Friday, 20 November 2015

Theatre Review: The Moderate Soprano

You know that thing when you’re up to episode six in your bingewatch of your current TV show of choice and they make a pop culture reference, you know they've made a pop culture reference, but you don’t know what it’s a reference to?

I hate that thing. It annoys me so much. But thanks to the Wikipedia gods that ‘thing’ never progresses to becoming a full blown ‘issue’ (issue is definitely above thing in my hierarchy of annoyance) because you can just pause the show and look the reference up. It’s truly a glorious age to be alive and watching TV.

It becomes a bit more of an issue when it’s not a TV show but a play that’s making the references you don’t understand, though.

Image source.

The Moderate Soprano is David Hare’s new play about the founding of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. And I suppose on one level it’s my own fault that I hadn't spent some time googling potential opera/classical music jokes before seeing it. But on another, higher, better furnished level I shouldn't have to do homework to fully enjoy a play.

Because there are a lot of opera/classical music (in)jokes in this piece that aren't fully accessible to someone who isn't a huge devotee and, without Wikipedia to help me, this did start to grate after a while. The fact that the rest of the (so white, middle aged and middle class you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Chichester) audience evidently found these jokes very funny made the grating even sharper. I don’t like to be made to feel stupid when I'm (largely) not. And it’s not like it’s impossible to write a play about a niche subject and make it accessible to everyone. I know fuck all about nuclear physics but I still loved Oppenheimer.

It’s a shame really because this is an otherwise enjoyably funny play with an enjoyably funny cast. Roger Allam as the pleasingly eccentric John Christie is, unsurprisingly, particularly good in this regard - his clipped, sharp delivery adding joyous comedic zing to his various rants (the one about ticket prices was my favourite). All of the comedy scenes, injokes notwithstanding, zipped along merrily and though none of them are exactly seared on my memory I certainly remember having a good giggle through a good chunk of the play’s brief - intervals, like armrests, are so last year - run time.

The play is far less convincing when it tries to be a serious drama though and to be frank I found most of the serious and emotional scenes just a bit dull. Although the pace is excellent throughout (Director Jeremy Herrin also worked on the RSC’s Hilary Mantel double bill and it shows) the serious scenes, with one exception, are curiously without emotional punch. The most puzzling example is where Christie’s German conductor and producer are explaining their persecution at the hands of the Nazis which should've been touching and sad but I found flat as a pancake. I often felt a bit that the way that Allam's character is written (or performed? I’m honestly not sure) is the problem - his constant propensity to chippily interrupt long speeches by other characters seemed to consistently derail any attempts at building emotional interest.

A real bright spot in this production, and the absolute saving grace when it comes to the emotional stuff, is Nancy Carroll’s performance as Audrey, Christie’s beloved wife and the moderate soprano of the title. She deals with the comedy and serious stuff with equal aplomb and provides the one genuinely heartfelt moment of the piece, as an ailing, ageing Audrey begs to be let go. I will admit to having a small cry.

The staging here is also really effective, using what looks to my untrained eye to be a particularly huge stage to simultaneously portray Christie’s house in two different time periods as well as incorporating elements of the stage and backstage of an opera house. It’s unfussy but clever and a great use of the space.

Overall, then, The Moderate Soprano is a fun comedy with dramatic aspirations it never fully realises. I liked it and I'm sure anyone who knows a bit more about opera would like it even more.

Also worth mentioning is the Hampstead Theatre itself which, honestly, I probably enjoyed more than the play. It’s is another venue crossed off my ‘to visit’ list this year and another I hope to return to. It’s a fantastic building, with crodoughs in their cafe and the most theatrically disconcerting toilets I've ever used - what more could you want?

Happiness a crodough and red wine.

I went for a wee behind Imelda Staunton. Not a phrase I ever thought I'd use.

The Moderate Soprano plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 28th November.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Theatre Review: The Hairy Ape

Here's a dirty confession for a theatre fan: until recently I'd never seen a Eugene O'Neill play.

I know right? I'm awful.

Fear not though. Thanks to The Old Vic's The Hairy Ape I have now remedied that situation and remedied it in some style.

Image source.

The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank, a stoker on cruise liners, whose unshakable belief in his own self worth and place in society is destroyed when some rich bitch daughter of a steel millionaire calls him a filthy beast. His attempts to get his revenge on her and her whole social class are repeatedly thwarted until, broken, he seeks solace with a literal ape at the zoo. Hilarity does very much not ensue.

At this point I want to give a bit of a health warning for the rest of this piece: I have absolutely zero chill about this production. It’s amazing, I love it and everyone in the world should see it. So if you’re short on time, stop reading and go book tickets immediately. The other thing I should probably say is that, for the above stated reasons, I saw it twice and this review is my collected thoughts (‘incoherent fangirl ramblings’ might be more accurate) on both performances. 

