Monday, December 31, 2012

Last evil looks: Robert le Diable


Closing night of The Royal Opera's Robert le Diable was a drawn out affair. An opera that was described to me as Mildred Pierce meets The Omen, it could have been half its length if all the repeated phrases were cut. I don't recall ever seeing an audience so restless either who were mostly squirming or fidgeting throughout the four and a half hours of the performance.

Meyerbeer's grand opera was an instant sensation when it first premiered 1831. Full of stuff that packed in the punters - drama, the occult, difficult music - over time it has not aged well. The story is inspired by a medieval legend of the devil's son. Robert, Duke of Normandy, has travelled to Sicily with the hope of marrying Princess Isabelle. But his companion, Bertram (who turns out to be more than just a friend) leads him astray. Cue chivalry, the occult and some incredibly outrageous French knight costumes that could have come direct from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Closing night seemed a struggle for the chorus and orchestra to be together at times, or for the chorus to be heard over the orchestra. The soloists managed to hit all the right notes but it wasn't always a pleasant experience with various needlessly tricky vocal passages throughout the piece. Most of the soloists did not fare well either given the material they had to sing that at times seemed painful for both the singers and the audience. Russian soprano Sofia Fomina - a late replacement for the role Isabelle - comes off best in this piece in balancing the intensity and dramatic absurdity of it all. She makes her Royal Opera debut here and hopefully she will be seen here again.

The production is often colourful but in an attempt to recreate how it was received in the nineteenth century, the end result looks a little dull and uninspired. Even the famous ballet that features zombie nuns (featured in the above preview) was a let down, particularly given the full-frontal nudity that the Royal Opera usually serves up.

Ultimately while intriguing to see a piece that has not been staged at the Royal Opera since 1890, over the course of the evening it becomes evident there were good reasons for its long absence, and not just because of Wagner's campaign against him. If it is revived again it is probably an opera best enjoyed while doing something else, like reading a book or knitting...

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lovely green things: Salad Days


Salad Days is back at the Riverside Studios and is a delightful antidote to cold wet days in London. The story of a young couple who just recently graduated and find themselves entertaining London with a piano is a bit like the Fantasticks with its ever-so-silly plot, but the performances, inspired production and upbeat nature of the show make for an enjoyable, if slightly overlong show.

It is 1954 and Timothy and Jane (played by the wonderful Leo Miles and Katie Moore) leave university to make their own ways in the world. A chance meeting with a tramp brings the couple together as his street piano gives everyone around them an irresistible and unstoppable urge to dance. Meanwhile the police and the establishment want to put a stop to all this fun. Cue singing and dancing and general silliness.

The production is from opera company Tête à Tête, and so the singing and musicianship is very good. But the ensemble also show a great sense of comic timing and fun in the proceedings which is essential for this sort of show. The company aims to bring uplifting, surprising, daring and intimate (hopefully not all at the same time) opera productions of the highest quality to audiences. Riverside Studios is transformed into a piece of Hyde Park complete with AstroTurf and the cast welcoming you to the graduation upon arrival. With some clever lighting and effects you soon find yourself transformed to a different time and place.

As a piece that is constantly aiming to be light and frothy it is an alternative to panto and can be enjoyed by all ages... Although one lady at the evening performance I caught decided to tell off a father for not keeping his young daughter under control. From what I could hear from her rant it was something about being distracting. The father was very polite considering the show is staged in the traverse and the slightest twitch from someone opposite could catch your eye. I found the little girl less distracting than the horsey ladies sitting opposite with their long faces and riding boots. The other downside to this staging was that the actors had an awful lot of running to do, which might explain why they look exhausted by the end of it.

But it is all good clean fun (and not at all like the Sam Peckinpah version).  It runs to 2 March. Look out for offers and discounts from the usual outlets...

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Phone rings, bitch and drink, lose your friends: Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along, currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory near London Bridge is like a bitchier, nastier version of his show Company where Bobby is Frank and a total bastard. It has received great reviews, has a wonderful cast, looks good (well as good as aluminium windows on stage can be when they design feature - but the period is the sixties and seventies so it is appropriate) and sounds great. But for a show that tells the tale in reverse about how a man becomes wildly successful and loses his friends on the way, it is still a tough, bitter sell.

