Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Theatre Review: Jekyll and Hyde

I don’t know anything about dance.

Anton and Erin tours aside, I've never seen any live dance before. I don’t know the terminology, I don’t know what makes it objectively good or bad and I don’t have any idea how to review it.

I think you can see where this is going.

Jekyll and Hyde is a two act ‘dance thriller’ choreographed by Drew McOnie and staged, at the Old Vic, by his eponymous company. And because I have no idea what I'm talking about beyond that, I’ll say right now that I think it’s fantastic and a real treasure of a show.

Image source.

For a non-dance person, probably the most striking thing about this production is the clarity of the storytelling. Admittedly, Jekyll and Hyde is a story that I think most people would say they know reasonably well. It’s also a story that seems peculiarly susceptible to being overcooked though, as ITV demonstrated so dramatically in their recent 1920s-set version. McOnie’s take is refreshingly clear, updating the action to the 1950s and recasting Jekyll as a botanist but otherwise keeping the story untouched and unornamented. The production contains no lyrics or spoken script, bar the occasional guttural moan or death throe, but it is impossible to lose the thread of the action (again unlike the ITV version where this was very much possible). And I think this would still be the case even if the story was entirely new to you.

This crystal clear narrative is facilitated mostly by the innovative characterisation that breathes through the choreography. Jekyll and Hyde, played by two different dancers which really opens up the story, move differently: Jekyll has a sort of sweeping ballroom set of moves whilst Hyde is much spikier with more rock and roll swagger. Jekyll is awkward, gentlemanly and funny, Hyde is sexy, brutish and thrusting (great word). Hyde, as usual, is better dressed and much cooler but it’s Jekyll who has the bigger, more bravura part.

All of this is reinforced by Grant Olding’s brilliant, eclectic and evocative earworm of a score; surely one of the best examples of storytelling through music out there. Five days later and I still have Hyde’s theme dancing round my head. Soutra Gilmour’s clever design, with the production’s handful of sets on a revolve made of chain-link fence which is manually pushed around as necessary by the cast, is so effective. I especially liked the care that had gone into ensuring that the whole stage is used, not just the bit that forms the current set. Because the ‘walls’ of every set are, essentially, see through then people sat at certain angles can see what’s going on in the background. This had been considered and accounted for really well, even if it only meant simple things like ensuring that cast members entering and exiting did so in keeping with both their character and the current mood of the music. It’s sadly rare to see so much thought going into sightlines and it really paid off.

I have no idea how you talk about the relative merits of dancers beyond what I've heard on Strictly. With that in mind, I have one word for the super talented cast of Jekyll and Hyde: uh-may-zing. In a small but perfectly formed cast almost everyone is a standout, but the biggest praise must go to the simply brilliant Daniel Collins’ sublime Jekyll. As good an embodiment of a character as almost any I've seen on stage this year which is all the more remarkable given it was all delivered via dance. Hurrah also for yet another of the West End’s super understudies, Jason Winter, on as Hyde on the night I was in - which also happened to be the first preview so, y’know, no pressure. He was great, a perfect swaggering Hyde, and if no one had told me he was an understudy I’d have never guessed in a million years.

To summarise, you should see Jekyll and Hyde. Regardless of what you know or don’t know about dance or about the story, this is a genuinely great production. It’s easily one of my favourite things this year. A ten from Len, if you will. Get your skates on though - its run is tragically, if understandably, short.

Jekyll and Hyde plays at the Old Vic until 28th May. AKA this Saturday. Hurry up.


Saturday, 21 May 2016

Theatre Review: Lawrence After Arabia

There are few things more frustrating in my theatrical book as a wasted premise, especially when the premise is really interesting.

What became of Lawrence when he is no longer Of Arabia is a great premise. Super interesting, super politically relevant and with a hefty dollop of historical controversy chucked in for good measure. It should make for a great play.

And perhaps it does, somewhere. But Lawrence After Arabia, currently playing at the Hampstead Theatre, is not that play. Really, really not.

Image source.

In many ways the production deserves credit for taking such an interesting premise and making it so tedious. It’s genuinely quite impressive. I'm not someone who can fall asleep in the theatre but this had me very close.

I think the biggest problem seems to be that the writing, by Howard Brenton (of whom I am generally speaking a fan), is so literal, unsubtle and, in places, just clunky. A key bugbear of mine, and an example of some of the play’s issues more broadly, was the constant dismayed references to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Now, it’s absolutely valid to make the point that the way the British and French divided up the Middle East with literal rulers on a literal map is one of the biggest factors leading to the geopolitical clusterfuck that that region sadly is today. To make that point by having several of your lead characters wail the names of the three most contemporary and brutal examples of this again and again is not the way to make that point. I'm pretty sure that even the most dull witted audience doesn't need that level of exposition to get what’s being driven at.  There are frequent examples of this - of the audience being told in big, flashing, neon lights that a contemporary reference is being made - and for me it does both cast and audience a huge disservice. It becomes annoying very quickly.

My other major complaint about this production is not one that I get to make very often, thankfully: it just wasn't very well acted. I took a particular dislike to Jack Laskey in the title role, who for my money was wooden and stilted all evening (and also looks about 20 years too young for the part). Jeff Rawle was an entertainingly diverting G B Shaw, but his wandering accent started to grate quite quickly. Geraldine James, whose Charlotte Shaw was generally a merciful highlight, had the occasional wobbly moment, particularly in the climactic confrontation with Lawrence towards the end of the play. Mind you that confrontation contains some particularly wobbly dialogue - my favourite being a cringe inducing exchange on sexuality - so perhaps that’s to be expected. Khalid Laith as a charismatic Prince Faisal was the only actor who consistently won me over, impressive given some of the leaden dialogue he was given. Perhaps it was just an off night or perhaps I'm just spoiled these days, but I really expected better.

Other than Price Faisal there are a few other bright spots in this production. As always at the Hampstead, it looks fantastic and the staging is characteristically clever. The seamless transitions between Arabian desert and English manor drawing room are very well done. There are also quite a few good gags hiding away in the script. I particularly enjoyed the exchange between Lawrence and the Shaws about whether or not they really know anything about working class people, which elicits the response from Charlotte that ‘of course we do, we’re Socialists’. Got a very knowing laugh from the Hampstead crowd that one…  And John Dove’s direction keeps things clipping along at an admirable pace, bringing what is quite a complicated story in at just over two hours (including an interval, how unfashionable). Mind you if it was any longer I'm not sure I would've coped.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t recommend that you should spend any of your hard earned cash on Lawrence After Arabia, unless you suffer from insomnia and have tried everything else. Perhaps wait until Ross opens at Chichester, since from what I can tell it covers very much the same ground in a hopefully less soporific manner.

Lawrence After Arabia plays at the Hampstead Theatre until June 4th.