Posts Tagged ‘ London theatre ’

Little Eagles, RSC, Hampstead Theatre: review

By Rona Munro
Director: Roxana Silbert
RSC

Royal Shakespeare Company, Yuri Gagarin

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the eponymous time lord said of man kind’s ambition to get to the moon “You saw a big shiny thing in the sky and you couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Rona Munro examines our urge to reach up to the sky and touch the stars in this play about the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin – and the engineer who got him there, Sergei Korolyov.

It is almost fifty years ago to the day that Gagarin was sent up into the stratosphere in what has since been called little more than an catapult and a tin can. Still, they beat the Americans and that is what matters, we learn in Munro’s hugely ambitious docu-play. She attempts to cover in just under three hours the Cold War, Stalin’s regime, life in the gulags, Gagarin’s personal life and the Cuban missile crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that it feels too broad in scope for an evening’s entertainment.

Under Roxana Silbert’s direction the RSC troupe all put in solid performances – Greg Hicks is dealt a bit of a dud hand with an enigmatic grumpy ghost and Noma Dumezweni’s Doctor veers from being a sympathetic character to a hugely dis-likeable one. Darrel D’Silva in the lead role of Korolyov does a good line in Soviet scowls and stomping. But there is the feeling that Munro couldn’t decide whether to concentrate on the engineer’s personal story or that of the space race. And the space race story allowed her to have fun with aerials – men dangling from the ceiling by their waistbands against a star-studded backdrop.

Dyfan Dwyfor as Yuri Gagarin is bright-eyed and eager – a walking piece of Soviet propaganda and Brian Doherty as Khrushchev is a sort of Russian Boris Johnson, all bluster and pats on the back. But like all the characters in this far-reaching play, he is little more than a sketch.

Undoubtedly I now know more about the Soviet space programme than I did last week. But Munro’s play doesn’t go beyond the educational – it is a book-at-bedtime sort of a work: harmless enough. But for a play about the human urge to touch the sky, Little Eagles is disappointingly Earth-bound.

3 Comedy Masks

3/5

Advertisements

Semele, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Hampstead Garden Opera
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

Semele Handel

Picture: LaurentCompagnon

OperaUpClose may be dominating the headlines with their re-imaginings of Bohème and Butterfly but in Highgate there is another fringe opera company, who play with an altogether straighter bat. James Hurley’s production of Semele for Hampstead Garden Opera sticks to Handel’s scenario – and is all the better for it.

The text, by William Congreve, tells the classical story of Semele, who catches the eye of Jove, king of the Olympian gods. He transforms into an eagle and whisks her away to Mount Olympus where they share “endless pleasure”. Ahem. Jove’s celestial wife, Juno, however, becomes jealous. She sneaks into the palace where Semele is hidden and persuades her that she will become immortal if she sees Jove in his godly form. In fact, she will die.

The cast is almost entirely made up of postgraduate music students and the singing is universally of a high standard. Tom Verney as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Prince Athamas, Semele’s mortal fiancé, is a particular highlight. He trips lightly up and down Handel’s coloratura as if they’ve just occurred to him. The central role is sung voluptuously by Robyn Parton, who tackles the challenging part confidently. She holds every eye in the house as she sulks like a child or pouts playfully at the king of the gods. Jove is sung by tenor Zachary Devin with pinpoint clarity and Kathryn Walker’s excellent Juno is all cartoon anger and feel-my-wrath vocal flourishes.

In Hurley’s production the scenes in the mortal realm are set in something approximating to the 1950s but for Mount Olympus, white dominates. In Rachel Szmukler’s design the back wall is hung with strips of white polystyrene and the chorus of spirits wear costumes of bubble wrap. Semele is given a bubble wrap dress which results in some comic popping noises during the rather intimate scenes between her and Jove. This design comes into its own, however, in one of the closing scenes in which Semele storms around doing her best impression of an ireful goddess as she rips down the gauze and white drapes.

Oliver-John Ruthven directs the musical side of things well from the harpsichord (yes, a harpsichord in a pub!) but there is a sense that the musical director’s vision is at odds with the director’s. For example, Athamas pleads with Semele’s sister “do not shun me” while she is, in fact, clinging to him. Similarly, the opening action – before the overture begins – doesn’t add anything to the performance and is incomprehensible. Semele was written as an oratorio so is short on dramatic action, but Hurley over-compensates for this with too many gimmicks which tend to distract from rather than complement the very enjoyable singing.

A Butcher of Distinction, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Since I saw this play The Cock Tavern have had to suspend all their shows because of a dispute with the council over their entertainment license. See their website for the latest.

