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Archive for the ‘Stage’ Category

Hay Fever

Hay Fever, Noel Coward, Noel Coward Theatre

The central joke of Hay Fever is that throughout the whole of the play the characters are to varying degrees, acting. For the real life actors that play those characters, the danger is that acting squared becomes overacting which is annoying rather amusing. There was certainly a smattering of overemphasis in the first act where hyperbole is not called for. However in the riotous second and third acts, this is exactly what the script dmenads, and this stellar cast hit every note of excruciating, madding hilarity. I actually cried with laughter on at least two occasions, and got an uncontrollable case of the giggles on another.

Lindsay Duncan plays Judith Bliss, a recently retired star of the London stage, whose bohemian family continue to live together in country pile where they ape the aristocratic lives of those who presumably once owned their house. Judith may have ceased treading the boards, but she is far from finished with acting. Her, and her husband and two children are engaged in acting out a real life melodrama that echoes the theatre that made her name. Duncan overdoes it in the first act, which is primarily about the inter-family dynamic. In her breeches and wellies, the result is that the performance takes on something of a drag-queen-like quality, which misses the comedic mark somewhat.

However, this all changes after the interval. The Bliss family are not content to play alone, each member of the household having invited a different guest (read victim) to stay for the weekend. The guests are totally ignored, until they are pounced upon, and used as pawns in what amounts to nothing more than after-dinner sport for Judith and her co-stars. Here Duncan gets it exactly right, weaving her twisted web and squeezing every bit of comedy out of Coward’s delightful text.

Freddie Fox brilliantly inhabits the role of Simon Bliss, the foppish son, who constantly bickers with his boyish sister Sorel, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. An exquisitely costumed Olivia Coleman is perfect as Myra, who arrives with her own game in mind, before realising she is hopelessly outmatched by the Bliss family. Every individual performance is strong, but the best moments are the ensemble sections, with some of the most rewarding acting coming in the awkward silences that pepper the action.

Bunny Christie’s extensive and attractive set reflects the bohemian nature of the family, with half finished paintings leaning against the wall, and in a possible hint at the sexual liberality of the family, a set of Kudu horns is mounted above the stairs. Slightly confusingly the building itself appears to be some sort of warehouse, which would place the family in a more modern context than the costume and action would seem to suggest. This slight distraction notwithstanding, this production is utterly charming, totally engrossing and downright hilarious. As the guests sneak out the next morning, one is left with a tender feeling as the Bliss family settle down back into their normal routine. They may need others for occasional blood sport, but when all is said and done they clearly rely on and only truly need only each other.

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The Bee

The Bee – Soho Theatre

The Bee, which opened in the Soho theatre in 2006, makes its return to London as part of a world tour that includes stop offs in Tokyo, New York and Hong Kong. Its blend of physical theatre that verges on clowning and blank verse will no doubt delight audiences craving a departure from the normal language of spoken theatre just as it will leave others bemusedly scratching their heads. Some quirky and innovative stage artifices from co-writer/director/actor and Japanese legend Hideki Noda keep the production interesting. Yet the highly stylized action sequences (set in the main to music) are not quite elegant enough in their execution to truly convince that this is artful dance rather than pantomime. One is left with impression that the play is merely a vehicle for experimental direction and as such the story fails to stir the emotions.

Set in Tokyo in 1974 Mr. Ido, a salaryman, returns home to find that an escaped convict, Ogoro, has taken his family hostage. Rather than wait for the inept police force to bring a messy resolution he takes matters into his own hands and retaliates by taking the convict’s own family hostage. So begins a brutal game of tit-for-tat whereby each captor rapes and maims their opposite’s wife and son. In dream like semi-balletic sequences set to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly Ido is trapped in a cycle of posting severed fingers to his enemy and in turn receiving Ogoro’s gruesome offerings. He fucks Ogoro’s wife, eats, washes and sleeps. He is at once horrified by the violence he is committing yet also empowered by the fact that he is no longer a victim.

