Friday, December 19, 2008

Crocosmia at BAC

I really would not have predicted that one of the most beguiling productions I would see this year would feature someone spitting a large amount of half-chewed Battenburg cake into a carrier bag.

Or, for that matter, that it would feature adult actors playing children, something that can be incredibly tiresome when done poorly, but Little Bulb's Shamira Turner, Clare Beresford and Dom Conway invest their performances with such conviction, such care and affection, that all worries in this area fade in the first few minutes.

They play Sophia, Finley and Freya Brackenberg; Sophia and Finley are ten year old twins, Freya is age seven and three quarters. Their parents, April and Geoffrey (whom the cast take turns playing), are an affectionate, slightly nerdy couple and their lives are clearly comfortable and contented, their world rooted somewhere in the 1970s.

In its first half, the show takes us through various Christmases, breakfast squabbles (the bartering of Rice Krispies for Coco Pops) and morning rituals. It presents us with the siblings’ musical efforts and shows them dancing with abandon to Cyndi Lauper. Every scene is filled with believable, beautifully observed details; the characters’ interactions and even the way they stand and move are utterly convincing.

And then this idyllic bubble is popped. Their parents die and the children are shunted around, first to an orphanage, and then to a new family who, while they seem kind and grounded, are a world away from the children’s ditzy, doting parents. Various toys are used to convey the confusion of the time after their parents’ deaths; plastic elephants and pencil cases become crude puppets, standing in for prospective foster couples. The family they eventually go to are represented by a running shoe and a perfume atomiser. Music also plays an important role in this inventive show, with the children playing their parent’s eclectic records, and at one point, singing a song by Sufjan Stevens.

The production is an incredibly delicate thing: the premise suggests an excess of sentimentality, but it never quite crosses that line, it never overbalances. Instead it proves to be both moving and ridiculously uplifting. In one beautiful scene, the children enact one of their favourite memories of their parents using Battenburg cakes as stand-ins; eventually they give in to their sweet teeth and gorge themselves on their pink and yellow parental substitutes. It’s a moment that’s both upsetting and playful and manages to push its audience (well, me certainly) near to tears.

The show ends on a note of uplift, as the emotive charge of earlier scenes is off-set by the warmth and colour of Freya’s eighth birthday party, which the audience are invited to assist in. The stage is filled with balloons and streamers and a sense of hope. Memories can keep the past alive in their minds, but we are left feeling that the future may not be all that grim. The last thing we see is a light shining over them, a gentle, guiding glow.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

During the party scene, everyone was invited to blow up balloons, something I am utterly rubbish at. My efforts are always sad and shriveled things, as was the case here - it was a pretty pathetic effort.

I suspect this was the last show I’ll squeeze in before Christmas and I couldn’t have hoped for a nicer way to wrap up my theatre-going year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Loot at the Tricycle

This is the first time I’ve been to the Tricycle this year where I haven’t got caught in the rain en route, the first trip to Kilburn this year therefore where I haven’t had to shake myself dry in the lobby like a damp spaniel before picking up my tickets. I mention this only because a pre-show soaking, or in this case the lack of one, can't help but have some bearing on my mood and therefore to my response to what I see - Topless Mum was still pretty rough though, rain or no rain.

The scramble for seats can, of course, have the same effect. Fortunately mine, in this instance, was reserved, so I can hardly complain, but, as reported on various other blogs, there seemed to be a general sense of confusion, of people wandering around only to find that seats they thought were free weren’t and so forth.

I am a bit wary of the works of Joe Orton after I sat pretty much unmoved through Hampstead’s revival of What the Butler Saw while people around me appeared on the verge of doing themselves a damage through laughing so much. I actually preferred this production, though that’s not much of a recommendation, as I still found it a somewhat clinical and nasty-hearted exercise. That’s not to say I didn’t laugh, I did, but there’s something about the desire to push buttons, to experiment with levels of offence that makes me tired and bored; I understand the social context and where this desire came from, that kind of humour just leaves me cold.

