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Posts Tagged ‘Angels in America’

The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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I wish I’d had a blog 20 years ago so that I could compare what I thought about this then with what I think about it now. In the absence of a blog, I have my less reliable memory, which tells me that I thought it was a good, very funny play, though the post-AIDS promiscuity and unprotected sex was a bit shocking. It seemed to me to be a play of its time and I wasn’t sure it would have the same impact today. As it turns out, it passes the test of time and proves to be more great than good. Sadly, writer Kevin Elyot didn’t get to see this first major revival himself, dying days before rehearsals began.

We don’t meet Reg, though the play revolves around him. His partner Daniel is one of three thirty-something university friends who we join at the flat-warming of another, conservative home-maker Guy, virtually celibate with unrequited love for the third, rich boy John, who has been absent squandering his inheritance and sleeping around. They are joined by newer friends from the pub – Bernie & Benny. Decorative decorator young Eric, also from the pub, is just finishing painting the conservatory. As the play progresses, we attend two wakes and learn why everything revolves around Reg, as Eric joins this circle of friends.

American playwrights responded to AIDS with angry, political plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America. This was British theatre’s first response – a comedy about friendship, love and sex with two deaths! It has some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue you’ll ever hear and it is truly funny – it won both the Olivier and Standard Best Comedy Awards (also a peculiarly British response) – but it has much more depth than that. The characterisations are superb and there isn’t a wasted moment or an unnecessary word; it really is brilliantly written. This was the third of only six original stage plays Elyot wrote (there were also three adaptations) over a period of 22 years. Later ones, like Mouth to Mouth in 2001 and Forty Winks in 2004 were also good plays, but this was his masterpiece.

The Donmar have done him proud with this fine revival. The space is bigger than the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs where it started, but it’s just as intimate. This is director Robert Hastie’s first ‘big’ high profile show and he more than rises to the challenge with impeccable staging. The casting is faultless. I haven’t seen much of Jonathan Broadbent’s work, but he steps into David Bamber’s shoes and makes Guy his own. Geoffrey Streathfield sweeps in and commands the stage as a charismatic Daniel. I think I’ve only seen Julian Ovenden in musicals and he’s a revelation here as complex John, a character who makes the biggest transition. Richard Cant and Matt Bardock are excellent as the unlikely couple Bernie & Benny. Lewis Reeves, in only his second West End role, is a very impressive Eric (originally played by Joe Duttine, now Sally’s boyfriend in Coronation Street!).

This exceeded my exceptions in so many ways and it was wonderful to see it revealed as a modern classic. A clear favourite for 2014’s Best Revival.

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It’s a long way from the epic Angels in America to this – and I’m afraid it’s all downhill. I thought Tony Kushner was a major new playwright, but everything since Angels (with the exception of the musical Caroline, or Change) suggests he’s more of a one-hit-wonder. Only one of these five short plays really works – the rest is like Beckett on acid.

The first play has Albania’s Queen Zog with a fictional American musician on the moon. It’s preposterous, pointless and dreadfully over-acted. The second is a conversation between a lesbian therapist and her gay ex-client; I haven’t got a clue what it was about. The third takes an interesting true story of tax evasion but by presenting it as a breathless monologue I became so irritated that I stopped paying attention to the story. If you return after the interval (we did!) the fourth is another obtuse sketch about a man in paradise. The play that does work is the last one – a chilling tale where Laura Bush reads Dostoyevsky to dead Iraqi children. Sadly, this is too little to late.

I found a lot of the acting coarse, but given the material this may be excusable. Of course, it may be that I’m just thick, but it seems to me Kushner is following the well-worn path of others like Beckett, Pinter and Churchill; playwrights whose become minimalist with work so ambiguous, so obtuse and so obscure that they appear to be disappearing up their own backsides (or in this case, butt – he’s American). 

It’s also a long way from Minneapolis, but I have to be honest and say that from where I was sitting it was a wasted journey.

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The two Mike Bartlett plays I’ve seen before this were short but substantial one-acters – My Child and Cock, both at the Royal Court – so I was surprised when I heard his latest at the NT’s Cottesloe was a marathon 3.25 hours. The other surprise was that the ‘epic play about climate change’ turned out to be more of a family drama with a climate change backdrop.

Designer Miriam Buether has done another extraordinary transformation, with an S-shaped orange catwalk lined with bar stools on the ground floor, two elevated stages at either end and projections on all four sides. It makes for a swift change from scene-to-scene – and there are a lot of scenes!

