Sunday, February 27, 2011

Performance: The Storeroom

In an attempt to see something different from the usual theatrical fare on Saturday evening, I was at the Drill Hall to catch The Storeroom, which has been described as a potent cocktail of glamour murder and intrigue. This one-woman show starring Sian Williams is very intriguing and inventive. And certainly something different. Williams does hold your attention while she is on stage, thanks to her intense performance and mildly sexy outfits...

While its origins from the Edinburgh Fringe appear obvious at times (economical sets, lighting and props), it was an enjoyable piece from The Kosh. And the red raincoat and the ventriloquist scenes were particularly entertaining. There's one Sunday matinee performance to go today...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Last Look: An Ideal Husband

Normally I catch a show just as it has opened (or started previews), but for a change this week I caught An Ideal Husband, which ends its run at the Vaudeville Theatre on Saturday.

It is a great production, and I gained a new appreciation for Wilde and his work watching the performers in this production. It highlighted to me (at least) that everything hinges on the performances in making this show amusing or ordinary. The laughs are totally dependent on the actors' delivery, timing and emphasis. For the most part they got it right.

Watching this production is like eating a tub of good vanilla ice cream. Awfully satisfying and enjoyable. It also helps having a drink at the circle bar in the Vaudeville Theatre amongst all the newly restored Victorian splendour. You will feel somewhat civilised and reminded that this is what going to see a play in the West End should be all about. A jolly good sense of occasion.

Next up at the Vaudeville is Neil LaBute's new play, In a Forest Dark and Deep from 3 March.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Opera: Anna Nicole

It would be fair enough to say (to borrow from the Opera and from the late Ms Anna Nicole) that the Royal Opera's Anna Nicole blew us... away on Thursday night. The performances, production and the opera was inspired.

What starts as a dig against a C-list American celebrity ends up becoming a strangely poignant opera where you feel some sympathy for the slapper. You may even begin thinking she is the Traviata of the day. That is the trouble with the arts, they can make people seem so much nicer than reality. Still if you can stomach sympathy for Anna Nicole, this cautionary tale against fame turns out to be quite a ride. Then again the real Anna Nicole was quite a ride too...

The music by Mark-Anthony Turnage is a jazz-operatic fusion that keeps things moving along nicely and seems perfectly matched to the story and subject. The libretto by Richard Thomas is often good too, although it seemed (at least in the first half) there was too much emphasis on profanities rather than anything resembling poetry or at least clever rhyming patter. I also never expected to hear so many euphemisms for breasts. Or the word "cuntalicious" sung by a chorus at the Royal Opera...

The story is kept simple and told via flashbacks from a series of tacky reporters who double as a terrific opera chorus. We first see Anna Nicole in a large gold chair that could have come from the big brother set. Her film and modelling career (for what that was worth) is omitted and the focus is on her rise to fame after leaving "the breast-less masses" and poor paying jobs to work in a strip club. It was working there she meets an 89 year old billionaire. In one of the many nice touches of this production, his arrival comes via a giant stairlift. It had the audience in hysterics. The first act ends with a marriage and so for the second act it is all downhill, as the billionaire's death, endless court cases and prescription pills start taking a toll.

The production is at its best in the second half as things get creepy and the score gets more dramatic. There are plenty of other unsettling touches in this bright production when things start to go sour. Towards the end dancers with television headdresses begin to encircle Anna, and start rummaging through her garbage.

The performances across the board are phenomenal, although with no major arias anyone is singing there it relies more on their comic and dramatic talents. Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole is simply amazing, and gives a performance of a strong yet sympathetic character. Given the audience's reaction to her on Thursday, perhaps she will be entering into the realms of the opera superstars after this turn. Alan Oke as her billionaire octogenerian husband, also gives a strong performance as a man who wants to have some fun before he is dead. Gerald Finley is good as the vilain of the piece as the laywer-come-boyfriend. And even Wynne Evans from the irritating (but strangely memorable)Go-Compare commercials is in this show.

Keeping it altogether was conductor Antonio Pappano, and it was clear that the orchestra were having a good time with it all.

Away from the stage, there were additional nice touches that made Thursday evening a little more memorable for the world premiere of this piece. This included having the foyers Anna Nicole-ised. Every bust, statue or picture frame had Eve-Maria Westbroek's face and breasts covering them. Towards the end of the evening, the tape holding some of the photos in place was coming off and the Anna Nicole pictures began to fall away. It was a  nice little symbolic moment for a work about the overwhelming but temporary nature of pop culture.

