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Posts Tagged ‘Cock Tavern Theatre’

Contemporary Music

The Floating Palace at the Barbican was one of those compilation concerts that throws together a handful of artists with similar tastes, though this one was without the usual theme – tribute to…songs of… Sadly, though it had its moments (mostly from K T Tunstall & Krystle Warren), it was rather flat, somewhat rambling & under-rehearsed with a lot of irritating inaudible on-stage chat. Robyn Hitchcock was in charge and it also included Martin & Eliza Carthy and Howard Gelb. Given it’s repeated a handful of times across the UK, a cynic might think it’s a bit of a money spinner rather than like-minded people making music together?

Martin Simpson’s concert at Kings Place was a real treat. Dick Gaughan and June Tabor guested and June’s 25-minute mini-set was as close to perfection as you can get. There was superb backing from Andy Cutting on accordion and Andy Seward on double bass and the sound was gorgeous. If only Simpson wasn’t so obsessive about tuning – I think he might be the only one who notices!

Opera

I haven’t been to any of the Opera Up Close productions since their triumphant first one, La Boheme, at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn. They’re now at The Kings Head Theatre and I was drawn to Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West as I haven’t seen it for so long. It was always a pretty preposterous opera (set in the Wild West, sung in Italian!) and here it has been relocated to modern-day Soho where Minnie runs a bar frequented by East European lowlife. It’s not Puccini’s best score, by a long margin, and the new libretto seems too keen to make you laugh at the swearing and modern references that litter it. It is by and large well sung ( though operatic voices at close quarters can seen unnecessarily loud and brash) and played heroically on piano by John Gibbons and the shamefully uncredited violinist. The opera is alleged to be the source of some of Phantom of the Opera’s melodies and a second hearing confirms this suspicion. I rather liked the way they made this point when Minnie picks up a phantom mask from her dressing table at one point!

The winter pairing at WNO was superb. The first was a revival of Berlioz’ Beatrice & Benedict, a light funny operetta-like piece with some gorgeous music which Michael Hofsetter conducted delicately. All of the performances were good, with a comic masterclass from Donald Maxwell, but it was the chorus and orchestra that shone most (again!). Michael Yeargan’s 18-year old design still sparked. It was followed by a revival of La Traviata which we loved when we first saw it 18 months ago and loved just as much second time round. It’s an attractive and intensely dramatic production and the leads this time – Joyce El-Khoury, Leonardo Capalbo and Jason Howard – all excelled.

I’ve only seen Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman once before, many years ago at Covent Garden when you could afford to go, and didn’t think much of it. Operetta? Ugh! Richard Jones’ production for ENO is therefore a revelation. I now see it as an opera rather than an operetta and here it scrubs up fresh in a highly inventive production. Giles Cadle’s design is excellent and there’s some wonderful singing from Barry Banks, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice and most especially the ENO debut of American soprano Georgia Jarman playing all four female leads – a real find.

Ernani was only my second experience of The Met Live in HD. The picture and sound quality is outstanding and I like the interval interviews and visible scene changes. It was better musically than visually (a rather old-fashioned static production) but it whetted my appetite to see more next season.

Dance

Umoja was one of those punts you make when you flick through a season programme – in this case, song and dance from South Africa at Sadler’s Wells third theatre, The Peacock. This one paid off big-time as the dance was thrilling and the singing was beautiful. It sought to tell the story of the evolution of song and dance in this country, and did so well, though I’d have liked a little less narration.

Classical Music

I only got to one of the LSO’s Debussy mini-season and rather regretted that by the time the concert was over. Michael Tilson Thomas has a real affinity with this music and all three Debussy pieces, concluding with his most famous – La Mer, were superb. For some reason they added in Weill’s Seven Deady Sins, which is a piece I like but which somehow seemed out of place – the amplification of Anne Sofie Von Otter didn’t help. 

The same orchestra’s Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev & Shostakovich programme was simply thrilling. Valery Gergiev is unrivalled in the Russian repertoire and here he conducted Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony without a score! Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto was played brilliantly by another Russian, Denis Matsuev, but it was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture that I enjoyed most. The LSO really is at the top of their game.

Art 

The German Contemporaries exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery is the same as all the others – a handful of great pieces and a lot of mediocrity. Much better was the photographic exhibition upstairs celebrating 50 years of the Sunday Times magazine and even better a film in a nearby shop made by stitching together 5000 video diaries.

Lucien Freud Portraits at the NPG is a wonderfully comprehensive review of his work and a real treat. He may only have done portraits, but boy were they good. Seeing so many together can be a bit samey, but brilliant works like this make it unmissable and seeing the evolution of his work is fascinating. Also at the NPG, the annual photographic portrait exhibition is up to the usual standard though yet again I disagreed with the five awarded!