Loot is Orton’s second play. It was written in 1964 but it was the revised and tightened version of 1966 that achieved success. The play, which is as black as a charred coffin, begins with an end. The end of Mrs McLeavy. Her grieving husband, played by James Haynes, is being pressurised into marrying again by his wife’s leggy, predatory nurse, a woman who has seen of seven husbands and is on the look out for number eight.

Meanwhile the McLeavys’ young son and his undertaker friend have been involved in a bank heist and need somewhere to stash the cash. The solution? Tip mother into a cupboard and hide the loot in the coffin.

Death, religion, marriage, all are poked at. But though entertaining in a patchy fashion, the Sean Holmes’ production works best as a barometer of how humour and notions of what constitutes bad taste have, and haven’t, evolved over the last four decades. Jokes about the manhandling of corpses, errant eyeballs and exploding viscera – all the gruesome stuff - elicited plenty of guffaws, but the jokes about rape and child prostitution were met only with uncomfortable titters. Oddly it was a line about the mutually exclusive nature of women and intelligence that drew the only hiss of disapproval of the evening, a very mild line by the standards of the play. But this was kind of faux-outrage, not real; the truly outrageous stuff drew a much more muted response.

There were some strong performances. I liked David Haig’s turn as Truscott of the Yard, pacing the room with his hands behind his back and his head held low, is very effective. He appears to be relishing each line; it’s a hammy performance but appropriate to the tone of the piece. Doon Mackichan’s lusty, lethal nurse was equally entertaining.

While some elements inevitably felt dated, the play’s contempt for authority, and especially the police, still feels very relevant. The character of Truscott is prone to violence and vanity; he’s easily corruptible and borderline bonkers. Some of the remarks, which in essence are about how the erosion of civil liberties, still have a fresh edge to them.

The production begins with a scratchy rendition of the national anthem and, on the night I was in, a – somewhat elderly – gent rose from his seat and stood for the duration of this. His position, right in the middle at the front of stalls, made me think that he, this lone standing chap, was part of the show; a nice, wry comment on an ever changing world.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea at BAC

I make no attempt to disguise my fondness for Battersea Arts Centre. It is one of the few venues that always fills me with a little tingle of excitement as I enter and pick up my tickets. It has a kind of life to it; an energy. I suppose it helps that most of what I’ve seen there this year I’ve really enjoyed (Iris Brunette, Security, Smile Off Your Face – though seen is probably not the correct word for that last one, given that I was blindfolded through most of it) and that it used to be a pleasant 15 minute walk from my front door, but still, my crabby public transport-fuelled mood faded almost immediately as I entered the theatre bar (yes, yes, I know).

Their current show, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, is not the easiest thing to categorize; the work of theatre company, 1927, it combines projected film and animation, live piano music and performance. Two actresses, with faces painted white and clipped, emotionless voices, play out a series of short stories: black little tales that owe much to Shock-headed Peter and the devil-centric fairy tales of Eastern Europe. The show itself is quite a slight thing. The writing is quite amusing, but really it’s the inventiveness of the staging, the combination of all the various elements, which makes the show so memorable.

The performers interact with the projections, which sometimes take the form of simple chalk drawings, sometimes more complex animations. On occasion the images were projected onto their clothes, for example, to illustrate the path of a gingerbread man through the digestive system (it makes sense in context). The best sequences involved a pair of suitably sinister ‘twins’; blank eyed, demonic creatures, who pulled some chap out of the audience and made him play at being their granny. It was all very funny, in a kind of wrong way rather than uproariously so, and over in about an hour and a quarter – so plenty of time for a post-show pizza at Donna Margherita’s across the street.

The details really made it: the usherette selling sweeties and programmes, the endearing opening set by flapper duo The Bees Knees, the way the entrance to the auditorium had been transformed into a gaping mouth (though swathing the hard bench seats with red fabric does not make them any more comfortable, they get points for trying), the little zoetrope – I think that’s what those spinny things are called - by the BAC entrance which I felt compelled to play with, and the fact that somewhere up above the theatre a huge, ripe moon was looming, even if it was disappointingly hidden by mist.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Cinderella at the Lyric

Is there such a thing as too dark for children? I’m not sure; I seem to recall my tastes ran to the macabre when I was small. I remember adoring a book of Slavic folk tales as a child in which all manner of nasty things happened to people and I have, in fact, become far more squeamish as I’ve gotten older.

