Theatre Review: Fairy Dregs and Friends (Caravan Theatre, London)

NOTE: Having stumbled upon this show completely accidentally last week, I endeavoured to get this up last weekend whilst it was still on. Indeed, I had even completed the initial draft of the review on the Friday. However, with my weekend turning into something of a exhaustion induced coma, things didn’t go to plan. However, if the Caravan Theatre and writer/performer Sammy Kissin can forgive me, I still think what I saw deserves a written testament. So although this review goes up rather late, it does so with with my sincerest apologies.

fairy dregsRating: ****

In a Nutshell

Two rich and imaginative solo pieces that enchant and rivet.

Overview

Writer and performer Sammy Kissin performs two short works in a golden caravan parked outside the Tate Modern, as part of the Merge Festival. Dregs is a piece about a fairy who gets trapped inside a bottle of merlot, and Mary Louise lets us in on the musings and reminiscences of a ship’s figurehead up for auction.

Writing

Across both pieces, Kissin demonstrates that she is a writer of incredible imagination, lilting language, and playful pathos. In Dregs, she clashes both the mystical with the mucky, as we hear the sad tale of how Dregs, a fairy, gets lured into a wine bottle by a troll, only to start what would become a descent into alcoholism. Whereas in Mary Louise, Kissin turns her creativity to personifying the life and experiences of a busty and bolshy ship’s figurehead. Everything she writes is well thought out and full of aching tragedy and fascinating intelligence. These are characters on the fringes of both our world and theirs, that still somehow manage to connect and speak to both the mind and the soul, through the glory and the grit of their tales.

Most impressive, though, is Kissin’s employment of language. Rich and luscious, there’s a splatter of the Jacobian greats in how it bounces and trips through vocabulary and metre. There’s an incredible sense of poetry that runs through both pieces from start to finish. Kissin is almost like a modern-day Marlowe, and it’s so rare to hear performance prose of such beauty crop up on the London new writing scene, let alone in such an unexpected and obscure place.

Performance

Kissin really embraces her prose and her characters, performing with a delicate but sturdy energy. But there’s two things that really hold back what would otherwise be an exemplary show. Firstly, whilst I’m all for theatre in odd spaces, the golden caravan as charming and as out-of-place as it is on the banks of the Thames is perhaps a bit too small. It’s not that it’s a tad too “cosy” for the audience (of which up to eight cuddle up at any given performance), but you get the sense that it’s too cramped for Kissin as well: not so much physically, but for her presence. You really get the sense that her performance needs to space to breath, and here, her charisma extends beyond the confines of the fibreglass box you’re squeezed into.

Secondly, there are times when you get the feeling she’s just a little too absorbed in her character. Ironically, despite the closeness of the venue, there are moments of distance put between her and the audience as she wanders off into a musing, leaving the punters to watch rather than engage. Given the opportunity to produce some incredibly intimate and responsive theatre here, it’s an aspect that’s just a touch overlooked.

But overall, in both of her characters, she’s ineffably charming and engrossing to watch, and is as talented a performer as she is a writer.

Verdict

Two surprisingly sublime nuggets of dramatic gold, if you happened to serendipitously stumble upon this last weekend.

Fairy Dregs and Friends plays at the Caravan Theatre, Bankside, SE1 9TG, as part of the Merge Festival. For more information about the festival, visit http://mergefestival.co.uk.

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Revue Review: Jacques Brel is Alive And Well And Living in Paris (Charing Cross Theatre, London)

Eve Polycarpou in stunning form. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Eve Polycarpou in stunning form. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rating: ***

In A Nutshell

An entertaining revue, but too often forgets what it’s supposed to be celebrating.

Overview

Belgian chanson artist extraordinaire, Jacques Brel, is given a slick and sassy revue in the old Victorian music hall that is the Charing Cross Theatre, using songs that span the length of his career.

Music & Lyrics

Brel is not a singer songwriter that is widely known these days. I must confess that he’s not an artist that has featured in my life much, if at all. However, the show serves as a wonderful introduction to his work. Very “French” in style, his works are often dark and sarcastic, spiked with spite and disenfranchisement with the world. Particularly coming through is his anti-war sensibilities, having lived through the Second World War and other conflicts. But elsewhere there are deeply touching and beautifully doomed observations about life and love. Whilst his songs are extraordinary, what’s more so is the fact that they’ve unjustly disappeared from the psyche of modern culture.

Treatment

It’s bold and refreshing that Eric Blau and Mort Shuman have opted for a revue rather than the usual jukebox musical format. However, it’s risky as it means that the audience is going to be limited to those who are already aware of Brel’s work, or the more adventurous/curious of London’s theatre-going crowd. Thankfully, Brel’s pain and poetry is enough to hold your interest in lieu of a narrative.  Especially when songs are themed together to give the evening some form of structure, such as a section exploring Brel’s take on death and old age, to one grouping together his anti-war songs.

(left to right) David Burt, Eve Polycarpou, Gina Beck, and Daniel Boys. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

(left to right) David Burt, Eve Polycarpou, Gina Beck, and Daniel Boys. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction & Production

Acclaimed director Andrew Keats takes the helm of this production. For starters, Chris de Wilde’s design evokes smoky dinge of a Parisian jazz club, giving the production an instant sense of chic, especially given Mike Robertson’s moody lighting design. Paul Gavin and James Nicholson’s video projections on the cyclorama are also a nice touch that subtly illustrate the songs, even if Brighton’s West Pier or an Underground train at Charing Cross station aren’t particularly Parisian.

