Category Archives: proper theatre reviews

“I’m a woman and proud of it..”

If I haven’t mentioned it before, let me say it now… I love the Donmar. Not just because of its original and often groundbreaking productions, but the vibe of the place itself. It’s like watching a play in a classier, upscale version of your primary school gym hall.

Some of the biggest names in theatre, film or television will perform in a setting so intimate you can see the cracks in their greasepaint and the sweatmarks on their dresses. A few months ago I saw a fantastically raw production of Piaf with Elena Roger and this Saturday gone it was Gillian Anderson’s turn to wow me.

Happily, my original TV girlfriend did not disappoint.  One thing we remarked on at the interval is that although she’ll forever be known for the X-Files, as the attendant there-but-for-the-Grace-of-God Society proved, she has the poise and discipline of a quite marvellous stage actress.  I’ve always thought the best performances I’ve seen have been like watching someone try to cross a canyon on a tightrope: they weave hapharzardly from charming to irritating, never falling into one or the other, always keeping you enthralled.

Nora isn’t perhaps the most likeable character in literature, but she is sympathetic.  You root for her to save her marriage in one moment, the next you’re cheering her sad but clinical decision to end it.  Like the great heroines, she is as strong as she is weak, locked in a continual battle between what she is, what she was, and what she ought to be.  When the entire theatre is hanging on your every word, you must be doing something right, so brava Ms Anderson.

The rest of the cast was actually quite enticing from the programme – Christopher Eccleston being the only thing I’ve ever liked about Doctor Who, Toby Stephens a magnificent actor who used to rehearse his sword-fighting in leather trousers every night when I worked Front of House at the Haymarket.  While the former disappointed with his shouty acting and awkward stage presence, the son of Maggie Smith did the family dynasty proud.  At the play’s dénouement, I felt compelled to look away from his raw tears, but only because they were so painful that they were too close to real.  It takes a lot to make me do that, and his turn as the favour-seeking politician was the perfect counterpoint to Nora’s moral journey from start to finish.

The supporting cast were capable, and even the child actors managed to stay on the right side of grating.  A restrained but beautiful production, and thankfully, the perfect birthday present.

A Doll’s House plays at the Donmar Warehouse, London until Juy 18th

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Now playing: Aimee Mann – Nothing is Good Enough
via FoxyTunes

The Taming of the Shrew, or, Bitches Ain’t Shit

I’ve never seen a live production of this particular play before, and I’ll admit that my familiarity with it is largely through the camp and slick musical adaptation ‘Kiss Me Kate’ rather than the original text.  Sure, the title implies that women may not exactly be portrayed in the best light, but it’s almost enough to make an apathetic quasi-equalist like me be out there burning bras.

The real problem is that the play hasn’t stood the test of time, in that the ‘comedy’ is wildly unfunny and the inequality between the sexes veers from historically appropriate to psychologically damaging.  I was ambivalent at the interval but in shock by the final curtain. I waited with baited breath for Kate’s final monologue, tensing for the glorious sarcastic revenge that was no doubt to come as a response to Petruchio’s intolerable cruelty.  Instead, there was misty-eyed supplication, the speech of a downtrodden wife who had been beaten, starved and tortured into submission.  There was no dramatic relief as a result, but I can’t help feeling that these directorial and acting choices have merely exposed the play for what it is: a dark and disturbing tale of misogyny and viciousness, certainly not one that should be celebrated.

After all, Shakespeare can do the whole ‘spiteful banter as foreplay’ thing so well – look at Much Ado About Nothing (my definitive Beatrice and Benedick being Harriet Walter and Nic Le Provost at the Haymarket a few years back).  Hell, it’s one of the most used romantic storylines even to this day: House and Cuddy, Mulder and Scully, the list goes on.  This just fails on a number of levels and instead of stooping to save the material, they lay it bare in all its distasteful glory.

Michelle Gomez does a fantastic job within the considerable limitations of the role.  It’s so un-modern, so contrary to the image of women that I’ve grown up with that I almost couldn’t believe what I was watching.  I could have done with her being a little less screechy at first, but girl’s got to show she’s off her rocker somehow.  It set up as such a delightful sparring match, but even though her physical comedy was impeccable, watching a man hit a woman (even while she gave something back) was the first arse-shifting uncomfortable moment.  I knew she could do bonkers, loud and pretty funny, but after the interval she came into her own as a dramatic force.