The major drain on my chill here is Bertie Carvel whose central performance - and this is basically a one man show - as Yank is just phenomenal. The fact that, as discussed in a previous post, I very much have A Thing about Bertie Carvel notwithstanding the combination of brute physicality, violence, bravado and vulnerability he manages to pull off is genuinely astonishing. It’s a pretty boring observation to make at this point of his career, but fuck me is that guy versatile. It’s very hard for my tiny brain to compute that lumbering, angry, seemingly 7 foot tall (how do you act taller? how does that even work?) is deranged, broken Agave is tender, slightly nuts Jonathan Strange etc etc etc. And that’s amazing if you stop and think about it for even the briefest of moments. 

In this performance it’s first of all the physical transformation that’s strikingly impressive. Apart from somehow adding a foot to his height, the power Carvel's Yank has is frightening wherever you're sat. His gait, his stance, his movements are all slightly simian and all convey such pent up anger that you sort of want to leave the theatre because clearly bad shit is going to happen and this guy is going to be at the centre of it. (Also, aesthetically, WOW. Any semblance of my remaining chill was powerfully lost the second his shirt came off.) What’s less obvious but more impressive though is how, behind all of that, there’s an instant and heartbreaking vulnerability. Even though you sort of know where this play is heading, you root for Yank so hard and it’s because Carvel’s performance let’s you into this guy’s head to an extent that I doubt many other actors could manage. The scene where he’s rejected from the trade union he tries to join just broke my heart and the last scene (no spoilers) gave me such a physical reaction that I could feel my heart beating almost out of my chest both times I saw it. I don't remember reacting that way to any other performance before.

With this masterful central performance dominating the stage for basically the whole evening - the one scene that Yank isn’t in felt boring by comparison - there’s not much for the rest of the cast to do but they all do it well. Steffan Rhodri is particularly enjoyable as a nostalgic Irish drunk whose romanticism Yank can’t stand (and also delivers the play’s few funny lines, “I’m never too drunk to sing” being a favourite) and Phil Hill gives an amazingly charismatic performance as the ape, one that gives Andy Serkis and his Hollywood mo-cap magic a run for its money for sure. And the guys who get naked in the shower scene are a very welcome addition. Just saying.

The production looks stunning too, very modern in its black and yellow minimalism. The yellow storage container that serves as almost all the sets in various guises is such a clever, claustrophobic device and, more basically, it just looks quite frightening. One of the few scenes that lets the action out of the box and puts it into Fifth Avenue is also really effective and really fucking creepy, especially when the anonymous, masked posh people start doing an almost musicless, twitchy charleston. And thrusting Yank into the middle of this weirdness only makes it weirder still.

Now, there was a criticism in some of the proper grown up reviews that much of the dialogue, particularly in the first half hour or so, is difficult to make out and I think that is a valid point. Even on second viewing (/hearing) it took me a while to get my ear in and be able to fully understand the thick New York accents everyone uses and indeed are actually written into the play text. But then I have the same problem with people from Newcastle when I’ve had a few drinks and have never found it impairs my ability to enjoy their company. And so it is with this play; much like drinking with a Geordie or watching a Shakespeare you’re unfamiliar with, you may not pick up absolutely every word but neither do you for one moment lose the sense of what’s going on.

So, yeah, in summary see this show, see it now and see it repeatedly. And also go say hey to Bertie Carvel at the stage door because as well as being sickeningly talented he is also sickenkngly lovely, adorable human being. I sort of want to hate him but am physically and psychologically incapable of doing so.

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The Hairy Ape plays at The Old Vic until November 21st. Get your skates on.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Theatre Review: Waste

Christmas is still a few weeks away but the National Theatre has already found itself a nice, fat turkey.

 Shut up, I'm proud of that line.

On paper, Henry Granville Barker’s Waste (an appropriate title on oh so many levels) is very much my sort of play. Famously banned by the censor when it debuted, Waste tells the story of the implosion of the career of talented independent MP Henry Trebell, so obsessed with the Bill he has been tasked with stewarding through Parliament (disestablishment of the Church of England - thrilling stuff) that his affair with a married woman barely troubles him until she dies at the hands of a backstreet abortionist whilst trying to get rid of his child. Politics, scandal, social conscience - so many of my boxes ticked. And yet…

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Waste is unquestionably the worst thing I've ever seen at the National Theatre. To be honest, I'm struggling to think of anything I've seen at any theatre that’s much worse.

Perhaps the worst thing about this mess of a production is that it is deeply, deeply tedious. Things that may have been controversial and sexy when the play was written - lengthy debates about the relationship between Church and State, for example - are very much not anymore and nobody involved seems to have thought about how this would translate. All of the dialogue is so turgid that I think I’d turned off by the end of the second scene. The first members of the audience walked out after about half an hour.

This is not helped by the fact that the plot and the characters are so clichéd and facile that a twelve year old could have been responsible. I'm not sure why the characters are even given names to be honest. They’re so one dimensional that they may as well just be called Idealist Crushed By The Man, Plucky Northern Industrialist, Nasty Establishment Prime Minister, Spinster Sister, Outsider Who Tells It Like It Is and so on. It’d be much easier to remember. The plot plods along to a singularly inevitable conclusion with all the excitement of watching beige paint dry and the lazy attempts at making satirical points (‘he’s an ideas man and we don’t need those in politics hahahahahahahahaha’) might have been edgy a hundred years ago but now have all wit of a particularly dull concrete pillar.

