Friday, 21 July 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo, or, Wondering About Cake Not Characters

Note: This is a review of the preview on Monday 17th July 2017. Press night (according to news reports) takes place on Monday 24th July 2017.

I booked for this show for two main reasons. Firstly because reports of the Benedict Andrews directed Streetcar Named Desire, which I missed, were so strong. Secondly because, as an Americanist, I feel I should see more Tennessee Williams. As I skimmed through the programme before the start I was optimistic having seen several of the performers do fine work in other shows. Sadly this revival is not a fine show.

Andrews's first major error is his choice of setting – this is partly a case of coming adrift in time and partly a problem of design. In terms of time Andrews tries to move the play out of its original 1950s setting – most obviously by having phone conversations take place on mobiles and a modernistic sound system periodically blasting out music. It is, however, very unclear where we are chronologically beyond this vague suggestion of the present day. This is compounded by Magda Willi's set design. Brick and Maggie's room is set on a sloped platform – it's furnished with a bed and a make up table of indeterminate date but certainly to my eye more recent than the 50s, and a modern shower. This is surrounded on three sides by a flat space backed by enormous golden walls. Characters can thus walk round the platform on all three sides. This design robbed the play, as far as I was concerned, of pretty nearly any feeling of oppression and claustrophobia. The text is persistently trying to emphasise this sense of entrapment but I just never believed it. In the fights, for example, there's just far too much space for people to escape into that the threat is never convincing. Then there are the collisions between the specificities of the text and this somewhat abstract design – a jarring example is the mention of the clock during the Brick/Big Daddy scene. A loud chime starts in one pause – I couldn't think why it was doing so, and when they then refer to a clock in the dialogue I simply did not believe that such a clock was actually there. The same applies to wider context, the possession of the enormous plantation outside the room is a key theme of the play, but I never really believed it was there – the setting felt more like we were in some sort of urban modernist hotel.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic, or, Adrift in Minnesota

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Saturday 15th July 2017. The press night takes place on Wednesday 26th July 2017.

The curse of the new musical strikes again with this show. The cast throw themselves into it, the songs are well performed and in themselves make for enjoyable listening, but the show as a whole, I fear, suffers from significant flaws.

The biggest problems lie with the Conor McPherson's book and the marriage between that book and the Bob Dylan songs. McPherson crams the episodic narrative with incident – two accidental pregnancies, one likely murder of a handicapped boy, a dementia patient, two escaped convicts, various adulteries and so on. I can imagine any one of these narratives providing sufficient drama for one musical. The result is that McPherson struggles to find space to give meaningful depth to these characters, and I felt I just didn't see enough of them to become really emotionally engaged in their plights. There are some other oddities which caused me to raise an Americanist eyebrow. Firstly, I was a little bit dubious about the idea that a white woman in Minnesota would have adopted a black child left on her doorstep in c.1910s (another plot line which is never properly explored) – in general the treatment of race in this show is muddled. Secondly, I question whether Americans in the 1930s went around saying “fuck” - but again I may be wrong. Finally, on the book, McPherson could usefully have another look at the rather rambling ending (a perennial new work problem), and I was left puzzled by who exactly the title is supposed to refer to – there are quite a few candidates another symptom of the narrative's problems of focus.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Committee* at the Donmar, or, A Limiting Approach

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 14th July 2017.

Verbatim theatre continues to be in vogue. I think this was my fourth encounter following the NT's London Road and My Country, and the Almeida's Little Revolution. I've never been wholly convinced by it, and this latest attempt at the Donmar did not fundamentally change my mind.

First, as I try now to do, the positives. The ensemble of performers are excellent singing actors and actresses. Their commitment cannot be faulted and the impersonations are across the board convincing. The five MPs and the two committee officers also have to double as other witnesses and they do so very effectively. It is a pity that the text doesn't allow much space for a number of the MPs – I'd have particularly liked to see more of Rosemary Ashe's Kate Hoey.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Ink at the Almeida, or, At Last, Thank God, A Hit!

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 6th July 2017.

There are two schools of thought about the Almeida under the management of Rupert Goold and Robert Icke. Everybody else seems to think it has resulted in something close to hit after hit. I think it has produced a long, mixed line of misses or shows flawed to some degree. It is, therefore, a pleasure to be able to report that for the first time since, I think, Goold's early imported Our Town, the venue finally has another really consistently first class show.

