Monday, 18 July 2016

The Deep Blue Sea at the National, or, An Emotionally Cold Evening

Note: This is a review of the performance on Tuesday 12th July 2016.

Carrie Cracknell and Helen McCrory who previously united at the National for a much praised Medea in 2014 now return for what is, apparently, Rattigan's masterpiece. Just about every other critic seems to have loved this. As with that earlier Medea I was not very favourably impressed.

For those not familiar with the play, it concerns the mess Hester Collyer (McCrory) has apparently made of her life, both in regards to any profession (she may have some artistic talent, but has not fully developed it) and her love life (she spends much of the evening dealing with her ex-husband, a straight-laced judge, and her current lover, an ex-RAF pilot). The central question is whether the thwarted suicide which opens the play will become a successful one by the conclusion.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Il Trovatore at the Royal, or, An Understandable Fall from Fashion

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 11th July 2016.

A number of commentators have remarked on the fact that Verdi's Il Trovatore occupies an uncertain place in the repertory these days. Given a narrative as creaky as this, and the evident difficulty of locating four world class voices, I am not at all surprised. Despite some positive elements this new Royal Opera production does not make a compelling case for the work.

The production is another indifferent, though not unrevivable, effort for the company. David Bosch's debut contains a number of things I've seen too often in recent times. He makes ineffective use of projections – I was particularly baffled as to why plants starting growing in one of Leonora's early arias, or why we needed a cartoonish drawing of Leonora later when it was perfectly obvious whom the Count was singing about. There is little, until the last scene, in the way of set apart from barbed wire, crosses and a vague attempt at trees such that the overall sense of place is feeble. The excessive tank suggests some kind of modern battlefield but beyond that there is a lack of clarity as to exactly where or when we are supposed to be – and some costuming (especially of Leonora) doesn't fit well with the implied modernity.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Richard III at the Almeida, or, Rupert Goold is Uninspired (Again)

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 7th July 2016.

Many critics and audience members at present rate Rupert Goold's Almeida highly. I, on the other hand, don't think I've seen a really exceptional show there since Our Town (and that was an American import). This latest effort sees Goold returning to Shakespeare where again he has often received high praise from others and hasn't especially impressed me. This latest effort does not change my mind.

As a production it is muddled. The first problem is that Goold can't make his mind up about when we are (where is also far from clear). Guns are mingled unconvincingly with swords, modern suits with armour. The set is little help. It is largely minimalist – and those items which are present like the throne on a platform at the back and the overdone skulls in the wall add little. Goold's main idea is to play it all over Richard's grave (the action is framed by its recent excavation, an unconvincing device). During most of the second half the grave is uncovered and sits centre stage while various protagonists struggle to navigate their way around it, or drop handfuls of earth into it, and I kept wondering whether somebody was going to fall in by accident. That most characters in this play are teetering on the edge of the grave, and many of them do indeed end up in it, is clear enough without piling on the symbolism. A further effect of all this is, as is too often the case with productions of the Histories, a failure to convince that a kingdom is at stake.

Friday, 8 July 2016

On the Twentieth Century at the Guildhall, or, It's About Life on a Train

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 2nd July.

Regular readers may have realised that I have a real soft spot for what I think of as old fashioned musical comedy. By this I mean shows which are real musical comedies – witty, plot on the silly side, happy ending assured – musicals, one might put it, as they once were. This 1978 show (music Cy Coleman, book & lyrics by the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green) has had a recent London outing, off-West End at the Union, but I wasn't able to catch it – so I was delighted when I discovered the Guildhall was reviving it for the musical theatre class's end of year show. I was even more delighted when I started to scan through the programme book on Saturday evening and discovered that the director was Martin Connor and the choreographer Bill Deamer – the team responsible some years back now for the magnificent Babes in Arms revival at Chichester (still, I'm tempted to say, the best musical revival I've ever seen there). And I was not disappointed – yes there are some uneven aspects to the evening but taken all in all, it's performed with great panache, and that vital sense of pure enjoyment which says yes, we know this is all a bit silly, but isn't it such fun. Indeed it is.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National, or, I'm Sorry You Have Failed to Interest Me

Note: This is a review of the final preview on Tuesday 31st May 2016. The press night took place last night.

