Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Martin Guerre - Watermill Theatre, Bagnor

Martin Guerre
Watermill Theatre: Wed 11th Jul - Sat 1st Sep
Book by: Alain Boubil & Claude-Michel Schonberg
Music by: Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by: Alain Boubil, Stephen Clark, Herbert Kretzmer & Declan Dommellan
Directed by: Craig Revel Horwood
Musical Supervision and Arrangement by: Sarah Travis
Reviewed by Jim Nicholson

If you did not see the original 1996 version of Martin Guerre, which won the Olivier for Best Musical, or its reinvention as a full scale touring production a couple of years later then you may well leave the Watermill Theatre believing that, in this Boubil/Schonberg offering, you have just witnessed one of the best staged musicals in a small theatre in recent years.

But for us devotees who were regular visitors to the Prince Edward Theatre back in 96, or followed the show “on the road”, there is a major challenge of accepting this production for what it is, in terms of a scaled down actor musician version, whilst not getting bogged down in trying to compare every performer, every song, every dance routine with the enormity of its West End original.

So, initially at least, trying to avoid those comparisons I can happily confirm that it will be almost impossible for any “punter” to leave the Watermill without being enthralled by the impact of the story, the haunting melodies, the clever lighting and use of props and the excellent staging of those “boot thumping” dance routines in such a confined space.

With all the “big” numbers the massed “village voice” is a wonderful sounding full on chorus whilst even more dramatic is the protestant/catholic screamed loathing of each other that is delivered with a precision and clarity that many other productions could learn from, the court proceedings taking this to its full extreme.

All that is missing is two “hairs on the back of your neck” voices in the roles of Betrande de Rols and Martin himself. Although Kelly O’Leary and Andrew Bevis play a big part in making this a night when the wristwatch is forgotten as the eyes never leave the stage they lack that “star quality” delivery that the shows melodic solo numbers demand. That said, Ben Goddard, playing the imposter Arnaud du Thil, gets close, but with the village in full voice on all the other numbers these slight flaws certainly do not spoil the evening.

Utilising the instruments as props in many of the scenes, this is most cleverly done with “the fool” Benoit‘s guitar doubling up as the love of his life, scarecrow Louison. Although the actions of the jealous farm hand Guillaume (Jez Unwin) with this “female” guitar may make you think twice about strumming it again in future.

Director Craig Revel Horwood has given this beautiful, but troubled giant of a show, in his own words, the simple treatment of peasant life. In actual fact the “in your face” performance space means a “pedigree” story reaches championship winning intensity.
The Director also choreographs the evening and proves he is not just “that bloke from that dance show on TV” but a top quality act with a long line of West End successes that include being assistant choreographer to Bob Avian on the original show, which scooped that years “best dance” Olivier. His use of the minimal floor space in staying true to some of those highly original routines just has to be seen.

With a degree of dialogue replacing parts of the sung through script and Betrande not giving away whether she knows Arnold is an imposter or not, this scaled down version has many pluses, including a return of the comic views of Hortense (Rosie Timpson), Ernestine (Susannah Van Den Beg) and, now joined by, Madame de Rols (Karen Mann), although her trumpet was, shall we say, shrill. The Watermill now have an even better offering than many of their recent West End transfers such as Mack and Mabel and Sweeney Todd.

So how do you win over those still harping on about the full orchestrations and spectacle of the West End original. For a start you are paying a third of the price of a West End seat, you are visiting the loveliest theatre setting this country has to offer and, with no sign of the show returning in its former juggernaut format, this offering will certainly rekindle your love of its music whilst also adding a new intensity to the story that ensures you have, what I would call, a good value, quality night out.

Martin Guerre runs at the Watermill theatre until 1st September for more information visit www.watermill.org.uk

Photos by: Robert day: 1st - Kelly O’Leary as Betrande de Rols: 2nd Suzanna ven den Berg(Ernestine), Karen Mann (Madame de Rols) and Esther Biddle (Catherine): 3rd Ben Goddard (Arnaud du Thil): 4th Andrew Bevis (Martin Guerre)

Sunday, 8 July 2007

American Nights - Kings Head Theatre, Islington

2+2+2 by Jörg Tittel (Axis of Evil Theatre Company)
Directed by Alex Halfrecht
"Dentity Crisis" by Christopher Durrang (Occam's Razor Theatre Company)
Directed by Sherrill Gow
Kings Head Theatre, Islington: July 3rd - July 29th
Reviewed by Adam Sheldon

Two theatre companies, two superficially unrelated plays with different settings and styles, two different casts and directors: this kind of production doubles every risk, practical and artistic, in winning audience approval. That the formula resolves in this case into a patchily entertaining, occasionally unsettling result is a credit chiefly to some bravura performances in the sweaty (but mercifully now smoke-free) cockpit that is the King’s Head in summer.

