‘Mission Drift’ at The Shed, The National Theatre

2013-06-06 13.50.49This was my first visit inside The Shed, the temporary studio space at the National Theatre.  A large red wooden box accessed through a hole created in the exterior wall of the Lyttleton foyer, it has a plain black interior and a central performance area.

Sitting in the front row we risked tripping up the actors if we stretched our legs out too far, but such proximity afforded a very direct experience of the performances.

Mission Drift is a piece devised by the young american company TEAM as an exploration of the striving towards a Utopia of capitalism.  The props include three collapsible garden chairs, some tinsel, a grand piano and sand scattered from water bottles, reinforcing the ‘fringe’  energy and aesthetic of the show.

It is presided over by Miss Atomic, Heather Christian, as a purring chanteuse, part beauty pageant winner, part cackling cynic.  Two parallel stories unfold: one in Las Vegas just after the economic downturn, where Joan, a recently redundant cocktail waitress whose house on an unfinished development is now worthless,  spends her time in the neon boneyard where the lights of the imploded casinos go to die.  The second is the story of Catalina and Jorus Rapalje, newly arrived in New Amsterdam in the 17th century, who, perpetually teenagers, and constantly producing children, follow a 400 year odyssey from being early employees of ‘The Company’, the first multinational corporation, to being billionaire owners of a string of casinos in the shining city of Las Vegas, via trading with the native peoples through logging, farming and the nuclear bomb testing, and many name changes.

It’s an ambitious project to cover the length and breadth of US history through its focus on moneymaking, and, at the beginning it wasn’t altogether clear to me what was going on, but as it progressed, the energy and commitment of the performances made sense of the apparent chaos of microphone cables, dancing and lizards’ heads.  The music is a great melange of gospel, blues, jazz, a sprinkling of Elvis, and an offkey My Way, delivered by the on stage musicians, variously whispered, amplified, distorted or au naturel.

Being so close to the action meant that when Chris, the man who insisted he lived in the desert even though the city now surrounded him, shook the dust of his jacket, it drifted straight into our drinks and the back of my throat, an unexpected taste and smell addition to the visual and aural experience.

It was fun and physical, and amidst the chaotic exuberance there is a serious comment on the perpetual striving for growth and the ‘knock it down and build a bigger one’ of american capitalism.

It was a great first experience of The Shed, of which I hope there will be more.

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‘Singin’ in the Rain’ at The Palace Theatre

IMG00757-20130202-1859I have a, perhaps apocryphal, memory from a short, not entirely enjoyable, stay at Butlins in Minehead in 1963 that the music they played across the camp as a wake up call each morning, was a cover version of Good Morning, featuring the timeless line ‘Good morning, good mor-or-or-ning, welcome to Butlins camp’.

It was a shock, then, when I heard the ‘proper’ version when I saw the movie on afternoon television a few years later.  The repetition of the tune in the early morning on seven consecutive days in early childhood seemingly having embedded itself somewhere very deep in my memory.

Since then the MGM film of Singin’ in the Rain has become a favourite;  I’ve watched it more times than I can count.  I love the white overcoat and hat that Gene Kelly is wearing when we first see him lit by flash bulbs on his way up the red carpet to the première that opens the movie, and the bit in Make ’em Laugh when Donald O’Connor dances up the wall and somersaults back to the floor, and watching Kelly, O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds dance over the back of a sofa making it fall over towards the end of Good Morning.  

There was therefore both anticipation and a little fear of disappointment in going to see the current West End production.  Would I see what I was hoping for?  I’m pleased to report a fairly satisfactory score of 2 out of 3: the white coat, and dancing over the sofa, although on stage they used a park bench; I can understand why the running up the wall trick didn’t feature, although they did give a nod to its absence, so my disappointment  wasn’t too great.

In fact, this is another feel good show, all singing and dancing, and the dancing is tremendous fun.  There is also the water; lots of it.  It pours down from the roof onto the stage, creating a little paddling pool for Adam Cooper as Don Lockwood to kick through, showering the first three rows or so of the stalls with enough water to have them squealing and laughing each time.

The dancing is better than the singing, but that’s enough for it to be a toe-tapping, jolly experience.  It’s faithful enough to the film to feel comfortable, but not slavish to it so that there is something individual about it too.  The use of projected film, to show the first efforts  by Lockwood and Lamont to talk for the screen was cleverly done; as was the humour Lina Lamont’s strangulated vowels and high pitched voice.

And any show that can make umbrellas fun, has to be worth it, doesn’t it?

