Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Review: Pond Wife, New Wimbledon Theatre Studio

There is so much theatre in London.  Where do you start deciding what to go and see?  I can barely get around all the West End and National Theatre / Royal Court / Almeida etc., shows that I want to visit.  Sometimes I purely forget that they are happening.  I'd have to be a professional audience member, working seven nights and at least four days a week if I wanted to experience everything.  But it doesn't stop there!  There's shows in the provinces I want to visit; then there's the million and one fringe venues that are constantly popping up in any city that has a slightly artistic pulse!  WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!  

How am I supposed to chose between the risk of missing Bradley Cooper or John Goodman for the sake of seeing Belinda Lang in Hull in Oklahoma! or a rare Ayckbourn play in Chichester?  Or the other rare Ayckbourn play at the Chocolate Factory?  Or an immersive, critically acclaimed Trainspotting at the King's Head?  Or an improv night in an upstairs room at a pub next to a hospital and the Shard that used to be easy to get home from until London Bridge became a nightmare and I moved anyway so I don't understand which bus to get anymore and I've moved again since then so maybe I should just forget that one full stop!  Do you get my dilemma?

It turns out that one of the easiest ways of solving this is by working in theatre.  

  1. That often means you can't even go and see shows.
  2. You become friends with other theatre professionals which means the shows you can go and see are generally the ones that they are working on.
And so it was point two that led me to the New Wimbledon Theatre Studio to see Pond Wife presented by Holly&Ted as part of Illuminate.  

Illuminate is a festival that literally illuminates an underused performance space (the Studio at the New Wimbledon Theatre - and lovely it was too) and fills it with emerging and established small scale theatre companies.  The general idea is that audiences see something they've not experienced before and I was the perfect candidate.  I'll pretty much go and see anything, but because I am so overwhelmed with choice I'll often play it save.  That turns out to be a pretty bad strategy, because I would definitely have missed this show that is one of the campest and fun things I've seen in Wimbledon in a while (and I've seen Dame Edna Everage, Matthew Kelly and Legally Blonde there!)

Pond Wife is a modern re-telling of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid (more accurately, I think it may be Disney's version), through the eyes of a modern mermaid with a penchant for 90s/00s pop music.  The re-telling of the story is very clever, although I feel that there may have been more integrity in using the original story as source material, rather than the cartoon.  That said, one of the joys of Pond Wife is the constant re-imagining of characters that we recognise: Flotsam and Jetsam become Daphne and Celeste, Ariel's sisters become Destiny's Child and Prince Eric becomes Lucky (as in the Britney Spears song.  Not as in 'he gets'.)

This sort of Lucky.

The show is only 45 minutes long, but is a veritable Now Album of pop music that never fails to get a good response from the audience.  Some of the music is treated ironically, some of it reverentially and some of it even becomes dialogue that drives the characters.  It's a good concept, but it does mean that the audience do sometimes have to take quite large leaps of faith when it comes to plot development and character motivation.  There is every chance I'm missing the point here!

The show is performed by Holly Norrington and Teddy Lamb and they are fun and engaging company.  Their only set is a bathtub, albeit one with a shimmer curtain and they use it in ways that my tine imagination could not possibly have conceived.  As the audience walk in it's the ocean, with Ariel floating in shadow puppetry; it becomes a concert stage, a baddy's lair and even an actual bath tub.  They do some clever things too, such as creating the illusion of swimming with a fan and a ton of glitter (anything could have happened after that, really.  I'm going to have a glitter blowing fan installed in my flat now...).  In the final moments there is a lovely coup de théâtre too as Ariel transforms back into a mermaid.   Of course it comes complete with a Flashdance reference, but it's a moment of unexpected magic.  Sleight of hand almost.  Or Holly just slipped...

It is a very clever show.  There are some awkward moments.  Their talking into microphones at the start, about first album purchases outstays it's welcome and feels uncomfortable.  It's a bit frenetic too.  I feel like the pair could have done with someone to corral them and control their efforts. There were also a few moments that felt indulgent; almost as if the performer was fulfilling a fantasy and we just had to sit and watch; but for the most part it was fun and I'd highly suggest you ditch Bradley Cooper  and see these two instead!

Review: The Pirates of Penzance, London Coliseum

Gilbert and Sullivan have always been a private bone of contention for me.  I should like them: their mix of reality and fantasy is exactly my cup of tea; they reference contemporary politics in a historical context, which I enjoy and they're purely satirical.  Their work is very many of the things I love about pantomime, just in a different genre; so why is there always this dread when it comes to watching a G & S show?

