Saturday, January 31, 2009

Complicit at the Old Vic

We're going to need a bigger blog!

Except we're not, because most of what there is to say on this matter has been said already, here and here and elsewhere I'm sure.

This really was a bit of a mess. Joe Sutton's play seemed both under-written and unsuited to the space. Whether Richard Dreyfuss was wearing an ear-piece or not I couldn't tell you, for I was too far away to see clearly, but his performance seemed fairly solid on the day I saw it.

Dreyfuss plays Ben Kritzer, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has published a book about the use of torture by the US and who is being threatened with a charge of espionage if he does not reveal the name of his government source. Elizabeth McGovern plays his (implausibly young) wife, Judy, who pleads with him to abandon his ethics for her sake and the sake of their children. "You’re a father," she informs him over and over and over (and over) again.

David Suchet plays the last point on the triangle, the lawyer who is defending Kritzer, and together the three of them debate the hell out of this predicament in a way that makes it difficult to believe in or care about any of the characters.

One of the main problems is the dialogue. Sutton likes repetition. He uses it a lot. McGovern in particular has to say nearly all her lines twice over with a slightly different emphasis the second time around: "Have you been drinking?" she asks Ben, "Have you been drinking?" Sutton is also fond of the mid-sentence trail off, but this rarely if ever feels like natural speech in the actors' mouths, it just makes the play feel disjointed.

The pacing of the piece does not help. The scenes of dialogue are static and sluggish and the in-the-round stage, left over from Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, really does the play no favours. Complicit is essentially a string of intense conversations - the circular nature of the dialogue I'm guessing is supposed to suggest claustrophobia, the system closing in on Kritzer - but this does not come across well at all as the actors shout at each other across the big shiny disc of the stage. (It must be said that, up in the nosebleed seats where I was sitting, the stage itself, with its television monitors glinting under glass, does look impressive, but I wonder if the effect of this was the same in the stalls).

Dreyfuss doesn’t do too badly at conveying a man forced into a corner. Suchet is OK, but only OK and McGovern is saddled with a role that just makes her sound whiny for most of the time.

Yes, there are some nuggets of interest (deeply) buried in this thing, questions about the way the rules of journalism and politics have changed in the wake of 9/11 and the war on terror, but I had long since lost interest and it's not enough to say a thing and just leave it hanging there in the air.

There was no sign at all of the interrogation scenes that others have mentioned. The running time was listed as one hour 45 minutes (with an interval) but it was creeping towards the two hour mark by the time the thing actually finished; it felt as if the interval had gone on for rather longer than usual but the play had already started to skew my perspective on such things by that point so I couldn't swear to that.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mrs Affleck at the National

It began with the rain. As a fine mist of moisture fell across the Cottesloe stage, the coughing started. Nothing out of the ordinary at first – par for the course at the National – but then it grew louder and louder until the scene was awash with coughing, a cacophony of coughing, a cacoughany, if you will.

It’s a shame, as this scene was one of the more striking in the production, this gentle mist heightening the emotional content of this strangely unaffecting play. Despite centring on the death of a child it was difficult to give a damn about these people.

Samuel Adamson has taken Ibsen’s late play, Little Eyolf, and transplanted it to a Kentish coastal town in 1950’s Britain. We know it is the 1950s because there are superbly be-quiffed Teddy boys strutting around, numerous references to the end of rationing and the recent arrival of immigrants from Jamaica, and the women wear dresses that wouldn’t look out of place in a film by Douglas Sirk (Claire Skinner wears a stunning turquoise shirt dress in the first act). But despite such details, this act of relocation feels forced and the play sits uneasily in its new surroundings.

At the start of the play, Alfred Affleck has just returned from a trip to the Highlands, a trip he undertook ostensibly to complete a book he had been working on. During his stay, he has come to the decision to abandon his book and focus his attentions on their son, Oliver, a bright young boy disabled after an accident when he was a baby. Rita is affronted by this announcement, for she views her son as a barrier to her husband’s affections and, because he was injured while they were making love, the boy’s disability provides a constant reminder of the passion she feels she has lost.

