Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Rose In Bloom

A whole bunch of years ago (OK, maybe three) I went along to the Rose Theatre in Kingston, when it was still in its unfinished state to see Peter Hall’s As You Like It which was being staged in the raw auditorium, with its exposed concrete and pipes (and Portaloos, as I recall). And this was rather exciting, not so much for the production, which was decidedly Peter Hall-y. But for the space, which felt fresh and full of potential and, also, crucially, local to where I was living at the time, so no long, crawling train from the depths of Surrey to worry about.

Roll on 2008 and, having been dogged with delays, mainly funding related, the theatre is finally open. And the finished space is really quite something. It has a layout modelled on the original Rose Theatre in Southwark and seats around 900. It's most notable feature is a pit area in front of the stage where more limber audience members can come and sit on the floor for around £7 a ticket (the theatre's website recommends bringing your own cushion). It won’t please everyone - there have already been online grumbles about sightlines and whatnot – but I thought it was an attractive and elegant space. It just seems a shame that they’ve chosen to fill it, for this, its debut production, with a stiff, if dependable, production of Uncle Vanya, once again directed by Hall.

Solid. I think that’s the best way to describe it. Solid and sturdy. This is a production that delivers exactly what it was designed to deliver. But, presumably because it is intended to tour and has not been specially created for the Rose, it failed to use the great sweeping stage in an imaginative way. The acting was fine (particularly Loo Brealey's Sonya), the simple set, with its single autumnal tree, was attractive enough, and it did have its moments, its solid, sturdy, dependable moments, but it was too gentle to be truly moving and I just wish they could have christened this space with something a bit more, well, more.

Certain parties will, however, be cheered to know that the bar area is sizeable, spacious and very reasonably priced, if rather lacking in decent seating.

A case of watch this space.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Lucky Escape

This Thursday gone I took my first trip of the year to Theatre 503. Their current show is a thing called Mad Funny Just, a devised piece being staged as part of the Old Vic, New Voices award scheme.

The story it tells is a not an original one. A girl is dead and her brother, friends and teachers attempt to come to terms with it. Plot-wise that’s about it, but it’s lifted off in unexpected directions by the manner of its staging. The dark and poky studio space above the Latchmere pub has been made over to resemble a rehearsal room, complete with kettle and pack of chocolate biscuits in the corner. Props are kept to a minimum, ditto costumes, and the telling of the tale is left to the performances, all of which are nuanced and well-observed.

Shifting rapidly between characters, the five actors – who along with the director of the piece, Sarah Tipple, are part of a collective called Creased – bring to life the world of Louise, the dead girl in question. The cast are particularly adept at the adolescent mannerisms of her friends and Becci Gemmell in particular is superb as a nervy and quivery voiced old lady who finds herself reinvigorated after a trip to the hairdresser.

More a collection of character sketches than a play proper, not everything it attempts works – there were too many heavy-handed fantasy sequences for my liking – but, despite that, this is an exciting and energetic piece, exuding potential and invention. The story it tells may not be particularly original and the method of its staging leaves little room for the characters to grow. But in terms of performance and sheer creativity, it’s a delight. And did I say there was no set to speak of? Well, that’s not quite true. The production has a sweet little surprise saved for its closing minutes, but to say more would spoil it.

It seems that the theatre gods were really smiling on me last week as, as well as seeing this, I managed to miss out on seeing An Audience With The Mafia at the Apollo when technical difficulties caused the performance I was down to attend to be cancelled. Having since read the reviews, I realise what a lucky escape I had.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Blood And Oranges

Back to the Lyric last night for Gecko’s The Arab And The Jew, a near-wordless two man examination of the Arab Israeli situation. This is part of the London International Mime Festival and the piece is indeed free of dialogue in the conventional sense, if not of speech entirely. Instead, the performers utter odd words here and there, coupled with some unintelligible murmuring and garbled interjections. But, in the main, the physical dominates over the verbal; as the performers dance and tumble and claw at the ground.