This performance was one of those occasions when I arrived at the theatre feeling not much in the mood for an evening inside. Great theatre can dispel such moods, but sadly this play (my first encounter with the work of Alexi Kaye Campbell) proved to be a dull, unconvincing evening.

Sunset takes place on the Greek island of Skiathos in 1967 and 1976. In Act One we meet playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) who have rented a house there so that Theo can write – this is apparently easier on a Greek island than in Camberwell. Into this alleged paradise they invite (for reasons which are not convincing) an American state department official Harvey (Ben Miles) who is from the beginning one of the more obvious spies you are likely to encounter, and his stereotypically ditzy blonde wife June (Elizabeth McGovern). Once they turn up Harvey dominates the rest of the act. He tells pretty much everybody what they are thinking, why they are thinking it and, by the interval, he has talked Theo and Charlotte into agreeing to buy the rented house from a Greek uncle and daughter who want to emigrate to Australia.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Zender's Winterreise at the Barbican, or, Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 12th May 2016.

The original version of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is, in the right hands, one of the most searing pieces in the repertoire. Although it requires only two performers it possesses remarkable emotional and musical range. I was sceptical in advance about whether the work could be improved, or even equalled, either via orchestration or, particularly, the addition of multimedia elements. Committed performances from Ian Bostridge and the Britten Sinfonia under Baldur Bronnimann did not convince me otherwise.

I mistakenly thought, until I read the programme afterwards, that Zender's orchestration dated from the Weimar era, in fact it dates from the early 1990s – possibly I was misled by elements in the design of this performance which seemed rather influenced by the world of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret. Schubert's original is still largely detectable, and the additions are not challenging but rather bring to mind other familiar voices such as Bartok, Strauss, Wagner and, obviously, Weimar cabaret. The sound world stretches from slightly twisted Schubertesque chamber music to Hammer Horroresque film score. Overall, it struck me musically as an interesting occasional piece but one which suffers from fundamental weaknesses in comparison to the original. Zender is so busy bigging up effects that he doesn't leave the space for the listener's imagination that the original piano accompaniment allows. More seriously it manages, for me, to lose the emotional power of that original. The finest moments, tellingly, came when the orchestration was sparest and Bostridge was delivering the vocal line straight out (Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus in particular).

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Why the European Union Youth Orchestra should be Saved

I am a passionate pro-European. One of my reasons for this, which doesn't get the kind of public emphasis that I think it should, is that it is ever more important in a world where nasty, narrow-minded nationalism seems resurgent that we break down rather than increase barriers between nationalities. I consider the European Union for all its faults still a powerful vehicle in enabling that to happen. One important way in which I believe such an agenda can be taken forward is through finding ways to bring members of different nationalities together in pursuit of a larger goal. For 40 years, in the no doubt small world of classical music the EU has facilitated this through its support of the European Union Youth Orchestra.

I am not claiming that the mere fact of uniting young people from 28 nations in a symphony orchestra is necessarily going to change the world but I do firmly believe that it achieves two powerful and important things. Firstly, it can, and the evidence from past participants clearly shows that it does, forge links between those who participate who might otherwise never have encountered one another. Links which go on to enable other such cooperation and moments of understanding. Secondly, it is a powerful symbol of cooperation between nations at a time when we badly need such things. As an aside the Orchestra regularly delivers high quality performances (I recall with particular pleasure a fabulous one of Busoni's mad Piano Concerto at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012).

Monday, 25 April 2016

Les Blancs at the National, or, Whose Country Is This?

In advance of this performance I was worried that it was going to be another Norris era lecture – where the desire to make political points trumps drama. Fortunately, this turns out to be an enormously powerful piece of political theatre. In lesser hands many of these characters might verge into caricature, but this excellent ensemble in harmony with Yael Farber's effective direction successfully find that individuality.

