Posts Tagged ‘ London West End ’

Love Story, Erich Segal, Howard Goodall: review

Love Story, Erich SegalLove Story picture
Book/Lyrics, Stephen Clark
Music, Howard Goodall
Dir, Rachel Kavanaugh

What’s there to say about a young girl who died? This musical adaptation of Erich Segal’s screenplay and best-selling novel, Love Story, poses this question at the beginning of the evening – but rather fails to answer it. We are presented with a terribly sad tale, but not a stage-worthy one – as another writer once said, it is tragic but not a tragedy.

Emma Williams in the lead role – Jenny – is by turns feisty and tender, and sometimes both. She delivers the witty lines deftly and communicates her character’s intelligence. Michael Xavier as her husband Oliver is endearingly arrogant – and his adoration of Jenny is palpable. He goes from nought to marriage proposal in a matter of minutes but, nevertheless, Xavier makes Oliver’s love believable. The third principle character is Jenny’s father, Phil – played by Peter Polycarpou. Although veering a touch towards caricature, Polycarpou brings a spark to each scene he’s in and his timing is spot on. On the pair’s wedding day, he takes Oliver to one side saying: “If she thinks she’s right…” he pauses and glances at his daughter before concluding “I’d give in.”

The singing is solid throughout Rachel Kavanaugh’s production – Howard Goodall’s music gives Williams plenty of opportunity to show off the range of her voice. The two best songs of the evening were both hers – the bright, light-hearted pasta song (in which spaghetti is rhymed with Donizetti) and a song in which she imagines the music she’ll play to her future children.

Stephen Ridley, directing the music from the piano, plays with real musicality and energy – bringing out the best in his small ensemble, despite Howard Goodall’s largely bland, unadventurous music.

But there’s no escaping the fact that Love Story does not belong on stage – and certainly not this one. The Duchess Theatre feels too big for such a small-scale, modest tale. And although the story is – there is no doubt about it – terrible and incredibly sad, that in itself is not enough for a piece of theatre. A tragedy might awaken you to emotions you’ve never experienced or infuriate by pointing out the futility and hopelessness of human endeavour. But it can’t just be a sad story – there’s enough of that in the real world.

Love story is indeed sad but, as Kavanaugh’s production suggests at both the beginning and the end, there is nothing else to say about it. Which begs the question: why was it made into a stage show in the first place?

Exclusive interview with Enron writer Lucy Prebble

Mark-to-market, hedging, special purpose entities and actors in dinosaur masks. Lucy Prebble’s play Enron confounded expectations and made the complex, number-driven world of global finance dramatic, comprehensible and even funny.

Enron opened at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester to ecstatic reviews in the summer of 2009, propelling Prebble to fame. The play transferred to the Royal Court, then to the West End and has just completed a national tour.

Lucy Prebble Enron

photography by Jordan Bassett

When we meet in a small coffee shop in Soho it’s hard to believe that the bright, brash West End show, came from the pen of such a polite and composed young woman – but that’s what makes Prebble so fascinating. Her main aim in writing the show was not, she tells me, to pass judgement or explain the complex financial camouflage that brought the company down – although it did both of these – but simply not to be boring.

“I felt really passionately that it would be very easy to write a play that says ‘we all know how this ends, we all know it’s terrible, aren’t all these people bad.’ We decided very early on it mustn’t be boring at any moment, because that’s what people expect of a play about corporate finance. But it is really fun, to work on a trading floor – it is really glamorous and it is really really profitable if you do it well. And those are all things human beings are drawn to and to pretend that we’re not is what perpetuates the cycle.”

Anyone who has seen the play will recall the “Raptors” – business entities which gobbled up Enron’s toxic debt. “It seemed completely appropriate,” explained Prebble, “to have dangerous financial instruments – financial instruments that have hurt people and broken their lives – come alive and be portrayed as vicious creatures, in this case velociraptors. So once you’ve decided that you’re essentially going to dramatise the theoretical and make it real, you’re already entering a slightly absurdist world, that’s not dull.”