Shoot me down: but I think one of the reasons is because I grew up watching a lot of amateur Gilbert and Sullivan.  As a child, the dense lyrics can be pretty hard to follow and are full of words I struggle with as an adult.  A professional singer and orchestra fighting against each other with difficult rhyme and rhythms can be pretty tough going; so for someone who is doing it as a hobby with only limited rehearsal the results aren't going to be the most comprehensible.  That said, I also wasn't alert to a lot of the satire, so there wouldn't have been that much for me to understand anyway!

I've only seen two professional productions (until this one) and each one didn't inspire in it's own way.  The first was the tour of the Regent's Park version of Joseph Papp's version of The Pirates of Penzance starring Gary Wilmot and Su Pollard.  What more do you need to know?  The second was The Yeoman of the Guard with Paul Nicholas (why do I put myself in these situations?!), produced by the D'Oyly Carte and staged in the moat of the Tower of London.  I mean, really, that should have been a winner.  It rained like I have never experienced before or since.  I couldn't hear anything for the hammer of water on my plastic poncho.. And yet, I still feel that I should like them.

Fortunately in the last few months I've really got into Mike Leigh films.  Fortunate because the latest major Gilbert and Sullivan revival is directed by Mike Leigh.  It also happens to be at one of my favourite houses in London, the Coliseum and I was able to go to the dress rehearsal.  This surely, is all a good sign?

And it was!  I'm happy to report that I laughed loudly at several points, I followed the story completely and (unusually for me at the ENO) I understood the singers without looking at the surtitles.  I think I found everything that I am normally looking for in a Gilbert and Sullivan work.  So maybe I do like them, it's just that 1980s British sitcom stars aren't the way to find out!

I would definitely say that, to my taste, Arthur Sullivan's overtures and entr'actes are still too long for me, but that at two hours and twenty minutes the show absolutely zipped by and I could have done with more.

The focus is very much on the plot and the singers and I think this can only help an audience's appreciation of them both.  Alison Chitty's set design is made up of bold colours and strong geometric shapes.  The principle shape is a large circle that makes it look as though you are viewing the action through a spyglass.  The set also adds some nice comic touches as people have to struggle over it or up it and it's all built into the direction very nicely.  I thought it was a bit strange that the cast still wore costumes of the period, that were beautiful, but hardly in keeping with their new surroundings.  I had hoped that the costuming might have been a bit bolder, here there were definitely missed opportunities for the lampooning of characters through their fashion choices.

All of the characters do get lampooned at some point though, within the context of the show and Leigh keeps the tone light to reflect the incredibly light (but convoluted) story.  Despite this, the cast treat it very seriously and I think that's where most of the genuine laughs are to be found.  It's the same as panto: add in too much irony and you've lost the audience; play it for real and you can do almost anything.

A fine example of this is Rebecca de Pont Davies' Ruth who goes from being the hero's hard of hearing nursemaid to being completely infatuated with him.  Davies plays it very honestly and you actually feel for her when she inevitably gets rejected.  I absolutely loved that she sang in the right accent and consequently her first number, 'When Fred'ric was a little lad' got great laughs.

Also high in the laughter stakes is Andrew Shore (Major-General Stanley) and Jonathan Lemalu (Chief of Police).  Shore doesn't have the hardest job, singing one of the Gilbert and Sullivan's most famous patter numbers: 'The Model of a Modern Major-General'.  The moment his feathered helmet appears a murmur of recognition flutters through the audience and ostensibly, Shore's job is done.  Impressively, he doesn't rest on his laurels, but finds good laughs in almost everything he does; some of them unexpected.

Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt giving it some Modern Major-General

Lemalu, however, gets the best response of the evening as the ineffectual police chief.  It's amazing that, despite the operetta being written in the 19th Century, a lot of the humour, in this instance, comes from our recognition of those characters in modern society.  Lemalu pitches his performance perfectly and prances around the stage leading his officers on a merry dance, all the time with a bewildered and forlorn look that he shares with the audience.  He enters proceedings quite late in the game, but you can feel the atmosphere shift in the audience every time he returns.

Davies, Shore and Lemalu all give the sort of performances you would expect from a Mike Leigh directed piece.  They are subtle, anchored in reality and instantly recognisable.  Leigh is famous for his style and you can see in his films the incredible results that he achieves.  I don't know much about opera, but I feel his style might have been asking a lot of some of the singers and the 'straighter' parts do sometimes struggle to reach across the footlights. 

