Hedda Gabler (Festival Theatre: 17-21 October ’17)

Photo. National Theatre, London

“Glistens with sparkling elements”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I wonder if there is a word, other than bewilderment, for the reaction to a writer who receives praise despite mediocre work. This is what Patrick Marber’s writing stokes inside me. His re-writing of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is by far the most lamentable element of this National Theatre production, which sometimes glistens with sparkling elements, but includes far too many misjudgments at the head-in-hands level .

To name a few: Leonard Cohen’s lovely yet done-to-death “Hallelujah” plays over a somber transition. Pale blue lights shine intermittently on the assembled actors, for no apparent reason. Physicality is dishearteningly overplayed at times, making the performers appear more like wet marionettes than characters telling a story. And yet, Marber’s script outdoes them all.

The play concerns itself with a day and a night in the apartment of academic wet blanket Tesman and the eponymous Hedda, his new, unfulfilled wife. Friends and former lovers of theirs come and go to moan and wail about their various woes, from dead-end marriages to unrequited love to jealousy over academic rivals’ successes. There are intriguing elements to these episodic entrances and exits, most compellingly when Tesman’s semi-rival Lovborg lays out his plan for his next work. This is what most frustrates about this show: there are so many glimmers of intriguing theatre, many stemming from Ivo Van Hove’s smart (yet here unexceptional) direction, but they are all but snuffed out by Marber’s tone-deaf phrasing and (I hazard) self-importance.

Hedda, a groundbreaking and fresh character in 1891, is nowadays much less extraordinary. She is the daughter of a prestigious general, and a young woman with many suitors, yet lacks any real goals or interests in life. This “poverty of spirit” as the play decides to call it, leads her to seek out increasingly sadistic means of exerting some kind of power over something, whether it be tearing up flowers or firing her father’s pistols at unsuspecting guests, and eventually much worse. This kind of bourgeois-fetishizing story creates just the sort of middle-of-the-road tension and intrigue that should be right up Marber’s alley. Is Tesman going to get his professorship? Is Hedda fulfilled? What is that maid doing there? Yet Marber seems to think he doesn’t need to convince an audience to care about these central questions of the script. So he fails to.

Much like in his magnum opus, Closer, Marber’s word choices can prove unfortunate and even unpleasant. The storyline is treated with such carelessness that it is unclear whether it is satirizing its own pomposity or reveling in it. It looks like Ibsen’s text has suffered a form of quantitative easing and the original is struggling to get back into shape. Certain big monologues (that strain the runtime for no apparent reason) are answered by brief ironic retort: when one character loses the precious, handwritten single draft of his upcoming masterpiece, he waxes poetic for no less than five minutes about his loss — to which another character quietly quips: “It’s just a book.” Somehow, this self-awareness gets squashed and replaced with showiness and shiny things.

There are many shiny things. The set is the unfurnished apartment owned by Hedda and Tesman and is immaculately underdressed. Hedda’s costume is a shiny nightgown. The lights gleaming out of an impressive side window are shiny, as is the display Hedda creates as she plays with the blinds out of increasingly aggressive boredom. The two handguns on show in their upstage glass case  are shiny, and even shinier when they are — spoiler alert — fired at certain characters. But shiny objects do not tell good stories by themselves. We seem to have a production that thinks having a smooth set and glossy production values can make up for a certain percentage of the narrative. They cannot. Some more work on character dynamics and relationships and a little less time stapling roses to walls would have helped quite a lot.

That being said, there is still much to be appreciated in the production. For their stamina alone, the actors deserve some credit. Wading through these lines with such patience must have been hard. Lead actress Lizzy Watts gives Hedda some delightfully cruel ticks, from turning her back on anyone she finds unworthy, to consciously tormenting her guests with their worst vices. Her dynamic with Richard Pyros, playing Lovborg, was the most electric to watch, especially as she toys with his teetotalism in the most vicious way. Adam Best as corrupt judge Brack is the most bombastic onstage presence by far, and his was a refreshing performance. Annabel Bates is good at looking sad, that’s for sure. Abhin Galeya waves his hands around far too much, but otherwise is a solid Tesman — though the character seemed meant to be much more pathetic than the relatively proud man Galeya has created. Christine Kavanagh is a charming red herring at the beginning, as her Aunt Juliana character deftly introduces the audience to the show, then disappears — which is a shame, as Kavanagh’s energy was possibly the best-measured. Madlena Nedeva is a solemn and well-crafted presence as Berte, the maid, yet her character is so untapped that she quite literally becomes more a piece of furniture than a participant.

