Sunday, 12 October 2014

Gypsy at Chichester, or Lara's Turn

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 11th October 2014. It is not listed as a preview in the brochure but the Press Night does not take place till Tuesday 14th.

Gypsy is a nastier show than one first realises. I came to see this without knowing anything about the narrative and I kept waiting for things to come out right. Of course, this being a show with a Sondheim element to it, I should perhaps know better. That said, there is usually a redemptive element to his principle characters. I found it hard to see one in Momma Rose and thus, while I was moved by things in this show, they did not include her.

For those who don't know it, Gypsy tells the story of Momma Rose's (Imelda Staunton) insatiable attempts to craft a triumphant stage career first for her daughter June (Gemma Sutton) and then for her daughter Louise (Lara Pulver). Given that the final result, or at least one of them, is the appearance of the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee it could be said that she succeeds. But the price is a high one.

Strictly speaking Gypsy is a musical (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim). But there are rather fewer standout numbers than the form usually commands. Many of the musical numbers are intentionally terrible (the stage performances of the troupe until you get to the actual appearance of Gypsy Rose Lee), and some of those intended, I assume, to be of a more standard kind are pretty forgettable (Mr Goldstone for example). My point is, however, that this doesn't matter the way it might because this is really for long sections much more a play with music rather than a standard musical, and as a work in that form it's powerful.

Taken at Midnight at Chichester, or A Well Crafted Visit to Familiar Territory

During the first half of this new play by Mark Hayhurst, I found it difficult not to compare the work to Chichester's most recent visit to Nazi territory – the chilling revival of Brecht's Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui. Compared with that play, and despite the moments of brutality, there's a slight feeling of being on safe ground here. Good and bad are fairly clearly delineated, the differences between the three political prisoners imprisoned together feel contrived, and I agree with the critic who regarded it as just a bit too convenient that one of them happened to be carrying a false moustache. None of it is badly done but despite the cast's best efforts I felt uninvolved.

But after the interval one of those curious theatrical twists happened. Not in terms of the play which remains on fairly safe, familiar ground, but in terms of engaging me. Penelope Wilton playing Irmgard Litten has at last been allowed to send books to her imprisoned son. She describes going to see a bookseller and, in a moment which is madness in the new Germany, telling him who the books are destined for. The bookseller refuses to take any money. It's moving because it's such a small, almost pitiful gesture and yet, in a country in which you are no longer free to speak such things take on a strange resonance. The second thing that adds power to Act Two is the realisation that Wilton is not going to win. It's obviously deluded to imagine that she will, but not knowing the story one madly hopes for it. John Light's Dr Conrad, the Gestapo officer with whom Wilton is forced to struggle, is convincingly enigmatic and thus fosters the delusion that there may be some sane Nazis. The final meeting between Wilton and Martin Hutson's Litten brutally snatches away any such escape.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

David Watkin leaves the SCO


He plays with such huge commitment. He is a great inspiration to me, especially in Mozart.

I can't claim credit for those words, instead they belong to the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras, but I thoroughly endorse them and am greatly saddened to learn today that David Watkin, principal cello of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is leaving the ensemble.

When Watkin joined the SCO around 10 years ago, Mackerras would have already known him from his time as principal cello of both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia. At the same time. This hints straight away at his versatility: he is equally at home with a period cello as with a modern one. And it doesn't end there: during his tenure we've heard him direct the orchestra from the cello in Mozart; he has performed Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time; he has been the soloist for concertos and Bach cello suites; and he has done the double of leading the cellos while also undertaking the continuo during performances of Mozart operas. And that's to say nothing of his recordings with the Eroica Quartet, the most recent of which have been fine discs of Mendelssohn's Octet and a pairing of Debussy and Ravel.


Mackerras and the SCO in action in Mozart's Haffner symphony

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

My Night with Reg at the Donmar, or, Time, the Enemy in All of Us

Note: This is a slightly delayed review of the performance on Saturday 6th September 2014.