If there were any reservations about the choice of subject matter for this opera, it is that it gives another chance for British audiences to feel smug about American culture (as if we don't get enough of that here already).  Sure England has its own answer to Anna Nicole with it's very own slapper saint Jade Goody, but she isn't as interesting as Anna Nicole. Nor does she come with global recognition. Besides her two-act opera would be confined to a reality television show and having her cervix fall out.

The show is sold out, but is bound to be repeated given the interest. A broadcast is to follow on BBC4 shortly. All involved in this show should be blown (kiss or otherwise) for their efforts... A night to remember at the Royal Opera...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Opera: Parsifal

Wednesday night was an opportunity to catch the ENO's Parsifal. This 1999 co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera, Chicago and is purportedly the last time it will be staged. There are seven more performances to go.

Directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, What makes the opera a standout is the brilliant staging and imaginative English translation. This translation transforms this production and keeps things moving at such a pace you won't realise you have been there for over four hours. On top of this there is such spectacle at times it is almost hypnotic.

A stunning cast includes John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Parsifal and Jane Dutton as Kundry. Mark Wigglesworth conducts.

Wagner is still an acquired taste, but this probably goes some way to make this work accesible (and palatable). Leave work early and go. There are greater powers at stake.

Initial 'boo raves and reactions as follows:

Theatre: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I was part of a large gathering of bloggers who went to see Tuesday night's preview of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Donmar organised by the West End Whingers. It was a huge gathering and it felt as if half the circle audience had their own blog and a minor following...

Anyway, this is a show about a spelling bee, and the lives of its awfully competitive American contestants. This show looks so polished now that it is hard to believe it is an early preview. Only the sounds from the grumbling of the creative team (if you're sitting in the circle) would give away that this is still a work in progress.

I was familiar with this show and had seen it on Broadway in 2006. As I also was a speller back then, I was familiar with the audience participation format, which requires a careful selection of participants who won't ham it up or be too smug... That ruled out most of we bloggers I suspected...

This show is quirky and very funny with the book by Rachel Sheinkin and songs by William Finn giving it a heart. It is an odd sort of musical for the Donmar, given that they usually stage musicals about psychologically damaged people in despair. Maybe their angle is spellers in dispair, but at least in this show it is a comedy. Tuesday's preview did not get the balance between comedy and cartoonish characters quite right, but hopefully this will be ironed out as the run progresses.

The show looks great and even the black wall of the Donmar gets painted brilliant white. It is also tempting not to take one of their cute t-shirts home after the production. Or an usher wearing one of them. They are all so cute.

It runs until 2 April at the Donmar, but surely now Avenue Q is no longer around there is room in the West End for a new warm and fuzzy show to have a long run...

Pre and post-show boos (as there is no intermission) are as follows...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Scenes from the Ballet: Swan Lake

With all the talk about The Black Swan, including recent fan art, it was nice to see the Royal Ballet's classic production Monday.

Zenaida Yanowsky and Nehemiah Kish were Odette and Prince Siegfried (pictured above). It is a pleasure to watch Ms Yanowksy. Sitting close, you could appreciate the commanding performance she gives. And she is a very tall swan too...

A very satisfying production of a perfect ballet, worth repeat viewings. It is a great date ballet too and given it was Valentines Day there were a few couples around and dare one suggest romance was in the air (hopefully not the cursed kind)... It runs various dates until April 5.

Photo credit: Royal Opera House / Bill Cooper

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Theatre: The Last Five Years

It is February, so it is long overdue for another production of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. This time at the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick. It seems like there isn't a month in London when you can't catch this show. And then during Edinburgh Fringe, there are usual competing productions of it, along side multiple productions of "Sweeney Todd" and musicals about infectious sexually transmitted diseases. It is understandable that this show is popular as it covers a range of emotions (sad, happy etc), gives two actors a chance to shine, and is potentially cheap to stage. The popularity of staging this show should not be confused however with the show being any good.

The problem with The Last Five Years is it contains two unsympathetic characters who never connect with each other (let alone the audience). And the series of songs are of varying quality. Sure some of the songs are funny, but others come across as smug, insincere or unpleasant. Inspired by the composer's own failed marriage it's glib more than analytical, feeling more like settling old scores. These things make it tough going. And it is only eighty minutes.

