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Posts Tagged ‘Open Air Theatre’

A week without theatre, now a week behind with reviews (one already closed and another closing today!). Standards are slipping…..

The final evening of the Open Air Theatre’s musical has become an annual tradition and so far we’ve had the best of the weather and this year was no exception (tempting fate here). On a lovely evening, there’s nothing nicer and they’ve been on a roll for a long time now.

It’s only a year since this show wowed me at the Landor Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) and here it is scaled up and moved outdoors. This slice of early 20th century US social history is epic in scope – Jon Bausor’s design attempts to make it epic in scale and Timothy Sheader’s highly conceptual production tries hard to link it to the present day. Sadly that’s where it fails, getting in the way of the stories of the Latvian Jewish immigrant, the harassed black musician, the enlightened middle class New Englanders and the brilliant score. It’s all a bit of a muddle.

Musically, it’s terrific. It’s beautifully played and there are some outstanding vocal performances, notably Rosalie Craig as the mother and Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker. Stephen Flaherty’s music is anchored in the ragtime themes, but it builds from that into a lush and uplifting sound. I sometimes leave an opera which has been messed with wishing I’d closed my eyes or been to a concert version and I’m afraid that’s how I felt here.

One misfire won’t threaten the annual tradition, though programming The Sound of Music for next year might! Somehow, it doesn’t seem right for this venue and this audience and it comes so soon after the Palladium’s revival. Mmm…..

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John Gay has a lot to answer for. In satirising 18th century opera, he invented the musical as we know it today (and even jukebox musicals, as his was a compilation of popular songs of the day) and it’s content was so controversial, it resulted in the introduction of theatrical censorship which continued for 240 years until just 43 years ago. He also made more money that a lot of contemporary musicals – the equivalent of £1m!

Lucy Bailey’s production for the Open Air Theatre is much darker and bawdier than any I’ve seen before, and somehow feels much more authentic. It’s another show (after Into the Woods and Lord of the Flies) that’s perfect for the venue too. Bill Dudley has created a superb death & torture location with gallows and stocks, brilliant period costumes and a Hogarthian front cloth to take you to the London of the early eighteenth century.

Macheath is a highwayman and womanizer, target of thief catcher Peachum and jailer Lockit, both of whose daughters he has bedded and proposed to (and in Lucy Lockit’s case impregnated). Along the road to his capture we seem to spend most of our time in bars and brothels with a surfeit of thieving, drinking, fighting and fornication. It’s a bit shocking today, so I dread to think what they thought of it 283 years ago!

It’s a great ensemble, expanded to 26 with the addition of students from E 15 Acting School with stand out performances from Jasper Britton and Janet Fullerlove as the Peachums, Oliver Hoare as their servant Filch and Beverly Rudd as both Lucy Lockit and Dolly Trull. They’ve cast singing actors rather than singers, which I think is right for the piece but doesn’t make for the best vocals. The playing of six piece ensemble The City Waites though is first class.  The choreography and fight direction of Maxine Doyle and Terry King is outstanding; you often went ‘ouch’ as you could virtually feel the punches and falls.

Another great night at the Open Air on another great night. Next stop Gershwin’s Crazy for You in a month’s time.

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The Open Air Theatre’s new artistic director, Timothy Sheader, has always made his intentions to move this lovely venue on from it’s long-standing ‘Three Shakespeare’s and  Musical’ formula very clear. Last year he gave us a chilling ‘The Crucible’ which proved how great drama can work in this space. He also seems to be thinking more about what shows suit the venue and last year’s Into The Woods was a perfect choice. Now we have Lord of the Flies doing both – another drama which works well in a space which is nigh on perfect for the play.

The stage is a beach where the remains of a plane crash are strewn – the fusilage spewing luggage and a wing in the trees. There’s an engine in the bushes bordering the beach and another in the auditorium. Smoke still emanates from the wreckage; this crash has just happened. It’s a stunning design by Jon Bausor (who created the extraordinary Kursk at the Young Vic) which uses the space brilliantly. You’re impressed before a word is spoken.

Nigel Williams’ adaptation is a little flawed, mostly because he rushes the first part, getting to the descent into savagery too quickly. Though it might be a little slow for a young audience, showing how the power struggles unfold and the first reaction of children to a world without grown-ups seems to me to be a crucial part of the explanation of the decline. Otherwise it’s faithful to the book, with a little updating such that we can’t be in the second world war (which I think is what William Golding intended) and the arrival of a helicopter rather than a plane at the end, which made more sense.

There is fine acting from a very young company who look every bit the age of their characters. The movement (co-director Liam Steel and fight director Kate Waters) adds much to the effectiveness of the staging. There’s also music and a soundscape by Nick Powell & Mike Walker which makes a big contribution to creating atmosphere and driving the story forward.

I studied the book for something that used to be called ‘O’ level many centuries ago; if only we could have seen a thrilling interpretation like this, I might have done better than my mediocre Grade 4!

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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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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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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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When I heard that the Open Air Theatre were going to break with tradition and stage this intense drama, I thought they were very misguided. How wrong was I?!

Arthur Miller’s timeless piece about the late 17th century Salem witch trials with parallels to the 1952 McCarthy witch hunt is a cracking drama, particularly in the second half when the trials are taking place. It’s simply staged on an elevated platform which represents the wall of a house on its side, characters entering upwards through it’s doors & windows. Surrounded by trees which last night were moving eerily in the chill June wind and much of the time by a silent ‘chorus’ of girls who become the hysterical force which convicts many innocents.

They’ve assembled a very impressive cast for this short run. You want to give Christopher Fulford’s Reverend Parris a slap across the face for being so foolish. Oliver Ford Davies has real authority and gravitas as the Deputy-Governor. Emily Taffe is a very creepy Abigail with revealing changes of expression you think only you can see. Susan Engel’s Rebecca starts as a respected matriarch and ends dignified despite her erroneous conviction. You want to cheer Patrick Godfrey’s defiant Giles as he beats the system, even in death. Philip Cumbus’ Hale makes a very believable transition from honest broker to angry champion of justice. Emma Cuniffe and Patrick O’Kane both have shaky starts but come into their own in the second half’s tragedy.

As the sun sets and the air becomes more chilly, the drama becomes much more intense and by the end you’re not sure if you’re shivering because of the weather or the drama or both. This is a triumph for Timothy Sheader and the Open Air Theatre, best known for comedy and musicals, and opens up all sorts of possibilities for the future. I’m thinking Greek Tragedy. Medea please!

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