Wednesday, 21 December 2011


All the critics I have read have interpreted Stephen Karam's lovely play SONS OF THE PROPHET at a play about pain and suffering. To me, it is a play about learning compassion.
Twenty-nine-year-old Lebanese-American Joseph Douiahy, a resident of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, has a lot of problems. At work in a small book-packaging firm, he deals with an eccentric, emotionally needy boss (superbly played by Joanna Gleason). At home he has an eighteen-year-old gay brother who needs some looking after, and a helpless, aged uncle who claims to have moved in to take care of his nephews, but has to be cared for. Joseph used to train to be an Olympic runner, but injuries have destroyed that dream. He is grieving for his father was recently killed as a result of a high-school prank gone wrong. He is also suffering from pains that may be psychosomatic or the sign of a serious illness. But Joseph is so wrapped up in his suffering that he is merciless about the feelings of those around him. He is nasty to his uncle and the handsome young reporter he sleeps with and he ignores the calls from his boss. Finally, at the end of the play, one senses that Joseph is beginning to learn compassion -- that everyone is hurting and deserves some kindness. At the same time, ironically, Joseph ends up benefitting from his nastiness thanks to a YouTube video of a very public meltdown.
My description sounds a bit sappy, but this is not a sappy play. SONS OF THE PROPHET is very funny, but deeply touching at the same time. Karam sees the good and the self-serving in his characters but makes us care for all of them.
The production, directed by Peter Dubois, couldn't be better. I can only join all the critics who have raved about Santino Fontana's performance as Joseph, but the rest of the cast is also excellent. It's just that Fontana gives one of those performances that are truly memorable, totally inhabiting his character. It's the best of many fine performances I saw in the past year in the best new play I saw in 2011.
SONS OF THE PROPHET by Stephen Karam, directed by Peter Dubois. Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre, New York.

BEST OF 2011

It was not a year of great new work in London -- so the majority of my list this year is comprised of revivals. Longer reviews of all these below.
SONS OF THE PROPHET. Review coming.  A play that deserves all the rave reviews it has been receiving. Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre. New York.
EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM by A. Rey Pamatmat. A touching play about a young brother and sister who try to take care of each other without any help from their parents and the brother's young boyfriend who has been thrown out of his home by his homophobic mother. The way the three kids try to forge a family is funny and touching. The performances at Atlanta's Actors Express were a notch below professional, but good enough to show what a fine writer Pamatmat is.
COMPANY. This revival of Sondheim's classic musical at London's Southwark Playhouse, directed by Joe Fredericks with Rupert Young making Bobby a real three-dimensional character was the best performance of this Sondheim classic I have seen.
EMPEROR AND GALILEAN at the Royal National Theatre, London. What a thrill to see a fine production of one of Ibsen's most challenging plays. The condensation of this mammoth work made is fast moving and totally coherent. Jonathan Kent's direction was both grand and intimate. And Andrew Scott gave one of the best performances of the year in the marathon leading role.
LUISE MILLER at the Donmar. I love Schiller's work and was delighted to see this fascinating play superbly acted. Another triumph for director Michael Grandage.
ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NORS at the Royal National Theatre, London. I have always found revivals of Carlo Goldoni's farce, A SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, tedious so was surprised that I (like everyone else) was so delighted by Richard Bean's update, presented almost as a vaudeville show with musical acts between the scenes. Set in the early 1960s, the age of skiffle music, with tacky painted sets, the play took off. The cast (James Corden, Jemima Rooper, et al) are perfect.
LONDON ROAD at the Royal National Theatre. An unconventional but totally absorbing musical.
KINGDOM OF EARTH at the Print Room, London. For the scores of pages I have written on Tennessee Williams, I have tended to write off his work after 1960. This superb production by Lucy Bailey in a small London theatre convinced me that there's a fine, poetic drama here. The poet and the theatrical realist is Williams were often at war. The poet wins out here in this piece of southern Gothic. Bailey's non-realistic production perfectly suited the play.
FOLLIES. Another fine production of the Sondheim classic. Maybe not the best production of the work I have seen, but a production that does justice to this great work. Bernadette Peters is odd casting for Sally, but playing the character as clinically depressed makes great sense. Alas, her voice is now in tatters. That may fit the role, but not the songs. Jan Maxwell is a great Phyllis) but all the Phyllis's I have seen have been great). The men are fine and the supporting divas superb. The production is on a suitably grand scale with the necessary large orchestra.
ANNA NICOLE. Mark Turnage's new opera with a libretto by Richard Thomas (not the actor) and a fine production by Richard Jones is a crowd-pleasing, wonderful night of musical theatre. Get the DVD which is now available!!!


STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS is a highly entertaining, often moving  ninety-minute collection of nine short plays on gay marriage written by eight distinguished writers (Mo Gaffney, Jordan Harrison, Moises Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Wendy MacLeod, Jose Rivera, Paul Rudnick (2), and Doug Wright) performed by a cast of six excellent actors. Doug Wright's "On Facebook" and Paul Rudnick's "The Gay Agenda" (performed hilariously by the incomparable Harriet Harris) are amusing satires on the people who find gay marriage threatening. Jordan Harrison's "The Revision," Wendy MacLeod's "The Flight Tonight," Mo Gaffney's "A Traditional Wedding" and Jose Rivera's lovely, poetic "Pablo and Andrew at the Altar of Words" focus on wedding preparation and ceremonies. Neil LaBute's "Strange Fruit" and Moises Kaufman's "London Mosquitos" (a heartbreaking performance by Richard Thomas) are about the loss of loved ones. "The weakest, though amusing, is Paul Rudnick's Jewish-mother-with-a-gay-son skit, "My Husband," another vehicle for Ms. Harris.
The plays are performed more or less as readings, but the cast is so masterful that one doesn't miss the usual trappings of scenery and costumes. Harriet Harris plays her monster mothers brilliantly. Polly Draper and Beth Leavel make a touching couple. Richard Thomas shows once again that he is one of America's best actors. Craig Bierko and Mark Consuelos are also fine.
Of course, in New York the show is preaching to the choir. The producers are aware that it needs to be seen in places where gay marriage is still an issue.
STANDING ON CEREMONY: THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS. Minetta Lane Theatre. December 18, 2011.


     I love the score for ON A CLEAR DAY. Unfortunately, the original book was a mess, which makes the show impossible to revive. In the wake of books and articles about reincarnation, Alan Jay Lerner tried to create an original musical about a psychiatrist who falls in love with a young woman who channels people from the past. The show, like ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, the Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical of the same period,  simply baffled people despite the wonderful score. Director Michael Mayer, as big a fan of the score as I am, had a dream of finding a way to make the show work. As a result, we have a new, retooled ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER with the best of the original score plus some tunes from the MGM musical ROYAL WEDDING by the same songwriting team plus a new book by Peter Parnell that is marginally better than the original.
     Now we have psychiatrist Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick), who is grieving over the death of his wife,  taking on David, an easily hypnotized gay florist with commitment issues. Mark wants to use hypnosis to cure David of his smoking habit but while hypnotized David channels Melinda (Jessie Mueller), a 1940s band singer. Mark falls in love with Melinda, David thinks Mark is in love with him which complicates his relationship with boyfriend Warren. The trouble with the book is that Melinda isn't really a character we care about and Mark isn't well written. Moreover, the show needs an accomplished singer-actor in the central role, but Harry Connick, Jr. neither acts effectively nor projects any personality as Mark. As a result, the focus is on the relationship of David and Warren, particularly since David Turner and Drew Gehling are far more winning performers than Mr. Connick or Ms. Mueller. Connick sings well enough in his characteristic throaty style, but Turner and Gehling are better at putting over a show tune. The always wonderful Kerry O'Malley is wasted in a supporting role as Mark's colleague.
     The show supposedly takes place in 1974, but the op ed art and mod costumes are from a slightly earlier era. The staging is amateurish. There's a term in opera, "Park and Bark," for productions in which the singers just come down to the footlights and belt out their arias. The staging of this show is the musical equivalent of "Park and Bark." Only David Turner is allowed to throw any physical energy into his numbers. There is an ensemble of six -- small for a show in a barn like the St. James Theatre. In general, I thought the production would have fared better in a smaller theatre like the O'Neill, Walter Kerr or Sondheim than in the St. James.
For all that, I enjoyed looking at the show and hearing the great score well sung. The show reminded me that writing the book for a musical is a real challenge. There have been very few masters of the craft. This one by Peter Parnell justifies the songs, but has little in the way of characterization and no charm or wit. I do hope there's a cast album.
ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER. Conceived and directed by Michael Mayer. Book by Peter Parnell. Score by Burton Lane with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. St. James Theatre, December 19, 2011.

Friday, 12 August 2011

PARADE at the Southwark Playhouse

The most successful production of the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry musical PARADE was at London's Donmar Warehouse. Cut a bit and stripped down to a chamber musical that focused on character, the show was an intense piece of musical theatre. Now the Southwark Playhouse has mounted another small version of PARADE directed by Thom Sutherland and produced by the same folks who presented the brilliant revival of COMPANY at the Southwark last winter.
PARADE is far from a happy musical. It dramatizes the wrongful arrest, exoneration and lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, in Atlanta in 1915. Frank is a hard character to play. He is not an easy man to like -- cold, unhappy, emotionally constipated. He was an easy target for corrupt police and an ambitious DA. Moreover, he was an outsider, a wealthy Northern Jew. Alistair Brookshaw sings well enough, but plays Leo rather monotonously with the same limited facial expressions. He relaxes a bit in the final scenes in which he comes to appreciate his stalwart wife, but he simply isn't a good enough actor to be the centerpiece of this musical, particularly after Bertie Carvel's superb performance at the Donmar. The supporting cast dominate the production. Laura Pitt-Pulford sings marvelously as Leo's wife, though she needs to vary her performance more from the frustrated wife to the courageous fighter to the loving wife. Mark Inscoe is properly oily as the DA and Samuel J. Weir stands out in a number of juvenile leading roles (there is much doubling among the hard-working cast of fifteen).
Like the Menier's ROAD SHOW, the production is on a transverse stage with the audience on two sides. The staging, simple setting and lighting are very effective.
This PARADE is cut some, but the cuts are all to the good -- Brown never knew when to cut an unnecessary number. I would have cut some of "Pretty Music" in Act II and sharpened the entire scene at the Governor's Ball. Even cut, the show runs over 2 1/2 hours. What's left is a well told story of the fatal clash of the old and new south and a beautiful score.
PARADE. Southwark Playhouse. August 11, 2011. 

