Wednesday, 31 March 2010


E.M. Forster's novel MAURICE is, like Isherwood's A SINGLE MAN (recently made into a fine film) a "gay classic." I hate to pigeonhole it like that. Fine books, plays, novels about gay people shouldn't simply be marginalized as gay art and therefore ignored by straight people, but that is often the case. MAURICE may not be as great as some of Forster's other novels, but it is an important work about an ordinary, not very reflective, young Edwardian man who discovers himself at a time when homosexuality was taboo. The Merchant-Ivory team made a fine movie of it in 1987 with James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves. It probably is a bit crazy and perhaps unnecessary to try to turn it into a play, but Roger Parsely and Andy Graham did and it has been having a sellout run at the Above the Stag Theatre, a nice little space over a pub near Victoria Station.
The play is quite faitful to the book. In fact, it probably could have benefitted by some cutting (it's almost three hours long and the seats are quite hard)and focusing on Maurice's two major relationships; the platonic love and eventually painful relationship with aristocrat Clive Durham, and the passionate one with Durham's servant, Alec Scudder. The scenes with Scudder were quite powerful as was the moment when Maurice blames his sister for Clive's conversion to heterosexuality. The production is, perforce, simple. The cast a mixed bag from superb to quite awful. However, Adam Lilley is so good as Maurice Hall that all is forgiven. Lilley is a bit too old for the part and a bit too intelligent, but he convincingly plays Maurice from boyhood through his mid-twenties. Lilley really captures Maurice's anguish, his fear and the power of his conversion when he finally accepts who he is and what he wants. This actor is a real find. Fine performances, too, from Stevie Raine as Alec Scudder and Persia Lawson as Maurice's put-upon sister.
MAURICE, adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham. Directed by Tim McArthur. Above the Stag Theatre. March 21, 2010.


THE NOTEBOOK OF TRIGORIN was the last new play of Tennessee Williams to be produced in his lifetime. It has only received a couple of productions in the US and Canada. I imagine the reason for this is that the play is an adaptation of Chekhov's oft performed THE SEA GULL. Williams has reset the play in the American South. This doesn't do the play any particular damage, but he has made Trigorin, the writer and lover of the egomaniacal actress, Madame Arkadina (why didn't Williams Americanize the names?) the central character and a vehicle for Williams to editorialize on writing and the frustrations of being an artist. Otherwise, the play is a relatively faithful, if coarsened, version of the Chekhov play. It is worth seeing because it is, to some extent, the work of Tennessee Williams -- his version of a play he loved. But it is neither good Williams nor a good version of the original.
The production was at the tiny Finborough Theatre, a major fringe theater above a pub near Earl's Court. I have seen wonderful productions here. This was a first preview, so perhaps things will improve, but my first thought on leaving (at the intervail which I seldom do)was that there had been far too much "acting" going on, particular when the audience is only a couple of feet from the actors. Why is it actors can have such a difficult time playing actors? I thought that this afternoon as I watched Rupert Friend overact as an actor in THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED and thought it even more last night as I watched from a couple of feet away Carolyn Backhouse flounce her way through Arkadina like a demented drag queen. Everyone seemed to be playing caricatures of Chekhov's characters. Konstantin was overly hysterical. Dr. Dorn was overly lecherous. Of course director Phil Wilmott, whose work I have greatly admired in the past, is greatly to blame for letting these folks overact. They were acting like they were in a 2000 seat theatre instead of a small room that barely holds fifty people. It was exhausting watching them.

THE NOTEBOOK OF TRIGORIN by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Phil Wilmott. Finborough Theatre, March 30, 2010.