By Rob HayesCock Tavern Theatre Rob Hayes
Directed by Ned Bennett

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn is getting a bit of a reputation for gore. Barely a moment went by during the recent Edward Bond season without someone being murdered on stage. And there is a touch of the Edward Bond to this new play by Rob Hayes.

The scenario as the lights go up is: two recently orphaned boys sort through their father’s things. Their estranged papa has just killed their mother before killing himself. He has also sold off everything that belonged to this once aristocratic family, “including the art collection”. The twin boys are left with nothing and have come down to London, where their father spent most of his time, to salvage what they can. One is a goatherd and one is the butcher of the title. They have cut-glass accents and say things like “old boy” and wear tweed.

Ned Bennett’s production doesn’t apologise for the absurdist strain in Hayes’ script: in fact Bennett adds pauses to highlight the black humour in lines like “Don’t move Hugo. Stay still and let the man stroke your face.”

“The man” is Teddy, played by a sinister Michael Gould, a gigolo – a fact that becomes clear to the audience long before the boys realise (although they probably don’t know the word).

Sam Swann as the younger of the twins (by 10 minutes) could not be wetter behind the ears. His wide, dark eyes seem to take up half of his face and his snub nose is straight out of Enid Blyton. Ciarán Owens is the older, taller, stronger, more dominating brother, Hartley. He runs his fingers through his greasy hair and is constantly on edge. Swann and Owens both give finely tuned performances and their exchanges capture the contradiction always present in sibling relationships – constant bickering tempered by deep-seated affection.

Both characters appear to have stepped straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel, however, and are entirely unbelievable. No one refers to parties as “hootenannies” anymore or refers to Indian people as “dusky”. But the problem wasn’t that these characters were too absurd but that the rest of the play wasn’t absurd enough.

By far the most captivating scene of the play is the last one, in which Hayes evokes Renaissance writers like Middleton and Ford in the more gruesome touches. And there is more than a whiff of Sweeney Todd. The utterly bizarre but compelling last 10 minutes involve a sheep costume, a walking stick, a meat cleaver and a straw boater. And it is brilliant. Obviously Hayes couldn’t have pitched the whole play at this level and the structure of the work does drive towards the dénouement. But Hugo and Hartley seem to have strolled in to the play from a different universe and the piece would perhaps have had more force if the setting (a London flat), the other characters mentioned and even Teddy, were a touch more ridiculous.

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

Penelope, Hampstead Theatre: review

In a swimming pool drained of water, blood drips down a tiled wall. A man in a dressing gown that’s too short and over-sized glasses stares miserably at it, sponge in hand. This is the setting for Enda Walsh’s intricate, dystopian play, Penelope.

Enda Walsh

Walsh takes the ancient Greek tale of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who is faced with 108 suitors during her husband’s twenty-year-long absence. Thankfully, Walsh’s play only presents us with four suitors – and the action takes place in something close to the modern day. Burns, Quinn, Dunne and Fitz are the last men standing in this competition for Penelope’s love. The blood stain is all that is left of the fifth man.

Each day for almost twenty years the men have attempted to woo Penelope via a CCTV camera and a microphone which relay into her house. They have just a few minutes each, every day. When the play opens, each of the men has had the same dream, warning them that today Penelope’s husband will return – and horribly kill them all.

Mikel Murfi’s production is minutely done. It has an irresistible rhythm, moving swiftly and seamlessly from monologue to mime to group dialogue. The whole performance has an intensity about it and Murfi manages to recreate the monomania of the characters in his audience by honing in on single objects – a sausage, a book, a CCTV camera, a helium balloon.

The first character we see is Quinn, played by Karl Shiels. He struts in circles in his tight red speedos and yellow loafers, slapping his chest and managing to appear at once aggressive and past-it. Dunne is the extrovert, played in leopard-print glory by Denis Conway. He scampers and flounces from cocktail shaker to sun-lounger. The more cerebral Fitz (Niall Buggy) is reading Homer’s Odyssey (which tells the story of Penelope). His speech to woo Penelope is one of the stand-out moments: “We are two souls longing for love to grow from a glorious nothing.” It is also, like much of the play, too much to comprehend in one go. This is a tightly wrought web of a play which would reward a second viewing – and in many ways demands it.

The final member of the quartet is Burns, the subordinate of the group. When Quinn hurts his fingers trying to eat a hot sausage, Burns runs over and blows on it. Aaron Monaghan in the role is part nerd, part victim: he gravitates to the corners of the stage and clears up after the other men – even pushing an imaginary box out of the way after a mime sequence. Sabine Dargent’s set places Penelope above and behind the men’s empty pool, in a glass corridor. From here she imperviously watches the men’s attempts at seduction on a TV screen.