ANNA CHRISTIE at the Donmar

I'm not the greatest fan of Eugene O'Neill. Even for his time, he was old-fashioned, particularly in his views on women. By the time ANNA Christie was written in 1921, George Bernard Shaw, among others, had deflated the myth of the whore who either had to die or come under men's domination. And Ibsen had shown the ways in which women deserved empowerment in or out of marriage. O'Neill was never much of a thinker and, for all his interest in modernist theatrical technique, always lacked the critical intelligence to be a great playwright.
O'Neill's Anna is a victim of circumstance. Abandoned by her father at an early age and thrown onto a midwestern farm where she was sexually abused as a teenager, Anna sought freedom through prostitution. When we first meet her, she has been very ill (Camille-like consumption?) and has come to reunite with her father. She hates men -- for good reason. Her father is a sentimental old drunk who is delighted to have his good little daugher back. At sea (her father takes her onto his barge) she falls in love with Matt, an Irish sailor who seeks refuge on their barge after a shipwreck. His entrance and meeting with Anna is high romance. The one great scene in the play is the one in which Anna refuses to marry Matt, bitterly confesses about her past and stoically accepts her situation. Unfortunately O'Neill gives us a final act in which father and lover reconcile and Anna decides to keep house for these two sailors who will usually be at sea. Why? As usually with O'Neill the play is repetitive and the dialogue clunky.
     The attraction of this fine production by Rob Ashford, who makes the most of the play's few virtues and manages to mask its deficits, is the starry cast headed by the magnetic Ruth Wilson and Jude Law. They are both brilliant. If Wilson had been a young woman in the 1940s, she would have been a Hollywood film noir star a la Gloria Grahame or Veronica Lake. She has an odd, pouty face and a husky voice On stage or on screen, one cannot take ones eyes off of her. She makes the most of Anna. Jude Law is equally charismatic as Matt, the Irish sailor who falls in love with her, but is horrified at her past. His extrovert physicality is a complement to her simmering intensity. They make the play worth seeing.  
ANNA CHRISTIE, Donmar Warehouse. August 10, 2011.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

ROAD SHOW at the Menier

The long, bumpy history of Stephen Sondheim and John Wiedman's musical, ROAD SHOW, is know to all of us Sondheim devotees. I saw its previous incarnation, BOUNCE, at the Kennedy Center. It was marred by an unimaginative production by Hal Prince who did nothing to give the work focus. ROAD SHOW, a much shortened and improved version, played at the Public Theatre in New York in a simple production by John Doyle. This was a much improved version, stripped of the fat and focusing on the relationship between the brothers. Doyle rightly realized that this was not the musical comedy the creators once intended, but something more serious. In his comments in the program to the current production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, he says the work is the last part of a Sondheim-Weidman trilogy that also includes PACIFIC OVERTURES and ASSASINS. Unfortunately the Public production was saddled by two charmless leads who made the piece too dreary. The current production at the Menier is much the same as the Public production, but now played in a transverse staging with the audience on two sides of the action, giving the work even more intimacy and power. The audience as well as the cast are constantly showered by dollar bills in this version of the American dream gone sour. Now ROAD SHOW has a cast worthy of a work, which I think belongs with the Sondheim's best. Mixed-race David Bedella and blond Michael Jibson are unlikely brothers, but they make a great duo. Bedella's Wilson is the flashy showman he is supposed to be and Jibson is heartbreaking as  his adoring artistic brother, willing to give up the love of his life out of loyalty to his feckless sibling. Bedella and Jibson are supported by a fine ensemble and a great band. This intense chamber musical is a picture of forms of male-male love: the love of two brothers that verges on erotic and Addison's love for his handsome young patron, Hollis Bessemer. Ne'er do well brother  Wilson, who sees life as a game, repeatedly steals what matters most to Addison, but the love is still there. The show is almost entirely sung, and Sondheim's score seems perfect for the subject matter. And, finally, there's the gay romance we all have been waiting for from The Master, even if it is one that is doomed. I plan to see it again.
ROAD SHOW. Menier Chocolate Factory. July 22, 2011       

Sunday, 17 July 2011


I'm sorry for the short capsule reviews, but short on time these days. I had never seen an Arnold Wesker play before, I knew he was a mainstay of the Royal Court in the late 1950s and 60s and that he wrote plays that were realistic and political. I always thought his plays would seem dated now, but this family saga, revived at the Royal Court, was powerful and timely. CHICKEN SOUP WITH BARLEY gives us three decades of a working class Jewish family in London's East End, showing us the idealism of the 1930s when young men wanted to fight in Spain and resist English fascists; the period right after World War II when the Labour Party briefly tried to change England to a more socialist country; and 1956 when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution and the ideals of many leftists. At the center is an indomitable, idealistic wife and mother who believes socialism can bring a loving, harmonious society. Her husband is a wastrel and her children don't live up to her expectations. Her daughter marries and moves to the country to live out a rural ideal. Her son becomes totally disillusioned with politics and may become as inert as his father.
The production offered a textbook example of realistic staging and acting. Everyone was excellent, particularly Samantha Spiro as the mother and Danny Webb as her slacker of a husband.    


I have already discussed the productions of COMEDY OF ERRORS and THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR. The National has revived another classic farce, Carlo Goldoni's THER SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS in a new adaptation by Richard Bean. In this version, we're not in Venice with commedia dell'arte style; we're in Brighton in 1963 with a style part British music hall and part CARRY ON films. A quartet looking like Buddy Holly and friends plays pre-Beatles British rock (skiffle music) before the show and between the scenes, often joined by cast members. The sets look like sets for music hall (vaudeville) sketches. The humor is bawdy and "naughty" like British humor of the fifties and later comics like Benny Hill. At the center is James Corden as the servant. He's a hefty comic, like America's Jackie Gleason or Phil Silvers, but physically agile. He is almost always on stage, but one never tires of him. He has been surrounded by a superb supporting cast who are obviously having a wonderful time. It's hilarious. Director Nicholas Hytner has found the perfect balance between precision and improvisation. It all seems improvised but one knows it isn't.
The production has been so successful that it is moving to the West End. It deserves a long run.


I'm in the midst of teaching the Duke University London Drama programs ad have been seeing so much theatre that I'm way behind reporting on it. So here's a capsule of recent productions of plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries
MACBETH at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
I dreaded seeing another Macbeth, but this Michael Boyd production was actually quite fascinating. First, the surprise beginning -- a bit of the final scene, giving the play a circular structure and making time relative. Then the usual prophesies to Macbeth and Banquo, but no witches; instead we had three children lowered from the ceiling and suspended in front of the two generals. We later discover that these are the children of Macduff that Macbeth has murdered. The army that conquers Macbeth via Birnham Wood is an army of the ghosts of all the people Macbeth has murdered.
The production was effectively staged. This is the first production actually saged for the new theater and Michael Boyd used every resource, particularly strong verticals -- characters were often lowered from above or suspended. A lot of use was made of the  auditorium itself. One really felt part of the production.
Jonathan Slinger is brilliant at using every note in his voice. Seldom have I heeard Shakespeare spoken in such an arresting manner. The rest of the cast were all very good. Not revelatory, but effective enough.
A typical Globe production. Elizabethan dress. The plusses were Eve Best and Charles Edwards as Beatrice and Benedick. Delightful. The rest of the cast was no more than OK. Director Jeremy Herrin staged the play as if the entire audience was directly in front of the actors. However, the audience sits on three sides at the Globe and the 2/3 of us on the sides got side views all night and had trouble hearing all but Edwards. One deserves more for £29.
Things looked much better from the side at Jonathan Dove's production of ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.  Dove knows how to work at the Globe. A runway went from the stage all the way to the far wall of the pit of the Globe, which meant that essentially, this was almost an arena presentation. More important, Dove had interesting ideas about this difficult play about a young woman who loves a man who doesn't love her. In this production, Sam Crane's Bertram is drawn to Helena, but is simply not mature enough for marriage. He is a bit of a spoiled brat, but there is also tenderness toward the girl he is forced to marry. The ending seems less of an abrupt piece of trickery than usual. Janie Dee's Countess was not the usual grande dame, but a still vibrant, sexy woman, just old enough to be the mother of a teenager. The cast was consistently strong. I've never seen an audience so enjoy this play.
Massinger's THE CITY MADAM at the RSC Swan Theatre could have been delightful, but Jo Stone-Fewings played Luke, the central character as if he were the villain in a revenge tragedy. With such joyless, non-comic acting at the center of a comedy, the production fell flat as a pancake.
I dreaded Katie Mitchell's new production of Thomas Heywood's 1603 play, A WOMAN KILLED WITH KINDNESS at the National. Mitchell can be infuriating. There were some of her usual tricks here. The stage was quite dark, as if lit by only the lamps on the set, which meant that one seldom saw actors' faces. Some of the actors' diction was incoherent. However, Mitchell had strong, valid ideas about this play in which women are the pawns of negotiations between men (a wife is seduced by her husband's best friend; a man forces his sister to marry his enemy in order to cancel his debts and broker an end to a feud). For the most part, this was Mitchell in her ultra-realist mode with stylized set changes and scene breaks. Yes, there was the usual running around of supernumeraries, but at least in this production you understood who was running where and why.

