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Posts Tagged ‘Donmar Warehouse’

It was a bit of a risk going to see this Sondheim show just three months (to the day) after the Donmar’s extraordinary concert staging and less than two years after the Union Theatre’s excellent production, but it’s a risk which paid off.

This is a fresh look at the show in a contemporary setting which works very well indeed. The life and experiences of central character, singleton Bobby, are if anything more believable today, 40 years after its first outing. His friends, five couples, are relentless in their pressure on him to settle down, though this hides their jealousy; to some extent, they are living their lives through him. Each couple has their own story which weaves in and out of Bobby’s with three very different girlfriends.

This production reveals the play inside the musical without losing the impact of the extraordinary songs. It’s edgier and sexier and really does seem like it was written yesterday. The bare staging is very much like the Union production – you don’t have to do much to conjour up a Manhattan loft apartment in a space beneath the railway arches! The band is hidden in a space behind one of three banks of seats (good to see them come out and take a well deserved bow at the end).

Yet again, the casting director (on this occasion, Menier co-founder Danielle Tarento) has done a cracking job. The couples each have real chemistry. As a chorus they dance well and sound great – the title song and Act II opener are both terrific. Michelle Bishop sang ‘Another Hundred People’ better than I’ve ever heard it before. Cassidy Janson climbed the mountain that is ‘Getting Married Today’ with a real manic intensity. Siobhan McCartney was an excellent Joanna, though I felt ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ was a little harsh, adding passion at the expense of musicality. Rupert Young has yet to fully inhabit the very challenging role of Bobby, but it was only his 5th performance.

Director Joe Fredericks and his team are to be warmly congratulated for this fresh look at a modern musical classic, taking risks which paid off and providing some definitive and thrilling moments.

 

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I set out to see as many Sondheim shows as I could in his 80th year. I confined myself to London and managed 10 – 9 staged and 1 in concert – out of his grand total of 15. Given that one has yet to get its UK premiere and one has to be staged in a swimming pool, that’s not bad! Anyway, I decided it was worthy of a few tributes…..

The best West End production was without doubt Into The Woods at The Open Air Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/into-the-woods). Never have a theatre and a show been so made for each other. An honourable mention must go to the Donmar’s Passion (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/passion) which was a great production of my least favourite show.

Best fringe production was Assassins underneath the railway arches at that musicals powerhouse, The Union Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/07/11/assassins) sung better than I’ve ever heard it before.

Best Drama School contribution was the Royal Academy of Music with A Little Night Music (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/sondheim-at-the-royal-academy-of-music). Hugely ambitious for a young cast, but it paid off (though their Assassins fared less well).  Unfortunately, RADA’s ambition with Company proved over-ambitious, I’m afraid (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/sondheims-company-rada)

Best amateur production was the NYMT’s extraordinary Sweeney Todd (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/nymt-sweeney-todd) thrillingly staged in a nightclub masquerading as a lunatic asylum.

Gold star for ambition and sheer balls must got to All Star Production’s Follies in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/follies) – staging Sondheim’s ‘biggest’ show in a room above a pub! Will someone please stage this at Wilton’s Music Hall, it’s London spiritual home…..

Turkey of the year, I’m afraid, to Hornchurch Queens Theatre’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum). A long trek for little reward.

The biggest surprise was how concert performances could be so so good – the Donmar’s Company and Merrily We Roll Along at the Queens Theatre were both simply breathtaking (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/11/08/donmar-warehouse-sondheim-at-80-concerts)

London did Sondheim proud. If only every year could be an 80th year!

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Laden with superlative reviews, I suppose it was going to be difficult to live up to them – and so it proved. Perhaps I was a little over-excited. Tennessee Williams is one of my top ten playwrights. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is new to be but I was bowled over by his Beauty Queen of Leenane earlier in the year in the same theatre. Deborah Findlay is a favourite actress who we don’t get to see anywhere near often enough.

There was a little too much of deconstructionist Katie Mitchell’s influence in the staging, like musicians and ‘backstage’ on view throughout, which I’m not convinced suits an intense drama where it seems to me realism is crucial. As much as I Love Deborah Findlay, I felt she was OTT, turning Amanda into too much of a comic creation. The concept, and Jeremy Herbert’s design, distanced the audience from the play and the characters where I feel you need to be on top of it – maybe I just can’t get the Donmar’s terrific staging out of my head.