However, whilst the songs and the performers certainly entertain, it too often seems like the entire production keeps forgetting just what it is it’s celebrating. Rather than revelling in the angsty and sardonic nature of the songs, many of them are played for laughs that just aren’t there, or worse throws Brel’s original context out the stage door with the bath water.

That’s not to say that these somewhat misinterpreted reinventions of Brel’s songs always fall flat. Numbers such as “Funeral Tango”, though loosing it’s original pathos, is still incredibly entertaining. But when it misses the mark, it does so spectacularly. The woeful 80’s rock setting of “My Death” is so outlandish and missing the point that it’s painful and embarrassing to sit through. Then there’s a completely misunderstood version of “Le Bourgeois”, titled and sung in English as “The Middle Class”, even though it’s clearly a song about the upper classes. Though it interestingly the production used it as a vehicle to try and send up the current crop of politicians, it’s point seemed muddled and lost in translation. And when Nigel Farage strides in unannounced, you start wonder about what the show’s trying to say with this song, and all is suddenly muddled and lost.

What works well is when Keats decides to stay close as close to Brel’s original intentions and emotions as possible. “Sons Of”, “Song for Old Lovers”, and “Ne Me Quitte Pas” are haunting moments of the evening and the only times when the production does any real justice to Brel’s work. Otherwise, as mostly amusing as the rest of the show is, it’s a show about Brel that doesn’t really get what Brel is about. If you take the time to listen to Brel’s performances of the songs on the set list, you soon realise just how far and how often off the mark the production is with his songs.

Cast

To go along with Keats misguided interpretations of Brel’s song is a cast that seem also as clueless about Brel’s intent as the production. Performances from some of the cast are unnecessary over-dramatic. There are times when pathos is turned into pantomime at the hands of some of the cast members, compounding this sense that the show doesn’t understand it’s own content. Eve Polycarpou is the only cast member that gets it consistently right. Her performances of “Sons Of” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas” are utterly spellbinding and heartbreaking. Compared to the others, she steals the show and you become a little impatient when she’s not on stage, wanting her to return to the spotlight with haste.

Verdict

Overall, the show is slick and entertaining. Even if you’re not complete aware of how important Brel was as a artist (like I was), you still get the sense of his depth and genius here. It’s just a shame that the show itself doesn’t fully comprehend it at times.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 31 October 2014. Tickets are £12 – £29.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.


Face to Face Review: Martha Gellhorn – The Troubles Seen (Lost Theatre, London)

Martha Gellhonr (second from left) and Ernest Hemingway (second from right) with unidentified Chinese officers.

Martha Gellhorn (second from left) and Ernest Hemingway (third from right) with unidentified Chinese officers.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A powerful and entrancing mini-biography about a most remarkable woman, with an even more remarkable performance.

Overview

Performer, Sian Webber, and solo theatre writer extraordinarie, Jack Klaff, team up to create this minuscule history play about one of the world’s most notable war correspondents of the 20th century, who also just happened to be one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.

Writing

Klaff is no stranger to adventurous solo pieces, after his barnstorming performance of his biography of Sir Isaac Newton at last year’s festival. Now, teaming up with Webber, Klaff turns to exploring an iconic female member of the species.

What’s most spectacular about the writing is that, for want of having had the privilege to know Gellhorn in real life, this is the closest you’ll ever get, as what Webber and Klaff present what could be a dead-ringer for her if you were none the wiser. Gellhorn, as a character, is authoritative as you can get: gushing with brash confidence and American cocksure that, worthy of the place on the pedestal that history has given her. Natural but bolshy, Klaff and Webber’s writing has created a behemoth that is as believable as is beguiling.

Most interesting here is a minimum use of Klaff’s maxim that “everyone is a crowd”. Webber is only made to play an entirely separate character only the once during the entire show, turning her stance and stature to a more timid second-hand testament in explaining why the subject of her marriage to Hemingway was something to be skirted around with Martha. It had the potential seem out of place, but somehow it didn’t at all stick out, adding a nice, if not brief, garnish of variety.

Performance

Webber is absolutely indomitable in her role as Gellhorn. In fact, you could absolutely believe that she could be Gellhorn herself, in just how effortless she is in the role. Specifically, her interaction with the audience as an integral, living, and responsive part of the production is stupendous. It’s like you’ve got your own private audience with the legend herself, and you’re just as an important part of the conversation as she is. You do end up listening rather than speaking, but you feel that’s your choice rather than what you’re expected to do. Making Webber’s Gellhorn even more realistic are myriad little performance nuances she adds, such as the opening of the top of her blouse when she gets a little hot, or the hesitation in putting down her glass of water whilst she digests the accounts she’s just revisited. It all seems natural and completely spontaneous rather than something rehearsed, and is an epiphanous example of performance sheen.

The most fascinating facet of her performance is just how straightforward she is as she recounts her life: there isn’t any unnecessary exaggeration or drama where there so easily could have been. But that’s not to say that it ever comes across as unfeeling, as behind it all are always the little spikes of horror and trauma of the things she has witnessed, from the Spanish Civil War to the carnage of the WWII Normandy beach landings. Webber does a marvellous job of balancing this bullish air of glamour against the underlying distress and dissatisfaction of her witness of human beings behaving at their worst or most resilient. Whilst it seems like a little thing, it really encapsulates Gellhorn as a person and as a historical figure: someone who reported what they saw, accountable and measured, but not without profound personal contemplation and reflection.

