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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Pye’

This is the second time this week that I’ve seen a stage adaptation of a film I haven’t seen. This one is Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical three-hour film, which was also a five-hour TV series, adapted by Stephen Beresford, best known for The Last of the Hausmans at the NT and the screenplay for the film Pride. It’s an everyday tale of theatre folk in Sweden, well at least initially.

In the first act, we’re with the theatrical Ekdahl family, theatre owners and performers. Husband and wife Oscar and Emilie, Oscar’s mother Helena, brothers Carl and Gustav and their wives Alma and Lydia, Gustav & Lydia’s daughter Petra and Fanny and Alexander themselves, Oscar & Emilie’s children. We’re onstage, backstage and at home in what seems to be an idyllic world, until Oscar dies suddenly. There was plenty of character development, but not enough story in this first part and I went into the interval a touch underwhelmed.

The second act is very dark, as Emilie marries the widowed Bishop, a frightfully stern bully into whose austere and joyless home Emilie, Alexander and Fanny arrive. His sister Henrietta is unwelcoming, fearing her loss of power in charge of the home. Alexander is a bit of a fantasist and gets on the wrong side of the Bishop very quickly, resulting in brutal punishment. Emilie, by now pregnant, wants to leave, but the law and societal conventions prevent this.

In the third act, with the help of Oscar’s brothers and Helena’s friend Issak and his nephew Aaron, they plot to free them all from the Bishop’s tyranny. These latter two parts are much more satisfying and feel almost Dickensian, sweeping along at a fast pace, drawing you in to these characters lives. I haven’t seen much of director Max Webster’s work, but his staging here is impressive, helped by Tom Pye’s excellent set, Laura Hopkins’ lovely costumes and atmospheric music by Alex Baranowski, played live on piano and cello.

It’s a tribute to Kevin Doyle’s performance that there was palpable hatred in the audience for the evil Bishop. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as a seasoned thespian and the head of the Ekdahl family. I loved Catherine Walker, an actress who hasn’t been on my radar before, as Emilie and it was great to see Lolita Chakrabarti again in a pair of contrasting roles as Alma and Henrietta. Jonathan Slinger’s role was relatively small, but he almost stole the show when the Ekdahl brothers confront the Bishop in the third act – the whole audience were willing him on. The actors playing Fanny & Alexander were brilliant, in what are big roles for child actors, especially Alexander.

It was a slow burn at first but it won me over, oozing quality in every department.

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When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, one of the highlights will be seeing three great actresses, each ten years apart, play Martha – Diana Rigg, Kathleen Turner, and now Imelda Staunton. Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play is a mountain for any actor and its thrilling to watch them reach the summit. I left the theatre emotionally drained; I can’t even imagine what it takes out of them.

It’s 2am on a Sunday morning in September and George & Martha return to their New England home drunk from her ‘daddy’s’ faculty party. He’s the President of the college where George teaches history. A new teacher and his wife, Nick & Honey,  have been invited back and they follow on, arriving shortly after. The drinking continues in earnest as George and Martha fight, snipe, bicker and tear each other apart in front of their guests, playing the most extraordinary psychological games. Their guests get embroiled as the alcohol flows freely. Martha flirts with Peter, and more. Truth and illusion become blurred. Martha eventually breaks the rules, which brings on the endgame.

You’d be forgiven for thinking three hours of people fighting isn’t entertainment, but it’s a black comedy and a theatrical feast, so you’d be wrong. Though it’s impossible not to single out Imelda Staunton’s astonishing tour de force (is there anything this woman can’t do?) her three colleagues are all superb. Conleith Hill’s George makes a more restrained foil for her vitriolic outbursts. Luke Treadaway’s Nick goes from intensely uncomfortable to cool to predatory to angry. I didn’t know anything about Imogen Potts work (based on the programme bio, it may be her stage debut) but I was hugely impressed by her characterisation of Honey. Tom Pye has created a very realistic lived-in home and James Macdonald directs this roller-coaster brilliantly, with his usual forensic detail.

I still think it’s a 20th century classic, and this is a seminal production. You don’t see performances like this every day, every year come to that, and Imelda Staunton’s is a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going. Unmissable.

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I’m struggling to understand why the Royal Court thought this was good enough to be staged there (mind you, it isn’t the first time I’ve thought that in recent years). Four very good actors in a very mediocre play.

Rory Mullarkey’s tale of armed insurrection in the UK starts with a meeting between a black boy and a posh woman on a deserted train platform. He appears to be some sort of Messiah and he’s not unexpected. Catherine, a Lady in the titled sense, invites him home. It isn’t for sex, as Leo at first thinks. She’s going to engineer his journey to power through uprisings of the most unlikeliest of groups like the Women’s Institute. It starts with a couple of murders and follows it’s absurdist trajectory from there to a new Britain.

Given the number of (short) scenes and locations, it is by necessity staged on a simple square platform with a projection screen behind and a couple of tents on either side, but Tom Pye’s design still seems a bit half-hearted, as did James Macdonald’s direction. Anna Chancellor is excellent, but why she took the role is beyond me. I was very impressed by Calvin Demba as Leo, who maintains his naive otherworldly expression throughout. Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley provide excellent support in multiple roles, with some quick changes.

Maybe I’m missing something, but this all seemed a bit pointless. More like work-in-progress than a finished play. It was occasionally funny and often unpredictable but rather unengaging.

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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I couldn’t describe this show better than its own billing –  a ‘Dance Revue’ about shoes! This could so easily fail and come out as tacky showbiz, but in the hands of Jerry Springer – The Opera creator Richard Thomas and inventive choreographer Stephen Mear it’s a whole lot of fun.

Who’d have thought you could come up with so many clever ideas about footwear; here there are some 30 ‘numbers’ including health and safety advice for walking in high heels, how Hush Puppies can help the promiscuous, Imelda Marcos’ infamous obsession with shoes and the worship of everything from Flip Flops to Ug’s to Jimmy Choo’s (but not Crocs!).

The dancing is terrific and the songs are good (with often hysterical lyrics). Tom Pye’s design, with Laura Hopkins costumes and Tim Hope & Gaelle Denis’ projections, is a colourful gaudy feast for the eye. The dancers are hugely talented and the singers top-notch. A small 8-piece band plays as if their lives depended on it.

Not everything works as well as the high spots and they pull more punches in the first half than the second. I found the opening number too much to take in whilst adjusting to a very different type of show and the sound occasionally buried the lyrics (co-lyricist Alethea Wiles), but these are small points because this is something completely different that continually surprises you, makes you smile from start to finish and above all is original and fresh.

A wonderful post-Edinburgh treat to kick-start the autumn season in London.

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