The differences in the design and the standard of performances suggests a production that's not quite sure what it wants to be.  The only thing that is consistent is the sound of the orchestra, conducted by David Parry, which really makes Sullivan's music come to life.  We get so used now to hearing these scores on as few instruments as possible that to hear them done justice at the Coliseum is an absolute treat.  You get to hear the intricacies and musical jokes which are normally hidden from sound due to a lack of musicians.

One thing that this production certainly is is fun and thank goodness for that!  Why not see for yourself:

Monday, 4 May 2015

Review: Gypsy, Savoy Theatre

There used to be a time when I would be so overcome with a show that I would see it again almost immediately (you kind of had to when your local theatre is a receiving house and the shows are only there for a week!  I'm not a complete weirdo!)  The shows I've seen more than once might seem quite abitrary: Sunset Boulevard, Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Summer Holiday and Annie have all, obviously, had some immediate affect on me.  The last show I wanted to see again was Flashdance: the Musical; so there really is no telling what's going to 'get' me!

That is until I saw the Chichester Festival Theatre's transfer of Gypsy.  For me, it was almost a go straight to the box office and book another ticket, type situation.  It definitely bears a second viewing and actually I enjoyed it even more the on the re-visit.  The first time I went (and was sat in a better seat) the set was kind of a mess: you could see people in the wings waiting to go on stage (and not in the atmosphere creating way this production is full of) and on one of the trucks hands kept having to reach out to close a door.  Anthony Ward's set designs actually looked better from an off-centre seat further back and you got to appreciate just how much set there was. The trucks that were used as dressing rooms and boarding houses were opulently furnished; the backstage scenes oozed atmosphere and the onstage set pieces looked fabulously worn and tired.  It was an MGM black and white stage musical come to life.  

The only ultimate disappoint with the set is that some of it is only seen fleetingly.  You barely get a chance to take it in and it is gone again.  Much the same can be said for Arthur Laurents' book which is witty and entertaining, but requires the audience to fill in a lot of the dots themselves as it dashes through Gypsy Rose Lee's life.  Essentially what you get is a series of snapshots as Momma Rose drags her daughters and Newsboys or Toreadorables around the US searching for the elusive big booking.  It's a story that turns the harsh realities of show business into romantic fable, for the sake of focusing in on a family drama that is as explosive as any of it's music-less contemporaries: Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie, for instance.

It can be no coincidence then that Jonathan Kent's production has actors at it's core.  Momma Rose is played by Imelda Staunton (essentially the reason most people are going to see this) and her love interest, Herbie, is played by Peter Davison.  I disliked him at the time, but on reflection Davison is bizarrely excellent casting for Herbie.  He's plain, bumbling and allows Rose to be the centre of attention at all times.  That is all to Davison's credit.  The only frustration with his performance is that he never earns his moments of, relatively, high passions.  He says Rose's behaviour makes him sick to his stomach - it looked like more of a burp from where I was sat!

Everyone is right about Imelda Staunton though: she does own this show.  It's actually incredible to watch someone give an almost perfect performance.  She gets real guttral belly laughs, whether she's centre stage, or whether she's blending into the background.  She has a latent sex appeal that doesn't manifest until her nervous breakdown.  She makes you cross and want to shout at her and then right at the last moment she makes you want to sob.  The most impressive thing is that she does all of this with one eye on the audience, exactly as a woman of Momma Rose's ilk would do.  Staunton makes Momma Rose human, which is no mean feat, because to all intents and purposes the character is a monster.

The famous number for Momma Rose is 'Rose's Turn'.  I've watched it on YouTube before, seen it on DVD with Bette Midler, listened to recordings with Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone etc and it has never made sense to me.  It's an amalgamation of various themes heard throughout the show, at various points in Rose and Louise's lives.  It jerks around the place, barely let's a tune take flight and I've always found it pretty hard to hear.  When Imelda Staunton sings it, however, it is so clearly a mental breakdown, her nerves shattering feels almost tangible.  It is one of the most thrilling things I've ever seen on stage.  At the end Rose's name appears in giant letters with flashing bulbs, it's the climax to the song and Staunton as worked her way up to it so that these giant letters are a logical conclusion.  Her and Davison are really no match,

I'm going to be a bit controversial now: the show does belong to Staunton, there's no doubt; but there are some equally as brave and astonishing performances up there with her.  The triumvirate of strippers (Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand) are quite extraordinary.  Gold stands there, tall and Amazonian, in a bikini and moves in ways that illicited shocked responses from the audience.  I don't think what that image does for people who are body concious can be underestimated.  It's brazen and ridiculous and Gold doesn't shy away from what other people would be terrified of doing.  Her performance really stood out as summing up what the whole show is about: using what you have and not being scared to face your fears.