Writer James Graham follows up his excellent This House at the National with this compelling examination of the advent of Rupert Murdoch to Fleet Street. We follow his purchase of The Sun, the battle with the Mirror, and the increasing revolutionary and problematic acts which the editor Larry Lamb makes in trying to overtake the circulation of the Mirror, culminating, in Act 2, with the page 3 moment. Occasionally early on I felt the play was trying a little too hard to force laughs, but it soon settles down. There are quite a few genuinely funny moments, and Graham also avoids the trap of many an “issue” play of coming down too far on one side or the other of the debate. This is, primarily, a play driven by the characters, the issues emerging from them rather than imposed upon them – the best kind of such writing in my experience. Moreover, neither the Fleet Street establishment nor the Murdoch revolutionaries come across as unflawed. Graham is particularly clever in exploring the question of responsibility – is this revolution possible only because of Murdoch and his acolytes, or because they are tapping into aspects of the character of the wider public. And if the latter, which I think the play finally convincingly argues, what can then be done about some of the more problematic effects? The question has contemporary relevance in our age of fake news, but Graham again avoids the trap of making those links too explicit, or of posing too simple solutions. The page 3 debate captures effectively the fact that nobody at the time, at least in this reading, anticipates the longer term arguments.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Otello at the Royal, or, Musically Electric (But Cut the Statues)

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 2nd July 2017.

Unusually for me I booked to see this because of a singer – Jonas Kaufmann – whose career I have had the good fortune to have been able to follow since early unforgettable appearances at the Edinburgh Festival in Schubert and Mahler. I hadn't been particularly sold on the work when I previously saw it in a revival of the venerable Moshinsky production (though I was lucky to hear the outstanding Anja Harteros as Desdemona), and I've never got on well with Keith Warner as a director. As it turned out, and a little to my surprise, this was in many ways an excellent afternoon.

At the heart of this success was a blazing dramatic musical performance from Antonio Pappano who drew superb playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra – sounding far more comfortable and convincing than under Rousset in Mozart at the beginning of last week. This provided a strong platform for the singers. Kaufmann was in very fine form in the title role, at least to my ear. Where heft was needed he possessed it, without compromise of tone. He successfully found both ringing heroism and soft emotion. Perhaps occasionally towards the bottom of his range one might have liked a little more power, but overall it was a very satisfying performance. Maria Agresta doesn't quite have the flexibility and beauty that I remembered from Harteros but she was very moving in the scena that opens Act Four, and never less than fine elsewhere. From my usual perch in the Amphitheatre I felt Marco Vratogna's Iago could have done with more heft but again it's a perfectly fine performance and he certainly brings great character to the role. The minor parts were solidly taken. The Chorus found a weight that I've sometimes missed in other recent performances.

Warner's production has much to commend it. Firstly, it is solidly revivable. More than that, it was for me, convincingly in harmony with the music nearly all the time. The way walls open up and close down, assisted by Bruno Poet's lighting creates convincing internal and external worlds. Furniture is fairly bare but this is overall not a problem. Having Iago give a wall a shove here and there during scene changes is nicely done. Just occasionally I wished for that bit more naturalness to the changes – that is, you don't notice the best changes of scene because they fit so completely into the rest of what is going on – and here there are occasions when you see people in costume moving bits of set and it doesn't feel part of their character but simply an external requirement. Chorus movement could also do with a bit more of the same – the ideas behind the movement in Act 3 are fine, but I'm afraid it currently looks a bit mechanical.

