Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review: The Go-Between (Royal & Derngate Northampton)

Re-visiting a diary kept during one’s adolescence is inevitably a squirmy experience. In this musical adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel (originally workshopped by Perfect Pitch) with music by Richard Taylor and a book by David Wood (both share credit for the lyrics), Leo Colston, a tweedy, repressed bachelor in his sixties declares angrily to the crowd of Victorian ghosts who stifled his emotional development fifty years earlier in 1900, “The past is a foreign country – you do things differently there.” In response, they beg Leo to let them go from the shackles of his memory. There is a sub-aqueous quality to Michael Pavelka’s set comprising of tarnished mirrors at skewed angles and a sepia colour palette  (Leo’s ‘Lincoln green’ suit is the most conspicuous flash of colour), reminiscent of a once-grand stately pile that has been neglected for years.

Warned by his widowed mother that the upper classes live very differently, twelve-year-old Leo arrives to spend the summer at the Norfolk estate of his school chum Marcus’s untitled but certainly entitled family. As one of the only children in a house full of grown ups, he is intoxicated by and becomes the protégé of Marcus’s beautiful elder sister Marian and the ‘postman’ who delivers messages between her and the ‘ladykiller’ tenant farmer Ted Burgess. If Hartley’s writing can be compared to Henry James (in style and themes, charting a child’s loss of innocence and the taboo of sexual relationships across the class divide), it seems apt that Taylor’s beautifully integrated and shimmeringly lovely score with snatches of Gothic menace has echoes of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (as well as Sondheim’s Passion), lavishly scored for a grand piano played onstage by Jonathan Gill. Everything is seen through Leo’s eyes in Wood’s very faithful adaptation, and so there isn’t a love duet as Leo never sees the lovers together.

Roger Haines employs gracefully choreographed movement to create images that, as befits Taylor’s musical style, aren’t quite set pieces but have the same kind of impact. Stuart Ward’s ‘wild’, sinewy Ted, upon whom Leo depends for his sentimental education, bursts in on civilised bathing party; Leo celebrates his heroism as twelfth man in the crucial cricket match between the Hall and the village (to my mind, Hartley was unique in being able to make cricket exciting) and there is an animalistic denouement enacted by phallic umbrellas. Tim Lutkin’s lighting is a key player in the storytelling, evoking the glorious sunshine and the coming storm as well as the shifts in time.

Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is a recurring motif, tying in neatly with the deadly nightshade (belladonna). The idea of a vampiric woman who seduces men and leaves them helpless is all too clear to the audience, while Marian’s upstanding intended Hugh Trimingham (Stephen Carlile), an aristocrat disfigured in the Boer War, clings to a soon-to-be outdated chivalric code in which “Nothing is ever a lady’s fault.” Sophie Bould offers a precise soprano as Marian and the children are just precocious enough with splendid singing and acting abilities: Adam Bradbury makes a sweetly snooty Marcus and William Miles’s wide-eyed and inquisitive Leo ably anchors the show alongside the outstanding James Staddon as his damaged adult counterpart.

The Go-Between entwines adult secrets and lies with the careless cruelty and destruction wreaked by the upper classes’ inborn sense of the world revolving around them (Marcus informs Leo, “Don’t thank the servants – that’s why they’re there”); the rich symbolism of Hartley’s writing is acutely dramatised in an intelligent, heartfelt and delicately realised gem of new British musical theatre writing that very much deserves a further life beyond this world premiere tour.

Written for Exeunt

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review: The House of Bernarda Alba (New Diorama Theatre)

The flagship show of Suspense 2011 with its theme of puppetry and politics, Yas-e-Tamam’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba about a manipulative widow and her five daughters living isolation against an impending backdrop of fascism is the company’s British debut, having performed in Spain, France, Lebanon and their native Iran. Iran isn’t known for its theatrical or puppetry tradition (at least not in Britain); the choice of source material with the implicit parallels between 1930s Spain and the contemporary Middle East (Almeida Theatre will also be presenting a Middle Eastern-set production of this play in 2012) combined with an arresting visual style fused together to create a nightmarish world of oppression and brainwashed conformity.

