Friday, April 25, 2014

Orpheus, Battersea Arts Centre

Little Bulb Theatre’s enchanting reworking of the Orpheus myth returns to the Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre and if anything it’s even more magical on second viewing.

It’s a delicious thing, this show. Frankly, given the amazing space they’ve been given to play in and the proven appeal of many of the ingredients they’ve chosen to play with, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. But that’s not to diminish Littlle Bulb’s invention and skill. Much like in a Wes Anderson film there are boxes within boxes, frames within frames, to their handling of the narrative. The story of Orpheus is told in the style of 1930s Parisian cabaret, with the Great Hall bedecked with red velvet and an array of tables in front of the stage behind which sit more conventional raked seating. The lovers are portrayed by legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt and an Édith Piaf-alike chanteuse Yvette Pépin as played by Little Bulb’s Dominic Conway and Eugenie Pastor. While Conway’s Orpheus remains mute, a calm, smiling presence, his guitar speaking for him, the angular Pastor purrs and smoulders as Piaf/Pepin/Eurydice, rolling her words around, revelling in the undulations of her accent.

Much of the storytelling takes the form of a series of mime sequences and tableaux performed against a backdrop of Debussy and silent movie style-captions. The cast don bunny ears and buck teeth to play woodland creatures or drape and cape themselves in white to play the denizens of the underworld. The dancing is intentionally heavy-footed, and there’s an air of polished amateurishness to the whole enterprise which is mostly pitched at just the right level to render it endearing rather than overly arch. The musicianship as ever is exemplary, but then that’s something of a given with these guys.

Alexander Scott’s production has some truly dazzling moments, particularly in the second half. The song ‘La Chanson de Perséphone’ performed by Tom Penn in male falsetto reminiscent of Anthony and the Johnsons is genuinely haunting, the deployment of the Grand Hall’s mighty organ remains an incredible, reverberative treat, and the climactic sequence – Orpheus and Eurydice’s last desperate dash towards the light – has the audience holding their breath.

While the staging on the whole feels slightly tighter than it did first time around, there are some issues with the lengthy ‘jazz’ interval. While the audience are encouraged to come and go as they wish while the band plays on, few did, and the resulting drag threatens to, if not quite break, than at least dent the production’s spell. This isn’t Little Bulb’s most ambitious show – it doesn’t have the delicacy or the heart-knotting quality of Crocosmia or the divisive alien energy of Squally Showers - it’s a romantic response to an incredible space, a confection, albeit an exquisite one – but taken as an experience in itself, as a night of music and magic and fizz and copious, warm-hearted charm, it’s vastly entertaining and intensely happy-making.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fatal Attraction, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction was a pretty nasty piece of a film-making, but a coldly efficient one; it set out to hit nerves and it succeeded. The character of Alex, as played by Glenn Close, single, childless, superficially confident but deeply needy, tactical self-harmer, a wrecker of homes and a boiler of bunnies, was written to put the fear of god into men of a certain age, and it worked, speaking to the social anxieties of the time and becoming the highest grossing film of 1987 in the process.

And now it’s here in the West End. Not an update, not even an adaptation really. Just the screenplay served up on stage. Very, very little has been done to address how the material might work in a theatrical setting. The biggest change by far is the reinstatement of writer James Dearden’s original ending. Alex was supposed to kill herself at the end of the movie, implicating Michael Douglas’ philandering New York lawyer Dan in her death. It was downbeat, bleak, made much more sense from a psychological perspective (at least within the universe of the movie), and – famously – went down like a lead balloon with audiences during test screenings. So a new ending was shot, in which Anne Archer’s betrayed wife got to blow the bitch away in the bathtub, although evidently neither Lyne nor Dearden were ever particularly pleased with it.

Given all that, it’s possible to see why Dearden might want to revisit the material, if rather harder to grasp what might be in it for anyone else. And because it follows the film so closely (up until the end at least), it’s impossible not to play the scene-by-scene comparison game and to find Trevor Nunn’s stage version wanting. For one thing, the attraction – kind of a crucial element – is pretty much absent. The early flirtation between Mark Bazeley’s Dan and Natascha McElhone’s striking, stylish business woman, Alex, is one of the better realised scenes, but it still doesn’t suggest the kind of heat that would make Dan risk so much so quickly. There’s also very little sex, bar a bit of heavy petting in an elevator: there’s no sweaty bed-sheet action, Bazeley doesn’t get to do that awkward trouser dance round Alex’s glamorous Manhattan loft and her kitchen sink, perhaps mercifully, remains buttock-free

The production is also curiously difficult to locate in time. A decision has clearly been taken not to set the thing in the 1980s. No-one sports a poodle perm, no one smokes, and the clothes are contemporary. But it’s a very odd kind of update. There are a couple of references to email and even one mention of Facebook, but no one has an iPad, no one sends a text, even the iPhones have the tinny rings of much older mobiles. Hardly any attempt has been made to explore the role the internet might play in Alex’s insertion of herself into Dan’s life – the one thing that might have given this production an edge of interest, instead it inhabits a sort of weird half-way space, a feeling only enhanced by the fact the characters spend so much time on the phone, calling – or failing to call – one another, having bitty, broken conversations while standing on opposite sides of the stage.