The one snag in Warner's approach is that in the second half I had the feeling that he suddenly grew anxious to show he had interpretative ideas. Up till that point everything is flowing along in a straightforward, dramatically effective manner. The first sign that Warner was getting restless was the enormous statue of a lion which is pulled across the stage by the Venetians, pauses for a moment or two, so we can be sure to appreciate they've brought the thing, and then disappears off the other side never to be seen again. It serves no useful purpose that I can see. Statues are obviously on Warner's mind because at the end of Act 3 a wall swings round at the back to reveal an upper room in which another enormous piece of marble is located – the back of a naked man with some sort of wing over his head. It's presumably intended to emphasise ideas in the piece about sexual promiscuity but it just feels unnecessary. Warner's other misstep comes at the start of Act Four. Firstly Desdemona's bedroom appears to be below the room containing the naked male statue – this struck me as just bizarre. Then the couple's bed – a vivid white in contrast to the black of just about everything else (an unnecessarily obvious move) is on a truck which is slowly pushed down to front of stage through the quiet opening prelude. As with other such movements this season (the wall at the end of the new Rosenkavalier came to mind) it seems this can't be done silently. I also really couldn't see that it served any dramatic purpose – you could perfectly well simply raise the curtain with the bed already in position. Finally, the breaking in of personnel at the end loses effectiveness by the decision to trap some of them in the upper room with the statue, and it is a bit odd that Otello ignores a perfectly good sword right in front of him and instead circles round the bed to pick up a previously concealed dagger to kill himself.

Overall, this is a very strong afternoon of opera, but as with the new Rosenkavalier I do feel a little judicious tweaking might be in order before the first revival.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Hamlet at Glyndebourne, or, A Contrast In Acts

Note: This is a review of the performance on Friday 30th June 2017.

As Ryan Wigglesworth's Winter's Tale a few months back showed, turning Shakespeare into opera is fraught with peril. Brett Dean takes on an arguably even more formidable challenge than Wigglesworth in attempting Hamlet. There is much to admire, but as a completely satisfying opera I think this falls just a little short.

Before turning to the work itself though, the unquestionably outstanding side of the evening should be mentioned – that is the musical performances. In the punishing title role, onstage almost constantly apart from a respite at the start of Act Two, Allan Clayton is simply magnificent. He displays an impressive dynamic range, catches the famous “antic disposition” but without losing the ability to catch at the heart – notably in his relationship with Ophelia, and in the final moments of the work. Barbara Hannigan is a moving, beautifully sung Ophelia. Jacques Imbrailo is underused vocally as Horatio, but makes his limited interventions tell and adds a fine still presence to many scenes. Setting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a pair of counter tenors is nicely comic, and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey are in fine vocal form. John Tomlinson can really only now do one thing vocally, but as Ghost and Gravedigger it works perfectly well (the Player King might benefit from a little more flexibility). Rounding out this fine ensemble are Rod Gilfrey's Claudius, David Butt Philip's Laertes and Sarah Connolly's Gertrude. In the pit and up in the Upper Circle the London Philharmonic and the Glyndebourne Chorus are likewise in powerful form. On the podium Vladimir Jurowski holds the whole expertly together.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Common at the National, or, Perhaps They Could Try Playing It For Laughs?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th June 2017. The press night took place last night (Tues 6th June 2017).

On paper this new commission had promise. I loved D C Moore's The Swan, staged a few years back in the Paintframe, and Anne-Marie Duff is a very fine actress. Sadly, that promise is not fulfilled.

The principle problem with this show is Moore's text. It is both elaborately over-written and plagued by mangling of word order – one spends a fair bit of time trying to work out what people are actually saying. It rarely achieves naturalness in delivery, despite some of the acting talent involved. Quite often it comes across as just plain silly (did nobody query the name Eggy Tom during the production process?). In itself, the text, much of the time, simply fails to work as dramatic language.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Angels in America at the National, or, Hopefully Not Elliott's Farewell

After a run of uneven to poor shows it's a pleasure to be able to report that finally the National has a hit with this outstanding revival of Tony Kushner's epic.

Kushner's play is an often heartbreaking exploration primarily of the experience of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America but also of the rich complexity of the gay community. It's also a terrible reminder of a world in which it was often far harder than it now is to be open about one's sexual identity. The play begins as a comparatively realist saga of a number of protagonists – the closeted Republican lawyer Roy M Cohn (Nathan Lane), the Pitts – a Mormon couple (Denise Gough and Russell Tovey), and a gay couple – Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and Louis Ironson (James McArdle). But there are already blurred lines between the imagined and the real. These increase in the second part when Prior receives a visitation from Amanda Lawrence's Angel that eventually leads us to a despairing, death-longing Heaven. Part Two could occasionally have done with a little judicious trimming, but ultimately I forgave the occasional flabbiness because the play is able to laugh at itself, strikes at prejudice with an undiminished power, and, often, brought tears to my eyes. One can't of course really know what it must have been like to see this when it was originally performed, especially if you had direct experience of that world and the epidemic, but watching this revival does offer powerful glimpses.

