Thursday, 31 December 2015

Highs and Lows of 2015

Where has the year gone?!

Best Opera: Not a vintage year at either of London's two main houses, but fortunately other places made up for it. A tie between a show I didn't review, Glyndebourne's witty, straightforward, and human Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and the outstanding semi-staged Le Nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Worst Opera: The Royal Opera made a strong bid for this award with their dire production of Guillaume Tell, and English National Opera also tried for it with their dreary Pirates of Penzance, but no opera in 2015 was completely without redemption. No award.

Best Play: A vintage year. Honourable mentions to the moving 3 Winters at the National in early January and to the RSC's Oppenheimer. Even then it's still almost impossible to separate three top class shows: the Barbican's superlative Waiting for Godot (I haven't laughed so much at a show since One Man Two Governors), the National's mesmerising Man and Superman and the smaller scale but no less powerful Temple at the Donmar. Godot just edges it.

Worst Play: Exceptional level of competition for this and almost all of it was from one venue, Rupert Goold's Almeida. Critical opinion keeps raving about work there, from where I was sitting in 2015 it was flop after flop. The worst was the ghastly Game back in March. Honorable mention for the Traverse's revival of the interminable An Oak Tree at the Fringe.

Best Musical: A tie between two shows I didn't get round to reviewing, the Donmar's outstanding revival of City of Angels, and Memphis in the West End – the latter a far tougher and more powerful take on American race relations than I'd anticipated.

Worst Musical: There was no award for this until in mid-December Rufus Norris's misfiring first year at the National made a successful bid for it with the dismal wonder.land. Will it survive till April?

Unclassifiable Show of the Year: The remarkable En avant, marche! at the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival. Comes to Sadler's Wells for a short run in June as part of LIFT 2016. Well worth catching.

What am I looking forward to in 2016: Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale and Zoe Wanamaker in Harlequinade in early January. The return of the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra to the Barbican in February. The incredibly starry casting of Grey Gardens in Southwark. And with luck (as I'm still waiting to hear about my ballot result) a number of goodies in Glyndebourne's very exciting 2016 season.

Shows Dr Pollard is still waiting for revivals of: Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens, 1776 the musical (with the number of off-West End musicals these days you'd think somebody would get round to this gem), Prokofiev's War and Peace (presumably the ROH can't find an off the wall director who wants to do it and ENO has likely both junked the marvellous Albery production and in any case can't afford even a revival of such a show at present) and a proper main stage revival of Follies (if only Norris had picked that for his inaugural musical revival at the National rather than the Threepenny Opera).

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Husbands and Sons at the National, or No Way Out

As usual, just when I was beginning to despair of ever seeing a really good piece of theatre again (after a run of three particularly dismal shows at the National), the magic returns. The show responsible on this occasion was somewhat surprising given that the author is D.H. Lawrence, a writer I last encountered (and disliked) at school.

This play is, it seems, an amalgamation (by Ben Power) of three plays by Lawrence, all set in a mining community similar to the one in which the author grew up. This mash up evidently offended some critics who remembered performances of the individual plays from years ago and thought they were weakened (for some fatally) through being combined. Not having seen the plays before I had no such problem, and if I hadn't been told it was a combination of three plays I'm not sure I'd have known. The stories were very effectively linked together by two common threads: unhappy households and the curse of the mining existence – from neither is there any escape, to which is added a further layer of pain since it is by no means clear that the characters wish to.

Here We Go/Evening at the Talk House at the National, or, Committing my Cardinal Theatrical Sin Twice in One Evening

Hot on the heels of the dismal wonder.land come two more National Theatre misses (and the rest of Norris's first months in charge weren't that hot to start with).

First up on Thursday I suffered through Caryl Churchill's Here We Go. This is the third Churchill play I've seen and it remains beyond me why she is considered one of our greatest playwrights. This one consists of three short scenes (the second and third ones of which both seriously outstay their welcome). First we are at a wake where the guests give snatches of information about the deceased before telling us how they themselves will die – since we have hardly met any of these people (and Churchill is plainly uninterested in giving us any more information about them) it is difficult to care very much – though I did enjoy seeing Susan Engel (wonderful in 3 Winters back in January) in action again. Second, we meet the deceased (I don't really see how there can be any doubt about this) in what is presumably the afterlife where he treats us to a tour of literary and religious ideas about that afterlife – lectures rarely work on stage in my experience, and this is no exception not least because all we know by the end of the scene is that we don't know what happens when we die which I already knew before I came in. Third, and most interminably, we watch as the same old man, assisted by his care worker, changes from pyjamas to day clothes and back again time after time after time in silence. Has there ever been such a desperately drawn out fade to blackout?

