Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Little Link

Another Guardian blog post. Go. Look. Read. Debate away.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Something To See Here

Hurrah! Finally, I have been to the theatre. To the Menier Chocolate Factory in fact to see Take Flight, a new musical, by John Weidman, David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr, that interweaves the stories of the early pioneers of flying: the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart

The Menier is at its best with musicals, and while this show is far from perfect, it’s vastly more interesting and engaging than their last offering, the lumpy and unfunny All Mouth. Take Flight is about individuals who strive to do the impossible. It looks at what drives people to want to take to the air in an era where, more often than not, they would lose their lives in the attempt (or as the show’s narrator of sorts, the inventor Otto Lillienthal amusingly puts it: go ‘pfft’). Are these people visionaries, or, well, just a bit odd?

The answer appears to be a bit of both. Lindbergh is depicted as so cripplingly shy that flying solo is his only pleasure and the Wright Brothers exist in their own little nerdy world (“don’t have houses, don’t have wives, don’t have prospects, don’t have lives.”). Earhart is an independent spirit, who needs to constantly challenge herself in order to feel alive. She views the idea of settling down with her publisher husband, George Putnam with something akin to dread.

By necessity this is a musical of ideas, rather than visual spectacle. The flying scenes are simulated by the actors sitting on stepladders and jiggling about a bit (and though there’ll be a model plane going spare soon, once The Drowsy Chaperone closes, I doubt they could fit it in the Menier, so stepladders will have to suffice).

With a couple of exceptions the songs are rather samey – there’s little here that will be adding itself to your internal iPod – but the show’s sub-Sondheim style has its moments of wit and inspiration. Sally Anne Triplett’s Earhart is supposed to provide the emotional core of the piece but I was more taken with Michael Jibson’s pallid, introverted Lindberg, unfortunately his character is given little room for development.

Though flawed there is something genuinely uplifting about Take Flight if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s a celebration of what people can achieve, it’s about progress and hope, rather than the fear and apprehension about the future that seems so globally pervasive at the moment.

And, excitement of excitements, (well perhaps that’s overstating it, but still, anyway, good thing) the Menier has finally invested in an air conditioning unit! This will surely gladden anyone who sweated through The Last Five Years there last summer.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Nothing To See Here

This should be a post about Lady Be Good at the Open Air Theatre, but it is not one. Nor will there be one – at least not anytime soon. Because the weather gods did not respect my need to watch an array of pretty people merrily Charleston-ing across the stage in flapper dresses to the sweet sounds of the Gershwins. Instead they brought rain. Lots of rain. Plus a bit more rain for luck. Or rather not. And I was forced, forced, to head back to my flat and watch The Wire. Which, while damn good telly, is not quite the same, I think you’ll agree.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Making A Meal Of Things

One of the delights of the Whingers' site is that they share what I always assumed was a rather singular obsession with onstage eating.

In order to ascertain whether there are other strange souls who worry about such things, I have blogged about this most pressing of issues on the Guardian’s arts and entertainment blog.

In other news, the sky is looking rather grey and aggressive. I suspect my excursion to the Open Air Theatre tonight might prove quite soggy.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Musical Interlude

Still Not At The Theatre. But I have been At The Barbican.

Sometimes when I go to the theatre I feel rather over-burdened with information – I’ve read the previews, heard the word of mouth whispers – I rarely, if ever, go and see a production without having some grasp of what it is I’m going to get, but since my knowledge of classical music is almost laughably poor, when I go to a concert I am freed of any sense of expectation. It is rather liberating and exactly what I wanted, as I had been feeling rather poked and prodded by life this week and simply wanted to sit in the dark for a couple of hours and let pleasant sounds float over me.

The concert was part of the Barb’s Mostly Mozart season and featured the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 6, the Mozart Violin Concerto No 5 and Piazzolla’s Four Seasons. And, well, I don’t really have the vocabulary to do it justice, but I enjoyed it hugely. I went in feeling all tense and tired and tightly knotted and came away feeling less so.

Ooh and, as I type, the rather biblical deluge outside my window has abated and a tiny sliver of sunlight is just about discernable, which is a good thing indeed as I am due to visit the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park on Monday and was starting to fear that it would be the Under Water Theatre if this continued.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

To Show Off No More

Hmm, I appear to be Not At The Theatre again. A state I fear will continue until some time next week as, after the blip of Bath, work has returned to its usual state of workiness and also I have relatives visiting from abroad so am using my evenings for a bit of familial catch up.