The significance of the bee that torments Ido throughout the play is not especially clear. Perhaps it is a symbol of domestic annoyance reflecting the monotony of the life of a salaryman; perhaps Ido’s nagging conscience; perhaps nothing more than a dramatic conceit to show that Ido, like a bee that has stung, must die for his violence. The dream-like quality of the play reinforced the narration by Ido of the physical actions he is simultaneously taking, hints at themes beyond the simple hostage narrative. Yet if this is a comment on the role of women in Japanese society, or some more existential imperative to own one’s own actions, this is lost in the calamity of the production.

Each member of the cast plays a variety of characters. Kathryn Hunter, notable for being the first woman to have played King Lear, cuts a strange figure as Ido. Her raspy voice and RSC training lend a deranged yet lyrical quality to the text which is written in blank verse (with a slight overreliance on rhyming couplets). Hideki Noda appears as Ogoro’s wife and lends some credibility to the kabuki style set-pieces. Particularly impressive in terms of characterization is Glyn Pritchard who plays Ogoro’s much mutilated son as well as a raft of other parts.

Playful at times, funny and occasionally taut, the production is never slow. There are moments of directorial brilliance and I felt that the creative team achieved what they set out to achieve in blending various theatrical traditions of both the West and the Orient. However, this constant mish-mash of styles was overwhelming and a great deal of meaning and poignancy was lost in the on-stage cacophony.

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Huis Clos

Huis Clos (John-Paul Sartre), Trafalgar Studios

It is impossible to talk about Huis Clos without understanding that it is the product of the godfather of Existentialist thought, John-Paul Sartre, and is as much an example of that philosophy as it is a work of art. Yet whilst it is certainly a masterpiece of thought, it is a somewhat tortuous experience as a piece of theatre.  Little wonder considering that the crumbling hotel room the three protagonists find themselves locked in is in fact hell. Left to their own devices, this is an inferno free of fire, brimstone, and red hot pokers; the torture comes rather from the characters’ own struggle to come to terms with and accept responsibility for their lives on earth, and the power struggle, games of sexual dominance and judgements that they make on each other.

Paul Hart’s production is gritty, taut, frustrating at times, and hugely claustrophobic with the first row of audience seats actually within the bounds of the tiny stage. Whilst this makes for uncomfortable viewing it reflects beautifully the themes of the play, and the audience being physically part of the action reminds us that whilst this is a play about the afterlife, what is important is what it teaches us about this life.

Will Keen plays Garcin, the wife beating pacifist with minute attention to detail, his twitching fingers speaking to his inner turmoil as well as his insistent line delivery. Michelle Fairley fairly gives probably the most nuanced performance of the evening as Ines, but then the lesbian, somewhat sadistic character painted by Sartre is definitely the most interesting. Nevertheless she gave a layered performance that showed the audience some sort of tenderness fluttering beneath her icy exterior. Fiona Glascott as socialite Estelle was convincing in being unable to come to terms with her earthy indiscretions and violence, but slipped slightly toward caricature at times, although one suspects that Sartre himself was prone to stereotype when writing her part.

The production is powerful, but ultimately many people may find it inaccessible. The most famous line from the play is “L’enfer, c’est les autres” which is translated as “Hell is other people”. The concept of “the other” has a specific meaning in Sartre’s thinking and personally I feel it would be better translated as “Hell is the others” to reflect the fact that Sartre was not advocating a life lived in isolation of other people, but rather that it is our challenge as human beings to own our actions in the face of the judgements of others. Whichever way you look at it however, a play with this as the central theme is never going to be easy viewing, and as such the challenging nature of this production should not put anyone off going to see this seminal piece of 20th century art.

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The Lion in Winter

The Lion in Winter –  Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Every family has its ups and downs” quips Joanna Lumley’s character in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, and this fact is more or less the main theme of the play. Throw in a family trapped in doors at Christmas, three covetous sons, a mistress, a sexy French gay toyboy and healthy dose of intrigue, and you have pretty much got the gist of this Albee-Ayckbourn type hybrid. The added spice is that the year is 1183, the family is that of the Royal House of England, and the three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John are coveting no less than Kingdom of their father Henry II, and the Aquataine lands of their mother Eleanor.