That being said, it is an excellent opportunity for two young actors to show off their talents. In this case it is Lauren Samuels, who came third in BBC Television's Over the Rainbow (hopefully she will be known soon for something more memorable), and Christopher Pym. Samuels comes off better here, probably because we weren't convinced of Pym's Jewishness while wearing boxer-briefs (even though he looked quite fine in them). She was a delight to watch, although she was much more convincing in the comic songs than the sad face songs... Still to make this show work it's tough going and so you have to admire the stamina and perseverance of both.

Special mention has to go to the band, production design and lighting which all gave this production a lot of class. This show sounds and looks great and goes some way to redressing the limitations of the piece.  This is a worthwhile evening out and not just for fans of Ms Samuels or Mr Pym in boxer briefs. Besides the Tabard theatre is a great venue to catch shows given that it is an intimate space. The pub is not bad for catching a pre or post show drink, assuming you can put up with the live music that may be playing when the show finished.

The play runs until 5 March and the views from the jaded are boo'd below...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Advertising: Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera posters for Anna Nicole are all over the tube network at the moment and they look great. There is also the following trailer for the opera. There is a growing buzz about this show (the Royal Opera is even getting news stories in Marie Claire) and so it will be fascinating to see what Eva-Maria Westbroek, who I last saw in Tannhäuser, does with the role when I catch it later this week...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Opera: Troy Boy

Thursday night I caught the Merry Opera's new production of Troy Boy at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. The Merry Opera company takes opera productions and develops new English translations with a twist. It is a great concept, although in this case more abridging of the source material might have helped. I doubt there is much that would be missed from Offenbach's La Belle Hélène (the story of Helen of Troy) if an extra half hour was cut from it.

Nevertheless there is some fine singing and performances in this occasionally sexy production. The energy and enthusiasm of the cast is without a doubt. I liked the concept of Helen stuck in suburbia and beginning to let her mind wander in a Greek restaurant. It  gives this otherwise odd premise some solid grounding. There were (at least on Thursday night) a few creaky moments with furniture bumped and props knocked over, but no doubt these will be ironed out as the run progresses.

And this is such great value for a night out, with tickets from £12. It plays at the Gatehouse until 5 March before touring to various opera pubs and other places. It is nice to see a growing list of opera pub theatre, but the productions work best in these confined spaces when the work is well known, and it is brief.

Boo impressions below...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Theatre: Company at the Southwark Playhouse

One thing that hit me seeing Company at the Southwark Playhouse Tuesday night, was how the opening few notes can really be an ear worm. I doubt anyone leaving the theatre after this production doesn't want to go up to someone and yell, "BOBBY! BOBBY! BOBBY-BABY!" Or perhaps punch somebody who comes up to them and says something like that.

Company has no plot to speak of, but through a series of vignettes, gives some idea about Robert, a single straight(ish) man turning 35 and his smug married friends. Its about the lives of middle class New Yorkers, with their eccentricities and foibles, so you may find yourself struggling to see its relevance to modern day London. But of course this is Sondheim, it's a slick production with a great looking, and great sounding cast, so you can overlook that bit...

Bobby, played by Rupert Young, is not an immediately likable character. But as the show progresses, Young's performance makes you feel as if you know him. Or at least you understand all that womanising and coke snorting... And his final song is knockout. The rest of the cast are just as impressive. Cassidy Janson as Amy deftly sings "Getting Married Today" with its machine-gun consonants, and Greg Castiglioni playing her husband has an incredible tenor voice. Siobhán McCarthy as Joanne stops the show with her performance of the song "Ladies Who Lunch". Actually she was stopping the show before the song with her interpretation of the role and channeling Bette Davis (too bad there is no planned revival of Applause).

I tend to think the themes work best leaving them in the late 1960s early 1970s as the discussions seem a little quaint or anachronistic moving them anywhere else. Perhaps the production is suggesting lines like: 
Have I got a girl for you, boy! Hoo, boy!
Dumb! And with a weakness for sazarac slings!
You give her even the fruit and she swings...
Could have been overheard conversations from television sports commentators...

If there was one drawback to the show it would be the pacing. Clunky material aside, the first half plods, entrances take too long and dialogue is not dispensed with quickly enough. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts and the slow delivery of individual lines dragged things on and exposes the weaknesses of the original material.

