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Crocodile Fever*** at the Traverse was an extraordinary cocktail of black comedy, horror & fantasy with an added dose of the surreal! Set in South Armagh during ‘the troubles’, two sisters who haven’t seen each other for eleven years unleash horror on their bullying dad, with a lot of twists, turns and revelations along the way. It was too Tarantinoesque for my taste, a bit heavy handed and OTT, but you had to admire it’s chutzpah, and gold stars to the production staff who have to erect and dismantle an elaborate set worthy of the West End daily, the latter after it’s been roughed up rather a lot.

One of political comedian Matt Forde‘s daily shows**** is each week turned into a live, lighthearted political podcast with a guest and when we went he’d pulled off the coup of getting Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It was a good blend of serious and irreverent and Sturgeon was game; I rather warmed to her.

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein**** is the creation of a silent movie before your very eyes using three overhead projectors, actors, puppets, live music and sound effects. You can watch the creation or the end result or both, as I did. This American group is like our own Paper Cinema, but bigger and more complex, with ‘live’ action. I found myself more engaged with the creation than the story, but it was captivating nonetheless.

In a joint venture with the Television Festival, we got to see TV writer Russell T Davies****, most famous for resurrecting Dr Who, in conversation, illustrated by film clips. His body of work is extraordinary and his enthusiasm and boyish nerdiness was infectious. Illuminating and entertaining.

I only know American folk musician Anais Mitchell**** from her recent NT & Broadway hit musical Hadestown, but I loved her concert at Queens Hall. She writes great songs, and with the help of another guitarist, plays and sings them beautifully. Carsie Blanton provided outstanding support with a more varied, lighter set that was just as enthralling.

Buzz*** at Summerhall was storytelling illustrated by film, music and a soundscape. It was often gripping, but when the actor used a microphone she became inaudible behind the music / sound and when she changed character you sometimes got lost; well, I did anyway. I had to ask my companions too many questions afterwards!

No such problems with Fishbowl**** at the vast Pleasance Grand as there was next to no dialogue! This French company presented an ingenious and hysterical show about three very different inhabitants of adjoining attic apartments and their connections with one another. Brilliant physical comedy and a real comic treat.

Had I fully realised what Julius ‘Call Me Caesar’ Caesar*** was I probably wouldn’t have gone. It was a frenetic one-man-telling of Shakespeare’s story which even at only an hour seemed too long, but you had to admire comedian Andrew Maxwell’s hard work and audience engagement.

Modern opera’s are a risky affair but Breaking the Waves****, based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The challenging story of what one troubled woman believes she has to do for god and the love of her injured man was hugely dramatic and the music just as dramatic but also accessible. American soprano Sydney Mancasola was stunning in the lead role.

Back at the Traverse to begin the final day with How Not to Drown*****, the story of a Kosovan refugee who from aged 11 to 16 travelled to and lived in England, returning briefly to reunite with his parents in Tirana. It was deeply moving, with the refugee himself (now late twenties) narrating / performing, and brilliantly staged and performed. An absolute highlight.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of shows impacts enjoyment, and so it was with Austentatious*** which seemed too light and frivolous after How Not to Drown. Still the improvised ‘Pride & Prejudice on the Titanic’ was fun, but it would probably have been more fun at another time.

1927’s Roots**** at Church Hill Theatre didn’t live up their earlier work, largely because it was a loose collection of unconnected tales rather than a cohesive story, but their unique brand of live action and music synchronised with animation worth seeing nonetheless.

The final show, at the Traverse again, was Enough***, about two air stewardesses having a mid-life crisis. I liked the poetic writing, but the attempts at bringing in bigger issues were a bit obtuse and half-baked.

Little time to take in much art, but retrospectives of Bridget Riley and recent discovery (for me) Victoria Crowe and some Grayson Perry tapestries telling the life story of fictional Julie, the inspiration for his House for Essex, were all very good, and of course some fine dining, notably at newbie Grazing by Mark Greenaway, last year’s discovery The White Horse seafood restaurant and Martin Wishart’s The Honours.

A year without bummers, and with more than 60% of shows shining. Until next year?…..

Time for a rest; four days in Northumberland…..

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Well, here we are back at the world’s biggest arts festival, with more than 2000 shows to navigate. In a one week visit, we’ll manage around 20 to 25, a mere 0.01%, but at 3 to 4 a day, a still impressive attempt I’d say.

We started with main festival opera at the Komisher Opera Berlin’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin**** at the Festival Theatre, sometimes called the opera where nothing happens! What does happen is gorgeous music, played and sung here as well as I’ve ever heard it, in an unusual outdoor staging in gardens and woods which looked as gorgeous as it sounded.

