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Salome

In just four years and three productions, director Yael Farber has become a firm favourite. This time though, she’s both playwright and director and I often worry that doubling-up leads to a lack of healthy creative tension, and so it is here, I’m afraid.

She first staged this show in Washington DC three years ago, departing from her intention to stage Oscar Wilde’s play and creating her own very different take on this biblical myth. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s all fiction to me – but the dialogue is weak and the structure poor; it just isn’t a good play. She did have a dramaturg, Drew Lichtenberg, but judging by his sycophantic, barely readable programme essay, he isn’t going to challenge anything. So, as playwright, I’m afraid she fails.

As director, her staging is packed full of invention, beauty and captivating imagery. Movement, design, lighting, music and sound all come together cohesively and the virtually continuous singing by two women – Israeli Yasmin Levy and Syrian Lubana Al Quntar – is haunting and extraordinarily beautiful. It lives up to her previous work – Mies Julie, The Crucible and Les Blancs – as a thrilling production, but sadly that isn’t enough.

There is an older Salome (‘nameless’) as narrator and a younger Salome (‘Salome so-called’) who rarely speaks, both beautifully performed by Olwen Fouere and Isabella Nefar respectively. I don’t know what language Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan was speaking, and the surtites were so low on the back wall, most were invisible (an easily rectifiable fault, which for some reason hasn’t been rectified!) but I enjoyed the physicality of his performance.

Like Common, sharing the Olivier stage, the play is a bit of a muddle, and it does make one wonder if the QA process at the NT is fit for purpose.

The Who’s Tommy

I fell in love with Tommy, the world’s first ‘rock opera’, when the concept album was released in 1969. I liked rather than loved Ken Russell’s 1975 star-studded film, but fell in love with it all over again when the new stage adaptation hit the West End in 1996, and here I am again completely smitten by this thrilling and uplifting revival.

One of the great successes of this production is the integrated casting, including a deaf Tommy and his mother Nora, and actors and musicians with other disabilities. The story of a boy traumatised by his father’s death, becoming deaf dumb and blind, seems to resonate so much more cast in this way, and what talent – a stage brimming with it. The four-piece band (three of whom also have a role) led by Robert Hyman is terrific. The vocals are superb, with two actors assisting Tommy and one his mum; Max Runham is particularly strong vocally as Captain Walker. Additional wind, brass, guitar and percussion is provided by eleven members of the cast.

Kerry Michael’s staging has great pace and there’s some funny, quirky period choreography by Mark Smith. Neil Irish has provided a design which manages to create both intimate and big spaces. It was an inspired idea to cast Peter Straker as the Acid Queen, for whom Pete Townsend has written an extra number. Garry Robinson has great presence as Uncle Ernie and I very much liked Alim Jayda as Tommy’s step-dad Frank. I found William Grint’s performance as Tommy deeply moving.

This has been co-produced with Graeae and some of our finest regional theatres and I can’t imagine a better use of public funding; a terrific example of how such collaborations can produce exciting world class work. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

La Strada

I have to confess that I’ve never seen the iconic 1957 Oscar-winning Fellini film on which this is based, but it seems to lend itself to adaptation as a musical, and director Sally Cookson weaves the same homespun lo-tech magic she did with Jane Eyre and Peter Pan at the NT.

Gelsomina is ‘sold’ by her mother to strongman street performer Zampano, as her sister Rosa, who died in his care, had been just one year before. She becomes his assistant, drumming up an audience and passing around the hat. He’s a bit of a bully and when they join a circus, clown Il Matto taunts and torments him, ultimately leading to a tragic outcome. Gelsomina eventually breaks free, when Zampano realises what she really means to him.

It’s a simple tale and it gets a simple but delightful production in Cookson’s Kneehighesque style. Mike Akers has adapted it for the stage (he’s called ‘Writer in the Room’ because he writes it during rehearsals, with everyone involved contributing) and Benji Bower has added some excellent music. Katie Sykes’ design has a great sense of period, place and character.

Audrey Brisson, so good in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, is delightful as Gelsomina, her voice shining in a couple of songs.  Stuart Goodwin is excellent as Zampano, with great presence and truly believable rage. Bart Soroczynski’s Il Matto is a contrastingly playful character, with genuinely good circus skills.

It’s an odd show for The Other Palace, it might feel more at home at Southwark Playhouse or BAC, but it sits well in the space and I was glad I caught it.

Killology

Killology is a computer game, a rather nasty computer game where the more vicious the killing, the more points you accumulate, and it’s made Paul a fortune. He’s one character in this play; the other two are Davey, the victim of a crime which may be inspired by it, and Davey’s estranged dad.

I loved playwright Gary Owen’s last two plays Violence & Son and Iphigenia in Splott, but I struggled with this at first, largely because of the non-linear narrative and the lack of interaction between the characters, but it drew me in. This is partly because it is unpredictable, and you have to work to piece it together, and partly because of the three brilliant performances.

It’s an excellent debate about how computer games may influence behaviour, but it’s much more than that. It covers issues of guilt, revenge and retribution, parental accountability, but above all father and son relationships, which seem to be indestructible, whatever is thrown at them. It becomes very moving at times, particularly when Davey ends up looking after his dad, which he never did for him.

I was impressed by Sion Daniel Young when he played the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on my second visit and I was just as impressed by his performance here as Davey, particularly how he matures from boy to man. Sean Gleeson plays his dad, Alan, with great conviction and passion. Richard Mylan does very well conveying the somewhat unsympathetic character of Paul.