The men live in a world of delusion but within this delusion Enda Walsh finds things to say about our reality – about power and hope and friendship. Beckett’s influence is tangible but this is no identikit Waiting for Godot. Instead, Penelope is a fresh fable, tightly performed.

4Comedy MasksReview first appeared in the Willesden and Brent Times

Anna Nicole the opera – a BRAvura performance

Anna NicoleThe real Anna Nicole

As I took my seat for the very first public preview of ‘Anna Nicole’, I noticed something was different in the Royal Opera House. In place of the usual lion and unicorn on the stage curtain there were two bikini-clad body builders. And the Royal shield had been replaced with a laughing picture of the opera’s eponymous character – Anna Nicole Smith. Usually red with gold embroidery, the curtains were now pink with a border of pouting lips. She would have loved this, I thought.

On Saturday morning, the ROH allowed a small audience – mostly students –in for a rehearsal/run-through of their much-talked-about new work. With music from Mark-Anthony Turnage – who passes for a bad boy, as classical composers go – and a libretto from Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer the Opera fame), Anna Nicole was never going to be a low-key affair. And unsurprisingly the press have loved the story so far – playboy model, billionaire’s wife, drug addict…opera.

Royal Opera House Anna Nicole

Eva-Maria Westbroek

The singer tasked with bringing this unorthodox life to the stage is Eva-Maria Westbroek. And she is brilliant. She has nailed the Texas drawl (nice is “nahce”; life, “lahfe”) and manages to make Anna silly but sympathetic. The first time we see her she is reclining in a giant gold armchair. She leans forward and whisper-sings the words “I wanna blow you all…I wanna blow you all…a kiss.” Which sets the tone for what follows.

Richard Thomas’ libretto is shocking – as you might expect from one of the creators of Jerry Springer the Opera – but it is also very funny and moving in places. This is a nice clean, family blog, so I’m not going to repeat the x-rated phrases, but suffice it to say that I was shocked – and I’ve studied 17th-century pornography. One aria sung by Anna is entirely made up of different words for breasts. And just when you think Thomas has exhausted the possibilities, another ten ring out in Westbroek’s rich soprano before declaring to her plastic surgeon “Supersize me!”

Everything about this production is over the top – but it had to be. How else could a stage show have hoped to recreate Anna Nicole Smith’s firework of a life? She came from the poorest of the poor, married one of the richest men in the world, had ENORMOUS breasts and died young of a drugs overdose. Subtlety is not what is called for.Anna Nicole Smith opera

But you never feel that the opera is laughing at her. Yes, she’s a bit dippy, yes, she clearly married for money. But Turnage and Thomas make Anna Nicole into a resourceful woman: not proud of her life choices, but not seeing any alternatives. As she sings: “I made some bad choices, some worse choices and then ran outta choices”. She is more a victim of circumstance than anything more sinister.

The baddy, in this version of the tale (and as the characters keep stressing, this is only one version), is her lawyer, Stern, played without lazy caricature by Gerald Finley. The entire cast are excellent (and this was only a rehearsal!) but Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s billionaire husband, J Howard Marshall II, is particularly funny. His entrance is one of the production’s stand-out moments (I won’t spoil it…)

Most importantly though, there is nothing mawkish or voyeuristic about Turnage’s opera. It doesn’t feel like wealthy, opera-goers gawping at a young woman’s car crash life – which it could so easily have been. Instead, we get a wry, witty look at the lure of money, fame and the American dream. Sure, it’s rude – the lap dancers redefine the term flexible and the f word is splattered like [rude simile censored] across the score. But Turnage and Thomas have created an opera which takes a hard look at greed, morality, poverty and ambition – Anna Nicole’s life is just the vehicle.

Reading Hebron, Orange Tree Theatre: review

View of Hebronby Jason Sherman
Directed by: Sam Walters

A corduroy-clad academic, is poring over a thesis on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Suddenly, he loses patience and sweeps all his papers off the desk. I recognised the frustration. This is exactly how I felt during Sam Walters’ production of Reading Hebron: an over-complicated, unthinking, scrappy piece of theatre.

The premise of Jason Sherman’s play – I would not go so far as to say it has a plot – is that we follow Nathan Abramowitz, a very British Jew, as he tries to learn more about the 1994 Hebron massacre. A Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on a group of Palestinians who were praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs (a holy site for both Muslims and Jews). We watch Abramowitz as he wrestles with his conscience and imagines he can solve the whole conflict in the time it takes to go through the ritual of seder (Passover meal).

