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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’

It would be difficult to find two productions of this play as far apart as this and Joe Hill-Gibbins staging at the Olivier just over five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/edward-II). The latter was on one of London’s biggest stages, this on one of its smallest. At the National, it was a radical take, with live video footage, here it oozes period. The NT’s thrilled me, but this left me rather cold I’m afraid.

It struck me for the first time how much weaker Marlowe’s dialogue is than Shakespeare’s verse; more accessible but nowhere near as beautiful. He packs in 20 years of history, and this production seems to have lost something like thirty minutes, which compounds the issue by making it feel rushed in a ‘let’s get it over with’ sort of way, with characters going into exile and back seeming a bit ‘here we go again’ tiresome. Like other contemporary staging’s, the true nature of Edward & Gaveston’s relationship is more overt but, given the setting of this production, the passionate kisses and embraces seemed at odds with the play. Above all, the story just didn’t engage, or even thrill, as it should. I felt no emotional involvement at all.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a very suitable theatre, and the space is used well. Jessica Worrall’s period costumes are excellent, and the glistening black & gold backdrop takes you to the 14th century. The music mostly suits it, except the use of the West African Kora, beautiful though it is, which seemed totally out of place, conjuring up exotic foreign places rather than medieval Britain. Some of the touches of humour work, like Edward’s propensity to dish out titles played like a running joke, but sometimes it feels a bit flippant. The double and triple casting, using women in male roles, also works, though you have to suspend disbelief when you see a bishop who looks like he’s still at school.

I’ve rarely been disengaged in this lovely theatre by a play I have hitherto found fascinating. Maybe it hasn’t settled yet, but I’m afraid indifference was my primary reaction.

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There are actually four Hans Christian Andersen tales adapted here. The rather sad Little Matchgirl bookends three lighter tales – Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea – two of which take up much more of the evening, a contrasting if odd combination.

Our narrator is Ole Shuteye and the five performers are collectively called Shuteyes (and the band The Swan Vestas!). The adaptations, by Emma Rice (who also directs) and Joel Horwood, have contemporary references, in particular in The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the weavers have become modern fashionistas and we get living designers name-checked and some Spice Girls music. Not all of this contemporary stuff works; it sometimes gets in the way of the magic of the fairy-tales and turns the show into posh panto for Waitrose customers, with Trump, Brexit and even cheating cricketers thrown in for good measure. It does work for the title tale though, where the contemporary spin involves war and homelessness.

Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are excellent and the original music by Stephen Warbeck, played by an onstage trio and one of the performers, is delightful. Niall Ashdown makes a cheeky and charming narrator as well as the gullible Emperor. Katy Owen and Guy Hughes were huge fun as the fashionistas and the latter made an excellent prince. Edie Edmundson’s puppet matchgirl melts your heart. It really does fit the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse like a glove.

There’s much to enjoy, but I do wish they’d reigned in the pantoesque stuff and concentrated on the magic of the fairy-tales, something Emma Rice does so well.

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Opera

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music was an absolute gem with wonderful singing and playing, a superb design, and stunning staging by Liam Steel. Any opera house in the world would be proud to have a production this good in its repertoire.

The Royal Academy of Music inaugurated their lovely new theatre with a brilliant revival of Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight. I’d forgotten how good it was, and here it was superbly played and sung and, like the RCM last week, in a fine production that any opera house would be proud of.

The English Concert have become the go-to company for Handel operas in concert and their take on Rinaldo in the Barbican Hall, his first Italian opera specifically for London, was superb, faultlessly cast and beautifully played (though I could have done without the attempts at semi-staging which seems a bit naff). Handel wrote himself a harpsichord solo for this opera and here the harpsichordist almost stole the show with his thrilling rendition.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder gave a blistering Shostakovich 8th Symphony at another of their Friday lunchtime recitals, with Elder again giving an insightful introduction to the piece. The talent on stage is awe-inspiring and the nurturing by a world class conductor heart-warming.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons Reimagined combined baroque music with a contemporary twist and puppetry to provide a spellbinding 80 minutes by candlelight in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Another lovely evening in a space that seems to suit absolutely everything!

Britten Sinfonia Voices gave an inspired Easter programme at GSMD’s Milton Court Concert Hall, with choral music spanning more than 400 years, with a few brass pieces as a bonus. The idea of fitting two Stravinsky pieces between movements in a Mozart Mass was particularly inspired.

Dance

Ballet Black’s contrasting double-bill at the Barbican Theatre was a real treat. The Suit was mesmerising, moving and ultimately tragic and A Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream was cheeky and playful. I need to ensure this company are on my radar permanently.

Film

You Were Never Really Here is a dark and disturbing but original and brilliant film with a stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix, and refreshingly short at 90 minutes!

