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Hedda Gabler, Old Vic

Sheridan Smith as Hedda Gabler

I have seen Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic before, but the internet has no record of when it was so I can only tell you that it was sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, and that I found it dull and incomprehensible. In my memory the theatrical productions of my childhood were all dull, at least visually, the vogue in those days being for a gloomy, gritty greyness to lend weight to a play and indicate that we were dealing with serious matters.

So it’s no surprise that I thought Hedda was dull: it probably was. And watching it again last night, I also thought it no surprise that I found it incomprehensible, not for its language but for its themes, which are very adult. It’s not just the sex and violence, it’s that the drama comes from the ways adults relate to one another, and none of the characters’ actions or motivations would make any sense at all to a child.

So now that I am a grown-up, and given this light and airy and decorative production, did it work better for me? Yes and no. Yes because it’s a good, if flawed, play, and because Sheridan Smith as Hedda is a compelling presence. No, because the treatment of the piece as a sort of light drawing room comedy never quite works, and what it gains in humour from being directed this way, it loses in gutwrenching human horror, which peeked its face out once or twice but never quite made itself known. We should feel thumped in the chest by Hedda, not lightly tickled. Smith does her game best, but with everyone around her playing it as a farce, she can only go so far. I continue to think she’s a terrific actor and nothing will stop me from going to see her in her next play, but if there’s one thing to avoid in theatre – in any art form – it’s timidity, and this is a timid production, frightened to take the source material and wrestle with it; instead tiptoeing around it, afraid to wake it up.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre

Robert Burt as Pirelli and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd

Robert Burt as Pirelli and Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd

All the people I am related to, and quite a few more people besides, have heard more than they ever need to about how much I didn’t like Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd. It wasn’t so much that I thought it was awful as that I had such high hopes for it, for which I have only myself to blame, given that I already knew that I don’t like Tim Burton (because all his films are ugly).

But I think I thought that Stephen Sondheim would save the day, and so I eagerly trotted along to the Ritzy in Brixton by myself one weekday afternoon, fully armed with popcorn and a giant bucket of Coke – this was back in the days when the Ritzy’s soft drinks machines used to sometimes work – and settled in ready to be delighted. And so, of course, I wasn’t. I have always maintained that it was because none of the actors could sing, but actually I think it was just the drab greyness of the thing. And also that none of the actors could sing.

Most of the actors in the current London production can sing. In fact, Michael Ball’s voice almost feels wasted in the role of Sweeney, because he rarely gets to sing with anything like his full voice. But you can hear the depth and the richness of his tenor even when he’s holding it right back to barely a whisper, and I’d rather have a lead with too much voice than too little, Johnny Depp.

What else is good? Ball as Sweeney and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett are both convincingly bedraggled and raddled by a life in the gutter (again, in contrast to the film), and Imelda Staunton carries her scenes with a wit and a warmth that lightens the whole production (which is mostly performed in the dark). Everyone else is as good as they need to be, although I found Lucy May Barker’s Johanna a teeny bit shrieky, but that sort of works in the context of the role.

The staging is adequate, which is to say it does what it needs to, but it only made me want to clap my hands once (I’m not telling you when, it’s better as a surprise), and although it was authentically gloomy and forbidding, with its multi-tiered scenery and the Greek chorus of onlookers periodically disappearing into the shadows, that was rather at odds with the overall feel of the piece, which is a jaunty sort of black comedy with lyrical moments that call to mind Flanders and Swann (“the trouble with a poet/is how do you know it/is deceased?/Try the priest!“) rather than Burke and Hare.

This is a problem with the whole show, though, and it makes me realise that part of what I hated about the Burton film isn’t his fault at all, because actually, how do you stage a Victorian horror story when (some of) the lyrics are so upbeat and silly? As a farce? I’d like to see someone try it, but I don’t know that it would work any better. The problem is that the songs don’t match the story.