‘Kiss Me Kate’ at The Old Vic

IMG00752-20130201-1903I’m just emerging from a weekend busy with sociability, book talk, writing talk, gossiping talk and three theatre trips, (yes, three: Friday evening, and Saturday matinee and evening; it takes stamina), feeling that I’ve almost too much to write about, and not being sure where to start.   I’m still absorbing all the excitement of the experiences and managing the consequences of more late nights than I’m used to.

There’s nothing for it, but to take one thing at a time, and because I’m just that way, to go through them chronologically.

Let’s start with Friday night at the Old Vic, for the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Kiss Me Kate.

Recently, I’ve not been much of a fan of Trevor Nunn, the director of this revival, largely because of the dull and long-winded productions I’ve sat through.  And while there are some longueurs in this show, for the most part it is snappy, lively and just the right side of camp.

Based during the out-of-town try out for a musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in a shabby theatre in Baltimore,  the fighting between the leads, and formerly married couple of Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham, spills over to the on stage bickering  between their characters Katherine and Petruchio .  But really the plot is just the infrastructure which carries the clever word play and infectious tunes of the Cole Porter score; and it is packed with good songs.  It was another of those occasions for conversations which include the line ‘I didn’t know that song was from this …’, but if you’re Cole Porter and you’ve such a host of songs in your pocket, why not put as many as you can into one show.

It’s too darn hot is one such surprising tune, which could seem a bit shoe horned into the script, but which, in taking us away from the theatrical bickering and the Shakespearean pastiche, gave the choreographer the opportunity to create something spectacular and sensual, and which had the dancer Jason Pennycooke sliding across the stage in the splits.

Apart from that interlude, it was really in the singing that the performances shone, making the most of the tremendous lyrics, and some impressive soaring top notes.  It all builds slowly, so that by the time we arrived at Brush up Your Shakespeare, performed by David Burt and Clive Rowe as the two gangsters who arrive trying to recover a debt, but who end up on stage, they are able to extract every last once of fun out of the song, and eke it out across a couple of encores, so revved up were the audience by then.  And why not, if it lets us enjoy the never to be forgotten line If she says your behaviour is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus.

Originally written in 1948, the show retains elements which betray that it is of its time, but by performing it with a sort of knowing wink to the audience, most of the anachronisms manage to remain humorous.

I’ve come to this towards the end of its run which is at the beginning of next month, but there’s still time, if you want to see something which will have you tap dancing your way back to Waterloo station.

Les Miserables – The Movie, Applause and Speeches

IMG00695-20121204-1806I was privileged to be invited to an early private screening of the soon to be released movie of Les Miserables this week.  Many of the people in the audience had been involved in the making of the film, so there was a rare hubbub of chatter and excitement in the cinema, of people greeting each other as long lost buddies, and nervous anticipation of what they would see of their work on the screen.

Before it began, there were speeches from the producers and Tom Hooper, the Director, thanking all the contributors and crafts people involved; and then to everyone’s surprised delight, Hugh Jackman bounded up the aisle to add that extra little bit of star dust to the proceedings.

I’ve been lucky enough to go to a couple of the anniversary performances of the stage show, and at those, the star of the proceedings, the puppet master, the one to whom all the others defer has always been Cameron Mackintosh, the theatrical producer; in a show that makes performers’ careers, rather than using already famous names, his is the name everyone knows already.  For the film, boasting a number of big name actors, the spotlight most definitely fell on the ‘talent’.

Warmed up by the opening speeches, everyone was primed for an enthusiastic and noisy reception for the film itself.  I don’t think I’ve ever applauded a film before, but, in amongst this crowd it was infectious.  I suppose many of them knew the graft that had gone into the staging and recording of it, so there was applause for swooping camera shots as well as for the soaring vocals.

In his speech, Tom Hooper had explained that one key conception for the film was that all the singing would be recorded as it was performed, so that there would be no subsequent over dubbing or re-recording in a studio.  As well as putting performance pressure on the actors, this also led to technical challenges for the sound recordings and even the costume design, as the clothes had to be made from fabrics that were rustle free.

As I watched the movie, I wondered how important it was to know this background to appreciate the singing performances.  Would we even question how it had been recorded if he’d not told us?  There is an intensity to many of the more poignant songs, where the importance of conveying the emotion has been given priority over the purity of voice which does perhaps add something different, when, as they are, the faces are filmed in tight close up.