Overall, an underwhelming and overwritten production of an important play. It is surprising and disappointing that others have eaten it up nonetheless.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller  (Seen 17 October)

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Casanova, Northern Ballet (Festival Theatre: 23 – 25 March ’17)

Giuliano Contadini as Casanova.
Photos. Guy Farrow, Northern Ballet.

“Sooo awesome!”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Casanova is a brand new ballet on its world premier tour, choreographed by Kenneth Tindall in his first major work. This could have gone either way but be reassured: this is a really exciting piece.

The story itself is based upon the life of Giacomo Casanova, taken from Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova. It starts with Casanova (Giuliano Contadini), a trainee priest, intent upon following his vocation when he meets musicians the Savorgnan Sisters, Nanetta & Marta (Abigail Prudames and Minju Kang). Together the sisters seduce the young priest and take his virginity. Upon discovery, Casanova is cast out of the seminary with only his violin and a book: a forbidden text given to him by Father Balbi (Jeremy Curnier), a renegade priest who, being hunted by Inquisition, offloads the book on to the young man.

What follows is a story of the rise and fall of Casanova, first in his native Venice and afterwards again in Paris after being forced to flee by the Inquisition. Casanova takes himself seriously: he is an intellectual, a mathematician and a social climber. Ultimately though it is a story of talent wasted through dissipation and through that, he loses the women who loved him and whom he loves in turn: Henriette (Hannah Bateman) and Manon Balletti (Ayami Miyata).

In the central role of Casanova, Contadini (almost literally) carries the entire production. This is an incredibly demanding performance, having to show a wide range of emotions, the intellectual acuity, the boredom of unending lust and upmost despair to the brink of self destruction. Contadini is a good choice: the proportions of his Italian frame adds a level of authenticity to the production. The role itself is incredibly physical, one of the toughest I have seen for a male dancer, so it is with little wonder that there was just the slightest sign of fatigue by the end. As Henriette, Bateman’s performance is very moving and, as the nun M.M., Ailen Ramos Betancourt is extremely seductive. The cast delivered their roles wonderfully in a fabulous ensemble performance. Casanova should be sexy and frankly this lot are sex-on-a-stick. Christopher Oram (Costume and Set design) really delivers on this point: creating dance costumes that invoked the 18th. Century while being as revealing as a Berlin cabaret. His set is extremely versatile, which along with the change in lighting (Alastair West) allows the action to be set in the grandeur of Venice, in the glitter of Paris and down in the dungeons of the Inquisition.

The whole production is driven, almost relentlessly, by the score written by Kerry Muzzey. Again the music is modern while being true to the roots of the period. For this writer it brought back memories Michael Nyman’s music for the film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). The music certainly is cinematic in quality, which is reasonable given this is Muzzey’s background. One audience member was heard to say afterwards “You could have watched that blind. The music!” Tindall is reported as saying that he approached Muzzey to create the music because neither of them have had the experience of creating a major production for ballet before. It shows, but not in a bad way. If one is used more to the Russian style, the choreography perhaps lacks the ostentation and even some of the elegance in comparison. However, the audience is instead offered something a lot more visceral and more approachable. During the interval I met a friend in the audience who had never seen a ballet before. Her eyes were glowing as she said “It is sooo awesome!”

In Casanova, Tindall has created a new ballet which is quickly going to be accepted as a modern classic.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer:  Martin Veart (Seen 23 March)

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1984 (Festival: 31 March – 2 April ’16)

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

Tobias Batley and Martha Leebolt as Winston and Julia in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

“A spine-tingling masterpiece”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

To this day, Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on a stage, so I was excited and intrigued to see what the company would do with another classic novel, albeit a completely different genre and tone. What they’ve created is another spine-tingling masterpiece.

Jonathan Watkins’ choreography is created with all the intricacy and intelligence necessary to portray the complex ideas and changing moods within Orwell’s book. The workers’ unison sections are very crisp and powerful, with many recurring motifs of straight lines and triangles, both in individual movements and formation, which cleverly reflect the “all seeing eye”. Canon variations are used throughout for interest, which work very well to create production line style sequences, again very relevant to the era. In contrast, the Proles’ movements are easily identified through curves, contact improvisation and individuality of style. The lovers’ duet captures all the breath-taking beauty one might expect from a traditional ballet, while the fight scene towards the end is both graceful and gutting, as we see Winston fall and give in to the higher power.

Alex Baronowski’s score is full of accented beats and staccato rhythms which perfectly translate to the repeated motifs of the workers under the control of Big Brother, while the more romantic elements are brought out with strings and flowing, rousing melodies. Much like experimental music of the time, the orchestra uses an assortment of non-traditional instruments to create clashing tinny sounds and altogether this results in an authentic, haunting and sympathetic accompaniment to the action on stage.