I saw Douglas Carter Beane's comedy in New York with the wonderful Julie White as Diane, the hungry agent and Johnny Galecki giving a touching performance as the rent boy, Alex. The play is now in London in a different production and with a very different cast ranging from the sublime to the amateur.
The story of THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED is a relatively simple one and fairly close to the truth of Hollywood casting and image making. Diane's major client is Mitchell, an actor who is known for his ideal boy next door looks and charm. She is putting together a major deal for Mitchell to star in a film version of a current hit Broadway play. The play is a gay love story and Diane knows that Hollywood only casts straight actors -- like Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Ewan MacGregor or Jim Carrey -- in gay roles. Unfortunately for Diane, Mitchell is gay, if relatively closeted, or has been relatively closeted until he meets rent boy Alex. Alex has always thought he was straight but "gay for pay" until he meets Mitchell. Diane has to try to keep Mitchell in the closet so she can become the Hollywood player she is hungry to be.
A simple situation made complex and stageworthy for two reasons. Firat, that Beane, through characters' direct address to the audience in riffs that are sometimes hilarious, but often touching, take his play beyond situation comedy. Second, that the characters are three dimensional. Mitchell may be falling in love, but he also wants the adoration of the masses. Alex may be a hustler and damaged goods, but he also has principles, a variation on the whore with the heart of gold.
Tamsin Greig, a terrific comedienne, is as good as Diane as Julie White was, and that's high praise. She captures the heartlessness of the Hollywood player and the insatiable drive for success. Unfortunately the two men aren't good enough. First, they look too much alike, which makes the men seem brothers instead of lovers. Rupert Friend is too young to play Mitchell and works too hard. One never forgets he is acting. Ditto Harry Lloyd as the hustler. He hasno professional stage credits and it shows. Johnny Galecki made him touching. Harry Lloyd just shouts every line the same way. The near capacity audience wasn't laughing much because the actors were working too hard. The men were playing bad sitcom instead of characters. The final scenes should be touching. They weren't. How much should director Jamie Lloyd be blamed? He certainly didn't seem to do more than block the piece.
THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED by Douglas Carter Beane. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Garrick Theatre. March 31, 2010.

Monday, 29 March 2010


I can boast of being one of the very few who saw ANYONE CAN WHISTLE during its extremely brief Broadway run in 1964. The show was too experimental, too absurdist for Broadway at the time (it probably still is). It was Stephen Sondheim's second Broadway score (after A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM) with a book by Arthur Laurents, who had written the books for the two best musicals of the 1950s, GYPSY ad WEST SIDE STORY. The casting for the original production was quite odd. Angela Lansbury had never done a Broadway musical. I don't recall whether she had even been in anything on Broadway. She was better known for playing movie mothers and villains, most notably in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. She was a revelation. Beautiful Lee Remick certainly had never done a musical. She was lovely, but too low key. And leading man Harry Guardino had no business being in a musical.
Over the years, the score of ANYONE CAN WHISTLE has become classic. A cast album was made and musical aficionados know the show mostly from the album. No one in their right mind attempts to revive it.
How to recount the story. The setting is a town in the 1930s. Whatever money the town had has been ransacked by its corrupt mayor and her cronies. The only institution that seems to be thriving is the local mental institution. When the inmates get loose, it is extremely difficult to tell who is crazy and who is sane, particularly when an inmate is pretending to be a psychiatrist. It all doesn't make much sense, but the score is a gem with some of Sondheim's loveliest ballads (the title song and "With So Little To Be Sure Of") and some great, showy numbers for the nasty mayoress.
A London company, Primavera, has been crazy enough to revive ANYONE CAN WHISTLE in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, a basement venue near Piccadilly Circus known for cabaret and small musicals. The stage is postage stamp size, but the inventive group manages to make the show work. The ensemble play the instruments (piano, drums, violin, cello, oboe, trumpet) as well as sing and dance. The set is minimal (no room for much else, the costumes are very low budget. However, the leads are top notch. Issy van Randwyck may not be Angela Lansbury (much less camp) but she sings well and has fun with the part. As the inmate turned psychiatrist and his love interest, David Ricardo-Pearce, the divo of London low budget musicals, and Rosalie Craig are fine, better than the originals.
The show still doesn't make a lot of sense and the director Tom Littler's decision to make it an allegory of fascism made it a bit too serious. Nonetheless, the performance offered fine renditions of the Sondheim songs. The run at the Jermyn Street has sold out. Probably more people have seen it in this sall space than saw it during its Broadway run. Perhaps the show will transfer to a larger venue.

ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Tom Littler. Jermyn Street Theatre, March 27, 2010.

Friday, 26 March 2010


This was a perfect play for the typical National Theatre audience which leans toward the geriatric(including me, of course). Tamsin Oglesby's play tries to tackle the social problems of aging. What does a country do when 1/3 of the population is over 65? Who takes care of the increasing medical expenses? How do family caregivers deal with the burdens of loved ones with debilitating mental or physical ocnditions? Good questions, but Oglesby has jammed together two plays. One is a bittersweet comedy about two aging sisters, one with Alzheimer's, the other with a failing body, being cared for by the daughter of one of them. The other play is a kind of comic science fiction fantasy in which a pharmaceutical corporation has found the answer to the growing elderly population -- give them a pill which briefly makes them feel better, but will shorten their lives. We have a ruthless scientist who finds out that at fifty he has premature Alzheimers and may be a victim of his own system and a clinic that is quickly emptied of patients, thanks to the wonder drug. This second narrative thread never successfully connects with the other, so the play is an amiable mess. Good acting, though, particularly from Judy Parfitt as the woman with Alzheimers. Playing such characters seems to be required of aging actresses these days. I found the program essays more interesting than the play, however.
REALLY OLD, LIKE 45 by Tamsin Oglesby, directed by Anna Mackmin,designed by Lez Brotherson. National Theare Cottesloe Theatre. March 16, 2010.


The Royal National Theatre has been slowly reviving the major works of the Russian novelist-playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) under the masterful direction of veteran director Howard Davies. THE WHITE GUARD was an enormous success as a novel, then as a play in the 1920s. Even Stalin liked it, which is odd since it is a sympathetic presentation of a family of Tsarist supporters during the 1918 Russian revolution. The National presents the play in an effective new translation by Australian playwright-director Andrew Upton (Mr. Cate Blanchett).
The plays shows us an upper middle class Kiev, Ukraine, family living through one military takeover after another, from the Germans to a provisional military government to the Bolsheviks. The domestic scenes, alternating between comedy and pathos, echo Gorky and Chekhov. In addition there are scenes of harrowing violence (more explosions than I have ever heard in the theater).
The production gives us a fine ensemble cast that would make Stanislavski applaud, but the Master could never conceive of the scenic effects. THE WHITE GUARD uses everything the National's Lyttleton Theatre can achieve. Entire rooms move upstage in a kind of cinematic fadeout. Scenes arise from the floor or descend from the wings. None of it seems like gratuitous special effects.
As the British critics like to say -- unmissable.
THE WHITE GUARD by Mikhail Bulkagov, traslated by Adnrew Upton. Directed by Howard Davies. Designed by Bunny Christie. Featuring Pip Carter, Paul Higgins, and Justine Mitchell. March 18, 2010.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


There's an old adage in musical theater -- you can't hum the scenery. Well, the scenery for Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequal to PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is gorgeous (Bob Crowley designs), but the rest of it leaves much to be desired. There are four Lloyd Webber power ballads, built as usual on a repeated phrase that gets louder and louder, sort of like Ravel's Bolero. But the rest of the music is filler. The lyrics -- as usual Lloyd Webber doesn't seem to care what doggerel is sung to his tunes. The orchestrations are lush.
What happens? It's ten years later and the Phantom is an impressario at Coney Island, of all places. He spirits Christine back to sing a concert. The boy with her and Raoul is, it turn's out, the phantom's son. He's blond, which is odd since neither Raoul, Christine nor the Phanton is blond. There's a sinister middle-aged woman lurking about with a blond daughter who performs really awful songs abot romping on the beach. She turns out to be demented, but we don't really know who she is, nor do we care, which poses a problem at the climax.
The cast does its best with this stuff. Summer Strahlen and Joseph Millson -- two fine performers who deserve better than this, play the demented blonde and Raoul. The Phantom and Christine had good voices, but little personality.
But the scenery and special effects -- art nouveau all over the place. Lovely.
But you can't hum the scenery