Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Theatre Review: Our Great Tchaikovsky

In a list of ‘things I didn’t know I needed in my life’ a version of The 1812 Overture for solo piano (like, the full orchestra version just played entirely by one piano) would rank pretty highly.

But, dear reader, need it I did. For it is hilariously silly. And a marked improvement on the original, I would argue.

It’s also a feat of piano playing that has to be seen and heard to be fully believed and unquestionably the highlight of Hershey Felder’s Our Great Tchaikovsky, which opened last night at The Other Palace. Anyone familiar with Felder’s intriguing and unique ouvre (which doesn’t include me) will recognise the premise of OGT: the composer’s life story told through a blend of traditional one man theatre and his own music. Part play, part classical concert. A slightly tricky sell, but a valuable one. The idea, I think, is that by setting the music in the context in which it was written adds to an audience’s understanding of both composer and output. And this works. It’s a fascinating insight in a ubiquitous composer and certainly shines new light onto many of his most famous pieces.

It goes without saying almost that Tchaikovsky’s life is kind of a trainwreck. I mean, he’s a composer so... I didn’t know, though, that the main reason for the trainwreck - the emotional points failure, if you will - was that he was a deeply closeted homosexual. Felder picks this up and runs with it as the main narrative thread of the show in a way that is largely effective, affecting and narratively very strong. Focusing on the relationships in his life in this way gives the show real narrative strength and coherence and also makes the sleection of music seem much more organic. However, the attempt to make the contemporary parallels felt a bit forced. As well meaning and morally justified as it was, for example, I did find the inclusion right in the middle of the show of an out of character section of exposition explaining the current state of gay rights in Russia a bit weirdly placed. Had it been an epilogue I suspect I would have felt rather differently.

The other main thread of the piece is the nature of criticism: where we look for it, whose opinions we value and why we care. I actually found this a more interesting idea to explore and could happily have listened to more of it. The nature of art, and how it’s funded and enabled, gets a hearing too, though I felt this was a rich vein of potential that culd have been tapped more, especially for its contemporary resonance.

Minor plot and structure quibbles aside, the main thing of note here - as it inevitably is in any one man show - is the performer and Hershey Felder is really quite something. It’s very difficult to describe what Felder is in traditional terms. He is certainly a solid actor, he sings beauifully and he plays the piano with fantastic skill but somehow that doesn’t quite capture it. I almost want to say that he’s a cabaret star, because the feeling of all round entertainment is arguably closest captured by that term and it feels like it gives a better sense of what he does. His performance is enormously charismatic and full of genuine virtuosity. I’m sure there are classical pianists who play Tchaikovsky better than him and classical actors who could act Tchaikovsky better than him, but to do both at the same time? Whilst playing the entire orchestration of The 1812? Can’t think of anyone. It’s a real Performance and worth the price of a ticket (which, at The Other Palace, is really not that much) alone. You’re not going to see anything like it from anyone else.

Production-wise, I feel that Felder could have been somewhat better served. The set seemed busy and overthought, I wonder whether just having him and his piano on an empty stage wouldn’t be more effective. The auditorium didn’t quite feel the right size, though whether too big or too small I kept changing my mind. The use of projected scenery though is fantastic; effective, eye catching and really beautifully done. The choice of music is canny too - I know I’m boring on about it, but the 1812 section is joyous (‘every note devoid of love but lots of loud noises’) - and the balance between music and action is well judged. It’s ten minutes or so too long, but how much of that is an issue and how much first night nerves is impossible for me to say.

Overall? I would recommend Our Great Tchaikovsky. It’s a really interesting piece with an utterly unique central performance from an utterly unique performer. There’s nothing on the London stage like it (nothing that dares to be quite so unashamedly odd) and, even if for that reason alone, is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

Our Great Tchaikovsky is at The Other Palace until October 22nd.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Theatre Review: Oslo

I find plays that are able to educate me about a topic at the same time as being enjoyable and engaging theatre are two things: 1) rare and 2) impressive.

The ins and outs of the Middle East peace process is certainly one of the things that I, somewhat shamefully, could use some education on. I had heard, for example, of the Oslo Agreement, and was vaguely aware of what it was, but I had no idea how extraordinary the process to get to it had been nor how important it is to the wider context of relations in that part of the world.

