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Posts Tagged ‘Kings Head Theatre’

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.

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It’s nearly eight years since Australian playwright Tommy Murphy’s UK debut with Holding the Man, also at the Trafalgar Studios, in the bigger space (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/holding-the-man). This one is a welcome transfer from the ever enterprising Kings Head Theatre.

The play tells the story of runaway teenager Shane, from small-town life and bullying brother Ben to Sydney. He’s nervous, naive and vulnerable but manages to get a job and somewhere to live and begins to explore his sexuality. He’s befriended by two older men, one of whom gives him an STD and the other food and fatherly love. When Ben comes to find him, we learn that he is as much victim as bully, feeling responsible for how Shane has turned out.

The piece has more depth than you might expect in 90 minutes playing time. The first part is very funny but it becomes darker and ends charmingly. The writing is great, but so are the three terrific performances. Genuine Aussies Stephen Connery-Brown and Dan Hunter play the older men Peter and Will, with the latter doubling up as brother Ben, but it’s the hugely impressive live wire performance by Roly Botha, who made his professional debut with the Kings Head run of the play in 2016, that blew me away. Adam Spreadbury-Maher directs with great sensitivity to the material.

One to catch in this short run.

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Whilst Kevin Elyot’s last play, Twilight Song, has recently been staged at the Park Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/twilight-song), his first, written over 30 years before, has been revived at the King’s Head Theatre. Neither are up to the (small) main body of his theatre work, but both prove interesting pieces in completing the picture of an important late 20th century playwright.

Tony and Greg have been in a relationship for five years, though it’s an open one; both have one night stands. When they employ out-odd-work actor Robert as a cleaner, it tests the relationship. A fourth main character, Tony’s very camp and very promiscuous friend William, seems to be there to bring life and humour to an otherwise rather dull situation.

It’s a first play by someone starting out as a writer and that’s exactly how it feels. The longer first half goes nowhere and the much meatier second half ends abruptly and inconclusively. The promiscuity seems very much in period, but the long-term relationship seems more contemporary. The talk of sex is more frank than you might expect in the theatre at the time it was written.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s production, with an excellent design by Amanda Mascarenhas, and the performances of Lee Knight, Jason Nwonga, Tom Lambert and Elliot Hadley, serve the play well, though I found the casting of the same actor as William and Jurgen off-putting – impossible to keep the moustache and change the character, it seems!

I’m glad I caught it, to complete my Elyot ‘collection’, but beyond that it’s a very good production of a flawed first play.

 

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This world premiere of an unfinished Lionel Bart musical is a real coup for The Kings Head Theatre, even more so since their staring point was a rough book and a CD of songs put together to woo potential investors.

You wouldn’t expect Bart to write a show like this – everything he did was quintessentially British; indeed quintessentially London – but as soon as you hear the music you know it’s him; the melodies are distinctively his – and there are some lovely songs in this show.

Seven ladders covered with cobwebs and a clever loft, designed by Christopher Hoe, make up the Paris of the hunchback on this tiny stage. Jonathan Lipman’s punk gothic costumes add an appropriately seedy quality. Quasimodo, abandoned as a child, brought up by a priest, occupies the bell tower of Notre Dame. He’s treated as a freak by all he meets and as a possession by the priest, who’s fondness for him is more than a bit creepy. When Esmerelda is pursued by the lowlife of Paris, he takes her in, protects her and falls in love with her.

Though it’s a roughly drawn book by Christopher Bond (also responsible for the original Sweeney Todd at Stratford East, which inspired Sondheim to write his), director Robert Chevara has done well to make something of the story and most importantly to showcase the lovely music, which is beautifully played by Peter Mitchell’s small band of piano, accordion and clarinet and sung by a cast in fine voice. Steven Webb is very good as Quasimodo and amongst a small but exceptional supporting cast, Zoe George shines as Esmerelda, particularly in the vocal department.

Though it’s clearly still an unfinished work, it’s definitely worth seeing if you are a lover of musical theatre and a must for Bart fans. He was a great, and underrated, composer who was a whole lot more than Oliver! but who may only be remembered for it.

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My review of 2012 takes the form of nine awards. There are none for performances as I find it impossible to choose and invidious to select from so much amazing talent. Here goes:

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR – The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, showing the world Britain at its theatrical best, and Globe to Globe, inviting the world to perform its greatest playwright on his ‘home stage’ – both once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Honourable mention to the The Bomb at the Tricycle, the latest in their deeply rewarding reviews of history, world events and global issues.

MOST EXCITING EVENING OF THE YEAR (or possibly my life!) – You Me Bum Bum Train, the most extraordinary adrenalin rush as you perform in 13 scenes from conducting an orchestra to operating a digger, travelling between them through pipes, holes & chutes.