Condensed into an hour and performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack in Farsi without surtitles, the puppeteers (revealed at the end to be two women and a man) are life-sized versions of the puppets, dressed in black robes that resemble both nuns’ habits and burkas. The puppeteers’ faces are covered with white masking material and like the puppets have crudely stitched identical, featureless faces with stitches covering their faces and hands like scars. Reza Mehidizade’s effectively simple set comprises of wooden boxes and suitcases of various sizes and the puppets emerge from a long, narrow box like a coffin during Bernarda Alba’s husband’s funeral, with echoes of the undead as these forbidding rag dolls crowd together accompanied by mournful music.

On the predominately black stage, flashes of colour appear in the form of a red horse and the threads on an embroidery frame from which the ill-fated youngest daughter Adela hangs herself. Sewing, a traditionally female activity, is a recurring motif, a symbol of creativity and a weapon, as Alba threatens one of her daughters by mining sewing up her mouth and therefore taking away her ability to speak.

The storytelling in Zahra Sabri’s production doesn’t transcend language as much as would be ideal and it would benefit from surtitles to make the nuances in the story more comprehensible and to get a clearer sense of individual voices and characters. As it stands, it is daringly radical in itself by charging these blank-faced puppets with political fervour in a world where individual self expression is not something to be encouraged.

Written for Exeunt

Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: Speechless (Arcola Theatre)

 Taking its cue from Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent Twins charting the story of the ‘elective mute’ twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, Polly Teale (who also directs) and Linda Brogan’s play Speechless (which premiered at Edinburgh last year) is the ‘other’ play currently in London that opens with a rendition of William Blake’s hymn ‘Jerusalem.’ June and Jennifer were Welsh-born of West Indian parents who, like many others, believed Great Britain to be the promised land. Like Shared Experience’s recent production Brontë, the Gibbons are another troubled set of sisters with literary ambitions (we see them staying up all night ferociously typing their novels) who operate in a fantasy world; they refuse to speak or make eye contact with others, but, when alone, show themselves to be highly perceptive and articulate observers of the world around them.

The love-hate relationship between the sisters is exemplified in the visceral opening montage as they strangle and embrace each other in confinement at Broadmoor. The story is narrated in a flashback: having been asked to leave their secondary modern where they are the only black pupils and the victims of racist bullying at the age of fourteen, they are referred to a specialised support unit where the teachers are addressed by their first names and no uniform is worn (their mother does not approve). Mrs Gibbons (Anita Reynolds) is bemused as to how her ‘twinnies’ who have had a good Christian upbringing could find themselves in such a situation, yet the problem began when they were only four.

There are fearless performances by Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran as Jennifer and June, who make remarkably believable teenagers. Their mirrored movements and silent communication out of the furthest corners of their eyes is truly unnerving, but alone in their bedroom, they share the same anxieties as any ‘normal’ teenage girls who are curious about romantic love, dislike their appearance and feel embarrassed of their mother, excluded from the other RAF wives’ coffee mornings and Tupperware parties, making fun of her strong West Indian accent and attempts to be British. The idolisation of royalty, with the peeling images of Lady Diana on the wall and a delightful re-enactment the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee with their (white, blonde) Barbie dolls shows the power of pageantry on their imaginations, though some of the references to 1980s popular culture are rather heavy-handed.

The only male presence in the cast of five, Kennedy (Alex Robertson), is clumsily shoehorned into the narrative. Robertson is far too mature to convince as the troubled American youth to whom the twins lose their virginities in a most unromantic fashion while Mrs Gibbons swoons as Charles and Diana’s fairytale romance culminates on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The disturbing parallel of these sacrificial lambs takes place against a backdrop of rioting that is brought to life by a storm of clutter.

Focusing on the twins’ adolescence and ending with the arson attack on their school that had them committed to Broadmoor, the most bizarre twist in the story – Jennifer died on the day that she and June were discharged – isn’t dramatised. If it was fiction, it would seem too symbolic to be convincing. The separation is hinted at by portraying Jennifer as the more domineering twin with her declarations of “You are Jennifer. You are me “ Unlike many other fact-based plays, there isn’t a projected postscript explaining what happened next, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions from this somewhat disjointed dramatisation of a story that exemplifies the idea of truth being stranger than fiction.