The fringe started at 10am the following morning at my second home, the Traverse Theatre, with the highly original and very thought-provoking Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran****. Opening with the alternatively revolutionary instagram feeds of the privileged sons and daughters of Iran’s revolutionary guard, it bounced around as a modern day illustrated lecture covering all sorts of current issues and prophesies, with the audience joining in on instagram. It divided the group, but I really liked it.

Back at the main festival, Robert Icke’s modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus*** for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) at the Kings Theatre was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of the pacing, at times very slow. I’ve seen this group many times, but what struck me on this occasion was the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the performers, which I suspect is the result of regularly working together over long periods.

It would be impossible to kick-start a Sunday more thrillingly than with The Patient Gloria****, the retelling of the true story of a woman exploited by psychotherapists as a third wave feminist tale, back at the Traverse. Brilliantly staged, defiant, ballsy (!) and very very funny, with Gina Moxley superb as both writer and co-lead. Perfect festival fare.

It was good to catch Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie*** and add it to my ‘collection’ of this favourite 20th Century American playwright. It got it’s stage premiere in Stockholm in 1958, 16 years after it was written, but has since attracted stars like Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy & Forest Whittaker. Here comedian-turned-actor Phil Nicol was outstanding as the gambler who never stops talking, with Mike McShane superb as his ‘straight man’.

Back at the main festival, in the Usher Hall, Elgar’s underrated oratorio The Kingdom**** sounded superb, even with a stand-in conductor and two stand-in soloists. Whatever you think of this somewhat incomprehensible work the music is lush and it’s hard to imagine it better played than here by the Halle, or sung better than by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and four fine British soloists.

Amy Booth-Steele is a musical theatre actress I’ve often admired, and I loved her one-woman musical #HonestAmy***** at Pleasance Dome, a 50-minute heart-warming and, well, honest gem, with the songs played by her on ukulele. She was so engaging performing this autobiographical material.

Daughterhood*** at Summerhall, in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre, is a play about two sisters born nine years apart whose mother left home and whose father is terminally ill, but its really about their relationship. With actors playing multiple roles and scenes moving forward and back in time, it took a while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but it packed a lot of story into 80 minutes and the performances were excellent.

West End Producer*** is a bit of a Twitter phenomenon, the Banksy of theatre, permanently masked, and Free Willy, the casting of his new musical, was his first Edinburgh outing. Despite a small audience, he managed to engage us and take us with him, with participation key to the show’s success. I will be in the chorus of the show. Apparently.

Simon Evans**** wove a very personal story into his politically incorrect stand-up routine, a bit like Mark Steele’s search for his parents a few years back, and it was all the better for it, becoming very moving at the end. Surprising and rewarding.

So far good. Back at the Traverse with a 10am start again……

This is the second production of this show at Chichester in a decade. Given there have only been two in the West End (originating in Leicester in 1980 and the NT in 1998) in the 70 or so years since it’s UK premiere, that’s quite something. Is there some affinity between Sussex and the state of Oklahoma that I’ve missed?

It was the first of of eleven collaborations between Rogers and Hammerstein during their sixteen years writing together, including the more frequently revived Carousel, South Pacific The King & I and The Sound of Music. It was ground-breaking in so many ways, but now we can look back on their whole career it seems to have somewhat less depth than what followed. Still, how can you resist a hoe-down with some cowboys and their gals and tunes like Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top and the title song, and what other show can boast a song that became a state anthem.

It’s really a simple love story revolving around whether the farmer or the cowboy wins the heart of young farm owner Laurey. Revivals have tended to emphasise the darker side of one suitor’s jealousy and disappointment leading to rage and violence, as they do here. The lack of native American characters or references is a bit glaring, given it’s set on the eve of the statehood of Oklahoma, created from their territory and reservations, but hey, this is 75-year-old musical theatre.

Robert Jones’ set, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes and Mark Henderson’s lighting combine to give it a terrific look, propelling you several thousand miles west and more than a hundred years back in time. There’s a windmill, giant barn doors and plenty of bales of straw. Matt Cole’s athletic choreography takes your breath away and the set pieces and dream ballet are thrilling. It’s a big fifteen piece Chichester band again, this time under MD Nigel Lilley, and they sound great. Director Jeremy Sams is the master at marshalling big resources and making something old feel as fresh as new, as he’s done with other R&H shows, and does again here.

Much of the success of the production is age appropriate casting of early career talent. Hoyle O’Grady, Amara Okereke and Emmanuel Kojo are terrific in the love triangle roles of Curly, Laurey & Jud respectively, all with fine vocals, which is the other key to the show’s success, in just about every role. Isaac Gryn and Bronte Barbe are fine too as the somewhat intellectually challenged Will and Ado Annie, and there’s a brilliantly funny cameo from Scott Karim, who makes much of the role of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who becomes intertwined with them.