It centres around environmental academic Robert, who sold his soul to the corporate devil as a young man, casting out his three daughters when his wife dies. One eventually becomes Environment Minister in the new coalition government (up-to-date stuff this) and is also enticed to take the corporate shilling, the second is a troubled pregnant wife and the third a rebellious student. His son-in-law visits to find out why his wife’s earlier visit  has made her troubled only to receive a devastating revelation.

It’s epic in the way Angels in America was epic (though half the length and less substantial) and I found myself gripped from the start. Despite its length, the writing is sharp and succinct and Rupert Goold’s direction is full of his usual inventiveness including a B&Q full of kitchen sinks! The ensemble of 17 is excellent it would be invidious to single any out.

The Cottesloe was made for re-inventions like this and the play, though not a classic like Jerusalem (which is now be the benchmark for modern classics), is by far the best new play at the NT for some time. I much admired the ambition of it all and felt it was very satisfying if not exactly life-changing.

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I remember the promise shown by Jonathan Harvey’s first major play, Beautiful Thing, 17 years ago at the Bush and have always wondered why he never fulfilled it (though he has written a lot of episodes of Coronation Street!). There have been 7 or 8 OK works, but it has taken until now to truly fulfill that promise in the theatre.

SPOILER ALERT – This is the story of a senior policeman who lives a lie until he is outed by his dead son’s friend, now a famous TV personality. Not only has he denied his own sexuality, but also his son’s death from AIDS. Harvey’s real achievement though is to use this story to present us with a surprisingly lucid 50-year gay social history from Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of light to the return of unsafe sex today with Whitehouse, Margaret Thatcher and Norman Fowler as characters!

It takes a while to get into the non-linear structure, but when you do it becomes a compelling ride. The staging is simple but the 8 actors who play all the roles are superbly versatile (Paula Wilcox makes a convincing Thatcher and Philip Voss an appropriately everagesque Mary Whitehouse!).

It reminded me of Angels in America, but less than half the length with as much depth. There’s a roundedness to it which means that when it ends you feel a great sense of satisfaction with both the storytelling and the presentation of the issues.

A real return to form for Harvey and a very rewarding evening of theatre, but why are there empty seats on a Friday night for work of this quality?

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March was a ‘lull before the storm’ work-wise, so it was action packed otherwise! In addition to 12 theatre outings…….

MUSIC

Performing your classic album live in its entirety has become fashionable with old rockers, so it was no surprise when John Cale decided to do it with Paris 1919, accompanied by an orchestra. It didn’t really take off until the third song, not every song worked well and given that it’s little over 30 minutes that doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying experience on its own. Fortunately, he followed this with four cracking numbers with his terrific three-piece band and another two with the orchestra – and a brilliant encore (which we had to earn!), so the evening (though still not much more than 80 minutes) was redeemed.

There’s a straight line from The Kinks through Squeeze, Madness and Blur to Lily Allen representing a modern soundtrack of London. ‘Songs in the Key of London’ was another one of those compilation shows which sort-of tried to do this (and included songs from all but the latter), put together by Squeeze’ Chris Difford. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed as well as other shows of its kind, largely because it was under-rehearsed and the sound was inexcusably bad. Other former Squeezers Jools Holland & Glen Tilbrook and Chas and Suggs from Madness took part, together with an eclectic selection of the less well known. It had its moments and the surprise appearance of Elvis Costello at the end to sing Hoover Factory and My Brilliant Parade was a treat, if only to see him on home soil again.

Cara Dillon’s St. Patrick’s Day concert in Canary Wharf was lovely, if a little short and in a somewhat incongruous venue. A guest appearance from Seth Lakeman was a real bonus and whetted my appetite for a long awaited opportunity to see a full set from him (now booked for the Open Air Theatre in September!).

Whilst most young musicians seem to spend their lives repeating the formula that made them successful, a 60-year old called Peter Gabriel who has spent his life reinventing and innovating is still at it! His concert at the O2 showcased the new album of ‘covers’ (re-interpretations, I’d say) with a full orchestra and no band; it worked surprisingly well live in such a big space. The second half was an unpredictable selection of old songs re-arranged for orchestra including great versions of San Jacinto and Solisbury Hill. Old men showing the way; who’d have thought it!