Verdict

The final result is a wholly engrossing, elating, and surprisingly personal experience. If you didn’t know who Martha Gellhorn was before this, you are left feeling educated and in awe. If you did, you feel like you’ve come into contact with a living, breathing, and fascinatingly palpable legacy that you can’t help but be completely involved in with every single syllable Webber produces.

Martha Gellhorn – The Troubles Seen was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th- 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Face to Face Review: The Fall Of The House of Usher (Lost Theatre, London)

Jamie-West-Usher_i8a8prwpRating: ****

In a Nutshell

An ambitious reduction performed with intoxicating and engrossing theatricality.

NOTE: This piece is a work in progress.

Overview

As part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre’s evening of experimentation, musician Jamie West reduces the prog rock opera by Van De Graaff Generator front-man, Peter Hammill, with libretto by Chris Judge Smith, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, for solo performer.

The narrator is summoned to the house of Roderick Usher. Upon the apparent death of Roderick’s sister, Madeline, he convinces the narrator that she should be buried in the vaults below the house. But all is not what it seems and, days later, things start to go bump in the night in the tombs below.

Music & Libretto

Hammill’s opera is wonderfully accessible in the fact that his prog rock riffs and melodies are quick to hook. Judge Smith’s libretto also blends Poe’s Gothic prose with more natural language meaning that the high-poetry doesn’t stifle the flow of the music or seeming awkwardly inserted, but still gives the glory of Poe’s wordsmithing room to pierce through.

West has made some adjustments to the music, in trying to make it possible to perform it as a solo musician on only a single given instrument at any time. But West also admits changing some of the harmonies to make them more accessible and chime more with him personally as a performer. Whilst it might seem sacrilege to make changes to the actual operatic score beyond what is necessary, unless you’re a die-hard fan of the opera you’d never have realised it unless you already knew that this was the case. Even so, it still manages to flow and be catchy without feeling like a cheaper or changed version.

Performance

West has an astonishing voice that really lends well to the piece. His incredibly rich baritone voice is garnished effortlessly with subtle but thrilling vibrato. But whilst West’s voice is certainly divine to listen to, what makes him astonish here is his stage presence and sense of theatricality. The stage figuratively shrinks when he starts to perform, as he’s a musical story-teller of the finest pedigree. You hang on every note and blissful tremelando. He does a superb effort in bringing out the high drama and dark devices of Poe’s story and Hammill’s music.

One small criticism is that it;s sometimes difficult to get a grasp of what character’s voice is coming through at any given moment: it’s not immediately clear that it’s the narrator when spoken and Roderick when sung. Also, there’s currently the absence of Madeline from West’s reduction, with gender and vocal range being an obstacle he’s yet to tackle.

The main grumble is that, in it’s current form, the piece is far too short. Whilst you’re really starting to become utterly absorbed in the rich world West conjures, it suddenly ends, leaving you gasping for more. But hopefully as the piece continues to develop, the show will expand to be even more inviting and more satisfying than it currently is.

Verdict

Musically thrilling and astonishingly performed, this bold reduction keeps the piece well away from the grave. Dark and hypnotic, it’s a dark and dexterous show that should only get better as it develops.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th- 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Face to Face Review: Adult Child/Dead Child (Lost Theatre, London)

claire dowieRating: *****

In A Nutshell

Colin Watkey’s “chorus of one” treatment – using several actors to explore the same character – makes for an intense exploration of Claire Dowie’s acclaimed look at bad childhood and mental health.

Overview

What happens when a child when it receives a lack of love? How does it affect their mind, and their health? We watch Claire Dowie’s character grow up through a troubled family life, right through to dealing with schizophrenia as an adult. Festival founder and director Colin Watkey’s, in reviving Adult Child/Dead Child, experiments in seeing how using several actors playing the same role effects the piece.

Writing

What’s most beguiling about Dowie’s writing is not only how free and natural the central character is, using unembellished and down-to-earth anecdotes and experiences, but the simple yet incredibly effect poetry that runs throughout the entire piece. It really emphasises and brings out the emotions and certain plot points that hook you right into the character’s story and plight without any effort at all. This poetic grasp of language really adds a simple yet lavish texture and rhythm to the text that makes the piece incredibly easy to listen to and engage with, but without adding any unnecessary theatre or pretence to someone who is very definitely a human character.

It takes us on a heartbreaking and absorbing journey of a child who has been let down at every step of the way into adulthood, resulting in a life on the edge of both reason and sanity. Laced with little garnishes of humour, it’s a deep, honest, and angry look at mental health, complete with gorgeously devastating insights into the fragility of human mentality. Nothing is exaggerated or over-dramatic, which is what makes it speak so directly to an audience and makes it so affecting. It taps so effortlessly into the uncomfortable delicacy of the human condition, and how easy it is to be destructively cruel to someone.

Direction

Watkey’s direction, as well as employing his “chorus of one”, succinctly embodies his views on what solo theatre should be through his direction here. His stage expands to include the entire auditorium, embracing the view that the audience are the “other character” of any solo show. Actors rest in seats within the audience and pop up next to them, or even perform their part at the back of the stalls. It’s audience immersion at it’s most simple, bringing the play, and therefore it’s themes and issues, physically to the audience.

The treatment of having seven actors play moments of the same character adds not just a certain sense of variety, but also intrigue. We don’t get seven interpretations of a character, per se, but several different perspectives. The issues explored within the piece always stay the same throughout, but the angle and empathises of them is slightly different from performer and performer. It’s fascinating, whilst always ensuring the narrative and clarity of the piece is never muddied. This is heightened by the fact that the actors cast here constitute a wonderful cross-section of gender, age, and culture, meaning you really get kaleidoscopic points of view that are difficult not to connect on at least one level by drawing on the performers own charismas.

