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Too Stupid for Stoppard?

February 25, 2015

According to playwright Tom Stoppard, his latest effort “The Hard Problem” had to be “dumbed down” four times during previews before a sufficient number of the audience ‘got’ the literary references.

I’ve seen the play. SPOILER ALERT it’s about a young scientist who gets a job at a prestigious banker-funded research institute. The banker has a young adopted daughter. The scientist once gave up her baby from a teenage pregnancy for adoption. Guess the rest. SPOILER ENDS. I guessed the entire plot in the first twenty five minutes, and spent much of the rest wondering how bright the author was. Even “Hollyoaks” has a more inspired story arc.

On the one hand, I understood the scientific and literary references. On the other, I’d actually handed over £50 of my hard-earned cash to watch this piffle. And flashing me with a pert pair of buttocks wasn’t going to distract me from noticing just how thin that investment was.

Though, to be fair, they were very attractive buttocks…

But back to the point.

Most obviously of all, audiences pay your wages. Insulting them is never a sound idea. “Doing A Ratner” is something to fear, never emulate.

Tom Stoppard also forgets that the foundations of knowledge may be solid, but the accumulation on those foundations are ever growing. Even more impressive, that which once was considered exotic becomes commonplace. Franklin, Watson and Crick and Pauling unravelled DNA and Nobel Prizes were awarded for it. Now, a fairly bright high-school kid will explain base-pairings to you without thinking about it.

The same kid will, of course, also be able to cure your computer virus and connect your wifi – though admittedly not know how to move socks from a floor to a wash-basket (that is a bit advanced, after all).

They may think Churchill is a nodding cartoon dog, but they have knowledge which will see them through life. If not a Stoppard play – though in this case, it would have.

What Stoppard values as “general knowledge” is valid, but in this multi-media world with ever growing and faster flowing streams of material to process and understand, it’s increasingly hard for anyone to hold everything so readily to hand.

Yes, it’s sad when “current” displaces such fondly cherished “old” general knowledge – sadder still when that “old” knowledge was denied to someone in the first place. I’m the first to cry “foul” over my own (in)comprehensive education. It’s the cruellest social engineering metered out to anyone who can’t afford to pay or has no opportunity to fully “work the selective” system. Yet you can (as I did) do something about it. Basically realise early that you are being cheated and READ. Nothing that they tell you to, but the stuff those who are actually getting an education are reading. Emulate too the things they do, and you can acquire something worthwhile.

To be told by someone who didn’t receive a “public school” education, yet has done exactly as I did and “educated themselves” that he judges us to be “too think to understand his work” rather smacks of either chronic insecurity or creeping senility.

Theatre can teach, and the fact audiences turn out and pay to hear your ideas is an opportunity to inform and breach that gap.

Audiences are not getting thicker, life is simply getting faster, parameters of knowledge wider. You could use the opportunity to remind them of knowledge that may be on its way to sidelining, ensuring its survival rather than scaring anyone from the source. That would be the truly stupid thing to do…

Into The Woods, the film.

February 18, 2015

I already enjoy the Digital Theatre version of this musical, captured live at the definitive Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production, and was a huge fan of the original London production. Thus I made a rare venture into the cinema to see how Disney magic could make Sondheim’s shape up.

First jolt is the literal approach film requires. There isn’t room, in the mass audience required to make a movie pay, for subtlety. And this is as subtle as a giant’s footprint – and about as imaginative.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t look the part. The woods, village and castle are fairy-tale precise. It’s just that whereas stage versions have inventive fun with the setting, costumes and characters, the film has to be conventional.

So, second jolt is that Jack and Little Red Riding Hood are children. The stage version, and the songs the characters sing are full of sly observations about maturing, heightened by being sung by twenty-something performers. The frission of sexuality between Jack and Giantess and Red and Wolf are spices to season the blandness. All lost here, though the songs are performed nicely enough as earnest plot-movers.