So what of the film itself?  It keeps very closely to the stage show in terms of story telling (and so is nearly 3 hours long), but with the breadth and sweep of cinema there is much more drama in the scenery and setting.  Where the stage show relies on a few people dressed in rags and a heap of junk on hydraulics as backdrop, for the film, huge sets of docks and a specially conceived city of Paris have been built.  Where on the stage prisoners doubled as students, and whores as dancing ladies, in the film each role is occupied by a different actor.

It was a relief to discover that all the star names in the main roles can actually sing, this is no Mama Mia, and there were moments of true poignancy.  The one performance that puzzled me was that of Russell Crowe as Javert; it was surprisingly contained and a bit passive for a character so ostensibly consumed by zealous righteousness.

I have to say, though, that I prefer it on stage.  There is something about the jeopardy of knowing that the actors are actually there, in front of me, risking failure, belting out the songs, that has greater visceral enjoyment to it.  Somehow the movie missed that joyous crescendo of The Master of the House, which, at each theatrical performance I’ve seen, has brought the house down; and the ensemble songs like One More Day somehow lacked the power that comes from the stage during a live performance.  The big screen is also much less forgiving of some of the clunkier exposition in the lyrics than the stage, especially when the faces singing the words are in close-up.

But if you love the show, you’ll want to see this; and if you’ve never seen it on stage, this is a good opportunity to give it a go.

And we stayed all the way right  until the end of the credits – with so many people cheering each others names, it seemed rude not to.

‘Top Hat’ at the Aldwych Theatre

It’s nostalgia, it’s frivolous, but it’s also tuneful and jolly, and suited us for an evening of humming along and foot tapping.  And, once again, as I was leaving the theatre I wished that could tap dance, but instead scuffed my feet along the pavement, bobbing up and down rather awkwardly fora bit before giving up and walking to the Tube station.

To steal my summary of the show from Micheal Billington’s review in the Guardian ‘great songs, daft book‘ just about covers it.  Based on the RKO movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, filled with Irving Berlin numbers, which although I may not know all the words, I can certainly sing along to for the first couple of verses and the chorus, with a jolly cast of hoofers, tap dancing their way through big production numbers, it was good fun.

The aggravation, for me came in the longuers of the second half when there wasn’t so much dancing, and a lot of silliness about funny foreigners and stupid misunderstandings that could have been cleared up within seconds if only one person had told the truth, but which went on and on, until I was nearly screaming ‘get on with it’ at them.  But then I may have been alone in this feeling, as the the rest of the audience seemed to be laughing like drains at things I didn’t find in the least bit amusing, and the group of women behind whom I queued for the Ladies at the end were saying how things really got going in the second half.

For me the greatest delight was in the big numbers where everyone was on stage dancing and singing, tapping their canes on the ground to add to the syncopated rhythms and tipping their hats.  And best of all, dancing waiters carrying trays laden with plastic food and drink.

One of my early theatre memories is of being taken to see Ginger Rogers in Hello Dolly at the open air theatre in St Louis in the late 1960s.  I sat fascinated by the chorus of dancers, leaping and spinning while keeping their laden trays above their heads.  How did they do it without everything falling off?  I couldn’t take my eyes off them, trying to work it out.  And then I saw – as they went out into the wings they let the trays hang down by their sides, and I realised everything was glued on.

Maybe some of the magic was gone forever, and I still look at stage effects and try and work out how they’re done, but a big musical will never now be complete for me without a dancing waiter!

‘Sweeney Todd’ at the Adelphi Theatre

The show has been on my ‘to see’ list ever since I read that the successful Chichester production was transferring to the West End.  The posters added to the intrigue, showing, as they do, a nearly unrecognisable Michael Ball.

As soon as it started, I knew we were in for a good show, simply from the way the chorus sang the opening, enunciating each of Sondheim’s words so clearly, so that we could hear and enjoy all the cleverness and economy of the lyrics, all beginning from that ….the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Making the most of its dark themes of murder, lust, revenge and pies, the whole production is dark; a brooding dimly lit set, deep rich tone from the band, and such black humour.  This is one of Sondheim’s most complex scores and the wittiest librettos, and part of the thrill of the show is the mixture of macabre and bloody violence and sly humour.  One minute I was smiling at the cleverness of the rhyming dual in A Little Priest, and then screwing up my eyes ready to look away in anticipation of the next bloody murder.

The best thing about the show is the performances.  Michael Ball, departing from his usual light slightly camp stage persona, gives a strange and powerful portrayal of the decline of a man with a legitimate grievance to one consumed with desire for revenge, and unable to stop killing.  It is a nuanced portrayal and one which was vocally gorgeous; his voice seems to be getting better and deeper, defying the passage of time.

