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.

The Second Violinist at the Barbican, or, A Strange Reluctance to Set the Text

The day after this performance I was booked to see the ENO production of Britten's Paul Bunyan at Wilton's Music Hall. After this performance I expected an interesting juxtaposition. It often seems to be questioned whether Paul Bunyan with its unseen, non-singing narrator and sequence of numbers rather than through composition is an opera. Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh's The Second Violinist is described as "a new opera" in the programme, but the limited amount of actual singing seems to me to raise questions.

I previously encountered this pairing in their first opera The Last Hotel, performed at the EIF in 2015, and about which I had reservations. Overall I got more out of this second attempt, but it remains flawed - particularly in terms of really engaging me emotionally - a familiar problem for recent new operas I've seen (Ades's Exterminating Angel was a notable exception).

Sunday 26 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Home at the King's Theatre, or, In the Shadow of Taylor Mac

Geoff Sobelle's new theatre piece is in a long standing International Festival tradition. Take a performer or company who have been successful on the Fringe (usually award winning) and give them a larger budget to make an EIF show. This approach has, in recent times produced some real duds - Anything that Gives off Light and Leaving Planet Earth come to mind. In advance of this show I wasn't very optimistic, having not been wowed by Sobelle's recent award winning Fringe show The Object Lesson. As it turns out this is a better show than that, but it still suffers from what are, for me, familiar flaws, and in one particular area it was overshadowed by comparison to my extraordinary experience at Taylor Mac's LIFT show back in June.

Sobelle's aim with this show is to explore the meaning of "home". After a preamble of one-man wall construction we have a sequence of very impressive illusions (consultant Steve Cuiffo) enabling people to appear and disappear in doorways and from a bed - it's beautiful to watch. This is followed by the construction of a two-story house (excellently designed by Steven Dufala), much of it before our eyes in which first the ensemble and then large numbers of the audience interact in a sequence of events likely to happen in houses - graduations, funerals, parties, parent-child and spousal arguments and domestic repairs. Finally at the end, the human presence fades away and the house is again something between derelict and construction site. Atmosphere is heightened by often vivid lighting effects - particularly of different times of day beyond the house - by Christopher Kuhl, and a less convincing soundtrack sometimes performed onstage by Elvis Perkins looking as if he's wandered out of a Wes Anderson film.

Saturday 25 August 2018

EIF 2018 - La Cenerentola at the Festival Theatre, or, Mr Herheim Thinks It's All a Joke

There is an ensemble maybe two thirds of the way through Act 1 when the main characters sing about being confused and unable to believe what is happening. In the context of the plot this is a reaction to Don Magnifico's claim that his third daughter (Cinderella) is dead. In Stefan Herheim's knockabout comedy version (which rarely made me laugh) this is played as a mockery of the audience. The house lights come up, an image of the audience is projected behind the ensemble, and they direct the remarks at us. I've got news for Herheim, I'm afraid I wasn't confused, I had a pretty fair idea what I thought about proceedings and it was not complimentary.

One of the maddening things about this show is there is the kernel of a good idea visible. That is that a contemporary cleaning lady is imagining the whole drama. But the execution is significantly flawed. We are given absolutely no indication of her life, beyond the fact she is a cleaner. Everything else that happens on stage appears to be the product of her imagination (though there is also an argument that the whole thing is being dreamed up by the ghost of Rossini). Either way the effect is that it never feels as if anything is really at stake in this drama - we don't know enough about the cleaning lady to care whether she's fantasising or not, and given that it appears to be all a fantasy I never cared what happened to any of the characters in the fantasy. I assume that Herheim thinks the whole thing is a farce. There are certainly farcical elements to it, but that is simply not the whole story of the piece. Had it made me laugh I might have felt differently about it, but while others clearly found the whole thing a hoot, I'm afraid I rarely found it funny.

EIF 2018 - Midsummer at the Hub, or, A Fine Romance

Regular readers will know that I have concerns about the increasing Scottish content of a Festival that calls itself International. They will also know that I do not think this issue is being discussed with the critical rigour it deserves by the professional Scottish arts press. A result of these twin points is that I tend these days to arrive at performances in this strand at the Festival in a not particularly friendly mood. Last night this was compounded by the fact that I'd booked to see this at 10pm, I'd already seen three shows earlier in the day, and I was feeling pretty tired. It speaks very well for this show that it pretty much converted me.