Third jolt is Meryl Streep’s witch. In an already magical land, she almost has little to do. An already shortened libretto means her hold on proceedings is diminished, while, if we are being honest, her voice isn’t perhaps at its strongest either when tackling Sondheim. Sadly, not only are her biggest numbers mis-handled, her one original song didn’t make the final edit either.

OK, and a final criticism, I’m afraid I found Anna Kendrick as Cinderella rather vacant. But that could just be me.

On the plus side, James Cordon does well as the baker, and there’s nice work from the princes.

The script editor too makes a decent fist of shortening and “dumbing down” the script for the wider audience, and the songs are mostly left alone – the form seems to be to ‘abandon totally’ rather than edit. A good choice. Oddly, though, the music didn’t sound as lush as in days of Hollywood musicals past, but that could have been the cinema rather than this film.

As an introduction to Sondhiem, it’s not bad. It lacks the warmth and connectivity of the stage show, the true darkness and empathy, but it’s a reasonable enough attempt that I’ll be buying the DVD in the sales. That said, the Digital Theatre version is also still available… and the gap between them is wider than I’d hoped.

When shows leave London – “Top Hat” in Manchester

February 13, 2015
So, a show tours, comes into the West End, then leaves again. What happens next? Reader Nicky reviews the current “Top Hat” run in Manchester:
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I absolutely love this show – I think it has to rank as one of the best British musicals.   It just has everything you want:  tap dancing men in top hats with canes…beautiful dresses…sublime dancing.   You can overlook the slightly ludicrous plot because of all these!

The current production stars Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch.  I have seen ‘Top Hat’ twice already with Tom Chambers.  I have to say that I feel Alan Burkitt is a lot easier in the role than Tom Chambers was.  He just seems to glide effortlessly through the performance.  Having seen him, on reflection I feel that Tom Chambers was perhaps a little contrived and dare I say it…forced.  No disrespect to Tom Chambers who did the show proud but in my opinion, Alan Burkitt is better suited to the role.  He also bears a slight resemblance to Fred Astaire…well I was in Row N of the circle so that may have had something to do with it

I felt that the chemistry between Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch worked extremely well, particularly during the “if I was a tiger in Africa” song.  Her energy (and high kicks) were amazing!

Clive Hayward as Horace Hardwick was effortlessly funny, playing the downtrodden husband very well indeed with excellent delivery and comic timing.

John Conroy as the stoical Bates was hilarious and he received an extra big cheer from the audience during the curtain call.

Sebastian Torkia as Alberto Beddini was funny from the moment he appeared on stage but really came into his own in the “bridal suite” scene.  Again, his comic timing was faultless and there was a lot of physical comedy involved too.

The orchestra accompanying the production are outstanding – the overture really set the mood and added to the eager anticipation of the show.  The music is just beautiful – another reason this is a must-see musical.  My  female companion and I are both ballroom dancers and we found ourselves performing a virtual Quickstep (not easy in cramped seats) to many of the songs!

One of my favourite scenes is just before the end of Act 1 – the tap dancing.  Absolutely breathtaking.  The timing and precision are faultless.

Sadly, there were a lot of empty seats.  We went on a Thursday evening.  The show has been on since 9 February and runs until 21 February 2015.  People don’t know what they’re missing.

Do we have a “Big Theatre” problem?

February 11, 2015

A few years ago, it seemed there were a dozen massive musicals all desperately trying to find the largest theatres they could in the West End.

Now,  I’d say, the situation has reversed, and owners are struggling to find something permanent for our biggest venues. Ever since “I Can’t Sing” at the London Palladium last year, it just looks as if productions have suddenly become aware of the risks, and the money to stage such spectacles isn’t quite so forthcoming.

Evidence? The two biggest and best located theatres in London – the Dominion and Palladium – both have “dance shows” booked in for fairly short seasons, and the Dominion a “seasonal show” after that. Nothing wrong with dance or family seasonal shows – the big stages are required for such productions… but it’s not the same as housing a vast long-running musical.