It begins with a bang, as the two performers, Al Nedjari and Amit Lahav, friends who grew up on either side of the divide, tumble into the sand. What follows is a galloping collage of inventive scenes, each underscored with the idea of conflict. I particularly enjoyed the sudden segue into music hall skit, where the men play with toy drums and toy guns to the strains of You Always Hurt The One You Love.

As Andrew Haydon also mentioned over on Postcards, a lot of what I’ve seen so far this year has been on the short side, an hour or less, this show included. If I don’t get an interval soon, I may have to rename this blog. The Arab and The Jew ran for around 55 minutes, but even then the concept felt a bit bitty and stretched. However there was so much going on, so many arresting visual images that my attention never wavered. It just felt more like a series of, wildly inventive, but very individual moments rather than a cohesive piece.

I will admit that my appreciation may have been, er, enhanced by the two teenage boys behind me who exuded an air of I Really Would Rather Be Elsewhere from the beginning, with their constant checking of their watches and murmuring of ‘was that supposed to be funny, or what?’ accompanied by a soundtrack of incessant bag rummaging and the repeated fastening and unfastening of Velcro. But, as has happened before, some inner limpness on my part prevented me from turning round and telling them off. I always wish I had my flatmate with me at such moments; she is a secondary school teacher and has perfected an over-the-top-of-her-glasses stare of death that can silence most boys in a second. Most people for that matter. That’s a trick I’d like to learn.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Mother's Love

The Hackney Empire is a grand old thing. It’s also one of the few theatres in London I haven’t visited before. So, striding up to the entrance (on time and not out of breath, for once), I found myself feeling rather excited. Then I spotted the large and unwelcoming chains that were holding the doors closed. Hmm. I scrutinised my notepad and noticed the word ‘studio’ scribbled in amongst my other random doodlings. So I wandered around to the side of the building and found the correct entrance, joined the queue waiting (and waiting – they didn’t let us in until almost fifteen minutes after the start time) to see A Mother Speaks.

This one-woman show, written and performed by Judd Batchelor, tackles gun crime in London and its awful aftermath. Batchelor uses broad humour and shock tactics to hammer home her message. Dressed in a tatty toweling dressing gown, she describes her life as the mother of a young son. In a casual, chatty style, she talks about his birth, his first day at school, the first time she realized he was having sex. And then, bang, his life is over, ended, cancelled out by a bullet - and the play, up until then a rambling monologue, flips into something different and darker. To the point where the whole thing was in danger of pitching into the ridiculous.

This twist – the bereaved mother is no passive figure here, instead she acts out a brutal revenge on her son’s killers – is unsubtle in the extreme and I struggled to take the play seriously as a result. But though Susie McKenna’s production is rather basic in its staging and in its dramatic approach, it clearly connected with the mostly young and local audience on the night I was there. Fidgety and noisy at first, there were audible gasps and whimpers as the play progressed. So it was clearly working on some level, even if it left me cold. The closing photo montage, a collage of young lives lost through gun or knife violence on the streets of London in the past year, had its own power and though I found the play pretty heavy-handed stuff, the shocked and uncomfortable faces I noticed as I left the theatre, forced me to put my own responses into context.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Second Chances

While I will happily sit through a film I like several times over, enjoying the peeling back of layers, the subtle revelation of new details, I rarely return for a second visit to anything I’ve seen at the theatre. This is not through lack of desire, there have been a number of shows over the last couple of years that I would have gladly revisited, but time and financial constraints plus my magpie-eyed attraction to the shiny and new, usually get in the way of my wish to see something a second time around.

On the list of things I was keen to go back to, the production of Metamorphosis by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson at the Lyric, was admittedly not high. I remember enjoying certain elements of this physical retelling of Kafka but being rather disappointed with the show as a whole, something about it just didn’t click with me. Still I had a friend who was super keen to go, and I was curious to see how it might have changed with a new cast in place.

