Author Archives: differentkate

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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How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Al Hirschfeld Theatre

Opening a major revival on Broadway with two leads making their musical debuts sounds like a bit of a shaky proposition but when the names above the title are beloved Emmy laden television star John Larroquette and some British kid called Daniel Radcliffe, it’s safe to assume that the risks are more artistic than financial.

Nonetheless, the new production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is determined to deliver a respectable bang for the pre-assured buck, as demonstrated by the choice of hotter than hot director-choreographer Rob Ashford. He delivers a show which takes a thin plot – the climb to success of ingenuous charmer J. Pierrepont Finch from window-washer to executive wunderkind – and presents it in the slickest, paciest fashion imaginable.

The play retains its original 1960s setting and it’s designed as a gorgeous homage to the decade’s most stylish, modernist impulses with a series of set pieces which glide smoothly on, garnished with beautiful people in sharp suits and ruthlessly cut dresses. The songs are well-tooled and springily arranged, if never hugely memorable (and several of them recall Frank Loesser’s own earlier work in Guys and Dolls perhaps too closely). The energetic  choreography is a masterclass in ensemble dance, full of witty and graceful moments with a chorus drilled to perfection. Of a uniformly strong supporting cast, the stand-outs are Christopher J. Hanke as Finch’s haplessly scheming rival and Rob Bartlett who takes two separate small parts and makes a huge impression in them both.

The most heartening aspect of the production, though, is that the avalanche of established Broadway talent ends up complementing rather than carrying the central performances. John Larroquette, as the easily swayed company president, fits a mostly comic part beautifully and milks it for all it’s worth. He makes an amusing visual counterpoint to the diminutive Radcliffe who’s a good head shorter than pretty much everyone else on stage.

It’s not just his lack of height which makes Radcliffe a less-than-obvious star attraction; his voice, both speaking and singing, is fairly weak and his dancing looks more carefully memorised than to the manner born. Somehow, though, he makes it all work. If it’s a quirk of circumstance that he’s the star of the show, he’s obviously determined to justify it. He’s a charismatic and likeable presence, with a nice comic touch, and if his musical chops aren’t abundant, they’re by no means embarrassing. Buoyed by the palpable goodwill of the audience, he acquits himself admirably.

The immaculate production unfortunately can only go so far to hide some problems with the show, most of which stem from its roots in the 60s. Mad Men may have made it cool to be sexist again but all of the female characters here are a very sorry lot; the heroine’s ‘I Want’ number is basically an unironic version of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ in which she dreams of cooking supper every night for our pint-sized hero, and her entire story is defined by her obsession with getting married. The show’s sexism is deep in the bone: there’s an entire number called ‘A Secretary is Not a Toy.’

The production decides to play all of this completely straight, which is probably the best bet in the circumstances since it’s not a piece which can really support updating or re-interpretation (the only nod to the last thirty years is brief, funny Tom Cruise sight gag). If you can stomach the archaic values, it’s a bright, breezy, gossamer thin piece of well mounted entertainment which garnered an enthusiastic and well-earned standing ovation. It just doesn’t really bear too much thinking about, but perhaps that doesn’t always matter.

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Posted by on June 27, 2011 in Theatre


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Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, Foxwoods Theatre

Few Broadway shows come laden with as much baggage as Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark: years in the making and one of the most technically complex productions ever mounted, it’s eaten up $75 million on its way to opening at the Foxwoods Theatre after more preview performances than any other show in history and multiple injuries to the cast. More seriously for its artistic prospects, director Julie Taymor went overboard after critics broke convention to review preview shows and universally slated it. A radically (and hastily) retooled version finally opened two weeks ago.

The end result wears its history fairly close to the surface. Even if its painful birth had not been gleefully documented along the way, the unwieldiness of the show makes it obvious that it’s the product of conflicting impulses which have been jammed together to make an awkwardly compromised show.

The plot as it now stands is a fairly straight-forward Spider-Man origin story: geeky kid gets bitten by super-spider and acquires its proportionate abilities and decides to fight crime after the death of his beloved uncle. He loves aspiring Broadway actress Mary-Jane Watson. Norman Osborn, brilliant scientist turned certifiable loon, is his antagonist in his own mutated form as the Green Goblin. It’s no coincidence that it sounds more like a collection of bullet-points than a plot; there’s very little in the way of connective tissue in this story, either in terms of narrative or character. It feels like a rote ticking-off of iconic moments of the established Spider-Man mythos which don’t really cohere into an emotional journey. Jennifer Damiano’s Mary-Jane is particularly ill-served in this respect. She’s introduced in one of the better songs, No More, where we’re told about her abusive home-life and her longing for something kinder, but this is never touched upon again and she’s soon reduced to the role of adoring, frustrated girlfriend to be used as motivation for both hero and villain.