Theatre is full of rumours, many of which are not true or based on fact yet come to nothing. By rumour of fact, “Back to the Future” should be booking at the Dominion, and “Pippin” flying over from Broadway to the Palladium. Neither have happened, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future. The only bright spot is that Disney may take the Palladium or Dominion for “Aladdin,” which could be good news… in 2016.

The fight instead is for space in the “mid sized” houses – those which most closely match Broadway theatres at the 1400 to 1600 seat size. Open a show at the Adelphi or Savoy and you’d better have a hit – because there’s a string of shows breathing down your neck and ready…

It’s quite odd in that a large stage is a stage which costs the same to fill with a set and actors for a musical. Yes, staff wages and rental costs of the venue are higher, but you have more seats to sell and can do so at lower prices while achieving as good a revenue stream as any other venue. And if you have a hit, you can recoup more quickly…

Maybe it’s more a prestige thing. A hit at a huge venue is bigger than any other, a failure a bigger disaster than quietly sneaking out of a less famous house.

Of course, it’s really the fact that investors are now gambling with £5 million or so – and negotiating to raise that money with 20 or so backers who insist on being called “producers” along with the hundreds of individual small “angel” investors who put up £5000 for the sheer love of what they do.

I’m just hoping things change again, and the big musical comes back into fashion. After all, “Cats” did very well at short notice in a vast venue last December, so maybe it’ll restore some badly needed confidence and give the West End the headlining big shows in the big theatres that we can all be so proud of.

The Merchant of Venice (Almeida Theatre)

February 4, 2015

Seen at the afternoon performance on 10th January 2015.

First theatre visit of the year for me, and expecting Venice, Italy, I got, well… the Venice Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. Complete with Elvis to start the show. “Luck truly is a Lady” for anyone able to obtain ticket to this run of the Rupert Goold production first done by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011.

A modern setting, interpolation of a TV game-show and the back catalogue of one of the greatest musical artists ever, and a cast who not only deliver the dialogue but have fun doing so combine to make this one of the most entertaining Shakespearian experience I’ve had since a twelfth night I’m not discussing further…

Ian McDiarmid’s awesomely avaricious, granite sense of conscience and punctilious Shylock possibly settle forever for me that this play is about anti-Semitism, rather than is inherently anti-Semitic. The insults cut deep, yet Goold’s direction ensures that each is given a reason, and the horrific culmination (even more impactful for those, like me, very close to where it happens) leaves audiences in no doubt that racial understanding is the only way forward and that the perpetrators are, in fact, the guiltier party.

Sharing the acting honours, much discussed Susannah Fielding’s Portia is indeed a treat to choose a lead box for. Her “Destiny” game-show – and outrageously attired contestants – are a highlight, and my, doesn’t she look amazing when she turns to medical law. An original delivery of the most famous speech, and a wonderfully unpredictable yet sound logic are unforgettable.

Scott Handy makes the most of Antonio, his physical reaction to Shylock’s debt-collecting another unrepeatable moment. A controlled Tom Weston-Jones (Bassanio) is lucky to have such a friend.

Suporting roles are well done too. Jamie Beamish’s Gobbo / Elvis is fun, while Anthony Welsh (Gratiano) has to be on the list of any casting director for future classical work.

For the ladies, Caroline Martin is a fine Jessica, growing in stature as the production progresses. As side-kick to Portia, Emily Plumtree’s Nerissa more than holds her own, while dippy Stephanie (Rebecca Brewer) and versatile Concience (Merry Holden) also enchanted a 12 year old boy seated further along my row with their additional show-girl turns. Can’t think why…

The only criticism has to be the lack of funds to allow a more versatile set. Being stuck with the gaudy hotel for all scenes requires the audience to work harder at times to place the action. Mostly, it doesn’t matter, but were this to head where it deserves – into the West End – it’s a problem which may need solving.

Still, as an introduction to both the Bard and just how phenomenal a well-drilled troupe of outstandingly talented actors can be, those who have tickets have found the golden box-office for sure.

Assassins (Menier Chocolate Factory)

January 28, 2015

Seen at the afternoon performance on 20th December 2014.

