Sunday, 14 December 2008

Canary Yellow

Canary Wharf 'nuclear' sunset, originally uploaded by blowstar.

Finally gave in and joined Flickr. Here's my first photo ... a 'nuclear' sunset over Canary Wharf taken at the local DLR station, Pontoon Dock.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Ghetto Blaster

Tricky one, this. Imagine you're a producer with a new show to launch on the brink of the worst recession for thirty years, amid plummeting audience figures, in an unpopular theatre, with a cast of mostly unknowns. About the Holocaust. And it's a backstage musical.

This in itself could be a comedy to put The Producers in the shade, but it says something about the central theme of indomitable spirit that has clearly infected the investors, production team and cast as "Imagine This" defies its assault by the broadsheet critics and cheap jibes at its soft target from bloggers (like myself) to limp bloodied but unbowed into its second month in the West End.

I met two of the American small-scale backers who had flown over for the premiere, seduced into contributing to the $10 million investment by a DVD of the less-than-stellar production in Plymouth. They had been told that the show would start to pay back after 26 weeks of sellout performances. Yeah, right, at a time when nothing less than David Tennant or Harry Potter in the nuddy can spontaneously erect a 'House Full' sign ...

Blind faith is another pervasive theme of the production.

In 1942, a bunch of actors are among the thousands corralled into the Warsaw ghetto and, with historical improbability straining at its stays, are encouraged by the Nazis to put on a musical pageant about the fall of Masada (in 73AD when the Romans laid siege to the Judaean mountaintop settlement and the Jews committed mass suicide rather than be captured). Each actor plays both a Warsaw Jew and a Masadist (?) or Roman, and the ludicrous dual romantic sub-plot involves a spunky Jewess falling for the local Nazi commander, and a Judaean firebrand being bedded by the Roman general.

The Roman general/Polish resistance fighter left me cold, being played by diminutive Australian Simon Gleeson whose speciality seemed to be spitting every line whilst keeping his carefully trimmed beard dry, but the stomping Nazis who stopped just short of homoerotic fantasy still pulled focus. Call me old fashioned, but in a musical you're naturally going to favour the tall blond leading men over the whiny and runtish kosher munchkins.

In the Warsaw scenes, there's just a whiff of promise that this plot might pick up where Cabaret left off. Yes, I know there are four years between Kristallnacht and the foundation of the Warsaw ghetto and Berlin isn't Poland, but historical continuity isn't this show's strongest point and I was referring to the variety of musical styles Cabaret manages to embrace, whereas Imagine This is mired exclusively in the minor key, plangent, Kletzmer wail that pervades so much 'Jewish Music'.

But unfortunately most of the hours are given over to the Masada thing, and therein lies the show's failure. One of the rules of 'backstage musical' going right back to 42nd Street is that the audience is interested more in the actors' personal dramas than the show they're supposedly performing. Go on, name any of the shows that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ever put on in that barn. Exactly.

The other argument for focusing on the Warsaw episodes is that the whole Nazi/victim thing has got previous form. From both Cabaret and Sound of Music we know that the good and tuneful get shat on by the Germans, and understand the stock characters of the sympathetic SS officer and the morally weak collaborator. Both here, natch, but not given the stage time to develop their characters beyond the superficial, because we're busy raising barricades and waving an awful lot of red banners (wonder where they got those ideas) so as not to let the Romans climb up the the mountain top and start to blow Gabriel blow. Sorry, touch of the 'Anything Goes' creeping in ...

I must be one of the few audience members (there were about 300 of us last night) who has been to both Masada and Auschwitz, and I can tell you that it's the Holocaust stuff that schticks in your memory, not some 1st Century Judaean Jonestown massacre, and therefore makes the better material for a musical.

My suspicion is that this production, which has a lot in common with Martin Guerre, will be called off for major revisions and come back re-branded and re-packaged (and hopefully re-cast with a couple of faces you could put on a poster) for a more successful run.

It should, because the production values are high, the lighting and staging are very effective - again, moreso on the Warsaw front with dramatic lighting changes and so much gunfire and crashing of metallic scenery that we could have been making the last act of Major Barbara in Undershaft's cannon foundry.

I liked some of the music: the anthemic title song, and one with something about clouds, but it's pretty monothematic and whilst the score contains some good Boublil-and-Schoenbergesque marching tunes, it needs better ballads and more variety. The introduction of the otherwise valuable actor Michael Matus (the 'village idiot' from Martin Guerre) as a camp slave is too "Up Pompeii" crude for the quality of the production, and this whole area needs a substantial re-write.

Lyrics universally need more work: this was the second musical in a week to rhyme 'virgin' with 'submerge in' and frankly Sondheim does it better ...