Thursday, 30 June 2011


     With the marathon of the Duke in London Drama Programs and theatre daily, I have to shorten my reviews in the summer.
     MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Shakespeare's Globe. Charles Edwards was excellent as Benedick. I had trouble hearing Eve Best. Dogberry was tedious. The rest of the cast was good, but not great. There was one major flaw in the production: it was all played as if everyone were front and center as in a proscenium theatre which meant that the 1/3 of the audience at the sides was ignored all night. A bit alienating. The production, like many at the Globe, didn't have an idea in its head.
     Harold Pinter's BETRAYAL is a play that seems to change with every cast that performs it. In this case. Kristen Scott-Thomas made more out of the often enigmatic EMMA than any other actress I have seen in the part. Ben Miles was very good as Robert, Emma's husband and for me the pivotal character in the work. Here is a man who allows his wife to continue to sleep with his best friend for years. Douglas Henshall as the somewhat clueless lover seemed lost with Pinter's language which didn't seem natural at all as he spoke it. Henshall is Scottish and may not have the same speech rhythms. His speaking seemed too monotone to me. The production was good enough to remind me what a fascinating play this is.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Shakespeare's Globe. June 27, 2011. BETRAYAL. Comedy Theatre, June 28, 2011.


     I found Howard Davies' production of Chekhov's CHERRY ORCHARD at the National to be alternately soporific and infuriating. Draining the play of most of its humor goes against the grain of this play and Chekhov's other work. Seeing the play as a presage of what will follow in Russia belies the play's spirit. Lopahin becomes more angry and nasty than usual, therefore not sympathetic. Pyotr becomes an ardent revolutionary instead of an eternal student preaching the value of work without doing any work. Zoe Wanamaker's Madame Ranevskaya is so concerned with her ailing lover in Paris and her dead son that she is not at all involved in the present. There's lots of sound and fury in the production but Chekhov's round characters seemed very flat.
     Then there's the Olivier problem. The Olivier works for a large-scale play like EMPEROR AND GALILIEAN. This is the second CHERRY ORCHARD I have seen in there and both productions have been swallowed up by the scale of the theatre and the size of that open stage. The theatre seems to slow the play down and drain it of energy.
     The sets were those same fading white walls and multiple windows that seem to recycly through every National Theatre production of a Russian play. It seems to be their "Russian set." I have seen it too often.
THE CHERRY ORCHARD. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. June 28, 2011.    


     For its first London production, Ben Power has trimmed Ibsen's mammoth philosophical closet drama from what would take around ten hours to a concise three and a quarter hours (including intermission). That's a lot of cutting. Power has also added some moments for dramatic coherence. The result may be a very distilled Ibsen, but with Jonathan Kent's dynamic direction and some fine performances, particularly Andrew Scott's in the marathon role of Julian, the result is totally absorbing.
     There are resonances of Hamlet in Julian. His father and mother have been murdered by his uncle, now the Emperor and Julian lives in fear of what the emperor might do to him. Julian is something of an intellectual, more concerned with ideas than with reality. He wants to believe in Christianity, now the official religion of the Roman empire, but can't. He runs to Athens to study philosophy, but the Athens of his time is very different from that of Plato. After his brother's murder he becomes a war hero. Eventually, to survive, he must start a rebellion against the emperor or be killed by him. When he becomes emperor, he becomes a living example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely. He first declares freedom of religion while establishing the pagan gods as the official deities. He then becomes obsessed with Christianity as his adversary. It's either him or Christ. He then decides that he must be god. Julian moves, then, from a weak, vacillating young man to a tyrant. He wants to believe in some divine power, but even his spiritual adviser says that "There's only you."
     Andrew Scott gives a magnificent performance as Julian. capturing his spiritual, intelelctual and moral descent in a bloody world (the Christians are as blood-thirsty as he is. Scott is supported by a cast of fifty. Ian McDiarmid is powerful as his mystical guru, James McArdle and John Heffernan moving as the close friends Julian betrays. Jonathan Kent's staging uses the Olivier's drum revolve effectively. It's a grand, almost operatic production, but the characters shine through.
     This production of EMPEROR AND GALILEAN is a special event, one of the high points of my theatergoing over the past year or so.
EMPEROR AND GALILEAN. National Theatre Olivier Theatre, June 26, 2011.

Saturday, 25 June 2011


     Farce is harder to realize successfully than many think. It needs a consistent style, actors who are adept vocally and physically and who bring some of their own personality to the roles and who fuse into an ensemble (farce is a team sport), tempo and a light touch.
     This week I saw two classic farces back to back. Nicolai Gogol's 1834 classic, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR under Richard Jones's direction at the Young Vic and Shakespeare's COMEDY OF ERRORS performed by Edward Hall's Propellor at the Hampstead. Both were highly enjoyable but COMEDY OF ERRORS was something special -- one of the funniest performances I have seen in a long time.
      THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR is still timely. A bunch of mediocre, corrupt local officials are terrified of the impending visit of a government inspector. They mistakenly think a dissolute young man staying at the hotel is the august personage, so they wine and dine and bribe him. He is more than happy to accept the food and drink, the money, everyone's rapt attention at his outlandish stories about himself, and the attentions of the mayor's wife and daughter. The young man is a loser who is full of grandiose fantasies about himself the townspeople completely accept. The officials are idiots. Like many contemporary directors, Richard Jones plays THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR as a stylized, highly theatrical extravaganza. When the curtain rises, the mayor is having a nightmare. The word "Incognito" flashes all over the set and he is confronted by two large rats. Julian Barratt's mayor is a descendent of John Cleese's hotelier in FAWLTY TOWERS, always on the brink of a hissy fit. His underlings are a bizarre lot. His wife and daughter dress in their bizarre idea of high fashion. Kyle Soller plays the young imposter competently. He just doesn't have much of an individual personality and he works a bit too hard. We shouldn't see the effort in farce. The sets and costumes are purposely and delightfully hideous. The tempo is fast, but GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR is a long play -- too long --some of the first act could have been cut. David Harrower's translation is lively and witty.
     THE COMEDY OF ERRORS in Mexico instead of Ephesus? Why not? The costumes are perhaps nineteen-sixties or out of a terrible thrift shop. The set is covered in graffiti. The cast act and serve as a backup band. If one wants a production of COMEDY OF ERRORS that is character driven or that suggests that there is any emotional weight to the play, this isn't it. Instead we have a raucous vaudeville that is an absolute joy to experience (not for everyone -- some spoilsports left at the interval). I haven't laughed so hard in the theater in years.
     Propellor is an all-male company, so we have grown men as the female characters. In this case, they play up the tacky drag.
     The production is full of wonderful surprises, including an interval charity concert given by the cast in the bar during the interval.
THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR. Young Vic Theatre. June 22, 2011. THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. Hampstead Theatre. June 23, 2011.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

SHE LOVES ME at Chichester Theatre Festival

     SHE LOVES ME is one of the best pre-Sondheim American musicals. It came at a fallow time for Broadway musical comedy. Jerry Herman's overblown HELLO, DOLLY was the reigning hit with its camp heroine and big production numbers. SHE LOVES ME is a small, scale musical with little dancing and not much of a chorus. What it does have is one of the best scores (Jerry Bock) of any American musical, so much music that it filled two lps on the first original cast album. The songs are character driven in the manner we associate with later Sondheim musicals 1963, the year SHE LOVES ME opened, was also the year A FUNNY THING ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM appeared at the Alvin Theare four blocks north. The lyrics by Sheldon Harnick perfectly fit the characters who sing them. Joe Masterhoff's book, an adaptation of the film, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and the Hungarian play on which it is based, is economical (the songs do most of the work) but well-crafted. It's a gem of a show. It wasn't a hit on its first outing despite a starry cast (Barbara Cook, Barbara Baxley, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy) and a lovely production by Hal Prince, one of the first shows he directed as well as produced.
     The characters all work in a Budapest parfumerie before World War II. There is a battling couple who really are in love with each other; a vain, caddish ladies man and his sometime lover, a Hungarian Ado Annie; the owner who realizes his best days are past, an eager young delivery boy and a paragon of common sense. The songs turn these types into characters one cares about.
      Older-time show buffs like me know the original cast album well. It is difficult not to hear Barbara Cook's beautifully sung "Dear Friend" or her almost hysterical discovery of love in "Ice Cream" while watching any production of SHE LOVES ME. Nor can ayone who saw the original forget Jack Cassidy's hilarious ladies man. For those of us who know and love the show, every revival can't help but be compared to the original. There was a Broadway and London revival that was quite good (John Gordon Sinclair and Ruthie Henshall in London).  Now there is this new production at the Chichester Theatre Festival directed by Stephen Mears. Wisely, the festival has put this intimate show in its smaller theatre.
      Mears is an excellent choreographer, but SHE LOVES ME isn't a dance show. In the first act, he seems to want to choreograph the numbers in a way that simply doesn't fit the characters. As a result, moments scream "musical!" when they should be more character-driven. He lets up in the second act (perhaps he ran out of time). The cast is good to very good. The strongest are Steve Elias as the cautious family man, Sipos, and Annette McLaughlin as the illiterate, man hungry Ilona Ritter. They inhabit their characters most fully. The two leads are a mixed bag. Joe McFadden is charming, but too nice. McFadden seems to want the audience to like him at moments he should not be likeable. He has a sweet little singing voice, a size or two too small for the title song, but he tends to "perform" his numbers rather than act them. Perhaps a director with more experience working with actors would have helped him. Dianne Pilkington in the Barbara Cook role suffers from not being Barbara Cook. Her soprano voice is edgy and wobbly at times. She also suffers from lack of direction. I remember that Amalia's song that ends the first act, "Dear Friend" was heartbreaking when Barbara Cook sang it. Here Pinkington's first choice is to make the song comic, then get more serious. The song just didn't have the emotional force it should have had.
      Anthony Ward's black and white sets were beautiful.
      I enjoyed this production because I love the show. However, there's a richer show there than Stephen Mears and his cast presented.
SHE LOVES ME. Minerva Theatre at the Chichester Theatre Festival. June 18, 2011.      