And then there’s the sexual politics. Obviously extramarital affairs were not the preserve of the 1980s, and the film was pretty ugly and reactionary even for its time, but it was reflective of a certain social, urban unease. Here, again, the production doesn’t quite seem to know where to put itself. “Girls like sex as much as boys,” Dan’s sweaty-palmed and recently divorced friend excitedly informs him, as if Sex and the City had never happened (though for all Kristin Davis’s Beth gets to do, it may as well not have done). The suggestion that Alex’s age and childlessness, coupled with the trauma of a past miscarriage, might be the root of her unbalanced behaviour – which is if anything emphasised here – is pretty dizzyingly offensive, regardless of when it’s supposed to be set.

McElhone has a degree of poise and presence as Alex, playing her as a more vulnerable, damaged character than Close did, but if anything her metamorphosis from being a woman rightfully pissed off at Dan’s abandonment to a stabby pixie dream girl is even harder to swallow as a result. Bazeley, meanwhile, just about convinces as a man in too deep; he gets across the character’s spinelessness, but lacks Douglas’ charisma. Occasionally he gets to deliver a few lines of soliloquy/voice-over but these feel as if they’ve been designed to paper over the set changes rather than to offer any psychological insight.

The set changes quite a lot by the way. Sometimes a few moving electric blue panels are used to convey a sense of the city, other sets are more detailed and realist (and fiddly to assemble). There’s also a very large cast for what could well have been played as a two hander, like they’re justifying the high cost of tickets by populating the stage. People are forever strolling purposefully from one side of the set to the other or standing in little whispery huddles that are meant to convey that we are in a “hot new bar” or a busy Manhattan law office.

Nunn seems to give up completely on making the piece theatrically viable towards the end; when Alex makes off with Dan’s daughter and a frantic Beth crashes her car in pursuit, it all happens off-stage, complete with comedy car crash sound effect. The final confrontation between Alex and Dan, in which he’s so incensed he comes close to killing her, plays out as one lumbering clunky fight scene, utterly lacking in momentum. And when the police come for Dan in the concluding moments one of them brings the bloody knife with him in a handy backpack, for the benefit of those who may have dozed off.

In the ending that was originally filmed, Close’s Alex slits her own throat, falling out of frame just as the blood starts to flow, with a few strains of Madame Butterfly playing in the background. Here Nunn has her bathed in red light, wearing a flowing kimono, plunging the knife into her belly, with Callas in full belt. All told, his production has the effect of ridding a thriller of the majority of its thrills (even the bunny boiling is fumbled), stripping the character of Beth of what little agency she ever had and making Lyne’s film feel like an exercise in taste and restraint.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Major Tom, BAC

Though hers is ostensibly a solo show, Victoria Melody is never alone on stage. She shares the space with her beloved basset hound, the Major Tom of the title, a magnificent beast; a creature of melancholic dignity – which he maintains even when being reluctantly made to parade around the stage. Rumpled and stumpy, his snout is framed by a pair of silken conker-coloured ears; he regards a proffered dog treat as if it had disappointed him in some profound way before curling up on his cushion and falling asleep, a state in which he spends most of the show.

The presence of her canine companion adds an extra element of liveness to the piece – every mildly inquisitive lift of his head, every tentative stretch and lumber into a more comfortable corner of the stage, is met with coos and giggles from the audience. This is never disruptive though; his presence is a pleasure, it adds to the show’s charm and warmth, and proves rather fitting in a piece which is, after all, about the culture of display.

Melody is interested in tribes, their codes, rules and rituals. She immerses herself in worlds, allows her life and her work to intersect and overlap in interesting ways. In the case of Major Tom, it’s the world of championship dog show handling she’s exploring while at the same time charting her active involvement in the beauty pageant circuit. She spent a year as Mrs Brighton, attending functions, cutting ribbons, teetering in vertiginous heels across rain-swept car parks, jiving in a tiara at Brighton Pride, before going on to compete for the title of Mrs England. Major Tom meanwhile proves such a hit on the amateur dog show circuit that Melody decides to enter him for Crufts.

The two strands of the show feed on one another. Melody juxtaposes her own physical transformation into beauty queen material – hair extensions, spray tan, endless sessions in the gym to shift the weight she had purposefully piled on over the ‘best Christmas ever’ – with her attempts to break into professional dog show handling with Major Tom. Both are subject to a ridiculous amount of physical scrutiny, prodded and poked, assessed and found wanting. He is deemed to have too big a rib cage, while a plastic surgeon tells Melody her mouth is upside down.

Melody intersperses accounts of her experiences with video footage – including a hilarious montage in which both herself and Major Tom are subject to an intense and somewhat extreme grooming regime. At times there seems to be a dash of Louis Theroux to her approach, though she gets far more deeply immersed and enmeshed in the worlds she’s exploring than he does, rather than remaining a wry outsider. This makes the show more personal, but also in some ways less bladed. The people she meets along the way – the beauticians, her fellow contestants, the various “Brians” of the basset hound world – remain sketches, briefly glimpsed, rather than emerging as characters in their own right. The piece focuses more on the codes and processes, the subtle hierarchies, rather than the people who participate and their motivations for doing so. It’s much less exploitative and uncomfortable as a result but also creates a degree of distance. We’re viewing these universes through her eyes, through her lens.

While I found myself wanting more analysis, I recognise that’s not what Melody was out to do here. She engages with these worlds on their own terms and presents us with their quirks and absurdities as she encounters them, without passing judgement, without drawing conclusions, leaving it all out there for the audience to digest. And as an exercise in light-shining, in briefly granting us a glimpses into shadowed and closed corners of British life, the show is never less than engaging. Melody is an affable, generous performer, funny and honest – and of course she has Major Tom as her stage-mate and sidekick, whose very presence – even while dozing, which he does for roughly 83% of the evening – is brightening.

Reviewed for Exeunt