The point of all this being that, while there’s a decent drizzle of gore in Melly Still’s staging of Cinderella at the Lyric, I suspect all but the smallest will be fine with it. However, as Webcowgirl's experience bears out, this is probably not the show for sensitibve five year olds.

Still has created a de-Disneyed family production that adults will respond to as much as children. The show takes its cues from the fairy-godmother-free Brothers Grimm version of the tale, with a few borrowed myths thrown in for good measure. The acting is fine, if a bit hampered by the story-telling nature of the production and the mass of back-story, but it’s the invention with which the tale is told that really lift this above the level of standard Christmas fare. That and the music. The music is quite wonderful.

This is provided by very tall Norwegian musician called Terje Isungset who sits in a small nest at the top of the stage playing an array of unusual instruments including an old bicycle, a mouth harp which apparently was made from part of a Second World War fighter plane and a trumpet made of ice. His unique percussion is an integral part of the show, driving it along.

The set is also glorious-looking, full of silver birch trees. Suspended above the stage is a circle of paper snow pigeons strung together like a mobile. More of these same paper birds are worn by the actors as glove puppets (yes, more puppets) who then flutter their fingers and make cooing noises to bring the pigeons to life.

At the interval, the production spills over into the bar (hurrah). This is where the Royal Ball, in which the Prince will search for his future bride (having already met, fallen for and then forgotten Cinderella while hunting a stag in the forest), takes place. For reasons that will become clear during the show, audience members on leaving their seats are draped in blue pashminas before filing downstairs. The Lyric has employed extra ‘guests’ to mingle during the ball, and while sipping my wine and looking wall-flowery, I was approached by a leggy thing in a blue evening gown who was apparently channeling my great aunt, as she told me I would never land myself a husband if I didn’t join in and dance.

The last few scenes are quite gleefully nasty in a way, which if you know the Grimm version of the story, you will have anticipated. Feet and eyeballs are both involved. This actually seems a bit excessive given that the not all that ugly sisters in Still’s production (entertainingly played by Katherine Manners and Kelly William) are cruel in a recognizably childish way rather than simply evil, but even so they are made to pay for being awful to their slightly simpering step-sister.

None of the children sitting around me seemed horribly trauamtised by all this - though I saw a couple of adults hiding their faces - and at around two hours, including a lengthier than normal interval to account for the ball, it didn’t outstay its welcome at all.

Incidently the prince is played by Daniel Weyman, who I stalked a tiny weeny bit once, but only for a few minutes by mistake, more of a walking-in-the-same-direction-as than a stalking really.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Twelfth Night at the Tricycle

I have blogged about Filter's energetic take on Twelfth Night over on the Guardian site, so shan't repeat myself here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Time of Your Life at the Finborough

The Finborough Theatre has a good track record in digging up treasure. They like to stage plays that have fallen out of fashion or simply been forgotten. Sometimes they strike gold; sometimes not so much.

Written in 1939, William Saroyan’s sprawling barroom play has a lot going for it; it’s warm and engaging, if practically plot-less, and has an endearing faith in human goodness. It was a big hit in its day and won Saroyan the Pulitzer, but while there’s much about it of interest, Max Lewendel’s rather muddy production doesn’t do it many favours.

The Time Of Your Life is set in Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, a San Francisco honky-tonk, a dive bar with an upright piano, a jukebox in the corner and Tiffany lamps on the tables.

Into this bar come a series of people, many of them liver-pickled and desperate. There are streetwalkers and drunks, a marble game addict, a teller of tall tales, a cop who’s dissatisfied with his job and a would-be comedian and dancer who is skilled at neither art.

Sitting calmly in the middle of this constant human stream is Joe, a man with deep pockets and a generous spirit. He no longer works, choosing instead to spend his days sipping champagne, getting amiably squiffy and studying the world and its vagaries. When his friend and errand boy, Tom, becomes infatuated with a troubled prostitute, Joe does what he can to help them.

In its focus on people on the margins, the play has much in common with other more familiar names of American drama, with Eugene O’Neill and his ilk. There’s a touch of John Fante in there too, I think. But while the play contains mess and desperation in abundance, there’s also hope and a sense of optimism untainted by the coming war in Europe.