I hadn’t clocked that it was Mothers Day when I booked an afternoon concert of Rogers & Hammerstein songs at the Barbican with two of my favourite musical performers – Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans – so it was a bit cheesy & populist for my taste. Though it was great to hear these songs played by a full orchestra and the singing was good, the song choice was a bit predictable and safe and the amplification (for the second time this week at the Barbican!) was poor.

Showstopper! is an improvised musical put together on the spot, partly from audience suggestion. In fact, it’s the same formula as Impropera (which I saw in December), the Scat Pack’s improv movies and others. They are as good as the inspiration at the time and this wasn’t a classic, but it was worth the trip. We ended up with Blood on the Heather – the story of the Glencoe massacre where the McDonalds and the Campbells fought each other – with songs in the style of Cabaret, Annie, Rent, Abba and Sondheim!

More classically, I went to another mezzo soprano recital of English song at Wigmore Hall, this time Sarah Connelly with a lunchtime programme of Purcell, Howells, Gurney, Warlock, Bridge, Britten and songs by her accompanist Eugene Asti. It was a lovely selection and she sang beautifully.

Purcell’s Dioclesian is a rarely performed ‘semi-opera’ about the Roman emperor of the same name (who I got rather interested when I went to Split in Croatia where the city centre is built within the ruins of his retirement home!). The Royal College of Music paired with an ‘early dance’ group turned it into a delightful evening. It’s not up there with his classics like The Fairy Queen, but it was good to catch it. The amount of musical talent on show in their Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (most of whom also took the solos) was breathtaking. 

Britten’s War Requiem is one of my favourite choral pieces and it got a wonderful outing at the Barbican on the 50th anniversary of the London Concert Choir. The soloists – Janice Watson, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams – were fantastic and the Southbank Sinfonia made a terrific sound. It’s the greatest anti-war music ever written and still relevant and moving.

OPERA

Its 17 years since I was last in Wandsworth Prison (!), for Pimlico Opera’s Guys & Dolls. This month I returned for the same company’s Carmen. It worked well almost halved to under 90 minutes (it makes you wonder how many operas would benefit from similar editing!) losing none of the story and none of the best music. The cast of 11 professionals (including four excellent principals) and 13 prisoners gave it their all and though it’s a sad story, it was an uplifting experience. When you look at the faces of the performing prisoners at the curtain call, they tell you everything about the importance of this experience for them; if it changes only one of them forever, it will have been worthwhile…..and as you start the long walk out, the funny comments shouted from the cells remind you how many other lost souls weren’t performing. On this occasion, I was struck by the fact that half of the prisoner cast were recent immigrants to the UK and I’m still puzzled as to why…

The Guildhall School have been on a roll of late, so perhaps it was inevitable that there’d be a blip, and Cherubin doesn’t really live up to recent form. Massenet’s opera picks up where Mozart left off in The Marriage of Figaro and follows the exploits of Cherubin as he enlists. It’s a much neglected piece – it took 89 years to get a UK premiere in 1994, and that was its last outing here! The chorus is very good, but there were fewer outstanding leads (except the gorgeous soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg again!) and the set was rather ugly.

The London Handel Festival puts on a fully stage opera every year (and there are c.45 to choose from!) and this year was the best I’ve seen, in fact one of the best Handel operas I’ve ever seen.  Il Pastor Fido is a ‘pastoral’ (you know…..gods and shepherds, everyone loving someone who doesn’t love them, but it all ends happily!) with a dance-opera prologue and dances to end each act. What made this stand out was the most faultless and beautiful playing and singing, aided by the Britten Theatre’s terrific acoustic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen eight pitch perfect and perfectly matched performances; it was 190 minutes of gloriously uplifting music and it flew by.

Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos has created an opera from Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic play Angels in America and very good it is too. It was given a semi-staged performance at the Barbican with the BBCSO and an excellent, mostly American, cast. He’s managed to distil it from over 6 hours to just over two without losing the essence of the play. I really hope it gets a staging here soon, as it has in France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

Katya Kabanova at ENO was a musical treat with superb singing and playing. The minimalist set (you know chipboard, no colour, jagged angles and shadows) somehow heightened the drama, but I’m afraid I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Still, it sounded gorgeous.

DANCE

Sutra is an extraordinary multi-cultural collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbe Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley, musician Szymon Brozoska and the Shaolin Monks from China! Its contemporary dance meets martial arts, though less athletic than I was expecting. The use of 21 coffin-like boxes is brilliant and I liked the score, played live by a 5-piece ensemble including the composer. In the end though, I’m not sure it’s the classic the critics have hailed it, though I was glad to have caught it. We smiled at the incongruity of a large group of the monks getting on the bus back to the tube after the show!