That said, I don’t want you to think that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I just wish it had either looked a little less doomy, or that it had been performed with a little more grimness of purpose (which is not a suggestion I have ever found myself making before). But there’s lots to like, and the music is of course fantastic (even though you can’t hum it afterwards, but I think that’s OK as long as you’re prepared for it), and Patrick Stewart was sitting two rows in front of me and he (along with everyone else) gave it a standing ovation, and if Patrick Stewart’s recommendation isn’t enough for you then you are being too fussy by half.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Comedy, Opera, Theatre

 

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The 39 Steps, Criterion Theatre

The 39 Steps

Photo by Tristram Kenton

I first saw this play about six years ago, and when I was offered a pair of tickets last week I realised I had forgotten almost everything about it, which is something I often do with light comedy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it; just that the memories of it seem to fade, probably because there is no connection with any kind of real emotion, so there’s nothing for it to get snagged on in my brain. For example, I know I enjoyed Graham Linehan’s adaptation of The Ladykillers, but by the time I tried to write about it a few days after seeing it I realised most of it had already faded from my mind. (Although there was a really good bit where Peter Capaldi, playing Alec Guinness, threw a dead body out of a window. It was funnier than it sounds.)

Part of the problem with The Ladykillers was that I was already fairly well-acquainted with both the Ealing original and the Coen brothers’ remake, so The 39 Steps already has the advantage because I have never read the book or seen any of the (four!) film versions. Which means I can confidently assert that this version of The 39 Steps is absolutely the silliest thing I’ve ever seen on the West End stage, which is not to say anything against it. As you will know if you’ve read any of the publicity, the whole thing is done with four actors; one of whom plays the lead, with the others changing accents and costumes in super-quick time (sometimes on stage) to play all of the rest of the characters. What you might not know, and I didn’t until the beloved mentioned it, is that it uses more or less exactly the story and dialogue of the Hitchcock film, but hammed up into a festival of ridiculousness that you’d have to be a very harsh person not to enjoy.

The physical comedy, and minimal but ingenious staging, is at the heart of what makes the play work as a farce rather than a thriller – and the thriller’s plot is so preposterous that it probably works better when you don’t have to inspect its logic too closely and can just enjoy the laughs. The actors all throw themselves into the silliness with gusto (as, incidentally, do most of the audience: it is one of those plays where you have to grit your teeth and ignore the hooting overlaughters).

Another excellent reason to go is the beautiful interior of the Criterion Theatre. The decor looks genuinely 1930s (I have no idea whether or not it is), and the crowning glory is a bar decorated with backlit stained glass, whose unexpected opulence and utter emptiness, thanks to its being hidden away around a corner you wouldn’t know was there, make it look exactly like a set from The Shining. So if the hooting overlaughers really get to you, you know where to escape to.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Comedy, Theatre

 

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Hay Fever, Noël Coward Theatre

Lindsay Duncan and Jeremy Northam in Hay Fever at the Noël Coward Theatre

Hay Fever is the sort of piece which it’s pointless to try to update: you have to play it straight down the middle or not at all. This production, with its solidly middleweight cast, almost plays it too straight; burdening the lines with such solemnity that the jokes get slightly swallowed up at times. But although I watched it thinking “this is really painfully overdone”, twelve hours’ distance has given it a rosy haze in my memory and I think I must have quite enjoyed it after all.

The set-up is very slight, and the fact that it takes fully half an hour to establish it is a problem. The whole play, in fact, sprawls rather, and could do with being shorter and tighter. There are long scenes played out without any laughs at all, such as the encounter between the “perfectly sweet flapper” Jackie Coryton and the “diplomatist” Richard Greatham which is a sustained wince of awkward small talk and is exactly as interesting as that sounds, and you can’t help wishing they’d got it out of the way offstage, since they are supposed to have arrived together.

The conceit at the heart of the play is the notion that the family of recently retired actress Judith Bliss are happy to play up to her need for drama at all times. So we ought to be able to forgive the overblown Acting as part of the comedy, except that mostly, it’s not very funny. There are some very funny lines, but in this version they are delivered so vigorously that the humour is snuffed out before it has a chance to breathe. And if the Bliss family’s penchant for histrionics is to surprise us (and it can’t hope to make us laugh if it doesn’t), it needs to be balanced with some lightness, some quietness, some space. But there is none: it’s just three acts of shouting.

So why did I enjoy it? Well, it is funny, and some of the cast are excellent: I thought Kevin R McNally as David Bliss, Amy Morgan as Jackie Coryton, Jeremy Northam as Richard Greatham and Jenny Galloway as Clara, the long-suffering theatrical-dresser-turned-housekeeper, were all very good, and did bring some of that much-needed quietness. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Freddie Fox (don’t they sound like Coward characters in their own right?), as siblings Sorel and Simon Bliss, were very good when they were playing up to their mother. And Lindsay Duncan was good as Judith Bliss during the set-pieces, but I couldn’t help wishing that she would calm down just a notch in between times. It all felt a bit relentless.