Northern Ballet dancers in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

Northern Ballet dancers in 1984. Photo Emma Kauldhar.

While the relationship between music and movement are clearly intertwined, the design of this production seems equally balanced with the other elements. Chris Davey’s lighting is stark and structural, creating yet more triangles and straight lines for the dancers to follow and stay within, and Simon Daw’s set of moving walls and simple blank spaces adds to the feeling of isolation and hopelessness. Use of colour is also very powerful, from the traditional blue of the workers uniforms, to the bright yellow of hate to the oranges and browns of the Proles, this is clearly a production that pays high regard to many details, making it a joy to watch.

As can be expected in such an interpretation, not every nuance of the book is covered on stage, and sacrifices have to be made to adapt the work for this new form. It’s a shame that some sections aren’t made more of – the final quarter in particular seems a little rushed – but overall the piece strikes a fine balance between narrative progression and beauty of form. For those unfamiliar with the story this production may be somewhat difficult to follow, but even then, the artistry on display is of such high quality that it almost doesn’t matter.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 1 April)

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The James Plays (Festival Theatre: 3 – 13 Feb.’16)

Steven Miller (James I) Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Steven Miller (James I) Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“‘On you go then, son. On you go. You can do it’.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

‘Poisoned dresses are something out of children’s stories … if you want to kill her. Put a knife in her’, which would explain, right enough, why there is a whopping great sword on the boards. Still, The James Plays do imply – with a nod and a wink and a catchy dance step – that the Scots are one wicked antidote to the English. They also, with stirring ease, bring on guid strong women. Admire (or not) the toxic fortitude and murderous determinations of James I, II, and III but applaud Queens Joan, Mary and Margaret and give thanks for Annabella, Meg and Phemy.

There is no shortage of bloodletting in Rona Munro’s gutsy trilogy of how to keep head and crown together – in fact the ginormous sword runs with the red stuff – but actually the property of the piece is the kist in the bedroom. That’s ‘proper furniture’ [that chest], with a hundred uses’. You can hide a boy king in it for a start – and ‘drop it out of the window and brain any bastard climbing up the castle’. Munro’s writing is like that: hands-on, unhesitating and constructive.

Best, if you can, to see the plays in order – that’s from 1420 to 1488; and although they’re too inventive and complete to be Horrible Histories they do, in their savage and entertaining scenes, come pretty close: in James I, for instance, when Walter Stewart nails horseshoes to the hands and feet of one of his tenants, old Ada, for scolding him; or in James II when the young king peeks out of his kist to see his mother about to have sex with her ‘protector’ John Stewart. Too many Stewarts? Well, there’s always a Douglas on the make and by the time of the bi-sexual James III, there’s his lover, architect Cochrane, and fine wine and madrigals before all else, especially trying to rule Scotland.

Laurie Sansom’s convinced direction and Jon Bausor’s set design, with drawbridge, allow a febrile exchange between private and public space. The royal four-poster is closely guarded and/or spied upon, take your pick, and the king swings his sword on its canopy. When Parliament assembles it is alongside an audience on stage. The throne is up there too, occasionally occupied, but the space also doubles as a tower room where Isabella Stewart is held captive and spins out her prophetic misery.

Blythe Duff (Isabella Stewart) in James I_& II Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Blythe Duff (Isabella Stewart) in James I & II Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

That’s Blythe Duff as Isabella and as Annabella in James III and it is, again, a terrific performance. She reprises the roles from the original 2014 production with the same astringent glee and love. She’s there at the very end, dressing the new king with clothes and jewels and with an absolute definition of understatement: ‘On you go then, son. On you go. You can do it’.

And, yes, these dramatised chronicles do at times go on … and on. The squabbling lords might get to you, as they certainly did to James III, or it might just be that the set-piece addresses to the Three (male) Estates are too PC, too YES-NO referendum freighted for your taste, or that you find staged medieval football awkward, but then there’s the wheel of fortune to turn and it’s a mighty one to get going and even harder to brake. These are, after all, history plays and since when were they short and sweet?

