Posts Tagged ‘ theatre ’

Motor Vehicle Sundown, Mayfest, Bristol – review

Drive-in movies

The bygone glamour of motoring

On a highway to nowhere…

‘Take a seat in the last motor vehicle on earth’. That’s the premise for this bite-sized audio theatre piece which is part love-song to the car and part dystopian vision.

Two audience members sit in a car in a deserted car park in the city centre, armed with headphones and an MP3 player. A soundtrack begins: ‘This is the last car in the universe. It used to be one of millions…’ We’re told to sit in the car, close our eyes and imagine we’re speeding along a narrow road, late at night. Then we’re at the drive-in watching a 50s horror flick. Now it’s early and we’re driving along broad roads on concrete pillars reaching to the sky.

There are moments of exquisite poetry and nostalgia in Andy Field’s Motor Vehicle Sundown, which is part of Mayfest, Bristol – glimpses into the bygone glamour of motoring and an audio tribute to the excitement of the open road.

But I struggled to accept the premise – not least because I had been driving myself only a couple of hours before – and because we were in the middle of a car park, even if no other cars were visible. What’s more, for a show which relied on evoking a smoke-filled, leather-upholstered, space-for-seducting vision of a car, the modern, banged-up bright blue Toyota the whole thing took place in was a bit of wet flannel.

Still, maybe that was the point.

Towards the end, the show starts to become something different – there’s a political edge which seems out of place and a fairly gratuitous reference to 9/11. Aside from this incongruous diversion, this is an enjoyable, unorthodox look at our love-affair with cars.

Practical info: there are only two audience members at any time and it’s probably slightly less awkward if you know the person you go with (the voice of experience…)

Motor Vehicle Sundown is on in Bristol at various times until 24 May

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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

The Met at the IMAX: Opera on the big screen

A couple of weeks ago I went to The Met.

Well, almost. What I actually saw was a live transmission of their production of Gluck’s Ipigénie en Tauride, conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Stephen Wadsworth, in London’s BFI IMAX cinema. Although I am always an advocate of anything that takes opera to a wider audience, I was anticipating something that very much felt like a broadcast, not a live performance.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The BFI and The Met in their series of opera broadcasts have created something which is as close as possible to attending a live performance – without the cost of the trans-Atlantic plane fare. As you walk into the IMAX cinema the crowd noise from The Met and the sounds of the orchestra tuning up are played into the auditorium in London so you feel immersed in the live performance before it even starts.

It was a matinee in New York which meant the performance started in the UK at the very respectable time of 6pm. And as the leisurely afternoon audience took their seats across the pond, we settled down in the comfy seats of the IMAX in England. And the curtain rose.

And I had never seen anything like it. I am used to the sparse sets of ENO or the modern-dress productions at Covent Garden. In fact, even Glyndbourne wasn’t as lavish as the staging before me now. The opera is set in a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana: there was an enormous statue of the Goddess, a sacrificial altar, torches burning and the performance opened with the Godess herself descending from the roof to whisk Iphigénie away from her father. (He was trying to sacrifice her. Just a normal day in Ancient Greece). Even the fake blood looked expensive.

The cast were phenomenal – Susan Graham in the title role was just the right side of hysterical and Plácido Domingo and Paul Groves as her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade, respectively, were in fine voice. This was even more impressive as an announcement before the curtain went up told us they were all suffering from a bad bout of flu.

What impressed me most about the broadcast, however, was not the singing, the sumptuous set or the fake blood. But the fact that immediately the curtain fell on the first Act, the three leads toddled over to Natalie Dessay (who is a stunning soprano in her own right) to be interviewed about how the evening was going and their approach to the opera. This was, let’s not forget, in the middle of the performance, when you might have thought they wanted to lie down in a darkened room or at least go over the arias in the next Act in their head. But here they were looking relaxed, laughing and chatting away to millions of viewers. Well, I suppose it’s just another day at the office for them.

 

The next broadcast from the Met is on April 9 and is Rossini’s Le Comte Ory starring Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez

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

Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre: review

Tiger Country Nina RaineWritten and directed by Nina Raine
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Tiger Country: no safety net, alone, trusting your instincts. According to Nina Raine’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre, this is terrain familiar to the NHS surgeon, ‘Once you open the skin you’re on your own.’

Raine’s play – which she directs herself – is a high-octane, unflinching fly-on-the-wall examination of life in Accident and Emergency. We meet Emily – a fresh-faced new arrival on the hospital’s staff: through her eyes we see the chaos, the maddening bureaucracy, the trauma and the apparent cold-heartedness of her colleagues. We meet patients and doctors – and in an effective bit of doubling, the same actors take characters on both sides of the clipboard. Raine draws us into one patient’s story and then wheels them off, just as we began to feel for them – mirroring the situation doctors face every day. We learn about the private woes and worries of the surgeons and all the while the NHS is hanging by a thread in the background.

Emily, played by Ruth Everett is the naïve new arrival: one registrar realises instantly she’s new because she’s ‘still worrying about people dying’. Everett minutely copies the mannerisms, the tone of voice, the slightly desperate frown of the newly qualified medical student. She is over-eager to please and petrified of making a mistake. More importantly for this drama, she cares and feels each case in a way which is clearly unsustainable.

Vashti is Emily’s polar opposite. In Thusitha Jayasundera’s hands she is hard-nosed and up-tight but not unlikeable. She has worked hard to get to where she is and had to change a lot to be accepted: her accent, her clothes, and, one suspects, her personality. Hers is the most fascinating story in the play and Jayasundera’s is one of the stand-out performances.

Her counter-part is John, played by a brisk Adam James, who gives a brilliantly realistic portrayal of an experienced, professional registrar: even when exhausted and at breaking point, he carries on. There is good work from Pip Carter as surgeon Mark, and Joan Kempson as senior nurse, Olga, quietly steals a couple of scenes.

Raine’s dialogue is sharp and – clearly – a joy to speak. Some of the monologues are brilliantly written, though it perhaps feels like we’re hearing the playwright’s thoughts rather than the character’s. Although informed and influenced by TV hospital dramas like Green Wing, Scrubs, House and Casualty, (it in fact shares a plot line with Green Wing), Tiger Country manages to be more than simply a hospital TV series for stage. The play examines what it means to care: whether we can care about each other, whether a doctor can care for a patient they hardly know or even one they have never met and whether caring matters. This is a vital play, born of its time: the NHS is being much debated and this is an eloquent voice to add to the mix.

4Comedy Masks

Until 5 Feb

This review was first published in the Willesden and Brent Times

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