EnronEnron opened at the height of the global credit crunch – although Prebble has always insisted this was down to luck rather than a gift of foresight. But she has become the go-to-girl for scripts on finance. “The last thing I want to be is the “money” girl or the girl who writes about finance. I find it really interesting and I wrote a play about it but now I find other stuff interesting.”

The stuff she finds interesting is, by her own admission, quite “full-on” – she’s currently working on a film about the Stasi and another play about humans used in drug trials. But what drew her to Enron was, she says, the macho aspect of the story.

“You can’t avoid the link between testosterone and risk-taking – it’s medically proven. In the locker-room world of the trading floor, you’re as big as your bonus is. It is quite phallic and aggressive and that’s part of the fun of it. The masculinity of the world never consciously entered my mind although I’m certain that subconsciously I was drawn to it because of that.”

When I suggest a parallel with what seems to be a male-dominated world of theatre writing, Prebble pulls me up. “You’ll find a lot of women writers – in the theatre – who do one or two plays and then aren’t seen much more. The reasons for that aren’t necessarily related to gender specifically but more practical. You’ll find a huge amount of women who started off in theatre but move into film and television because it’s much more financially rewarding and it’s a child friendly profession. Women writers are still writing, they’re just writing in a different medium, in a way that suits them better.”

Secret Diary of a Call Girl Billie PiperPrebble knows a thing or two about the medium of TV: she created the series Secret Diary of a Call Girl after coming across the Belle de Jour blog. The Belle character, who chose to become a high-paid prostitute and document her exploits online, proved as controversial as she was popular and Prebble, who left the series after writing the first 18 episodes, admits she had trouble with the character and the kind of scripts she was being asked to write.

“I left the series because I felt that, unfortunately, I wasn’t really being allowed to write what I wanted to write – more ambitious, complex drama. That’s the problem with Television really: yes you get paid more and yes you probably get more consistent work but you’re really not in control of your product at all.”

And this is a constant dilemma for Prebble: writing for TV is consistent but often comes without recognition; writing for theatre is respected but comes with intense scrutiny. After her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, was put on Upstairs at the Royal Court, Prebble struggled with a lack of self-confidence and after she had a play rejected in what she calls “the worst meeting I’d ever had in my life”, she turned to television.

“In TV no one knows who writes their favourite shows, no one even knows who’s written their favourite films, so I found that strangely helped me because I didn’t feel a lot of pressure on me personally. I felt like I was contributing to something that was bigger than me. Bizarrely, even though theatre’s the place where you get the most respect as a writer, it’s the place where you also get the most attention, the focus. And if you’re not the sort of person who necessarily wants that, it can be quite intimidating.”

As she talks it becomes clear that although Prebble has had enormous success as a writer, she has also been through the mill a bit to get there. She speaks of the loneliness of the writer, her self-doubt and the huge amount of will-power needed to get something on the page. “Writing is honestly, a depressing experience and it’s an act of getting over your own lack of self-confidence to write something. Mostly I have to get myself to a place of such self-disgust in how depressed I am about how little I’ve written that I’m then forced into writing something.”

But then, I suppose no one ever said being a critically acclaimed writer was easy.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

What do Equus, The Romans in Britain, recent productions of King Lear and Edward Bond’s The Fool have in common?

Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus

They all featured people in the altogether, their birthday suit: nude. But is it necessary? What does nudity achieve on stage and is there an argument that asking actors to appear naked is, at best, objectifying them, at worst, exploitation?

As the theatre critic for a local paper in Willesden and Kilburn, I saw four out of six of the plays which made up the Cock Tavern Theatre’s Edward Bond season. Two of these featured nudity and I began to ask myself why playwrights and directors do it.

To take the Bond example first: Bond’s particular shtick is showing extreme violence on stage in an attempt to shock the audience into recognising the violence in our own society. The nudity is part of this. There is no question that nudity in Bond’s work is to do with exploitation. In The Fool, an old vicar is stripped first of his riches, then his outer clothes, then his under garments (this was set in Victorian times, so we’re talking long johns) and finally his under pants.