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre's play with songs tells the story of the meeting of Bob (Henry Pettigrew) and Helena (Sarah Higgins) in an Edinburgh pub on Midsummer weekend. For this version (the show was originally at the Traverse in 2008) it has apparently been reframed into a four hander with the narrative of the original meeting now mediated through the recollections of it and the stories they tell about it of an older Helena (Eileen Nicholas) and Bob (Benny Young).

Friday 24 August 2018

EIF 2018 - The Prisoner at the Lyceum, or, A Thin Narrative about the Consequences of Incest

This was my first encounter with the legendary theatre director Peter Brook. I'm afraid on the basis of this show I found it difficult to see why he is so highly regarded.

The text of this 70 minute show, written by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne appeared to me to be set in Africa (though the mixed nationalities of the ensemble confuses this). It is intermittently framed by a white narrator (Donald Sumpter). The thin story concerns a boy (Hiran Abeysekera) who kills his father because he discovers he is sleeping with his sister (Kalieaswari Srinivasan). He is beaten by his uncle (Herve Goffings) but, for reasons unclear, this beating doesn't render sufficient punishment and the uncle then persuades the unseen local judge that instead of locking the boy up he should be told to sit on a hilltop overlooking the prison. There, despite being free to leave at any time, his own conscience or spirit will compel him to stay until he knows he has completed his punishment.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Dvorak's Requiem at the Usher Hall, or A Festival Special

When the programme was announced back in March this rarity was one of the more interesting items in an Usher Hall line up which as in recent years continues to play it fairly safe. It proved to be one of the highlights of the Festival so far.

I'd previously heard Dvorak's St Ludmila at the Festival back in 2002 and that had proved to be an unfairly neglected work, though I think it has only reappeared in the UK once since. I don't think the Requiem is quite such a strong piece, it is, apart from anything else, a little in Verdi's shadow. But there are lots of strong elements to it, and Jakub Hrusa led his forces expertly to make the best possible case for it.

EIF 2018 - The Beggar's Opera at the Kings, or, Savagely Satirical? If Only It Were

I have a soft spot for The Beggar's Opera. More years ago now than I care to remember I played Peachum in a school production with a band led by the chemistry teacher who was also a harpsichord player. However, having now seen two productions I'm coming to the conclusion that it may be one of those shows it's more fun to be in than to actually watch.

This "new version" by Ian Burton and Robert Carsen makes a not terribly convincing attempt to update the action to the present day. The updating to my mind never wholly harmonises with the period music (and the Covert Garden staging of the Britten version had the same problem) - I never really quite believed that these hardened criminals would stop to sing to the accompaniment of the harpsichord and archlute. The revision of the spoken text consists of the standard high volume of swearing (which equally as usual quickly loses impact through overuse), references to contemporary drugs and sexual practices, and a few feeble jokes about Brexit, immigration, and other current matters of debate. The whole approach has a somewhat strained feel of grown ups trying to show they are still down with the kids. The alterations to the sung lyrics are more bizarre - I know these pretty well - and I was at a loss to account for some of the changes - for example why substitute "death" for "fate" or "leaving" for "quitting". The changes only fitfully to my mind made the lyrics more comprehensible to a modern audience, and at other times seemed to leave unchanged things that struck me as obscure, but in any case I'm not convinced of the argument put forward by Jeremy Barlow in his programme note that Gay's "meaning is often hard to grasp." To my mind the plot and the issues at stake are pretty clear in the original despite occasional archaic language.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

EIF 2018 - La Maladie de la Mort at the Lyceum, or, Here We Go Again

The increasing portability of the film camera is one of the curses of modern theatre. It has enabled this vogue for indifferent films masquerading as staged plays. This show, directed by Katie Mitchell about whose high reputation I remain unconvinced after several encounters, is the latest in what, from where I have been sitting, has been a pretty consistently dismal line of shows (see for other recent examples Ivo van Hove's Kings of War and Network).

This entry breaks no new ground technically. There is a two roomed set of a hotel room and corridor in which most of the action takes place - it is rarely possible to view this action directly because walls are often moved into place to partially obscure it, but nor is it possible to simply watch the film and ignore the camera operators and other technical staff as they scurry about. Above this sits the screen on which the filmed action is projected. There's also a lit booth on the left occupied by the narrator (Irene Jacob) - yes this show also boasts a narrator who spends much time telling us how we should interpret the filmed action.