The characters are two-dimensional and shout at each other and even as they move from jaded to optimistic, it still feels unrelenting and repetitive. By the time the upbeat finale comes about (close to the third hour) you may find yourself close to exhaustion (or sleep) to care about it much. At intermission one Sondheimista fan said to me, "but all those lost opportunities and wrong turns... That's life!" That may be the case - particularly if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person - but who needs to fork out £40 to see that on stage?

It possibly is a piece of musical theatre medicine that is good to take to appreciate the evolution of the form and an attempt to update a story from the 1930s to a contemporary context. It is interesting to see dramatically and musical a story that focuses around key moments in a person's life and how choices that were consciously taken or not set them on a path for the rest of their life. But his subsequent works, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods feel like they cover this territory more successfully. There are stand out songs in this piece, but none feel like essential to the story and seem to slow down the proceedings. It possibly doesn't help that since the show was originally performed, many of the songs have become minor standards on the cabaret circuit and seem to stand up well without needing a story around them.

The strength of this production lies with the cast however. In the confined space of the Menier Chocolate Factory you can see how hard the ensemble is working and the singing is a particular highlight. Mark Umbers plays a suave and masculine Franklin. He has the looks and presence to make you really believe he could run off with your wife if he thought it was necessary to further his ambitions. Damian Humbley does a great turn as his neurotic partner Charley, particularly with the  lyric intensive song Franklin Shepherd Inc. Jenna Russell is always great but as Mary it did seem to be stretching credibility to be a fat bitter drunk in a dodgy costume. She seems much too nice for that...

So while people are raving about this show, despite the terrific performances it felt more like some bitter medicine to swallow. Perhaps best enjoyed with someone you have known for years and don't like that much. You will be inclined to let rip by the end. You have until February to do it...


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Theatre going and moaning in the cheap seats

Theatre in London is pretty good value for money, particularly if you don't mind trying your luck at the half price ticket booth, trying to get to the theatre by 10am for the few day seats on sale. Many of London's ageing theatres have great seats at a good price if you don't mind a partially restricted view or a bench seat. But it can be a false economy if you find yourself sitting in the theatre with your knees up to your ears because the row in front of you is so close. Or if you are so high and far away from the stage you can't see anything other than a small fuzzy dots which might be either actors or the onset of vertigo.

While there are a few sites out there that review theatres, the information tends to go out of date as theatres are upgraded, so a new website Seat Plan aims to address that. It's launching in the new year and for every review posted by the end of this week, it is offering the chance to win £100 worth of theatre vouchers. 49,000 seats are reportedly listed already and reads a bit like the theatre equivalent of airline seat review website Seatguru, except people write about sight lines and stiff necks and not the smell from the toilets. It is looking like a very useful up to date resource for London theatre peeps...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Richmond Panto: Aladdin

Some fun costumes, and a great performance by Tim Vine (pictured far left) as Wishy Washy keep Aladdin at the Richmond Theatre as a sensible evening out for families (or very big kids) who don't mind a mild case of panto over Christmas.

This version of the Aladdin follows a fairly traditional storyline. Aladdin works in his mothers laundry, meets a princess and after stumbling across the lamp with a genie, is granted riches that allows him to marry her. Well he would have married her if that evil Abanazar didn't get in the way. The loose plot is an opportunity to show off some great costumes, sing a few songs and tell a few gags. A few more filthier jokes for older members of the audience (timed to sail over the heads of the younger ones), and a few more modern tunes would have made the show better.

Of course for the younger members of the audience, who were likely to be experiencing their first time at the theatre this did not matter so much. They were hooked on the drama anyway... So much so that when Abanazar goes to steal back the magic lamp they were shouting out with such indignation.

Suzanne Shaw who has a dual purpose role of genie of the lamp and ring was a bit of a damp squib. It isn't really a star role and she doesn't have much to do. The other cast members don't fare much better with material that is pretty light on jokes and heavy on plot... During these scenes it was an opportunity for those in the audience with crayons to colour in their programmes, or for those in the audience without crayons to look on at the others who did with envy.

Nevertheless, even when the sound is a bit wobbly and the story getting a bit hoary, Tim Vine comes to the rescue with an assortment of bad jokes that sound good. The staging of the Abbot and Costello routine, "Who's on First" also comes across as fresh and funny as well. It runs through to 13 January.