La Traviata at Glyndebourne, or, Making the Familiar Fresh

Note: This is a review of the performance on Sunday 28th May 2017.

Doing a rough calculation after this performance I reckon that I must have seen at least six different productions of this work in my opera going life. As the first opera I remember really connecting with it's close to my heart. But the last production I saw was the dismal ENO red curtain effort and, had it been solely up to me, I doubt I would have gone to this Glyndebourne run. Fortunately, a regular fixture in my summer calendar now is a trip with my partner and old friends now in East Sussex to Glyndebourne. This year our friends proposed seeing La Traviata. Thank goodness that they did. For this is a show that, for me, wiped the slate clean. I felt I was seeing this familiar work with a powerful freshness. On several occasions, it brought tears to my eyes.

Tom Cairns directs both thoughtfully and subtly. The sets are spare – a curved wall to the left, a smaller wall partially enclosing a bedroom space to the right, the bed itself and occasional other furnishings. There's just enough hint of gardens, open skies in Act 2 Scene 1, and otherwise we are in enclosed, often oppressive spaces. Cairns adds pointed dumbshow during the preludes – Violetta emerging into a circle of predatory men at the very start, preparing wearily to leave for Flora's party, lying asleep at the beginning of Act 3 while Annina (Eliza Safjan) weeps. On each occasion these scenes added intensity to the drama.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Don Carlo at the Royal Opera, or, A Revival That Falls a Little Short

This is one of those works I always try to catch when performed. To me, it is one of the most satisfying music dramas in the repertoire. This revival gradually finds electricity but the search is often a bit laboured.

Aficionados will know that there are multiple versions of the score. The Royal Opera does at least include a version of the opening Fontainebleau Act, but persists with a crucial omission (as it has done on every occasion I've seen this work performed there). The opening chorus of distressed French peasants adds a crucial layer to the drama of Act 1, fleshing out Elizabeth's motivations for accepting Philip II's hand. The House should really catch up with other British companies and include it.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Donmar, or, Mistakenly Dispensing with Subtlety

My previous encounter with this play was at Chichester in 2012 in a stunning production by Jonathan Church featuring a chilling, compelling central performance by Henry Goodman. So this new staging at the Donmar was up against very tough competition. Unfortunately, it falls some way short.

Almost from the moment of arrival this is an in your face show. A cast member confronted me at the ticket check to wish me an enjoyable evening, programmes are wrapped in brown paper (this is the second novelty programme in recent months – at least less bulky than the ridiculous hospital notes folder at the dreadful NT Pacifist's Guide – I do hope this isn't going to become a thing). The Stalls with their cabaret set up clearly aim to embed the audience in the action, up in the Circle performers are soon appearing to issue instructions. The result, as far as I was concerned, was that this show and I got off on the wrong foot. I don't take kindly to being ordered to participate like that, indeed my immediate reaction is to get my back up and resist.

Monday, 8 May 2017

The Ferryman at the Royal Court, or, There Is No Escape

The fundamental mood of this gripping piece of theatre is established in the first scene as a fearful Catholic priest, Father Horrigan (a fine, understated piece of work by Gerard Horan) is threatened by representatives of the IRA. Lighter, indeed often very funny, moments follow over the following three hours but that threat never goes away. My gaze periodically drifted to the door at the back, expecting doom to enter through it and, in due time, inescapably, it comes.

Jez Butterworth's new play at the Royal Court is, as should already be clear, a tale of a Northern Ireland imprisoned in a cycle of hate, violence, revenge. Butterworth explores this through an extended Irish Catholic farming family. To begin with, we may deceive ourselves that this family is managing to stand aside from the events of 1981 – alluded to, at first subtly, via Thatcher's voice on a radio. Slowly, inexorably, they are ensnared, one by one. Trapped in my seat, I kept wanting them to choose some other path but this is a play that offers essentially no redemption or escape for any of them. Among a plethora of striking scenes in that process, I would mention Shane Corcoran (Tom Glynn-Carney) boasting about his recent IRA activities and, slowly, fatally, corrupting others, and the poisonous rage Aunt Patricia Carney (Dearbhla Molloy) has built on one event decades before.