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Posts Tagged ‘RADA’

When you go to the revival of a play that once shocked, you usually wonder why. What shocked in the past rarely shocks as much as time passes. Not in this case. John Lahr’s virtually verbatim 1986 play based on Joe Orton’s diaries, which Lahr had only just edited and published, displays behaviour and attitudes, like under-age sex, we find completely unacceptable in 2002.

I was familiar with the 1987 film and 2009 stage play based on Lahr’s 1987 biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, the former adapted by Alan Bennett and the latter by Simon Bent, but I didn’t even know this earlier stage work based on the diaries themselves existed. It apparently started as a 45 minute NT early evening ‘platform’ performance, was almost immediately expanded into a complete play at the Kings Head Theatre and then transferred to the suitably seedy Boulevard Theatre, but hasn’t been seen in London in the 36 years since.

Orton was a working class boy from Leicester who got into RADA in 1951, even more of an achievement then than now given his background. There he met Kenneth Halliwell, with whom he had a complicated relationship. Sixteen years later Halliwell murdered him, then took his own life. They lived in Halliwell’s Islington bedsit the whole of that time, even after Orton had made significant money. Halliwell was a source of ideas for his work, his partner and lover, but Orton was never faithful and Halliwell often felt confused and rejected by him.

Joe’s short playwriting career is based on just two full evening stage plays produced in his lifetime – Educating Mr Sloane & Loot, works which combined irreverence, cynicism and absurdity to great comic effect, a highly original voice. There were other pieces, produced and un-produced, including radio and TV plays, a few one-act plays and a screenplay for The Beatles, and another major play, What the Butler Saw, produced posthumously.

This is a real insight into Orton and Halliwell, perhaps the first example of verbatim theatre, though only one voice. Nico Rao Pimpare’s production zips along but has much depth, packing a lot into less than two hours playing time. George Kemp captures the cheeky irreverent charm of Orton whilst Toby Osmond conveys the emotional complexity of Halliwell, both excellent. There are forty-six other characters, including agent Peggy Ramsey, Kenneth’s Williams & Cranham, Paul McCartney & Brian Epstein, their neighbours and Orton’s relatives, all played by just four actors – Jemma Churchill, Jamie Zubairi, Sorcha Kennedy and Ryan Rajan Mal – in a dazzling display of quick-fire role switching.

A very welcome revival that proves to be a fascinating evening.

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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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This anti-war satire packs as much of a punch in 2010 as it must have on its first outing in 1963. Created at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford East, it frames its scenes telling the history of the first world war inside a Pierrot show (which is probably the only dated thing about it) interspersed with the songs of that war.

Director Nona Shepherd and designer Takis have done an excellent job staging it in RADA’s Vanburgh Theatre with a canvas ‘roof’ to the stage suggesting a big top, side entrances from the auditorium and a stage platform coming forward the full length of the (albeit tiny) stalls. The Pierrot costumes are a little too pristine and the production does need a bit more edge, but it still does the job of presenting us with the horrors of war.

I’m a regular attendee at most of London’s drama schools and conservatoires and I have to say the RADA musical standards lag significantly behind The Guildhall and the Royal Academy – there was some dodgy singing and playing here – but the acting is, as you’d expect, first class.

I’ve seen the show a number of times before but I don’t recall the ending I saw here. After the curtain call, the cast turn their backs on the audience and quietly & slowly sing the satirical title song whilst watching images of all of the wars in the 92 years since this most brutal of all wards ended; it was impossible not to be moved and impossible to applaud once more. I broke down at the final image of an African boy soldier.

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The National Youth Music Theatre doing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? This makes the decision of RADA, the UK’s premiere drama school, to do Company seem decidedly unambitious. Despite the fact people like Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and Matt Lucas did their first work for NYMT, I was still somewhat sceptical…..

When we entered the former Victorian warehouse closer to where its set than any production before it (apart from the Bridewell Theatre’s virtually in Fleet Street itself), we’re confronted by ‘the outsiders’ wandering around the space talking to themselves, pushing supermarket trolleys and generally behaving spookily. This could be completely naff, but it’s actually rather disturbing and uncomfortable and a great scene-setter.

It’s performed on the floor of the space in a sort of traverse staging with seats on three sides and the barber shop on the fourth and it’s very atmospheric. The action mostly takes place in the centre with the ‘barbering’  and ‘baking’ on a two-level platform at one end.

The 25-piece orchestra, hidden behind screens behind & to the side of the audience plays this complicated score superbly; you’d never believe this was a youth orchestra. The performances are simply extraordinary – Matt Nalton and Lizzie Wofford are terrific as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett and in an outstanding supporting company, a very young Michael Byers as Tobias is so good it takes your breath away.

I’ve seen nine Sweeney Todd productions before this, including Covent Garden, Opera North and the National Theatre and it has never been better than this. It’s a triumph for NYMT and a highlight of Sondheim’s 80th celebrations; I really hope he’s hung around after Saturday’s Prom to see this as the enthusiasm of the young cast and the excitement of the young audience prove that his legacy as the king of musical theatre will be as long-lasting as fellow American 20th century theatrical gods  Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

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This show contains some of Sondheim’s most difficult songs to sing, so its ambitious for a drama school – even a première league one like RADA. By turning the Vanburgh Theatre into a night club (not entirely clear why) and staging it on two levels in the round, they’ve made it even more difficult for themselves. I’m afraid they lose a lot more with poor sightlines, inaudibility and lost lyrics than they gain in intimacy, though maybe I should make allowances for the fact it was the first performance.

It’s the story of 35-year old NYC singleton Bobby whose married friends are relentless in the pressure they pile on him to get hitched whilst the weaknesses of their own relationships unfold. As always with Sondheim, the structure is complex and challenging, but when it works its deeply rewarding. I’ve seen a few good productions, most recently a terrific one at the Union Theatre last year.

Some of the scenes work well – the bedroom scene where the departing air stewardess April sings Barcelona and the bar scene where cynical Joanne sings Ladies Who Lunch in particular – and the ‘couples’ ‘commenting’ from the upper level is a great idea. The ensemble pieces though are a bit of a mess, and the choreography is really weak. The acting is a lot better than the singing (which figures for RADA; it would probably have been musically stronger at the Royal Academy or the Guildhall) though the (professional) 4-piece band is excellent.

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