Ben Crispin as John Clare in The Cock Tavern's The Fool The character was being abused and exploited. But what about the actor? And remember that this was staged in the tiny Cock Tavern Theatre (let’s just get the pun about this being an apt place to stage plays involving nudity out of the way now). There was nowhere to hide for the actor, the audience were three metres away at most and there was nothing subtle about the lighting of this scene. I wondered whether the actor had known about this scene when he’d auditioned. And how much he was getting paid.

While the nudity here didn’t feel gratuitous, it was excruciating and made the audience’s position feel hugely inappropriate, heartless and voyeuristic. And perhaps this was Bond’s point – but it made me distinctly nervous about going to another play by him. And if I hadn’t been reviewing the season, I probably would have avoided the later shows. This particular scene felt too real – we weren’t watching people pretending to strip an old man naked and then pinch him all over. They were actually doing this.

But nudity needn’t be harrowing. Back in 2006, I saw Sam West’s production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the Crucible. What seemed like 10 completely naked men cart-wheeled across the stage, frolicked (there is no other word for it) in an enormous swimming pool and, aside from the notorious gay rape scene, generally had a whale of a time. The actors seemed to be liberated and there was no hint of awkwardness. This was a celebration of the human form.

One acting coach is firmly of the view that nudity on stage is exploitative and he makes a good case, but Michael Billington wrote this persuasive piece when Daniel Radcliffe was appearing in Equus some years ago, suggesting that nudity should just be one tool in a director’s kit (!) and nothing to fill newspaper columns about.

Personally, at the moment, I feel that if I ever see another naked, cowering man on stage, it will be too soon. What about you?

Or You Could Kiss Me, National Theatre: review

Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre
Dir: Neil Bartlett with Handspring Puppet Company

After the galloping success of War Horse, Handspring Puppet Company, headed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, have turned their attention to humans. Or You Could Kiss Me, scripted and directed by Neil Bartlett, documents the final days of a long-term gay relationship. Mr B is dying. He is sent home from hospital because there is nothing more the doctors can do. At home Mr A and Mr B laboriously try to remember the very first days they spent together.

The exquisitely carved wooden puppets are spell-binding: they seem to breathe, to fidget, to sigh. As Basil Jones writes in the programme: “it’s micro movement rather than the macro movement that is of interest to us”. And these master puppeteers hone in on the small gestures brilliantly. The signing of a form, the holding up of a photograph, the settling down to sleep: these acts are given poignancy and weight through the juxtaposition of their familiarity with the lifelessness of the puppets.

As Mr B fades we are introduced to the couple when they first met, as youthful 19 and 20 year olds. These two puppets stand tall and muscular, they exult in their vitality. A set piece in which the young Mr A dives into the sea is captivating – and would be impossible with real actors. Or You Could Kiss Me is at its best in these set pieces: as the young couple play squash; as the frail Mr B flicks through photographs trying to find something – though he doesn’t know what.

But elsewhere, interventions from Adjoa Andoh (as a nurse, a house-keeper, a taxi driver and…poet) irritate and Bartlett’s decision to use microphones is misguided. We want to learn more about the central pair but clumsy props and extraneous people stand in the way, blocking empathy: not least the three people necessary to operate each puppet.

This play should be heart-breaking and yet I doubt anyone in the audience shed a tear – indeed the people next to me left after 20 minutes. The play’s strength – the alarmingly lifelike puppets – is also its greatest fault. Neil Bartlett writes in the programme that his script changed “at the dictate of the puppets”. Bartlett was stunned into silence by the craft and elegance of Kohler and Jones’ art work and the result is a fragmented and almost non-existent narrative which never reaches its emotional potential. The big picture is sacrificed at the altar of the small-scale gesture.