The person I went with previously was a theatre-literate sort, a friend who knew her Kneehigh from her Frantic Assembly. We’d gone along to see Metamorphosis on the back of seeing several other physical theatre productions that we’d both really enjoyed. And we both came out feeling slightly disappointed, admitting to a certain sense of ‘seen it all before.’ The dangling from ropes and the acrobatics, though impressive, were just too over-familiar to really wow us. I remember chatting with her in the bar afterwards and discussing how our expectations had been incredibly high. We’d read the names of the companies and individuals involved and gone in there with our critical hats firmly in place, hungry to be elevated and shown something new. Going to the theatre remains one of my life’s key pleasures; it can still make me childishly giddy with excitement at times, and yet seeing as many shows as I do, it can make you, if not exactly cynical, then certainly a fussier customer than most.

So it was refreshing to return to the show with someone who was going in clean as it were, who’d not been to the theatre in a good year or two, and was thoroughly engrossed and amazed by what they saw. It was an infectious feeling and I found myself feeding of their enthusiasm. I still don’t love the production, I still find it flawed, but having seen it again, I think I appreciated it more.

On an unrelated note I’ve just checked my stats and noticed a number of people arriving here, I expect on the back of the last but one post, after searching for ‘nice girl spanking,’ ‘naked belly dancing’ and ‘shiny pants.’ There's not really much I can add to that, is there?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Four Angry Men

Four chairs. And four chaps. All clad in dapper suits. That's all Ben Woolf's highly entertaing show required to make me laugh pretty much solidly for an hour. The play, Angry Young Man by theatre company MahWaff, has been around since 2005, playing to acclaim in various fringe venues, but this is the first time I've seen it. The play tells the story of Yuri, a Russian doctor with a limited grasp of English, who has come to London looking for work. The frantic plot crams in menacing skin heads, gullible posh blokes and coquettish Notting Hill rich girls, but for all its incident, the story is eclipsed by the manner of its telling.

The four actors share the character of Yuri between them and switch between supporting roles at a rapid rate. This isn't at all confusing, the timing of the cast is impeccable and the character switches are never jarring, the story flows along beautifully. What really appeals is the way you can simultaneously appreciate the cleverness of the staging while revelling in the humour of the piece. It both excites from a creative perspective, yet keeps you laughing and engaged throughout. There's even a kernel of something serious at its centre about the way this country treats its immigrants, though this is rather thrown away.

While the cast worked wonderfully as a group, a single unit, there were some lovely individual moments. Hugh Skinner, left to mop up the most minor roles, was very funny, reluctantly standing in, at various points in the play, for a trophy stag on the wall, a tongue-lolling Labrador and a urinating garden fountain. I also liked Alex Waldmann as Patrick's simpering girlfriend Alison.

Playing in the rather cramped downstairs space at the Trafalgar Studios (those double benches are a bit of a lottery; I was sat next to a sturdy gent, who, with his coat and case and various bits and pieces, left me with only about a fifth of the thing on which to perch), this was meant to be staged as part of a double bill with a newer work by Woolf, but illness has meant this second piece, The Explorer, has been cancelled. A real shame, as on the strength of this production, I'm really keen to see more of his work.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Buses And Belly Dancers

This was the second time in a row that I’d arrived at the Arcola breathless and flustered and in need of a steadying glass of something. The Victoria line had inconsiderately ground to a halt and I was forced to bus-hop frantically across London to make it on time. (Though it’s pleasing to note that, despite considerable Christmas indolence, I can still run pretty fast if circumstances require)

Anyway, the Arcola. Their first new production of 2008 is an odd one. The British Ambassador’s Belly Dancer is written by Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, together with his partner Nadira and Alan Hescott. Murray, of course, was very publicly sacked for exposing human rights abuses. During the same period, he also left his wife for an Uzbek dancer, Nadira, who worked in a gentlemen’s club he frequented.

The subsequent media blitz has already made it to the stage, as part of Robin Soans’s wobbly verbatim piece Life After Scandal at Hampstead Theatre, and, as this play notes, there was a time where the couple had “Noam Chomsky on Hotmail and David Hare in the kitchen.” But that was a while ago (and Nadira never got her promised Nicole Farhi dress).