The Barbican Curve space has another extraordinary installation, this time by Chinese artist Song Dong. It’s called Waste Not and consists of a vast quantity of household items – clothing, furniture, pots and pans, newspapers, toys….you name it, it’s here! – collected by his mother in the seven years following the death of her husband and meticulously laid out thematically along the length of the long curved gallery. Given all of this was transported from China, though, the carbon footprint is somewhat unacceptable.

Hajj exhibition. It’s a brilliantly curated examination of the history and practice of the pillar of Islam including some beautiful historical books, pictures and artifacts. Fascinating!

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I never got to see this, the second of the Tennessee Williams world premieres at the Cock Tavern, before they were closed down, so it was good news that it was picked up by Jermyn Street Theatre (well, the play’s director is their Artistic Director!).

It’s another short, late play with a similar surreal quality. A mother is leaving her daughter with a sitter so that she and her friend can go out with escorts (from the agency that gives the play its title). The sitter reluctantly takes the job even though she thought she was sitting for a child not someone who is ‘mental’ but rebels and leaves before the adults return. The girl sees an apparition of ballet dancer Nijinsky who comes alive on stage and they talk. The adults return to daughter alone, who proceeds to call the agency and head off for an assignation of her own. This is all apparently a snipe at TW’s mother, who famously had his mentally ill sister lobotomized, with references to his earlier play The Glass Menagerie, though if I hadn’t read this in the programme, it would have gone right over my head!

It’s a curiosity rather than a good play, but it has been given a superb production by Gene David Kirk and Cherry Truluck’s design is outstanding given the size of the theatre. The cast of five are all good, with actor Sam Marks acquitting himself well in the dancing department. It’s a great opportunity to see this intriguing unproduced piece; well done to both the (late) Cock Tavern Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre.

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I’ve always been puzzled by the critical indifference to Howard Goodall’s musicals. For me, in the (short) list of great British composers of musicals he comes top and his first show, the Hired Man, sits with Les Miserables and West Side Story as one of my favourite musical scores.

Even though he has a very distinctive sound, which is distinctively British, it changes subtly to suit the subject matter. Only three of his nine musicals have been produced in the West End. 25 years ago, The Hired Man lost the Olivier Award to the highly unoriginal 42nd Street (leading lady ill, chorus girl’s big break, yawn…yawn…), soon after Girlfriends closed very quickly (though in fairness, the production didn’t live up to the Bolton premiere) and then we had to wait 24 years for Love Story, one of the best chamber musicals ever, which also got an undeserved early bath.

The Hired Man gets revived on a small scale fairly frequently, Days Of Hope (a lovely show set in the Spanish Civil War) occasionally but the 2nd World War Girlfriends, as far as I know, has never been revived. Two Cities (based on Dickens) was only seen outside London and the other four, like this one, were written for youth groups. Only The Hired Man and Days of Hope have ever been recorded, so you can’t even listen to the music to find out what you’re missing!

I fondly remember seeing the NYMT production of this 12 years ago (with recent Olivier Award winning Sheridan Smith in the cast) at the Lyric Hammersmith and its astonishing that it has taken so long to be revived and to get its professional debut. We’re awash with fringe productions of musicals, but none of them are British. I yearn to see Lionel Bart’s Blitz! or Maggie May or Goodall’s Girlfriends. OK, end of rant and on with the review!

There can’t be many musicals based on restoration comedies like this one based on Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Moving it to the Edwardian period works; otherwise its faithful to the play and thanks to Charles Hart’s witty book and lyrics, even funnier. Goodall’s score is rich in lovely tunes and even more varied in style than most of his scores. It takes a little while to take off, but it proves to be a delight. It would have been even better to see it in a bigger space with better sight lines than the cramped and stuffy Jermyn Street Theatre.

Director Lotte Wakeham, who first impressed me with Austentatious at the Landor, has done a superb job on a simple set by Samal Blak (who worked wonders transforming the Cock Tavern for Pins & Needles) with elegant period costumes by Karen Frances. It’s partially in actor-musician mode, but Harriet Oughton at the piano has the primary musical responsibility and manages a bit of acting as well as playing the whole score!

Beverley Klein gives us another delicious musical comedy masterclass as Mrs Hardcastle. Ian Virgo (also in the original production, but as Lumpkin), Gina Beck, Dylan Turner and Gemma Sutton as the two couples at the heart of the story all act well and do full justice to Goodall’s music. It took me a while to warm to Jack Shalloo as Lumpkin (probably because I couldn’t get his terrific turn in Departure Lounge out of my head!) but he won me over.

