Thursday, 14 February 2019

An Evening with Ian McKellen at the Bridge, or, In the Presence of Greatness

Note: A belated review of the performance at the Bridge Theatre on Sunday 3rd February.

If you're lucky enough to have secured a ticket for this theatrical event, the first thing to do when you arrive is buy a programme. Not only will this go, along with all the profits, towards a worthy cause chosen by the venue (for me it was for Flute Theatre to undertake educational work with Southwark school children) but it contains a map. More vividly than the list of venues on the tour's website it shows the scale of what McKellen is doing. In this era of justifiable concern about accessibility, McKellen is making a remarkable practical commitment by playing venues like The Hafren in Newtown or the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis - places, I suspect, that rarely see a theatre performer of such stature (it struck me as a rather sad, but unsurprising comment, on my current home town of Lincoln that its fine Theatre Royal has missed out).

The show itself is in two parts. In the first, longer, section, McKellen combines recitation (from Tolkien to D H Lawrence), anecdote and autobiography. In the second, we go on a whirlwind tour through the best bits (in McKellen's view) of Shakespeare. The first with its windows into vanished worlds - a time when Bolton had three theatres, a time when male couples could not openly show their affection for each other for fear of arrest - I found the more moving. McKellen's delivery of the Shakespeare is consistently magnificent - someone should be planning a production of As You Like It so he can cross Jaques off his list, and Shallow's recitation of the dead was haunting - but the framing device, which I thought required selective deafness on McKellen's part wears a little thin.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Die Walkure at the Festival Hall, or, Now the Audience Must SEE her Horse

This was an afternoon that started strongly, blessed by some electrifying singing from Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Act 1. Sadly thereafter things deteriorated so that by Act 3 I was just looking forward to the end.

I couldn't make the recent Ring Cycles at Covent Garden, and the last time I heard any of the cycle live was back in 2013 at the Proms so a return felt overdue. Family had also reported favourably on Vladimir Jurowski's conducting and the LPO's playing after last year's Rheingold (if not on Matthias Goerne's Wotan). Regrettably this cycle's problems with that role continued.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Sweat at the Donmar, or, Of Perennial Problems of New and Issue Plays

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 19th January 2019.

This latest in a sequence of recent American plays to make it to London arrives with a considerable reputation having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017 (I was very struck to realise that one of the works it beat to that award was Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America - on the basis of my encounter with the first part of the latter at the Barbican the decision was definitely the wrong way round). Since it opened at the Donmar before Christmas it has received unanimous critical praise, and an examination of Twitter when I was writing this produced not a single audience member who was less than impressed. But I'm afraid I could not agree with all these people. From where I was sitting this was a flawed play which did not tell me anything really new about the issues it discussed.

There are strong aspects to the afternoon. The design of the central bar set, by Frankie Bradshaw and lit by Oliver Fenwick is beautifully done, and manages one of those occasions when the Donmar convincingly becomes another world. The detail of the objects chosen for the wall hangings particularly stood out. There's nice use of archive TV footage (presumably selected by Video Designer Gino Ricardo Green) although the sense of date was to my mind more concrete in that footage than from the actual text.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Queen of Spades at the Royal, or Just Wait Till Tchaikovsky Attempts Suicide With His Own Quill Pen

I'm not quite sure why I booked to see this. I previously ticked off The Queen of Spades the last time the Royal Opera revived its previous production, and it hadn't stuck in my head as a work I desperately wanted to revisit. I'd seen two Herheim productions and not been wowed by either of them - particularly not his version of La Cenerentola which played at the EIF last summer. As this long afternoon dragged on I'm afraid I was increasingly eager for the finish.

The best of the performance came in Act 2 Scene 2 thanks to Felicity Palmer's electrifying Countess. In her lieder like aria of reminiscence, Palmer's voice sank almost to a whisper. There was a palpable deepening of the stillness in the auditorium (a few coughs notwithstanding) - it was one of the rare moments when I felt the show was really holding the audience. There was also fine work from Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) in his big aria (particularly commendable given the amount of silly things Herheim gives him to do), and from the Chorus in the religious chorale like passage towards the conclusion.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

I'm Not Running at the National, or, Neither of Them, Thank You

The issue play is a popular form at the National these days, and this is another in a lengthening line of indifferent ones. The state of the Labour Party and of the NHS are both topics which also seem to be in vogue. On the former we've had the flawed Labour of Love and the brilliant Limehouse, on the latter the recent Hallelujah! This play combines the two themes in an episodic treatment ranging from 1996 to 2018.