This really isn't a show for men, they don't come across very well.  They're mostly seen as weak and accessories to more powerful women.  It's interesting then that there's not a single woman on the production team until you get to Nikki Woollaston and Jane McMurtrie who are the Associate and Resident Choreographers.  The show does have a very masculine energy: Stephen Mear's choreography is strong and precise, whilst Nicholas Skilbeck's band really plays with balls.  It might have been interesting to see what effect a few women at the helm would have made on a story that is about women doing things for themselves.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Review: Follies, Royal Albert Hall

Okay, just so that we're all on the same page: it's quite likely that this will be one of the most unbalanced reviews anyone has ever written.  There are several reasons for this and I'm not ashamed to list them:

  • Follies is my joint favourite Stephen Sondheim musical (the other one being A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - in which I played the lead for my school's seminal 2001 revival...)
  • Roy Hudd is my hero.  He is the reason I love pantomime and I will rarely miss an opportunity to watch him work.
  • Anita Harris is my old lady crush.
  • I watched Cybill when it was originally aired on Channel 4 in the 90s and have been a die-hard fan of Christine Baranski ever since.  I must talk about wanting to see her on stage pretty regularly.
Any one of those reasons would have been enough to make me pay good money to see a show, but combined they amount to an almost mental blackout situation for me.  I tried to keep control of myself this time though!  I've been lucky to see two of my favourite singers: Barbra Streisand and Mavis Staples; both times, however, I was so excited that I can barely remember the experience.  As I have a duty of care to my fives and tens of readers, I tried to approach Follies a little differently.

I will be honest and say that as it was a one day event there were elements of the performance that took me out of my state of my revery, but from a memory perspective that will only have helped!  The vocal sound was tinny and made understanding some of the dialogue very tricky.  Some of the performers looked like they were struggling to remember what was going on (as much as it pains me to say it Roy Hudd was one of them.  The other was Lorna Luft, who was carefully guided by whoever happened to be stood next to her.  I mean, literally: if everyone was pointing up, she was pointing down.  If the others turned left, she turned right.  Bizarrely, given her heritage, I think she was giving the audience exactly what they wanted!)

Craig Revel Horwood's direction was also sometimes repetitive to the extreme.  Some of the performers seemed trapped in an endless cycle or taking centre stage, moving stage left, back to centre, moving stage right and repeating, throughout their number and regardless of the sense it made.  Christine Baranski was left to deliver the witty and vitriolic riposte to her husband: 'Could I Leave You', whilst circling him like she was on a runaway carousel.  It's to her credit that despite this, she gave one of the most intelligent performances of the evening and that number was one of the most memorable.

Follies is a tricky show to watch because some of the most enjoyable and well known numbers are the 'showtunes' that initially appear to have little to do with the plot.  Of course, they are only emphasising the disparity between the main quartet's fantasy lives of their past lives and the stark realities of their present.  Horwood's staging, again, managed to make little sense out of the book, but I don't think people were really there for that.  The audience wanted to hear the numbers, especially with the sumptuous support of the City of London Philharmonic Orchestra; but consequently some of the narrative numbers didn't carry their emotional or dramatic weight, because the dialogue was going for nothing.  Christine Baranski and Ruthie Henshall held their own in the scenes and reaped the benefits: Henshall's 'Losing My Mind' was beautiful, but because she'd taken the audience with her.

Big Broadway numbers wise, however, this production was about as luxurious as they get and was cast to the nth degree.  Anita Harris and Roy Hudd played the old vaudeville double act and pattered their way through 'Rain on the Roof'.  There really is no more perfect casting, you saw their pleasure and ease with an audience, even though the song itself can barely have been two minutes long.  Stefanie Powers outshone everybody in the dress stakes and added a sultry touch to 'Ah, Paree!'.  Lorna Luft got herself together for one of the show's most well known numbers: 'Broadway Baby'.  By herself, Luft is a star.  She set the tone for the song before she even started singing, by just looking into the follow spot and pulling the hem of her top down.  Her voice is a powerful instrument and it foghorned over the other people in her trio, but once she was done she melted away... Much like the woman described in the song.

On of the most exciting people to be cast in this concert was bona fide Broadway legend Betty Buckley.  She rarely performs in this country, but her way with a lyric is well known and here she got to sing the song of the show 'I'm Still Here'.  Buckley really sold it's razzmatazz, but couldn't seem to get a grip on the desperate perseverance that permeates the number.  The song is almost the thematic summation of the whole show and I feel that Buckley was scared to allow her performance to be vulnerable in such a big space as the Albert Hall.  She was trying to get her performance to reach as high and as far as she could, but forgot that, even from the back row, an audience can always see into a performers eyes.