Adamson (who also adapted Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community for the National) takes a good long time establishing this dysfunctional set up. Indeed the moment with the most action in this somewhat plodding play takes place during the interval when a team of head-set wearing techies rush out, armed with drills and lifts and things, to dismantle the kitchen set of the first act and replace it with the sea front cafĂ© of the second.

The production does pick up a bit after the interval. Alfred, deep in grief is torn between his wife and the affections of his half-sister Audrey, while Rita is catapulted into an abyss of self-questioning. Despite all the emotional turmoil on display the chap next to me was checking his watch at three minute intervals come the last half hour. It doesn’t help that the production is rather awkwardly staged. Though the performance space extends forwards, with the audience arranged around three sides, much of the action takes place at one end of the set, giving neck ache to those sitting side on. A friend of mine just qualified as an osteopath, I am definitely bringing her with me if the National retain this configuration for their next Cottesloe production.

Though Marianne Elliott has directed some of the National's most vibrant productions (War Horse and Saint Joan among them), this is a static and chilly thing. She does at least draw out committed performances from her cast. Naomi Frederick makes Audrey plausibly warm, the only really likeable person in the thing, while the rich voiced Angus Wright gives Alfred a measure of charisma. Claire Skinner, in the title role, does what she can with the character as written, but her plight fails to involve the audience; I ended up wishing she’d just be quiet.

At the start of the evening, on my way in to take my seat, I passed a table laden with props for the night. A battered paperback, a football, some flowers - and a bottle of sherry. With hindsight I should have taken a swig.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Circus Klezmer at the Purcell Room

The notice on the door of the Purcell Room warned that there would be 'audience participation.'

Now these are words that are guaranteed to make me feel apprehensive; the idea of being dragged on stage during a production and made to stand in front of a sea of eyes is really, really not one I relish.

But I needn’t have worried, for while a couple of people were indeed coaxed from their seats and made to participate, it was done in a very warm and entertaining way; the people they picked on were made to feel like the stars of the show, rather than the butt of a joke.

Part of the 2009 London International Mime Festival, Circus Klezmer is the work of a Spanish company of circus performers. The show is set in an Eastern European village in the early days of the 20th century. There is to be a wedding and the villagers are preparing themselves for it - and that’s all there is in terms of narrative. The village setting provides a backdrop to a string of near wordless scenes featuring acrobatics, juggling and physical comedy, all set to klezmer music played by onstage musicians.

Klezmer originated in such villages; it’s celebratory music, the stuff of weddings and feasts. This is music made for drinking and dancing; it’s riotous, uplifting and difficult to listen to without tapping your feet. Often people in the audience couldn’t resist clapping along, whether encouraged to or not.

Unlike some circus shows, this was not about grand spectacle or awe-inducing stunts, yet it was somehow even more delightful for its simplicity. And that’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of visually exciting business going on, for there was. In one scene the bride-to-be dangles from twin lengths of white cloth, twirling above the stage; in another the men of the village get drunk together, passing bottles and glasses between each other with dizzying speed; later, a married couple’s argument is played out as a kind of aggressive dance that involves them running at one another and latching together. And, in one of the funniest moments of the production, a shrewish neighbourhood woman (played by Cristina Sole) performs a fantastically un-erotic striptease, winking coquettishly at a chap in the audience as she awkwardly disrobes.

The production’s director, Adrian Schvarstein, plays the village idiot, in ragged trousers and a battered hat, a bumbling figure who flirts with women in the front row and manages to lose the wedding rings. His performance, as with the rest of the cast, is bang on, the comic timing immaculate, but it’s the gentle colouring in of character that gives the show its heart and binds everything together so successfully.

And what of the audience participation? Well, even as people were queuing to enter the theatre, the cast were wandering around, shaking hands and welcoming us, as you would guests at a wedding, as well as distributing sweets that would come in useful at the end. Later, once the show was underway, they did indeed pull a few people up on stage to assist in various scenes. One man had his low-riding trousers disapprovingly tugged up and another was handed a violin and made an impromptu extra member of the four-piece band. It was all good-humoured and the inclusion of the audience added to the celebratory feel of the piece.

