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.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Pinocchio at the National, or, Talking Down to the Children (Again)

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 16th December 2017.

Despite some blazing highlights (Follies, Angels in America) it has been another year of too many indifferent to poor productions for the Norris National, and this year's childrens show adds another failure to that list. Despite clocking in at modest 2hrs plus interval it feels at times painfully long. The narrative and characters lack emotional depth, the moral lessons are overly didactic in delivery, and though the cast do their best nobody really transcends the weaknesses of the material.

The first problem is the narrative itself which creaks rather badly. In case you're not familiar with it,  there are two strands. One – the attempts of Pinocchio to become a real boy by discovering what is the common element to all humanity. In pursuit of this he runs away with a travelling theatre and visits Pleasure Island. Two – the evolving relationship between Pinocchio and his father Geppetto. In this version the whole thing just never quite gels into a convincing whole. As the afternoon dragged on I found myself thinking of The Fantasticks – it shares similar themes – running away from a home life that seems dissatisfying and dull and eventually learning there is more to that life than was first seen. Of course the songs in that show are rather better which helps, but the book also possesses a greater subtlety, and the characters more depth. Overall here, Dennis Kelly fails to replicate the wit and heart that made Matilda such a wonder, and the moral dilemmas of the story left me cold.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham's, or, A Play Like a Broken Pencil

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 9th December 2017.

Simon Stephens is, it sadly seems, on a downward trajectory. I loved Port (magnificently revived at the National by Marianne Elliott a few years back). Birdland at the Royal Court was odd but interesting (and the gradual flooding of the stage was a real coup). But Carmen Disrupted at the Almeida was interminable. This new work benefits from stronger personnel, but as a play is equally poor.

The work is, possibly, about Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) and Alex (Kenneth Cranham), their meeting at a railway station and the development of their relationship. I say seems to be because given the bare indeterminate setting and Georgie's self-confessed habit of lying I became rather doubtful about the veracity of any of it. There was a kernel of an interesting character in Alex and I wish the play had done more to explore him rather than wasting time on the unconvincingly over-the-top Georgie. The relationship fails to emotionally convince, and moments obviously intended to tug at the heart left me unmoved. There are also quite a number of dubious plot twists – it is particularly hard to believe given the present day setting that it has occurred to neither of them to try and track down Duff's alleged son by use of that little thing known as the internet. Some of the dialogue is painfully cliched – not even Anne-Marie Duff can save a line like “My sadness is deep enough to fill a well”.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar, or, Symbolic Paddling Involved

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 2nd December 2017.

Regular readers will know that I've never really got on with Ibsen. This was not a performance of his work that changed my mind.

Adaptor Elinor Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah relocate the action from Norway to the Caribbean. There are various problems with this. Cook's text retains all of the characters' original names without accounting for what these Scandinavians are doing in the Caribbean. There's also a description of a lagoon which I'm afraid sounds much more like the dark seas of a fjord. More seriously, the relocation assumes that an interracial marriage in the Caribbean of the 1950s would be  accepted without question by everybody and, indeed, that there are absolutely no racial tensions at all – neither position struck me as convincing. There is one heavy handed attempt to compare marriage to slavery late on which doesn't really help the problem. Overall, the relocation comes across as half baked, undermining rather than reinforcing belief in the text.

Matters are further not helped by Tom Scutt's peculiar set. The stage is bare except for a square shaped pool within a glass and silver frame stage left. The frame seemed oddly modern for the 1950s to me, but perhaps that's unfair. At the back right hand corner of this pool a heap of rocks rises from within. Under the water are various miniature boats and houses – it never was quite clear to me why. This pool is, I assume, meant to make us think of the regularly referred to sea. Unfortunately, it is confusingly used sometimes as if it is the sea (in which guise it never convinces), sometimes as an ornamental pond apparently in the back garden of Wrangel's house, and on one occasion as what appears to be a pool of the mind because we have just been informed that the characters are up on a mountain and the sea is miles away. Intermittently characters jump into this pool or splash people with water from it. The whole thing is a muddled, ineffective device, and, indeed, as the show went on I couldn't avoid the feeling that Kwei-Armah didn't really know what to do with it. Heavy handed contributions from Lee Curran (lighting), Emma Laxton (sound) and Michael Bruce (composer) also feature – they appear to have been directed to give a quasi supernatural atmosphere every time something that might be supernatural is talked about – for example Ellida's account of The Stranger. These effects feel intrusive and undermine rather than assisting the credibility of the narrative.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Labour of Love in the West End, or, Ultimately Ducking the Question

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 25th November 2017.

In advance of this show I was disposed to like it having been strongly impressed by James Graham's This House at the National and Ink at the Almeida. Interesting issues are raised and there are some funny moments, but ultimately Graham can't quite decide whether he is writing a political drama or a romantic comedy, and ducks the final hard question.

The play tracks Labour MP for Ashfield, David Lyons, backwards from his 2017 election defeat to his first by-election victory in the late 80s, and then forward again to 2017 in Act Two. Graham's structuring is certainly clever and brave, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along say – though granted that simply goes back in time. Graham doesn't quite find the richness that a truly great use of such a structure could yield where lines or interactions sting in different ways depending on the period, and where all the characters are completely convincing creations whose changing nature we understand better for having followed them in this way.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Albion at the Almeida, or, Time for a Moratorium on State of the Nation Plays

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 18th November 2017.