Friday, December 14, 2012

In a damp warm spot: Mydidae

A day in the life of a married couple, as set in a bathroom is the premise of Jack Thorne's sharp and funny play, Mydidae, currently playing at the Soho Theatre.

This classy little play on the top floor of the Soho Theatre features a fully plumbed bathroom, that  provides the backdrop for a full and frank exploration of a couple and their secrets. Actors Pheobe Waller-Bridge and Keir Charles undress, shave, lust after each other, wash and urinate in front of the audience.

Strangely enough they don't fart in front of each other which was possibly a missed opportunity as there never seems to be a better place to do that than in a bathroom... Particularly if your partner is in it...  Of course once you get past the novelty of the full frontal nudity; the tweaking of the penis, the perky tits and vagina at eye level, it is amazing how it is the intensity of the performances and the intriguing story that holds your attention.

The piece seems an innocent enough premise at first, but gradually amongst the throwaway remarks and glib references a darker story emerges of a relationship under strain. It is hard not to have admiration for the actors, particularly as they run about dripping wet and don't have much to hide behind. A bathtub for two does not seem to be the most comfortable of spaces to perform, but it certainly intimate and both Waller-Bridge and Charles maintain the focus throughout the seventy minutes of the piece.

Whether you accept the premise of so many events taking place in the bathroom during one day may influence how much you appreciate it. But it nevertheless is an original idea from Drywrite, which is a new writing theatre company that supports writers to experiment with new ideas and perspectives. Drama at the bathtub runs until 22 December.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Classic songs, breathless dancing, innuendo and long pauses: Kiss Me, Kate

The Chichester Festival production of Kiss Me Kate, now playing at the Old Vic Theatre, has a wonderful cast and thrilling and lively musical numbers. If there is one thing to be bothered by this production it is that between the songs things are not so lively. The dialogue is treated as if it were Shakespeare, and some of it is... Delivered so slowly... And deliberately... That much of the fun feels drained at times from the show. Thankfully there are too so many musical numbers that are well-conceived and performed that you will find yourself waking up to enjoy them.

Star Hannah Waddingham was indisposed last Friday night when I caught this show and so Carolyn Maitland took the lead. Given the show is very traditionally staged (set backstage at a theatre in 1948 the set is backstage at a theatre circa 1948), it was a refreshing opportunity to inject a bit of uncertainty into the evening's proceedings. Cole Porter's musical, while a classic, only has two female roles so it is nice to see someone else get a shot at one of them. Maitland showed she could be a rough and ready Kate too. By the time she got to the number "I hate men" she had made the role her own and the audience was with her all the way.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Melodrama and plonk love potions: L'Elisir D'Amore

Laurent Pelly's revival production of Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore at the Royal Opera is an early Christmas present full of some fine singing performances and comic turns. The piece moves abruptly from comedy to tenderness and the performers handle this so believably that you find yourself completely drawn into this world of small town unrequited love and quack doctors administering love potions.

Roberto Alagna plays the farm worker Nemorino who yearns for the love of Adina, played by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. Alagna tackles the role with bounding enthusiasm as he throws himself over haystacks and rips off his clothes revealling some very nice y-fronts and a tanned physique that suggests all that physicality has been paying off. Of course he sounds great too as the simple farm worker who constantly tries for the affection of Adina. Kurak manages to balance what could be an unsympathetic screechy character with one that is tender and nuanced, and reveals early on her soft spot for her farm hand. Both are wonderful to watch. Giving the piece some of the best laughs is Ambrogio Maestri as the quack who offers up a love potion for Nemorino to win over his woman. His performance is a delightful combination of clear singing, comic timing and a hint of vulgarity that ensured his time on stage was greeted with laughs and applause.

This production updates the action to the countryside of 1950s Italy with some giant haystacks, endless fields and a dog that darts across the stage so quickly that you don't have time to contemplate the meaning of it. It is an opportunity to draw inspiration from post-war Italian style and is so beautiful to look at it is hard to be bother or care whether the change works of not...

Conducted by Bruno Campanella there are a two more performances this week (Tuesday and Friday) before this run ends. It is all good fun...