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Director Michael Grandage has made the plays of Friedrich Schiller something of a specialty. his DON CARLO with Derek Jacobi and Richard Coyle was so good that I didn't miss Verdi's magnificent music for his operatic setting of the play. MARY STUART with Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer was riveting. And now his version of Schiller's early play, KABALLE UND LIEBE (Intrigue and Love) has opened at the Donmar as LUISE MILLER. Again, I know this work from Verdi's operatic version, LUISA MILLER, but had never seen the play which, according to the program essay, is the most produced play of this great, great playwright in his native land.
LUISE MILLER is what is termed a "bourgeois tragedy," a genre that became popular in the mid-18th century (Schiller's play was first performed in 1774). These plays center on a middle class family who are threatened and destroyed by the prevailing class system. Louise is the daughter of a musician who gains most of his income from appearances at court. She falls in love with the son of the most powerful man in the region. He loves her in return but his ruthless father wants to marry him off to someone who will confer more power on the family. It does not end well for poor Luise. In the hands of some playwrights of the period, this sort of story is pure pathos. In Schiller's hands, it is a blistering picture of a society in which ruthless despots rule. The only thing of value is power and those who have it simply don't care about anyone else. Schiller is the great 18th century advocate of liberty and even his domestic dramas focus on politics. He also takes a complex view of what could be stock characters. The noble young man is dangerously naive. The villainness is herself exploited and knows it.
Grandage obviously loves these plays and knows how to make them work for a contemporary audience. Schiller's plays are grand -- almost operatic (no wonder Verdi was drawn to them) -- but Grandage finds a balance between the grand emotions and the intimate space of the Donmar. His staging is simple and effecting and the setting is spare -- a necessity on the open stage of he Donmar. The lighting is harsh but effective. Most of all, Grandage knows how to bring out the best in his actors. Alex Kingston (of ER and DR WHO fame) is terrific as the cynical mistress. She has the longest speeches in the play and finds all the emotional changes in them. Ben Daniels and John Light are a great pair as the tyrannical Chancellor and his henchman, aptly named Wurm. The always reliable Paul Higgins makes Luisa's father totally believable -- a nice, somewhat ineffectual man trying to protect his family. I don't think I have ever seen Felicity Jones before, but her Luisa was not just a sweet young thing. She was tough when she needed to be.
There were a few jarring anachronisms in Mike Poulton's translation, but on the whole it was effective.   
This is one of Michael Grandage's last productions as artistic director of the Donmar and one of his best.
LUISE MILLER. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. June 8, 2011.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

THE ACID TEST at the Royal Court

      When you come up the stairs to the Royal Court Upstairs Theatre, an usher tells you to follow the corridor to Flat #11. So you go down a created hallway with flat doors, open the door to 11 and find yourself in a sloppy London apartment. Magazines, glasses, ashtrays are strewed about. You take one of the eighty or so seats ranged in two rows on three sides of this playing area. Doing so, you have entered the world of three twenty-something young women, the world of teenage playwright Anya Reiss's second hit in a year, THE ACID TEST. Reiss writes what she knowes, the world of young women like herself (you can't fault her for that) and she writes about it brilliantly. The language rings true, but it is also witty and polished. The charaters could be like those in a sitcom -- the pretty blonde who sleeps around, the brunette who has a disastrous breakup with her countercultural boyfriend, the serious one with family issues. But, unlike sitcom writing committees, Reiss cares about truth of character. On one rainy night, the serious one brings her father back to the flat. He has left home because his wife is having an affair with their roofing contractor. What transpires is a night of drinking, smoking (tobacco and pot), dancing, and confessing. The middle-aged father tries to become the pals to his daughter's roommates and rather viciously tries to set them against her. The roomates try to deal with their disastrous love lives.      THE ACID TEST is best when it stays funny. The long father-daughter confrontation doesn't ring quite as true as the drunken banter that precedes it. It has received a perfect production. Reiss's plays probably benefit from being in the intimate upstairs theater. Simon Godwin's idea of giving the play an almost environmental presentation was an excellent one. All three girls are totally convincing and Denis Lawson captures all the facets of the father, surprisingly the best written of the characters (Reiss seems to be particularly good with fathers). 
     Once again, the Royal Court has picked a winner.
THE ACID TEST. Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs Theatre. June 4, 2011.  

Saturday, 4 June 2011


     Tarrell Alvin McCraney has shown himself in recent work (WIG OUT, THE BROTHERS SIZE) to be one of the most interesting young American playwrights. He has a unique gift for poetic language and storytelling that allows him to depict aspects of African-American culture from urban drag queens to rural farmers. He is also one of the chief chroniclers of the gay African-American experience. Recently, McCraney has served as playwright-in-residnce to the Royal Shakespeare Company, a position that has taken him away from the African-American culture he knows best. His latest play, AMERICAN TRADE, was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and written particularly for members of the company that has been performing together for almost three years now -- a true repertory company and a change from recent years during which the Royal Shakespeare Company has not really been a company at all. Writing a play for a particular group of actors has its virtues and defects. You can write to the actors' strengths, but it may take you from your subject matter.
     AMERICAN TRADE is certainly a disappointment for us admirers of McCraney's work. It is glib, aiming for laughs rather than any insights into character and situation. It is possible to do both. AMERICAN TRADE, in Jamie Lloyd's overloud production, is neither funny nor insightful.
     Pharus is an African-American rent boy who runs to London to escape the clutches of a hip-hop star who wants to own him. For some reason, a dotty woman who runs a PR agency with her neurotic lesbian daughter wants Pharis to set up a modeling agency for her. Actually, Pharus's plan is for the modeling agency to be a cover for an odd band of male and female prostitutes he has assembled. AMERICAN TRADE is really a farce, but heavy-handed drector Jamie Lloyd doesn't seem to know how to direct farce which depends on bizarre situations being played as if they were completely normal. Farce takes a light touch. It shouldn't be shouted and amplified for a 300 seat theatre like the Hampstead. The play itself isn't much, but I blame Lloyd for the labored production. It was all "faster-louder" and, oddly, no sense of a  consistent acting style from this company that has worked together for years. No one seemed to be acting "with" their fellow actors. And playwright, director and actors seemed to have little concern about developing characters the audience could care about at all. Even in farce, one has to feel some interest in the protagonist.
     This was a really long 90 minutes. I looked at my watch halfwa through and couldn't believe only 45 minutes had passed.
AMERICAN TRADE. Hampstead Theatre. June 3, 2011.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

CLEVELAND STREET at Above the Stag

     The night after I saw the wonderful London Road, I saw another musical based on a nororious scandal with an address as the title. Actually, the title should be 19 Cleveland Street, the address of the notorious male brothel that caused a scandal in the 1880s shortly after more stringent anti-homosexual laws had been passed by Parliament. Former rent boy Charles Hammond knew that male clientele wanted young working-class boys ("rough trade") for their sexual escapades. Hammond found a ready supply through boys who delivered telegrams for the Post Office and wanted the ready cash provided by prostitution. The clientele at 19 Cleveland Street included some highly placed people -- politicians and people highly placed in Queen Victoria's court, perhaps even the queen's grandson, Prince Eddy. In 1889, the police discovered the activities at this respectable looking house and a public scandal ensued. While none of the important clients of the establishment were punished (some fled to France, some were protected by their position), some of the boys were arrested and given short prison sentences. Hammond fled to France.
     This scandal may seem an odd subject for a musical, but for the most part, CLEVELAND STREET manages to be historically accurate and entertaining. The facts are all there and some of the musical numbers are very clever Glenn Chandler, creator of the long-running Scottish detective series TAGGARTand author of other gay plays, has crafted a clever, bawdy script and witty lyrics. For the most part, composer Matt Devereaux has kept the music appropriate to the period. Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs alternates with songs in the style of the English Musica Hall. The songs tend to be commentaries rather than character-driven numbers, much like the songs in some Kander and Ebb musicals. The best of them is "Climbing the Ladder, Passing the Buck" in which performers present a vaudeville version of the passing of the political hot potato the scandal had become from one government office to another. Some numbers, particularly "Poses Plastique," slow down the show's momentum but this is a good musical that with some tweaking could be more than that.     
     Tim McArthur has again worked miracles with the stage of the Above the Stag Theatre (wide but about ten feet deep). The simple set had the stage split between the parlor of the brothel and a small music hall stage. Strongest in the cast was Josh Boyd-Rochford as brother-keeper Charles Hammond and other miscellaneous characters including the police detective who investigates the doings on Cleveland Street Boyd-Rochford has real stage presence and versatility. Joe Shefer plays all the high born customers without much variety. The three telegraph boys are charming, perhaps too charming. They're sweet and vulnerable -- I doubt that was the case with the boys who worked at 19 Cleveland Street. These boys were far too refined. the singing is variable -- ensembles are stronger than solos or duets. The accompaniment was piano, flute and cello -- perfect for the period and the faux elegance of this notorious brothel.
     The enterprise could have more edge, more danger. It's all played as a lark. This is to some extent the fault of the show, but the director also could have given the show a harder edge.
CLEVELAND STREET. Above the Stag Theatre. May 28, 2011

Saturday, 28 May 2011

LONDON ROAD at the National Theatre

     I planned to give LONDON ROAD a miss. The past few new works at the National have not been inspiring and on paper the show did not look promising. This week two friends in show business called me and said I must see it. Luckily I got a return. One could tell by the star-studded audience that there is a lot of talk about this show.
     LONDON ROAD is not a conventional musical. Alecky Blythe, who wrote the book and some of the lyrics, is a devotee of documentary theatre -- work like THE LARAMIE PROJECT and the solo pieces by Anna DeVeare Smith. The playwright records people's conversations, then gives them to actors who listen to the recordings and learn to recreate not only the words but also the speech inflections of the recorded voices. Could this technique work for a musical? Could a composer create some sort of musical number out of verbatim dialogue. It couldn't be a conventional song that takes shaping of words into artificial patterns. The music had to come totally from the speech rhythms. Some opera composers have tried in their work to imitate actual speech - Moussorgsky and Janacek for instance. In fact, I was reminded at times of John Adams's work as I saw and heard London Road. All I can say is that in this instance, thanks to composer - co-lyricist Adam Cork the experiment works.
     LONDON ROAD is the story of a working class neighborhood traumatized by the serial killings of five prostitutes almost on their doorstep by a man who lived on their street. The residents of Londn Road had seen their neighborhood go downhill as prostitutes started working in the neighborhood. The killing brought the residents notoriety (one report calls it a red light district). Their response was to come together as a comunity and improve the neighborhood. Their garden displays and competitions have become famous all over England. These people regained their pride in their street and made it attractive. It's a story of comunity pride.
     There are no solos in LONDON ROAD. Every piece is an ensemble piece for the show is a celebration of community. The music and lyrics perfectly capture the denizens of the neighborhood. The numbers are very different from those in a conventional musical, but are genuinely moving.
     Rufus Norris has staged the work simply and effectively -- his fine work has almost erased the memory of his godawful DON GIOVANNI at the English National Opera last fall. The cast, mostly made up of veteran London musical performers is perfect. The orchestrations and small band excellent.
     LONDON ROAD is a unique work and a lovely one. From its sweet beginning with a stammering host welcoming people to a neighborhood association meeting (the audience is included in the welcome) to the final number in which residents take joy in their floral arrangements, the show totally holds one's rapt attention.
LONDON ROAD. National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. May 27, 2011.    