Monday 20 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Xenos at the Festival Theatre, or, The Importance of Narrative

I'd had high hopes of this show in advance based on the reviews and social media commentary. There's no question that Akram Khan is a remarkable dancer. There are also a number of arresting images. But in the end, despite the subject matter, for much of the performance I remained emotionally at a distance.

The subject matter is actually less clearly reflected in the dance than might be imagined. There is one overt reference - a song about the battalion hanging on the old barbed wire - and quite a number of coded ones - but the First World War setting is less concrete than I'd expected. The structure is also episodic - presumably intended to reflect the confusing experience of the Indian servicemen but for this viewer the piece suffered from the lack of a clear narrative. Episodes include the barbed wire one already referred to, the laying of communication wire, and the ever-present threat of death.

Sunday 19 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Ringstad and Meier at the Queen's Hall, or, A Refreshingly Diverse Programme

After three years when post-1945 classical music has been conspicuous by its thin representation in Festival programming, after the transformative work of Jonathan Mills, this year has seen a slight up-tick. It's also seen something of a return to the Mills practice of encouraging mixed programmes which I think, by their number, did help to build up an audience willing to risk the occasional new work as opposed to when I first started attending the Festival, when such a work in a programme was usually guaranteed to drastically reduce the audience, even for major visiting orchestras.

On paper, and despite the more unusual instrumental soloist (viola as opposed to the more regular piano or violin) I'd have hoped to see a larger audience for this programme - given the inclusion of crowd pleasers like Tartini's Devil's Trill and and Ysaye's Caprice d'apres l'Etude en forme de valse de Saint-Saens. But it was a stronger audience than might have been seen for a programme with a world premiere in the McMaster era.

Friday 17 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Hansel und Gretel at the Usher Hall, or, A Slice of Faerie

After nearly thirty years of regular opera-going it's getting rarer for me to encounter a work I haven't previously seen or heard. But this was one such occasion. In advance, I wasn't expecting a great deal - one of the reasons I hadn't previously heard this work was that family opinion towards it was not favourable. But it seems to me if done in the right spirit, as this performance unquestionably was, it's a piece which is a lot of fun.

The opera is a concise rendering in three short acts of the familiar fairy tale, ending up with the witch vanquished by being shoved into her own oven - in principle a fairly gruesome moment but not one on which the work dwells. There are clear Wagnerian overtones to the score, and I also thought anticipations of some of the natural world elements of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. But I rather like those sound worlds, so this didn't bother me. The score has a nice range from fun (particularly in the witch's music), to beauty (Sandman/Dew Fairy) and drama (the Witch's Ride) - all of which were brought vividly to life by the RSNO in fine form, under the expert dramatic command of Andrew Davis.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Samson at the Usher Hall, or, An Evening of HIP Handel

I'm generally a fan of Handel's operas and oratorios, and I was also looking forward to hearing the Dunedin Consort for the first time, especially after the recent furore over the cuts to their funding (later I think reversed). This was a very strong evening, though I still retain some personal doubts about aspects of historically informed performance.

This typically epic oratorio follows the Biblical story of Samson. Strikingly, though, much of that saga has taken place by the time the work opens. Samson has thus already been betrayed by Dalila, had his hair shorn, and is languishing in prison. The bulk of the three acts here are therefore concerned with everybody's lamentations about this and worrying about what is going to happen next, until Samson finally pulls down the Philistine temple (off-stage) in Act III. There are thus some issues with dramatic tension. It was interesting to compare this with Saul, which I saw at Glyndebourne last week. But in addition the emotional dilemmas of the characters are less compelling than in, say, a Handel opera like Ariodante. In this performance, a decision was also taken to retain the many lengthy recitatives. I wasn't wholly convinced by this - there are some nice moments, but the text adapted from Milton amongst others is not the best Handel ever set, the music is not particularly interesting, and these sections further slow up the dramatic momentum.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Autobiography at the Festival Theatre, or, And the Connection with the Human Genome?

In advance of this show I had high hopes after the powerful experience of McGregor's Woolf Works at the Royal Ballet last year. Unfortunately this new commission is not in the same league.