SOLO SHOW – Mark Thomas’ autobiographical Bravo Figaro, funny and moving in equal measure.

BEST OUTSIDE LONDON – National Theatre of Wales’ CoriolanUs in an aircraft hanger at RAF St. Athan; the other highlight of the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. Wonderful Town is worthy of mention as the touring musical that really should have come to the West End.

NEW PLAYThis House at the Cottesloe, a play about British politics from 1974 to 1979 that was more enlightening than living through it (by a man who is too young to have lived through it), yet entertaining and funny. Honorable mentions to Red Velvet at the Tricycle, In Basildon at the Royal Court and Last of the Haussmanns & The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime – both also at the National, which at last found its new writing form.

PLAY REVIVAL – Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith, a stunning revival of an OK play in a year of many gems, amongst which I would single out A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, She Stoops to Conquer at the NT, Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar, Cornelius at the Finborough,Vieux Carre at the King’s Head, A Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End and both of the radical Julius Caesar’s – the African one for the RSC and the all-female one at the Donmar.

NEW MUSICALA Winter’s Tale at the Landor. The easiest category to call in a very lean year, with Soho Cinders, Daddy Long Legs and Loserville the only other contenders – but that takes nothing away from the gem that Howard Goodall’s show was.

MUSICAL REVIVAL – Sweeney Todd, though this is the toughest category with no less than 10 other contenders – Patience, The Fix and Call Me Madam at the Union, Gay’s the Word & Merrie England at the Finborough, Guys & Dolls Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Curtains at the Landor, Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street, Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier, Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican and another Chichester transfer, Singing in the Rain, in the West End.

TURKEY OF THE YEAR – The NT’s Damned for Despair, though this year there were also a trio of visiting turkeys, all at the Barbican – Big & Small, Nosferatu and Forests – and a pair of site specific turkeys – Babel & The Architects.

2012 will be hard to beat!

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Every now and again you see a neglected play by an established playwright and wonder why on earth it’s neglected. Last night was one of those occasions. This late Tennessee Williams play hasn’t been seen in London for 34 years, but boy has the Kings Head Theatre production made up for it.

The world seems to have given up on TW twenty years before he stopped writing, when The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore flopped on Broadway. He went on to write another 16 plays, of which this is one. Though a Streetcar comes along frequently and you don’t have to wait long for The Glass Menagerie or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to turn up, these late plays are rare indeed. What’s fascinating about them is that he was now able to write freely and naturalistically, without having to mask or disguise his themes, yet the writing is in a poetic southern dialect with a modern vocabulary.

This play is set in a New Orleans rooming house where a writer (and our narrator) is trying to come to terms with his craft, his sexuality, his poverty and his health. The landlady Mrs Wire is eccentric verging on barking, treating her black maid ‘Nursie’ and her lodgers with disdain. The boarders include Nightingale, a painter and predatory old queen: Jane, a fallen woman and Tye, her bit of rough, and two old ladies who now can’t afford to eat as well as pay rent. The themes are not unusual for TW – breaking free, the artists’ plight, abuse in relationships, sexuality, drink & drugs – but the characterisations are superb and the ‘slice of life’ absolutely fascinating. I was captivated from beginning to end.

The Kings Head Theatre’s intimacy and claustrophobia are perfect for the play. With three beds, a grand piano and a kitchen crammed into this tiny space, they’re almost falling over one another and you’re in there with them. Director Robert Chevara and designer Nicolai Hart Hansen have used the space brilliantly and created the New Orleans French Quarter before your very eyes.

Though their accents sometimes get lost, the excellent cast do full justice to TW’s characters and his prose. Tom Ross-Williams as the Writer combines the character’s vulnerability with excitement at life’s possibilities and adventures. Nancy Crane’s Mrs Wire is eccentric and vituperative on the outside but frail on the inside. You wince as David Whitworth’s Nightingale makes his advances, but your sympathies are with him too. Samantha Coughlan (a double for Lindsay Duncan if ever I saw one!)  plays Jane like a TW femme fatale should be played – a touch mannered, as the lost soul who would rather be loved and abused than not loved at all. Such was the realism with which Paul Standell played her abuser Tye, I wanted to get out of my seat and stop him as he  raped her. There are lovely cameos from Eva Fontaine as Nursie, Anne Kirke & Hildegard Neil as the old ladies and Jack McMillan in a trio of roles.

This is a superb production of a sadly neglected play. How many of the other 15 are as good as this, one wonders? I feel a Kings Head TW season might be in order! I’ll be the first in the quenue for a season ticket. Gold stars are covering the sky over Islington…..

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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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