Peter Polycarpou works tremendously hard to hold the cast together, channelling David Kossoff , and mostly succeeds. I didn't enjoy Leila Benn Harris as a part-time Christine in Phantom, but she's on much safer ground here as the love interest of the freedom fighter, just needs to be given some better songs.

Incidentally, Masada was constructed by King Herod. Did you know his wife was called Doris? Now there's a Jewish momma waiting to be discovered in a musical ...

Friday, 5 December 2008

She IS big. It's the production that got small ...

There's something about Craig Revel Horwood I just don't like. It may be the introduction of confectionery into a surname that insults my diabetic sensibilities. Perhaps other theatre directors could consider the benefits of an injection of chocolate? Would Nicholas Malteser Hytner, or Trevor Minstrel Nunn be any more successful?

It may be the botoxed expressionless sneer he adopts for most of Strictly Come Dancing, or just an aversion to vertical hair, but I had to try hard not to let this prejudice colour my judgement of his production of Sunset Boulevard which has suddenly made the journey from Newbury to the Comedy Theatre in London's glittering West End with most of its cast intact.

What is has manifestly not done is tarted itself up for the trip to town. In fact, like a purposeful Berkshire housewife up for the Sales in sensible shoes, it looks like it's bought an Awayday ticket and is thinking of heading home on the late train.

This is a soundly competent regional production, from the Watermill - one of the most inventive and successful small producing theatres in Britain. Unlike anything you might see in Ipswich or Woking or Watford, it is not reliant on resting cast members of The Bill to attract audiences, nor is it a slave to Bill Kenwright and the Theatre of the Hasbeen.

The structure of the show is the brainchild not of C Revel H, but of the Watermill's resident artistic director John Doyle who pioneered, about ten years ago, the idea that actors in a musical could also play the instruments and dispense with a pit band thanks to the inventive musical arrangements of his creative partner Sarah Travis.

It's a formula which has worked brilliantly on productions from The Gondoliers, cunningly set in a Chicago pizza restaurant, to the outstanding Sweeney Todd which played first at the Trafalgar Studios before transferring to Broadway, giving Patti LuPone her second crack at Mrs Lovett, this time with a euphonium, and winning two Tonys.

At its best, the technique makes musicals more intimate, allowing emotional insight and subtleties of character to emerge from under the cellular blanket of lush orchestrations. I'm not sure if the formula's getting old, or there's some reason for it not to work on this particular oeuvre, but it doesn't.

Perhaps taking the immortal line about the pictures getting small, we should consider that the epic scale of Sunset demands grandiose staging and extravagant production values to match the melodramatic plot and the Churrigueresque characters? Certainly it needs more instruments to emulate that string-rich cinematic sound.

In the 60's, Stephen Sondheim had the idea of making a musical of Sunset Boulevard and collaborated briefly with lyricist Burt Shevelove to put it together, but then he met Billy Wilder at a cocktail party and floated the idea past him. "You can't write a musical about Sunset Boulevard," Wilder responded, "it has to be an opera. After all, it's about a dethroned queen." Sondheim ditched the project immediately.

Clearly, Andrew Lloyd-Webber didn't suffer the same agony of self-doubt.

I love the score. Apart from the fact that it's ironing music - a double CD to see you through the most demanding pile of shirts - and it dawned on me recently that there really only are four distinct tunes in the whole thing, I have loyally seen first Betty Buckley, then Patti, Petula and Glenn Close give their Normas. Shunned Paige, obviously. But this time, it's not working for me. Don't worry, Andrew, it happens to every composer your age at least once ...

Not that you can really fault the performances - Kathryn Evans gives her all in pursuit of the fractured heart and tortured soul of Norma Desmond and in some moments - notably her delusional return to Paramount with 'It's As If We Never Said Goodbye' she nails it absolutely.

It's Lloyd-Webber's fault that "With One Look" comes too early in the show to be effective. When she's in her light, and on her notes, this is thrilling stuff. But in this production she's too often clambering up or down a cranked metallic spiral staircase in heels and a succession of rhinestone peignoirs. Clearly she got the rump of the costume budget because everyone else seems to be in grey and white separates which might have been picked from Debenhams, since they owe little to period or place.

As Joe Gillis, relative newcomer Ben Goddard has to follow great performances like John Barrowman and Hugh Jackman, and whilst marginally less attractive, he has the ordinary guy 'aw shucks' likeability and the floppy haircut, but his range of expressions is perhaps equally floppy.

He does very well in some of the numbers, jolting the production out of its misty unreality with genuine fire in the duet "Too Much in Love to Care" played angrily against flame-haired Laura Pitt-Pulford as Betty Schaefer. In fact so convincing was the tempestuous love-hate argument between the angry young man and the redhead, it threatened to lapse in to Will and Grace: the Musical, highlighting the possibility that Kathryn Evans and Karen Walker could be cousins.