There's a moment towards the end of this play which is breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. Struggling to come to terms with a tragedy, Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) puts on a record called Breakfast Disco and he and John (Julian Ovenden) dance for a few moments as if, by that physical action they can turn back the clock to one moment at university when a bond of friendship between three men was formed. Recapture that joyous carefree moment, escape the pain that they've since suffered. We know and they know that it's impossible, that the heartbreaks characters and audience have been subjected to cannot be undone, but that dance both brave and desperate longs for the world to be otherwise.

It's a moment that's a remarkably long way from where the play starts. At the beginning this is an almost farcical show, as we slowly realise that virtually everyone on stage has been getting off with Daniel's unseen boyfriend, the Reg of the title, without Daniel's knowledge. There's also a touch of the stereotypical at first glance to several of the characters – particularly the flamboyant homosexuality of Daniel, and the obsessive neatness of Jonathan Broadbent's Guy. But one of the clevernesses of Elyot's writing is that even in the often farcical first act there's a care to give human depth to the stereotypes. You think you know these types, the play seems to say, but you don't know these particular people and I shall make you know them.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Delusion of the Fury, or, The Return of the Brilliant, Unclassifiable musikFabrik

The German ensemble musikFabrik were first seen at the International Festival last year with a tribute to Frank Zappa. It was one of the highlights of the programme. So I was delighted that Jonathan Mills made sure to invite them back immediately, this time with this bizarre but fabulous piece of music theatre. It was great to see a more youthful audience than usual at an International Festival performance, and a fuller Stalls overall at the King's, and there is food for thought for the Festival about timing of such performances and advertising, marketing and flyering which if such a performance had taken place earlier in the three weeks could have been used to encourage this element in the audience to try something more mainstream in the programme.

But to get back to Delusion of the Fury itself. It is a piece by the twentieth century American maverick Harry Partch. Partch, as the programme makes clear, was very much a loner who rejected just about all of the classical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – though I actually did not find his musical world as challenging to engage with as I thought in advance could be the case. In carving out his own distinctive path one of his major actions was to design his own instruments with a heap of bizarre names (ranging from the Adapted Viola to the Blo-Boy). One of the most remarkable achievements of this show is the work of Thomas Meixner (predominantly) in building new versions of these instruments (based on the only extant full set now in New Jersey which for preservation  reasons can no longer be used for performances). The result is an absolute visual feast. Some of these are outwardly familiar – the two organlike creations that stood at the front corners of the stage. Others, like the set of glass lampshades at the back, or the rows of what look like up-ended coloured bottles, or the giant bellows are very unfamiliar. The members of musikFabrik showcase their impressive versatility, moving about amongst their orchestra with grace and agility – one of the biggest pleasures of the performance is the simple joy of watching these remarkable creations being played. It is certainly some way away, and pleasurably so, from what can sometimes be the rather buttoned up environment of the concert hall.

Friday, 29 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Mariinsky's Les Troyens, or, Failing to Really Catch Fire

In advance of this performance my hopes were for another evening of the intensity of the same company's 2011 Die Frau ohne Schatten where a superb production and Gergiev's driven account of the score offset vocal weaknesses. But it was not to be. There were good things about this performance, but too many problems for it to qualify as a vintage evening.

