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.