According to Uzma Hameed's programme note "a library of movement material has been reflect the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain the human genome - refracted and abstracted through McGregor's choreographic processing". What this in practice means is a sequence of 23 movements - I think, they are not performed chronologically and I didn't bother to check them all off - with short titles starting with "avatar" and including such things as "sleep", "nurture" and "scenes from nature".

Monday 13 August 2018

EIF 2018 - Hocus Pocus at the Studio, or, The Problem of Dispensing with Text

One of the EIF innovations of recent years has been to include a show or two for children. I've now seen a couple of these - Dragon back in 2015 and this show. Obviously I'm not the target audience but, that said, I found this ultimately a little thin.

The show, devised by Philippe Saire with Philippe Chosson and Mickael Henrotay-Delaunay collaborating on the choreography, is comparatively simple in style. Two dancers (Henrotay-Delaunay and Ismael Oiartzabel) perform a series of scenes lit only by two strip lights placed horizontally a little way off the ground to create a square viewing space.

Thursday 9 August 2018

The Lehman Trilogy at the National, or, American Dreams...American Nightmares

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Thursday 26th July 2018.

This show is full of things that in other contexts I've hated - long sections of descriptive narration, projections, gimmicky staging ticks. Here they all work, supported by extraordinary versatile acting from the three performers to create a beguiling and ultimately rather sad American history.

The show, adapted by Ben Powers from the original Italian, tells the story of the Lehman Brothers firm from its creation by three German Jewish immigrants in a small room in Montgomery Alabama, with a door handle that sticks, to its demise in a tower of glass in New York City.

Sunday 22 July 2018

The Band's Visit on Broadway, or, Too Late for Love?

As I stood opposite the box office, waiting to see if there was going to be a cancellation freeing up two tickets, I wondered whether the effort was really worthwhile. This show turned out to be the theatrical highlight of my New York trip.

Based on a 2006 Israeli film the show follows the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Band as they take the wrong bus and end up in an obscure town in the middle of Israel where nothing ever happens. Just about every character in this show is in some way lost. The unexpected collision of people becomes a means of forcing them to open up - an opening in which, just maybe, fragile hope for the future can be glimpsed in a word, in a wave.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History (The First Act) at the Barbican, or, A Rather Extraordinary Evening

Note: A review of the performance on Friday 29th June 2018.

If you'd told me at 7.35pm last Friday evening as, disgruntled, I watched the audience continue to trickle nonchalantly in (the advertised start time of this three hour show was 7.30pm) that some two and a half hours later I'd have a supporting cast member sitting beside me pretending to be drunk while I patted his hand and Taylor Mac sang a lullaby and, more importantly, that I'd be finding this conceit touching rather than annoying I doubt I'd have believed you. But so it was. Regular readers will know I'm not a fan of immersive theatre – that this show, which is full of it, gradually drew me into it tells you how remarkable a piece of theatre this is.

This performance is the first three hours of a twenty four hour marathon, exploring the history of the United States since 1776 through its popular music. Originally staged as a non-stop 24 hour performance in New York City it has been broken down into a variety of other increments around the world. According to Taylor Mac the plan is to stage it in London in increments (a segment every year or every two years were both mooted). On the strength of this episode there's no question in my mind that the rest should come over.

Monday 2 July 2018

The RSC Imperium Plays in the West End, or, Historical Parallels?

Note: A review of the double bill on Thursday 28th June 2018.

Last Thursday I took the day off to catch Mark Poulton's two part adaptation of Robert Harris's Cicero novels. It proved to be gripping drama, superbly performed by a typically fine RSC ensemble and with much to say about our current politics (both in Britain and across the pond).

Poulton/Harris track the decline and fall of the Roman Republic from the days of the Catiline conspiracy to the rise of Octavian/Augustus, through the eyes of Cicero (Richard McCabe) and his slave and biographer (Tiro). The play is centrally concerned with how you construct workable governments and it explores the problems/limitations which beset both republic and dictatorship. We might like to think the former is obviously preferable, but its flaws are ruthlessly exposed. In the early stages, watching the ambitious men competing for office I was reminded of the American founders forever pretending (Jefferson was a master at this, particularly when it's come to the historians) that they didn't really want office. Here the nakedness of power lust is often striking - “It was my turn!” complains Joe Dixon's blunt Catiline. Nor as these often unsavoury men struggle to best each other are the plays especially kind to the mass of the people – waiting to be swayed by the next demagogue who can persuade them with a clever speech, or silence them with the threat of violence.

