Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Inheritance at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Note: This is a review of the performances of both parts on Saturday 5th May 2018.

The reviews (with a couple of exceptions), the social media comments, and the standing ovation last Saturday night all tell a similar story of high praise for this new two part play. I was far from convinced, as I shall try to explain.

My principal issues relate to the text itself. The problems start at the beginning. We are confronted with a group of young men who appear to be in some sort of writing class, dreaming they are being advised by the ghost of E.M. Forster, who are wringing their hands because they don't know how to tell their story. New work is replete with similar instances of this kind of thing and, personally, I loathe it. Just get on and tell the damn story, decide how you're going to start and do it – don't inflict your indecision about how to do so on me. As far as I'm concerned it undermines suspension of disbelief from the beginning by deliberately pointing up the artificiality of theatre.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Present Laughter at Chichester, or, What is Miss Erikson doing??

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 30th April 2018.

There was a fair bit in the first half of this revival which made me stare, and not in a good way. But the most revealing about what has gone wrong was Miss Erikson's silly walk. This was presumably intended to be hilarious, I just found it baffling. It sets the tone for what follows.

I previously saw this play when the National Theatre revived it in 2007 with Alex Jennings in the lead and directed by the late, much missed Howard Davies. I remember it as being often very funny, but also possessing point and heart. Sean Foley's new version at Chichester is, sadly, none of these things. The dominant theme of the production is physical comedy. Occasionally this is quite funny – but nearly all the gags are victims of being overly repeated – it is indicative that one of the funnier moments in the performance I saw was an ad-lib to retrieve a hat, and even then I've seen funnier ad-libs. I suspect the reason for this approach is that Foley doesn't trust the text. He may even be contemptuous of Coward and the world he depicts (there is a suggestion of that in the exaggerated upper class accents deployed by several members of the company). The text is actually full of pointed lines which depend on nuanced delivery to really strike home and draw the laugh – I have the impression Foley has not encouraged this. Indeed, the very opposite – the majority of the text is delivered at pretty much the same level. Similarly, these characters are actually funnier if they retain a degree of reality – but they are all reduced so much to caricature here that I lost interest in them as people and consequently lost interest in their repeated pratfalls.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Absolute Hell at the National, or, Voices from the Edge of the Abyss

My only previous encounter with director Joe Hill-Gibbins was his frankly dreadful production of Edward II in the Olivier. As a result, I was not particularly optimistic about this in advance. To my surprise it proved to have much to commend it.

The work itself clearly merits revival – I dissent here from quite a few professional reviewers. It's a powerful ensemble piece set in Soho on the verge of the 1945 Labour election victory. Although the cast of characters is very large, and many get only a limited time on stage, I found the ambiguities of the writing intriguing not annoying and I never felt the text needed to do more to flesh them out. Even in the smaller cameos it always gives us just enough to interest and convince. On the whole it doesn't feel overlong (certainly not in comparison to the recent similar marathon of John in the Dorfman), though I did feel Ackland struggled a bit with an ending.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Coraline at the Barbican, or, Left Mostly Unmoved

Note: This is a review of the evening performance on Saturday 7th April 2018.

With the exception of a recording by Gerald Finley of an aria from The Silver Tassie, I've not got on with Mark-Anthony Turnage's operas in the past. I saw productions of Greek (Music Theatre Wales at the Linbury) and Anna Nicole (Royal Opera), and in neither case did they make me want to rush to hear the work a second time. On the other hand I enjoyed the film of Coraline, I'm generally a fan of Neil Gaiman's work and of fairy tales, so I hoped in advance to enjoy this adaptation. There is much to commend in the strong performances and the well crafted staging, but for me the work itself is problematic.

The ensemble of singing actors and actresses is excellent. Diction is really outstanding and the absence of subtitles is not a problem, though parts of the libretto might have benefitted from being more obscured. Mary Bevan in the title role sings with impressive power, and throws herself fully into the part - on this showing it seems to me fundamentally very challenging for an adult to fully convince as an 11 year old child while singing operatic fashion, and the fact that for me Bevan wasn't wholly convincing in this regard should not detract from the overall high quality of her performance. Kitty Whately as Mother/Other Mother shows fine versatility and I should not have known she was recovering from laryngitis without the pre-show announcement.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

From the House of the Dead at the Royal, or, Distrusting the Work

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 10th March 2018.