Wonder.land at the National, or, It Should Have Stayed in Manchester

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 12th December 2015.

There is really only one reason to see this show, and that is Anna Francolini, who makes a valiant effort to inject some life into it. Sadly the material is too weak, and she is not on stage enough to succeed. After the experience of Dr Dee (Damon Albarn's last foray into musical theatre and one of the many nails in English National Opera's coffin) my hopes were not high (and fell further after reviews of the initial run at the Manchester International Festival), but I didn't think it would be quite so dull and too often cringe-inducing as this.

The show is dramatically inert. The plot moves forward with a slowness that is at times desperate (when I first glanced at my watch and saw only 25 minutes had passed I knew we were in for a painful afternoon). It is about the putting back together of Aly's (Lois Chimimba) family, and getting Aly to value herself as she is (the show has a terrible tendency to hit the audience over the head regarding this point). Aly achieves this first by retreating into the world of on-line gaming (where she creates an avatar (Alice)) and the show inadequately connects with its source material) and finally by renouncing this world. Oh and there's an attempt at a villain in the form of Francolini's Ms Manxome – an unhinged headmistress. None of the interactions, characters, or relationships are given any meaningful depth by text or music, though Francolini almost deceived me at times.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Staggering! Booking for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival


We all make mistakes. To err is, after all, human. The important thing is to recognise when you have done so, and to learn from them, and to try to not make the same mistakes again. Also, it never hurts to apologise.

In December 2014, the Edinburgh International Festival announced that they would open booking for concerts and recitals before announcing the rest of the programme. This infuriated us as we like to immerse ourselves in the full breadth of the programme. Doubly frustrating as it seemed a rash and ill thought out decision, with little consideration for the impact it had on many loyal supporters of the Festival. For example, it was interesting when, earlier this year we received a fundraising call. We mentioned our displeasure at the staggered booking proposal, to which the member of staff gave a hollow laugh and admitted they'd had a busy time dealing with the feedback.

Still, it seemed the lesson had been learnt. Festival Director Fergus Linehan wrote a letter to all those who complained. This was subsequently sent to supporters. The matter seemed to be concluded and, credit where credit is due, we thanked the Edinburgh International Festival for heeding feedback.  Unfortunately that decision came too late for them to reverse their decision to put the theatre production Antigone on sale early, and because of that they lost the opportunity to sell a ticket for it to us (we instead chose to see it in London).

Sadly it is now clear we were wrong.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Showstoppers present Where's Runnicles, the song

Our friend, and former contributor to this blog, Andrew Pugsley is currently appearing in the west end with The Showstoppers. If you're unfamiliar, it's an astonishing and hilarious improvised musical, based on suggestions from the audience. We maybe a little biased, but have seen it many times at the Edinburgh fringe and can thoroughly recommend it. See review here.

We donated some money to their recent crowdfunding campaign to help with their London run. In return, they made us this fun video answering a question we've asked from time to time. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.


Friday, 16 October 2015

Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar, or, Another Failed Issue Play

Note: A slightly delayed review of the performance on Friday 9th October 2015.

The penultimate scene of this dull overlong play offers a fleeting glimpse of what might have been. The central character, Gabe (Luke Newberry), in emotional turmoil, seeks sex in a public toilet with potentially serious consequences. It's virtually the only moment in the evening when the oppressive environment for the GLBT community on the unnamed university campus which Christopher Shinn's text goes on and on about actually feels emotionally real. Unfortunately the rest of the play gets nowhere near this.

In advance I suspected the play might be a classic issues lecture. There are certainly elements of this, and they work about as well as such things in live theatre usually work. But as it turns out this is not the play's main problem which is three fold – a multiplicity of strands which never fully cohere, the shallowly drawn nature of the characters (most of whom feel like types rather than potentially real people) and the lack of emotional punch.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Murmel, Murmel, or, Not Side-Splittingly Funny

The International Festival brochure proclaims this show to be “a side-splittingly funny 80 minutes”. On the basis of my experience I conclude that, presuming Fergus Linehan did see the show before booking it, he and I have wildly divergent senses of humour.

There is no question that the twelve strong ensemble of performers in this show are very talented people who can sing, move, dance and dive/fall off the stage onto a crash mat to a high standard. But a talented ensemble alone does not make a successful show and, once again this Festival, this is an ensemble let down by the show they are performing in.