The only noticeable piece of invention is the character of Arachne, filched from myth to become a spiritual symbol of spider-hood (or something). A Taymor innovation, she was apparently a co-lead in the original production and drew the focus of much of the criticism. The solution which has been cooked up is not a happy one. Presumably unwilling to lose her expensive design or several songs, she pops up occasionally as…a motif? A dream? A vision? Your guess is as good as mine but she adds nothing to proceedings except for being part of an attractively gentle aerial ballet sequence.

With little substance to offer in the way of plot or character, the show falls back on its aesthetic and production values and the results are a very mixed bag. The design of the show is a bewildering mess. There’s some invention on display in the sets, which play amusingly with perspective, but it generally looks and feels a little bare and, surprisingly, cheap while the costuming and make-up is totally inconsistent. Peter and Mary-Jane are restrained and realist while other characters and environments are massively stylised pop-art caricatures. Norman Osborn’s lab looks like a 1950s science-fiction set, complete with assistants in Baco-foil suits, while J Jonah Jameson is stuffed into a comically oversize suit with a giant bouffant wig. He refers to the internet, but is backed up with an all-female chorus of a 1950s typing pool complete with manual typewriters. During an heroic montage of Spider-Man’s early exploits – one of the first times the show actually comes to life – the villains are played with grotesque giant cartoon head masks (making it seem slightly as though New York is under siege from an army of Frank Sidebottom fans) but this conceit comes from nowhere and is never seen again.

The music, by Bono and The Edge, is for the most part murky and unmemorable and isn’t helped by the fact that distorted amplification makes it very hard to hear any lyrics most of the time. The lack of a coherent identity for the score is a problem; the reprise of the best song, Rise Above, is the only time it feels like anything other than a completely disparate collection of mostly bad songs.

One undoubted triumph is in the much-discussed aerial sequences; performers fly around the theatre, through and above the audience, with dazzling speed and grace (and with no noticeable glitches on the night I saw it) and the result is genuinely thrilling. These moments are mostly confined to the second half, which consequently has much more verve than the rather boring first act, but it unfortunately becomes an exercise in sitting impatiently through another dull song or toothless dramatic beat while waiting for someone to take to the sky again.

The show’s other high spot is Patrick Page’s performance as Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin. Even under ludicrous costuming in both identities he manages to break through the wall of nervous indifference which seems to surround the rest of the cast to establish a strong connection with the audience and sells his every moment with gusto. His Act Two opener, A Freak Like Me (Needs Company), is a highpoint of the production. In a show which badly lacks its own identity – it’s a mish-mash of rock, circus and drama stealing aesthetic cues variously from comics, cartoons and films – he injects a dose of pure musical theatre and brings the endeavour gloriously to life on its own terms for moments which are sadly too brief. He fleetingly suggests a success which might have been, but this farrago feels like it’s wasted a huge amount of effort and ideas, assembled without genuine creative purpose and thrown on stage to die.

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Posted by on June 24, 2011 in Theatre


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Blood and Gifts, National Theatre

The first scene of Blood and Gifts opens with the Lyttleton stage squeezed vertically by a lowered lighting rig to resemble the narrow strip of a cinema screen. The bland beige box of the set is simply augmented with a row of fixed plastic seats to represent the arrivals lounge of Islamabad international airport in the early 1980s, as an arriving CIA agent is met by the friendly local KGB representative who casually lets him know that his cover has been comprehensively blown even before his feet have touched the ground.

It’s a scene which sums up a lot about JT Rogers’ play. For all of its broad sweep and reach, covering a decade with dozens of characters and multiple locations, it’s not an especially theatrical evening. The set efficiently waxes and wanes into various rigidly geometrical layouts with a minimum of dressing to suggest different environments and the costumes are realist and look convincingly researched but there’s not really a striking or memorable image to be found. The staging and dialogue are also entirely linear and straightforward; there’s nothing about the play which wouldn’t work equally effectively on the radio.

Characters are only brought on and developed as far as they have a point to make about the disastrous history of Afghanistan in the last thirty years. A sub-plot about the impact on the family life – and souls – of the Westerners who find themselves lost to the maelstrom of conflict is brutally effective but also feels a bit perfunctory and more spoken of than felt (there is only one woman with a speaking part, and it’s a one scene piece of comic relief. All of the other women in the large cast are literally reduced to being cocktail party dressing).

None of which is to say that it’s not an interesting and provocative evening. As a disquisition of history and politics, it exerts a grisly fascination within its very narrow focus. We see every major actor in the conflict through one emblematic representative: the committed CIA agent who is dedicated to bloodying the nose of the Russian bear, the British agent cynically appalled by his own country’s legacy and modern redundancy on the world stage, the Afghan fighting for a web of reasons which defy simple reduction, the Senator who sees an opportunity to advance a confused agenda of Christian militarism. Rogers lays out in a bleakly convincing narrative how everyone’s different motivations, and a stew of notions of honour, justice, faith and vengeance, combined to create a disaster the effects of which would ultimately reach so far beyond the country they’re ostensibly fighting over.