Matthew Pidgeon (King James III) in James III_ Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Matthew Pidgeon (King James III) in James III
Photo Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Go into the National Museum of Scotland, as I did in-between plays. You’ll find wolves on level 1, ‘Beginnings’, and they certainly belong in the nightmare sequences of James II, but search further and there ain’t too much in the Kingdom of the Scots: one small panel for each of ‘our’ Jamies and arrowheads from the walls of Threave Castle. More fun certainly, more knowledge possibly, is to be had watching Peter Forbes as gross, droll, Balvenie stacking up the Douglas lands; or see Dani Heron as Phemy, 15, assault a guard who’s presuming to search the queen’s rooms. Ballsy! And then there are the sovereign roles: Steven Miller as James I, the poet king, keyed up, commanding in the thick of it but who would have given everything to pen ‘Love, love me do’ in his time; rangy Andrew Rothney as James II, damaged and vulnerable, but who has that majesty thing ; and Matthew Pidgeon as James III, truth seeker, rascal man, outrageous king in black patent winklepickers , only matched by his virtuous Danish queen, Margaret, played by Swedish actress Malin Crepin, naturally.

I saw The James Plays in 2014, when I had been reviewing Fringe shows, and was disconcerted by the numbers on stage and by the sheer size of the venture. In review terms it was a stand-off. Now, second time around, I’d call it all audacious and vivid. Showstoppers with attitude.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)

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King Charles III (Festival Theatre: 16 – 21 Nov ’15)

Photographs from the West End Production of 'Charles III' by Johan Persson

Photographs by Johan Persson from the West End Production of ‘King Charles III’

“The best of Shakespeare, bang up to date”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Given how topical this production is, I still can’t quite get my head around why someone hasn’t thought of doing a play like this before. Yes, it’s daring and bound to spark discussion on either side of the Royalist debate, but perhaps that’s what makes it utterly ingenious.

Mike Bartlett’s script really is the star of the show – conceiving an idea both dangerous and compelling, that’s also utterly believable. That’s a mean enough feat for many a playwright, but then consider it is also written in Shakespearean style blank verse (with nods to more of his works than I could keep track of), bang up to date, witty, funny and gripping to the very last stage direction.

It’s cleverly structured to allow for scenes and opinions to unfold between all characters, and pacey enough to keep the action flowing, without ever cheating the audience of any details. I would have preferred more ensemble scenes to break up the endless soliloquies and duologues (again, very Will’), while a more contrasting sense of status between the Royals and others would have gone some way to create even more tension.

The style of the performance took some getting used to early on: interpretations of well-known people seemed over-theatricalised, while showing a distinct lack of respect to each other and occasion. This made it hard to engage with immediately, as I was expecting a subtler and more faithful approach to character. For this reason, for me it was the “made-up” characters of Mr Stevens (Giles Taylor) and Jess (Lucy Phelps) who rang most true, and achieved the optimum balance between the theatrical style of the script and connection with the audience.

Charles III 2

In saying that, the very beauty and intelligence of this piece is the subtle level of detachment from presenting something real and expected, to an exploration of imagination and possibility. Once this performance was in full swing, and I could appreciate the characters as part of an intriguing story (as opposed to what I would expect to see in real life), I was all but blown away by its power and craft. Ben Righton’s William was bang on the money in terms of character development throughout, progressing from stable wallflower to dominant leader, while the descent of Charles (Robert Powell) into public ridicule was nothing short of masterful.

If the King could grant me one wish, it would be to fast forward 100 years, when the population know comparatively little of our current royal family, and see how well it is received then. My money would be on it being viewed in the same way we lap up the best of Shakespeare today.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 16 November)

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Lord of the Flies (Festival Theatre: 13 – 17 October ’15)

Set design: Jon Bausor Photo: Regent's Park Theatre.

Set design: Jon Bausor
Photo: Regent’s Park Theatre.

“Big, bold and gutsy”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

For me, with the May general election in mind, this is a timely production of Lord of the Flies: a charismatic, commanding and fear-mongering leader on one side; a righteous and idealistic leader who is unable to win mass support on the other; and one guy in the middle who doesn’t fit into either camp and who is killed off. I wonder if William Golding knew back then how important and relevant his book would still be 61 years after its publication. And that’s without postulating that Michael Gove might make a ‘good’ Beast. This Regent’s Park Theatre production certainly doesn’t shy away from the issues – it’s big, bold and gutsy, but in my opinion, tries too hard to make its point.

I must start with Jon Bausor’s design – the first thing you see on entering the auditorium. It’s visually spectacular, with the focal point being a very believable carcass of a crashed aeroplane to one side, strewn with suitcases. On the other a sizable ramp leads up and off, and everything is surrounded by trees and hanging branches in Naturalistic style. Yet while stunning, I felt the set ended up being too much of a dominating presence, causing unnecessary overlaps with different scenes occurring concurrently (and confusingly) in the same part of the stage. I would have preferred a more mapped-out use of the space to clearly define the different locations in the story and help distinguish the separateness inherent in the characters.