I don't think, though, it matters how informed about Middle Eastern politics you are when it comes to the merits of the National Theatre's production of Oslo, J T Rogers' all conquering play about the titular agreement's negotiations, conducted to varying degrees of international secrecy by a team of Norwegian diplomats and NGO staff. Whatever your previous knowledge - and this play certainly doesn't presuppose any - it is a gripping, thrilling, unexpectedly funny and even more unexpectedly hopeful piece.

Rogers' writing is brilliant: quick, witty and utterly free of judgement (not dissimilar to James Graham actually which is more than fine with me). One of the extraordinary tricks of this play - and this production - is that it includes an enormous amount of exposition and context without ever feeling dull or flabby. In the writing, this is achieved by the really effective use of a narrator who introduces key characters and explains, with some help from the set, the historical context of what is going on. The narrator is one of the characters in the drama who simply breaks the fourth wall briefly when needed. It works so well, never slowing down the action and helping to make the play accessible to a non-expert audience. The fact that that narrator is 99% of the time a FEMALE CHARACTER (caps necessary) is depressingly close to a revolutionary approach. I mean, a woman getting to drive the narrative in a political play! Amazing! My only notable quibble with the writing is that, having driven the story all the way through, it's her husband that gets the final word and that final word is a judgement on the process that the rest of the play seems to have worked hard to avoid. The continued ambiguity would have been more effective, in my view.

Perhaps the most extraordinary trick in the writing of Oslo, though, is that it remains a gripping and hopeful play despite the fact that everyone in the audience knows, or can at least Google, what ultimately happens next. I love the fact that, this aside, it also makes no attempt to shy away from what happens next either. It's a deeply intelligent and sensitive approach. I love this play the more for it.

This production, a transfer, it should be said, from New York's Lincoln Centre, is also a triumph. Director Bartlett Sher's vision is outstanding and the fact he makes this play, which at three hours is something of a beast, feel short and sprightly is a marvel. The design is stunning and amongst the most effective I've seen in theatre, possibly ever. The use of projection in particular is quiet genius; using a white set to show film of what's happening in the outside world (getting rid of some of that pesky exposition) as well as to project scenery onto. The lighting is great, especially the way the scenes which are being narrated are lit to effectively split the stage in two: the narrator's bit and the action. It is a truly gorgeous looking and gorgeously functional thing.

The small cast, all new to the NT's production, is terrific. Lydia Leonard as Mona Juul, central character and narrator, is superb and deals with all of her various narrative functions perfectly. She is utterly believable, fiery and inspiring (and, from what I can work out, loves the real life 'version' of her chararcter as much as I do). Toby Stephens, as husband Terje, is a great foil for her. He is arguably the more complex of the two, in that he is clearly a bit of a dick as well as being a good guy, and puts across the perfect balance of drive, charm and humour. The latter he particularly excels at. Kudos also to Peter Polycarpou as a mischeievous, passionate and above all human Ahmed Querie, a man who doubtless some people would class as a terrorist to this day.

Oslo has had plenty of hype in its relatively short life and, pleasingly, it is one of those rare cases where the hype is entirely justifiable. It deserves all of the awards and accolades it's won (so far) and similar recognition for this production would not be unfair. See it.

Oslo is in the Lyttelton at the NT until 23rd September, after which it transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Theatre Review: Nassim

Audible sobbing from multiple people in a theatre audience is a slightly disquieting phenomenom, even when you're contributing to it. It's also extremely moving.

Back at The Bush Theatre's Nassim Plays season for a second night this week, after Wednesday's touching, complex but raucous White Rabbit Red Rabbit, it also really wasn't what I was expecting. The set up for tonight's instalment, Nassim, also obviously by Iranian-born playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, is exactly the same: script in a sealed envelope, actor (in this instance Denise Gough) rocks up totally unprepared and performs said script to an equally oblivious audience. 

