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).

Saturday 19 December 2015

Husbands and Sons at the National, or No Way Out

As usual, just when I was beginning to despair of ever seeing a really good piece of theatre again (after a run of three particularly dismal shows at the National), the magic returns. The show responsible on this occasion was somewhat surprising given that the author is D.H. Lawrence, a writer I last encountered (and disliked) at school.

This play is, it seems, an amalgamation (by Ben Power) of three plays by Lawrence, all set in a mining community similar to the one in which the author grew up. This mash up evidently offended some critics who remembered performances of the individual plays from years ago and thought they were weakened (for some fatally) through being combined. Not having seen the plays before I had no such problem, and if I hadn't been told it was a combination of three plays I'm not sure I'd have known. The stories were very effectively linked together by two common threads: unhappy households and the curse of the mining existence – from neither is there any escape, to which is added a further layer of pain since it is by no means clear that the characters wish to.

Here We Go/Evening at the Talk House at the National, or, Committing my Cardinal Theatrical Sin Twice in One Evening

Hot on the heels of the dismal come two more National Theatre misses (and the rest of Norris's first months in charge weren't that hot to start with).

First up on Thursday I suffered through Caryl Churchill's Here We Go. This is the third Churchill play I've seen and it remains beyond me why she is considered one of our greatest playwrights. This one consists of three short scenes (the second and third ones of which both seriously outstay their welcome). First we are at a wake where the guests give snatches of information about the deceased before telling us how they themselves will die – since we have hardly met any of these people (and Churchill is plainly uninterested in giving us any more information about them) it is difficult to care very much – though I did enjoy seeing Susan Engel (wonderful in 3 Winters back in January) in action again. Second, we meet the deceased (I don't really see how there can be any doubt about this) in what is presumably the afterlife where he treats us to a tour of literary and religious ideas about that afterlife – lectures rarely work on stage in my experience, and this is no exception not least because all we know by the end of the scene is that we don't know what happens when we die which I already knew before I came in. Third, and most interminably, we watch as the same old man, assisted by his care worker, changes from pyjamas to day clothes and back again time after time after time in silence. Has there ever been such a desperately drawn out fade to blackout? at the National, or, It Should Have Stayed in Manchester

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 12th December 2015.

There is really only one reason to see this show, and that is Anna Francolini, who makes a valiant effort to inject some life into it. Sadly the material is too weak, and she is not on stage enough to succeed. After the experience of Dr Dee (Damon Albarn's last foray into musical theatre and one of the many nails in English National Opera's coffin) my hopes were not high (and fell further after reviews of the initial run at the Manchester International Festival), but I didn't think it would be quite so dull and too often cringe-inducing as this.

The show is dramatically inert. The plot moves forward with a slowness that is at times desperate (when I first glanced at my watch and saw only 25 minutes had passed I knew we were in for a painful afternoon). It is about the putting back together of Aly's (Lois Chimimba) family, and getting Aly to value herself as she is (the show has a terrible tendency to hit the audience over the head regarding this point). Aly achieves this first by retreating into the world of on-line gaming (where she creates an avatar (Alice)) and the show inadequately connects with its source material) and finally by renouncing this world. Oh and there's an attempt at a villain in the form of Francolini's Ms Manxome – an unhinged headmistress. None of the interactions, characters, or relationships are given any meaningful depth by text or music, though Francolini almost deceived me at times.