The script is one big anachronism, the setting “a Christmas Court” a fabrication, and given the lack of records, naturally the action is imputed from the little that we do know. This then is fiction. As such, it was a nice touch that director Trevor Nunn opened with a roll-up title sequence reminiscent of golden age cinema historical epics. This simple device, which allows us to accept the prolepsis of an on stage christmas tree, prompted the audience to be mindful that this is not a pure history play but rather a play which uses history. Since then it is unlikely to offer us deep historical insight, such a drama surely lives or dies by what the characters of an imagined yesterday can teach us about our lives today. It is here that the play, rather than the production became unstuck. The play, first performed in 1966 seems to be struggling for relevance.

What was left then is a rather hollow vehicle for some excellent performances, and Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley as Henry and Eleanor, do not disappoint. She a fading beauty had lost none of her vivaciousness or taste for scandal and treason; he an ageing king in full and disillusioned belief that he is in the prime of life and so struts and pontificates accordingly. The timing of course was impeccable between these two veterans, and this brought out many of the very funny moments in the text. A strong supporting cast, slick staging and great design help things along nicely, but sadly the positive elements are not sufficient to carry an engaged interest through to the final curtain.

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La Soiree

La Soiree
Roundhouse Theatre
 
Modern day circus, contemporary variety, and gender bending acrobats combine with a gargantuan opera singing drag queen, an improvisatory comedienne and even a Freddy Mercury tribute master of ceremonies. The drinks flow freely, the audience are sniffed, slapped, cajoled on stage and even encouraged to ride atop a unicycle. That’s right, the La Soiree “family” have once again taken over Camden’s Roundhouse for a night of death defying feats, clowning for the 21st century, humour and music. Circus, often associated (although considerably less so with each passing year) with fatigued animals and screaming children, has been dragged kicking and screaming back to relevance by these world class performers. Whilst Cirque de Soleil has obviously refined the art form and brought circus to a much wider audience, the La Soriee experience is more visceral, darkly comic and adult in the blurred line some of the performers tread between mainstream and queer culture. 

I went on a rainy Thursday, deadline blues hurting bad, a slight hangover, and very much needing this term to be over. I left full of the joy of life. Yes La Soiree is one of those transformative pieces of performance. By the end the crowd are on their feet cheering along to “We are the Champion” whilst a unicyling, juggling, over-sexed Italian Freddy Mercury  fanatic MC crowd surfs around the arena. A word of warning though; seating is not reserved, and whilst like us you will be tempted to go straight to the front row, bear in mind that you will be prime territory for some heavy audience participation. The hilarious clown Mooky, dragged one man on stage, and by virtue of the fact that she had taped lines for him to read to various of her body parts, they performed a whole scene together. Another victim rode on Mario’s shoulders on a unicycle, and the vintage roller-skating act span another front row girl at high speeds around the stage. However, if you are front row you will see every sinew of the gravity defying, taut pole dancing English Gents. You will be genuinely afraid that the inept clown Nate Cooper will sever your nose as he juggles with knives in drag with 10 inch heels on a pogo stick.  You will see every pound of the massive glitter lycra clad La Gateau Chocolat who has a baritone to match his stature.  Even if you don’t make it to the front of the house, be assured that no matter where you are at in the theatre, La Soiree will not fail to entertain. A must!

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Comedy of Errors

Comedy of Errors – National Theatre

Laughing out loud is not something that generally occurs at a performance of a Shakespeare comedy. Well, it may happen, but generally this is because the intellectual funny bone has been stroked which leads to the emission of a sort of stifled guffaw. Not in this production of Comedy of Errors. Director Dominic Cooke has unlocked every ounce of humour Shakespeare’s early comedy contains, and the result is genuinely funny. Sometimes this determined comedy mining goes too far, and whilst slapstick was surely envisioned by The Bard, some of the routine elicits a cringe.
 