There’s no two ways about it, Petruchio (an entirely unsympathetic character I found) absolutely destroys Kate.  There’s no spark left, and watching her decline is as frustrating as it is unsettling.  It’s a portrayal of domestic abuse, in its own way, of how one human being can claim another through ‘love’ and leave them as nothing.  By the time we get to marital rape of a sorts, the  play within the play is over and the tinker is just another bum left there naked and shamed.  Gomez must have been drawing from somewhere pretty deep though, because for the terrible short bows she looked somewhere between collapse and floods of tears.  I can’t imagine how draining that must be on a nightly basis.  Still, it’s the nation’s second-favourite Shakespeare, so clearly we’re a nation of theatre-going wifebeaters.  Give me Julius Caesar any day.

Which brings me to my more general problem with the RSC and its countless ‘re-invention’ of the same plays over and over again.  Once in a generation perhaps there is a new definitive production of Hamlet, or Othello, but for the most part it’s simply good actors rehashing durable material with an ‘angle’ that makes it somehow edgy or relevant.  We’ve been through the permutations: set it in Nazi Germany, a nightclub, its original era, or as in the case of last night’s show – a 2008 stag do and 16th century Padua.  It’s interesting for a few moments but ultimately the words are the same and the characters have the same limitations, so we’re essentially paying £50 to watch someone reinvent the wheel.  Not that I’ve paid full-price for a theatre ticket in years, but plenty of other people still have to. If I never have to watch another disguise/mistaken identity/fool the young maiden storyline again, it will be too soon quite frankly.  The rest of this play is merely a distraction from the main misogynistic event and I can’t really bring myself to review the camp prancing and falling-to-knees that constitutes RSC comedy routines.

I slipped out of the Novello stunned, updating Twitter as I fumbled to get my mind back on track for the journey home.  It was certainly harrowing, and Michelle Gomez is a tour de force who deserves a better vehicle for her considerable talent next time.  Should you wish to subject yourself to it, the play is on until 7th March at the Novello Theatre, Aldwych, London.  In the meantime, they should provide some sort of in-foyer counselling service, or at the very least a trauma helpline like after they deal with ‘issues’ in Eastenders.

“she won’t help the hungry once a month at your tombolas”

I never got around to doing a review of Evita (2006 London revival), save a few hastily typed thoughts on Livejournal immediately after the fact.  For those who’ve been wondering about the whole ‘West End Bitch’ thing, especially since I rarely write about the theatre anymore, well rest assured that my love for all things theatrical hasn’t waned just because I don’t get to go quite so often.  Evita was a watershed moment for me, I fell in love with musicals because of the original London cast, and I still have a well-thumbed libretto taking pride of place in the crates full of theatre memorabilia.  When there finally was a revival it was a mixed bag of emotions for me, something I loved so much, but not in its original form.  I booked the tickets as an anniversary outing for the missus and me, but didn’t relax until the interval; to quote the Sopranos: I sat on one ass cheek for the entire first hour or so. 

My emotions about the event contrast strongly with my critical thoughts on the production, but time has faded the fervour and I won’t bore you with it now.  All you need to know is that in Elena Roger, the West End finally has a worthy successor to Elaine Paige, and fittingly she seems to be bouncing around the roles that made the original First Lady quite so renowned.

You might be able to imagine my barely contained joy at the prospect of seeing Elena in Pam Gems’ Piaf.  At the Donmar no less, home to some of the most kickass productions in my lifetime.  So excited am I at the prospect, that I’m going to do that which I never do: recommend that you see it before I’ve seen it myself.  I’m sure most of you seeing this here are too far away to consider it, but I’m doing my own limited bit to promote something that’s likely to make my year. 