A standing ovation for producers Peter Huntley and Charlotte Staynings for giving us this long-awaited opportunity to re-visit the show and for doing such a cracking job with it. Girlfriends? Blitz? Please!

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Though it’s great to see fringe venues like The Bush, The Finborough and The Cock Tavern sold out, it does mean you have to plan ahead a bit more. Fresh from their giant-killing Olivier award for Best Opera Production, the enterprising Cock Tavern has a pair of Tennessee Williams world premieres, of which this is the first.

It has a surreal quality also found in Camino Real. It’s a play-within-a-play and even though I knew this, I was still surprised when ‘the director’ got up from his seat to my left and ‘the writer’ joined in from the back. The play within concerns a couple in a New Orleans apartment; he an over-sexed philanderer employed by gangsters and her a sometime fashion designer and serial victim. The play is stopped by the actors questioning dialogue and action which is when the writer, director and stage manager get involved.

I’m not really sure what TW was getting at in this short 70-minute one-acter, but it was intriguing and watchable. It’s all very Pirandellian (the Italian playwright is even referenced by TW in the play). The situation and dialogue were more explicit and racier than his norm, showing how he might have developed had he been writing beyond this late piece from the early 70’s. In many ways, it provides a missing link in the line of American drama from TW to Shepherd and Mamet.

Physically semi-naked and emotionally naked, Lewis Hayes and Shelley Lang do very well in making the play within’s characters believable in the intimacy of this tiny theatre. Hamish MacDougall’s direction makes excellent use of the space and manages to balance the real with the surreal and the plays within and without.

Well worth a trip to Kilburn, but it’s probably now sold out!

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I’ve decided it’s time for my very own awards, but I’m going to stick to productions rather than recognise individuals and I’ve chickened out of ranking them, so here’s the best (39! )of 2010, in four categories but no particular order! A terrific year…..

BEST NEW PLAY – an impressive year, particularly for the Royal Court

Clybourne Park, Tribes, Posh & Sucker Punch – all at the Royal Court / The White Guard & Blood and Gifts – both at the National / Canary & Dunsinane – both at Hampstead / Women Power and Politics – Tricycle / The Big Fellah – Lyric Hammersmith / My Romantic History – Bush / Ruined – Almeida / The Animals and Children Took To The Streets – BAC

…..and all in subsidised theatres!

BEST NEW MUSICAL – less than a handful!

Love Story – Chichester to Duchess / Legally Blonde – Savoy / Departure Lounge -Waterloo East / Reasons to be Cheerful – Theatre Royal Stratford

BEST PLAY – REVIVAL – an embarrassment of riches; the NT shining

After the Dance , Men Should Weep, London Assurance, Hamlet, Beyond the Horizon & Spring Storm – National / Love on the Dole – Finborough / The Crucible – Open Air / Beauty Queen of Leenane – Young Vic / Broken Glass – Tricycle / Design for Living – Old Vic / All My Sons – Apollo Theatre / Measure for Measure – Almeida Theatre / Shirley Valentine – Menier Chocolate Factory

BEST MUSICAL – REVIVAL

Assassins & Bells Are Ringing – Union Theatre / Into The Woods – Open Air Theatre / Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory / Sweeney Todd – NYMT / Me & Juliet – Finborough / Pins & Needles – Cock Tavern

Not qualifying as they weren’t staged, but a special mention for the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 concert performances

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This was originally intended as a double-bill with Pins & Needles which has just finished its run at the Cock Tavern and you can see why (though it would have made for a long evening). They may be the only two musicals with left-wing political content ever to grace Broadway until Billy Elliott!

This one is more serious and earnest than the other and is very Brechtian indeed. First staged in 1937, it’s opening is itself an extraordinary story. Directed by Orson Wells, the show was shut down on the day of its first performance because its public funders were concerned at being seen to be promoting such a left-wing show. Though another theatre was found for that evening, the show went on without set, props, costumes or indeed actors or musicians whose unions prohibited them from being on stage or in the orchestra pit. The composer was alone onstage at a piano and when their cues came, the actors stood up in the audience and delivered their songs defiantly from where they were.

It’s an allegory of corruption and greed and its targets include a local businessman, his philanthropic wife, spoiled children, a faithless priest and artists who’ve sold out. It’s virtually sung-through and feels more like an opera than a musical. Because its over-riding purpose is to make its sociopolitical points, it’s light on story and characterisation and the music is quite difficult to get into on first hearing. It’s well staged here by Mehmet Ergen with a fine ensemble and pianist Bob Broad playing the whole score. I was particularly impressed by Chris Jenkins passionate performance as unionist Larry Foreman.