However, the whole thing is carried off with great charm and good humour, which is what I would expect and hope for from a Noël Coward revival, and I think I am being overly mean because it was almost very good indeed, and I wouldn’t want you not to go on the basis of my review, because it put me and the rest of the audience in a good mood, which is the main thing you need from a comedy, isn’t it?

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Comedy, Theatre

 

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Matilda The Musical, Cambridge Theatre

<Pokes keyboard>

Is this thing on…?

<Blows dust off screen>

…ah, there you are. Good. Yes, it’s been a little while since any reviews appeared here, but that’s because it’s been a little while since I’ve been to the theatre. What can I say? Send me tickets to things and I’ll write about them.

In the meantime I can promise to write a review at least once a year, because once a year I take my god-daughter to a show as part of her Christmas present, and this year that show was Matilda, which happily has just opened in the West End. We actually went en famille, because we decided that even the younger brother might enjoy it, which he duly did. I think it would be hard to find a demographic to whom it wouldn’t appeal, because – like all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books – the story is dark and funny and exciting, but Tim Minchin’s songs are so big-hearted and good-natured that you can’t help but smile all the way through them.

Whether for reasons of privacy or nerves or something else, the website doesn’t show pictures of the children, so I’m not entirely sure which Matilda we saw, but she was very good – not at all stage schooly, which is quite often a problem with children in musicals – and with a sense of physical comedy that I’ve rarely seen in an adult, let alone in an eleven-year-old (probably). Carrying a show this bombastic and exuberant is a big task, but she pulled it off with relish and was lovely to watch throughout.

The other star of the show is Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. In the book, and in the 1996 Danny Devito film (which is excellent, and if you haven’t seen it you should rent it now), Miss Trunchbull is properly, unrelentingly, terrifying. For the musical version, someone has realised that characters in musicals can either sing or be scary (would Oliver Reed have made such an intimidating Bill Sykes if he’d bellowed out “My Name” in the film?), and sensibly opted for the former. Carvel’s physical performance is unique and mesmerising and extraordinary, but it’s not frightening. Which is fine: apart from anything else, there are quite a lot of children in the audience, and the tickets are very expensive, so you don’t want them hiding under their seats for half of the show.

Paul Kaye and Josie Walker are also excellent as Matilda’s parents in what is a true ensemble piece, some of the highlights coming in the big musical numbers which don’t have a great deal to do with the plot, but which jolly the thing along and provide the sorts of thrills you need when you take children to the theatre. My only slight problem was that in places the lyrics weren’t quite audible, because they were fast and clever and lots of people were singing at once. It’s a problem that I also sometimes have with Sondheim, and if you’re going to be compared to a songwriter, it might as well be him, so it’s not a real gripe. Tim Minchin is above all a happy comedian (there aren’t many, although I got into a fight on the internet when I said that recently), and that shines through in his songs, which are sweet and funny and heartwarming.

It’s not often that a new musical comes along that seems to be everything a musical should be – Wicked is the closest thing we’ve had recently, but I’ve never been quite able to fall in love with Wicked. I fell in love with Matilda the minute it started, and if you sent me a ticket I’d go and see it again tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on January 19, 2012 in Comedy, Music, Theatre

 

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Betrayal, Democrazy Theatre Studio, Bangkok

Democrazy is a new-ish theatre, down a dark alleyway. You walk down the street in the rain (it is the rainy season in Thailand), wondering why there aren’t any streetlights, and then you see the place, in a shop, only what would normally be the shopfloor has been turned into a foyer, and the theatre space is in what must once have been the store room. There is a large dog sleeping in the middle of the floor, which is normal, and about twenty people sitting around on benches chatting.

The box office staff are rather sweetly concerned about me. ‘You don’t speak Thai? Any Thai?’ they keep asking. And I try to explain that I knew the play well enough, I’ll be fine, but don’t know if this gets through. They sell me a ticket, but look at me anxiously from time to time. It gets to eight o’clock, the advertised starting time, and nothing happens. Some teenage girls decide to pass the time taking pictures of themselves with the dog.

Eventually they let us in, about ten minutes late. The set is all white – walls made of white sliding panels, white tables and chairs. A giant red chaise longue. And all the props are bright red, a concept they take to dotty lengths – all anyone ever drinks is rosé wine, and at one point Emma serves up a salad made entirely of rose petals.