It may not be up to the previous two, but it does confirm Owen as a major playwright and it’s well worth catching.

Common

The backdrop to D C Moore’s new play is the enclosures of the late 18th / early 19th centuries, the greatest land-grab in history, when power shifted from the many to the few (to coin a topical phrase!). Then he adds a layer of supernatural, magical, pagan stuff. Then he adds the story of Mary returning from London to her village to reunite with her former lesbian lover and whisk her off to the US. It has it’s moments but turns out to be a bit of a muddle, I’m afraid

Before the enclosure acts, all land was common, regardless of ownership. Anyone could grow, graze or rear to make a living and feed their families. The acts gave landowners exclusive use, and most didn’t even employ the disenfranchised. Mary returns to her former home as it is about to become victim to one such act. Her backstory and future plans are interwoven with the political events and the mysterious goings on. Everyone thought she was dead, Laura’s brother King hates her, the Lord fancies her but his henchman Heron loathes her, young boy Eggy Tom befriends her and she ends up as the Lady of the manor.

It does have a boisterousness and an anarchic quality and there’s a lot to like in Jeremy Herrin’s staging and Richard Hudson’s design. There are fine performances from, amongst others, Cush Gumbo as Laura & Lois Chiminba as both Eggy Tom and Young Hannah and a virtuoso one from Anne-Marie Duff as Mary. It lacks pace at times, and not everyone will like the fruity and somewhat incongruous dialogue. It’s biggest issue, though, is that it lacks narrative cohesion and doesn’t really go anywhere.

They’ve chopped some 30 minutes off the published time, which may indicate a troubled birth. Though I liked things about it, I couldn’t honestly recommend it.

On the Town

It was touch and go at the Open Air Theatre on Tuesday, with the rain continuing until minutes before the start, but apart from a short break to mop the stage it went ahead, and the warmth from the stage just about made up for the chill in the air. OAT continues it’s pre-eminence in musicals revivals with this wonderful production of Bernstein’s rarely performed musical comedy, which I’ve only seen in ENO’s 2005 production, and we all know opera companies rarely do musicals well because they are, well, opera companies.

Three sailors arrive in New York on 24 hours leave, determined to make the most of it. Chip wants to see the sights, but Gabey and Ozzie prefer more hedonistic options. Gabey falls in love with a poster girl on the subway and they set about finding her, splitting up to visit the locations mentioned in the poster. Chip finds Hildy who’s just been fired from her job as a taxi driver and Ozzie finds anthropologist Claire in the Natural History Museum, and eventually Gabey finds his poster girl Ivy at Carnegie Hall. They all plan to meet for a date, but Gabey is stood up by Ivy. He eventually learns where she is from her music teacher and sets off for Coney Island to find her, whilst the others go on a bar crawl that gets seedier as they go.

Betty Comden & Adolf Green’s book and lyrics are much funnier than I remember and Bernstein’s score is better than I remember too, proving to be much more than its most famous songs New York, New York (not THAT one) and Some Other Time, and there’s a fantastic 15-piece band under MD Tom Deering to do it full justice. Drew McOnie’s hugely successful transition from Choreographer to Director / Choreographer continues and his staging of this is thrilling, with the balletic dancing so true to Jerome Robbins simply sensational. Peter McKintosh has designed a three-story set inspired by the opening and closing scenes at the dockyard which transforms into streets, subway trains, taxi, museum, apartment and nightclubs, with gorgeous bright and colourful costumes. When we get to Coney Island, the transformation takes your breath away.

Danny Mac, who plays Gabey, doesn’t have a strong voice, but it has a nice tone, he’s a good actor and his dancing is outstanding. Samuel Edwards is a great Ozzie and Lizzy Connelly a superb Hildy. Jacob Maynard has taken over the role of Chip after Fred Haig’s accident, and I thought he was terrific. Then there are two extraordinary professional debuts from Siena Kelly as Ivy and Miriam-Teak Lee as Claire – wow! The whole ensemble is wonderful and contributes much to an exciting, uplifting evening.

Not the best conditions for an evening at the OAT, but one of the best shows I’ve seen there. Go!

Working

This might be the first verbatim musical, based on US oral historian Studs Terkel’s interviews with working people about their jobs, some of which are set to music by no less than six songwriters. It premiered in 1975, but this European premiere is a revised version first seen in 2009, incorporating new interviews conducted by co-adapter Stephen Schwartz and two new songs from musicals-man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved it.

Six actors tell the stories of twenty-six people in a diverse range of occupations. Some are spoken, some sung, some both. I thought it was an inspired idea to add six performers as ‘chorus’, making their professional debuts, just starting their working lives – they add life and energy to the show. In addition to Miranda, there are songs by Schwartz and singer-songwriter James Taylor amongst others, and the quality is consistently high. It’s surprising how much you learn about these people and its refreshing to see something that reflects the lives of ordinary people, their motivations and their aspirations and here, the presence of the young cast members gives it a strong sense of generational change and parental aspirations for children, particularly moving in Peter Polycarpou’s rendition of Fathers & Sons.

The characters and songs are superbly interpreted by Polycarpou plus Gillian Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison and Liam Tamne, and there’s a great band led by Isaac McCullough. I liked Jean Chan shabby workplace set & Gabriella Slade’s ‘distressed’ costumes. There’s some excellent choreography from Fabian Aloise and Luke Sheppard, who directed In The Heights here, does a fine job putting this all together into a captivating and uplifting ninety minutes.

Not to be missed.