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.

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.