It is the decision to posit an actual Labour party leadership contest in 2018 which is at the heart of the work's problems. Firstly, historically, there wasn't one - and at the time there was frankly little sign there was going to be one. Secondly, the terms in which Hare imagines this fantasy leadership struggle emerging are so divorced from the actual history as to render the story deeply unconvincing. Hare posits a Blairite type centrist (so far so fair enough), against an independent woman who has only just joined the Labour party and who has made her political career on the single issue of being elected in Corby by opposing the closure of the NHS hospital there. Hare seems to be unaware that the defining issue of our politics in 2018 and indeed for several years prior to that was Brexit. Moreover recent general elections have decimated the minor parties and independents - our actual politics, contrary to one of the theses of the play, is becoming more tribal rather than less. He also ignores the actual character of the two most recent struggles for the Labour leadership - some glancing comments on the soul of the Labour party notwithstanding, there is an absence of engagement with the Corbyn-moderate battle which defines Labour at present. Had Hare set this debate during the Blair era, or towards its end, and rendered it a purer history piece it might have worked better - though even then the whole argument feels rather redundant in the context of our current political crisis. In sum, Hare seems to want to be making a comment on our contemporary political moment, but nothing really lands because the picture of that moment he constructs is increasingly divorced from reality.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Tell-Tale Heart at the National, or, In Wearily Familiar Territory

Note: A belated review of the performance on Friday 4th January 2019.

This riff on Edgar Allan Poe's short story commits a series of my more highly ranked theatrical crimes. But perhaps the most notable, and unwise, is to include quite a number of statements in the text which were presumably intended to be jokingly self-mocking and in fact invited firm agreement from this audience member - this began early in the first half with a masturbation joke ("Who wants to watch that?") - we have already by that point had the masturbation and on-stage toilet visit presumably so Neilson can say look what I can do on stage at the National - and concluded when this tedious show was crawling towards an ending with "Well the play was shite anyway." Indeed it pretty much is.

My only previous encounter with author and director Anthony Neilson was his work Realism at the Edinburgh International Festival back in 2006 which was one of the many mediocre new plays I've sat through there over the years. This is worse. The central problem is that Neilson can't seem to decide whether he wants to make a comedy or a chilling murder mystery. Mostly the evening sticks to the former (although many of the jokes are tired and while some in the audience laughed I rarely did). However, as the second half drags on the show makes an attempt to shift to the latter. The whole set up has been so mocked to that point I couldn't take the shift in tone seriously. A further problem with the shift is that, to work, it would require the viewer to be engaged by the plight of Celeste/Camille (Tamara Lawrence). Unfortunately, she is written as such an arrogant, tiresome individual who goes far too unchallenged by anybody else on stage that I felt the sooner she was arrested and removed to prison the better. The writing inflicted on Lawrence is generally problematic - it's difficult to see why Nora (Imogen Doel) is so attracted to her and it's simply ludicrous that David Carlyle's Detective seems to find it so difficult to spot that she's committed a murder when the signs are, in my view, unmistakable. The heights are reached when a voice over claims that Lawrence has planned the whole crime meticulously - a new definition of the term I was not previously aware of.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Highs and Lows of 2018

Here we go again...

Best Opera: A tie between Paul Bunyan (ENO at Wilton's) and a show I didn't review, Vanessa at Glyndebourne.

Worst Opera: From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera made a bid for this but evades it by virtue of some fine musical performances. No award.

Best Play: Strong competition for this. An honorable mention for Pressure (at the Park Theatre). Runners up - the small scale gem The York Realist at the Donmar, and the magnificent epic Imperium (RSC in the West End). But the palm goes to the simply outstanding The Lehman Trilogy at the National (bizarrely overlooked in other roundups) - not to be missed when it transfers to the West End next year.