But none of that is very interesting. So, um *twiddles with jewellery, cleans bit of fluff from keyboard* ooh, I see that The Drowsy Chaperone is to close on August 4, after a run of only a few months. I am rather surprised by this. I did not love this by any measure, but I certainly did not hate it anywhere near as much as some. I thought it was a sweet, frothy piece of theatre – a one joke show for sure, but a joke that kept me reasonably entertained for its running time, which is more than I can say for other things I’ve seen this year. And in Bob Martin’s performance there was a genuine nugget of pathos and humanity at its centre. True, I didn’t think it was destined to last long in London but I find the swiftness with which it is disappearing really unexpected.

Monday, July 16, 2007

For Shaw, For Shaw

Apologies for the brief break in blogging, but I have been away for a few days. Work has been very work-y of late, so my flat mate and I decided to abandon London for a couple of days, to embark on a weekend of ambling, pootling, mooching and imbibing. In Bath, city of spas and crescents and, um, pretty little cobbley bits with pubs in. And, of course, theatre. Because there’s always time for theatre, especially given the fact that the annual Peter Hall season has just kicked off for the summer at the Bath Theatre Royal. So we booked tickets for Pygmalion on the Friday night. Yes, more Shaw. But having had my expectations welcomely upended by Saint Joan earlier in the week, I was eagerly anticipating this one.

After Marianne Elliott’s intelligent, pared down production at the National, this was as traditional a staging as it gets, with big, elaborate, leather arm-chair peppered sets and scene changes so lengthy that the red velvet curtains were forced to descend between acts.

The contrast was a welcome one; though stylistically as different as it gets, the plays made for a fascinating pairing and both productions excelled at drawing out Shaw’s considerable capacity for comedy. This was especially the case with Pygmalion. Hall’s rather reverential direction was helped along immensely by Michelle Dockery's spot-on performance as Eliza Doolittle. She nailed Eliza’s vowel-mangling cockney howl and also conveys the pathos of her transformation, torn from the world she knows and understands, but never able to be fully be at home in this new land of jewels and garden parties and making small-talk about the weather.

Tim Piggot-Smith was also excellent as Henry Higgins, with his baggy cardigan, slippers, and complete lack of desire to trouble himself with normal social niceties. The affection that grows between him and his protégé is subtle but genuine, though the production leaves you in no doubt as to the callousness of his behaviour towards her. The ending is abrupt, ambiguous, and emotionally raw. In the climactic scenes between Higgins and Eliza you ache for him to just bend a little, to do something, anything to make her stay. You know it would only take the smallest of gestures, but he is unable to give even that much and both he and the audience are left quietly bereft, realising he has most likely lost her for good.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Maids and Marshmallows (or not, actually)

I must admit I was apprehensive going in. The National’s website stated a provisional running time of three hours and five minutes, and due to a minor brain hiccup while booking tickets I’d managed to land myself in the second row from the back of the Olivier circle.

There to see Marianne Elliott’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, I was anticipating a long fidgety evening squinting at the tops of people’s heads. But while my precarious perch did necessitate a degree of squinting, my somewhat negative expectations were pleasantly overturned and, despite the lengthy running time, I was completely engrossed.

Last time I saw Anne-Marie Duff, in the tedious The Soldier’s Fortune at the Young Vic, I was pretty underwhelmed; she looked lost and ill at ease in what was a messy and dull production. But here she was captivating and commanding, so full of passion and energy you quite understood why these soldiers would follow a young girl into battle. Elliott’s spare staging was also striking, drawing out both the humour and the drama of Shaw’s play.

The evening did have a few shaky moments. The opening sequence, which consisted of some slow motion fiddling with chairs to a soundtrack of what sounded like Enya played backwards, had me worried, I’ll admit (and absolutely certain that those chairs would be called into play for the climactic burning sequence, as indeed they were). A stylised battle scene, with a lot of percussive banging and stamping, also resembled something that would not have looked out of place in Stomp.

But most of these wibbles were quickly remedied by the confident staging and strong performances, including an appearance from the wonderful Paterson Joseph (the super-cool Johnson in Peep Show and the man who single-handedly saved Trevor Nunn’s irritating production of The Royal Hunt Of The Sun from its 1970s-style theatrical excesses)

On the interval I caught up with Andrew and Phil, the West End Whingers. They had also been fretting about the three hours plus running time, and were, like me, won over by the production. Indeed, we were so short of things to moan about over our interval drinks, we had to resort to whinging about the Royal Festival Hall refit. They even remembered that I was a gin girl, which perked me up further.