One of this production’s strengths was the energy and dynamism with which the warrior-like sections were portrayed. With frantic movement, chanting, and a commanding performance from Freddie Watkins as ringleader Jack, these moments were terrifying and powerful, and an effective glimpse into what a group of boys might turn into without effective parenting. Indeed, this interpretation puts Jack’s character front and centre (rather than Ralph’s), giving more focus to the brutality of the boys’ behaviour throughout.

However, some of the effectiveness of the “savagery” was lost given a distinct lack of contrasting moments of quietness and subtlety. I found the whole thing too unnecessarily shouty: Piggy and Ralph would communicate in raised and pained voices when alone. Commands were all aggressive, and fright seemed to always be expressed very loudly. Even the Officer shouted all of his lines, reducing his status to that of the children, when his presence could have been communicated far more effectively through physicality and control.

Anthony Roberts as Piggy.

Anthony Roberts as Piggy.

In saying that, there were occasions where the dynamic changed to great effect: early in the second act when Ralph and Piggy discuss how to get Piggy’s glasses back is a rare glimpse of depth and subtlety in performance style, allowing the audience to connect with these two as different from the others. It’s a shame this technique wasn’t used more in the first half of the production. Anthony Roberts gave a valiant performance as Piggy, and I would have liked to have seen more of him.

The sound and lighting were both excellent in supporting the action and setting the scene, and the occasional music added to the ambience without being overpowering. The evolution, down the way, in costume and makeup to underline each character’s descent into savagery was clever and effective. That all went to show that clearly a lot of thought and creative energy has been put into this production, but for me a couple of big flaws hold it back from being remarkable.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 October)

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‘The Producers’ (The Festival Theatre: 23-28 March ‘15)

“David Bedella and Louie Spence brought a frivolity that couldn’t be outdone.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

If there is one thing Mel Brooks never fails to do, it is to entertain. To the average person, on hearing the premise of a political satire including a failed Broadway producer, a musical homage to Adolf Hitler, nymphomaniac geriatrics and a cross-dressing director, it would be inconceivable to enjoy any show remotely related. But the average person would be wrong. Brooks created a genuine comedy masterpiece that is as absurd as it is entertaining, and as politically questionable as it is uplifting.

Director Matthew White has created something spectacular in his touring production of The Producers. His cast are well-shaped in their roles; the entire performance was slick and musically, under the direction of Andrew Hilton, they were faultless.

Set and costume designer Paul Farnsworth delivered a spectacle bedecked in glitz and glam worthy of a Broadway show. With touring productions it can often be the case that set is left too minimalistic to fit every venue, but Farnsworth created a masterpiece on wheels. Max Bialystock’s office was the most impressive set piece with Broadway memorabilia piled high without encroaching on the stage space available – a most impressive feet.

Cory English offered a stellar performance – his comic timing was slick and he completely owned the stage as his madness – driven in equal parts by a desperate need for money and success – led him down darker, murkier paths, dragging the fresh-faced, naïve Leo Bloom behind him.

Jason Manford’s role saw him shine in the spotlight. His portrayal of the nervous dreamer Leo Bloom was highly entertaining – his attachment to his blue blanket and quirks were hilarious and Manford really embraced the manic side of his character.

The blossoming love between Leo and Ulla that grew throughout the show was reminiscent of a pre-pubescent unsure footing on the ladder of love and it was brilliantly matched with Tiffany Graves’ unabashedly sexual Ulla who carried an air of innocence through her clumsy grasp of English which contrasted greatly with her side smirks and comfort in skimpy outfits. Graves’ vocal performance was incredible too – definitely an attribute to flaunt.

As if there wasn’t a strong enough comedy factor already; double act David Bedella and Louie Spence brought a frivolity that couldn’t be outdone – their overtly camp exuberance was aided by sequins, glitter and a troupe of openly gay production team members that left a definitive feel of

Mardi Gras in the air. Bedella’s outrageous portrayal of a gay, sequin-wearing Adolf Hitler in Springtime for Hitler was hysterical and increased the political satire tenfold. In fact, the entire number was fantastically put together. The choreography was sharp and clean, the costumes were as over the top as ever and the stage design was downright dazzling.

The Producers is, in my opinion, a massively underrated piece of musical theatre gold. It is crass without being crude, it is fast-paced without being dizzying and the musical numbers are big and bold but not ridiculous – despite the sparkly swastikas.

While there are very few morals to be learned from this story, there is still a beautiful friendship at the heart of it that can be seen blooming in the unlikeliest of places – they do say showbiz is cutthroat, but not in this case. There is a poetic symmetry between the teachings of Max to Leo and the camaraderie and chemistry shared between seasoned stage performer Cory English and rising star Jason Manford.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Amy King (Seen 24 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED