Saturday, 15 February 2020

Alice's Adventures Under Ground at the Royal, or, A Tired Mockery of Genre

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 8th February 2020.

The previous Gerald Barry opera I encountered, his version of The Importance of Being Ernest, was widely praised. I was much less convinced, and I really only booked for this because of my completionist tendency. It proved to be a tedious fifty five minutes.

But to start with the positives. The performances were of a very high standard. Jennifer France in the title role had a clear, piercing sound admirably suited to the high lying style of most of what vocal writing the work affords her. The supporting cast of Allison Cook, Carole Wilson, Nicky Spence, Robert Murray, Stephen Richardson and Alan Ewing all perform multiple roles in fine voices (again when allowed by the score to exercise them) and high energy commitment through many costume changes and running about the playing area. In the pit Thomas Ades draws crisp focused playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra (in contrast to the last time I heard their partnership - a disappointing Rake's Progress) but can't disguise the shortcomings of the score in that department either.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

The Welkin at the National, or, Twelve Women in a Room Arguing

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Monday 20th January 2020. The Press Night took place last night.

The premise of this play is an admirable one. Essentially it takes the idea of the classic Twelve Angry Men and turns it into twelve women. We do not see such an ensemble often enough on stage and I hope this flawed (from where I was sitting) attempt will be a spur to others to carry the idea forward. This show is blessed by an excellent, in some cases underused, ensemble, but the play itself doesn't quite work.

The plot concerns Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) who has been condemned to death for her part in a murder but has claimed to be pregnant. In consequence twelve women have been empanelled to decide whether she is so, with a single male officer of the court in the room with them who is not allowed to speak. The problems arise from how this idea is executed. It takes too long before we are locked in the room with this jury. Musing about it as I walked home I became increasingly convinced that the play would benefit from cutting all the scenes before the empanelment and letting any information we may need from them filter out through the jury room debate - this would also leave room for more mystery, more tension. Because the next issue is that we are told far too much about the prisoner before that debate even starts - there's not enough left to discover about her to generate needed dramatic tension once we're in the jury room. In consequence, in Act Two, writer Lucy Kirkwood resorts to a surfeit of revelations about our jurors which feels overblown - less, as so often would have been more.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse, or, Another Failed Concept Production

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 18th January 2020.

My misgivings about this show started as I was queuing up to get in and noticed that all the publicity stills featured performers holding microphones. They grew as I took my seat and observed a bare box-like playing area with three microphones and stands. Sadly, the show itself proved those misgivings all too justified.

There seems to be a vogue at the moment in directorial circles for bare stagings that have little concrete sense of place - the current production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida which I sat through earlier in the week is another one. Here Soutra Gilmour's set is wearisome to look at for nearly three hours - mostly just that bare box-like space, occasionally added to with a small set of stairs at the back, a mirror into which Cyrano stares for reasons never fully established, and four orange plastic chairs. Near the opening the production projects, and the text claims, that we are in France in 1640 - I never believed this.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

The Duchess of Malfi, or, Why is it largely set in a changing room?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 16h January 2020.

This was my third encounter with director Rebecca Frecknall. I was less convinced than others by her Summer and Smoke, and my rating of her approach was not improved by either this show or her recent Three Sisters. However, I should preface what follows by also saying that I've never really got on with the revenge tragedy, so perhaps that was part of the problem.

Frecknall and set designer Chloe Lamford's Malfi is blandly modern and sparsely furnished such that, not unlike that Summer and Smoke, there is little concrete sense of place. The main piece of set is a narrow enclosed box-like object which looks like a leisure centre changing room. It sits mostly at the back of the stage and then in the second half is moved squeakily forward and then back to little purpose. Around the edges of the stage are various desks and chairs in which, in a directorial tick that is in vogue and should cease to be, the performers sit when not in scenes. Finally there are two glass like cabinets to the side which turn out to contain the show's props. The supplying of props in this way adds a layer of artificiality which increasingly undermines belief in the world on stage. Frecknall also tends to allow scenes to run into each other in such a way that people who oughtn't to be able to see things are going on appear to be able to do so.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Dear Evan Hansen, or, For Goodness Sake, Stop Lying!

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 4th January 2020.

In advance I was curious as to whether my judgement would agree with that of the Tony Awards voters who back in 2016 gave it the Best Musical accolade over Come From Away which I saw last year and really loved. I thought I might disagree (it has been known), I didn't expect to feel so antagonised by much of this show.

The story follows the Evan Hansen of the title, a young man with anxiety and it ultimately becomes clear wider psychological problems, through the challenges of high school. Following the suicide of a classmate, Connor, Hansen becomes swept into a web of gradually more complicated lies. Those lies are increasingly promulgated via technological means - fabricated e-mails, social media campaigns. To begin with the lies are structured around Hansen's fictitious relationship with the deceased, but it eventually becomes clear that the habit spreads much further.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Highs and Lows of 2019

I wrote less for the blog in 2019 than in recent years because of a change of role at work at the start of the year, but am hoping to write more regularly in the coming year...

Best Opera: Honourable mentions for the Royal Opera's Forza del Destino (outstanding musically but not quite in the same league on the production front) and the experience of the Southbank's imported Donnerstag aus Licht. For the award a tie between Handel's Berenice in the Linbury - a reminder that simple can often be best, and the magnificent Breaking the Waves in Edinburgh which deserves to be seen more widely in the UK and further afield.

Worst Opera: No award.

Best Play: Honorable mentions for Master Harold...and the boys at the National and the hilarious, biting Appropriate at the Donmar (bizarrely much less feted than the overpraised Sweat at the same venue), but the award goes to Maggie Smith's masterclass performance in A German Life at the Bridge.

Worst Play: As in most years there was strong competition for this award. The National picked up overall this year but still offered three dismal new plays - When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another, Faith Hope and Charity, and The Antipodes - all of whom just escape winning by virtue of having some good performers trapped in them. The Almeida had another fairly weak year, with Shipwreck putting in the strongest bid. The Donmar made a late bid with the [blank]. But the worst of the year, and finally winning the award he was runner up for with An Oak Tree back in 2015, was Tim Crouch's dire Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Best Musical: A vintage year. Both Mean Girls on Broadway and School of Rock which I finally caught in London were hugely entertaining - the former blessed, amongst other things with the brilliant Jennifer Simard playing at least three supporting roles. Honourable mention for The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier which reduced me to tears. For the award a tie between the powerfully topical Fiddler on the Roof at the Menier (another show which brought tears to my eyes) and the marvellous Come From Away in the West End.

Worst Musical: The Donmar's disappointing revival of Sweet Charity came closest, but nothing in 2019 was irredeemably awful.

Best Concert: Angela Hewitt's beguiling performance of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier spread over two evenings at the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh International Festival.

Unclassifiable Event of the Year: Barrie Kosky & his Komische Oper collaborators moving compilation of Yiddish operetta, Forget Me Not, late night at the Lyceum also during this year's EIF (packing more punch in its simplicity than many of Kosky's opera stagings as far as I was concerned).

Shows Dr Pollard is Awaiting Revivals of: At long last a full staging of 1776 has been announced - sadly it's on Broadway so I'm already planning a trip there for Spring 2021 - hopefully doubling it with the revival of The Music Man - both shows would merit a London revival (though we have at least had The Music Man once at Chichester) but I've given up hope of that. There is still no sign of anyone resurrecting Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens - the kind of thing the BBC ought to do there being clearly no hope of ENO resurrecting a work they commissioned. More baffling is the ongoing neglect in the UK of Poul Ruders's The Handmaid's Tale, not seen here as far as I'm aware since the ENO production back in 2003. And I would love to see Rodgers and Hart's lovely, witty Babes in Arms again.

Shows in 2020 Dr Pollard is Looking Forward To: Another strong musicals year is in prospect - mine starts with Dear Evan Hansen and Curtains (I have treasured memories of David Hyde Pierce in the original Broadway production of the latter). Later in the year Moulin Rouge arrives from Broadway. I love Janacek's Jenufa which returns to the Royal Opera in the spring but I lack confidence in the director. On the theatre front the Old Vic's Beckett with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe stands out, as does Marianne Elliott's arrival at the Bridge with They Shoot Horses Don't They late in the year. Lastly, the return of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (Barbican, late May) is always a cause for celebration.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

The Mask of Orpheus at ENO, or, Left Cold

This is an opera with a considerable reputation, despite it seems not having been staged since its original premiere at the Coliseum in 1986. Although I didn't see it then, and will see pretty much anything once, I hadn't booked in advance because (like too many new productions at both London houses this season) there were no Saturday or Sunday performances scheduled. However, I happened to hear a segment discussing the work on Radio 3's Music Matters last weekend, and a window opened up for me to go last night, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I'm afraid the evening left me cold.

The opera's subject is the Orpheus myth, indeed this staging is part of a four work series on the myth at ENO. I should perhaps preface what follows by saying this is a myth that has never particularly compelled me as a story - despite several viewings I haven't managed to love the Gluck version (a repertory staple) and for me the strength of the most recent reimagining (the musical Hadestown) was its take on the relationship between Hades and Persephone. This version did not make me change my mind.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Breaking the Waves at the King's, or The Things We Do for Love

Staged opera has been a bit of a challenge for the International Festival in recent years, so it was a pleasant surprise when this year's programme was announced to find that one of only two staged operas was to be a European premiere. I'd read a positive note of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's new work in the New Yorker. I'd also been a huge fan of Tom Morris's production of John Adams's masterpiece The Death of Klinghoffer for ENO. The signs were encouraging. This proved to be a gripping evening of music theatre, introducing me to a work which deserves to be widely seen.

The new opera is an adaptation of Lars van Trier's 1996 film of the same name. I haven't seen the film so I can't comment on how the adaptation compares. What particularly surprised me was the sudden realisation a few days before I attended that both have a Scottish setting. Given the Festival has been anxious to play up Scottish content in recent years it fascinates me that more emphasis was not placed in the marketing of this run on that Scottish setting. I wonder if the darker Scotland portrayed here may be a factor - a community whose narrow minded, intolerant religion has terrible consequences. I actually thought this story had more interesting things to say about Scotland than most of the recent newly commissioned Scottish plays the Festival has offered - not least because it is centrally concerned with a darker Scottish world than those plays have often wanted to address.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Stephen Fry's Mythos at the Festival Theatre, or, Excuse Me While I Digress

At the start of Part 3 of this epic there was a striking moment, indicative of what could have been a rather different show. Fry comes on stage (I think to some music and lighting effects) and lies down. A ball rolls up to him. Then, without preamble or side note, he starts to tell a story - a traveller washed up naked on a beach, taken in by the local rulers, fed and clothed. Fry takes care not to name the traveller, and while some in the audience (myself included) may remember the episode, this gives it an air of mystery - we want to know who he is, what will happen next. The local bard is asked to entertain them and starts in on the tale of the Trojan War, and the princess sees that our shipwrecked traveller is weeping. This is my story, he says...

That opening is a tight, focused piece of storytelling. It's also part of a narrative (effectively the Trojan War and Odysseus's return) which provides Fry with a coherent dramatic shape. As a result, although Part 3 doesn't manage to maintain the high standard of the opening throughout it is more satisfying than the other two segments. The problems elsewhere arise from several factors.

Friday, 16 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Eugene Onegin at the Festival Theatre, or, Is it raining? I hadn't noticed.

It's a comment on the limitations on EIF finances these days that this, one of only two staged operas at the 2019 Festival, only arrives at the end of the second week. It received a rapturous reception from the audience, but from where I was sitting I was less convinced.

This was a return visit for Komische Oper and director Barry Kosky. This pairing was last seen at the Festival with their disappointing Magic Flute in 2015, with Kosky having been a fairly frequent visitor since the Mills era. I've also seen several Kosky opera productions in London. He has a considerable reputation, but I still can't see why, and this production did not change my mind. This evening was, however, an improvement on my only previous live encounter with this work - Holten and Ticciati's flawed recent version at Covent Garden (though I was interested on re-reading my blog on that performance that I liked that production more than I'd remembered).

Thursday, 15 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Angela Hewitt at the Usher Hall, or, A Masterclass in Pianism

The last time I heard Angela Hewitt at the Edinburgh Festival (I'm pretty sure) was way back in the mists of time in 2002. On that occasion she was a substitute for Andras Schiff and performed the Goldberg Variations to a sold out Usher Hall as part of the wonderful Royal Bank Lates. I remember that concert for several reasons. I hadn't planned to go when it was originally advertised because I'd heard Schiff in several Queen's Hall recitals and hadn't cared for his style. Nor was I, then, very keen on Bach. But when the substitution was announced I thought I'd like to hear Hewitt live. I credit that concert with making me realise that Bach can be a rather amazing composer. So when the programme was announced for this year's Festival, these two marathon concerts of the complete Well Tempered Clavier were top of my list of things to catch. It proved to be a memorable experience.

Hewitt's programme note, matched to her approach to grouping in performance, proved very helpful to this listener effectively encountering the work for the first time - I recognised the occasional individual prelude and fugue, and the phrase that Kit and the Widow satirise as Lloyd Webber borrowing. Hewitt suggests that it is helpful to approach the preludes and fugues as groups of four. This gave shape to the evenings and assisted me to retain a sense of place within the journey.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Roots at the Church Hill, or, An Underwhelming Afternoon

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 11th August 2019.

My only previous encounter with the company 1927 was their Magic Flute, staged for Komische Oper Berlin in collaboration with Barrie Kosky which visited the Festival back in 2015. I was underwhelmed. I thought that perhaps seeing one of their own shows would explain their reputation to me, but I'm afraid this anthology while technically impressive and delivered by a versatile ensemble of musician actors (Susanna Andrade, Esme Appleton, David Insua-Cao, Francesca Simmons) left me rather cold.

This new show, co-produced by Edinburgh and receiving its European premiere here, is a collection of folk tales including a greedy cat, patient Griselda (whom it is difficult not to regard as out of her mind in this version) and an ant who loses her mouse husband in a stew accident. The company's approach is a repeat of that used in The Magic Flute, with the benefit here that they can precisely tailor the constant musical accompaniment to fit their needs. So the staging consists of a white screen on which everything required is projected, with a few holes cut in it through which faces and hands can appear.