As in 2011 the production is cast from the depth of the company. Unfortunately, most of them just aren't sufficiently suited to the roles to really bring them off. The finest solo performance for me was Alexey Markov's Chorebe who showed a vocal flexibility coupled to real presence which others lacked (though some of the responsibility here is clearly the director's). Although the match with Mlada Khudoley's Cassandre was not perfect, and I thought Gergiev didn't quite have the last ounce of drive in “Quitte nous des ce soir” their duet as a whole was one of the most satisfying portions of the evening. Elsewhere Khudoley was capable of powerful moments but lacked the richness in the lower register the part really needs, and as with others, there were issues with the direction. Ekaterina Semenchuk's Didon was generally also of a high standard. She has a thrilling intensity in her lower voice which packs a real punch and was capable of rising to the necessary heights elsewhere. But she did disappear under the orchestra in the softer moments and tenderness, which the part does sometimes need, especially in the great love duet, is not really her thing. Finally, and most disappointingly, among the principals we had Sergey Semishkur's Enee. He was anonymous in his Act Two encounter with Hector's ghost. By Act Five it was clear he'd been saving himself and there he could at least do the high notes, but they were barked rather than ringing and he was often not very pleasant to listen to. Like others tenderness was not something he was really capable of, contributing to the flatness of the love duet. Ultimately, he really doesn't have the heft or the flexibility for the role. Among the supporting parts the best performances were Yevgeny Akhmedov's Hylas and Ekaterina Krapivina's Anna (though the latter did not erase the memory of Hanna Hipp's marvellous performance at the Royal Opera).

Friday, 22 August 2014

EIF 2014 – The James Plays, or Of Theatre and Politics

I've hesitated a great deal about whether to publish my thoughts about this trilogy of plays because I haven't found it possible to review them without reference to my personal feelings about the independence referendum. I have felt at times in the last few months that being an Englishman who now lives down south again I'm not supposed to have feelings about that referendum, but I do, and I found it impossible to keep those feelings from affecting my reaction to parts of these plays, though I also think that these plays commit other theatrical sins which would have annoyed me regardless of the opionions they ultimately seemed to me to be trying to advance.

These plays aim to "bring[s] to life" the historical eras of James I, II and III of Scotland. The programme note and publicity are coy about the extent to which it is intended that this examination should have a resonance with respect to the current debate but by the end of the evening it seemed to me that all pretence was abandoned. During the first two plays it is also difficult to avoid comparison with Shakespeare's history plays, though an interview with Rona Munro in the programme pleads that we should. Perhaps it would be more possible to do this if the settings were not so RSC reminiscent, or if the pre-performance publicity did not make the comparison so unavoidable. In the first two plays that comparison is often unfavorable for reasons we'll come back to, the third play focuses almost exclusively on the women of the royal household, is thus the most successful in escaping the Shakespearean shadow, but suffers from other shortcomings.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Kronos Quartet & Beyond Zero 1914-1918, or, A Little Over-fragmented

I think, on investigation, this was my first live encounter with the Kronos Quartet (I thought they were the quartet in Eraritjaritjaka at a long past Festival but was mistaken) and I was certainly glad to finally hear them live even though I was not wholly convinced by this particular programme.

This show fits effectively into Jonathan Mills's theme of impacts of war, particularly the First World War. That theme is working convincingly across theatre, opera and music programmes this year  something that hasn't always been the case with Mills's themes (I haven't seen enough of the dance strand to be able to judge whether it applies there also). This show is formed of two halves without interval. In the first the Kronos play a selection of pieces which, on close study of the programme, appear to span the period immediately before to immediately following World War One under the title of Prelude to a Black Hole. In the second, archive (often very archive) film of the conflict, recovered by Bill Morrison, is shown accompanied by a new score written by Aleksandra Vrebalov and played live by the Quartet.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Minetti, or Successfully Skating on Potentially Thin Ice

Thomas Bernhard's Minetti is a show focused on a subject which has caused many other shows to come a cropper. A key aim is to discuss the meaning and or point of art. Many previous attempts to do this which I've sat through discarded character and narrative and thereby became either infuriating or dull. In the first half the plight of the central character sometimes felt a bit emotionally remote, but the treatment of the ideas is compelling as is the central performance, and by the end I'd revised my opinion. I'm not sure shows on this subject will ever be my favourite form of theatre, but I forgave this one for choosing it, and it left me oddly thoughtful.