David Antrobus takes the central role of Nathan, the disenfranchised, guilt-ridden, basically secular Jew. Antrobus tries to make Nathan both naïve and jaded, his default expression is wide-eyed earnestness and the result is supremely irritating. He has a couple of good lines: when he’s asked why he reads the New York Times each morning, for example, he replies “I like to start my mornings with the big lies – it makes the little lies a bit more palatable”. But Antrobus just has one setting: angst, which begins to grate almost immediately. Esther Ruth Elliott gets a few laughs as Nathan’s very Jewish mother but Peter Guinness is the only member of the cast who really brings drama to Sherman’s script.

The problem is that the play has neither a narrative nor a point to make. Sherman seems to have set out to write a controversial play about the conflict but then backed out. In one scene Noam Chomsky and Cynthia Ozick (an American writer) express their respective – controversial, intelligent – views on the conflict but Sherman frames it in some sort of stand-up competition complete, in Walters staging, with disco ball and loud music.

Walters directs the piece swiftly – as if in the hope the audience won’t notice its lack of coherence. The one moment of dramatic tension is an argument between Nathan, his ex-wife and his new girlfriend – but here, as elsewhere, confusion reigns as we are unsure what is real and what is taking part in Nathan’s imagination.

I am no expert in this area of international politics, but I learnt nothing from the play. Several positions are skimmed over, stereotypes raised and although an interesting angle is occasionally glimpsed on the horizon, it doesn’t make it as far as the stage. This is a dull, scatty, half-heartedly controversial play which doesn’t even begin to tackle its subject matter.

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews

Lucrezia Borgia, ENO: review

ENO, Coliseum
Dir: Mike Figgis
ENO Lucrezia

Mike Figgis, who directed the film Leaving Las Vegas, has turned to opera. With mixed results. Donizetti’s, Lucrezia Borgia has everything a director could wish for: rape, murder, incest and tragedy. It’s a gift, in short, and an over-excited Figgis throws everything at this sumptuous production. The evening drips with jewels and velvet, but instead of being elegant and graceful, the production stumbles under its own voluptuousness.

Things get off to a bizarre start, with a film apparently in homage to the Twilight franchise. According to the director’s note in the programme, the footage is supposed to fill in the background details of Lucrezia’s life. The result is an eye-brow raising mixture of budget soft porn and medieval morality play. Such a simplistic “whore-of-Babylon” view of Catholicism has not been expounded since the Mystery plays and such blatant anti-Popery sits awkwardly next to Donizetti’s nuanced work.

Three more films punctuate the evening but they are so different from Donizetti’s version of the story in style and tone that they add nothing but momentary titillation (this production is definitely not for kids). The Lucrezia in the short films, played by Katy Saunders, is so completely two-dimensional and different from Claire Rutter’s brilliant representation on the stage that many of my fellow audience members were utterly confused.

Lucrezia Borgia

Further confusion is caused by Figgis’ decision to turn the male “trouser role” of Orsini into a woman. Traditionally, these parts are male characters but sung by women (like the princes in modern pantomime, for example). Figgis’ clear impatience with this convention means we are presented with a female Orsini – Elizabeth DeShong in the role wears a corset, high heels and has long wavy hair – but who wears men’s clothes, talks like the other men and is supposed to be a soldier. An unnecessary and confusing change.

All that aside, the music is magnificent. Claire Rutter in the lead role is both hateful and tender: she lurks in the shadows like a spectre, aware of her own powerlessness but adept at getting what she wants. Rutter’s Lucrezia is not the caricature villain of Figgis’ film – and thank goodness. She is a complex woman and Rutter’s voice manages to suggest years of repressed emotion much more effectively than tens of Figgis’ background films could have done. Her first aria, as she gazes at her sleeping long-lost son is masterful and her argument with her husband, Alfonso (sung by Alastair Miles), bristles with tension and resentment. Michael Fabiano as her son, Gennaro, is desperate and pleading, jovial and amorous and steals the second Act with his opening aria.

The orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel, is energetic and bright – just the thing for Donizetti – and the horns are particularly strong. The musical aspects of the evening are brilliant – it’s just a shame the staging lets them down. Figgis is new to opera – and his production reflects this. The set (by Es Devlin) is magnificent and the costumes beautiful but it is as if Figgis has created his idea of opera – all extravagance and gold leaf – rather than looking at the work itself.3 Comedy Masks