It’s not a great show but, like Pins & Needles, it’s an important part of 20th century musical theatre history and I’m glad I saw it – but I wish I’d heard the score first.

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You only have one week left to see this UK premiere of a fascinating 1939 Broadway musical revue which started as a piece of left-wing satire by amateur trade union players. The timing could not be better and it’s been given a small but clever bit of updating that makes parts of it relevant enough to be performed by occupying students and Topshop invaders!

It was originally intended to be staged at the Arcola, but it’s much more at home in the smaller Cock Tavern which has been cleverly turned into a mini proscenium arch theatre with a curtain incorporated into Samal Blak’s design that could easily have been made from scraps of spare cloth by the ladies of the ILGWU (the union that originally staged it).

The show comprises 19 sketches and songs on a multitude of subjects  running for an uninterrupted 90 minutes. There are swipes at Mussolini and Hitler years before Mel Brooks gave us The Producers, comments of American nationalism and British colonialism, a satire on arts funding and artistic freedom and a song about advertising which amazes you with name-checks of brands of the time that are still with us today. Harold Rome’s songs are catchy and witty and somehow it has a lovely period feel but at the same time feels fresh and relevant.

I don’t know who does the casting at the Cock Tavern, but like the Bond plays they’ve assembled a hugely talented cast of nine, none of whom a theatre obsessive like me has seen before. They all deserve a name check, so they’re getting one! David Barnes, Mark Gillon, Laura-Kate Gordon, Josephine Kiernan, Elain Lloyd, Elizabeth Pruett, Rachel Rose Read, Matthew Rutherford and Adam Walker. David Preston plays all of the songs on the piano, occasionally joined by Rutherford on double bass. Director Rachel Grunwald is to be congratulated for the staging and for giving us the opportunity to see this fascinating show.

Seeing Fela! at the subsidised NT and this at the unsubsidised Cock Tavern in the same weekend certainly focused my mind on how our arts subsidies are shared around!

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Until last month, I hadn’t seen an Edward Bond play. Given that I’ve been an avid playgoer for more than 30 years, this tells you something about how often his plays are put on in the UK. This is a British dramatist who has written 50 plays. He appeared at joint number 12 in the list of  ‘most selected playwrights’ in the NT’s poll of 20th Century drama (somewhat ironically with Caryl Churchill, whose A Number I also saw last month – revived after just 8 years!) and his play Saved was ‘the most selected play’ of 1965. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that this season is at the NT or the Royal Court, but no it takes a tiny but enterprising unfunded pub theatre in Kilburn to mount an ambitious season of six of his plays, including a brand new play Bond has written for them, another he’s especially re-written and Bond himself directing one of the plays, with a season ticket that enables you to see them for c.£8 each with free programmes and a photocopy of the new play!

The Pope’s Wedding

This was the second to be mounted, but the first I saw (somewhat appropriately, as it was Bond’s first play back in 1962). At first I thought it might have influenced Pinter, then I realised The Caretaker and The Birthday Party pre-dated it, so it might be the reverse influence.

It is a sort of rural Pinter, featuring a bunch of young men growing up angry in a rural backwater. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of scenes and scene changes which destroy the narrative flow and pace of the piece and it takes a long time to turn from a picture of rural life to the menace that ensues. Having said this, some of the staging by Conrad Blakemore was outstanding – particularly a cricket match brought to life on a pocket-handkerchief stage.

The real reason for seeing it though is a wonderful ensemble of young actors who quite took my breath away. Amongst them, Tim O’Hara was magnificent as Scopey and well matched by Rebecca Tanwen’s Pat and veteran John Atterbury as Allen. For the second time in a week – the other being Love on the Dole the previous week at the Finborough – British acting talent shone brightly.

Olly’s Prison

This 1990’s screenplay gets it’s UK stage premiere and it’s a much better play than The Pope’s Wedding. The psychologically complex story starts with a man murdering his daughter after a 30-minute monologue during which she just stares silently. We move to the prison where he is now incarcerated and to the death of a cellmate in which he is implicated. He is confronted by the cellmate’s mother, who has taken in her son’s victim, and goes on to develop a relationship with her. His dead daughter’s boyfriend, now a policeman, colludes with the cellmate’s victim to frame the man we first meet ranting at his scary daughter! Still with me? In the end we’re left to question who really are the victims.