Notwithstanding this, it's a great night out and running the Southwark Playhouse until 12 March... Catch it if you can. Perhaps a longer run elsewhere wouldn't be too much of a stretch either... Or at least a new cast recording?

The Southwark Playhouse has a great bar area which was where we recorded the first impression boo's... It's a nice space. I'll drink to that...

The Sondheim Cult Society also talks to Young and McCarthy here as well...

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Theatre: The Children's Hour

The Children's Hour, which has just started previews at the Comedy Theatre is one of those blockbuster dramas with a fantastic cast that you just have to go see. Lillian Hellman's dated 1934 play gets some serious star power here. With Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in the lead roles, along with Ellen Burstyn, Carol Kane and Tobias Menzies you feel as though you should applaud everyone's entrance just because it is the thing to do.

Despite running at the Comedy Theatre, the play is a drama set in an all-girls boarding school run by Karen and Martha (Knightley and Moss). When an angry student runs away from the school, she tells her grandmother that the two headmistresses are having a... (whispered so you can't hear...) lesbian affair to avoid being sent back to school. Therein lies the drama and questions about why two women are setting up a boarding school in a country town, what is truth and why does Karen keep prolonging her engagement abound.

Of course to make this play interesting it relies on two things. The first is that the shocking secret is actually shocking... And that's... LESBIANISM. The second being the observations about the power of lies. Well nowadays who doesn't have a lesbian teacher in your life, so all we have to propel the drama is how lies destroy people's lives. That's fine but it does not sustain interest in this drama by itself, so it is even more important for the performances to be right.

Alas there appears to be a total absence of any chemistry between the stars. When the final "announcement" is made, the delivery of it and the reaction were so casual and cool you could have  been forgiven for thinking they were talking about what they were having for dinner.

There is also the problem with such a star-studded cast that it all seems to be a little too plodding. Scene chewing gets in the way frequently. Hopefully the pacing of this show will improve as the run continues and the actors are given a prod to move things along. There's enough exposition here as it is without the performances grinding the show to a halt.

There is potential here, particularly if some chemistry develops between the characters and the stars act more like an ensemble before press night. Still, Moss and Knightley are so beautiful and this cast of stars so... starry(?) I suspect everyone will be too distracted to care that much... While seats are going to be hard to come by, day seats are available at the box office for £15 if you are quick and / or persistent... Strap yourself in and go along for the ride... But have a coffee first.

First impressions on the 'boo are below...

Theatre: Season's Greetings

Friday night I finally managed to catch Season's Greetings at the National Theatre. This revival of Alan Ayckbourn's black comedy has been showing since late last year and has received some great reviews. Set during the Christmas holiday period in the early 1980s, it focuses on an average English family Christmas where relationships have gone stale, children abound (although not on stage), and people have had a little too much to drink. I'm assuming that it is an average English family given the number of comments overheard during interval such as "that's a bit close to the bone" or "it reminds me of my family."

These were also rather curious comments given that the first act's final scene must rank as one of the funniest on stage for some time. It involves a sexual tryst gone wrong and a rather annoying toy that blows a whistle and beats a drum. I guess there are some English proclivities I might not fully understand.

Of course in some ways the hysterical brilliance of the first act makes the second act feel a little of a let down as realism and despair creeps in. But what makes this play so enjoyable is the incredible cast that includes Catherine Tate, Jenna Russell and Marc Wootton. Wootton has a particularly funny scene as a drunk in the second act in which his wife Pattie (played by Katherine Parkinson) has a novel approach for resolving.

The set design is a brilliant deconstructed 1980s house complete with brass down lights, a pink toilet (even though I couldn't see it from where I was sitting it was bound to have carpet on the floor) and vile wallpaper. The look of the show complemented the disconnection and isolation of the characters and takes you back to the era of acrylic and leaded petrol...

As the Audioboo below notes, we were all pretty impressed by the performance of Oliver Chris as the Clive, the interloper in the proceedings. This is a central character and his appeal gives some credibility to the story. Oh and his nipples were protruding from his sweater in the first half of the show. And that was strangely appealing as well and were giving their own performance throughout the first act.

The show is largely a sell out through to mid March but you can get day seats at the box office from 9.30 each morning on show days, particularly if you can't get tix to Frankenstein...