That's quite a roll call of names from all spheres of popular performance, but there was one that stood out: Anita Dobson.  I'm as surprised as you are.  Dobson got one of the big production numbers: 'Who's That Woman' in which she and eventually the other ladies, sings a song with her younger reflection.  She had the audience in the palm of her hand and deservedly held her applause for a good three minutes.  That lady knows how to be on stage!

With this cast there is great potential for a complete revival of the show.  There was an odd fascination watching performers in the twilight of their careers played by performers in the twilight of their careers.  Behind all the razzle dazzle the heart of this show aches and there were real moments when this was captured.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Review: Harvey, Theatre Royal Haymarket

When I was studying at university in Texas the theatre department was still glowing in the success of their production of Harvey.  I arrived once it had been and gone, but it was hanging around in the atmosphere pretty much as the eponymous character does in the play.

I've been curious about it ever since.  It's even more fascinating to me because it's one of those strange plays that is an absolute phenomenon in the US and yet, here in the UK, people would really be clutching at straws to tell you about it.  At the performance I saw there were three American women behind me talking about the show as if they were about to have a religious experience.  They were comparing actors they'd seen in the main role, various productions they'd seen... They were certainly putting a lot of pressure on a group of British actors getting an American institution right!

They were also getting my expectations very high!  I love these ultra American plays and Harvey is from a classic era of American theatre and film.  It's appearance is sentimental and whimsical, but it's tone is sharp and some of the dialogue truly not what you'd expect from something apparently so respectable.

It's also an odd play because the most famous (and title) character isn't just invisible on stage, but doesn't exist at all!  Harvey is a 'pooka': a mystical creature (also a 90's British pop duo, according to Wikipedia) that can bring good or bad luck to a community.  In Mary Chase's play he happens to be invisible too, but I don't think this is always the case (for the sake of being oddly pedantic!).

The play follows Veta Louise Simmons as she and her family try to cope with the ever increasing presence of Harvey in her brother's life.  That's essentially it!  It's a comedy of social manners and family ties, that spirals into gentle farce full of bewildered looks and drolly delivered one-liners.  It's a very American farce in that it is really a farce of words rather than action.  The characters run verbal rings around each other and talk themselves into the most obscure situations; if Ray Cooney had written Harvey the set would have had a lot more doors for a start and the rabbit would have made an appearance too.

No matter what how extreme or mundane that farce of the play was, one thing is for sure: I laughed loudly and consistently for the whole performance.  In fact, I haven't seen a play where I HAD to laugh in a very long time and it's easy to see why it appealed so much to a post war and depression American audience.  This production benefits from the top billing of two very natural comic actors in Maureen Lipman and James Dreyfus.  Lipman played Veta the long-suffering sister of Dreyfus' Elwood P Dowd.  In Lipman's hands Veta became a farce within herself.  Every word was nuanced and every gesture extended to the nth degree.  Yet, the performance is actually very subtle which makes her grander moments ten times as funny.  Lipman is such an engaging actress to watch.  Her comic ability must be almost unrivalled amongst her contemporaries.  It's hard, but you should never take your eyes off her when she's on stage - you really never know what you're going to miss.

James Dreyfus is certainly the perfect foil for Maureen Lipman and certainly does his own share of galvanising the audiences attention.  Physically Dreyfus is much less interesting than Lipman: every movement he does is so familiar from his television roles and his impact in that sense is greatly reduced.  There is no faulting Dreyfus' performance though, because the character is far removed from his more famous work.  Elwood P Dowd is a nice man, almost insufferably so: he's charming, confident, polite; not characteristics that are normally so interesting in a leading man.  The audience love Elwood the moment they meet him and Dreyfus never let's that change; he also makes you think you can see Harvey.  In Dreyfus' presence Harvey seems like a very real creation: you know where he is on stage, how tall he is, what mood he's in.  There must be times when Dreyfus feels like a lunatic, but he keeps Elwood's reality so alive you can't help but go with him.

The problem with having two such strong central performances - especially in a play like Harvey that has a large cast, most of whom don't have much to do - is that it is hard to notice the rest of the cast.  I think it's fair to say that a lot of the supporting roles are not particularly memorable and the actors do what they can with them.  Only Yousseff Kerkour, David Bamber and Felicity Dean get any real attempt at having an impact on the production.  This may also partly be down to director Lindsay Posner who has not seemed to notice that some people seem to be in a different play.  Desmond Barrit, for instance, is as loud and red faced as you would expect him to be, whilst Sally Scott takes a more laid back approach.  Both are appropriate for the play, but one should have been chosen for the production.