Written for Exeunt

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: The Last of the Duchess (Hampstead Theatre)

Nicholas Wright’s new play directed by Richard Eyre based on Booker Prize shortlisted author Lady Caroline Blackwood’s book of the same name dealing with her attempt to interview a widowed Duchess of Windsor in 1980 has a poetical allusion in its title, accentuated by the Duchess being something of a fantasy figure around whom the ideas of memory and artistic representation revolve.

The impediment to Lady Caroline’s interview is the octogenarian Maitre Suzanne Blum, the Duchess’s lawyer, also a companion cum gaoler. Under Blum’s orders, no one is allowed to see the Duchess; she might be completely senile, she might even be dead. Her jewels are being sold anonymously at auction and the housekeeper is wearing her furs. Denied access to the Duchess, Blackwood re-casts the profile with Blum (only two years younger than the ailing Duchess) as the focus, leading to a battle of wills and egos between two stubborn women, which ultimately comes down to each vowing to outlive the other.

Mrs Simpson herself only appears in a fantasy sequence at the beginning of the play in a youthful guise, the decadent jewellery collecting, ‘vawdka’-addicted socialite of lore. Caroline’s re-imaging of Wallis’s story as a twisted Gothic fairytale is reflected by the way in which it is as if time has stood still in the Windsors’ Bois de Boulogne home, occupied by people who by 1980 are relics and anachronisms. This eighteenth-century salon (designed by Anthony Ward) filled with Ancien Regime objets d’arts is untouched by modernity. The youngest character, Blum’s assistant and an ingratiating collector of influential people Michael Bloch (the excellent John Heffernan), gives the impression of being born in the wrong era, in a striped jacket that makes him look “like something out of The Boy Friend.”

Sheila Hancock employs a superb French accent and regal mannerisms as the indomitable Suzanne Blum, who, the Simpson connection aside, had a remarkable career, being the daughter of a Jewish butcher (the Windsors’ cosying-up to Hitler isn’t mentioned) who qualified as a lawyer in the 1920s. A model of professional discretion only offering sycophantic anecdotes (the Duke and Duchess were apparently renowned for their charity – the Duke would open doors for unimportant people) and adamantly against using her client’s celebrity for self-promotion, she is won over by the glittering prospect of being photographed by Lord Snowdon. Her sparring with Anna Chancellor’s dishevelled, vodka-fuelled journalist (immortalised by her husbands Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell in art and poetry) is splendidly done; it seems quite plausible that she has the willpower to live forever.

I couldn’t help but be rather unsettled by Diana Mosley (a relation of Lady Caroline by marriage and the author of a cut-and-paste biography of the Duchess) and her repellent political views being treated as a comedy turn like a favourite eccentric aunt, receiving gales of delighted laughter (somehow the dialogue automatically becomes funnier when delivered by a Mitford sister). Angela Thorne’s portrayal of Lady Mosley’s breezy anti-Semitism is all too convincing with impressively arched vowels, but the idea of a Nazi that the nation took to its bosom is a deeply troubling one, which strikes me as the real demon in the story, though probably not Wright’s intention.

Wright touches upon the plight of being widowed at any age, the fear of being kept alive like a “breathing cabbage” and journalistic ethics with delicacy but doesn’t explore them to fruition. It’s a play that has the rather smug surface gloss of a beautifully photographed high society magazine, one that is lovely to look at, finely acted and pithily written, but has more to do with namedropping in gilded exile than offering a huge amount of insight.

Written for Exeunt

Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: Britannicus (Wilton's Music Hall)

The enchanting Wilton’s Music Hall resembles many things, including a bath house or forum with its high ceiling and immersive acoustics, making it an ideal setting for the grandeur and ruthlessness of the Roman Empire with its obscenely complicated genealogy. Irina Brown’s stylish modern-dress production of Jean Racine’s 1669 tragedy Britannicus (in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, co-Artistic Director of Natural Perspective Theatre Company with Brown) offers the opportunity to see the space back to front: the audience sits on the stage and the performance takes place on a tiled floor with the balcony as a backdrop. Only a few upturned transparent plastic chairs adorn the floor and a plastic shower curtain is pulled back to reveal a junk-filled storeroom stuffed with trunks, books and decapitated marble busts (designed by Chloe Lamford), possibly a nod to all the crumbling ambitions mouldering away.