In other theatrical news, my latest foray was a trip to see Under the Blue Sky aka “The Catherine Tate play”.  My initial reaction after stumbling out of the Duke of York’s can best be summed up by one of La Tate’s most notorious characters, Nan: “Worra load of old shit.”  I hasten to add that Ms Tate was one of the few good things about the evening, alongside Francesca Annis (who looks about 30 years younger in that promo shot!) and Nigel Lindsay.    My main problem, the one that had me clenching my toes in a weird combination of anger and embarrassment, was the writing.   Since this is a revival/transfer of a 8 year olf Royal Court Production, it came with superlative-lashed reviews about the ‘quality’ of the new writing.  New writing IS desperately important, the lifeblood of the real West End being strangled by tribute-show-musicals and yet another TV-spinoff-revivial.  This, however, was no sterling example of it.

It was awkward, is the best way I can describe it.  Shoehorned references, like the IRA attack on Canary Wharf, that serve absolutely no purpose.  You know those middle-class awkward sitcoms, like Hugh Laurie’s fortysomething, it was that sort of ‘oh God, people don’t talk like THAT’ feeling.  The play itself is actually three short plays with interwoven stories.  Each is presented with two actors, but each new play references the last one heavily.  The idea is sound, but the writing just didn’t carry it off.  The first play was utterly forgettable, with bland acting and ambiguous accents doing nothing to save it.  The second showed more promise, and the anticipation of seeing Catherine Tate in full-blown harridan mode was clearly what a fair percentage of the audience had come to see.  In this I felt the writing was closer to what you’d hope for, though a little reliant on shock value.  I felt Tate ably resisted the temptation to turn her shrewish character into something from one of her sketches, and the imposing nature of her performance showed that she does fit just as well on the stage as the telly.  

The last section had the two best acting performances, and genuine chemistry, perhaps a decent counterpoint to the one-sided desperation of the first two ‘couples’.  It was let down, however, by some of the clunkiest speechifying I’ve ever seen.  Similar to the difference on the West Wing once Aaron Sorkin left, in that you could see how clever they were trying to be, but it just sounded trite when spoken aloud.  I’ve never heard so much numbed-bumb shifting as I did during the tedious story about an old lady’s war-hero boyfriend.  Absolutely tedious, in fact. 

Suffice to say, I’m not suggesting you rush out and catch it during the limited 10-week run, and I’ll just hope that next time I see Catherine Tate or Francesca Annis, it’s in material more deserving of their talents.

“Most of our people have never had it so good”

It’s not often that I find Jeremy Irons charming. Perhaps it was the character’s affability that swayed me but I didn’t grind my teeth once, and that Mr Irons has rescued you from my bad books. You made a wonderful Harold MacMillan, and in watching this all unfold I got a real sense of the man’s honour and dignity. Not to mention some cracking one-liners.

I’ll be honest, although this period in history is one I’m keen to fill in the blanks on, it wasn’t until I saw the name of one Ms Anna Chancellor on the cast list that I was in any hurry to get tickets. So important an event that it was marked in my calendar weeks before, and booked within minutes of the booking period being open. It’s been a while since I felt that quiet desperation over getting to see something.

So was my excitement justified? For the most part, yes. The beginning was a tad slow. I enjoy the odd bit of warfare now and then but it takes a while to adjust to that dreadfully posh way that Etonian types have. Still, theatre is about escapism, and after the one tacky moment of the Eton fight song playing over machine gun fire, I had acclimatised to this peculiar world.

Actually, what I found slightly off-putting at first was all the ‘oh, for one’s country’ type of talk. Hearing Britons talk patriotically is a somewhat alien concept to me, unless it’s a bunch of drunken idiots cursing and swearing about football in impressive displays of xenophobia. I do feel a keen sense of patriotism for this United Kingdom (and not one just its constituent parts). In fact, I think that the only people I hear talking about love for their country are Americans, and that does sadden me just a little.

The humour of the piece is deliciously dry, in that oh-so-British way. I found the emotional repression slightly hard to swallow at first, but when it’s based in fact, what else to do but go along? I checked with the missus, and apparently she would be rather upset if I carried on a lifelong affair with one of her colleagues, so just as well I’m not Dorothy MacMillan I suppose. The effects were limited but well done, from the seamless set changes to an impressive arrays of explosions in different scenes ranging from the Somme to Algiers. Apparently it is possible to simulate a plane crash on stage in a fairly minimalist way.