Imelda Staunton extracts every ounce of humour from the role of Mrs Lovett, from the opening when she is baking disgusting pies that not even a very hungry Sweeney Todd could eat, through to her lustful, encouragement of his killings.  The scene in which she goes from horror at discovering the body of Sweeney’s first victim in the trunk to realising that the corpse represented the perfect source for meat for new and improved pies, was a tour de force.

I didn’t really care for the actress who played Johanna, Sweeney Todd’s daughter, as her voice wasn’t strong or interesting enough,but that would be my only criticism of the show.

It’s closing soon, so there’s not much time to make sure you don’t miss it.

‘Carousel’ at Opera North, Leeds Grand

Although I grew up in a household where everyone can sing most of Guys and Dolls and at least two songs by Rogers and Hammerstein, I don’t think I had ever seen Carousel all the way through before last week.

The conversation, when we were in our seats and checking through the programme went something like this:

‘Do we know any of the songs in it?’

‘It’ll be difficult not to join in with You’ll never walk alone.’

‘I thought that was from Show Boat.’

‘No. It’s Carousel.  You must be thinking of something else.’

‘Oh.  I was sure it was Show Boat.’

‘This one’s got June is Busting out all over.’

‘I thought that was in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’

‘Well it’s not.’

‘There’s definitely a song about a change in the season.’

I’m as corny as Kansas in August?’

‘Not, that’s from South Pacific.  The one in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is about Spring, farmyards are busy and something’s in a tizzy.’

‘Mm.  So what’s the one in Show Boat?

‘I know.  Smoke gets in your eyes.’

‘But that’s nothing like You’ll never walk alone.’

‘Maybe, but they are both really popular in non musical theatre contexts.’

‘Pfff.’

It was probably a relief to the people around us when the show began.

It was lovely to hear the music played by a proper orchestra rather than a pit band, and the cast all had lovely voices especially Eric Greene as Billy Bigelow and Joseph Shovelton as Enoch Snow.  The staging too was inspired; making full use of the stage revolve, the carousel was created within minutes from bands of light and a few wooden horses, and the small New England village was suggested by a ragged little shore house.  The dancing in the sequence when Billy is watching the daughter he will never know being tormented by the town’s youth is lithe and light.

It was a great production with a lot of verve and imagination with a full house to show for its reputation in Leeds.  But when I wrote that I’d never seen the show all the way through before, I think it’s because I’ve seen the beginning several times, thought it was a bit slow and switched over to something else.  It’s a curious musical, in that I’ve just read that in one poll it has been voted the best of the 20th century, while I would have said almost the opposite.  Usually with a Rogers and Hammerstein show I get the feeling that they have so many song ideas that they cram them in one after another in quick succession whereas in Carousel, I felt as if I was waiting for it all to get going for quite a while.

The production is on at the Lowry in Salford, before moving to the Barbican in London in mid August.

‘Backbeat’ at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Fashioned around the telling of a footnote to the early story of The Beatles, Backbeat  contains more story than most of the rival ‘jukebox musicals’ currently on in the West End, but not enough story to feel like a fully realised play.

Set mainly in that mythical time before the Beatles were the Beatles, but were a covers band playing in a dive in the red light district in Hamburg, the story focuses on the relationship between John Lennon and his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who despite not being able to play the bass properly was co-opted into the band largely on the basis of his ‘coolness’.

In Hamburg, Sutcliffe begins a relationship with Astrid Kirchher and has to choose between the band and his career as a painter on the one hand and his friendship with Lennon and his love affair with Astrid on the other.  Interesting themes then, about what it is to live as an artist, the decisions that have to be made, the people who want to be associated with such a person because of their ‘aura’ and the vicarious sharing of that glow; so it was a bit frustrating to have them dealt with so superficially.

Instead the show presents small scenes about the pain, comedy and anarchy of young lads taking their first steps into the wider world, with interludes of loudly amplified hits from the late 50s and very early 60s like Please Mr Postman.  The look of it is super cool, echoing the atmospheric black and white photos Kirchher took of the Group, and the styling of them that she allegedly suggested, but, culminating as it does with Sutcliffe’s very early death, there’s a downbeat quality to the show.

There is an energy and a charm about the music, but it’s not really the main purpose of the piece, and for me it was a bit anachronistic and too plentiful.  Whatever the original band sounded like in its Hamburg dive, it didn’t benefit from a loud West End theatre sound system; and for me, the now apparently compulsory playing of as many songs after the curtain call as during the show, is growing a bit thin.  I’d like to watch the show, applaud the performers and then go home; the twenty minute ‘encore’ is definitely de trop.

