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Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Bird’

Those of us who go to opera have long got used to radical directorial reinvention / reinterpretation. 2011 was a particularly bad year, with Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust (I asked ENO for my money back as I thougth I’d booked for Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust – the composer uncredited in the marketing) followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream relocated from a forest to a boy’s public school! It happens less in theatre – well, except with Shakespeare and other dead writers who can’t answer back – and even less in  musicals. In this case, though, it seems composer Stephen Schwartz hasn’t objected, though I’m not sure he’s seen it!

Director Mitch Sebastian’s ‘big idea’ is to turn it into a video game, which actually isn’t a bad idea. I didn’t think much of this early Schwartz show when I first saw it at the Bridewell Theatre 13 years ago (he went on to write Godspell and Wicked – come to think of it, I don’t think much of those either) so I was up for a radical reinvention / reinterpretation. The production is probably the most visually in-your-face I’ve ever seen. After you enter through the game-player’s bedroom, the stage seems to take up more space than you thought the Menier had and you have to use all of your peripheral vision – and move your head back and fore as if you’re watching a tennis match from the net – to take in as much of the 180 degree staging as you can (it’s impossible to take it all in). The projections by Timothy Bird, often interacting with the performers, are simply extrordinary.

The story concerns the son of Emperor Charles (Charlemagne), his second wife Fastrada, son Pippin and step-son Lewis and in particular to Pippin’s search for purpose and meaning. The problem is the production is a complete mismatch with the predominent musical style (70’s pop-rock) and the story’s period (9th century France) so it’s littered with uncomfortable anachronisms, jarrs frequently and just doesn’t work – and it confirms the view that it isn’t a particularly good show. I have to say though that I have much admiration for the craftsmanship – it’s extraordinarily slick as you move from one open-mouthed moment to another, and another….

Matt Rawle has great presence and a great voice as the Leading Player (another narrator role to follow his Che in the recent revival of Evita). Ian Kelsey and Frances Ruffelle are very good as the king and queen, as is David Page as the step-son, despite the S&M nature of their costumes! Harry Hepple pulls off the difficult transition from naivety to defiance and back to naivety as Pippin. Louise Gold provides a lovely one-song cameo as grandmother Berthe but the introducion of the role seems completely pointless and the song (with audience participation, complete with panto songsheet!) feels like it popped in from the panto down the road for added seasonality. The musical standards are much higher than the quality of the music and Tom Kelly’s band is good, if somewhat loud for such a small venue – this adds to the feeling that you are being bashed over the head relentlessly to compensate for the mediocre material.

I admire the attempt to breathe new life into an ify show, but have to report that for me it failed – and found me asking the same question I’ve asked a few times recently – what on earth is happening to the Menier?

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When you watch X-Factor on the weekend, remember there was once a time when pop groups learned their craft by hard slog and trial & error. The Beatles would never have been the greatest band the world has ever seen if they hadn’t spent the best part of two years playing lengthy sets in the Cavern in Liverpool and in much seedier clubs in Hamburg.

What Backbeat does by focusing on this brief but intense and important period is show us how it all began. The fact that it uses young actors who have recently learnt, and are still learning, to sing and play gives it an authenticity which brings the story alive. It’s not a musical; it’s a play – but the musical sequences are crucial and become increasingly competent and exciting as the story develops. They’d sound a lot better played by professional musicians, but that would miss the point and be a lot less true to the story. I loved the rawness and raggedness of the music because it felt so real.

In this period, of course, original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe looms large. Lennon’s art school mate who can’t play a note but is super-cool joins the band, falls for photographer Astrid Kirchherr & steals her from fellow artist Klaus Voorman, leaves the band for Hamburg Art School (under Edward Paolozzi no less – even this Beatles obsessive didn’t know that!) and dies tragically. Paul switches to bass and Pete Best is dumped for Ringo and the rest is history. When they put on Astrid’s jackets and strike the first chords of Love Me Do, there was a shiver up my spine and a tear in my eye. This is where the musical soundtrack of my life really began.

It really does tell the story well. Comparisons with Jersey Boys are unfair –  this is not a biographical retrospective on a spectacular scale with a band’s entire back catalogue; it’s a play focusing in more depth on a short formative period. Both are great, but completely different.

They actors don’t impersonate the fab four (five) but they brilliantly convey the essence if the people. Andrew Knott has Lennon’s attitude, power and influence and Daniel Healy’s McCartney is the more serious, and seriously ambitious, musician (with spot-on nodding!). Will Payne captures the much younger George, quietly in awe of the others, growing up before your eyes. There’s less pressure on Oliver Bennett as Pete Best and Nick Blood as Sutcliffe as we know less of their characters, but they’re both excellent. Adam Sopp’s Ringo only arrives in the final scene, but his inimitable grin made me smile.

There isn’t a moment wasted in David Leveaux’s staging and the design team of Christopher Oram, Andrew D Edwards, Howard Harrison, David Holmes, Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn have created an environment which allows a fluid flow from scene to scene and location to location.

I loved this show, and I don’t think that’s entirely because of how much The Beatles meant to me. It’s a great story well told. They don’t even get to use that extraordinary back catalogue – we never get beyond Love Me Do – yet you can hear the beginnings of that sound that has not been equalled in the fifty years that have passed since. Give X-Factor a miss and find out how real talent develops.

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