After the interval, and an incredibly tense and gripping trial sequence, the chairs did make a return for the burning, and though the National's smoke machine got a good work out, no actual actresses were harmed. A good thing for Anne Marie Duff, but a let down for the Whingers who were hoping to toast a few marshamllows.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Barbers and Baritones

Umbrella-less, I dashed through the rain last night over to the Royal Festival Hall. A ticket had tumbled into my lap for the production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Bryn Terfel (who I gather is Big in Opera) as the Demon Barber. I’ve not been inside the RFH since they reopened the place after its lengthy refurbishment and I was surprised to see bits of scaffolding and carts of builders’ bits-and-pieces still tucked into corners. There was also a horrendous queue for the bar so I had to content myself with a coffee. I then took said coffee over to the window and watched the rain lash the Thames for a while as I waited for the show to start.

Given that this was billed as a concert production – a “semi-staging” – it was far more elaborate than I was expecting, with the performers all in costume (including the choir from the Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire, whose attire suggested that Victorian London was more heavily populated with Goths then I’d ever realised) and quite a few props. The musicians had been swept into one corner of the stage, allowing the action to play out in the remaining space. Terfel, who had played the role before in Chicago, was superb – a booming, damaged, dangerous man. And Maria Friedman was a delight as Mrs Lovett the pie-shop owner, bawdy and brash in her vile lace leggings. The blend of opera voices and those more suited to musical theatre worked surprisingly well.

I’m a bit of a Sondheim novice but I was gripped from start to finish, and I loved the way the absence of set allowed the story and the singing to speak for themselves, the way it left them nothing to hide behind. My friend Simon who knows far more about such things was muttering about amplification and acoustics, but I was too swept up in things to care about such subtleties.

A programme footnote proudly proclaims that the pies that appear in this production - and are eaten by a number of the actors during the performance - have been provided by the new branch of Canteen that’s just opened under the Royal Festival Hall. Given that the pies, at times, are said to contain fingernails, pussy-cats and actual bits of people, I’m not entirely convinced by the intelligence of this marketing strategy.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

All That Glisters...

The sky did not look happy. It really didn’t. It frowned and fretted and let fall the odd, experimental droplet of rain. Enough, certainly, to have the groundlings in the yard at the Globe exchanging worried glances and unfurling those plastic cape-y things that look like bin liners with armholes cut into them. And then, just as it seemed as if the heavens would open, the sky brightened again. Which was a good thing indeed, as the Globe’s production of The Merchant of Venice is one that could use a bit of luck.

The press night had already been pushed forward due to the unexpected departure of Michelle Duncan, who was to play Portia. And then, on the night before I went, the actor who plays Gratiano had to be replaced by an understudy at the interval because of an attack of gastric trouble. Fortunately there were no further mishaps when I went along and even the weather eventually began to play ball, allowing us to concentrate on what is an intriguing if slightly unsatisfying production of what is often termed one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays (there’s a nice piece in the programme on this unhelpful label).

The most notable thing about Rebecca Gatward's production is the way it concentrates on bringing out the play's humour. Merchant is not one I’d ever thought of as a comedy but in her hands it is very entertaining with some proper laughs. This is only achieved however by a downplaying of the Shylock plot, with John McEnry giving a solid but rather low-key performance in the role. It’s an approach that has caused quite a split in the reviews, with many, including Lyn Gardner, labelling the production a cop out for taking this creative tack. Though I enjoyed it, I think, on reflection, I agree; it was slick and nice to look at (I particularly liked the Rialto bridge they’d erected in the yard) but it felt as if the meat of the play was missing, it had a hollow at its heart.

I had dragged French Claire along for the evening, as not only is she good company, but she studied on the Text and Playhouse MA course at King’s College London which is run in conjunction with the Globe, and is therefore full of useful information on all things Shakespearian – but did she know where the bar was? No (or should that be non), she did not. We almost ended up in a queue for the soup stand, for God’s sake, which would never do.

The Globe is of course unlike other theatres, it is open to the elements for one thing and, given what had happened earlier in the day, it’s not surprising that the actors were occasionally drowned out by the sound of helicopters overhead. This was however less of a distraction than the tiny, howling baby someone had with them in the yard. Now for the most part I’m all for exposing kids to the arts at a young age. I think the odd bit of giggling and seat-back kicking is worth enduring it if they end up being engaged with and excited by what they’re seeing, and hate it when people get all sniffy and British about children in theatres, galleries and restaurants and so forth. But from the raw, animal sound this kid was making, it was clearly barely out of the womb and therefore, I’m thinking, not really capable of appreciating a nuanced line reading.