Additionally, the decision to use Stephen Oxley as a makeshift “narrator” during the poetic interludes between scenes adds a sense of relief and momentum, especially as Oxley adds such elegant gravitas in doing so.

Cast

It’s impossible to pick out any particular performer as being better or any more outstanding than the other. Even as exhilarating as it is to see Dowie perform part of her own work nearly 30 years after she first wrote it, she isn’t any more or less exceptional than any of the other cast.

There are moments, however, that really stick in your mind about a each performer’s contribution. To pick a few, Martin Stewart’s playful nuances not only manage to provide some light relief through characterisation rather than script, making the character even more charming and tragic. Lola Kotey is marvellously manic and just that a little bit twisted in her exploration of mental health and its labels and stereotypes. And when Deirdre Strath’s charming and eloquent American homeliness suddenly crumbles into raw distress, it just makes something inside you break.

But what’s most extraordinary about the entire cast is how they feed off the audience. You get the feeling that some of the writing could come across more light and comic at various points throughout. But as the audience ended up having a bit more of a severe reaction to the show for this particular performance, each performer works with this rather than against, responding and complimenting the atmosphere augmenting it’s effect on people to an astonishing apex.

Verdict

An excellent experiment in what solo theatre is and means that has paid dividends. Dowie’s piece is lifted to intense new highs by an inspired vision and an impeccable cast.

Adult Child/Dead Child was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place between 6-11 October 2014 at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Review: Next Fall (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Martin Delaney (left) and Charlie Condou (right). Photograph: Robert Workman.

Martin Delaney (left) and Charlie Condou (right). Photograph: Robert Workman.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A beautifully sardonic and heart-shattering piece, written from a place of love, humanity, and anguish.

Overview

Adam and Luke have been together for five years. Adam is in his 40s and an aetheists, whilst Luke, much younger, is a Christian and still in the closet to his parents. Their life has always been one of compromise where they’ve failed to reach an understanding, but tenderness in the close affinity that they can. But when an accident happens to Luke, Adam Is forced to face and rely upon a family who are less than accepting of homosexuality, and have no idea who he is and what he means to Luke.

Writing

Geoffrey Nauffts’ play was nominated for “Best Play” at the Tony Awards 2010, and now see’s it transfer to London four years later. One of the reasons for its success is it’s incredibly satisfying dry wit which permeates the entire piece. However, for those who are well versed in gay plays and other LGBT arts productions, especially issues surrounding religion vs. sexuality, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking in the themes and arguments that many will have heard before. So whilst the humour is certainly entertaining and extremely sharp, the first act just feels a little too familiar.

However, it’s in Act II that the play really comes into it’s own. Whilst Nauffts might not be offering much with regards to new point and counterpoint to the subject, it’s how he uses the characters to frame the issues discussed that is the real triumph of the play. For starters, Nauffts’ characters are all substantially flawed. You can never quite get behind Adam as a protagonist as, although long suffering, he’s more unlikeable than likeable. Likewise, Butch, the Bible-thumping alpha heterosexual patriarch, is not all he seems, causing us to think and rethink what prejudices we ourselves are judging him by.

What this results in is, rather than a greying of the arguments’ clarities, Nauffts’ blurs the emotional lines on the subject. There is no distinct binary of how we should be feeling and thinking here that would otherwise serve as an simple catharsis or a shallow rally-call for an established campaign. But instead we get a difficult and challenging walkthrough of the issues where there aren’t any easy hero or villain figures. Because of this, the show, as well as being marvellously humorous, is also achingly moving. The characters feel very real and, despite their faults, you still deeply care for them. But also, the show is frustratingly realistic. You just want the characters to scream and kick-off, leaving Adam and Luke to emerge victors and live their happily-ever-after. Nauffts, however, settles for a reality. Though painful and despondent as it is, it ultimately leaves you with as much poignancy and anger as it does sore sides and wet cheeks.

Mitchell Mullen (left) and Nancy Crane (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Workman.

Mitchell Mullen (left) and Nancy Crane (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Workman.

Direction & Production

The production sits very cosily in the smaller theatre space at the Southwark Playhouse but loses nothing despite the fact that it could probably have just as easily filled the main space. David Woodhead’s set wonderfully feels homely enough to be a minimalistic and sleek New York apartment, but just clinical enough to double as an unforgiving and soulless hospital waiting area: a wonderfully agile duality.

The most interesting aspect of the production, however, is how Director Luke Sheppard and lighting designer Howard Hudson work together to bring out some nice little touches. When it comes to scene changes, whilst the other cast start to move and replace props, there’s a spot that lingers on the central character of the scene, just as they do. This  creates an omnipresent feeling of lingering and detachment from what’s going on, and really augments the strife that the characters go through both past and present within the story. This marks Sheppard out as a director who clearly empathises with the piece, endeavouring to give the issues and the feelings involved prominence and justice.

Cast

Charlie Condou, most famous for his role in Coronation Street, is the main draw here, especially as an openly gay actor and parent. But whilst he handles himself well, it’s the rest of the cast that really deserve the praise. Condou’s on-stage counterpart, Luke, played by Martin Delaney, is adorably charismatic and carefree, playing up to his character’s youthful naivety with a wonderful sense of grace. Indeed, he’s the perfect antidote to Condou’s fretful and self-absorbed Adam, and the pair’s chemistry is the most electric when their relationships is most strained. However, they’re still still able to conjure a sweet cuteness for their happier and more intimate times together that is comfortably numbing, making all the more for a heart-wrenching tragedy.

