Thursday 18 April 2019

Sweet Charity at the Donmar, or, A Flawed Concept

Note: This is a review of the first preview on Saturday 6th April 2019. The press night was (I think) last night.

I previously saw this musical when the Menier revived it - I was somewhat horrified to discover this was back in 2009. I remember being rather moved by it, and blown away by certain numbers. When this production was announced I looked forward to revisiting the show. There are moments of inventiveness in the staging, and fleeting emotional punch, but overall it doesn't reach the same level as that earlier version.

The fundamental problem is the decision of director Josie Rourke and designer Robert Jones to set the show in a Warhol-esque fantasy environment - the programme explains it is inspired by his Silver Factory period of the 60s. I'm not particularly well acquainted with Warhol's life story, but most viewers should spot the various Warhol lookalikes, and the take offs of aspects of his art which are everywhere. This fits the Fandango Ballroom, where Charity and co ply their trade, to an extent. It creates a sterile, bleak environment appropriate to the plight of the entrapped women. But unfortunately the effect goes further than that creating for me an emotional coldness which the show rarely transcended. This is partly also a consequence of the very classic Fosse like costuming of the women - black bodysuits and very little else akin to the London revival of Chicago. I confess I've never found this kind of costuming very sexy - in this case while I can see the point of playing up the transactional nature of the Ballroom world again I think the cost to the humanity and individuality of the girls is problematic for the viewer's emotional engagement with the show. It alienates rather than making us care.

Wednesday 17 April 2019

Top Girls at the National, or, A Baffling Reputation

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 13th April 2019.

This was my fourth Caryl Churchill play. I didn't have high hopes in advance as none of the other three (Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (Royal Court), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Here We Go (both NT)) did much for me. But I was curious to see this particular play on account of its reputation as a classic. Perhaps it was all more daring back in 1982.

The story concerns Marlene (Katherine Kingsley) who some years back fled/escaped her Suffolk home and has built a successful career in London and abroad, ultimately achieving a senior management position in the Top Girls recruitment agency. The fantastical, apparently much famed, Act 1 sees her celebrating her promotion over dinner with an eclectic selection of historical and fictional women. Act 2 Scene 2 sees her and her associates in action at the agency. Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3 take us to Suffolk.

Sunday 7 April 2019

Shipwreck at the Almeida, or, I So Wanted to Be Post This Play

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Monday 25th March 2019.

There is, it appears, currently a competition going on between playwrights in Britain and the United States to write issue plays. For the former the subject is general state of the nation, sometimes with reference to Brexit, for the latter the subject is Trump. I cannot think of a single such play that I've seen that has been really good. This latest entry, Annie Washburn's Shipwreck, is long and dull.

My previous two encounters with Washburn's work were the uneven but interesting Mr Burns and her excellent adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Here Washburn tries to knit three strands together. First, a collection of eight liberal friends gathering for a reunion at a farmhouse one pair have recently bought somewhere in the United States (it is one of the failings of this play that it remains opaque where in the States we are). Secondly, the story of the immediately preceding white owners of the farmhouse (actual farmers) and their adopted Kenyan son. Thirdly, two fantasy scenes involving Donald Trump confronting George W. Bush (at the time of the Iraq War) and James Comey (at the famous dinner demanding loyalty).

Thursday 4 April 2019

Alys, Always at the Bridge, or, What a Loathsome Collection of People

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 1st April 2019.

I must first admit that I wasn't in a particularly receptive mood when I arrived for this show. Only my completionist tendencies (and the cost of the ticket) had persuaded me to leave the comfort of the sofa after a heavy week at work. But a good show makes you forget you're tired (as the Royal Opera's magnificent Forza del Destino did the previous weekend). This tedious adaptation failed to achieve that for me.

Lucinda Cox/Harriet Lane's narrative concerns Frances (Joanne Froggatt) who finds herself alone at the scene of a car crash in which Alys dies. Alys's family then ask Frances to see them where the latter proceeds to lie about their loved one's final words. And so begins a narrative of scheming and deception which will see Frances, two long hours later, triumphant over everybody on stage in both work and relationships - she isn't actually surrounded by a pile of corpses, but the effect is very much the same.

Monday 1 April 2019

La Forza del Destino at the Royal, or, Magnificent Musicians Transcend Muddled Story

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 24th March 2019.

My only previous encounter with this opera was at ENO in 1992 (thank you Google) with Josephine Barstow as Leonora, Richard van Allan as her father, and (it turns out) Edmund Barham as Alvaro. The evening hadn't stuck in my mind in such a way as to make me want to rush to see the opera again, and despite the outstanding musical performances which blessed this afternoon, that overall opinion was not altered.

As a work the piece suffers from various problems. The narrative is highly episodic and doesn't succeed in building dramatic tension through the piece in contrast to truly great epic Verdi like Don Carlo. Several of the choruses are both weak musically and hold up the drama, especially at the end of Act 3 (I puzzled over the fact that cutting this would doubtless be met with howls of protest but yet the House continues to cut the dramatically integral and musically far finer opening chorus of Don Carlo). It's too dependent on chance - Alvaro and Carlos just happen to meet in the army, it just happens that both Alvaro and Leonora seek refuge in the same monastery. Far too many false names are deployed. But fundamentally, the plight of the central trio just never quite got me emotionally. For me the most convincing dilemma is Guardiano's wrestling with his conscience and his faith as to whether to grant Leonora's request to live as a hermit - a scene superbly sung and acted here by the magnificent Feruccio Ferlanetto - a performer who understands the virtue of stillness.