The supporting cast were note-perfect, not one clunky delivery between them.  Put it down to the press night shove to your best performance, but the timing, movement and pacing of every actor was a delight to watch.  Sadly there wasn’t quite enough of a role for Ms Chancellor, but what I did get to see of her I enjoyed.  It must get frustrating to be continually cast in those blue blood roles, but this one allowed her to be tragically naughty as well.  I can believe her when she claims Harold is her true love, and given my discomfort with the adultery of her character, that’s achievement enough in my book.

It did feel a tad lengthy as second act numb-bum finally set it, but it was worth the extra minutes for the best moment, the understated and hysterical reaction to the Profumo scandal breaking (worth the ticket price all by itself). I wasn’t so emotionally shifted as I thought I might have been, but this stiff-upper lip stuff is a delightful capture of a lost time, and a type of politics Westminster wouldn’t recognise these days. Some careful and subtle parallels to the present political messes kept the relevancy quota up, although I fear even a play as clear and sharp as this one may be beyond some people. To wit, the woman at the interval exclaiming “all this time I thought Harold Wilson was a Labour man!” He was dear, and that’s sort of why he wasn’t in the play.

Never So Good a play by Howard Brenton. Showing at the National Theatre, London, SE1. Details and booking here.

“you should live so long”

Two words: Stockard. Channing.

The easy stroll through Islington to the Almeida Theatre was certainly enhanced by the many, many delicious-smelling restaurants we didn’t have enough time to eat in.  We had higher things on our minds (and a quick dash to Sainsbury’s meant sandwiches in our bags) and so we were on a mission direct from tube station to front row Circle.

This was a first for me, I rarely venture into Islington unless I’m killing time between lectures, and so it was that I set eyes on the Almeida for the first time.  It’s delightfully small, like a toy theatre almost; intimate enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if the people down in the stalls were flying-spittle victims.

Now, y’all might have heard that I loved, worshipped and adored the West Wing, and my affections were fairly torn between CJ Cregg and Ms Channing’s fabulous Abbey Bartlet.  This was the moment I finally got around to seeing some West Wing alumni right here in London (having completely missed Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff), and who better to start with?  Can you imagine my heart-stopping terror when K opening the programme resulted in a single sheet of white paper floating towards the ground?  For the uninitiated, a paper insert usually means a major cast member will not be performing.  Thank whatever-is-responsible that it was a false alarm, the simple page containing merely a running order.

Minutes later she was right there in front of me, stage makeup creases and all, and nothing short of breathtaking.  She can act though, not that it was ever in any doubt.  Despite nine billion stage incarnations of Grease, she’s been the only one to give a heart to Rizzo’s default of tart.  Every overlooked indie film she’s turned her hand to has been compelling, and like any long-standing actress there are some turkeys that were clearly bill-paying roles. 

For what our friend R calls a “me2Jew”, you can imagine how enthralled I was by this snapshot of Jewish family life in the Depression.  Clifford Odets has written a mostly excellent play, though the son’s character has a tendency to speak in speechifying passages that betray the author’s own motivations.  The plot development was telegraphed pretty early on, but there’s nothing like poignant inevitability to tug at the old heartstrings.  It’s all tastefully bleak, from the tights and vests strung across the auditorium like tragic decorations to the worn and tattered set furniture.

John Rogan was outstanding as Jacob, even if he was a mouthy Communist of the most unrealistic stripe (the Communism, not the acting).  The remaining cast were outstanding, though Ben Turner as son Ralph had a bit more convincing to do.  I know he was portraying the worst kind of dreamer, but it still felt a teensy bit stage school.

Worth the money though, especially at such reasonable seat prices (£26) and even the programmes priced back at a more respectable £2.50.  We were too lazy to move from our little bench seat to check out the bar, but it seemed very poncey-Islington-wine-bar, which is just right for such a funky little theatre.

Most of all, I love it when someone you’ve invested hours and too many pounds in following the career of doesn’t let you down.  I was sure Stockard would live up to the hype, but she really hit this one out of the park.  She can come and smash things in my house any time.

Awake and Sing! at the Almeida Theatre, N1

Booking until Sat 20 Oct 2007 (limited season)