Mitchell Mullen as Butch also deserves a mention as he superbly growls and spits as Luke’s close-minded and zealot father, but letting the audience peep through chinks into something that is more scared and vulnerable rather than completely proud and despotic. Likewise, Nancy Crane’s Southern charm as Butch’s wife, Arlene, slowly cracks in a majestic and tender fashion, as a warm and repentant woman trying hard to atone and keep it together for all her past faults.

Verdict

Whilst the writing is of a familiar set of ideas and arguments, Nauffts’ characters and emotional framing makes for a crushing and human play. With wonderful directional flourishes, and a stunning cast, you’ll be hard pressed to fight back both laughter and tears.

Next Fall plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 25 October 2014. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.


Review: Fred & Madge (Hope Theatre, London)

Fred & Madge.

Fred & Madge. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A pristine production of Joe Orton’s absurdist misanthropy.

Overview

Fred & Madge are in an unhappy marriage: both yearning for a change of pace from their jobs pushing boulders up hills and sieving bath water respectively. At times it almost seems like their life is preordained. But how can they break this monotony and break free the shackles of their lot?

Writing

This is an incredibly interesting play as it’s regarded as the very first piece Joe Orton ever wrote. It was, however, not found until well after his death among some of his papers, and not published until 2001. 13 years after the publication, his estate have only now granted permission for it to be professionally performed, giving the esteemed pleasure to wave-making fringe company, Rough Haired Pointer.

Orton has a very special place in many people’s heart because of his sexuality, his lifestyle, and his then scandalous and shocking farces; particularly What the Butler Saw, and Entertaining Mr. Sloane. However, don’t expect to find here the salacious wit that made him the legend he became. Very much a juvenile piece, it’s actually an absurdist comedy: a genre that you would not at all associate Orton with. The result is something that is only really Orton in name, although you can certainly see the basis of what his writing was later to become. As Director Mary Franklin described Fred & Madge when I interviewed her, it’s Orton, “sharpening his teeth,” and “a patchwork of [his] research”.

The writing itself is a scattershot satire. You get the sense of an angry young man sounding off in all directions, sending up everything from the proletariat lot, to the mediocrity of the BBC. But Orton’s toying of the nonsensical and outlandish, despite being all over the place, is still somehow satisfying and entertaining despite it being untidy and unfocused. Furthermore, the fantastic situations our characters are placed in, never cloud the myriad grumbles that Orton is trying to get across, and in more than several occasions provide some rather barmy and rib-tickling moments, with the odd terrible pun thrown in for good measure.

The only real criticism of the writing really is just this fact that it’s neurotic about what it’s trying to say, contributing to the fact that overall it’s a very adolescent play of Orton’s. It’s an enlightening exercise examining the incubation of Orton’s style, but a noticeably unpolished one and far from a perfect piece of absurdism.

Direction & Production

It’s Rough Haired Pointer’s production that exquisitely lifts this prelude to Orton’s later fame. This is a company with an imagination and energy that results in incredibly slick and daring theatre.

They achieve this through nuance and small experimentations. For example, Jordan Mallory-Skinner’s sound design, playing an integral part of the show, isn’t just about finding the right shade of chirpy 1950s music to accompany the production. He’s also brought a lot of original music and live sound design as well. Whilst it’s all unnecessary in the sense that it isn’t required by the text, it really augments the action on the stage by adding that aural layer of intrigue and colour. Likewise, the set is wonderfully ramshackle and DIY-feeling, really evoking the sense of bedraggled but bombastic street theatre. It visually adds to the anarchy of the piece perfectly, as well as hiding some little surprises. Even the lighting design plays along, not only merely setting scene and atmosphere, but doing things like purposefully flickering the footlights to really give a sense that there is little order to Fred & Madge’s world.

Mary Franklin’s direction is expertly executed, marking her out as a real up-and-coming fringe force. Tackling this odd and unwieldy piece, she does everything she does she can to capture the essence of the play and heighten pace. Again, the success is in the detail. Franklin manages to throw the audience off many times with awkward and baffling pauses where fourth wall is broken, but ensures there’s plenty of things going on elsewhere to make sure the pace and audience attention never drops. They’re kept enrapt there out of both curiosity and enjoyment. Little thing like the constant and inexplicable repositioning of a set of French windows in the Second Act is a prime example of this. It’s a direction of meticulous understanding and creativity that upstages the text.

The cast of 'Fred & Madge'. Photograpgh: Courtesy of the production.

The cast of ‘Fred & Madge’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

The cast here are as tight knit an ensemble as they come. Rather than just merely bouncing energy of each other, you feel a real sense of fraternity where each performer supports and emboldens their colleagues. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to pick out superlative performances as the company more of an extraordinary organic entity rather than a mere collection of actors. What this achieves is that there’s no slack on stage at any given moment. No-one distracts and imposes upon what’s happening, and you’re wholly invested in every character they play, because the performer’s character they’re interacting with is, and vice versa.

They do all of this with a brilliant enthusiasm and joie de vivre for the piece, throwing themselves head-on into Orton’s madding crowd without a moment’s falter, as well as the exalting the wonderful idiosyncrasies and details of the production.