At least he affects an American accent. I have no idea why Evans elected to play Norma quite so cut-glass home counties.

Dave Willetts adds to the grand guignol mood of the drama with a dark characterisation for the servant/husband Max, and effortlessly excellent singing you'd expect from a veteran Jean Valjean and Phantom. The ensemble keep up their instrumental playing relentlessly, and play the entire score from memory, but it does cause some detraction from the diction and the impact of some of the punchier numbers like the rousing 'This Time Next Year' is lost.

I was expecting more from the choreography since that's Revel-Horwood's forte, allegedly. Apart from some nifty traffic-direction with the performers and their instruments moving rapidly without collision, there's little actual dancing - except when Joe and Norma perform the tango in a version so obviously more indebted to Strictly Come Dancing than thirties Hollywood, that you could feel the entire audience clenching to avoid shouting "bring back John Sergeant!"


Kathryn Evans is Mrs Peter Purves (of Blue Peter fame). They met in pantomime in 1978 when she was Dandini and he was Baron Hardup.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Night fever, night fever. We know how to do it.

With the Whingers to a Sunday matinee of 'A Little Night Music' in its Trevor Nunn reincarnation at the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre, auditorium neatly reoriented from the womblike velvet tunnel structure for Cage aux Folles to something resembling a miniaturised hexagon, pre-theatre lunch nicely presented, seats now numbered and reserved, toilets clean, doors to automatic, all boxes ticked for an enjoyable afternoon ...

In this extraordinarily classy production, with money spent in ways to which the Menier is unaccustomed - set, costumes, cast, lighting (needs a few more shillings in the meter, Trevor) and backstage, this production looks destined for a West End transfer before it opens. Except I hope it doesn't, because the intimacy of the production generates an involvement in the family lives of the lawyer Fredrik and the actress Desiree that I just don't remember from the Judi Dench version in the Olivier in 1995.

In fact, all I can recall of the Olivier production was the cast, including an increasingly breathless Dench, running the huge distances on and off stage between every scene. It could have been directed by Sebastian Coe.

With compactness comes brevity. For Trevor Nunn to bring in a show at under three hours is something of a rarity, but this one keeps a good pace despite the languorous nature of the Swedish summer night, and its underlying themes of despair.

What drove it for me was the energetic and realistic performances of Alexander Hanson (every time I see him deliver another cracker of a male lead I wonder how he failed so badly as Captain von Trapp?) and even more cracking Hannah Waddingham as Desiree, making her a living, breathing, funny, fallible, sexually urgent and credible beauty in ways I can't recall other actresses achieving in the same role.

It's Waddingham's wholly believable central performance that reminds us this is a comedy. Too many directors have treated ALNM as if it were some Ibsenesque holy writ, overshadowed by the Guardian-reader movie and its self-styled auteur Ingmar Bergman. For once, Nunn accentuates the base comedy, and it could do with even more to reposition this as an ENJOYABLE piece of Sondheim, rather than a museum piece out of his 'stultifying' box like Sunday in the Park.

What this production could NOT do with is the unbalancing presence of that old Golders Green department store Maureen and Lipman whose contents have yet again been spilled on the London stage. Teetering between a dessicated Thatcher and Miss Havisham, Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt as a powdered corpse, picking up every vowel with sugar tongs and flicking them at the audience with her trademark sideways glance in stark contrast to the naturalism all around her.

Trevor Nunn sat on the aisle across from me and scribbled notes almost continuously through the show with a green-illuminated pen-light. After Lipman stretched her number 'Liaisons' into a caramel-jawed dirge, I swear I saw him write "phone Sheila Hancock".

Lipman aside, the singing in the show is excellent. Hanson's rich baritone pins Fredrik perfectly, and even the 'more actress than singer' members of the cast give excellent musical performances. Ingenue Jessie Buckley (apparently a runner-up Nancy in the TV search for a star programme) features strongly as Fredrik's young wife Anne and assails Sondheim's dressy tessitura with bravado.

The Liebeslieder or chorus of smaller characters deserve special mention. I always enjoy comparing the shapes and sizes of the bit-part players to the leads, and try to match the more obvious understudies. Here it also works where an older lady, a tall woman, a pert girl and two heroic male-leads-in-waiting are assembled, but this time they are surprisingly fine singers and actors, and if the curse of the Menier were to call any of them into a lead role, it would not diminish the production at all.

Destined for a three month run, I'm unsure how the economics work. Even though it will sell out, 13 weeks of full houses will only generate about £600k, and I can't see how that will pay this large cast of experienced actors, and Mr Nunn, what they deserve.