Further pain is heaped on the poor, unsuspecting audience (a good chunk of whom had left in the interval and frankly I wish I’d joined them) by performances that can be charitably described as patchy. Charles Edwards does his best with what he’s given in the lead role, though he’s hardly the most convincing charismatic politician I've ever seen, but beyond that there’s very little to praise. Even the usually excellent Olivia Williams is shrill and annoying as the wronged mistress, though hardly helped by some particularly insipid lines. For reasons best known to someone else, a lot of the cast deliver their lines as if. There is a. Full stop. After every second. Or third. Word. And the actors playing the ‘establishment’ figures employ the sort of ‘politician’ accents and delivery that should just be banned in professional theatre.

A final mention must go to the setting which at best looks half finished and at most actively broken. My particular favourite is the series of mechanical walls that move across the stage to mask the changes of scene, which would be a neat device did they not move so slowly that I genuinely thought they’d broken down completely on a number of occasions. Though to be fair they did provide the one genuine moment of drama of the evening when towards the end of the second act they opened and closed so slowly that you could hear the audience (further depleted by people leaving during the second act) wondering aloud whether the play had finished. And of course the SYMBOLIC WASTE PAPER BASKET (I'm writing it the way I assume it must’ve been written in the stage direction) which should win some kind of special prize for the clunkiest, least subtle metaphor in the history of theatre. When it was revealed that it was still on the stage, just knocked over, during the curtain call I got serious giggles which I suspect was not the intention.

I don’t particularly enjoy slagging off productions to this extent (I'm lying) but there’s really nothing to admire in this production. Don’t waste your time and money on it, unless you’re someone I don’t like in which case I'm sure you’d enjoy it.

If you still want to see Waste for some reason, it plays at the Lyttleton at the NT until March 19th.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Theatre Review: As You Like It

I'm not a big fan of Shakespearean comedy.

With the notable exception of Much Ado About Nothing, I just don’t find it that funny. Maybe it’s unfamiliarity (I only ever read the tragedies at school), maybe I've been unlucky with the productions I've seen or maybe it’s just my sense of humour. I don’t know, they’re just not usually my bag.

But it’s always lovely to have your expectations confounded and the NT’s production of As You Like It does just that.

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The central plot of AYLI is the story of star crossed lovers Rosalind and Orlando who fall in love at first sight but are split when both are forced to flee for their lives into the mysterious Forest of Arden. Complications (and occasional hilarity) ensue but ultimately they are reunited, get married and live happily ever after. Aw.

So far so Disney. But where this production, directed by Polly Findlay, excels is in playing down the syrup - and to an extent the humour - and playing up the naturalism.

This approach isn't unproblematic. For one thing it makes the purely comedic characters, Touchstone in particular, very out of place and consequently largely unfunny, which is a shame as Mark Benton (playing Touchstone) is a great comedy actor who gets robbed of the potential to be a really great Shakespearean clown. It also makes the pre-Forest portion of the play feel oddly disjointed. The action is transported to a technicolour cliché of an office, where random characters wander about for no logical reason, and overlong wrestling matches are staged. It feels like it belongs in another, much less good, production altogether and left me convinced I was going to have a fairly miserable evening.

But the change of setting to the Forest of Arden breathes new life into the production and introduces the real star - the incredible design. The transformation between the two locations is stunning and the undoubted highlight of the show. Rows of office chairs, desks and lamps, connected by previously unseen chains, are dragged upwards so they hang from the ceiling to create the trees of the forest. Cast members dressed all in black climb into the trees where they remain, creating a surprisingly effective soundscape (wind through the trees, animal noises, bird song, raindrops) for the rest of the night. It’s inventive minimalism at its most beautiful - award nominations for designer Lizzie Clachan, please - the only downside of which is that it rather overshadows the action onstage.

Which is a shame as much of said action is really rather good, especially where the delightful Patsy Ferran is involved. Ferran is a near-perfect Celia. Playful and deadpan, she steals every scene she’s in and, importantly, offers a much more convincing articulation of the punchdrunk love that drives this play’s plot than any of the rest of the cast. Rosalie Craig is a decidedly modern Rosalind, particularly good as her male alter ego, and Joe Bannister an effectingly lovelorn Orlando, though both could do with an injection of the sort of joyous, maddening love that Ferran is so good at. Paul Chahidi has a couple of gorgeous moments as Jaques, his ‘all the world’s a stage’ speech is really beautiful (even if some stupid fuck let their phone ring through it the night we were in), though overall he struggles to make much of an impression, or that much sense of his character. And massive kudos are due to the supporting cast who provide, amongst other things, my second favourite moment of the night as they appear en masse as a flock of sheep, on hands and knees wearing white woolly jumpers. It’s as gorgeously silly and irreverent as it sounds.

Despite my misgivings, I really enjoyed this production and found it surprisingly clear for a text that I had never encountered before. It didn't completely convince me of the merits of Shakespeare as a comedy writer, but it’s fun, inventive and just so beautiful. Well worth your time.

As You Like It plays in the Olivier theatre at the NT until 5th March.