As fine a revival as you could wish for. Given that it hasn’t has a West End outing for over twenty years, it would be good to see this one make the 70 mile journey north-east where I for one would be sure to see it again.

In addition to almost forty full-length plays, Tennessee Williams wrote more than seventy one-act plays. I know I will never see them all, but I grab every opportunity I get, but I’ve still only seen a quarter of them. I enjoyed both of these, but the second one in particular was fascinating.

The first in the pairing, Something Unspoken, was written in 1958, the same year as Suddenly Last Summer, the year after Orpheus Descending and the year before Sweet Bird of Youth, all of which have had high profile stagings in the last two years. He wasn’t writing one-acters because he’d run out of steam; they were scattered throughout his career. It concerns Cornelia, a rich southern belle, living with Grace, her secretary / companion of fifteen years. As was the norm at that time, the true nature of their relationship is ambiguous, even buried. Cornelia is preoccupied with her place in society, and in particular the ladies association she aspires to lead, perhaps more so that her relationship.

The second play, And Tell Sad Stories Of The Deaths Of Queens, was originally written in 1957 but re-worked over the next five years. It was TW’s only openly gay play and had it been performed or published then, probably the first openly gay play of all, but it wasn’t staged until 2004 or published until 2005, more than twenty years after his death. It revolves around a wealthy New Orleans design shop and property owner known as Candy.

Since his partner of eighteen years left him, Candy is alone and lonely. He picks up Karl in a bar, a sailor, a bit of rough, and becomes obsessed with him, even though Karl does not share the attraction and is repulsed when Candy appears as a woman. He’s clearly there for what he can get – booze, money – but this doesn’t stop Candy’s attempts to create a relationship, despite the risks his neighbouring gay tenants warn him of. It might be more than sixty years old, but the story could be contemporary.

Director Jamie Armitage and his designer Sarah Mercade have configured the Kings Head with the audience on two sides, which provides a more spacious playing area that proves particularly effective and important for the second play. It’s carpeted in pink and surrounded by white and pink fabric, giving the space an other-worldly quality. Songs sung and played live by actors Michael Burrows and Ben Chinapen add to this atmosphere. It was great to see Annabel Leventon on stage again as Cornelia, with probably the most authentic southern accent I’ve ever heard. In the second play, Luke Mullins was outstanding as Candy, in a nuanced, delicate, mesmerising performance.

Great to add such high quality productions to my TW collection.

Tree

Before it even opened at the Manchester International Festival, this show was mired in an authorship dispute, which sadly got more coverage than the work itself; a great shame given the originality and quality of Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s creation. It’s a brilliant cocktail of drama, dance and music which successfully interweaves a personal story with the 20th Century history of the nation of South Africa..

Kaelo is the son of white South African woman Cezanne and black South African man Lundi, a worker on her family’s estate. Given the laws of South Africa at that time, she relocated to London, without Lundi, and brought up Kaelo on her own. As the story begins, we learn that she has recently died and Kaelo is planning to visit South African for the first time to find his father and scatter his mother’s ashes, staying with his grandmother Elzebe, but whilst there he also meets his half-sister Ofentse and learns a lot about the historical events that shaped everyone’s lives.

It’s played on a round stepped platform that revolves, stepped viewing areas replacing seats and a huge drum overhead with projections on the inside. As you arrive, the audience are on the stage dancing to a live DJ set, but leave it as the story begins. There is much dance and movement by the performers in what is a thrilling telling of this family’s story as well as its political and social context and a spiritual dimension which enables Kaelo to observe events he was nowhere near in time or location. In what is a very immersive production, the audience are involved, moving props, dancing and participating like extras, some even getting lines.

The seemingly omnipresent Jon Bausor has created another extraordinary environment incorporating sound and projections. Alfred Enoch as Kaelo performs with great passion and physicality, aided by dancers superbly choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. Joan Iyiola’s Ofentse is a force of nature, filling and commanding the stage. Kurt Egyiawan and Lucy Briggs-Owen bring Kaeola’s deceased parents alive, and Sinead Cusak is totally plausible as Elzebe, the Afrikaner grandmother who feels threatened by all around her.

I thought it was a highly inventive show which paired storytelling with actual history, informative and entertaining in equal measure, accessible to anyone used to or new to theatre, especially a young audience.

This musical is based on the 1992 debut novel of American writer Robert James Waller. It sold 60 million copies and became one of bestselling books of the 20th Century. He probably couldn’t believe his luck. Clint Eastwood made it into a film three years later, starring himself and Meryl Streep. Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation got to Broadway nine years later, and now has its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory, for which it has received the whole gamut of stars, from five to one; marmite indeed.