Sunday 1 July 2018

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Donmar, or, A Regrettable Absence of Subtlety

Note: A review of the performance on Monday 25th June 2018.

There's an early sign that all is not well with this adaptation of Muriel Spark's classic novel, and it appears on Lia Williams's first entry as Miss Brodie. She's costumed in a skin tight crimson dress. This stands out overly conspicuously in the otherwise grey to black décor of just about everything else. Clearly Miss Brodie is supposed to be distinctive but this carries matters too far, especially when coupled with the exaggerated, mannered delivery which Williams adopts. Very quickly I found this irritating rather than compelling, and the devotion she has to inspire in “her girls” simply didn't make sense in this context.

As this slow-paced evening went on it became clear to me that this initial costume decision is linked to wider problematic choices in the production as a whole. The novel is set in Edinburgh, and David Harrower's adaptation has retained many of the specific references – but there is little sense of place in Lizzie Clachan's bland set of a couple of concrete walls and half a dozen wooden chairs. Nor was I ever really convinced that the streets of Edinburgh, a city where I lived for over ten years, were present off-stage. The sense of time is similarly problematic. Again the script is very specific – we are in the interwar period – but the staging does nothing to really convince that this is when we are. Given that a crucial plot point hinges on that timing this is another significant issue.

Saturday 30 June 2018

Madame Butterfly at Glyndebourne, or, Foreshadowings of Trump

Note: A review of the performance on Sunday 24th June 2018.

Oddly enough, given my many years of opera going, I'd only seen this repertory staple once before, a Royal Opera House revival something like six years ago. It hadn't particularly stuck in my memory. Consequently, I was surprised by the power of this revisiting, especially the disturbing contemporary parallels.

I had forgotten, in the intervening time, just how bleak a portrait of the United States and its imperial tendencies this opera is. Part of the power comes musically from the interweaving of the Star Spangled Banner – which feels satirical. Part of it, in this production, comes from the film sequence (by Ian William Galloway) inflicted on the line of Japanese brides in Act 1 – looking at the Statue of Liberty on screen I found it impossible not to think of the mockery of that symbol by the current administration. But the text itself is filled with a sense of troubling, dangerous American arrogance – from Pinkerton's casual, careless attitude to his marriage at the beginning through to Kate Pinkerton's “We still get the child?” line at the end – a moment which again, in light of the events in the States in the past week, has a real horror.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Reflections on an Accidental US Race Relations Double Bill

Last Saturday I spent the day seeing two new works on the theme of American race relations – Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's deconstruction of Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (transferred to the NT's Dorfman from the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond) and Anna Deavere Smith's one woman show Notes from the Field, playing the Royal Court as part of LIFT 2018. The accidental comparison proved instructive.

Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon starts unpromisingly. An actor (Ken Nwosu) playing the playwright comes on and proceeds to detail his problems in writing the play. While the author does have a fresh angle on this (the particular challenges of being, or trying to be, a black playwright) this didn't finally justify the reuse of what is, as far as I'm concerned, an over familiar and ineffective device – that is the device of worrying to the audience about how to start the play (most recently in evidence at the start of The Inheritance). Why contemporary playwrights so often show this aversion to just getting on and telling the story escapes me. 

Saturday 23 June 2018

Aldeburgh Festival 2018, or, Notes from the Opening Weekend

Note: A belated report on performances over the weekend of 8th-10th July 2018.

A visit to the Aldeburgh Festival has become a regular fixture in my summer calendar. On this occasion I was especially looking forward to hearing John Wilson's partnership with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and finally, hearing his own Orchestra live. I also caught the new opera by Emma Howard.

The best of the weekend was to be found in the two orchestral concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings, marrying up, with one exception, a set of works by Britten and American composers written in 1940-1 or (in the case of the Grimes Sea Interludes soon afterwards). These couplings brought out striking connections in musical language, affording the opportunity to hear afresh the Sea Interludes in particular.

Saturday 12 May 2018

The Inheritance at the Young Vic, or, A Dissenting View

Note: This is a review of the performances of both parts on Saturday 5th May 2018.