Worst Play: Norris's National picked up a bit this year, though the output remains uneven. The miss rate at both the Donmar and the Almeida continued to be too high. Dance Nation at the latter and La Maladie de la Mort and The Prisoner at the Edinburgh Festival all made strong bids,but nothing was irredeemably awful this year.

Over Praised Play of the Year: Nine Night at the National (which I didn't review) and Summer and Smoke at the Almeida both made bids for this but the award goes to The Inheritance. The themes it explored were far more powerfully investigated in Angels in America, outstandingly revived at the National in 2017. I was also struck by the extent to which the almost complete absence of female characters passed without critical comment.

Best Musical: A vintage year including a trip to New York City and a number of recent Broadway hits finally making it to London. Hamilton, Company, Fun Home, 42nd Street with its mesmerising dance routines and Caroline, or Change with the incomparable Sharon D. Clarke all made bids for the crown. Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester came very close - Clare Burt's performance in the title role was stunning - the show ought to have transferred. But the award goes to the small-scale, powerfully moving The Band's Visit on Broadway - a show I really hope somebody is going to transfer to London.

Worst Musical: No Award.

Best Concert: Pierre-Laurent Aimard & Tamara Stefanovich’s EIF Queen’s Hall recital of Brahms’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

Unclassifiable Event of the Year: The extraordinary Taylor Mac: A 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America - Act 1 from LIFT at the Barbican.

Eleven O'Clock Number of the Year: Waitress which I also caught on Broadway is an uneven show, but the number Used To Be Mine sung in the context of a disintegrating marriage was worth the price of admission alone - unforgettable.

Shows Dr Pollard is STILL Awaiting Revivals Of: The transfer of WNO's production of Prokofiev's War and Peace to Covent Garden is really exciting and takes it off the list (finally). However, there is still no sign of Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens or 1776 the musical (I had hoped the arrival of Hamilton in the West End might have led someone in London to look into the latter, but no such luck). And I'm going to put Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms because it's over 10 years since the last main stage revival at Chichester and this is a joyous show that deserves to be regularly seen.

Shows in 2019 Dr Pollard is Looking Forward To: The return of the NT production of Follies. The belated arrival of Craig Lucas & Adam Guettel's wonderful musical The Light in the Piazza in London (it's another strong year for London transfers with two other acclaimed Broadway shows - Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen also arriving).  Billy Budd at the Royal Opera (though the production will have to go some to beat the recent runs at Glyndebourne and Opera North). The overdue return of Alex Jennings to the National in September.

Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican, or, A Bland Updating

Note: A belated review of the performance on Thursday 20th December 2018.

This is a show that feels like it is trying a little too hard to be down with the kids. It updates the action to a bland modern setting which, ultimately, lacks dramatic conviction. The ensemble too often seem to be struggling with the language. There are occasional flashes of inspiration but overall it lacks punch.

The first significant problem is Tom Piper's minimalist set - metal walls at the back and a single cube room in the middle which has to double as far too many different places. Apart from a bizarre moss back curtain for the Lawrence's cell scenes there's no sense of contrast in wealth or location to reflect anything in the text. Frequently members of the cast have to rotate the cube or move the very occasional piece of furniture or prop in a way that doesn't fit with their character. The cover image of the programme suggests there might have been a plan of setting it in a gritty urban cityscape, but the set pretty completely fails to realise this - that cover image of the lovers embracing is far more evocative of a world than pretty much anything in the visuals of the actual production.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, or, A Problem with Rewriting Shakespeare

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 27th October 2018.

This was my third Shakespeare in almost as many weeks, and the second to attempt a re-conception of the play (this time a version imported from New York City's Public Theater). In this case the action is cut down to 90 minutes, and much of the text is replaced by new songs with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. This reimagining turns out to have many admirable qualities, which makes the flaws the more frustrating.