Friday, 28 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Die Zauberflöte, or, Played Incessantly (and Unsuccessfully) for Laughs

For the second fully staged opera of the 2015 Festival, Fergus Linehan turned to Mills era regular Barry Kosky. I did not rate the previous Kosky directed shows I saw highly but on paper this sounded a promising collaboration with 1927 Productions. The pity of this evening is that the central idea, of staging the work as a silent film, is an excellent way to deal with the dialogue. In themselves, those sections do work fairly well. Unfortunately much of the rest of the evening is problematic.

To understand why we do have to begin in this case with the production. This consists of constant film projections onto an enormous screen into which are fitted ledges so that cast members can appear both on the ground and in the air. Given the many environments the text calls for, this is not in itself a bad idea, the opening image of a madly running Tamino pursued by a dragon is quite fun, and the many entrances/exits of singers are adeptly handled. But two problems rapidly emerge: the animators are determined to play everything for laughs and they clearly believe that something visual must be going on virtually all the time. With regard to the first they have, I'm afraid, misunderstood the work. There are of course places which are meant to be funny, but there are equally places that are serious – when you have your audience laughing about suicide and rape – then things have gone badly wrong. Incessant busyness is an all too familiar vice of modern opera directors. Kosky claims in the programme note that “there are moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight. Suddenly there is only the music, the text and the character.” I counted a grand total of two such moments in Act Two, and they were very fleeting. Too often, for me, this constant busyness was in conflict with the music. Equally frustratingly, although there are places where Mozart's music would in theory benefit from something else going on, animation tended to simply repeat a fairly basic point till it became tiresome (for example right at the outset the repeated hearts of the ladies fluttering down on Tamino). The bomb whose fuse burns down but which doesn't explode for what feels like an eternity is simply ludicrous (and not in a good way). Little feels at stake in the trials. Overall, I had the distinct feeling that the animators neither trusted the music, nor thought anybody should be paying much attention to it.

EIF 2015 - Lanark, or, Can We Please Have a Moratorium on Breaking the Fourth Wall?

I haven't read Alasdair Gray's novel on which this adaptation is based. I'm in two minds as to whether I now should read it as some investigation following this show suggests that things I really disliked are faithful to the original work. From this the reader will gather that I am once again in dissent from the generally highly positive majority opinion on this show.

First, the positives. The acting ensemble is very strong. Sandy Grierson as Lanark and Jessica Hardwick as Reemer (?) deserve particular credit. They failed my ultimate test of really making me give a damn about their characters, but the fault for that lay with the work. The supporting players, all of them taking on a variety of parts, also deserve high praise – I especially enjoyed George Drennan's Lift (did Gray borrow from Douglas Adams's doors or was it the other way round?) and Gerry Mulgrew's Scarlatti playing Professor. Director Graham Eatough generally marshalls them effectively – the movement in Act Two is notable but has less impact than it might do because of the nature of the work.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

EIF 2015 - En avant, marche!, or, A Way of Finding Courage

I can explain what this show is about. I'm not sure that I can recapture why it packs such a punch.  The primary story tells of the first trombone of a brass band (the remarkable Wim Opbrouck) who owing to illness can no longer perform. Through broken snatches of speech, gargling, song, silence and some remarkable choreography the show meditates both on this loss and the perhaps more terrible final one which confronts him. Simultaneously, the show is also a larger meditation on the nature of community – a striking commentary on which is provided by the participation of a local brass band from wherever the show is being performed (in this case the superb Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band). The contrast between their history (as described in the programme) and the jobs of current members (elicted as part of the performance) is especially eloquent.

Early on the piece is often funny (the first trombone's wife's bitter complaints about her husband's insistence on sleeping with his trombone as well as her). But the tone steadily darkens. When the D & M forces bring matters to a conclusion with Holst's Jupiter, simply played straight out to the audience, it was powerfully moving.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

EIF 2015 – HMS Pinafore, or, Showing London How It's Done (Again)

This concert performance of HMS Pinafore continues two trends of the 2015 Festival. First, like the semi-staged Budapest Figaro it contained more drama than many fully staged operas seen in London this season (the contrast with ENO's dull fully staged Pirates was especially telling). Second, it maintained the music/opera strand of this year's Festival as its strongest element. Altogether it was an enormously fun afternoon at the Usher Hall.

It was sensibly decided, as I gather was also done when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the work at the Proms ten years ago, to substitute a single narrator for the spoken dialogue. Tim Brooke-Taylor performed this role with excellent wit harnessing the best of Gilbert's dialogue to some choice anecdotes (the neat reference to W.H. Smith's other profession was an especially deft touch).