FILM

I can’t put my finger on why I’m indifferent about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The 3D as quite good, but nothing like Avatar at the IMAX, and there are some lovely characterisations in both acting (Helena Bonham-Carter in particular) and voice (Alan Rickman stands out). It just wasn’t magical and other-worldly enough!

I loved Crazy Heart, a film about a burned out alcoholic Country star for which Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar. For an American film on a subject like this, it was surprisingly unsentimental and all the better for it. T Bone Burnett’s music was excellent.

I’m not keen on war films – relentlessly depressing – but I felt I should catch The Hurt Locker given all those awards, and was very glad I did. It’s an extremely well-made film which manages to drive home the point that these wars are pointless and impossible to win than any news or documentary I’ve seen. Still relentlessly depressing though!

ART

Though I’m glad I went to see it, the Paul Nash retrospective at Dulwich Gallery doesn’t really satisfy. There are eight great pictures amongst a selection of work which seems to me to show a restless man who kept changing, not in an inventive way, but in an ongoing search for his own style.

You think you’ve never heard of Paul Sandby until you set eyes on the iconic 18th Century watercolours, sketches and maps at his exhibition in the Royal Academy and realise you’ve seen many as prints. It’s a very comprehensive collection and you get a real feel for how a man like this made his living more than 200 years ago. I was particularly taken with a picture of Cardiff with the original west gate and wall; I never knew Cardiff had a wall and it’s 10 miles from where I spent the first 18 years of my life!

Irving Penn’s Portraits is one of two fine exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. The originality of his B&W images rests on a complete lack of distracting décor and the fact that he often places his subjects into restricted spaces or limits the portrait to less than the whole of his subject. I liked them a lot more than I thought I’d like Vogue photos! In contrast, the second exhibition of Indian Portraits spans 300 years from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century and it’s rich with colour and detail and includes fascinating scenes of life.

There’s a really quirky installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery from eccentric Frenchman Celeste Boursier-Mougenot . After walking through a dark space on decking with projections of guitarists playing but a soundtrack of birdsong, you get to a bright space with islands of sand containing guitars and cymbals being ‘played’ by zebra finches landing on them as they fly around the space. Just when you thought you’d seen it all…..

Until now, the work I’ve seen by Chris Ofili has left with a ‘so what’ feeling. I felt the same at the beginning of his retrospective at Tate Britain – his obsession with elephant dung, afro hairstyles and black women all seem rather childish, though I did like the colours and the titles ( including ‘7 bitches tossing their pussies before the divine dung’, ‘7 brides for 7 bros’ and ‘Albinos and bros with fros’!) made me smile. An extraordinary amount of money has been spent on a housing for his 13-painting series The Upper Room which I’m not sure it deserves. There’s a fun room of rather different series pictures, some a clear homage to Japanese woodcuts, a less successful room of obscure dark blue paintings and a final room of very different new work. In the end, it rather grew on me and walking back through it a couple of times, I stopped thinking and just enjoyed the colourfulness and playfulness of it all.

Tate Modern’s poster for its Arshile Gorky exhibition totally misrepresents it and drags people in under false pretences; if I’d paid, I’d be demanding my money back! The lovely poster picture is one of a handful in one room out of eleven rooms; the rest is shit (and if you change the ‘i’ to ‘o’ in his first name that would seem appropriate!). Their other current exhibition is a bit more interesting (only a bit mind), covering the impact in the 1920’s of magazine / movement De Stijl led by Theo van Doesburg. Painting wise it’s a lot of Mondrianesque red, black, white, blue and yellow boxes; I found the impact on design and graphics more interesting.

Visiting the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican was less of a must and more of filler; I was in the building with time to kill! Maybe that’s why I was so bowled over by it. I knew him as a man who designed interesting chairs, which he does, but he’s so much more – a designer-artist-sculptor-architect. The architecture was astonishing and completely new to me, and there were other objects like bookcases, vases and lamps. I loved Lolita the chandelier – you could text a message to her and it appeared as a scroll on Lolita! The exhibition design was terrific (he designed it himself) adding much to the pleasure of the experience.

Finally (anyone still there?) the Horace Walpole / Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A was interesting, though rather dull in presentation. A fascinating man with a great eye for art, design and style who ‘collected’ much more than the gothic he is best known for.

Phew; time to go on holiday for a rest……

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