Well, actually, I found it a fascinating piece and it was extremely well staged by Gareth Corke. The performances were again outstanding. Ewan Bailey was excellent as murdering Mike with Melissa Suffield (until recently Lucy Beale in East Enders) pulled off the tough task of spooking us with her stare for half-an-hour as his daughter. Robin Berry was great as older Frank the boyfriend (as the younger Frank, he was rather hampered by a dreadful wig!), as was James Kenward as cellmate Smiler and Frankie McGinty as his victim Olly. Elicia Daly’s and Charlotte Fields delivered fine characterisations of the women in all their lives.

The Under Room

This third play takes place in the pub’s cellar. We had to go up one flight of stairs, through the theatre during rehearsals for the next play (with the playwright in attendance) and back down two flights of stairs! It’s a hugely atmospheric space with a real soundscape of cellar machinery in action.

This fairly recent play is set 67 years in the future. A stranger breaks into a woman’s house and she comes embroiled in his world. He owes money to a man who has assisted in his illegal entry into the country; this man may be a corrupt policeman or member of the army in what is clearly a police state. It’s all a bit difficult to get into, particularly as the stranger is played by a dummy with an actor in view speaking the lines from behind and occasionally coming forward to dress / undress the dummy.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and it’s well played by the cast of three, but I can’t say I found the play particularly accessible or illuminating.

The Fool

This is actually a biographical play about 19th century poet John Clare. In the first act, we see the events that influenced and preceded his writing. In an earlier recession, the poor rise up and rob the gentry in order to buy food to live. Some are imprisoned and hung, but Clare remains free. In the second act, we see him in London under the patronage of the rich and feted for his poetry. Back in East Anglia he goes insane and ends his days in an asylum.

Like The Pope’s Wedding, it’s the performances that make the evening; they’ve again assembled a terrific company of 17 to play the 37 parts and amongst them I was hugely impressed by Ben Crispin as Clare, James Kenward (also excellent in Olly’s Prison) as Darkie / Jackson and Rosina Miles as Patty. There is some excellent staging, particularly a bare-fisted boxing match (fight movement Lawrence Carmichael) which had you on the edge of your seat. I was gripped for the whole 2 hours 45 mins, despite the intensely uncomfortable benches!

There Will Be More

Before this play could start we had to wait for the pub’s Sunday lunchtime one-man band to finish his set. There was something surreal about standing and waiting whilst he played Irish songs to a bunch of heavy drinkers, some of which were indulging in a sort of swaying / dancing – one woman banging her stick loudly on the pub table. Maybe this was intentional?! 

This is the world premiere of Bond’s new play. In the first 20-minute act we get a double infanticide and a rape. After the interval and eighteen years have passed, things quieten down for a while before another rape, a murder and a spot of incest!

I think Bond is making a point about the eternal cycle of war, but for me he obscures this so much, which seems rather pointless if you’re trying to make a point!  Again, the staging and performances are excellent, with Stephen Billington, Helen Bang and Timothy O’Hara (who also played Scopey in The Pope’s Wedding) pulling off the difficult task of making this all seem believable. 

Red Black & Ignorant

This 1980’s play is again spoilt by the obfuscation of its meaning. It appears to tell us the story of one man’s journey from life to death, trying to make an anti-war point but this time losing me by making me feel like I’m being preached at and patronised. It consists of  nine short scenes with occasional dialogue spoken direct to the audience.

It’s again effectively staged and well acted. Andrew Lewis as ‘Monster’, whose life we appear to be following, is excellent (with terrific make-up by Jess Harling), Melanie Ramsay is suitably spooky as Mother / Wife and Alex Farrow’s transition from Boy to Son is impressive (the character’s titles illustrate my earlier point, I think). Like There Will Be More, I’m afraid I think they are let down by the material.

So there you have it. I think I’ve given Bond a fair chance, but I’m not at all convinced by either the plays or the playwright. Like Pinter and Churchill, as he develops he loses me. This could be because I’m as thick as shit, of course, but it could be that he was becoming less creative and clouded this with obscurity and obfuscation (yes, that word again!) or it could be a sign of intellectual arrogance. Whatever it is, give me the American 20th century greats – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neill – or British contemporaries like Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams any day of the week.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the outset, but based on six plays and his programme notes / essays, I think I can understand why he has been ‘neglected’ and considered ‘difficult’. He’ll certainly go into MY difficult playwrights list with Pinter, Churchill, Chekhov and Shaw.

That notwithstanding, a standing ovation for the Cock Tavern and its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Jones for their ambition, the accessibility (£50 for six plays and programmes!), the opportunity to review a playwright’s work in this way and for some terrific staging and wonderful performances. A fascinating Autum project.

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