If there's one thing that's missing from the production it is pace.  As one character left, with the door slammed behind them, there was invariably a pregnant pause as the action laboured to continue.  It was almost as if actors were having to be woken up each time they needed to go on.  Once they were there, there was plenty of energy, however; it was just getting to stage that seemed to be the problem.

This was exacerbated by Peter McKintosh's beautiful revolving set, that took an age to turn.  Mind you, watching it slot together was actually worth the time it too!

So, I loved Harvey.  I think you will too.  I've realised I never have anything deep and meaningful to say about the shows I review... maybe I'll work on that!  Or maybe I'll just keep saying what I see!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Review: Atthis, Royal Opera House

I really enjoy opera and I really enjoy dance.  I also really enjoy productions that don't out stay their welcome. Therefore I should not have approached Atthis with the trepidation that I did!  I think I was daunted by the description of the show on the Royal Opera's own website:

"Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas is a leading figure in European contemporary music. The soundworld he creates is one of microtones and shimmering, nocturnal shadows..."

The words 'contemporary', 'soundworld' and 'microtones' fill me with dread.  They suggest an artistiically alienating experience that I will not feel sufficiently intellectual to enjoy or understand.  I'm a very open minded person when it comes to art, but I will be honest and say that I prefer looking at a Gainsborough painting over one by Miro and I'm more likely to choose a ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa then I am a work by a more modern equivalent.  To top it all off the text came from the work of Sappho, an Ancient Greek poet; I've never taken to Ancient Greek theatre or poetry etc., (it feels really good to finally come out and say it!)  - so how was I possibly going to approach this as entertainment?

Fortunately, Netia Jones' staging grabs you the moment you walk in: a vertical disc the height of the stage, in the middle of which is suspended a platform, with a prone body lying on it.  What follows is a twenty minute performance of composer Haas' Second String Quartet, during which Laure Bachelot and Rachel Maybank dance out the story of Atthis and Eros: essentially love found, enjoyed, lost and pined for.  The quartet is discordant, atonal, completely lacking in rhythm from what I could tell, but is strangely compelling.  To me it wasn't like listening to music at all, but like hearing what emotions must sound like in the brain: colliding and careering with each other. I was absolutely amazed at the playing of the London Sinfonietta; I know they're some of the country's best musicians, but I can't begin to imagine what it must be like to play a piece such as this. It's not easy listening, but it does speak to you and makes the dancers' choreography appear almost as music itself.

Hear Georg Friedrich Haas' Second String Quartet (1998) for yourself.  If you dare.

The choreography is surprisingly literal and Bachelot and Maybank narrate the story with ease.  As with the rest of the production there is a monochrome aesthetic to their work, but it is clear that the relationship between the characters is pure passion.  The rise and fall of their love is electrically realised, no more so than in the floor projections which provide the only lighting and a visual heartbeat to the piece.

The star turn of the evening, however, comes from Claire Booth, the soprano who has been the inert body floating above the action.  Whilst Bachelot and Maybank give us narrative, Booth explores the emotional toll of love and loss and again surprises at how emotionally immediate the piece is.  Booth has a beautiful voice, but isn't scared to allow herself to sound ugly, or take her voice to places you'd never expect.  She makes guttural noises at one point that, combined with Haas' 'soundworld', really hit home a despair that seems considerably less superficial than in a lot of popular opera.

Booth is an engaging performer and keeps the audience with her even though her movement is limited by the platform.  During the song cycle, the disc behind Booth has translations of the German text and dream like images projected on to it.  These are necessary to keep the singer lit, but don't actually add any more understanding of what is being explored.  In fact, some of the images are so trite and cliche they risk disabling the innate power of Haas' work.  The dancers demonstrate that words aren't necessary to succumb to the plot and Booth's performance is so strong that it negates the need for a comprehensible language.  One of the Sappho fragments that is projected is this:

"Neither honey

nor a honey bee
for me"

And really I could have done without it.  Although it was nice to see where Billie Piper got the idea for Honey to the Bee.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Aboard the Good Ship 'Treasure Island'

If you read this blog regularly (and thank you if you do!) you'll know that I'm always surprised when a job ends.  That's because months are spent building up to a product that manifests itself for a relatively short period of time.  Fortunately, in the case of The Pirates of Treasure Island we have one more crack at the whip, because Sunday was only the last day of the first part of the tour!  I'm quite relieved actually, because I took the end of Alice in Wonderland quite badly and I don't think I could go through that again!