This is a joyous bit of theatre, performed with energy and skill. The sets may be rickety and the company small, but it is gloriously good fun to watch.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simpatico at the Old Red Lion

I am not a fan of Sam Shepard's work. I've yet to see a production of one of his play's to convince me why I should be and yet, knowing this, I still rolled up to the Old Red Lion, keen as ever, wondering if this would be the one that would wake me up to what I had been missing before. But, unsurprisingly, that didn't happen. While there were aspects of the production I liked, mainly the performances the play left me cold. It's just Not My Thing.

So the following must be read with that in mind.

Simpatico is about two former friends, Carter and Vinnie, who grew up together and, years earlier, were involved in a horse racing scam, the consequences of which cast a shadow over both their lives. These two men have gone down different paths. Carter is successful, smartly suited and well-groomed; he’s a former alcoholic who has cleaned up his act and is clearly not short of cash. The bearded, wild-eyed Vinnie on the other hand lives in a cramped, grotty flat and has a somewhat wavering grip on reality. He has fantasies in which he is a detective and has a gun and a shoe box full of filthy photos to prove it.

Shephard's play is set against a backdrop of the horse-racing business. It’s an intense, if over-long, piece that works reasonably well on the compact Old Red Lion stage. But though its atmosphere is appealingly thickened with menace, its plot is just too knotty. And not in a good way. The details of what went down remain murky and it’s never really clear what exactly played out in the past, which one of them instigated it and why Vinnie has suddenly decided to do something about it. A degree of ambiguity is a welcome thing, but this stretches things rather too far. What we do know, or rather what Vinnie tells Carter, is that he has got himself in trouble with a woman, and following that, with the law, and needs help sorting this mess out. Carter, of course, can’t say no; he is ever aware that Vinnie could explode his comfortable life, if he put his mind to it, by exposing their past crimes.

Though it has its moments the play doesn’t really make its case for revival. It twists around, plays a few games, but doesn’t really take its audience anywhere worth going. The performances, however, as I've said, raise things up a notch. Phil Nichol is oddly appealing as Vinnie; there’s a trace of sadness buried under the matted hair and the grubby clothes. But the male characters are eclipsed by the two women, particularly Trudi Jackson as Cecilia, the woman Vinnie has set his sights on. She’s ditzy but not stupid, simply a tourist in this corrupt, dirty world of theirs; she doesn’t belong. He tries to get her to do his bidding, to buy her services with a white Kentucky Derby dress, but toting around a purse full of money makes her quiver with nerves. She’s not cut out for such scheming and, in the end, has the sense to walk away.

Danielle King has a far smaller part as Rosie, Vinnie's former wife, who is now living with Carter, nonetheless (and despite the fact she seemed too young for the role) she still made an impact, with her wide mascara-smudged eyes and her peach stain robe, her head foggy with pills.

Hannah Eidnow (who last year directed a memorable production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea at the Arcola) has a good feel for the material, and the play feels less than its hefty two hours forty running time. She successfully brings this world of theirs to life on the small stage, but despite the best efforts of both her and the cast, (and, my apologies, but here comes the obligatory equine metaphor) Shepard's play remains more mule than thoroughbred. But then I would say that, because he's Not My Thing. The production struck me as solid and, obviously, if you like Shephard's work, you will get far more out of this.

And...there was yet more iPhone twiddling in the audience. Then, despite the presence of not one, but two, intervals, these same twiddlers decided to leave the theatre in the middle of the last act, an exit which entailed a brief trot across the stage. They didn't even leave together but one at a time, because if you're going to leave in the middle of a scene you clearly want to cause as much disruption as possible.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Roaring Trade at Soho Theatre

Steve Thompson’s Roaring Trade arrives at an interesting time: a tale of City excess, of million dollar deals and monopoly money bonuses, it has the feel of a play out of place, a relic of a fading world.

Thompson’s last play, Whipping It Up, which was staged at the Bush before transferring to the West End, was set in the Whips’ office at Westminster and entertainingly portrayed the constant power games and back-room machinations.

It was solid piece of writing, often very amusing if rather conventional in its structure and staging. All of which applies to this new play, a commission by Paines Plough: it’s decently written, authentic in tone, but ultimately rather flat.