The best summary I can give is to paraphrase the conversation I had with my friend as we were leaving the theatre.  It was quite sweet, thank goodness it had more story to it than so many other similar shows, Lennon was an unpleasant character, and its a pity there weren’t more Beatles songs.

‘Christmas With The Rat Pack’ at Wyndhams Theatre

This was my Christmas Panto outing for this year.  A cabaret show, riffing on the idea of the shows that were performed by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the 1960s, but with a Christmas flavour.

In contrast to the other jukebox shows on in London at the moment, there is no attempt to give this any kind of narrative; it’s simply three guys giving us their impersonations of the three ‘rat packers’.  There’s a little repartee between them, the joshing of each other that the originals indulged in, Dean being drunk, Sammy being Jewish, and Frank smooth, but apart from that, it’s all down to the singing, supported by a ‘three sisters’ group, backed by a 15 strong band, arranged across the back of the stage.

The singing is good because they’ve all got great voices, but it’s not a brilliant sign that I spent a lot of the time worrying about whether they were going to trip over the cables of their retro style microphones.  And when I wasn’t thinking about that, I was wondering about how satisfying it could be to make a career out of the fact that you can do a decent impersonation of someone else.

There wasn’t really enough to look at on stage for me; I perked up when the girls danced, but there wasn’t nearly enough of that.  So instead, in my perpetual search for a narrative I watched the small interactions between them to see if there was something in the relationship between the three crooners.

Who knows what the dynamics really were, but based on this show it seems that Frank was the acknowledged cock of the walk, Dean had a better voice, but disappointed he wasn’t Frank, drank too much and made a virtue of that in a hard drinking age, and Sammy was the most talented of the three, but who played the fool and endured the patronising of the others in order to be allowed into the gang.

This is essentially a tribute band, but its the fame and mythology surrounding the original artists, and the age of their audience, that allows this to be produced in theatres rather than on the university circuit or in the fourth string tents at festivals.

It was foot tapping and fun by the end, with the addition of a few carols in smooth swing time for seasonal spice

In a trawl around the internet I found one ‘user comment’ about last year’s Christmas show by the same cast that made me laugh out loud.  ‘He’s the best Dean Martin I’ve ever heard.’

And there you have it; ersatz can win the day.

‘Take Back Your Mink’ and Other Mysteries

One of the things that A, the friend with whom I’m staying this week, and I share is an appreciation of the Broadway musicals of the 1940s and 50s, including once giving a rousing rendition of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ from the top of the marble staircase in the deserted building at the railway border crossing from Finland into Russia in the middle of the night.  So it was not really that surprising that for the last couple of days I’ve been watching the film of ‘Guys and Dolls’ with her and two of her daughters aged 10 and 12.

It amused me that the children were as keen to watch it (again) as I was.

I learnt all the words to the show from the original Broadway cast recording LP which I played constantly when I was about 8.  We had a borrowed record player, and I danced up and down the basement singing along.  The words are so well embedded that I notice small differences between Vivian Blaines’ performance for the recording and in the movie, and as a purist, I hold with the original.

There are lines which have entered the normal lexicon for my family.  When I had an English teacher called Mrs McKlusky, no-one could resist adding, ‘but Mrs McKlusky ain’t a good scout’ whenever I mentioned my English homework or exams, or, on Grand National Day should anyone decide to make a bet on the race, someone will launch into ‘I got the horse right here…..and there’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear…..’.

One of the songs that I remember enjoying most was ‘Take Back Your Mink’.  I cannot now remember what I thought it meant at the time.  I know I didn’t realise that both this and ‘I Love you a Bushel and a Peck’ were night club songs; I thought they were part of the story, which puzzled me, but which I accepted because so much in life didn’t make much sense to me then.  I do remember asking my mother what ‘to  hollanderize’ meant (a phrase which I don’t think appears in the movie. meaning a process to repair and refresh fur coats), but I didn’t have the visual image of a striptease in my mind.

So I was fascinated to watch this scene in the movie with two young girls after their mother had left the room to prepare supper.  We all sat on the sofa singing along.

‘That must be quite embarrassing, to have to give back the clothes,’ N said.

‘I suppose so.’ C replied.

‘What did was she meant to do in exchange?’ N asked.

‘Don’t know,’ C replied.

I pretended not to have heard, as offering any kind of explanation on such matters is well above my pay grade.  And anyway, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having no idea what’s going on!

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