This adaptation mercifully keeps the plot intact and supported by a generally strong cast there are certain things directors Kwame Kwei Armah and Oskar Eustis manage better than any Twelfth Night I've seen. In particular, the double characters of Viola and Cesario, and convincingly portraying Cesario as a man. The idea that Viola is imitating her brother is clever, and it surprises me that this route doesn't occur to more directors. Gabriella Brooks is completely convincing in disguise, in a way that few Violas manage. The only snag here is one of those failings to think the whole piece through - the manner in which Viola is briefly portrayed at the very outset doesn't quite marry up with her later representation of herself - we're supposed to think of her as insecure and vulnerable, but that first appearance has a bit too much confidence about it for this to be wholly convincing.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Synthesising Bach with Peter Gregson

A few weeks ago someone gave what seemed a very silly answer on University Challenge. For what keyboard instrument, asked Jeremy Paxman, did J S Bach originally compose his Goldberg Variations? The first wrong guess, albeit not absurd, was the organ. After all, Bach wrote a lot of music for the organ. My Hurford box set weighs in at 17 discs. After a few moments and a come on, someone from the other team buzzed in and guessed: synthesiser. Paxman gave the withering response he reserves for when students get an arts question a few hundred years out; I, and, I imagine, many other classical music fans, shouted at the screen loudly enough that my brother came into the room to ask what the matter was. But after I was done railing against the ignorance on display, I started to wonder if it was really such a stupid answer. After all, along with just about everything short of the kitchen sink, Uri Caine’s take on the Goldberg Variations probably does feature a synthesiser or two somewhere. (I can’t find a definitive list online and my CD copy is currently in storage).



Perhaps the student in question was, like me, a fan of Peter Gregson who has recently been mixing Bach with synthesisers. I’ve been enjoying his work from his impressive debut album Terminal, to his more recent strings and synths mashup Quartets Two.

Measure for Measure at the Donmar, or, Regrettable Repetition

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sat 13th October 2018.

The first half of this play has many powerful moments, the second half goes off the rails in ultimately troubling ways.

For Act 1 director Josie Rourke condenses Shakespeare's play into a swift moving spare period drama while at the same time managing to find powerful topicality. When Isabella (Hayley Atwell) threatens to expose Angelo's (Jack Lowden) advances and he dismisses her contemptuously with "Who would believe you?" it feels chillingly contemporary. Rourke also finds great resonance in small silent moments. The Provost (a lovely performance by Adam McNamara) bringing water to Isabella and, one senses, seeking through this act forgiveness for his silence in the face of Angelo's behaviour, and being rejected. Mariana (Helena Wilson) reaching out beseechingly for Isabella's hand, begging her to kneel to save her husband's life - when their hands clasp and Isabella kneels it is powerfully moving. In general Wilson makes a lot, like McNamara, of a small part. Elsewhere there's fine mocking commentary from Matt Bardock's Lucio and a nicely played slow undermining of his own authority by Nicholas Burns as the Duke.  Sule Rimi's Claudio has good presence but a tendency to rush delivery.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Paul Bunyan at Wilton's Music Hall, or, Shall America Fail?

Regular readers will know how strong an advocate of this musical theatre piece I am. It remains outside the regular repertoire, and, as a result for me each new production carries burdens. On the one hand it's always a source of excitement and anticipation to think of hearing the work live again. On the other, I worry that directors will unnecessarily mess about with it, that it won't convince others who don't know it that it's a fine piece, that I'll be disappointed. Reading the reviews it was clear a good many critics retain doubts, but I thought this was a fantastic show, one of the best pieces of work I've seen from ENO in some time.

As with the ETO production (you can read my review here) a few years back there's a make do tone to the production, which fits the piece well. Although there are some challenges involved in the Wilton's venue, the general ambience seems a good fit. There's a few hints of furniture in the main playing area, a very cleverly conceived site office level with the balcony, and otherwise props and fine characterisations do the work of bringing this world to life. Often, and clearly partly to accommodate the forces required in the limited space, chorus spread out to surround the audience. Although the sound is sometimes a bit overwhelming, it is also powerfully moving in great choral moments like the climax of the Prelude or "Lost, lost is the world I knew." It also meant, that at least where I was in the stalls, the individual choral lines came out with a striking clarity - particularly in the Prologue. Holding it all together under these conditions must require enormous focus from everybody concerned, and the fact that pretty uniformly they do is highly impressive, with particular credit due to Matthew Kofi Waldren on the podium. Altogether Waldren and his Chorus and Orchestra give a powerful, dramatic, moving reading of this wonderful score.