Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘London Coliseum’

The first time I saw this Sondheim show was English National Opera’s London premiere at one of the capital’s biggest theatres, the Coliseum. Now here I am 27 years later at the opposite end of the theatre scale at the tiny Union Theatre, which has just 2% of the Coli’s capacity. In between, there have been a few more, most notably a visiting production from Chicago at the Donmar in the round (square) in 2003, which was the best of them all. This show, one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and cleverest, but difficult to pull off, suits more intimate spaces.

It starts in Japan in the mid-19th century; the country has been isolated for 250 years when an American ship turns up demanding an audience with the Emperor. The first half is mostly a description of life in Japan, it’s cultural peculiarities and political intricacies. They find an elegant solution to the American’s demand by finding a stand-in for the Emperor and creating an audience space of mats that can be destroyed afterwards, enabling them to claim the barbarians never set foot on Japanese soil. The show is telling the story from the Japanese perspective and the score has a strong Japanese influence. In truth, this part is too long and too slow, though its imaginative and intriguing with some lovely tunes.

The much shorter second half packs a real punch, starting with Please Hello, a terrific comic number with ambassadors turning up from the US, UK, Holland, Russia and France, all wanting a piece of the trading action. The initial brush-off clearly hasn’t worked. We see the effect of the ‘westernisation’ distilled into just one song, A Bowler Hat, then the backlash distilled into another, Pretty Lady. In the end we jump forward to the present day to see how this all plays out in Next.

Here, the musical standards are high, with Richard Bates band sounding lovely with reeds and cello, and some great singing from a vocally strong cast. Director Michael Strassen applies his trademark minimalist elegance with a simple but evocative design and costumes by Jean Gray. The puppet emperor is indeed a puppet, screens are used to great effect, actors transform quickly from locals to visitors with the addition of sailor collars and the staging is infused with Japanese theatrical motifs. I felt the choreography was sometimes over-elaborate and the performances sometimes too camp, but overall the staging was effective.

In an all-male cast, Ken Christiansen had great presence as the Reciter (narrator) and Ian Mowat was excellent in multiple roles as diverse as geisha Madam and British Admiral. Oli Reynolds was so good as Kayama it’s hard to believe he’s graduating this year, and there were a number of other impressive performances and professional debuts from recent drama school graduates. A very talented ensemble indeed.

It’s great to see this show again (after eleven years!), and great to see it in an intimate space once more.

Read Full Post »