was (just) about able to restrain myself from testing out some rudimentary tap moves on the Islington streets as I walked back to the tube.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spaced Out

In theory it sounds like something I would love. I am somewhat fascinated by Japanese culture and the Bush Theatre is very much in my good books after their superb production of Elling. So it was in an open and easy-going mood that I trundled over to Shepherds Bush this week to see Trance, the UK premiere of a popular play by Japanese writer/director Shoji Kokami. Even the use of the term ‘hilarious consequences’ in the press blurb, didn’t dent my upbeat demeanour.

Trance is an intense three-hander that examines issues of sanity and identity and the fragility of both. It concerns three school friends who reunite in later life. Masa is a freelance journalist, unsatisfied with his job and with his life, who is starting to experience blackouts and periods where he feels strangely distanced from his own actions (and there’s a joke in here about me after a few gins, but I’m going to step around it). The psychiatrist he goes to visit, Reiko, turns out to be someone he had a relationship with at school – though this apparently presents no barriers to her treating him - and she diagnoses the onset of schizophrenia.

Sanzo, the last of the trio, is now working as a drag artist and after a chance meeting at a nightclub, he too becomes drawn back into Masa’s life, just as his friend’s blackouts begin to worsen and he becomes gripped by the delusion that he is, in actual fact, the deposed Emperor of Japan. Sanzo, who had a crush on Masa as a boy and who is still clearly a little in love with him, convinces Reiko to let him nurse their friend, something he does by pretending to be one of the Emperor’s eunuchs.

The play becomes odder and more elliptical as it goes along, playing Pirandello-esque games with its characters, and inviting the audience to question just who is suffering from delusions, the journalist, the drag queen, the psychiatrist or perhaps all three. Hilarious is not the word I’d use to describe this production, unless hilarious has somehow come to mean repetitive and a little strange with the odd wry laugh thrown in. Instead it felt rather stilted and underpowered, too in thrall to its own philosophical musings. It’s perhaps a predictable conclusion to come to but I suspect that on this occasion a good deal of what Kokami was trying to say, about identity, about society, has been lost in translation.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Musical Treat

With a tagline like: “Putting the Gin in Original”, I couldn’t very well not go and see it, could I? So on Wednesday, I did traipse over to the Novello Theatre to see The Drowsy Chaperone, though I was unsure, as someone who, in the main, doesn’t really ‘get’ musicals, whether a musical about someone who is obsessed with musicals would be quite the thing for me. But actually, despite a few reservations, yes, yes it was.

The show begins in darkness with a man's voice bemoaning how theatre can so often let you down; muttering about how so many shows these days are overlong and over-hyped and destined to disappoint (for some reason I found myself thinking of hobbits at this point). And then the lights went up and the man was revealed to us – a slight chap in a baggy cardigan and corduroy slacks, sitting in a cluttered apartment beside a stack of beloved LPs of musicals from the 1920s. One of these albums is for a show called The Drowsy Chaperone, which he proceeds to play while talking the audience through it, scene by scene, song by song, and feeding us tid-bits about the personal lives of the actors (the actors in the made-up musical, that is - keep up) and making little post-modern asides about breaches of the fourth wall.

This show-within-a-show is a slim thing indeed, much concerned with weddings and whatnot. It features a leggy starlet, a toothsome groom, a comedy Italian who appears to be wearing Pepe Le Pu on his head, and of course, Elaine Paige as the gin-happy chaperone of the title. Her part is a surprisingly small one (in every sense – her diminutive stature is gently mocked throughout), she only gets one song to herself.

The real star is the narrator, played by Bob Martin, whose role it was on Broadway and who also co-wrote the show. His is an endearing, warm performance, sweet and affecting, and one that helps considerably in skimming over some of the show's patchier moments. His nerdy enthusiasm for the show he's describing is such that you can't help but share it (even when the show itself seems rather unworthy of his adoration – there’s only one song that sticks at all in the memory: the hilarious Show Off). His portrait of a lonely man, revelling in his obsession with old musicals that he's never seen, only listened to, is also surprisingly poignant – it gives the show a heart, a hook, and keeps you involved.

So, OK, it’s not going to make me become a musical fan of Lisa’s calibre (our flat regularly vibrates to the sound of show tunes and she has seen Wicked three whole times) but I did enjoy myself, despite being slightly mentally traumatised by the American man with the World’s Scariest Facelift, who was sitting a couple of rows in front of me in the stalls.