The production is very busy, and whilst this works to invoke the madness city of living, it could have perhaps been toned down at certain key points such as when Egeon describes how his baby twin sons and their twin servants were separated at birth in an accident at sea. Rather than the action of this event actually being played out on Bunny Christie’s extensive staging the power of the text should have been allowed to speak.
 
The real drama begins when these two sets of twins are let loose in the same city. Cue endless errors, seductions and confusion based on multiple levels of mistaken identity. The biggest star of the show is undoubtedly Lenny Henry, and whilst his is not the best performance of the night, who better to tease out the comedy than a comedian? Claudie Blakely and Michelle Terry are brilliantly cast as the wife and sister in law of on of the twins. Hair extensions, shiny handbags and estuary accents make them probably the most endearing and hilarious characters. These novel characterisations also add a whole new level of comedy to the production; there is something deeply funny about hearing Shakespeare being screeched in Essex meter.
 
The maddening urban sprawl is created to be more or less complete and replete with users, whores, drag queens, effete jewellers, slimy loan sharks, neon lights and disreputable establishments. In this dream like setting the principal characters have lost the only thing that could keep one sane in such a setting: their identities. Thus hilarious farce needs to balanced with an undercurrent of genuine concern on behalf of the protagonists. This balance is well struck by Cooke and in the final scene, where all is revealed and reconciliations made, he takes a much calmer approach, leaving Shakespeare’s text to shine out to very moving effect.

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Burlesque

Burlesque – Jermyn Street Theatre

This is a masterclass on how to put on a musical on a stage the size of a postage stamp. However. what the stage lacks in substance is more than made up for in the text of this new musical by Adam Meggido (more at home with full scale musical improvisations) and Roy Smiles. The hugely intimate setting of the Jermyn Street Theatre definitely works with this musical in that singing voices that are rough around the edges do not jar but rather add to what is a visceral experience.

The setting is The Palace, a 1950s burlesque theatre who’s sun is setting and is in financial dire straights. After Crazy For You (struggling theatre) and Moulin Rouge (burlesque writ large) one might legitimately wonder what more could possibly be said about crumbling theatres and strippers. And in many ways this is very familiar musical territory; there is the weary, lascivious impresario Freddie Le Roy (Linal Haft – who is actually credited with appearing in Moulin Rouge), the comforting mama/madame of the house Lula (Buster Skeggs), and a trio of sexy strippers. What sets this story apart is the backdrop the McCarthy communist witch-hunts which has seen a comedy duo fall from the high cabaret scene to the low wit of The Palace due to one half of the act, Johnny Reno (Jon-Paul Hevey) being outed as a communist sympathiser. In turn his permanently drunk Irish stage partner Rags Ryan (Chris Holland) who is secretly in love with Johnny, becomes tainted with the same brush. Johnny must choose between fingering his friend in order to clear his own name, or taking a stand against The Man. Thus themes of fear, neglect, homosexuality and the nature of friendship make this much more than a knee slapping romp through theatre land.

Musically, the show is a bit hit and miss. The opening number is promising in its Gershwinesque instrumentation, but this thought is not carried through to every number. The musical style of numbers like “One of These Days” slips into something we might simply call, “Wicked”. The big numbers are good fun however, and the comedy songs like “Ladies Like a Novelist” and “Love’s The Same All Over The World” with their Flanders and Swan like lyrics are highly entertaining. What makes the show particularly appealing is that there is a great sense that this is not forced fun, rather that the cast are genuinely having a ball.

There was so much to like in the performances that it would be hard to mention them all in one review. I adored Lula’s Marianne Faithful-like low growl, and Saul’s (Jeremiah Harris-Ward) velvety tenor. The big success of the night though was the central duo of Rag and Johnny. Their closing numbers are very powerful indeed, and the chemistry between them is both touching and highly comedic. In truth though, this is an ensemble piece, and it is carried wonderfully by the whole cast backed by an innovative and creative use of a teeny weeny space. This is a new musical and it could definitely do with some polish, that being said there is certainly something to be said for catching now while it is still raw and gutsy!

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