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

KINGDOM OF EARTH at the Print Room

     KINGDOM OF EARTH is a revision of Tennessee Williams's 1967 Broadway flop, THE SEVEN DESCENTS OF MYRTLE. It is one of those plays often dismissed as a dismal product of Williams's stoned years. This revival under the direction of Lucy Bailey at her new intimate Print Room theatre has received critical raves. I agree with the general view of the critics is that the play may not be one of Williams's best, but that it is well worth reviving. I wonder how much of the success of this revival has to do with the intimacy of the theatre. Plays look and sound different in close-up than they do in long shot -- we take the environment in which we see a play into account when we experience it.
     A few years ago Lucy Bailey directed a highly successful large scale revival of Williams's BABY DOLL. Actually it was a stage version of the screenplay that was adapted from an older one-act play of his. BABY DOLL is Williams in a more comic vein and very much one of his somewhat grotesque Southern gothic works. It is not surprising that Bailey was drawn to KINGDOM OF EARTH, one of Williams's more grotesque works in which bizarre comedy, gothic melodrama and poetry are merged. It's a somewhat mad  work but it has its own logic and some beautiful language.
     Lot has brought his new wife Myrtle home to the family home on the Mississippi delta. They were married on a Memphis version of the fifties television show BRIDE AND GROOM after she had won on another daytime show, QUEEN FOR A DAY. Myrtle is a survivor. Barely educated, she has held a number of jobs including show business. Lot has married her to try to regain his control of the family home he has signed over to his mixed-race half brother, Chicken. Lot, who is dying of tuberculosis takes the notion of Mama's boy to new depths. He is a more benign Norman Bates parading around the house in his mother's clothes while coughing up blood. Chicken is another version of the Tennessee Williams rough trade fantasy, embittered by the treatment he has received because of his racial identity and bastard status and determined to hold on to the house. Myrtle has to decide between her allegiance to her new dying, lying, cross-dressing husband and the chance of survival with the rough, sexy Chicken. No contest. To compound her problems, the Mississippi is about to flood its banks and the floodwaters are headed toward the house.
     Southern Gothic indeed. Williams maintains a fascinating balance here between comic and serious in his approach to his characters. One moment we are laughing at them, the next we are moved by their loneliness, their crude poetry and their fierce desires -- for love and for an idea of home and belonging. Lucy Bailey understands that this is not a realistic play. In the setting (Ruth Sutcliffe), odd pieces of furniture crop up in a giant mound of dirt. The only sign of the Southern gentility Lot so prizes is a small chandelier hanging over one area of the stage. Characters clamber up and down this mound in their various confrontations.
     The acting couldn't be better. Fiona Glascott, a familiar face on British television comedies and dramas, is simply wonderful as the crass, plucky Myrtle, trying to treat the bizarre circumstances as if they were commonplace. Myrtle wants to make the best of every situation from her husband's impotence (or lack if interest in women) to Chicken's menace. David Sturzaker manages to make Chicken a sympathetic human being rather than a caricature. At the end, we see the sensitivity and hurt under the toughness. Moreover, he is sexy and that is crucial to the play. So often actors playing Williams's studs are caricatures of sexiness. Young Joseph Drake has the most thankless role. Lot isn't as well written as Myrtle and Chicken. Unlike them, he doesn't get much of a chance to express himself or gain the audience's sympathy. Drake is wise to emphasize Lot's ruthlessness instead of his weakness. Lot will do anything to wrest control of the house from his half-brother. He is in essence his mother's ghost.
      So this is an excellent performance of a play that turns out to be more interesting than I thought when I read it. KINGDOM OF EARTH is being performed in The Print Room, a new small theatre in the Notting Hill area of London. Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters created the space out of an old warehouse. It's an excellent addition to London's fringe theatres where much of the most interesting theatre is produced at highly affordable ticket prices (around $20).
KINGDOM OF EARTH. The Print Room. May 24, 2011.      

Sunday, 22 May 2011


     I didn't know Jon Fosse's work at all when I went to his I AM THE WIND, translated by the fine British playwright Simon Stephens, at the Young Vic. I went primarily because it is the first production in English by the great French theatre and film director, Patrice Chereau. Fosse is supposed to be the best known and most produced Norwegian playwright since Ibsen. He also writes novels and essays. He clearly knows his Beckett. I AM THE WIND has two nameless characters, THE ONE and THE OTHER. Their halting dialogue is filled with pauses. It seems to be a meditation on depression, despair, life and death. There are various ways to read the dialogue, which has no exposition. The One seems to be chronically depressed, unable to cope with people or to be alone. He takes to sea with The Other and drowns, happily surrendering his identity. The Other recalls his death. Are they two people or are they facets of one personality? Fosse asks that there be no specific representation of setting. It's an absorbing, but arid play, lovely to hear in Stephen's translation. In the first ten minutes, during which The Other asks The One questions, then repeats The One's responses, I thought I was in for a very long seventy minutes. But the play does exert a certain hypnotic spell. In this turbulent day and age, one can wonder at a playwright who seems totally disengaged from society. We're back in the void of Beckett's plays which makes the work seem "literary" rather than engaged. There are more dramatic things to write about.
     Patrice Chereau made the play much more concrete and specific than the text itself offers. First of all, he creates a very thrilling theatrical picture. Once the men set out to sea, the stage area is filled with water and a hydraulic platform emerges which becomes the rocking boat. The circular structure of the play becomes a flashback as The Other recalls his experience with The One. The relationsip between the two men verges on homoerotic. The performance begins with The Other lovingly carrying the limp, shirtless body of The One as he carries his memories. The men touch a great deal. Fosse's arid existential void becomes something of a love story as well as a beautiful theatre piece. It is less ambiguous than Fosse's text, but one accepts that because the result is so absorbing.
      What we get is Fosse's play very much filtered through Chereau's imagination and theatrical genius. This is true of any production, but more so with many celebrated European directors. I think Chereau improved a piece of warmed over Beckett combined with a poetic depiction of depression that isn't all that original. Chereau made Fosse's metaphors visual as well as verbal. Isn't that what theatre is about? The two actors, Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey, were superb. Under Chereau's direction, they made every line seem an emanation of character rather than merely poetic abstractions.
     Some of the critics haven't been very kind to I AM THE WIND, but I found it an absorbing experience thanks more to Chereau and the actors than Fosse.
       Two nights before I went to the new English National Opera production of Benjamin Britten's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM as directed by Christopher Alden. Britten's opera, one of the most musical ravishing of 20th century operas, is a condensation and adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy. It is quite different from Britten's other works in its lightness. Even Albert Herring, his other comedy, has a dark side. Of course there is a dark side to Shakespeare's comedy and for all Britten's emphasis on the lighter aspects of the play in his libretto, the music is often dark, sinuous and a bit scary. Christopher Alden has imposed his own narrative onto Britten's opera. The setting is not an enchanted wood, but the front of a dark, imposing boy's school. Before the music begins, a troubled young man enters the scene. There are hints that he is the grown up Puck as well, we discover, as Theseus, haunted on the eve of his marriage by memories of his adolescent sexual confusion. Oberon is not a fairy king but a bespectacled, chain-smoking pedophilic teacher. His queen, Titania, is a spinster music teacher. Puck is upset and jealous that Oberon has turned his affections elsewhere -- toward the changeling boy. The fairies, written by Britten to be sung by a boy choir are now the schoolboys who are like something out of Children of the Damned. Everything is taken quite seriously. Even Bottom's transformation from school janitor to beast becomes a vision of libido frighteningly out of control. Given Britten's own attraction to boys and his recurring theme of lost or threatened childhood innocence, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM becomes more in tune with other Britten works.
     Alden has done what many European opera directors do -- he has imposed a meta-narrative onto a familiar story to offer a different point of view toward a work. It was intelligent and, ultimately convincing. It is not the only approach I would like to see toward a work I love and admire, but it was fascinating in its dark, hypnotic way. Musically, the performance could not be faulted. Leo Hussain's conducting and the orchestral playing were gorgeous and the singing was all fine as was the acting of the principals. Everyone threw themselves into Alden's approach.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. English National Opera. May 19, 2011.
I AM THE WIND. Young Vic Theatre. May 21, 2011.          