Bernhard's play, almost entirely a monologue, portrays the aging actor Minetti who hasn't appeared on stage for thirty years since he “rejected the classics” (I think that's the term used). To begin with we are led to believe that he's been summoned to a meeting on New Year's Eve in a hotel in Ostend with an old childhood friend now director of a nearby theatre who wants him to reprise his celebrated King Lear for the theatre's bicentenary. The date should perhaps give more of clue than I at first appreciated. As Minetti rambles on and on about this and related matters one becomes increasingly doubtful as to whether there ever was a meeting, ultimately, whether Minetti really is the famous actor he insists that he is. Additional layers operate on top of this. Thus, Minetti becomes Lear-like in his isolation – raging on, compellingly to those of us beyond the footlights, but facing boredom and rejection from others in the on-stage hotel. Beyond this there is, of course, the bigger question, deftly posed here as to whether there's any point to this kind of performance at all.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – SmallWar at the Traverse, or, Inexplicably Big in Belgium

The Big in Belgium mini-strand at last year's Fringe produced a number of highlights including the film Bonanza (a fascinating slice of tiny-town Americana) and the exhausting rock-balancing Freeze! It also seems to have included BigMouth which I missed, and whose follow on piece SmallWar now arrives at the Traverse. All I can say is that if BigMouth was anything like SmallWar I cannot think why it has succeeded.

SmallWar is a one man show performed by Valentijn Dhaenens and several pre-filmed projections of himself. Based on testimonies of soldiers experiences from Atilla the Hun to the present day Dhaenens has fashioned a script which is supposed to be, according to the programme note, “an emotional reflection on the trauma and repetitiveness of war”. It left me cold and increasingly bored.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – The Factory at Assembly, or, The New Musical's Problems Have Reached New Zealand

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 14th August 2014.

This is a sadly disappointing show and it is not surprising that the Main Hall at Assembly was fairly empty for this performance. I cannot think word of mouth can be doing much for it despite the commitment of everybody on stage.

The basic fatal flaw is the show itself which is undistinguished to poor in every particular apart from the basic subject matter. This is noble – an apparently largely forgotten story of Pacific island immigrants coming to New Zealand to work exploited in factories. The intention to bring this to wider notice is an admirable one, unfortunately the writers are not up to the job. The music is derivative (the villain's strange resemblance to Fagin is particularly bizarre) and forgettable. The lyrics are too often indeciferable (despite the miking). The worst part of it is the book which made me want to cringe. A whole range of stock characters are present, young lovers, tyranical parents, a camp cross-dressing relative all of them played with a deadly seriousness of tone which coupled with excessive over-emphatic gesturing does little to help the script's believability problems. Musical performances are also uneven, the sometimes excessive miking exposes some vocal flaws and some of the lead soprano's tuning at the top of her range was suspect. As already noted the performers do give this everything, but mere energy is not enough to save it.

Londoners worrying about the health of the new musical may console themselves that, on this showing, things are worse in New Zealand. Honest reporting does however compell me to note that quite a few of the audience bafflingly rose to their feet at the curtain call. I'd like to think they were as desperate as I was to get out. One to avoid.

EIF 2014 – Ute Lemper at the Usher Hall, or, In the Presence of Greatness

There are some live performance occasions when critical comment almost becomes superfluous and you simply have to acknowledge that you were privileged to be present while greatness was at work – such was the case with Ute Lemper in last night's festival concert.

In advance of this performance I had high hopes. I'm a big fan of Weimer era cabaret, and indeed cabaret as an art form more broadly. One of the best things about Mills's period as Festival Director has been a willingness to bring more cabaret and musical theatre material under the International Festival umbrella with highlights including his very first opening concert of Bernstein's Candide, and Camille O'Sullivan's cabaret inflected performance of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece. However, there were dangers about this particular collaboration. Classical orchestras trying to do cabaret inflected work can come a cropper (as with the concert performance of Weill's Mahagony some years back at the Festival). The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor Lawrence Foster's work was not without blemish, but so outstanding was Ute Lemper that I forgave other infelicities.