PS: Every time Ms Paige did grace the stage, the words “Write It Down” kept popping into my head. These chaps have a lot to answer for.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Truth Will Out

Ah Hampstead Theatre. How many times have I trundled up the Jubilee line to Swiss Cottage to visit you, revelling in a warm anticipatory glow, and how many times have I come away feeling all “huh?” and “hmm?” and “feh.” The answer is many. Rather too many times. So I was in a cautious mood when I went up to see Dennis Kelly’s latest play, Taking Care Of Baby.

The play begins with the words: "The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence," scrolling across a bank of television screens. Using the techniques of verbatim theatre, Kelly tells the story of a young mother, Donna McAuliffe, who has been imprisoned, and subsequently released, for killing her two children. It's a depressingly familiar set-up, resembling any number of stories that have recently graced the headlines, as well as bringing to mind the National Theatre Of Scotland's production of Aalst which covered similar thematic ground.

Donna is released from prison after she is diagnosed by psychologist Dr Millard as suffering from Leeman-Keatley Syndrome, a condition that could cause an otherwise loving mother to harm her own children. This is despite questions being raised about the doctor's research methods, and indeed, whether the syndrome exists at all. Of course, after all this, Donna's life is no longer her own - her marriage inevitably crumbles and her mother Lynn, an ambitious local politician, finds her career initially jeopardised and then, perversely boosted, as her family's tragedy becomes tabloid fodder.

But Donna's innocence or otherwise is not really the issue here; Kelly is far more interested in the way her story gets pulled apart for the personal gain of others, how her truth, the reality of what happened to her children, ceases to be as important as the truths that other people impose on her. The play becomes increasingly cynical as it progresses, with Kelly even poking away at the very idea of verbatim theatre itself. He slowly chips away at our sense of what we're seeing, toying with audience expectations as the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented.

The actress playing Donna, Abigail Davies, does an amazing job: her speech is excruciatingly nervy and hesitant, with pain evident beneath the surface of every action, every utterance. Anthony Clark's direction is sharp and well-paced, knitting all the disparate strands together and this along with the memorable set, with its creepy baby-in-a-box centre-piece, adds to the overall impact of the piece.

But there's a nagging sense of missed targets as the play reaches its increasingly satirical conclusion. A sense that Kelly is trying to say too much about too many things - and, in doing so, he loses the focus that elicited so much uncomfortable laughter in the first half. This is an undoubtedly ambitious and intelligent piece of writing, but it's one that, in the end, proves just too slippery for its own good. Despite this, it’s still the most satisfying thing I’ve seen at Hampstead in a good long while.

Monday, June 04, 2007

All Mouth, No Heart

As a general rule, most plays need some form of structure and shape; they need to unfold, to develop, to take the audience on a journey. It doesn’t need to be a long journey, it doesn’t need to make you reassess your life as you know it or shift your political beliefs. But it needs to move you in some small way. Or else it’s just two hours of noise.

Which brings me, conveniently, to All Mouth, the new comedy at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The play, by Jonathan Lewis and Miranda Foster, is set in the world of advertising voiceover artists, and while it does make you chuckle on occasion, it’s more or less two hours of noise. The characters, four actors who use a central London flat as a base for hanging out and learning their lines, are incredibly thinly sketched, stereotypes who never really grow beyond simple two-word tags: aging thesp, American bloke, divorced mother, and, erm, the other one.

There’s a plot of sorts about an actors strike and a young actor who wheedles his way into the aging thesp’s affections as a way of getting his career off the ground, but it doesn’t work as drama or satire and you get little sense of who these people are. Some solid performances keep the play afloat and render it watchable but, as it is, it feels like a work in progress – a play in need of a complete re-write.

Now, the West End Whingers have a thing about the Menier’s unreserved seating policy, but this has never bothered me quite so much as the lack of air-con, more noticeable here than at any other venue I can think of. I have never had a more uncomfortable night at the theatre than I had watching a performance of The Last Five Years there on a hot July night last year. It was so stuffy in the theatre that the staff were handing out tiny battery-powered fans at the door. Even with those it was impossible to enjoy the show properly; it was like sitting in a sauna. Christ knows how the actors coped. It’s a shame because as a venue I’m quite fond of it, though my affection is bound to dwindle if they keep on staging nothingy comedies like this.

Oh yes and the ‘dead white men’ debate is still trundling on, with a riposte from Nicholas Hytner in the Observer.