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


     "What is most astonishing", to use an oft-repeated phrase in Edward Albee's A DELICATE BALANCE, is that the playwright wrote this brilliant work when he was in his mid thirties. This is astonishing because, at this point in my life, I think A DELICATE BALANCE is one of the greatest plays about aging I have ever encountered, topped only by KING LEAR. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Cleopatra, Albee's play shows that age can wither and custom certainly can stale. We watch a group of characters who have allowed themselves to become very small. They live within a routine of visits to their club, golf, shopping and sniping over drinks. Agnes and Tobias live in a large, beautiful house tended by unseen servants. Agnes is intent on keeping her house in order, which means family members are to behave as she wants them to behave. Her husband Tobias is pleasant but ineffectual. Agnes's oft drunk sister Claire rebels against Agnes's iron rule, but also seems to have the clearest understanding of what is going on in this lavish house. The play takes place over a weekend. Old friends Harry and Edna show up and plan to move in because they became terrified in their own home. What scared them was a sense of nothingness, of the void their lives have become. Tobias and Agnes's daughter shows up after the breakup of her fourth marriage and wants to move back home. What are family obligations? What are the obligations of friendship? What duty do you have toward family and friends when you realize you dont' love them? Albee wants us to see his characters not only as individuals, but also a representative of traits in American society which he sees as lacking in the values and feelings necessity for a real human community on any level.
     A DELICATE BALANCE is a beautifully written play, touching on poetry at times. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot's THE COCKTAIL PARTY and FAMILY REUNION in which characters come to realize the emptiness of their lives and in which domestic realism is combined with a kind of spiritual allegory. Eliot, however, saw an alternative to the dullness of earthly endeavor. Albee only sees nothingness. There is a fascinating tension between the trappings of domestic realism and the near-allegory of the play's action. The language moves toward poetry. Often character speak in long monologues rather than brisk dialogue as a reflection of their solipsism. The structure could not be clearer. It' a long play -- almost three hours -- but a riveting one.
     The revival at the Almeida, directed by James MacDonald, couldn't be better. MacDonald has instructed his actors to play down the more operatic dimensions of the play -- the long narratives the characters spin, the slapstick. There's a sense of stasis that is most appropriate to the script.The wonderful Penelope Wilton, one of England's greatest actresses, plays Agnes not as an imperious woman, but as one who, though exhausted, will try to make sure the ship stays afloat. Agnes can seem domineering and cruel, but Wilton makes her deeply sympathetic. She has endured great disappointment. Tim Piggott-Smith's Tobias is convincingly ineffectual, though there are flashes of outrage. Above all, he doesn't want any conflict. Imelda Staunton makes more of a character out of dypsomaniac Claire than anyone I have seen. She has her showy moments, but is mostly sadly reflective. Lucy Cohu plays returning daughter Julia. Her regression to an hysterical adolescent when she can't regain her old place in the family is extremely convincing. Eveyone else is praiseworthy.
     A DELICATE BALANCE is a profoundly sad play about diminished people whose lives, such as they were, lie behind them. They will go on, but they won't change. This fine production shows that it is one of the most powerful American plays of the last century.
A DELICATE BALANCE. Almeida Theatre. May 16, 2011.      

Thursday, 28 April 2011

THE KNOT OF THE HEART at the Almeida

     After a rather dire domestic drama at the National, I was delighted to see a family saga that really rings true in terms of the complexity of family relationships. When David Eldridge's THE KNOT OF THE HEART began -- with thirty-something ex children's television presenter Lucy smoking heroin while her mother watched, wineglass in hand -- I thought, uh oh, we're in for a predictable slide down into the gutter and death for our heroine. We pretty much get that --wthout the death (just almost) -- in the first hour. But the play is really about the relationships of two sisters with each other and with their mother. Lucy has been infantilized by her needy, doting mother. Sister Angela is a tough, bitter lawyer who resents the mother's preference for weak Lucy. This could be formulaic, but Eldridge understands that such relationships aren't that simple. The mother is great at evading hard questions and at manipulating Lucy who shares her mother's flaws. There are no simple answers here. Lucy's recovery is not easy or complete. The sisters come to a reconciliation, but only after moments of real cruelty. Lucy has to get away from her mother, but she must also forgive her.
     Eldridge has created fascinating, three-dimensional characters and his dialogue is vibrant. He also has a terrific cast. Lisa Dillon and Margot Leicester really bring Lucy and her  powerful mother to life. There is one moment toward the end when Lucy ad her mother keep repeating "I love you." That phrase takes on a different meaning with each repetition. Abigail Cruttenden makes sister Angela's bitterness three-dimensional. Kieran Bew plays all the male roles: Lucy's druggie boyfriend, her brutal dealer, a tough gay nurse, an inexperienced shrink and Angela's boyfriend. As usual, Michael Attenborough has staged the play deftly and helped his actors shape convincing characters. The revolving set by Peter McIntosh is simple but effective.
     THE KNOT OF THE HEART is longish, but always absorbing.
THE KNOT OF THE HEART. Almeida Theatre. April 27, 2011.   

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

THE HOLY ROSENBERGS at the National Theatre

     Who picks the new plays that are produced a the National Theatre? For the most part, they're not very good. The folks at the Royal Court and the Bush seem to have better taste. Like the recent disaster, GREENLAND, THE HOLY ROSENBERGS is a demonstration of the problems of writing a didactic play. This play, by Ryan Craig, is an old fashioned piece of domestic realism, but Craig needs to reread his Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and his countryman, Arnold Wesker to see that such plays depend on character portrayal and relationships. He might also reread his Shaw to see how to write dramatically interesting argument about wider issues. Then there's the issue of language. Craig's character don't talk like family members. There is none of the code, the shorthand, that family members use, particularly when repeating old grievances. Craig's characters talk like characters in a poorly written play. The exposition is clunky and there is too much repetition. And no sense of humor at all, but less poetry in the dialogue (compare, again, with Odets or Wesker).
     David Rosenberg is a Kosher caterer whose business has gone bust after accusations that his food poisoned a woman. He is trying to make ends meet by driving a minicab three nights a week. He has three children -- one son, a Captain in the Isreali Air Force, just died on a bombing raid over Gaza; the daughter is a human rights lawyer -- you guessed it!-- working on a report on human rights violations in Gaza; the younger son is a wastrel who resents his fathers love of the older brother. Schematic enough for you? It is the eve of the older son's funeral and the Jewish community is up in arms that the anti-Zionist traitor of a daughter might come to the funeral. The head of the human rights investigation just happens to show up when the chairman of the synagogue is there so we can have a lengthy argument on the Gaza situation -- non-characters uttering potted speeches like a bad edition of BBCs Newsnight or PBS's nightly news show. And, of course, we get revelations. The son who died had testified before the human rights commission. He had also called the father before he died to express his terror and the father told him to soldier on. Younger son goes ballistic and takes a hatchet to the columns in front of the house (symbolic enough for you?). There's a glimmer of family reconciliation in the last minute or so.
     Arthur Miller did the deluded patriarch well over half a century ago. Ryan Craig offers a clunky imitation.
     Laurie Sansom has given the play an ultra realistic production that only emphasizes its artificiality. It is performed in the round with the audience looking down on the living room and dining room of the Rosenberg home. The cast does its best with the leaden dialogue.
     With Odets' ROCKET TO THE MOON playing next door and a revival of Wesker's CHICKEN SOUP WITH BARLEY coming to the Royal Court, audience members will be painfully aware that THE HOLY ROSENBERGS is a wan imitation of what the these earlier masters did better.
THE HOLY ROSENBERGS. National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. April 25, 2011.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

MOONLIGHT - Donmar Warehouse

MOONLIGHT is relatively later Pinter and at moments it seemed like a Pinter's Greatest Hits compilation. Lots of remembrances of things past. A relatively silent woman with sexual secrets. A dying old man remembering his lost sex life. The reappearance of a mistress. Confessions of adultery. Two brothers one-upping each other with odd verbal improvisations. Flights of poetry. However, Pinter's Greatest Hits are better than most playwrightis and, in the hands of fine actors and a director who understands the play, this production of MOONLIGHT was fascinating.
What we have here is an odd family saga, framed by poetic solilquies from the daughter who committed suicide some time before the play begins. An old man is on his deathbed His wife sits by the bed embroidering, listening to her husband's memories, fantasies and insults, sometimes adding her own commentary. Their two sons are in a shabby flat playing odd word games with each other in an attempt to stave off their feelings of ambivalence and guilt about their father. Nonetheless, those feelings sometimes rise to the surface, usually in moments of silence. One son seems deathly ill; the other collapses occasionally. The father's mistress and the mother's lover apppear -- in reality or in the characters' imaginations? Reality and imagination are blurred in MOONLIGHT, as are past and present.  None of the characters lives in the present: they are either mired in memory or frantically busy avoiding thinking about present reality. The most emotionally powerful moments are often moments of silence.
One couldn't ask for a better cast than the one the Donmar has assembled. David Bradley shows once again that he is the best of England's older character actors. For years he played comic roles for the RSC. I'd love to see him take on KING LEAR. He knows how to make his character fascinating without making him likeable. Deborah Findlay was, as always, spot on. The most important aspect of her role in in her non-verbal reactions and one could read her character's mind.As the sons, Daniel Mays, one of England's best thirty-something character actors, and Liam Garrigan were able to intimate the emotions they were frantically busy hiding.
After pulling every possible theatrical trick to turn the sows ear that is GREENLAND into a silk purse at the National, it was good to be reassured that, given a good script, Beijan Shebani has a gift for creating an effective ensemble even out of star players like these.
One can quibble about paying full prices for a 75 minute play, but with such luxury casting and a powerful script, the cost is more than justified.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


     I must admit to knowing virtually nothing about Latvia other than it was part of the Soviet Union so for me Aleksey Scherbak's REMEMBRANCE DAY was something of a history lesson. According to Scherbak's play, Latvia, like many former Soviet satellites is split, in this case between "Latvians" who supported the Nazis during World War II to stave off Stalinist aggression, and "Russians" who either came into the country with the Soviets or are the descendants of those who did. They speak Russian and watch a Russian language television channel. Since the end of the Soviet era, they also are definitely second-class citizens. Scherbak dramatizes the split in Latvia through one Russian family around Remembrance Day which celebrates the Nazi war heroes. The father is an architect who is considered a traitor by his fellow Russians because he speaks publicly about the need for reconciliation. The son just wants to learn English and move to America to get rich. The daughter becomes something of a radical fanatic, espousing violence against the Latvians. She hates her father's sentimentality and the cynical pragmatism of the young political activists. The harsh sectarianism of the old men who lived through World War II is not as harsh as it first seems.
      There are a few holes in the play's politics. No one mentions the Nazi's slaughter of the Jews. The characters are not all as fully drawn as they might be-- at times more representatives of points of view than characters. However this production of REMEMBRANCE DAY was gripping greatly because of superb direction (Michael Longhurst) and a fine cast. This was one of the best directed plays I have seen in a long time. On a very basic unit set, Longhurst kept the action moving by keeping characters from one scene on stage as the next scene played out. The cast was comprised of actors familiar from British television, but who are also accomplished stage actors. Petite Ruby Bentall (the dizzy maid on LARK RISE TO CANDLEFORD) captures the teenage girl's increasing fanatacism effectively. The old partisans (Sam Kelly, Ewan Hooper and Struan Rodger) were particularly good. They can bury the hatchet -- it's the teenage daughter who wants a violent solution.
 REMEMBRANCE DAY by Aleksey Scherbak, translated by Rory Mullarkey. Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. April 15, 2011.           