Only not Emma, because they’ve changed the names to Thai – she’s Jiramol, played by Pavinee Samakrabutr, beautiful in a diminuitive Eva Longoria kind of way. And I suspect they spent a large part of the budget on her frocks, which are uniformly stunning. She looks, in almost every scene, like she’s on her way to the Golden Globes. Her men friends are compelling too, tall and good-looking in a warrior-poet kind of way.

The translation seems reasonably faithful, as far as I can tell, although as previously established I know precisely enough Thai to order in restaurants and no more. I think they felt sorry for the guy playing the waiter only having one scene, and have put him into a couple of others (the actor is also credited as part of the ‘set up team’). And the ending is a bit different – her husband actually catches Jiramol and his best man canoodling in the marital bedroom, which makes the whole rest of the play rather more perverse than usual.

It’s a good production, on the whole, even if the walls are thin and you can hear the dog howling out in the lobby. The actors are charismatic and not afraid to hold a pause, which is always good in Pinter. The set design achieves a lot with a clearly limited budget, and the music is so lushly scored I suspect they nicked it off a film soundtrack. There isn’t a great deal of Thai theatre around, so I was encouraged by the youth and enthusiasm of the audience (where youth= anyone younger than me) and hope this is a sign of great things to come. Democrazy seems to be one to watch.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Theatre

 

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The Book of Mormon, Eugene O’Neill Theatre

When a show combines the talents behind two of the most subversive mainstream musicals in recent years – Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q – it’s reasonable to expect that there’ll be scatology and iconoclasm in the mix. The Book of Mormon duly delivers both in spades, with some of the filthiest lyrics ever heard on a Broadway stage and enough religious irreverence to make Fred Phelps wonder if he’s fighting a losing battle.

However, both Avenue Q and the South Park movie also share an obvious love for and awareness of classical musical style and convention, and this side of their creators’ talents is also in abundant supply. Taken on its most straightforward terms, The Book of Mormon is a masterclass in construction and pacing. It has strong, well-defined characters in whom it’s easy to get emotionally invested and whose story is moved forward to a satisfying conclusion through superb, catchy show-tunes in a variety of styles which nod to heavily to recent Broadway tradition – there are echoes to be heard of Rent, Wicked and Hairspray – and even to The Sound of Music

At its core it’s a fairly archetypal plot: two unlikely partners battle adversity and learn a little bit about themselves along the way. Our two heroes in this case are both Mormon missionaries – clean-cut superstar of the faith Elder Price, and slobby drop-out Elder Cunningham – who are sent to join the massively unsuccessful efforts of their brethren in Uganda (total souls saved: zero). Price’s bullet-proof confidence in himself is shaken, while Cunningham is called upon to rise to challenges he always thought beyond him.

Apart from the sturdiness of its dramatic skeleton, the beauty of The Book of Mormon is that it’s ambitious, and successful, on every level. It’s hugely funny – the most I’ve laughed in a theatre since The Producers – and delights in taking pot-shots at any number of issues. The Lion King and left-for-dead Broadway rival Bono get their noses playfully tweaked and the peculiar tenets of Mormonism get a thorough dusting down but more serious issues are brought into play as well: hilarious comic songs deal seriously with ideas about the suppression of self required by religious conformity and the arrogance and dilettantism of religious colonialism. They don’t flinch from Africa’s AIDS pandemic, factional warfare or the cultural perpetuation of female circumcision.

Like the very best satirists, Parker, Stone and Lopez are at heart humanists and while they’re merciless towards weak ideas and sloppy thinking, they’re unfailingly generous and compassionate towards individuals. It’s a kind show at its core and, perhaps surprisingly, is not by any means a blanket condemnation of religion but a plea for a more sophisticated application of its power.

The production isn’t quite perfect – the final section runs a little too long and its impact is diluted by repeating material from earlier in the show, and while Andrew Rannells as Elder Price and Nikki M. James as Nabalungi, a village girl who is taken up with their missionary zeal, are both superb, Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham leans a little too heavily on the dishevelled and boorish side. His character feels like it was written for, and is pretty much played as, a young Jack Black but Gad lacks Black’s underlying innocent sweetness to leaven the role.

These quibbles are minor, though, in a show which can make theatrical gold from an exegesis of the life of Joseph Smith – ‘the prophet with a little Donny Osmond flair’ – to a Dantean vision of a Creepy Mormon Hell Dream, complete with menacing apparitions of maple topped donuts. I’d say it’s time to give Parker and Stone a MacArthur Genius grant but their truckload of Tonys and packed houses suggest they’re doing just fine as they are.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2011 in Theatre

 

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