Friday, 8 January 2010


Through a deal they have running through previews, I got an eighth row center orchestra seat for ten pounds, so my critical faculties were not as sharply tuned as they might have been for fifty or sixty pounds. At ten pounds, the show was delightful. But I had the sense that I have had at other recent musical comedies that I am watching a slighly hyper entertainment machine that substitutes high energy for what should be at the heart (and heart is certainly in short supply here) of a musical -- good songs and winning performances.
I never saw the movie of LEGALLY BLONDE so have no basis for comparison. The story is simple enough, so simple that the show could have been done in half the time and lost nothing of the narrative. The lyrics are OK, but the score seldom breaks into anything resembling a tune -- I kept feeling that I was getting the verse without the refrain. So director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps the show loud and constantly moving so one doesn't notice the lack of substance.
When I look back on great musical performances I have seen (Gwen Verdon, Bernadette Peters, Vanessa Williams, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera), they were by performers who knew how to draw the audience to them without constantly pushing the audience. It's more fun when the performer doesn't seem to be working so hard. LEGALLY BLONDE'S leading role requires the performer to be onstage almost constantly, even changing costume in front of the audience. Sheridan Smith will get better when she doesn't seem to be working so hard. She is a winning performer (I loved her in the revival of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS a couple of years ago). She isn't naturally a dancer but gets through the choreography without embarrassing herself. Duncan James, a former boy band singer, works so hard at crooning his two songs that he loses the beat -- just sing the notes, darling! He looks good -- little else is required of him. The two performers who walk away with the show are Adam Gaumond (Emmett) and ex-Doctor Who Peter Davison. Gaumond is relaxed and charming -- he reminds me of the young Jerry Orbach. He really belongs onstage and you understand why Elle chooses him over James. Davison as the college professor is obviously having fun being in a big musical.
Most of the audience at the Thursday matinee I atteded were young women between the ages of twelve and thirty -- gaggles of them. My sense is that, like many musicals, this show aims for women and gay men. In typical Jerry Mitchell style, there's lots of beefcake. I loved the UPS man in very short shorts who kept coming in with "a special package." and the song "Is He Gay or European." Lots of gay male characters and a lesbian. The women loved it all. They squealed when Duncan James made his entrance, but even that heartthrob is openly bisexual, so something for everybody.
So at ten pounds it was delightful if a bit frenetic.
LEGALLY BLONDE, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Savoy Theatre, January 7, 2010.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


Misery in human relationships is a primary motive in British comedy. Television sitcoms are often about the collisions of needy, dysfunctional people (eg. Mitchell and Webb's PEEP SHOW). If you believe what you see on stage or television, you'd think no one in Britain, gay or straight, had a happy relationship. Michael Wynne's THE PRIORY is another bleak, comic look at failed relationships with some metaphysics thrown in.
The impressive setting is the main room of a large, isolated country house that was once a medieval priory, filled with monks living out their beliefs. Now it is rented out for romantic getaways and parties. Kate, a failed novelist, and her ex-partner Matthew had booked the house for a New Year's Eve rendezvous before their breakup six months ago. As a kind of therapy, she has invited a group of old friends to the priory to ring in a new year and turn over a new leaf. The batch of friends who arrive are far from therapeutic. They're all lonely and unhappy. Gay Daniel looks for love in the wrong places. Ben brings Laura, his young fiance, whom he met the day before. She's a makeup consultant at Harvey Nichols who makes a game try at fitting in with this educated set, but as the night wears on, she reverts to her old suicidal alcoholic self. Carl and Rebecca are married with children. She's a successful television producer who very proudly combines her career with raising children. Carl is an out of work actor who was once Kate's boyfriend and who has resumed an affair with her. In other words, the party from hell. Drugs and liquor only seem to make people more miserable.