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


     I remember vividly Stephen Frear's film of Hanif Kureishi's MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE. It was a lovely, subtle picture of class and race in Thatcher-era London with a complex gay romance thrown in. There's no good reason to turn this fine film into a play and Roger Parsely and Andy Graham's adaptation for the tiny stage of the Above the Stag Theatre has plusses and minuses.
     If you don't remember, the central character of MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE is a 17 year old mixed-race boy, Omar. Omar's father is a Pakistani-born intellectual. In his home country, he was a distinguished journalist and friend of the president. In London he is an unemployed, disillusioned drunk. His English wife couldn't stand the negativity anymore and committed suicide. Omar's father wants his son to be like him -- a well educated intellectual, but he isn't much of a role model. Instead, Omar wants to be like his uncle and cousins -- well-off through the profits from legitimate and not-so-legitimate businesses. His uncle starts him washing cars in his garage but within a few days gives him a failing laundrette to run. His cousin has him working part-time as a courier in his drug business. Like his uncle and cousin, Omar is fiercely ambitious and sees himself as superior to the lazy working-class whites who hate the Pakistanis. One of those lazy white racists is Johnny, Omar's childhood friend who briefly joined the racist, fascist National Front. Johnny is homeless and unemployed until Omar hires him to help with his laundrette. Omar and Johnny becomes lovers, but their relationsip is a fraught one because, however much they are attracted to one another, racial resentments aren't far below the surface. There are other characters: the uncle's white mistress and his daughter, Tania, who isn't allowed to be part of the family enterprises because she is female. The family hopes Omar will marry Tania, but she knows where Omar's affections lie. She even tries unsuccessfully to steal Johnny.
     The dramatization has only the six main characters. Gone are the other women in the film: Uncle Nassir's wife who places a successful curse on his mistress and cousin Nassir's chic wife. We also lose Johnny's fascist friends who try to destroy his and Omar's business.There are some clunky expository passages and soliloquies. The racial  attitudes of the Pakistani's are a bit clearer than in the screenplay, but some of the ironies are lost. In the film, it is clear that Uncle Nassir knows about the romance of Omar and Johnny and can accept it. Johnny in the play is subjected to so much virulent racism and homophobia from cousin Salim that I thought he must be a masochist to stay with Omar and his family. Salim is a bit too nastily racist and homophobic in this version.
     Nonetheless, this version of MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE is cleverly staged (Tim McArthur) and well acted. I believed James Wallwork's Johnny more than Daniel Day-Lewis's in the film. Wallwork is a burly guy. You believe he was once a thug and that Nassir would hire him to be a menacing presence on one of his properties. Day Lewis was too refined and intelligent: he seemed to be a sophisticate posing as a homeless working class kid. What I didn't believe is that cousin Salim could beat up Johnny so easily. Wallwork looks like he could easily win that fight -- or are we to believe Johnny chooses not to fight back? Yannick Fernandes captures Omar's drive and his anger. The sexual chemistry between Wallwork and Fernandes is sporadic, too often like two straight actors not totally comfortable with the snogging. The rest of the cast was fine.
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE has been another hit for the Above the Stag Theatre. I was interested to see that this theatre over a gay pub that basically does gay-oriented plays attracts straight as well as gay audience members. I had a feeling many who were there didn't know the film and were enjoying discovering these fascinating characters for the first time.   
MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE. Above the Stage Theatre. April 12, 2011

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


     The years before World War I were one of the most fertile periods in English theatre. G.B. Shaw, Harley Granville-Barker, John Galsworthy, J.M. Barrie, Somerset Maugham were at their creative peak and older writers like Arthur Wing Pinero were still writing good plays. All these men were based in London, but there were also a group of playwrights in Manchester, one of whom was Allan Monkhouse, a prolific novelist as well as writer for the theatre. His MARY BROOME (1911) was the most recent of a fine series of revivals of Victorian and Edwardian plays at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. This little theatre-in-the-round has the knack for honest, nuanced presentations of these works.
    MARY BROOME is a servant in the prosperous bourgeoise household of Edward Timbrell, one of the pompous, successful men who were one of the favorite targets of comedies of the period. Edward has two sons, who could not be more different from one another. Edgar is a carbon copy of his father, about to embark on the usual sort of respectable marriage for a man like him. His brother Leonard is, as he admits, a bounder. He claims to be a writer, but is not very good at it. Basically his only talents are spending other people's money and dominating conversations. He despises middle class morality and narrow-mindedness, but is himself unprincipled and self-indulgent and dependent on the money his conventional, respectable relatives earn. He is also a born performer, dominating every conversation with comments designed to infuriate his father and shock other members of the family. He has managed to get poor Mary Broome pregnant. She is a sweet, simple uneducated girl with a strong sense of morality. She knows she has done something wrong, but is most concerned about the welfare of her child. When Leonard's father says that either he will marry Mary or be cut off without a cent, the two embark on what will inevitably be a disastrous marriage of convenience for both of them. Leonard dashes off to parts unknown, leaving Mary to deal with the death of her beloved son and penury -- one insult too many has caused Leonard's father to cut off his allowance. At the end, Mary goes off to Canada with a young milkman who will be a good husband and Leonard is left alone but unrepentant.
     All this doesn't seem the stuff of comedy, but Monkhouse treats his potentially melodramatic material with a deft, light touch. For the most part, the characters are articulate and witty or, if narrow minded, the barbs of other characters' wit. Mary seems a melodramtic character in the midst of a comedy of manners. She doesn't understand much of what her husband says, but comes to understand his fecklessness. She is willing to defy conventional morality to get what she needs for herself, though in many ways she is the most ethical character. Like many playwrights of the period, Monkhouse is sorting through the conventional morality of an earlier era to see what still pertains for his age.  Like many of his peers, he sees women as more insightful and practical than the men they must economically depend on.
     The Orange Tree revival of MARY BROOME is a big hit for this suburban venue. Even on a Monday night it was sold out with full standing room. Veteran Auriol Smith has directed the play deftly. One of the virtues of seeing these plays in an intimate theatre is that the dialogue can be presented realistically at almost conversational level, and it is amazing how good these plays "sound", what masters of dialogue the writers of the period were. The cast was uniformly good, but special praise must be accorded to Jack Farthing who managed to make Leonard someone we enjoyed watching despite the fact that the character is a nasty piece of business. Farthing's Leonard relishes his performance as a hopeless reprobate as he knows it is a performance with nothing much underneath it.
     A delightful evening of theatre.
MARY BROOME. Orange Tree Theatre. April 11, 2011. 

Saturday, 9 April 2011


I remember being intrigued and baffled by the film, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. My vocabulary for film musicals was based on MGM's wonderful product, so I wasn't prepared for a little through-sung French musical in which almost the entire score was recitative sung-spoken by untrained singers including the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve. The French have an approach to film musicals that is both more naturalistic and more mannered than the US approach. Have you seen the absolutely brilliant recent French musical LOVE SONGS? If not, rent or buy it immediately. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG was an acquired taste but one I easily acquired. Perhaps being an opera fan helped. The scoring was beautiful in an early 1960s jazzy way and the very colorful film looked ravishing. French filmmakers use color in very expressive ways.
The current stage version of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG has not been enthusiastically received here. Critics complain about the Michelle LeGrand score which only proves what Stephen Sondheim has written -- that theatre critics know nothing about music. It's a sublte, very sophisticated score, but subtlety and sophistication aren't what theatre critics or West End audiences know how to react to. The story is also unsentimental. A young couple falls in love. She gets pregnant. He goes off to war. She marries a rich man who loves her and can support her and her child. The boy returns and, after a brief, self-destructive period, he falls in love with the nurse to his elderly, sick aunt. He marries the nurse and inherits his aunt's estate. Years later, there is a brief reunion of the young lovers, now married and with children, but they have moved on. No grand sentimental reunion. No tragedy. Live goes on. It's a story of simple, decent people who are survivors.
     Basically the show gives us the entire film score, plus new material for an invented character called La Maitresse played by cabaret performer Meow Meow. She begins each act as a kind of audience warm up. It isn't necessary but it does establish a tone of informality. Without it, folks who don't know the film may be more baffled. Legrand has also written a torch song for her to separate the second and third "acts" of the story -- the only song sung in French. Veteran lyricist Sheldon Harnick has provided a serviceable translation of the rest of the score. He wisely kept the translation faithful to the original, that is, sounding like sung dialogue rather than conventional rhyming lyrics.  It was wise to pick the lyricist of the most sophisticated non-Sondheim musical (the classic SHE LOVES ME. If you don't know that show, get the original cast album with Barbara Cook, or hightail it to Chichester where it is about to be revived) to provide the English version.
     I thought THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG worked brilliantly as a stage musical, thanks in part to a wonderful little orchestra and Emma Rice's lovely, inventive staging and choreography that provided a theatrical equivalent to the artifice of the film. The cast was perfect. Other than Meow Meow and veteran Joanna Riding as the girl's mother, it was a cast of young unknown singing actors who were perfect for their roles. No one belted a la GLEE as that would have been totally inappropriate to the delicate score. There were touches of artifice -- The elderly aunt was played by a man. It isn't played as a joke. The simple sets, moved by cast members, were witty and effective.
     The theatre was far from full on a Friday night (poor reviews and some bad word of mouth), but the audience who were there clearly totally enjoyed the experience. My partner and I thought it was delightful. It was certainly the best "new" musical I have seen in London or New York in years. Go figure.   
THE UMBRELLA OF CHERBOURG. Gielgud Theatre. April 8, 2011.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