Verdict

Fred & Madge is a complete different kettle of fish (which includes an actual kettle of fish) to anything else Orton has done. If you’re expecting “Orton”, you’re going to be a little baffled to say the least. But if you go expecting something different and crazy, you’re in for an absolute treat as Rough Haired Pointer show the rest of the fringe how production is done.

Fred & Madge plays at The Hope Theatre, London, N1 1RL, until 18 October. Tickets are £16 (concessions available). To book, visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.


Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

It’s pies all round this season, for some reason, as London gets no less than THREE productions of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful Gothic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Going on right now is the production at the Twickenham Theatre that has had all the critics raving (including myself), and soon we’ll be getting another production in London’s oldest pie shop done by the Tooting Arts Club (TAC), and then the English National Opera (ENO) will stick it’s finger in by bringing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson into the fray.

Recently, the ENO’s publicity shots have been getting a lot of flack because they look so SO bad, with professional West End photographer Darren Bell saying they made it look like “Mary Berry The Musical”.

But as much as it’s easy to scoff at these incredibly misjudged press images, there is the question is whether any of these productions are actually worth seeing.

ENO

Go?

Thompson as Mrs. Lovett may well be something quite special. She’s an incredible actress with a long an illustrious career, so seeing her take will undoubtedly be something unique. Furthermore, the chance to hear Sondheim’s incredibly rich and complex score played by a full orchestra is one not to be passed up.

Don’t Go?

I’m really unsure about this, for two reasons. Foremost, is the inclusion of Bryn Terfel. Now, that’s not to say I don’t rate Terfel as an opera singer. I think he’s marvellous, and seeing him as Wotan in Das Rhiengold at the Royal Opera House was something rather wonderful. But I have a massive pet peeve about opera singers doing musicals. Opera is a completely different style of singing to that of a musical. Every time I hear opera singers doing musical numbers or even pop songs, I cringe. It doesn’t sound right because it’s not the right style. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Connie Fisher to handle La Boheme, and the very thought of Michael Ball’s opera album (this actually exists) brings me out in a cold sweat.

As beautiful a bass voice as Terfel has, I can’t see how adding operatic bellows to Sweeney’s part is really going to enhance it. In fairness, Sweeney isn’t a new experience for Terfel, having already done this semi-staged performance earlier this year at the Lincoln Centre, and also in a concert performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. From videos you can readily find on YouTube, he does seem to tone it done a bit. But compared David Badella and Ball’s acclaimed performances, it still sounds a bit out of place and far too arch. Though Sondheim himself, in his published collection of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat describes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a “dark operetta”, it’s not really an excuse to ramp up the vibrato, no matter how established an opera star is.

Secondly, the fact that the ENO are only going to do a semi-staged production is really disheartening. Given the capability of the stage and some of the marvellous sets they’ve done for almost all of their productions, it seems incredibly lazy. It certainly works for the Lincoln Centre due to it’s lack of space but rather marvellous acoustics. But when you’ve got one of the largest stages in London at your disposal, it’s insulting to do so little with it. Plus, when tickets are going for as much as £155, far more than the top priced tickets for Chichester’s celebrated West End transfer, you’d expect at least some glitz and production value (although, there will be 300 £10 seats at each performance)! Thankfully, the terrible publicity shots belay the fact that the semi-staging still looks brooding. But I can’t see how it would better than the 2001 concert version in San Francisco with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris. Here it was these behemoth performers that carried the show, rather than relying on moody lighting and some people dropping a grand piano on its back.

Tooting Arts Club

Go?

You get pre-performance pie, a gin cocktail, and a sense of novelty.

Don’t Go?

Lynn Gardener recently wrote a very interesting piece on the gimmick of site-specific/”immersive” theatre. Ultimately, she states that, more often than not, it’s a term used as a sales pitch more than anything else. With only taking an audience of 32 into the tiny pie shop at a time, my misgivings is that it’s going to be very difficult to create a performance that’s of much substance, let alone conjurer up the wide variety of scenes and locations within the musical in what will be a very restrictive space. Therefore, on the face of it, this seems like a prime example of the cynical selling-point theatre companies undertake to lure in the punters. If you’re just going to sat be watching Sweeney Todd in a pie-shop, where’s the immersion in that? And what will take the production beyond shallow novelty to warrant something site-specific?

Harrington's Pie & Mash, Tooting.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, Tooting.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Derek Anderson’s production at the Twickenham Theatre is brimming with little innovations and tenacities that manage to reduce this massive musical into the tiny sardine-can space. But TAC will have to come up with something seriously good to even contend with the Twickenham production. In saying that, they have been getting a lot of praise for their recent site-specific theatre productions, so they could still pull a coup de grace none the less, and perhaps I should have a little more faith.

Twickenham Theatre

Go?

There’s not been any review that’s been less than 4*s. But particularly, Anderson’s characterisations played out by Badella and Sarah Ingram are astonishing and superbly performed.

Don’t Go?

Because you’ll be hard pressed to get a ticket! The show originally sold out its entire run, BUT there have been a few extra shows added, extending the run until 12 October. Buy them quick!

Verdict

Given that it’s tried and tested, the Twickenham Theatre production is a version that you just can’t go wrong with. Therefore, if you have the chance, try and see this above others. Mind you, such an opinion is only based on the apprehensions I’ve outlined above, and am certainly not saying that either the ENO or TAC’s productions won’t be worth your time and money.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at:

English National Opera, London, WC2N 4ES, between 30 March and 12 April 2015. Tickets are £10 – £155. To book, visit www.eno.org.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, London, SW17 OER, between 21 October – 29 November 2014. Tickets are sold out. For more information about tickets, visit www.tootingartsclub.co.uk.

Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 12 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


Review: Fishcakes (Etcetera Theatre, London)

1409320444Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A laugh/cry out loud play of intelligence and honesty, and an utterly charming portrait of a relationship.

Overview

Reece and Jen meet on a date. It doesn’t go “well”. But none the less, they embark on a long term relationship. But what happens when the little niggles grow into big problems? And just what can tragedy reveal about a person you’d rather not have wanted?

Writing

Elizabeth Bartram’s new piece of writing sets itself out to be a exploration of people and relationships, and boy, this is executed with an immense wit and observation. We start off with writing that is supremely comedic. You’d be hard pressed not to roll about laughing at the pratfalls both characters keep making and their idiosyncrasies. But what’s great is that, among the guffaws, are two sweet and charming people that you just can’t help but adore. They feel incredibly natural and real and you could absolutely imagine them being the people sat next to you in the auditorium, rather than just two actors on the stage. Bartram also has tapped into little compatibilities and incompatibilities in her characters to bring out pace, humour, and pathos, all acutely and realistically portrayed.

But what’s really outstanding is that, as the play goes on and the relationship starts to lose its sheen, the play also starts to become less funny: but that’s the point. The laughs fade in correlation to the creeping lack of lustre in their life together. What happens is that you, as an audience, go on a similar emotional journey to Reece and Jen, but via laugher and tears as observers, rather than in love as lovers.

The only issue is that the heartbreaking conclusion at the end of this relationship is perhaps a bit too much of a punch to the gut. In itself it’s a very honestly and devastatingly written, touching on some brutal emotions and revelations that come out in tragedy. It would be easy to scoff at this as being too readily turning on the melodramatics, but it’s so free and natural that makes for an incredibly deft piece on loss and its effect on people. However, it makes the end perhaps a little too intense, especially juxtaposed against the hilarity of the beginning of the show. Despite it’s expert writing, it could possibly be better in another play where it won’t feel so abrupt.

But in saying that, this is but a trivial criticism. As it is, this is the perfect modern embodiment of both comedy and tragedy. Both elements are excellently implemented for a smart rip-roaring and mascara-running microcosmic montage about people and relationships.

Direction & Production

There isn’t a credited director and producer as such, with Bartram and her associates pretty much running the show. None the less, nothing suffers theatrically. Whilst there’s nothing but a bare set, a gaggle of props – including several bags of popcorn and a panettone – and three boxes, Bartram and her team still manage to turn the stark space of the Etcetera theatre into everything from urban scrub to a homely flat. Space is well utilised, and even though there are but three actors on what is a quite generous fringe stage, it never feels too big or under used.

Particularly, there’s some very good sound design that supplement Bartram’s writing, from choice pieces of music that pop up on cue, and even some cheekily purposeful anomalies such as the music being too loud to properly hear the conversation that Reece and Jen are having in the bar. Despite it being a small and humble production, it’s resourceful and effective without ever feeling amateur.

Cast

Bartram is join on-stage alongside Ben Nelson as Reece. They are so natural and charming together that it’s hard to believe that these two aren’t a real life couple. Although Bartram wrote the piece, Nelson’s feels like he actively contributes by sliding so naturally into his character and his role. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that both Nelson and Bartram were creating the piece there and then before your eyes. The energy and chemistry that both bring to the production really augments the writing and the reality that they co-inhabit. You really fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other, and tangibly feel their anguish at the end of it all.

Verdict

One of the most adorable and slick pieces of new writing to have emerged from the Camden Fringe. Absolutely worth catching when it comes around again.

Fishcakes played at the Etcetera Theatre, London, NW1 7BU, between 11 – 13 August as part of the Camden Fringe, and several other dates since.


Musical Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Twickenham Theatre, London)

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Perhaps the most ingenious and tenacious of productions ever, the brand spanking new Twickenham Theatre opens with a production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece that all future versions will be judged by.

Overview

One of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated and well known works, this musical thriller draws its influence from similar tales appearing in Victorian penny dreadfuls that have since become urban legend. A barber murders his customers and packs their dismembered bodies into pastries to be sold in the pie shop below, forming part of a larger revenge plot.

Book

Hugh Wheeler’s book combines together the rag-bag of grim horror stories, sold for a penny on the streets of Victorian London (hence, ‘penny dreadfuls’), and weaves from it a plot of revenge and dastardly companionship. Sweeney is given the back story of being transported, as a ploy by a judge to snatch his beautiful wife: thus giving him a mens rea for his murderous spree. Mrs. Lovett is the long-time and besotted companion of Mr. Todd who abets him by literally using his crimes to flesh out her ailing pie business.

But what’s best about Wheeler’s book is that he also seasons this tale with a ghastly sense of humour. He creates a varied tapestry that takes audiences through everything from the frenzied to the funny, and from the tender to the tense, sometimes simultaneously. His characters are colourful, and each play an integral and in the story’s complex development. No-one feels like a superfluous after-thought, and character development (and dispatching) slides neatly into the main narrative without being forced in. It’s a meticulous and well constructed book that puts most other musicals to shame. Everything has a purpose, place, and pace here.