Lewendel’s production, however, seems uneasy with the play’s loose, episodic structure; with no real story arc to speak of, the production falters when it should free-flow. It only really hits its rhythm in the shorter second half, aided by a lengthy and very funny, if a little icky, scene where Joe and Tom compete to see how much chewing gum they can each fit in their mouths.

For this production, the Finborough seating as been rejigged to create a suitable barroom feel. Instead of the usual benches, many audience members perch on bar stools; the cast sometimes choose to acknowledge the audience, sometimes not. The cast, it should be pointed out, is vast: easily numbering over twenty. They’ve crammed in so many people that it feels as if, even at full capacity, the audience-cast ratio would be something like 2:1.

Among this number there are some strong performances: while there’s something appealingly oddball about Alistair Cumming’s Joe, those in some of the smaller roles leave the deepest impressions, particularly Payman Jaberi as a sad-eyed Arab man who says little but says it with weight and Emma Vane as the melancholy lady who catches Joe’s eye. Elsewhere accents waver alarmingly and there’s a fair bit of acting that’s rather too ‘big’ for the space.

Saroyan’s play is certainly intriguing and some of that comes through here. But this over-crowded production never quite gets to grips with its idiosyncrasies, never quite milks the richness from the material.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

August: Osage County at the National

Apologies for the gap in blogging, but the last few days have been all things and stuff and whatnot. Last Friday however there was actually some theatre when 'Barry' and I went to see Tracy Letts' August: Osage County at the National. For the sake of thematic appropriateness, Barry had a pre-show whiskey and I, not having ready access to heavy-duty pharmaceuticals, contented myself with a large glass of merlot.

I had already read the play, having consumed it in one greedy sitting, and thought it a ripping thing, a great dark ride. But though I enjoyed the production hugely, there were certain things that didn't quite click for me – though conceivably this might have something to do with my pre-show excitement levels being so high.

Right then, here are some things that you probably know: San Francisco, Steppenwolf, Broadway, Tony Award and so forth. It premiered last summer, made the leap to New York and then it was awards all the way. And it’s long: L-O-N-G. Three acts, two intervals, three and a bit hours. Though, actually, having said that, I've been to shorter plays that have felt a hell of a lot longer.

The first act takes its time setting things up. The Weston family is a mess. Daddy drinks, mom pops pills. The marriage of the eldest daughter is falling apart. The youngest daughter is engaged to that evil dude from American Gothic so that obviously doesn't bode well. Middle daughter has stayed close to home, only to provide a source of constant frustration and disappointment to her mother. And then dad goes missing and all the various Westons come home. This slow-burn first section leads up to the most amazing central act, an incredibly funny, tightly constructed funeral dinner in which momma Weston sets about each of her family members with the paring knife that passes for her tongue. It was sublime, though Barry objected to the fact that for much of it, we were looking at the characters backs as they sit at the dinner table.

It was the third act where I thought it lost its way a little. There was just too much, revelation after revelation, and not a shred of hope. It felt excessive, even silly, almost like a (very sharply written) soap opera. The extremity of it was alienating and drained any true tragedy out of the final scenes.
The performances were however superb, Deanna Dunagan, as the tiny, pill-raddled mother, clip-clopping down the stairs in her satin pyjamas. Amy Morton was also wonderful as Barbara the eldest daughter, you could see the capacity to become like her parents written within her, despite her external show of strength.

The thing mentioned by many people who have seen the play is recognition, that they see something of themselves and their families in the Westons. I didn’t have this feeling at all, which is perhaps why I didn’t get it in the way some people have, certainly I was aware of two people weeping in the audience at the end of the play, really bawling, clearly affected on a level I was not. I enjoyed so much of this production –the performances, the Gothic dolls-house set, the line “Well, forsook you and the horse you rode in on” - but it lost its grip on me in those last scenes; it seemed a bit to keen to be saying Big Things about America. However that central sequence, that middle scene, well, that was truly wonderful: perfectly pitched, tense and deeply, darkly funny.

If you're interested, my interview with Mr Letts for musicOMH is here.