Many a tyrant’s reign begins with optimism: as the play opens, the late Emperor Claudius has been succeeded by Nero, the son of his last wife Agrippina (also his niece, for whom he overturned the laws regarding incest), rather than his own son Britannicus. Britannicus (a fairly minor character in his own tragedy) is in love with Junia (Hara Yannas), the only surviving member of her aristocratic family, who becomes Nero’s own lust object. Nero’s notorious reputation precedes him, yet the underlying implication here is that his fate wasn’t pre-ordained having been given too much power at too young an age (Matthew Needham plays him as a louche and petulant teenager), pushing his authority to the limits, commenting, “I’m tired of being loved – I want to be feared.” If Racine is speculating about what kind of Emperor Britannicus might have been, Alexander Vlahos portrays an idealistic and hot-headed young man, well-meaning and ardent in his love for Junia, but no match for the courtly machinations that conspire to destroy him.

There’s no mother quite like a Roman mother (perhaps the play ought to be called Agrippina) and Sian Thomas’s frostily sensual and conniving matron of impeccable lineage very much dominates the proceedings. It's a gripping portrayal of a relationship between a mother and son in extraordinary circumstances. Agrippina is scornful of the powerful men from whom she is descended, unable to claim power herself as a woman, and schemes to realise her ambitions through her son. When she cannot bear the thought of losing Nero to another woman or to the Empire itself, her jealousy manifests into something almost vampiric.

There is something (to my mind) inherently static about Racine’s style, in which the most exciting moments take place off-stage and are reported second-hand (as in Greek tragedies), though Wertenbaker’s robust use of language lends the story a contemporary resonance. The ending is a beginning in itself that demands a sequel as the real horrors of Nero’s reign have only just begun ­– if ever there was an argument against inherited power (take for instance the Middle Eastern dynasties very much in the news at present), this is it.

Written for A Younger Theatre

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Union Theatre)

It’s extraordinary that it took two people (Larry L. King and Peter Masterson) to write the book for Carol Hall’s true-events-based 1978 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas as it’s as much of a dramaturgical disaster as the Union’s recent offering The Baker’s Wife. These two flawed 1970s musicals have very different performance histories: The Baker’s Wife understandably flopped, yet The Best Little Whorehouse ran for 1,584 performances on Broadway, where it returned after a national tour with the original leads and was later filmed starring Dolly Parton. It might be a show that doesn’t try to be anything other than light entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that the queasy sexual politics should be accepted with an indulgent shrug as a harmless ‘bit of fun.’

An inaudible introduction charting the history of The Chicken Ranch and how it passed into the hands of Miss Mona narrated by Doatsey-Mae (Lindsay Scigliano), a waitress in the greasy spoon next door and a failed prostitute, is an unpromising start from which Paul Taylor-Mills’s production never really recovers. Miss Mona runs what she believes to be a respectable sort of house where “a certain kind of French” is spoken (‘guests’ rather than ‘customers’ and ‘sample salesmen’, not ‘pimps’), a high level of pastoral care is provided and the local Sheriff (an uncomfortable James Parkes) is an old friend. She and her girls live together like one big happy family; the conflict comes in the form of a campaign led by squealing television anchor and evangelist Melvin P. Thorpe (an immensely grating turn by Leon Craig in a Boris Johnson-style wig) to get the establishment closed down. The second act merely ties up a few loose ends.

There are no romances between whores and clients (it’s unusual to find a musical without a love story), none of the girls try to rebel and the old spark between Miss Mona and the Sheriff isn’t re-lit. A football team promised a field trip to the whorehouse as a special treat get the most memorable choreography with interesting display of male bonding featuring some athletic dancing with towels. Designer Kingsley Hall exploits the versatility of old fold-up beds, which act as shower cubicles and screens behind which the girls provide their services.