Here the similarities between WRRR and Nassim end however. Again, I don't want to say too much because, even more so this time, I don't want to give anything away. Playing with ideas of the unexpected is so key to Soleimanpour's work that it really does defy an easy review. Some spoiler free things I loved about Nassim, though, were it's more complex form, using video, music and a smartphone and, joyously, the appearance of the playwright himself. It gives nothing away to say that Nassim is an autobiographical piece and it's so incredibly poignant to have Nassim himself sat mute on the stage as someone else speaks his words, tells his story and expresses his feelings in a language that isn't his own (most of the time).

The themes explored here are extraordinarily deep and profound: the power (for good or ill) of language, loneliness, belonging and family. The heartbreaking idea of being a stranger in your homeland and feeling alone in a city of millions. The writing is simple but stunning and the emotional buttons that Nassim pushes are raw, universal and, as the sobbing will attest, deeply powerful. It is a hugely, almost uncomfortably, intimate thing to watch the actor involved discovering these buttons in real time. It is a stunningly good, completely unique and utterly beautiful play and it's produced so well by The Bush.

Somewhat shockingly, the one tiny quibble I had with the show I saw was the performer. I love Denise Gough, she's brilliant, but I didn't always feel she was as unconditionally present in the show as she could have been. Or to put it a less wanky way, I could have done with less of her commentary on the writing and less questioning of what was about to happen and more performing the writing and finding out what was about to happen. When she was performing the writing, though, she was superb. Particularly in the 'set piece', for want of a far better phrase, moments. She captured the emotion of these parts perfectly.

Nassim is a show that will stay with me for a very long time. And if I ever stop crying when I think about it I'll let you know. Huge congratulations to The Bush for reviving it, and indeed the other plays in the season. For one tiny theatre to give me an evening of cavorting Dominic West and an experience as profoundly moving as Nassim in the same week is pretty extraordinary.

The Nassim Plays finish at The Bush Theatre tomorrow, including one more chance to see Nassim (with Hari Dillon).

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Theatre Review: White Rabbit Red Rabbit

As someone who's got through two degrees and works in a job where getting asked difficult/awkward/stupid questions is par for the course, the notion of winging it is not unfamiliar.

And in truth, as much as my organisational skills are my only superpower, I quite like making stuff up as I go along. This is one of the (admitedly less important) reasons why I am not an actor. My abject lack of any dramatic talent being perhaps another.

I feel, possibly quite wrongly, that playwright Nassim Soleimanpour might have some sympathy with this view. Soleimanpour's calling card is the idea of the play where the actor sees the script for the first time as he starts to act it in front of an audience. Winging it: the drama school edition. The lovely little Bush Theatre is currently doing a season of his work, The Nassim Plays, with a cast to die for and I'm seeing/have seen two of them. The first is White Rabbit Red Rabbit with Dominic West as the performer.

It's very difficult to review this show without giving away too much about what happens and I really, really don't want to do that. #KeepTheSecrets, to hijack another show's hashtag. What I will say is that Soleimanpour's writing is extraordinarily clever and his exploration of notions of freedom, mortality and the nature of theatre and writing itself are profound. Soleimanpour is Iranian and, having refused National Service, was refused a passport (at the time of writing this play anyway) and I found the passage about the power of writing in making him free, in some form, extremely powerful. And the line about life being the longest form of suicide strikes a powerful chord.

The form of the show - part serious monologue, part stand up, part audience participation variety hour - is something that actor and audience really have to give themselves over to and, in truth, I found that quite challenging. I've never been to the theatre and been made to feel inadequate as an audience member before, but WRRR has some very interesting quetions to ask about the nature of observation and what an audience is actually for. I enjoyed the boldness with which this was posed, even as it made me squirm slightly in my seat.

It is also extremely demanding for the actor and I can only imagine how stilted and awful this show would be were they not prepared to throw themselves into it with no holds barred. Dominic West seems a rather leftfield (or perhaps un-leftfield) choice for this sort of show, but he totally nailed it. He was excellent in the serious moments and enjoyably goofy in the funnier bits. Plus a voice like his is made for Soleimanpour's rich, dense text. And the physical demands made of the performer were well met, a point I wish I could expand on but Secrets. Suffice to say I always thought he was a majestic creature and now I have proof.

There is something deeply profound, provocative and moving at the heart of White Rabbit Red Rabbit that will stay with me for a long time. I think it will genuinely change the way I look at theatre as a form and at what it means to be an audience member for a long time to come. Or maybe only until I see the second of the Nassim Plays series in a couple of days. I guess we'll see.