Roaring Trade is set on the bond traders’ floor of McSorley’s, a major city bank. Andrew Scott, so superb in Simon Stephens brief but brutal Sea Wall, also at the Bush, is once again excellent as Donny, a City trader with a whiff of east end wide boy in his manner. His fellow traders include PJ, a man in his forties with a seven bedroom house which he never sees in daylight hours, who is starting to reach burn-out point. He wants out but he also has to contend with a demanding (rather one note as a character) wife who has become accustomed to their more-than-comfortable lifestyle.

Then there’s Jess, who knows how to stay afloat in what is still something of a boys’ club and the Cambridge-educated new chap – Spoon, as he’s christened by his colleagues – who quickly comes to grasp that this is a kill-or-be-killed world and that, as new blood, his every success is viewed by his colleagues as a threat.

Thompson’s play capably captures an environment where everyone is forever measuring everyone else up and where a man’s worth is dictated by the size of his bonus. It’s a hard world full of hard people, and not a particularly pleasant place. Donny even tries to teach his young son Sean (played by 13 year old Jack O’Connor, who nabs one of the night’s best lines) the tricks of the trade; Donny’s work is his life and he has nothing else he can share with the boy. The play, however, only ever seems mildly critical of the world it depicts; in fact at times it even seems to revel in the hard ball banter of the trading floor, the constant pressure and game playing.

Strong performances lend the play more weight than perhaps is warranted. Scott is oddly likeable as the oily, obnoxious Donny with his shrill, nervous laugh; Pheobe Waller-Bridge hits the right pitch as Jess, flirtatious when necessary yet ever cautious and Nicholas Tennant exudes a plausible mix of sweat and rumpled desperation as PJ, a man who has woken up to the fact that there should be more to his life than there currently is.

Roxana Silbert’s production is, in the main, brisk and efficient; but the use of thumping music plus some overlong scene changes only highlight the fact that this plays feels older than it actually is. And just like with Whipping It Up, this play feels as if it might work better on television than on stage, its structure seems better suited to the small screen. As it is, though the writing is often very funny, there’s a featurelessness to proceedings, little to distract from the fact your last ninety minutes have been spent in the company of some fairly unpleasant people.

Reviewed for musicOMH.

I'm not sure if has any bearing on the play, but around me were sat three people who couldn't resist stroking their iCocks at ten minute intervals throughout. As irritants go, it's not much I know, just three little squares of blinking light, but the play is only around an hour and a half long and the guy in front of me must have twiddled with his at least six times.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Blood: The Bacchae at the Arcola

Right then, some words would be good I suppose, specifcally some words about theatre. I think I can just about manage that.

First visit of the year was to the Arcola, one of my favourite venues, to see In Blood: The Bacchae. Taking its cues from Euripides, this is a play set in Brazil during the twenties, that pads out its story with the distinctive movements of capoeira. But though not short on atmosphere, it ends up being a curiously flat thing, lacking in dramatic punch. The dance-combat scenes were very striking, but in terms of narrative the production suffered form a lack of coherence.

Frances Viner’s play is based on the true story of Besouro, a young outlaw, a folk hero. In a divided society, he used his cunning and charm to humiliate the authorities rather than resorting to violence, but it was only through reading the programme notes that this really became clear. Instead of shaping and enhancing the production, the reliance on music and movement hobbled proceedings, fighting the narrative, weighing it down.

Apart from Greg Hicks' police chief, there were no strong performances, and even he was oddly muted. It was difficult to get a grip on his character. He was sometimes a caricature of a villain, flinging cocaine about the place, sometimes more ambiguous. Having long ago killed Besouro's mother he still returned to leave flowers on the spot were her body fell. But all of this was muddied by the often overly ornate language and the thick accents of some of the supporting cast.

The capoeira was exciting to watch and, coupled with the music played on drums and berimbeaus (cool twangy things that look like archery bows with gourds attached), the production had a degree of agreeable energy, but even so, taken together, it felt underpowered. The AfroReggae concert Barry and I saw at the Barbican last year managed to say more about Brazil's past and present than this odd concoction.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Happy new year. Hope your festivities were suitably festive. I am just poking my head through my thick chrysalis of scarves and jumpers long enough to point you in the direction of my list of favourite theatre moments of 2008 over on the Guardian blog. Now the sky is too white and my liver hurts so I shall leave you be.