Comparatively, Treasure Island  was a much more relaxed experience for me than last year's Easter pantomime tour.  The team gelled really well from the first day and there wasn't too much high drama; neither was the show itself as physically or mentally demanding as last year's was.  That's not to say that there wasn't drama, or I wasn't throwing myself around the stage; maybe I was more prepared for it!  The most important thing for me, as ever, is that it was fun!  There wasn't a single moment on stage or off that I didn't enjoy.

I'll be honest: I wasn't always sure if that was going to be the case!  When I first read the script I became quickly aware that I didn't seem to say very much.  Then I got over it.  Then, on the first day of rehearsal, at the read through, I became really aware that I wasn't saying much and I didn't get over it!  I got really offended and took it very personally (which is a risk when working with your friends) and was the grumpiest I've ever been in rehearsals! On reflection I'm not very proud of how I behaved; it was very unlike me: but it's good to know that I still care!

It was all very misguided, of course: in the actual show I was very busy and several of the routines were actually built around me.  However, that can be one of the tricky things with playing a comic character in a panto, especially when you are experienced: in rehearsals your stuff is often left to the last minute because it won't take long to rehearse, or you have to wait for a significant prop.  During the run, several people that know Magic Beans Pantomimes' work well even said that I had more to do than usual!  It just goes to show how much I know!  It also goes to show that, no matter how little I want to, I really should buck up and trust Jamie Alexander Wilson's judgement!  He clearly knows what he's doing otherwise the company wouldn't be as artistically successful as it is!  (I hope he doesn't read this!!)

One thing that Jamie does tend to get right is his casting (even if I do say so myself!).  We always talk about there being a Magic Beans 'family' and Treasure Island exemplified that more than any other show.  A majority of people involved from the band to the crew and the cast had worked with the company before and this encourages a really good atmosphere on stage and in rehearsals,  To be honest, I think that's a minor miracle: it's more likely that a large group of creative people that know each other will implode in an awful mix of ego and fear. Not us!  I know for sure that it must be a daunting group to join but the two 'newbies', as it were, did a fantastic job of entering into the spirit of the group!

Edele Lynch (from B*Witched - I'm still beside myself!) had a slight advantage in that her brother Shane has worked with us before; so I'm sure she had some warning about what to expect!  It was her first time acting on stage though and for the first few days you could tell that she was nervous.  It didn't last long!  By the end of the the first leg, Edele was joining in jokes and getting really good, genuine laughs from the audience.  I said it about Jamie Foreman at Christmas and I'm sure it sounds weird to say this about people who are already successful: but I was really proud of Edele.  She totally gets panto and had loads of great ideas, some of which we used in the show!  I'd love to work with her again, which is lucky, because her and her sister, Keavy, will be playing sparring fairies at the Woodville this Christmas.  Will that be too much B*Witched for me to handle?  Watch this space...

The other new person to join our crew was Sid Sloane.  It's hard to describe the affect that Sid has on children and their parents.  I wasn't prepared for it at all (not watching CBeebies and thus only really knowing his face from panto posters!): people LOVE him!  Especially mums.  As an adult without children it's very easy to forget the impact that kids TV has in a house and as a child you never realise how much of it your parents watch too.  To be fair, if my mum saw Dave Benson Phillips or Andi Peters in the street today I know she'd turn into a quivering mess!  For my dad it would be Philippa Forrester or Rosemarie Ford (the latter being slightly off topic and maybe too much information!)  The great thing about Sid is that he warrents the adulation!  He took his role as Captain Smollett very seriously and he takes his role as an idol to children seriously too.  It's lovely to see him talk to young fans!

Of course, in my opinion, the show itself was great too!  Simon Cossons really acquitted himself triumphantly with the projections he created and I love the mix of technology and tradition that they bring.  We had some great numbers, my favourite being C'est La Vie, obviously; and did some old panto routines that I'd never done before.  We also did a brand new one, based on dancing fountains, that went down really well!  I'm looking forward to that becoming a classic routine and being able to say that I was there in flippers, shower cap, Victorian bathing suit and water pistol ready!

But how did the tour go, you ask!  Let me give you this step by step guide:

Grove Theatre, Dunstable

We opened here and the show the audiences got would have been very different to our last performance in Hastings!  As with all shows our first few performances were tentative and finding feet-ish.  They still went down well and we got some excellent reviews.  The great thing about the Grove is that it's a lovely theatre to open a show in.  The facilities are excellent, the stage is big, the audience is warm and inviting and the audiences are very supportive!