The Nassim Plays are at the Bush Theatre until 16th September, including White Rabbit Red Rabbit playing both matinee and evening shows on the 16th (with Scottee and Meera Syal respectively).

Friday, 8 September 2017

Theatre Review: Zigger Zagger

With a list of notable alumni longer than both of my arms combined, catching a show by the National Youth Theatre has long been on my to do list.

Well, it's taken a while but I've finally managed to tick it off thanks to making the trek  - and from my natural habitat in West Sussex commuter land it is a fucking trek - out to Wilton's Music Hall to catch their latest production, a timely revival of one of their original commissions, Zigger Zagger.

Peter Terson’s play, which tells the story of Harry Philton as he struggles to navigate his way from moody teenager to fully fledged adult whilst desperately searching for a place to belong, is knocking on for fifty years old but has aged really well. Its themes of belonging, identity and, more specifically, the importance of strong male role models in creating decent grown up men still resonate. It could really have been written yesterday. Despite the fact it’s not really my sort of thing - I’m seldom a fan of this sort of coming of age story, mostly I think because I was born middle aged and have remained that way ever since - and I found it considerably too long and a bit preachy, it is a very sensible, and sensitive, piece for the NYT to be reviving at the moment. It is by no means a bad play - and would be better without its occasional dubious musical numbers which add nothing beyond oddly placed breaks in the action - it’s just not for me. And anyway, the play wasn’t really what I was interested in in this case.

The production values on display here are really strong. James Button's design is set over a three tier split level stage which works exceptionally well to accommodate a cast of fifty in what is by no means the biggest stage space in London. I loved the graffiti-ed wall that divided the back of the main stage from the baying gallery of football fans above - a neat fix for making sure the fans and the football were omnipresent, a sort of Greek chorus of shouty teenagers, but never encumbering the action as well as allowing plenty of access to the main stage for actual plot development. 'Freeze frame type' scenes are also used throughout the production to great effect; highlighting the role of various central characters and getting blocks of exposition out of the way whilst allowing the action to continue almost uninterrupted. These are fantastically well lit too. As regular readers will know I enjoy a good spotlight and they're used really well here.

The main reason I wanted to see this production, though, was the cast. Having never seen the NYT before I wanted to see what they could do and, man, they did not disappoint. The energy, fearlessness and sense of fun they bring - on and offstage - was an utterly uncynical joy. The roudy, dangerous, chaotic crowd scenes are infectiously energetic and just great fun to watch. The standard of the ensemble generally was really impressive and there are some real faces to watch in their midst.

Teddy Robson as the titular, though not lead, character in particular is outstanding. A complete scene stealer, oozing dangerous charisma, he is perfectly cast and, frankly, appears to be having far too much fun in his role. It's incredibly easy to imagine him going on to a very successful career; I'd be amazed if this is anything other than the first of many times I see him act. Josh Barrow is a likeable, sympathetic Harry who works hard to bring out his conflicted but profound goodness. As his saviour (or not, depending on your point of view of the play's ending) brother in law, Ebe Bamgboye is a really well judged counterpoint to Robson's Zigger Zagger; caring, sensible, predictable but someone you root for.

As my formal introduction to the NYT, Zigger Zagger was great fun. The sheer energy that this company has is the thing that will stay with me. Even my black heart couldn't fail to be moved by it and, given I'd been at yet another Brexit-related conference all day, the fact that this great young cast consistently made me smile for almost two hours is a genuinely impressive achievement!

Catch it while you can, Zigger Zagger plays at Wilton's Music Hall until 9th September.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Theatre Review: Follies

One of the more pleasing realisations in recent theatrical history is that a surefire way to make a musical excellent is the combination of Imelda Staunton and Stephen Sondheim.

Exhibit A: Sweeney Todd. Exhibit B: Gypsy. And now Exhibit C: the National Theatre’s new production of Follies. Which, for my money, is the pick of the bunch.

Follies tells the story of a reunion of ex-showgirls, impresarios and various hangers on as the theatre in which they all spent their youths is demolished. It focuses in on two tragicomically mismatched couples - Sally and Buddy, Phyllis and Ben - whose ‘showgirl and admirer’ relationships are showing the strains of time, if indeed you could ever truly call them unstrained.