Music & Lyrics

Some, including myself, would argue that this is probably one of Sondheim’s richest and most complex scores. Particularly, it has some of his most memorable songs with very few (if any) of the numbers here being forgettable or lacking in lustre. But the real genius is his use of leitmotifs throughout. By themselves they are sweeping and notable, marking a character with aural dexterity and giving them an extra layer to their persona of their written role. But the real genius is how these keep cropping up in incredibly complex quartets or echoed subtly in the orchestral underlay. It’s a score that meticulously holds everything in place as much as it drives the action.

Sondheim’s music manages to compliment Wheeler’s characterisations and plot development, embracing both the manic and the magical. Sondheim really compliments the many juxtapositions and little in-jokes that Wheeler toys so well with. Particularly, numbers such as “Joanna” in the Second Act, where Sweeney wistfully laments the distance between him and his daughter whilst causally cuts the throats of his victims, is one of the most outrageous and memorable moments of the entire musical. But then there are numbers such as “City on Fire” that is a tense and fretful, crescendoing to the musical’s climax.

Lyrically, Sondheim pens a libretto that is as poetic and playful as his music. Internal rhymes and rhythm being a speciality. There aren’t any predictable or groan-worthy couplets here: just surprising and joy-inducing lines that bounce through the score and really draws you into the music.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of 'Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.

Direction & Production

For a musical that was originally penned for a vast Broadway stage with a full orchestral score, and has since been done recently as such in the West End, reducing the show into the minuscule space was always going to be a challenge. But producers David Adkin and Tony Green have ended up with some of the most tenacious, inspired, and innovative productions to have ever happened on the fringe. Whilst some of the text has been given the chop to make the small-scale production flow unabated, nothing of the charm of the musical has been lost. Their myriad surprises and ingenuities don’t just merely accommodate this behemoth of a musical, but manages to enhance it.

Most of this can be found in Rachel Stone’s set design. It’s essentially the one set that suggests all those that happen, with nothing but a few wooden boxed to play with. But there are many surprises that help the audience imagine and distinguish each place and moment from the last. Tables rise up out of the floor,and  gauzes uncover hidden cubby-holes. particularly ingenious is Sweeney’s chair. In countless production has usually opted for a vertical setting, Stone doesn’t let the absence of a below stage pit deter her from making it work just as effectively. Whilst it seems like a trifle to go on about a piece of furniture, once you’ve seen the musical you’ll understand just how critical getting the chair right in relation to the rest of the musical.

But it’s other little touches that are absolutely fantastic. Particularly, the tangled network of piping in the ceiling that look purely decorative, actually drip water onto cast iron grates at one point, creating an stunning soundscape that is a jaw-dropping coup de grace. Stone’s set is also greatly augmented by Simon Getin Thomas’ lightening, that does some marvellous things with colour and back-lighting to help bolster what’s happening on stage, and really denote those changes of place without props of scenery.

Derek Anderson also does a brilliant job at directing the show with a small cast on an even smaller stage. He manages to not only find space for the busy going-ons of Sweeney’s London, but sometimes turns it into a meticulous maelstrom of tightly knit activity. The only things that remind you of the size of the theatre space is that fact that, if you’re in the front row, your knees are literally up against the stage, and if at the ends of them, you’ll end up having to have actors squeezing past you down the aisle to reach the stage at points.

But it’s Anderson’s treatment of the characters that is the most interesting. Whereas countless productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street see’s Sweeney as a formidable and domineering character, and Mrs. Lovett as mad and completely delude, Anderson has tried something different. Here, Mrs. Lovett is conniving and in total control of her faculties. What’s more, she’s a lot more aware of Todd’s ever-distancing interest in her, rather than holding onto some obsessed pipe-dream. In contrast, Sweeney here is almost too mild mannered and docile to be believed capable of carrying out his blood-soaked spree: a bit too weedy and pathetic to actually do anything about the gross injustice he’s suffered. Thus, you get the sense that Mrs. Lovett is the brains and means of the entire operation, rather than just a clingy, and somewhat batty, convenience to Sweeney. Whilst it’s a bit difficult to accept if you know the musical, and it’s most famed productions – especially Sweeney’s characterisations – it’s actually one that works, even if it initially irks.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Cast

You could not ask for a better cast here. Headlining, is the indomitable David Badella in the title role. But Badella, although brilliant here, isn’t actually the main event. Even though the chance to see him perform with his utterly lucious crushed-velvet baritone voice of his in such close quarters, he’s upstaged (in minutia, might I add) by Sarah Ingram and the rest of the cast.

Mark McKerracher as Judge Turpin is suitably unhinged and devious, accompanied by a wondrously flamboyant Chris Coleman as Beadle Banford, who minces about like some fiendish incarnation of Larry Grayson. Mikeala Newton is also wonderful as Tobias Ragg, injecting a wonderfully boyish innocence into the fray, as well as performing “Not While I’m Around” with a sweet and lilting grace.

But Ingram really steals the show. Embracing every inch of Anderson’s interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, she’s supreme. Streetwise, manipulative, direct, and in charge, she’s a revelation. Every moment of her time on stage is viscous and elating. You almost feel her character should have gotten what she wanted at the end of it all, rather than what she gets. Ingram is a presence that puts both Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone (my two favourite Mrs. Lovett’s) to shame as a theatrical force beyond reckoning.

Verdict

If you’ve never seen this before, or if you have only the film adaptation to go by, this is the perfect gateway drug to Sondheim and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to this musical. But what really marks this production out as spectacular is that if, like me, you know the musical inside out, you should still be prepared to be surprised and astonished every crotchet and throat-slit of the way: a real testament to just how outstanding this production is. This is a production that every future version of this musical will be judged by. The West End? Let them eat pie!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 4 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


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