I remember fondly the 1992 Donmar Warehouse London premiere, which re-opened that venue and confused the professional reviewers of the time. Then, impeccable thrust-staging and a star-studded-in-the-making cast taught me more about American history in 90 minutes than I’d previously learned in a lifetime. Consequently, and having had years to listen to the cast CD (one of the first CDs I bought, at a time when vinyl still reigned) I was very much looking forward to renewing old acquaintances.

This time, the cast was already well-known, and the setting an imaginative traverse. The carnival this time is seedy, with an even seedier owner (Simon Lipkin) to keep score. Jamie Parker’s superbly urbane Balladeer (and later, Lee Harvey Oswald) reclines in a dodgem until required, and one by one, the freaks of history arrive and deliver their tales along with the bullets – “Hit” and “Miss” signs illuminate us as to their success.

Of particular note, Stewart Clarke’s frustrated working Zangara, Harry Morrison’s emotionally immature Hinkley, Mike McShane’s deluded Samuel Byck and the Carly Bawden / Catherine Tate fruitcake Fromme / Moore combo stand out. Each delivers as many chills in their motivation as they do in their actions.

The music is as strong as ever, and it was an opportunity to hear “Something Just Broke” again – it’s not on the original recording as it was added later, for London.

Soutra Gilmour’s design is effective, though since the show’s point is that these murderers ‘surround us in everyday life,’ rather than simply face-off against each other, the traverse simply wasn’t as effective as an audience on three sides. Still, everybody gets a souvenir (and will be finding it in their clothes for weeks).

For sure, this gave the message loud and clear that America cannot be changed radically by the use of a gun (I might argue a case for a plane though, perhaps, alas) and that it is the democratic right to “kill a president” – the guardian of that message. The fact that most don’t being the proof that democracy works.

As an overview of history, and a dissection of politics at grass-roots level, the musical still enthralls. As a musical entertainment, it’s sometimes colder than it need be – and this production is certainly one of the most clinical in that regard. Sharp enough to kill, a warmer chill may have raised it from the merely good to the heights of outstanding. Still and all, damn you Booth…

The Goodmonkey Awards For 2014

January 21, 2015

I’ve done the show list, so I guess it’s medal time, Muttley. As ever, named in memory of Goodshow, the sadly deceased website, here’s “the awards that other awards dare not mention…”

 

Eye Mask and Swag bag, but no matching stripy top yet: to debut maker Patsy Ferran, for almost stealing “Blithe Spirit” from her fellow, far more experienced cast-mates. Had they not kept their feet very firmly on the set, Ferran would have been half way to Piccadilly Circus with the show before they’d even noticed. Had she succeeded, the striped top would have been hers, of course. Concurrently, Golden Ouija Boards to the entire cast, for truly exception ensemble playing and a wonderful performance.

 

 

Bob The Builder’s Hard Hat to: The kindly drill-wielding  front-of-house person at the Theatre Royal, Straford East, who twice valiantly attempted to repair the broken seat I was allocated. Concurrently, a tub of “Vanish” to the Old Vic’s front of house staff, to clean the seats after a school party visit and before us adults need to use them…

 

 

The Lee Harvey Oswald Library Card, for best assassination attempt to: Sinéad Matthews in “Blurred Lines” at the National Theatre. Kicking off a stiletto shoe at great speed from a good height seems the perfect, undetectable, way to despatch that annoying punter in row A… a tiny bit more force, and a legend may have been born…

 

Christiaan Barnard’s surgical gowns to: the cast of “My Night With Reg” at the Donmar Warehouse. For successfully tearing the audience’s hearts out without them even noticing in the space of a mere two hours. Concurrently, “I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke” song on permanent loop backstage:  for gratuitously wasting half a bottle per performance of the precious liquid.