Mike Bartlett's new play is anxious to tell us about the state of England. So anxious that he hammers the point home in the title and on several other occasions in the body of the play. England, in this instance, is like a garden. A garden in which, it seems, a lot of pretty unpleasant people are trapped with each other. Unfortunately, after what felt a pretty long three hours, I was convinced neither that this was an illuminating representation of England, nor in these individual characters and their relationships.

Bartlett's premise is that Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton), a successful businesswoman, has left her London life and bought a run down mansion with extensive garden somewhere rural (possibly the precise location is mentioned but it didn't stick in my mind). The house was previously owned by a great uncle, who constructed a massive and allegedly pioneering landscape garden. Now that I reflect on this it seems to me something is awry with the chronology because the relative in question is supposed to construct at least some of the garden on his return from World War One, but I feel sure that the history of landscape gardening goes back rather further than that. Despite some laboured expository passages on the matter quite why the garden was so significant never really comes into focus. The same insufficiency of illumination applies to Audrey's decisions first to buy the house and reconstruct the garden and by the end to abandon the whole business.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Network at the National, or, I'm Feeling Bored

Note: This is a review of the matinee preview on Saturday 11th November 2017. The press night is this evening.

About midway through this long two hour show a performer demands to know how we are feeling. We're expected to join in a collective applauding of fictitious TV anchor Howard Beale and shouting out of his catchphrase (“I'm mad and I'm not gonna take it anymore”). As far as I'm concerned theatre has to earn my participation, persuade me to become complicit in such an act. This failed. I was bored and I quietly said so.

I haven''t seen the 1976 film on which this show is based, but a read of the plot on-line, scan of quotations on IMDb and a viewing of the trailer suggests that Lee Hall has made a pretty fair copy of the original. Looking at the trailer there is a noticeable difference to the emotional pitch – zany, tending to crazed, which this wearily slow-paced version fails to match. But I also wonder if the politics of the film – the power of television, the threat of a faceless corporate America, were more original and provocative in 1976 than they feel now. I felt I was listening to lectures on these matters I have heard frequently before and which, as so often at Norris's National, were not subjected to sufficient on-stage critique.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

St George and the Dragon at the National, or, The Tedium Resumes

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 14th October 2017.

After the too brief glory of Follies, the run of flops in the Olivier resumes with this latest National new commission. This show appears to be yet another attempt by the venue to comment on the state of the nation. The result is two hours and 45 minutes of often painful tedium.

Rory Mullarkey's play starts from the premise that St George reappears age after age to slay the dragon which mutates into different guises. We start in pre-industrial England, move forward to a country in the grip of the industrial revolution and finish up in present day London. The cyclical approach is unfortunately reminiscent of Common's repetitions and problematic, albeit in different ways. Firstly, the play asserts that only a year passes between each encounter but there is really no sign that anybody ages at all in that year. Secondly, the village still seems to be inhabited on each occasion by exactly the same people, but there is almost nothing in the way of individual character or relationship development. This is compounded by the cliched nature of many of the characters – the fact that nearly all of them are denied a proper name and referred to instead by trade both indicates and exacerbates this (crier, butcher, healer etc. - as with Eggy Tom in Common I despair that it seems to have occurred to nobody in the National's commissioning process that there was any problem with this). Then there's the shallow political commentary which Mullarkey will insist on bolting on to this rickety structure – a tiresome anti-capitalist screed in the second cycle, wearily familiar remarks about the breakdown of communities in the third, and general unexplored assertions that there was, at some point in the past, a better, possibly golden, age. The net effect of all this is to bore. Apart from one or two brief sparks in the second half the play basically committed my cardinal sin of failing to make me care about anybody on stage, or to make me really believe in any of the relationships being represented.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Follies at the National, or, Living Up To All My Hopes

Note: A belated review of the evening performance on Saturday 23rd September 2017.

I feel like I've been waiting for this revival for forever. Indeed for years, inspired mainly by the correspondence between the line that the Weissmann theatre is to be a car park (though in this version office block) and the Yes Minister joke about the National's building that the architect was given a knighthood so no one could say the building looked like a car park I've thought the National should do it. That it should be the often dismal Norris era that finally sees this revival was a pleasant surprise. Fortunately, it met all my high hopes.

From my seat on the side of the central Stalls block I found the show superbly made to fit the Olivier space. Vicki Mortimer's straightforward set works well. We see a central wall with an archway on one side of which the theatre's advertising lights are sometimes illuminated. To the left the stairway for the descent of the girls, to the right a muddled, dimly lit ruin of rubble and red theatre seats. Often, though, the central playing area is bare but this focuses attention on the drama – Cooke finds an intimacy that can elude in this space.

Friday, 25 August 2017

EIF 2017 – Oresteia: This Restless House at the Lyceum, or In Need of Restraint (2)

This final Scottish production of the 2017 Festival arrived trailing highly positive reviews from its original Glasgow run. There are quite a number of positive aspects to it, but it is, finally, undermined by failures of restraint, and a third part that goes off on a not wholly convincing tangent.

I don't know the original text well enough to know how far Zinnie Harris has taken liberties with the adaptation but the programme note suggests expanded roles for Clytemnestra and Elektra, and there are certainly oddities with the third play which we'll come on to. As in Meet Me at Dawn, Harris demonstrates a capacity for charged, intense scenes – her writing of several of the paired relationships is especially strong – Agamemnon/Clytemnestra in particular, but also Elektra/Orestes.