Lorraine Hansberry's unfinished play, final text adapted (as the programme has it) by Robert Nemiroff is set in an unidentified African country embroiled in an increasingly bitter independence struggle. The use of the term Emergency perhaps hints at Kenya, but the story wisely doesn't get pinned down since it wishes to, and depressingly can, stand for too many places. The action takes place in a Norwegian run medical/religious mission in the heart of the jungle staffed by whites who turn out almost all to be, for all their apparent connections to the native population, as problematically racist as the white settlers off-stage. A palpable air of threat hangs over the central mission house (the main piece of Soutra Gilmour's set), abetted by miasmas of smoke and a superb soundscape (Adam Cork and the Ngqoko Cultural Group). The average audience member will probably anticipate the fate of the building, they are perhaps less likely (I certainly didn't) to anticipate the other, human, fate revealed on the last page.

Kings of War at the Barbican, or, Ivo van Hove makes a film

I've seen a good many foreign Shakespeares over the years, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival, and mostly they've been poor (though oddly enough not the last foreign language version of the Henry VI trilogy). Sadly this latest work by the in fashion Ivo van Hove is not an exception.  After the long first half I was just indifferent, by the end of the four and a half hours I was pretty fed up.

Van Hove has amalgamated Henry V, the three Henry VIs and Richard III (plus a bit from Henry IV Part II at the beginning). After sitting through the show I'm still unclear what he was trying to achieve by doing this. His deletions and inclusions can be curious but it is less those textual choices and more the overall effect which is the big problem. This is because van Hove succeeds in the surgical removal of pretty much any sense that there is a kingdom at stake, or that there are more than a handful of people inhabiting it or dying for it. The set consists of one enormous room, behind which are a set of white corridors which we see, interminably and ineffectively, on film. It's an increasingly boring space to look at. I suspect we were supposed to think of modern leaders launching air strikes from their bunkers (some of the visual projections are overt about this) but frankly this is illuminating neither about those modern leaders nor the Shakespearean text, and it isn't in any case followed through in a sufficiently sustained way.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Akhnaten at ENO, or, Philip Glass's Operatic Limitations Repeated

I went to this performance purely for completionist reasons as it was of an opera that I had not previously seen. Having endured three previous attempts at the genre by Philip Glass my hopes were not high (you can read my thoughts on the Barbican Einstein on the Beach and ENO's Satyagraha). This is not as interminable as Satyagraha, but it is not great opera.

The problem on this occasion is with the work itself. I concur with others who have argued that Glass uses more orchestral colour here (particularly brass) than in other works of his I've heard. He also seemed to me more willing to allow for fleeting melody. This can't finally transcend the basic limiting character of Glass's repetitions – this is music that dramatically to my mind either goes nowhere or goes to the same place over and over again with diminishing effect – but it does make them more bearable. Influences of greater composers also seemed more evident here than in other Glass operas – Wagner for example (the programme note cites Purcell) with the overall unfortunate effect that his weaknesses against their greatness are the more exposed. All that said the approach does work better here than in Satyagraha, because the subject matter lends itself to this kind of style more readily – particularly in the heavily ritualised Act One.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Cleansed at the National, or, Extremes of Violence, Nudity and Sex Will Take You Only So Far

Note: This is a review of the final Preview performance on Monday 22nd February 2016. The Press Night is this evening.

As a general rule with my cultural activities I am willing to see most things once, though I admit I do exclude immersive theatre, other things which advertise audience participation in advance, and horror films. I mention this because even when booking for Cleansed I was hesitent, and reading reports of earlier previews I nearly abandoned the whole thing. In the end my completionist streak won out, I went, and survived. However, I never need to see this play again, and I am not convinced of its merits.

First, the positives. The cast are very strong and deserve enormous credit for what must be an exhausting experience, both physically and emotionally. I should also have thought it was unpleasant but I assume performers must measure such things in such a context differently otherwise I can't see how you would cope with these roles. Michelle Terry, on stage almost throughout, deserves particular praise.

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 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).