 

 

The Mary Whitehouse Blue Pencil to: an elderly lady two rows ahead of me at “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As the very beautiful ladies of the show’s chorus went into the “French Maid” dance routine, we all heard the very audible “oof” as her husband leaned forward to admire the view… and received a corrective elbow in the ribs. Concurrently, the Vogue Magazine Front Cover to said ladies of the cast of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and the show’s casting director, for services to pulchritude.

 

 

A Bowl of Duck Soup, for Marx Brothers Front of House service to the Ambassadors Theatre. On a visit in July 2014 I recorded:  the staff sadistically not letting an elderly woman 10 steps past a staircase foyer rope to use the toilet, as “the house is closed – so go 200 yards down the road to the local pub, and good luck with that.” Once past the rope, an underworked usher gets concurrently a “King of the Swingers” CD for entertaining us all by swinging around on the stalls door frame while waiting for customers. That same usher then blamed the customers he did let in for taking seats that weren’t theirs. Turned out it was his fault for not reading tickets properly and letting circle customers take the equivalent stalls seats. To cap it, he noisily moved customers forward from the rear stalls – just as the play had started… luckily he was too busy to see the look he got from the stage for his efforts.

 

 

The Diana Morales Headband to Joanna O’Hare, for effortlessly becoming a bedside table, sports-hall coat hanger and well, clothes line, rather than ice-cream cone; as required during “The Beautiful Game” at the Union Theatre, London.

 

 

A Night in a Haunted House, for badly spooking me to: Chloe Lamford and Ruth Stringer, designers at “God Bless The Child.” That primary school corridor leading to the classroom, and the classroom set itself were sufficient to cause serious flashbacks.

 

 

Tim Rice’s Biro to: Harry Hill for the lyric “When I sing all the windows crack, I thought a quaver was a cheesy snack” in the libretto of “I Can’t Sing.” Amused me very much. Also, they can’t say now that the show hasn’t won at least ONE award…

 

 

A Star on the Fridge’s Chart: to Ms Isabella Pappas for a stunning performance from a very young person in the complex role of Iris at “The Nether.”

 

 

Max Bygraves High Stool and Mic, for most compelling musical solo to Neil Stewart as Phil Cavilleri in “Love Story” (Union Theatre). For his effective simplicity holding an audience in one compelling song sung from a centre stage bench.

 

 

Tryout for the Comedy Store Players to: Karl Davies for a superb “in character” ad-lib as the set fell to pieces during “Hobson’s Choice” at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park. Saved the entire evening for all.

 

 

A giant trumpet of joy to: Designer Samuel Wyer and directors Finn Cauldwell and Toby Olie for “The Elephantom.” Intended for younger children… it’s the adults who admired it most. Wonderful, and a summer 2015 revival, with “adults only” performances, please?

 

 

And finally…

An I-Spy Book, with all the pages already filled in so it’s no fun:  to the first member of an audience I was part of, to ever spot “theatremonkey” as I was doing some “pre-show” sightline checks before a performance… and stupidly deduce it was something worth telling ushering staff about, causing us all unnecessary hassle and embarrassment. The place was empty, they knew I was “in” – and importantly, not disturbing anyone. Paranoia is, fortunately, treatable, though.

 

So, to sum up the year, I think it was “The Year of the Experiment.” More so than previous years, I’ve found myself looking very much forward to some productions, all sounding more promising than in previous years. A play written as a big trial concludes? The National Theatre as a nightclub for a biographical musical? Internet Pedophilia addressed on a mainstream stage? The ladies of Dagenham rightly celebrated on the Strand? All here. Some were great, others disappointing, many that I’d agreed to attend “to just see,” turned out to be stunning. My reactions may have been “out of tune” with the professionals – I rated “Bakersfield Mist” far higher than most, “Porgy and Bess” far lower – but it mixed things up wonderfully.

Looking to 2015, there’s “Gypsy” and the Cumberbatch “Hamlet,” and no doubt many more productions that may just be in contention for a “Goodmonkey” next year. Until then, I guess that concludes the annual ceremony. Thanks to all who contested the categories, and I assure the winners that –as ever – their prizes are not “in the post.”

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