It's been a lacklustre year for new productions at the Royal Opera, at least from where I've been sitting, and so it continues with this disappointing new Janacek. It is a real achievement to make this work emotionally cold and unmoving, director Krzysztof Warlikowski making his Royal Opera and UK debut sadly succeeds.

The trouble starts with the Act One prelude which is accompanied by subtitled film of Michel Foucault talking about the meaning of prisons. Film is also used between each of the other two acts where we are subjected to footage of what sounded to me like a black South African prisoner meditating on the meaning of life. The impact of these marvellous orchestral interludes is badly blunted by these interpolations which don't fit with the music at all, and add nothing to our understanding of the work as a whole. Janacek's opera is powerfully eloquent on the themes touched on by the films, their inclusion is simply unnecessary.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

EIF 2018, or The Drip, Drip, Drip Release of the Programme…

In my 20 years as an International Festival regular there have, broadly speaking, been four approaches to release of information about the annual programme prior to the official launch. Under Brian McMaster, a leaflet was produced around Christmas with highlights by week for the following year (usually a combination of major artists and works). This remains the best method and we have long advocated a return to it. Under Jonathan Mills the leaflet, when it was produced, became an announcement of the coming year's theme, usually with no detail as to actual performances. Fergus Linehan's initial approach was to announce a flagship show (he also opened booking for it in advance of the rest of the programme, a policy we strongly criticised and which, interestingly and positively, appears now to have been quietly abandoned). This year Linehan seems to be trying a new tactic. Since the autumn, a steady drip of announcements and leaks (usually not directly from the Festival itself) have provided more information about the 2018 programme than we have had at this stage for a Festival since the McMaster era. This information raises some questions.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The York Realist at the Donmar, or, A Masterclass in Theatre

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th March 2018.

The best theatre for me is to be found in shows which move me emotionally. I've often felt that this puts me in a minority in a cultural world where higher priority is given to shows with some kind of message (often delivered in the form of a lecture) or gimmicky productions which though technically clever are otherwise unsatisfying. So it's always a pleasure to see a piece of work as beautifully crafted as this, which gripped me with concern for these characters to the point of several times in the second half having to choke back tears.

The play is set in the downstairs room of an old cottage high in the Yorkshire Dales, the home of George and his ailing mother. Into this world arrives John, a southern aspiring actor and current assistant director of a production of the York Mystery Plays, wondering why George has stopped coming to rehearsals. And for a time into this cottage comes new love.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida, or, A Surfeit of Pianos

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 3rd March 2018. The press night took place later that week.

This is the second Tennessee Williams production recently that adopts the approach of divorcing the play from its setting. Stronger central performances mean this works a bit better than last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But in the end the approach of director Rebecca Frecknall and designer Tom Scutt's remains flawed.

The play appears, after a bit of Google digging, to have been originally set in pre-World War One Mississippi (it's pretty impossible on the basis of this production to determine when Frecknall has set it). We follow the repressed preacher's daughter Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran) in her longing for the wastrel son of the doctor, John Buchanan (Matthew Needham). The best of the afternoon is to be found in their performances. Ferran especially is fascinating to watch, and when allowed to take the subtle approach, totally convincing. Needham doesn't always quite transcend the caricature aspects of Williams's writing, but also has great presence.

Monday, 5 February 2018

John at the National, or, All My Girlfriends Turn Into Little Green Insects, That Is My Tragedy

Like Annie Baker's previous play at the National, The Flick (seen in 2016), the first characteristic of this new work is the slow pacing. As in that earlier work there are longish stretches of time when nothing much is happening on stage. But the device is less successful on this occasion because the world upon which it is deployed is far less convincingly immersive.

In place of the decaying flea pit cinema of The Flick we are in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was perhaps unfortunate that I saw this the week after happening to re-watch the Gilmore Girls episode “The Road Trip to Harvard”. That features a B&B with similarly overwhelming décor and clinging hostess. Unlike The Flick, John never really convinced me I was somewhere fresh. The next problem is one of genre. Baker has thrown at least two together – romantic comedy – or at least mockery of it – and ghost/scary story. The scary stuff is too half hearted to really impact. The treatment of the romance is undermined by the fact that the central couple of millenials are so ghastly that I pretty quickly ceased to care whether they stayed together. Indeed, I felt the play never really established how on earth they had come to be together in the first place (again there was a rather unfortunate echo of last week's similarly unconvincing millenial couple in Donmar's poor Belleville).

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Twilight Zone at the Almeida, or, It's All Good Fun Till Somebody Starts A Nuclear War

Note: A review of the performance on Tuesday 9th January 2018.

This was one of those happy cultural occasions when I set out with little expectation for a production and enjoyed what turned out to be both a funny and thought provoking evening.

First, a confession. Despite my day job (as a historian who specialises in the United States) I had never seen an episode of the 1950s-60s TV show from which this play is adapted. Fortunately, I can report if you're in the same boat it really doesn't matter. Adaptor Anne Washburn selects eight episodes originally broadcast between 1959 and 1964 and then intercuts them with each other. Storylines include trying to identify a Martian among a group of travellers in a diner, a portal to another dimension opening beneath a child's bed (the occasion for the glorious explanation for summoning a friend to assist: “He's a physicist!”), a tragedy of cryogenic freezing, a man tormented in his dreams by a woman dressed as a cat (the occasion for a fine cabaret number) and the threatened nuclear war mentioned in the title. We shall return to the last mentioned later.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Salome at the Royal Opera, or Finding Insufficient Menace

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 8th January 2018.

I first saw this production by David McVicar back in its original run in 2008. I wasn't wild about it then, but it's been a while since I've heard this work live so I thought I'd give it another go. I got on better with the production than I remember doing first time round, but as a whole the evening didn't quite find that taut feeling of menace which I think a great Salome really needs.

McVicar sets the evening in the palace loos – though this now seems subtler – possibly it's been altered, or I was sitting in a different location. Above is Herod's dining room and a spiral staircase down which Salome, and others descend as the action proceeds. During the Dance of the Seven Veils the rooms fade away, and we are presumably in either Herod's or Salome's minds, or a combination of the two – it isn't quite clear enough. The general effect throughout is to ramp up the sordidness – particularly at the beginning with female nudity. I can see why this is so – it is a pretty sordid story. But I can't help feeling that less and more subtle would pack more punch. There are two particular issues with making it so sordid from the outset – there's nowhere for the production then to go, which hinders ramping up the dramatic tension, and for me at least it hinders finding any sympathy with the protagonists – the best versions find more moral complexity in it. In his direction of the principals McVicar has flashes of insight – particularly in interactions late on between Herodias and her daughter, but characters aren't sufficiently sustained across the totality of the piece. There are also some simple oddities – why on earth the executioner has to be stripped naked to do his job escaped me, and excesses – there's too much wandering about aimlessly from members of the court and their servants – particularly the periodic exiting during Salome's final solo when the focus should really be completely on her.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Highs and Lows of 2017

Time (almost past time) for my annual roundup...

Best Opera: A tie between the unforgettable, over-powering Bergen Philharmonic/Edward Gardner semi-staged Peter Grimes at the Edinburgh Festival and the Glyndebourne Traviata – breathing fresh life into a familiar classic.

Worst Opera: Kaspar Holten's dismal version of Die Meistersinger at the Royal Opera.

Best Play: Exceptional competition for this. Even with honourable mentions for the almost unbearable to watch West End revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the fine Old Vic revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and the politically powerful Limehouse at the Donmar it's still impossible to separate Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, Angels in America at the National and The Ferryman (which I was lucky enough to see during Royal Court run).

Worst Play: Equally another year of exceptional competition for this one. The National and the Almeida continued to produce far too many turkeys – the former's dire Common particularly lodges in the mind. But the Edinburgh International Festival takes the palm for the almost unbelievably tedious Real Magic.