The reviews (with a couple of exceptions), the social media comments, and the standing ovation last Saturday night all tell a similar story of high praise for this new two part play. I was far from convinced, as I shall try to explain.

My principal issues relate to the text itself. The problems start at the beginning. We are confronted with a group of young men who appear to be in some sort of writing class, dreaming they are being advised by the ghost of E.M. Forster, who are wringing their hands because they don't know how to tell their story. New work is replete with similar instances of this kind of thing and, personally, I loathe it. Just get on and tell the damn story, decide how you're going to start and do it – don't inflict your indecision about how to do so on me. As far as I'm concerned it undermines suspension of disbelief from the beginning by deliberately pointing up the artificiality of theatre.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Present Laughter at Chichester, or, What is Miss Erikson doing??

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 30th April 2018.

There was a fair bit in the first half of this revival which made me stare, and not in a good way. But the most revealing about what has gone wrong was Miss Erikson's silly walk. This was presumably intended to be hilarious, I just found it baffling. It sets the tone for what follows.

I previously saw this play when the National Theatre revived it in 2007 with Alex Jennings in the lead and directed by the late, much missed Howard Davies. I remember it as being often very funny, but also possessing point and heart. Sean Foley's new version at Chichester is, sadly, none of these things. The dominant theme of the production is physical comedy. Occasionally this is quite funny – but nearly all the gags are victims of being overly repeated – it is indicative that one of the funnier moments in the performance I saw was an ad-lib to retrieve a hat, and even then I've seen funnier ad-libs. I suspect the reason for this approach is that Foley doesn't trust the text. He may even be contemptuous of Coward and the world he depicts (there is a suggestion of that in the exaggerated upper class accents deployed by several members of the company). The text is actually full of pointed lines which depend on nuanced delivery to really strike home and draw the laugh – I have the impression Foley has not encouraged this. Indeed, the very opposite – the majority of the text is delivered at pretty much the same level. Similarly, these characters are actually funnier if they retain a degree of reality – but they are all reduced so much to caricature here that I lost interest in them as people and consequently lost interest in their repeated pratfalls.

Thursday 3 May 2018

Absolute Hell at the National, or, Voices from the Edge of the Abyss

My only previous encounter with director Joe Hill-Gibbins was his frankly dreadful production of Edward II in the Olivier. As a result, I was not particularly optimistic about this in advance. To my surprise it proved to have much to commend it.

The work itself clearly merits revival – I dissent here from quite a few professional reviewers. It's a powerful ensemble piece set in Soho on the verge of the 1945 Labour election victory. Although the cast of characters is very large, and many get only a limited time on stage, I found the ambiguities of the writing intriguing not annoying and I never felt the text needed to do more to flesh them out. Even in the smaller cameos it always gives us just enough to interest and convince. On the whole it doesn't feel overlong (certainly not in comparison to the recent similar marathon of John in the Dorfman), though I did feel Ackland struggled a bit with an ending.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Coraline at the Barbican, or, Left Mostly Unmoved

Note: This is a review of the evening performance on Saturday 7th April 2018.

With the exception of a recording by Gerald Finley of an aria from The Silver Tassie, I've not got on with Mark-Anthony Turnage's operas in the past. I saw productions of Greek (Music Theatre Wales at the Linbury) and Anna Nicole (Royal Opera), and in neither case did they make me want to rush to hear the work a second time. On the other hand I enjoyed the film of Coraline, I'm generally a fan of Neil Gaiman's work and of fairy tales, so I hoped in advance to enjoy this adaptation. There is much to commend in the strong performances and the well crafted staging, but for me the work itself is problematic.

The ensemble of singing actors and actresses is excellent. Diction is really outstanding and the absence of subtitles is not a problem, though parts of the libretto might have benefitted from being more obscured. Mary Bevan in the title role sings with impressive power, and throws herself fully into the part - on this showing it seems to me fundamentally very challenging for an adult to fully convince as an 11 year old child while singing operatic fashion, and the fact that for me Bevan wasn't wholly convincing in this regard should not detract from the overall high quality of her performance. Kitty Whately as Mother/Other Mother shows fine versatility and I should not have known she was recovering from laryngitis without the pre-show announcement.

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.