Here are some of the reviews we got whilst we were there:

Watford Colesseum

Full disclosure: I lived in Watford for a year and I didn't enjoy it.  Since then, Watford has done nothing to get into my good books... not even when a homeless man called me a four-eyed faggot!  So these two days and myself were always going to be locked in battle!  This was, of course, exacerbated by a ridiculous venue.  I am often surprised at the crazy kind of buildings shows are put on in, but I do think this one took the biscuit! To get backstage, you first had to go through the auditorium; to get from an exit to an entrance on the other side was a very long walk; the stage was slippy, had a lift that wobbled and a floor that was peeling!  To top it all off my Achilles Tendon decided to swell up and was very painful!  After an excellent opening in Dunstable it was good to be immediately faced with a mountain of challenges and see that the audience still enjoyed it; but really Watford: what did I ever do to upset you?!

Palace Theatre, Southend

This theatre was such a surprise! A beautiful auditorium and just the most charming backstage area.  There was a courtyard / garden and all the dressing rooms were on top of each other in what felt like a Georgian house.  The sun was shining and the atmosphere was amazing!  I loved it here!  Although, actually, the building presented many more challenges than Watford did, but they didn't seem so insurmountable.  There were stairs to get everywhere and the stage has the steepest rake in Europe, so doing the show felt like a real workout for everyone!!  Honestly, everyone was running everywhere!  I loved the adrenaline and the audiences made it so worthwhile!  I would go back there in a heartbeat and would have loved to stay for longer!

King's Theatre, Southsea

This theatre is really special to me, mostly for nostalgia reasons, but also because it is a stunning auditorium and the easiest space to play in.  It's so well designed (by Frank Matcham) that it feels like you can communicate with every single member of the audience, even if they're at the back.  You feel like a real actor when you're on stage at the King's!  I think it must attract some of the nicest audiences in the country too.  There are some theatres where you always get people looking for everyone's autographs and Southsea is one of them.  Every show there would be people waiting to get a fully signed programme and in some cases they spoke to us like they knew us.  

That is something I've noticed on this tour: there is an increased audience familiarity, in places you least expect it and that is very rewarding.  As well as Simon Sladen, Adrian and Claire New (one of the mums I was referring to earlier!) it was lovely to see Joshua Dixon in the audience who is a panto fanatic to rival myself (and Simon Sladen)!  He's so passionate about the genre and wants to understand everything, yet has his own opinions; plus he thinks my dame is really good, so yeah, that helps too!

Here Simon Sladen's review for the British Theatre Guide.

Woodville, Gravesend

Ant and I had a blast back at the Woodville.  The audiences there are so bawdy and up for a laugh!  Like I said at Christmas: I feel like I can do anything with that crowd and they'll go with it.  The theatre staff have remained as friendly and supportive as ever and I absolutely love the feeling of going back to a family there.  Can't wait to return at Christmas!  I also like the audiences in Gravesend know Ant and I as a double act.. it certainly helped my confidence when I was feeling like I had nothing to do!

Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks

This was a bit of a homecoming for myself and Ant and I think you could tell that everyone was performing to what they would consider to be the 'home' crowd.  I've never known Sevenoaks audiences to be like it: they were loud, boisterous and not as held back as they sometimes can be.  It did certainly make me appreciate what a lovely, intimate venue the Stag is.  Especially when we threw the ten foot beach ball out into the audience!  The town is really lucky to have a theatre that is so well programmed and in the centre of the community.  It was actually a thrill to finally see it being used as it should be too!
White Rock Theatre, Hastings

This is a relatively famous theatre and I love being by the seaside!  When I walked in I have to admit to not being overly thrilled by the wide auditorium that has seen better days.  I think an attractive interior is crucial to an audiences experience of the production.  The White Rock is starting to look like one of those B&Bs you see on Four in a Bed where the wall paper started to peel, but was left; then the curtains began to fray and were left and now there's just too much to do, but ostensibly it looks alright.  The stage and backstage are actually very nice and there is a lovely sense of romance in the building that you only get at these seaside venues!  Due to the size and the shape of the auditorium I think it would look quite empty if there was even 600 people in attendance; but the crowds here were very enthusiastic and it went to show that you should always (and I firmly believe this) do the best show you can whether there is one or three thousand people watching!

So there we have the first leg of the tour!  Next we're off to Croydon, Dartford and Lowestoft and who knows where else the pirates will find themselves!