It’s all convincing, effective and thoroughly dispiriting. The evening, though, suffers from its own relentlessness. There’s too little of the human in it; we never really see the victims – on any side – of the action. This is old school history – the doings of great men pinned up for the world to see and to reflect upon – and a worthy play which deserves to be seen, but it never really comes fully alive.

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Posted by on September 25, 2010 in Theatre


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Deathtrap, Duke of York’s Theatre

Ira Levin’s Deathtrap is a period piece in more ways than one; although it was achingly contemporary when it was written in 1978, its latest revival at the Duke of York’s Theatre sticks with its original setting, and the manual typewriters onstage and lovingly recreated fashion initially give it a cosy quaintness. More importantly, and ultimately more problematically, it also represents a genre which has fallen utterly out of style in modern commercial theatre: the comedy thriller, played on a realistic set in a realistic style.

It’s not really possible to discuss the story in any depth since it relies purely on its plot, and the theatrical brio with which it’s presented, for its value. However, it’s harmless to say that events are kicked off as past-his-prime playwright Sidney Bruhl receives a copy of a brilliant new play  – Deathtrap – by his eager acolyte, Clifford Anderson, and wonders how he might best profit from what is obviously a hit in waiting. Yes, we’re in, gently, the world of meta-theatre though it’s played more as a prolonged wink to the audience than as pyrotechnic Pirandellian deconstruction. Characters discuss twists, motivations and the art of the stage thriller while repeatedly name-dropping the biggest hits of the genre: Sleuth and Dial M for Murder. In one of the subtler allusions, there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act.

It’s all amusing, if thin, stuff and it’s well planned and written enough to justify its self-indulgence, though the second act drags a little as the plot mechanics become ever more tortuous and unconvincing. The play lives and dies based on the production, which is very slick throughout, and by the acting which, among the main cast, is a curate’s egg. I worry that I do little but rave about Simon Russell Beale but he will insist on deserving it; he’s such a consistently outstanding stage actor that in small scale pieces like this he disappears so completely into the part that it’s easy to forget he’s doing anything at all. He’s witty and weary and sells everything he does, and everywhere the play goes, completely. Claire Skinner fares slightly less well as Bruhl’s wife Myra. She seems uncomfortable with her American accent and retains an air of the school play about her. Fortunately, though, Simon Russell Beale is principally matched with Broadway star Jonathan Groff who tears into his part with gusto; it’s not an especially subtle performance but he hits all the right notes.

The principal duo keep the evening running along nicely and with enough nerve and energy to make the play work within its self-defined ambitions to amuse and mildly thrill. It’s solidly entertaining but it left me grateful that the scope of most modern West End productions seems so much more ambitious than what feels like a chamber-piece. Deathtrap feels, thirty-two years on, like the death rattle of a genre, but at least it died with a smile on its face.


Posted by on September 15, 2010 in Theatre


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Danton’s Death, National Theatre

I like history, I like politics and I like theatre. I had good reason to think that Danton’s Death at the National Theatre, combining all of these things and chucking in a South Bank debut for superstar director Michael Grandage (he’s so hot right now), would be an excellent evening’s entertainment. It’s funny how things turn out.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this productions’s problems. On entering the Olivier, the dull set – comprised of massive grey flats with four doors on the lower level and a walkway above – fails to fill the whole stage and that pretty much sets the tone of the piece. Minimal props and furniture come on from time to time but there’s no effort to create any real sense of place. The focus, we are to understand, is on the actors and the text.

Those actors are led, nominally, by Toby Stephens as Danton; he seems to be very uncomfortable on stage. His weak voice could barely be heard from the front row of the circle and he seemed so languid I wondered if Danton’s titular death was supposed to have been caused by ennui. The rest of the company run the gamut from school play style monotonous recitation to pantoesque lip-smacking villainy. The dissonance in performance style didn’t seem especially surprising since the cast seemed mainly to be meeting each other for the first time ever on stage. The only person to come away with any credit is Elliot Levey, whose Robespierre is the sole character to leave any sort of impression at all. He speaks the lines as though he understands them, and tries to find a coherent personality to bring them together. His singular success makes it all the more of a shame that he leaves the play halfway through never to be seen or heard from again.