Along with the comic moments are serious questions. What fulfills us? Wynne seems to be saying that without some spiritual dimension to these peoples' lives, they will never be happy. After the scenes, recriminations and Laura's suicide attempt, Kate spends the rest of the night sitting up reading the Bible. After the couples have left -- it is unlikely any of these fragile friendships can be mended --Kate is left with Daniel (lonely straight woman and gay man together again). She makes a New Years resolution: I'm giving it all up . . . .All the striving for some big thing. Having to prove myself. Waiting for some future tim when I'm going to be happy. Tomorrow, next week, next year. This is it." Daniel responds, "Oh, God, I know." The "Oh, God" is more than an empty phrase. We're almost in T.S. Eliot territory here, but without the clear resolution. At the end, we see a mysterious, hooded figure at the window. Death? A monk signalling an answer? A murderer about to enter an isolated house (the setting is pure Agatha Christie).
THE PRIORY is an enjoyable play that hints at something deeper but doesn't quite deliver the goods. It is effectively directed (Jeremy Herrin) and has an ideal cast of the same actors one would hire for a BBC television drama about glamorous 30-somethings (Rachel Stirling, Rupert Penry-Jones, Joseph Millson). It's not a typical Royal Court play, but the audience, mostly in their 20s and 30s, seemed both amused and moved by it.
THE PRIORY by Michael Wynne, directed by Jeremy Herrin. Royal Court Theatre. January 6, 2010.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Most people who who know Patrick Hamilton's 1929 thriller ROPE know it from the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film, which was not one of the director's best. Film buffs all know that Hitchcock tried to make the film look like it was shot in one take. The effect was to make the film static and stilted. It was not helped by the performances. Whether by accident or intention, two gay actors played the gay ocuple modeled on Leopold and Loeb. They're competent, but John Dall is so creepy anyone would be on to him and James Stewart is a disaster as their older friend and onetime mentor, Rupert Cadell. We must see some moral ambiguity in the character but Stewart's ability to play dark would come a few years later with Hitchcock's classic, VERTIGO.
I was surprised when I saw that the Almeida Theatre was reviving ROPE. I associate the Almeida with important new work (in 2009, they gave us Adnrew Bovell's wonderful WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, Jez Butterworth's PARLOUR SONG and Neal LaBute's IN A DARK, DARK HOUSE) or starry revivals of classics. ROPE is hardly a classic and the cast is not starry. Because of excellent direction and one outstanding performance, the revival is an artistic success.
The play is loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb case in which two rich Jewish college boys who were lovers killed a boy for fun. The trial (Clarence Darrow was the defense attorney) was a major media event (murder, homosexuality and anti-Semitism). Hamilton sets the play in a posh flat in London. The young men are Oxford undergraduates at the end of their Winter holiday. There are the slightest hints that they may be more than friends -- this production offered no glimpse of physical intimacy between the two. If you have seen the film, you know the young men kill a classmate, stiff his body in a chest in the sitting room, then invite people, including the victim's father, to drinks and a buffet which is served on the chest. Eventually an older friend, poet Rupert Cadell, crippled and embittered by World War I, discovers the boys' crime and brings them to justice.
What director Roger Michell realized was that the central role in ROPE is Rupert Cadell, not the young murderers. From the moment Bertie Carvel, playing Rupert, enters the scene, he is the focus. Carvel plays Rupert as a foppish queen who sees himself as both center of attention and an astute, if superior observer. Knowledge is power for him, but at first knowledge is not connected to any ethical judgment. We see him move from curiosity to moral outrage, from superciliousness to courage. Carvel is a brilliant young actor who has had a great deal of success in London theater (an Olivier for his Leo Franks in PARADE at the Donmar, high praise for his performance in THE PRIDE at the Royal Court). He's a truly daring actor who loses himself in every role he plays. You can't take your eyes off of him in this production.
Roger Michell made other wise directoral choices. ROPE was played straight through without an interval which gave it a sense of taking place in real time and underscored its intensity. It was played in the round which worked very well at the Almeida -- it looked like the theater's natural ocnfiguration. I thought the actors playing the boys were too old and I felt no connection of any kind between them, I admired the detailed, highly entertaining performances of the supporting cast.
ROPE by Patrick Hamilton, directed by Roger Michell. Almeida Theatre. January 2, 2010