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.