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.