The disappearing Robespierre is one of the problems which can’t be laid solely at the feet of the production. This is apparently the third production of Danton’s Death at the National and, frankly, the mind boggles. It is, in its latest incarnation, a terrible, terrible play. The protagonist is utterly unsympathetic – he is first introduced cheating on his wife and spends most of the time insisting that no-one will arrest him because he’s just so bloody brilliant – and there’s absolutely nothing in the way of a coherently constructed narrative. Events just happen, people wander in and out of importance and focus and it never finds a comfortable balance between the personal, the political and the historical which makes every aspect of it completely unmoving. There’s no sweep of history but neither are we induced to care a jot for any individual. There’s little in the way of dialogue and argument; there’s a great deal in the way of random speechifying which invariably seems unmotivated by anything else which is happening.

If the roles for men range from the dull to the anonymous, the roles for women go from the embarrassing to the offensive. Wives are wheeled on to be supportive, quietly, and a prostitute gets a long speech explaining why she loves what she does and how it’s an honour to serve. A maid gets no lines but is sent out to report on what the people on the street are saying (twice), but we never hear what she discovers. It culminates in a character whom we’ve only seen once or twice before suddenly getting a long, lunatic monologue addressed to her husband (one of two fairly similar looking mates of Danton; it was hard to care or remember which) which was genuinely excruciating to watch.

The production is played without an interval and it’s not hard to imagine why; even so, despite being less than two hours long it felt like one of the longest evenings of my life. Sitting through to the end one is rewarded with the only worthwhile event of the whole play: actual beheading, live onstage! By the time it comes around, though, the only feelings to be mustered are curiosity at how it’s done, and tentative joy at the thought it might all soon be over. As high points go it’s too little too late, and doesn’t stop Danton’s Death being comfortably the worst thing I’ve ever seen in the Olivier (and I say that as a veteran of both the Stephen Rea Cyrano de Bergerac and the recent revival of Once in a Lifetime).


Posted by on August 1, 2010 in Theatre


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The White Guard, National Theatre

On paper, The White Guard looks like a bit of a slog: a rarely performed 1926 Russian play about the chaotic post-revolutionary civil war in the Ukraine, with only one woman among its cast of twenty two, does not sound like the basis for a terrific night out. In practice, happily, it plays a little differently and provides an engrossing, moving and unexpectedly hilarious production.

The play is firmly in the realist manner and it’s a tribute to Mikhail Bulgakov’s technical skills as a playwright that despite having been written not long after the events it describes the play assumes almost nothing in the way of prior knowledge but articulates and clarifies a very complicated conflict without ever being tediously expository. It’s hard to say how much help Andrew Upton has invisibly provided in his new translation, but what’s certain is that the language and dramatic rhythms of the text feel utterly modern; it would be easy to believe this is a prestigious premiere rather than a revival.

The action begins in a large flat in Kiev in late 1918 and the thread of the story is woven around its inhabitants, the Turbins. Their position as slightly shabby Ukranian aristocracy ensures that the male members of the family are stalwarts of the White Guard, the rump of the Russian army upholding the Tsarist cause against the dual opposition forces of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and a rising Ukranian Nationalist Army. As the snow falls outside the windows (a charming piece of staging), rumours begin to spread of the withdrawal of the German support for the White Guard and the position begins to appear more and more hopeless.

With the play situated so precisely in a specific political and historical context, director Howard Davies has eschewed any temptation to try to universalise the production and has gone instead for an extraordinary verisimilitude, aided by a series of huge and beautifully detailed sets by Bunny Christie (which nonetheless pull some inventive surprises, with one particular scene transition which is as delightful as it is dramatically evocative). The firm grounding of the staging is matched by the acting, which is intimate and realistic to match the writing; the cast – led most memorably by Justine Mitchell, as the emotional heart of the Turbin family, and Conleth Hill as a wry, portly roué who can’t quite believe he’s become a soldier – create a series of beautifully human portraits. Pip Carter, who’s becoming almost as much of a Lyttleton regular as Adrian Scarborough or Oliver Ford Davies, is particularly effective as a student with little knack for timing. The family are strongly and warmly established in a long domestic opening sequence, and are then flung off into a world which becomes more absurd as it expands. The easy sitcom becomes broader and more savage as it’s stained with farce and tragedy.

The balancing of the political and the domestic, the vicious and the generous, increasingly asserts itself as the purpose of the play. We’re shown that even in as firmly real an environment as the apartments and palaces of Kiev, the structures of government and society are evanescent and cease to exist as soon as there’s no-one left who can be bothered to believe in them. The characters we’re invited to despise are those who continue to insist that history is theirs for the writing; the ones we celebrate are those who maintain their humanity in the face of a collapsed world.

It’s a wonderful production of a fascinating play; it’s more than enough to make one grateful once again for existence of the National Theatre, since it’s very difficult to think of anywhere else in the country which could mount such a lavish, thoughtful production of a play which doesn’t have obvious commercial appeal – but which nonetheless deserves to find an audience.

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Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Theatre


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