As Miss Mona, Sarah Lark is a fine singer and has a nicely approachable manner, but is decades too young and lacks blowsy authority. The youthfulness of the whole cast is something of a problem, particularly the whores who are far too fresh-faced to be convincingly world-weary, though Stephanie Tavernier offers powerful vocals and substantial presence as brothel housekeeper Jewel and it would make more sense if she had the narrator role.

The prostitute has a rich history in musical theatre, often idealised, but rarely sentimentalised in such a sickly manner (though it is the first musical I've ever seen that alludes to menstruation). When the gauche new girl Shy (Nancy Sullivan) takes to her new profession like a duck to water, the others congratulate her ‘Girl, You’re a Woman’ without irony as if it’s a wonderful act of empowerment. Along with an abrupt ending in which the leading lady accepts defeat (a strange way to end a romp), all of this is as hard to swallow as a Hard Candy Christmas.

Written for Exeunt

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: The Queen of Spades (Arcola Theatre)

Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 hallucinatory prose novella is immensely theatrical and it comes as a surprise that Max Hoehn’s staging is the first time it has been imagined  on an intimate scale. This tale of German military engineer Hermann, who becomes obsessed with extracting the secret of the key to unlimited wealth held by a decrepit 87-year-old Countess, combines social satire, Gothic set pieces and a warning about the dangers of attempting to create one’s own destiny. A woman wearing a scarlet coat and a hat with a veil covering her face circles the stage like a circus ringmaster and twirls a cane; a younger woman emerges from the swathes of white fabric that act as a backdrop, and a young man, clad in only his long-johns, is clearly disturbed by the spectacle.

Fusebox Productions’ strikingly theatrical and stylised approach focuses on the three characters (like the three cards) who lead the story. Some of Raymond Blankenhorn’s rhyming couplets lapse into doggerel, but the form lends the wit and irony that drives the story a rhythmically agitated feel. Having asked Hoehn about the production’s operatic qualities, it seems more appropriate to describe it as balletic. Daniel Saleeb’s music and sound design is a key player alongside Hoehn’s emphasis on mime, integrating Russian folk tunes, the tinkling of a child’s music box and the roar of the traffic that Hermann rushes through with the Countess’s secret ringing in his ears.

After a somewhat lengthy prologue narrated by Hermann in his troubled state, we enter the story in style as a masked youthful Countess visits the ‘Wandering Jew’ Saint Germain, a strange kind of confidante with the power to make wishes come true. Hermann’s scheme to gain access to the Countess by sending love letters to her companion Liza, is played out like a silent film with jaunty piano music and exaggerated romantic gestures, the charming innocence undercut by Pushkin’s irony. The ultimate game of cards is dealt on a rocking table in what appears to be a seedy modern casino rather than a high society gathering; shifts in mood and time conveyed by Saleeb’s sound and Edmund Sutton’s lighting rather than any elaborate props.

Hoehn evokes an ambiguous sense of period with the timeless costumes, some modern turns of phrase and Liza incurs the Countess’s disdain for miserable Russian novels by reading from Anna Karenina (written 40 years after The Queen of Spades). The diminutive Norma Cohen is more eccentric than tyrannical as the Countess. There’s an unexpected moment of warmth between the Countess and Liza when the Countess brushes Liza’s hair and tells her about how women were less naïve about marriage in her day, the kind of advice a mother would give a daughter and would never appear in Pushkin.

Benjamin Way doesn’t capture the Napoleonic allure that mesmerises Liza and scares the Countess to death, but he offers a convincing portrayal of an outsider excluded by the privileged elite who have money to burn. He seems repelled by the idea of physical intimacy when the long-suffering but eager Liza, played with appealing openness by Jen Holt, throws herself at him.

Hoehn’s vision of The Queen of Spades is a bold one that’s filled with ambition (my companion commented that an adaptation she saw in Russia was much more traditional). If the production’s trump card is somewhat elusive with individual ideas more effective than the piece as a united whole, it’s an interesting and aesthetically and aurally invigorating take on one of the greatest short stories ever written.

Written for Exeunt