The story revolves around Francesca, who left Naples at the end of the Second World War, following American GI Bud Johnson to the US. In the brilliant opening number she tells us her story from wartime loss of boyfriend Paolo, the sea journey to New York and train across the US to her new life in Winterset, Iowa where she becomes a farmer’s wife, bringing up two children. When we join her there, the family head off to the State Fair in Springfield Illinois, where daughter Carolyn is showing her prize steer. While they’re away she meets and falls for National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, who’s in town to take pictures of those bridges of the title. It’s a sort of mid-west Brief Encounter!

Jon Bausor’s brilliant design seems to enlarge the Menier space, with three huge barn like doors, onto which images are projected, and two revolves moving us from the main location of the family kitchen to the State Fair, a neighbouring home, the fields outside, one of those covered bridges and a truck on the road, though it’s sometimes a bit noisy, during as well as between scenes, with involuntary movements of furniture occasionally comic (oh, and they need to repair the fridge door!). That aside, it’s a truly evocative design matched by Trevor Nunn’s staging, which flows beautifully.

It seems to me that the different views on the show are probably driven by the score and your attitude to love stories. Well, I’m a sucker for the latter (yes, there were tears again) and I think the lush eclectic Americana score is gorgeous, an antidote to the bland formulaic pop of most contemporary musicals. The songs, and there are a lot of them, maybe a few too many, really do propel the story and develop the characters, keeping just the right side of sentimentality, well, until the very end. I liked the way many of the cast get a number that brings their character briefly to the fore, enabling them to showcase their talents, notably Shanay Holmes and Georgia Brown.

Francesca provides yet another career high for Jenna Russell, as a very different character which she inhabits with conviction and authenticity. She’s well matched by Edward Baker-Duly as Robert, the finest performance I’ve seen by this actor, with a Glenn Campbell like velvet voice which so suited the songs. Dale Rapley provides fine support as Bud and there’s a lovely cameo from Gillian Kirkpatrick as neighbour Marge and an auspicious professional stage debut by the appropriately named Maddison Bulleyment as Carolyn.

Well, I’m with the four star gang. A lovely show staged and performed to perfection. Go and make your own mind up

Despite writing lots of songs that have become standards, only two Cole Porter stage musicals have continued to be revived with any regularity – this and Anything Goes – and there have only been four West End productions of Kiss Me Kate since the UK premiere nearly seventy years ago. This is a hugely ambitious actor-musician production with a cast of just twelve, but it’s in the theatre that developed this form, with Chioma Uma, a graduate of the drama school actor-musician course it spawned, making an auspicious professional debut as Hattie no less.

The play-within-a-play idea was inspired. A theatre company touring Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with the relationship of the leading actors Lilli and Fred mirroring that of Kate & Petruchio. It provided lots of opportunities for Porter and his book writers Sam & Bella Spewack to include references to, and puns on, Shakespeare’s plays, notably the showstopper Brush Up Your Shakespeare, without making them in any way highbrow or inaccessible to the average musical theatre goer. It’s a very witty concoction with a lot of now instantly recognisable songs and it has two of the greatest act openers with Another Op’nin, Another Show and Two Darn Hot.

Though it’s a ‘big’ show, and all four productions I’ve seen have had more resources and bigger spaces, I’ve always wondered how it would work scaled down. As it turns out it adds to the touring production aesthetic, as does the actor-musician form. You don’t have to do much to the Watermill to provide stage locations, so designer Frankie Bradshaw does so with a backstage wall, a few fly-ins and a stage curtain, concentrating more on good period costumes. Oti Manuse’s choreography has limited space but comes into its own during Too Darn Hot, which was sizzling. Brush Up Your Shakespeare is tough to pull and make your own, but Sheldon Greenland & Robert Jackson made a great job of it, donning different hats for the two reprises. I don’t remember seeing the references to segregated audiences before, but it adds a wholly relevant period detail and a welcome serious note.

Rebecca Trehearn captures the feistiness of Lilli / Kate perfectly, with great vocals. I’m less familiar with the work of David Ricardo-Pearce, but he turned in a fine performance as Fred / Petruchio, working the audience brilliantly in Where Is The Life That Late I Led? Kimmy Edwards was a bundle of joy as Lois and there was a great cameo from Tom Sowinski as rich and powerful Harrison, out to bag Lilli. Paul Hart marshals his limited resources but plenty of talent to great effect.

Our visits to Watermill’s summer musicals have long been a tradition and a treat, but this year we had the lovely Amelie preceding this, and the hotly anticipated Assassins to come. Our cups runneth over.