WASTWATER at the Royal Court

     I am a great admirer of Simon Stephens' work, but was a bit let down by this trilogy of one-acts set around Heathrow Airport. Inept direction (Katie Mitchell) was a great deal of the problem, but WASTWATER seems less developed than Stephens' other work. "We're all connected," says the sociopath in the final play. There are some connections between the characters in the three plays, but they are unconvincing plot points, not connections that orm the works or their characters. The play is typical of Stephens's work in its eerie move toward violence.
     "Do you believe in good people and bad people," one character asks, and the play progresses from the good (a doting foster mother) to the bad (an unremittingly nasty woman who traffics in children). The plays are linked by tears, though characters don't always know why they are crying. Each scene ends with characters moving toward an embrace. In the first play, set in a run-down house in a village near Heathrow, a middle-aged woman bids farewell to one of her favorite foster children, a young man who is leaving for Canada. The second play takes place in an airport hotel. Two people, both married, are about to go to bed together. She wants to be slapped: he has never hurt anybody. The slaps are the only physical connection we see in their encounter. Finally, we are in an abandoned warehouse. A female psycopath interrogates a decent married man. She works for an organization that sells third world children to couples who have found it difficult to adopt legally. He endures her humiliating questioning because he really wants a child. So WASTWATER moves from a tender scene to scenes of increasing creepiness, ending with an awkward meeting between a man and the daughter he has just purchased. Stephens is a superb writer and there were dramatically powerful moments here, but not the sense of inexorable movement toward and away from a catastrophe one finds in his best work. These are relatively static works.
     Watching this preview of WASTWATER was an odd experience. The young Royal Court audience wanted to laugh at moments in the play that really weren't funny. Other moments cried out for more mordantly humorous presentation. Director Katie Mitchell, whose work is always humorless even when humor is called for, created a typically emotionally arid production. The final play, which reminded me of some of Harold Pinter's work, an interrogation fulled with bizarre, irrelevant questions that should have been somewhat humorous, was relentlessly nasty (some in the audience left). WASTWATER gave us Mitchell in her hyper realistic mode, as opposed to Mitchell wrapping the furniture in plastic or Mitchell's "Let's Make a Video" mode. At least it wasn't Mitchell in her "let's light the stage with one candle" mode. Nonetheless, her choices were characteristically odd. In the first thirty-minute play, Mitchell had the two characters remain motionless in a doorway for the entire play which gets frustrating to watch on a stage. During the second play in the hotel room, the characters rarely stopped pacing which seemed more appropriate if a bit hectic. At the end of the evening, after what should have been the final curtain of a very intense scene, Mitchell had the curtain rise again and made the audience look at the empty warehouse set for two minutes. Why other than to leave her audience baffled, not with the play but with her choice? It certainly let the air out of what went before. She really is an irritating director. Mitchell is supposedly beloved in Germany where they love bizarre theatre that explodes narrative logic. I'm not a total conservative viv-a-vis theatrical presentation, but after watching her work for twenty years, I just don't think Katie Mitchell is very good at what she does. Obviously not everyone here agrees with me -- she continues to get work.
     There were some excellent performances, one in each play. Linda Bassett was as always radiant as the foster mother, but she was saddled with an amateurish scene partner. Paul Ready was pitch perfect in the second play as the man who discovers the pleasure of violence, and Angus Wright played the decent, desperate man convincingly in the third play. I didn't think Jo McInnes, Ready's scene partner, or Amanda Hale as the nasty child seller fully inhabited their parts yet.
WASTWATER. Royal Court Theatre. April 1, 2011.

Friday, 1 April 2011


          BETTY BLUE EYES the new musical about to open on the West End (I saw it halfway thrugh its run of previews) is an adaptation of the film A PRIVATE FUNCTION, a sendup of small town life in Britain in the austere late 1940s. It is an old fashioned book musical comedy, the sort of thing that was once the dominant genre on Broadway and on the West End. Unfortunately, the tendency is to judge such an effort not in relation to contemporary musicals, but in comparison with classic musical comedies of the past. The book is probably stronger, the production values higher, the cast at least as good. So why wasn't I totally sold on it?
       Since most London musicals are imports from the US or planned as future exports to the US, one seldom sees a musical that actually takes place in England. The success of BILLY ELLIOTT may have inspired producer Cameron Mackintosh, the man responsible for those nineteen-eighties megamusical exports, to come out of semi-retirement and mount this show. Mackintosh was co-producer of MARY POPPINS another "English" musical which failed in London but has been a successful export.
         If you don't know the movie, A PRIVATE FUNCTION is about the theft of a pig meant to feed the guests at a local dinner party in honor of the wedding of Elizabeth and Philip. There are corrupt city officials, snobbish wives and an obsessed meat inspector.
         The plusses of this show. First and foremost, the fine Richard Eyre production is built on performers with personalities. Mackintosh and Eyre have allowed a cast of excellent character actors who are delightful to watch to do what they do best. Reece Shearsmith and Sarah Lancashire are charming as the meek chiropodist and housewife who wants to be part of local society. They are ably supported by a group of veteran actors one is used to seeing at the National Theatre. Adrian Scarborough and David Bamber stand out as the mad meat inspector and tyrranical first citizen of the town. On the whole, it's a fine cast that coheres as an ensemble with the exception of Ann Emery who plays Shearsmith's dotty mother-in-law. I hope Eyre manages to tone down her amateurish mugging and divaish obliviousness of her fellow actors.
     Ron Cowen and Daniel Lippman's book is both faithful to the story and spirit of the film and stageworthy. The material is funny and everything about the production is lovely to watch.
         Composer-lyricists George Stiles and Anthony Drewe know how to create musical numbers that fit the characters, situation and period, a stark contrast to the wash of musical goo Andrew Lloyd Webber pours over his poperettas. I was also impressed with how every song seemed to come naturally out of the story, a tribute to them and to the book writers. BETTY BLUE EYES is almost a textbook example for aspiring writers of traditional musical comedy. However, and this is a big however, great musical comedies of the past were also written to showcase great, memorable songs, in the style we now refer to as "the American songbook." The American songbook is a thing of the past. It was also American, so perhaps the standard I set for a score like this is totally unrealistic. This score is sort of Noel Cowardy -- light, pleasant but never heartfelt. And never really breaking into melody as if that would just be too sentimental. My partner said, "Those weren't songs, they were jingles."  Their lyrics are a cut above most lyrics these days (compared to the lyrics of LOVE NEVER DIES they are masterpieces) though I could anticipate the rhyme every time. There were no surprises, as there are with really great lyricists (all but one of whom are dead, I know, so weren't available). I wouldn't rush out and buy the cast album. I kept thinking, "Where is Frank Loesser when you need him." I know, he's American and dead. Who is around to do a better job with this show now? Probably no one.
         I enjoyed BETTY BLUE EYES, though I never totally surrendered to it as one must to really appreciate a musical. I am willing to admit that the problem may be mine. Perhaps I want the show to be something that it is not and, though I am an Anglophile, I wanted an old-fashioned song-filled American musical comedy and the show's Britishness distanced me somewhat. I must say that the packed house roared its approval at the end. Oh, yes, the animatronic pig is very funny.
BETTY BLUE EYES. Novello Theatre. March 31, 2011.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011


     This is the second revival of a Clifford Odets play this season (THE COUNTRY GIRL was revived successfully on the West End -- see below). I have always considered Odets an underrated playwright. At his best, he is the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and far superior to the clunky, over-rated Eugene O'Neill. His territory was second generation Americans trying to survive economically and spiritually in New York during the depression. ROCKET TO THE MOON (1938) takes place in a dentist's office. It is summer during the depression so there are no patients. Ben Stark is a sweet 40 year old who has a childlike desire to please everyone. Belle, his wife wants him to be tougher and more practical but also more loving. Their marriage is childless -- a child died and she cannot have another -- and Belle needs both economic and emotional security. She isn't on speaking terms with her wealthy father because he didn't offer her mother enough love.  Both Ben and his father fall in love with Ben's young assistant, Cleo, who is a strange combination of innocence and experience. Cleo fabricates most of her biography but insists on honesty from the people around her. In her own way, she is emotionally demanding, but not overbearing. She's young, sexy and full of hope. Both Ben and his father fall in love with her, but neither can offer her what she wants.
     There isn't much action in ROCKET TO THE MOON and not much in the way of a narrative. People talk on hot summer afternoons and evenings. Characters philosophize. We see the desperation of one dentist who eventually has to sell his blood to pay his debts. Everyone is lonely and frightened. Everyone wants some economic security and a reason to live in an irrational world. There is no God in Odets's world. People are flawed, but decent and depend on other people for any meaning in their lives. But all the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue so convincingly real but at the same time eloquent that one is totally absorbed for the play's two and three-quarters hours.
     Typical of National Theatre productions, the set is far too massive. This enormous dentist's office with thirty-foor high walls, is like a giant Edward Hopper painting. Angus Jackson has directed his fine cast well. As always, Joseph Millson totaly inhabits his character. Millson is one of the finest actors of his generation. It is wonderful to see him back doing real work after wasting him time and talent for a year in LOVE NEVER DIES. We see Ben's weakness, his eagerness to please, and his awareness that there simply isn't much inside. Jessica Raine's voice and fake New York accent are irritating at times, but she captures both what is loveable and what is potentially destructive about Cleo. Keeley Hawes is too beautiful for Belle but she finds the vulnerabillity and insecurity under Belle's bossiness. This tv star has lists no stage credits in the program which may explain why I had trouble hearing her in her early scenes. Nicholas Wodeson and Peter Sullivan were their usual brilliant selves. Mr. Prince, Belle's estranged father, offers the only real humor in the play and Wodeson lit up the stage every time he strutted into the office. Sullivan captured the desperation of an able man who can no longer support his family and has lost his pride.
     ROCKET TO THE MOON seems quite timely in a time of raising unemployment and a general sense of financial unease. Odets' characters have an unlikely combination of desperation and optimism. It is their emotional complexity, their contradictions that make them among the most fascinating characters in American drama. I would have preferred to see this fine revival in a more intimate space than the unfriendly Lyttleton Theatre, but I'm so glad I saw it.
ROCKET TO THE MOON. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. March 29, 2011.