A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”

Theatrigirl’s Weekly Highlights

As the winter chill begins to set in, here’s Theatrigirl’s list of reasons to be cheerful this week. There’s Hamlet at the National, whimsical fun at Upstairs at the Gatehouse and Anthony Sher in Arthur Miller at the Tricycle. Brave the cold and wrap yourself up in a good play…

  • Or You Could Kiss Me, Cottesloe Theatre, National TheatreInteresting new puppetry piece by Neil Bartlett about how to say goodbye: an “intimate history of two very private lives.” The puppets have been created by the same team as War Horse.

    Previews from 28 Sept

  • Burn My Heart, New Diorama TheatreAdapted from Beverley Naidoo’s novel of the same name, this production, by theatre companies Trestle and Blindeye, is part of Black History Month. The play is set during the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya and focuses on the destruction wrought by the conflict on the lives of two young boys.

    28 Sept-2 Oct

  • Hamlet, Olivier Theatre, National TheatreHamlet is this season’s “must-have” – the Crucible is also staging a production at the moment and the National have commissioned a “prequel” to Shakespeare’s work (The Prince of Denmark) which will open next week. Rory Kinnear takes the title role in Nicholas Hytner’s production in the NT’s Olivier Theatre.

    Previews from 30 Sept

  • Broken Glass, The TricycleAnthony Sher stars in Arthur Miller’s tale of guilt, love and tragedy in 1930s Brooklyn.

    Previews from 30 Sept

  • The Drowsy Chaperone, Upstairs at the GatehouseA musical within a musical. A self-conscious parody. An anonymous narrator introduces and guides the audience through his favourite musical: The Drowsy Chaperone from 1928. Frivolous frippery.

    23 Sept-31 Oct

  • What’s On Highlights 20-26 September

    Just a quick one today. My ones to watch this week are:

    Pope’s Wedding at the Cock Tavern Theatre

    The second play in the Cock’s Edward Bond Season. Disappointingly, the title is not a literal reference to the events of the play…

    19 Sep-2 Oct

    The Makropulos Case, by Leoš Janáček, Coliseum
    ENO’s first revival of  Christopher Alden’s staging of the Czech composer’s penultimate opera “which tells the story of the enigmatic Emilia Marty, the cold-hearted diva whose uncanny knowledge of past events provides the key to resolving a 100-year-old lawsuit but also unlocks ancient mysteries that call into question mankind’s obsessive quest for eternal life.”

    20 Sep-5 Oct
    Pocket Dream, Hampstead Theatre
    Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for young audiences. At only 60 minutes long, Pocket Dream promises “a dynamic, contemporary and physical introduction to Shakespeare”. Oh my!

    21-24 Sep

    Niobe, Regina di Tebe, by Agostino Steffani, ROH
    Although well-regarded in his own time, Steffani (1654–1728) is little known today. This opera takes the ancient Greek story of Niobe, who angered the gods and so was punished with the of all her children. Cheery stuff – and unmissable for any early opera enthusiasts (…anyone??). And it claims there are £5 tickets available.

    23 Sep-3 Oct

    Theatrigirl’s highlights, 13-19 September

    Edward Bond Season – Olly’s Prison, Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn

    The first play in the eagerly anticipated Edward Bond season at the Cock Tavern, which will culminate with the premiere of a new play. Famed for the violent and controversial subjects of his work, Bond is one of the most important living British playwrights. Olly’s Prison examines a father-daughter relationship gone horribly wrong.

    Olly’s Prison: 14 Sep-2 Oct
    Edward Bond Season:14 Sep-13 Nov

    The Human Comedy, The Young Vic

    Set in a small town California during the second World War, The Human Comedy is a coming-of-age story complete with musical numbers. This production, directed by John Fulljames boasts a “Community Chorus” of 80 in addition to the principal roles. The stage might get a bit cosy!

    13-18 Sep

    Faust at ENO opens this week

    Les Misérables, Barbican

    To celebrate this ridiculously successful musical’s 25th anniversary, a different cast are bringing the show to the Barbican for a few nights only. A chance to see this hugely popular musical for a more reasonable price!