The greater stage time is occupied with a futuristic physical theatre piece, “2+2+2”, newly-adapted from his own short story by Jörg Tittel. He himself takes the lead role of Abe, a production drone in some vaguely recognisable Brave New World controlled by mysterious Owners - represented by the recorded voice of Richard E. Grant (a considerable and heavily-marketed coup for the production company, Axis of Evil). Life for Abe is a soulless round of work, pre-packaged television and regulated sleep periods; until he encounters fast-food waitress Sarah Lee (a winsome Kimberly Butler), and feels the first inner stirrings of rebellion which will lead ultimately to his doom. So far, so very tired and predictable: these are visions familiar from fiction right up to “Cloud Atlas”.

What lifts this experience above the common run of dystopian satire is the energetic presentation, with a set and flooring consisting of chalkboards on which scenic elements are repeatedly drawn and erased both by Abe and an extraordinary robotic character, perhaps his guardian, played with spectacular physical control and grace by Penny Lisle. The pace and precision of the action seldom flag, aided by a neatly-demarcated sound tape and snappy lighting cues; the repetitive cycle of the days takes on the quality of nightmare, until, driven by desire, Abe wakes into a kind of muted consciousness. However, once Abe and his love have broken free from their bondage, Tittel’s inspiration falters. Despite the writer’s aim, stated in the programme, of bringing “positive change in a world dominated by fear”, the play’s message is that the system always wins: finally swapping places with his robot, Abe effectively loses even the meaningless existence he has had until now (yes, it is “1984” – except that Abe has loved Big Brother from the start).

This is an echo of the conclusion to “’Dentity Crisis”, the short Christopher Durang apprentice piece which begins the evening. In its twenty-five minutes, this takes us on amusing sweep through the world of solipsist paranoia: nobody is what they seem, except you yourself – and you, it should be pointed out, are obviously mad! The dramatic framework is that of an all-American dysfunctional family, where mother Edith Fromage (the self-proclaimed inventor of cheese) variously romances her husband, her son and her lover in plain sight of her suicidal daughter, Jane – the twist being that these men are played by the same actor (Christopher Giangiordano, also doubling for good measure as an enfeebled grandfather). Jane’s psychiatrist is little help, apparently switching sexes with his own wife mid-therapy: her only remaining recourse is to play the same game, bringing her release from a straightjacket into total lunacy. The company responsible for the play is called Occam’s Razor, which is a principle saying the truth lies in simplicity; the truth of Jane’s situation, as you may guess, is very hard to discern.

This material demands exactly the right directorial touch, creating a heightened reality: not pantomime, but certainly not naturalism. Excellent costuming and two brightly coloured flourishes on set take us part of the way there, but director Sherrill Gow possibly expects too much from a fundamentally frivolous script. Wherever the humorous rhythm falters, as in a central section apparently going to the root of Jane’s problem (when she was a girl watching “Peter Pan”, Tinkerbell’s death was all her fault, for applauding half-heartedly), the play congeals into portentousness.

Fortunately, most of the action is expertly steered by Nancy Baldwin as the formidable Edith, in a performance which lifts everyone except the stone-faced Jane (Clare Wilkie) toward her own level of sheer comic verve. Baldwin and Giangiordano give a master class in how to play Durang with tripping cues and exact gesture, and they are very well supported by Andy Pandini and Andrea Sadler; although some of the group blocking they have been given, on a small stage, looks forced and awkward. The technical level of the production is basic, too, with unsubtle lighting changes and a rough-and-ready feel to the soundscape.

If the evening can in any sense be regarded as a whole – and the title “American Nights” is an irrelevance, with Nancy Baldwin’s tour de force self-evidently the only real US presence on show – both its halves deal with an individual struggling to break free from a suffocating, nightmarish situation. Thought of as offering any new insight on that predicament, it falls short. Even if there are several moments during the 110-minute running time when a frisson passes through the audience, there is also a lot of confusion: their appetite to laugh, fed by the candied taste of the first piece (and the curiously suggestive sight of Mme Fromage’s novelty banana bread), is gradually jaded by the bitter flavour of the second. Nonetheless, the effort put in by a talented group of performers definitely makes the trip to Islington worthwhile (though paying £20 to sit in possibly the most dowdy and uncomfortable auditorium in London would be, for some theatregoers, rather less of a laughing matter).

American Nights runs at the kings head until the 29th July for more information visit www.kingsheadtheatre.org.uk
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