This current play comes across as Nadira’s attempt to tackle the way she was treated in the tabloids, to speak for herself, to tell her own story. So she performs, as well as co-writes, sitting before us wreathed in her black silk dancer’s garb and a pair of clumpy desert boots. And her story is both fascinating and harrowing. Her family were plunged into poverty after Uzbekistan became independent and, as a result, her father developed a drug habit. Though trained as a teacher, Nadira ended up dancing in a strip club to keep herself and her family afloat. Later, she was twice raped by the Uzbek police. She describes all this in a calm, matter of fact fashion, peppering her account with the occasional wry comment about Murray’s fondness for spanking and her struggles to source sheep fat in Shepherds Bush so she can prepare her favourite Uzbek dishes.

She is now taking acting classes. This is a woman who knows how to survive, to keep her head above water, to make the most of every opportunity. And one can hardly blame her. But on theatre terms this is still a strange exercise and one that smacks of indulgence. Nadira’s accented delivery is sometimes hesitant and the piece is full of contradictions: she wants to be taken seriously, yet intersperses the piece with bursts of belly dancing. Her story is compelling but I wondered if a show like this was the best way to present it. I must admit I left the theatre feeling more puzzled than enlightened. I gather its bound for the Arts Theatre after its stint at the Arcola though.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Another Menier Musical

OK then. Finally some theatre, as promised.

On Tuesday I ventured out of the warm cocoon of my flat to visit the Menier Chocolate Factory for the final preview of their revival of La Cage Aux Folles. This was due to open an age ago but the press night had been much delayed due to the illness of Douglas Hodge and an understudy had been playing the role of Albin (Spencer Stafford, who according to my flat mate who saw the show before Christmas, was excellent).

The Menier has been rejigged to include a red-curtained entrance tunnel and a number of cabaret style tables at the front of the stage, as well a strip of quite spectacularly ugly carpet, in a stab at recreating the 1970s St Tropez club in which the show is set.

I’d only encountered La Cage previously through its non-musical American film incarnation, The Birdcage, which I’d managed to sit through despite a severe intolerance to Robin Williams, but the plot remains much the same. Jean Michel, the son of nightclub owner Georges (played by Philip Quast) announces his intention to marry the daughter of a rightwing politician. The future in-laws need to meet, but Jean-Michel insists that Georges’ lover Albin – who performs nightly in the club as Zaza – needs to be elsewhere and that his real mother be present instead, this despite the fact that it is Albin who has raised him.

Though it has a degree of rough-around-the-edges charm, Terry Johnson’s production seems to take an age to set this up. There was some fun business with the club’s troupe of dancers, La Cagelles, though, unobservant me, I took an age to notice that one was in fact a woman, and I liked the way the show focused on the still-strong passion between the middle aged couple but, on the whole, this was a flabby and fluffy thing. Quast and Hodge were decent in their roles but neither knocked me out, the pacing was occasionally awry, and the orchestra, seated in an alcove at the side of the stage, often seemed to fighting against the vocals, the music rather overwhelming the lyrics. There even appeared to be a large piece of duct tape holding the set together in one corner – was this a part of the design?

There was a degree of audience interaction, which I quite liked. Those opting to sit at the front tables are likely to have their head caressed or be fed olives by Quast, but these moments felt rather rehearsed and I’d have liked to seen them push this aspect of the show a little further.

The core of the story, about acceptance, about what constitutes family, is still potent, but though I left humming Jerry Herman’s lyrics, I wasn’t as excited by the production as I’d hoped to be.

The show was playing to a full house though, which allowed me to experience the Menier seating scrum properly for the first time. (The unreserved seating policy meant that a bit of elbow action was required to secure a decent perch). Also, when filing out at the end, my friend and I got to overhear the orchestra loudly deconstructing that night's performance: “OK, next time I think we need to be faster on au revoir.” And we also got to see a six foot tall Germanic tranny sit on Toby Young. Which had entertainment value, certainly.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


What, is it 2008 already? How the hell did that happen? It seems like Christmas was just yesteday, but then I'm from a Serbian family, so Christmas actually was yesterday. Still, a more diligent blogger may have filled this space with an informed and/or amusing breakdown of the theatrical highlights of the coming months, but then the more diligent bloggers already have.

Anyway there’ll definitely be some theatre related content here in, ooh, some days. Definitely.