    14 Sep-2 Oct

    Krapp’s Last Tape, Duchess Theatre

    Good, solid Beckettian stuff: gloom, doom and a funny bit with a banana. With Michael Gambon as the eponymous Krapp, this existential monologue should have plenty of gravitas and absurdity.

    15 Sep-20 Nov

    Faust, by Gounod, Barbier and Carré, after Goethe, ENO at the London Coliseum

    Goethe’s tale of the man who wanted to know everything there was to know gets the operatic treatment courtesy of this new production at ENO. Edward Gardner conducts while Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) directs a modern-dress production.

    18 Sep-16 Oct

    Educating Rita, Trafalgar Studios, review

    Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is a creature of its time – very much rooted in 1980s Liverpool. Despite this, its central theme – the desire for knowledge and self-improvement – is universal. It’s a pity, then, that Jeremy Sams’ production, which transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory in July, is ultimately unfulfilling.

    The Pygmalion-like story follows Rita as she tries to “learn everything” by enrolling on an Open University course. Frank, her tutor, may be “a crazy mad piss-artist who wants to throw his students out of the window” but nevertheless the two strike up a close friendship.

    All the action takes place in one room and Peter McKintosh’s set is a feast for the eyes. This is the most realistic of dons’ offices: from the stacks of tattered books, to the wonky swivel chair and concealed whisky bottles. Like Rita, the audience can’t help but gaze admiringly from one dusty object to another in awe.

    The inhabitant of this time-capsule of an office is Tim Pigott-Smith’s Frank. Leering at Rita, Pigott-Smith is just the wrong side of creepy uncle. While Frank is an undeniably flawed character, this version elicits no empathy from the audience and with the exception of one wonderfully lit, poignant scene in which he tries to ring Rita at home, he is barely likeable.

    Laura Dos Santos as Rita manages to hold the stage well, though convinces more as the “educated” Rita than the skittish woman we encounter at the beginning. Despite swallowing a couple of punch-lines she does a good line in earnest nervousness, although her friendship with the pathetic Frank is essentially unbelievable. Dos Santos, a relative newcomer, deserves credit for managing to make the role her own – despite the inevitable comparison with Julie Walters’ film portrayal.

    In the end, however, this production fails to meet the demands of the play or transcend the monotony of the one-room setting. Russell’s script trembles with humanity and is capable of moving an audience both to tears of joy and sadness. Sams’ production is a competent rendition but ultimately fails to tug the necessary heartstrings.


    What’s On this Week

    Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood and Ronald Gow, Finborough Theatre

    Walter Greenwood’s tale of 1930s Salford in the midst of mass unemployment and poverty.

    “With their father out of work, the burden of keeping the family together falls to Sally Hardcastle and her brother, Harry, as they desperately fight to break free from the shackles of poverty.”

    Cosi fan Tutte, by Mozart, Royal Opera House

    Jonathan Miller’s updated production of Mozart’s classic – if rather anti-feminist – tale of the fickle nature of women. This ultra-modern production apparently even involves iphones.

    Blood and Gifts, by J T Rogers, National Theatre

    Originally seen in a shorter version in The Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game season.

    “1981. As the Soviet army burns its way through Afghanistan and toward the critical Pakistani border, CIA operative Jim Warnock is sent to try and halt its bloody progress. Joining forces with a larger than life Afghan warlord, and with the Pakistani and British secret services, Jim spearheads the covert struggle.”

    House of Games, by David Mamet, adapted by Richard Bean, Almeida Theatre

    David Mamet’s thriller about the con, high-stakes poker and gambling, adapted for the stage by Richard Bean.

    “This is a confidence game, not because you give me your confidence, but because I give you mine.”

    A Disappearing Number, by Complicite, Novello Theatre

    A revival of Complicite’s 2007 play about mathematical patterns and puzzles and the men who spent their lives pondering them. This production will also be broadcast as part of the NT Live season on 14 October.