The only scene which gripped fully was the ‘courting’ of Laura (a little over-acted by Sinead Matthews) & Jim (an excellent Kyle Soller), where a back curtain brought the scene nearer to the audience and blocked out the backstage distractions. Otherwise, the acting honours mostly belonged to Leo Bill, who brought the sort of light and shade TW needs – passion where the role needs passion, diffidence where necessary etc. The music / soundscape was very atmospheric but I think would have been more so had it not been given such visual prominence.

There was much to enjoy, but it wasn’t the exciting re-invention I was led to expect. I didn’t read the reviews, but caught the stars in passing – maybe I should avoid this in future lest it makes me expect too much (or too little!).

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This has always been my ‘problem Sondheim’. I don’t find the story at all convincing, so I find it difficult to engage with it. I admire it, but I don’t love it in the way I love most of his shows.

It’s set in 19th century Italy and the story concerns an army officer, his affair with a married woman and the obsession of the sister of a fellow officer with him. The love affair between Giorgio and Clara rings true, but there’s an implausibility about the behaviour of Fosca and the reaction of Giorgio. It’s played for 110 minutes without a break and the music is almost all sung dialogue rather than songs, so it feels like an opera rather than a musical.

On its first London outing 14 years ago, it was a bit lost on a bigger West End stage. A more ‘chamber’ staging here at the Donmar is better suited to the piece and Christopher Oram’s period design is simply superb. Jamie Lloyd’s staging is stunning, elegant and flowing, much helped by Scott Ambler’s brilliant choreography / movement. A perfect combination of period style and elegance.

Elena Roger follows her extraordinary Evita and Piaf with another fine performance as Fosca, but it was David Thaxton who blew me away with a terrific and appropriately passionate performance as Giorgio. Scarlett Strallen (yes, another Strallen – is there a production line?!) also impresses as Clara. In fact, there isn’t a fault in the casting, with every role excellently played and exceptionally sung.  Alan Williams’ small 9-piece string and woodwind dominated band played the gentle lush score beautifully.

Whatever you think of the show, it was and still is original and ground-breaking and here it’s given a definitive production in a theatre it seems to be made for. It won’t be the highlight of Sondheim’s 80th year for me, but I’m very glad I saw it again.

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In addition to a staged production of Passion and a couple of talks and discussions, the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 celebrations includes a couple of concert performances of former productions. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too!

The first concert was Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 London premiere cast. This is the show which runs backwards to the time its protagonists first meet. I have very fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of Sondheim’s most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved.

I turned up at the second one – Company – thinking ‘they can’t match that’ and it wasn’t long before my inner voice was saying ‘they will!’ This one was staged at the Donmar in 1995 and they managed to get nine of the original 14 back. In the first half, Anna Francolini brought the house down with Another Hundred People (she’s doing eight performances a week as Maria Callas in Onassis and came here on two of her Sundays off!), as did Sophie Thompson with the incredibly difficult Getting Married Today . In the second half, Haydn Gwynne inhabited rather than just singing Ladies Who Lunch, taking the role originally played by the now sadly departed Sheila Gish, then leading man Adrian Lester put so much emotion and passion into Being Alive that his voice began to break and tears began to flow in the audience; how could this come alive like this in concert?! The band continued after the encore so the audience sang Side By Side again without the cast. Another standing ovation, another unforgettable night.

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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Less than half the c.50 plays I’ve seen in London this year have been new (I can’t wait for Edinburgh to restore the balance). Of the revivals many were definitely worth reviving – from Shakespeare (the Almeida’s Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Rose in Kingston) through Miller (The Open Air’s Crucible and All My Sons in the West End) to The Beauty Queen of Leenane just last Saturday at the Young Vic…..but I would question whether both the Buckner at the NT on Friday and this last night at the Donmar deserve it.

This early 19th century German play centres on a dreamy young prince who becomes a war hero but because he doesn’t strictly follow his orders finds himself in deep trouble. By the interval, though it had held my attention, I was thinking ‘so?’. The second half was much better as the debate about his reasons and the rights and wrongs unfolds. It’ OK, but just OK, and not in my view good enough to see it replace better revivals or new work from the London stage.

Simply but elegantly staged and well acted, it’s hard to fault the production but hard to justify all the effort.

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