However, the plot is largely and brilliantly irrelevant to what Follies is about. It’s much more about emotions: disillusionment, what might have been and the danger of becoming obsessed with that idea at the expense of what actually is. The way that this is portrayed in the show is through, essentially, double casting all but a couple of the roles: every character appears in both their present and ‘young’ form on the stage at the same time, with the ‘young’ version mainly acting as a shadow. As a way of explaining what’s going on without bucketloads of exposition, it thoroughly works. It’s clever, effective and generally feels very Sondheim.

Speaking of whom, it goes without saying that Stephen Sondheim is a genius (if you don’t agree I insist you leave immediately) and Follies is simply one of his finest shows. Not just because its form is so intriguing, it’s also musically one of his strongest and most varied. It is filled with big (and typically Sondheimy) character numbers as you would perhaps expect but there are also several lovingly mocking pastiches of numbers from the vaudeville era, a bit of music hall and even some opera thrown in for good measure. And several songs that cross these categories, because if you’re as good as Stephen Sondheim then why not? All of it is glorious; rich, complex and melodic with punchy, funny and/or gutwrenchingly sad lyrics. Losing My Mind is justifiably the most well known piece from Follies and remains one of the most beautiful, thoughtful and saddest songs ever written.

James Goldman's book is the perfect wrapping to Sondheim's perfect music too. As with the song lyrics, the writing pulls no punches, whether that means being hilarious or heartbreaking. Or something in between, as with the ending which, without giving anything away, is neither happy nor sad but is real, honest and complicated. Rather like life.

In short, then, Follies is a brilliant, brilliant show. And this glorious production does it full justice and then some. It's one of the best musical productions I've ever seen and easily one of the best things I've ever seen at the NT.

A large part of this is due to the fact that, in the cavernous Olivier, it is one of the few things I've seen that really feels like it was designed for the space rather than just ending up there by chance. It treats the huge stage as a help and fully recognises the potential it offers to be big and bold. Everything in designer Vicki Mortimer's vision is huge and fabulous: the costumes (over half a million Swarovski crystals!), the sets, the decision to place the orchestra on stage behind a see through divider (I loved this), the use of the revolve. Director Dominic Cooke makes some similarly big and bold choices: running without an interval (2 hours 15 minutes ish - perfectly paced and every second enjoyable), the huge ensemble cast, using a full orchestra. His production is masterful. Choreographer Bill Deamer delivers dreamy, beautiful, glamorous and evocative numbers that are a joy to watch.


Honestly, this cast is in ultimate bucket list cast territory. First of all, there’s the phenomenal ensemble who sing, dance and generally dazzle their way through a complex and ambitious show. They’re fab, especially in the big set pieces. They back up a central quartet who are mind bendingly great. Let’s start with Imelda Staunton, because she is legendary, who is even better than you expect her to be (which at this point is pretty fucking good). Her Sally is a perfectly naive, quietly strong and deeply touching performance and her Losing My Mind is iconic - I heard people around me whisper ‘wow’ and ‘oh my god’ after the final note. Janie Dee’s Phyllis is equally-but-differently good; fun, sassy, glamorous, complicated, the sort of person I wish I was. Her performance is a knockout and a very strong challenge for the crown of ‘best in show’ (and, one would assume, therefore the Best Actress in a Musical Olivier). Philip Quast is a perfectly suave, sickly and sad Ben and his voice is like melting chocolate. I’ve wanted to see Quast live for so many years (since the Les Mis concert performance which I had on video, because I am very old, and watched so often it wore out) and he’s even better than I hoped. And Peter Forbes is a joy as Buddy, funny, sad and dripping with pathos. It is difficult to overstate how good these four are, both individually and as a group. It’s the stuff that theatrical dreams are made of.

In sum then, Follies is a superb show and this is a superb production. I loved it utterly and you must, must, must catch it if you can. It’s so good, I’m even prepared to forgive the NT for the halloumi salad incident and that is truly saying something.

Follies is in the Olivier at the NT until 3rd January (with good ticket availability for the latter part of the run) and gets the NT Live treatment on 16th November.