The Square was 2.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back. Lured by 5* reviews, it was overlong, slow and a bit of a mess, the satire largely lost or overcooked.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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The story of the first global spy network 400 years ago is ripe for dramatisation, and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the perfect place to stage it.

Sir Francis Walsingham was Elizabeth I’s spymaster. He had an international network of spies and double-agents. He spread false rumours on a wholesale scale. He sanctioned torture and execution. The master of manipulation. We don’t know whether he was doing the (possibly paranoid) Queen’s bidding or whether he was manipulating her, and the play suggests he may in turn have been manipulated himself.

Anders Lustgarten’s play, directed by Mathew Dunster, doesn’t hold back on the profanity or violence, even humour and cheeky modern references, which is where he shoots himself in the foot. Its flippancy hijacks the drama and the Queen’s language, perhaps intended to change our perception of ‘good Queen Bess’, just feels childish and tacky. Though they are funny, the cheap quips about our popularity in Europe and success at tennis, attempts at contemporary resonance, don’t help. It’s such a shame, because there’s a great story screaming to get out.

Designer Jon Bausor has created a brilliant two-story backdrop by putting screens at the front of the gallery that match the lower half, and inserting lots of drawers for Walsingham’s files. Apart from some light from the corridors, it is largely candlelit, though with fewer than usual, so its often very dark, in keeping with the story. I loved Alexander Balanescu’s music, played by a trio behind an the opaque left side of the gallery.

Only three actors play a single role, the other six playing between two and four, and this is sometimes confusing, particularly in the dark! Tara Fitzgerald has great presence but her profane dialogue weakens the characterisation. Walsingham is a big role, and he goes on a big journey, and Aidan McArdle handles it well. It’s a fine supporting cast.

A great idea, the perfect space, but for me misguided in writing and execution.

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The smile didn’t leave my face for the duration of this chamber musical in the lovely Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s got bucket-loads of charm and romance aplenty. Emma Rice’s staging is a delight, from the chocolates distributed before it begins to the badges as you leave, with an interval song in the foyer to keep that smile on your face. I defy anyone not to be charmed by it.

Based on the 2010 French-Belgian film of the same name (Les Emotifs Anonymes in French), it tells the story of desperately shy chocolatier Jean-Rene, who has inherited an ailing business from his father, and Angelique, the equally shy secret ingredient of competing chocolatier Mercier. After her employer dies and she’s out of a job, Angelique attends the shyness support group of the title, where an employee of Jean-Rene meets her and subsequently introduces her to her boss, who gives her a thoroughly unsuitable sales job. Fortunately, she talks herself into a role commensurate with her talents, rescues Jean-Rene’s business and navigates the difficult path to true love.

Emma Rice has adapted Jean-Pierre Ameris & Philippe Blasband’s screenplay of the sort of film only the French seem to be able to do these days (oh for a return of the Ealing comedies). American music & lyrics partners Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond are new to me, and the UK, and they’ve done a lovely job producing songs that suit the subject matter perfectly. The SWP is a design in itself, but Les Brotherston has added some neon signs (shock, horror!) which signpost locations and become a running joke in themselves. Etta Murfitt’s choreography adds much to Emma Rice’s inventive staging. Dominic Marsh and Carly Bowden are superb in the lead roles and there’s luxury casting in the ensemble, with includes Joanna Riding, Lauren Samuels and Marc Antolin no less, with multiple cameos from Philip Cox and Gareth Snook.

I left the theatre with a warm glow, which hasn’t really gone yet; it’s a delightful evening. It’s Emma Rice doing what she does best, a heart-warming evening, her last production here as AD. You have until early January and you know what you have to do…..

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This is the fourth and last of my late February Shakespeare binge, in the lovely candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag.

It started well with full candlelight, period settings, in period dress (though with what seemed like joke ruffs and codpieces). My heart sank when all of the candles were extinguished for the first scene, each character illuminating himself with a single candle lamp. For the rest of the evening the candlepower changed frequently and I have to admit rather effectively. 

Ellen McDougal’s Big Idea (every director has to have one, it seems) is to change Cassio into a woman, Michelle Cassio to be precise. This made for some interesting sexual connotations. Having Othello & Desdemona’s bed on stage throughout was a bit distracting and took something away from the scenes elsewhere. I liked the music until it turned a bit too contemporary lyrically. The post-death ending was gimmicky and crass.

I admired Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello, though he didn’t die too well, and Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona too, but I thought Sam Spruell too flippant and nowhere near malevolent and machiavellian enough for Iago.

There was much to enjoy, but enough to irritate too, and it left me feeling it could have been a lot better.

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