Tuesday, 26 February 2008

An English Tragedy - Watford Palace Theatre

An English Tragedy by Ronald Harwood
Watford Palace Theatre 15th Feb – 8th March
Directed by Di Trevis
Reviewed by Kevin O’Brien

It’s quite something to see a world premiere, the more so when the playwright is Ronald Harwood. If Harwood’s cv only mentioned ‘Author of The Dresser’ & ‘Screenwriter of The Pianist’ it would be impressive enough. As well as his Oscar for The Pianist and two other Academy Award nominations, he also won a 2007 BAFTA for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Harwood’s latest work visits some familiar themes with An English Tragedy – namely anti-semitism and World War II.

An English Tragedy deals with the true story of English fascist John Amery. Amery was a poor man’s Lord Haw-Haw, whose profound anti-semitism and deep contempt for Communism combined with his Harrow / Oxford background to make him a useful, if inconsequential, tool for the Third Reich. Amery recorded ten Nazi propaganda speeches, seven of which were broadcast on German radio. While Amery never approached Haw-Haw’s notoriety, his efforts were nevertheless sufficient for him to be charged with high treason, which forms the backdrop for the play. The central twist attempts to explain John’s motivation – namely that his distinguished father Leo was in fact a Jew himself, but had always concealed the fact in order to promote his political career in the 1930’s – including, according to the script, an afternoon spent with Hitler himself at the Fuhrer’s country retreat.
So, quite some story. And a discernible buzz in the auditorium. The iconic stage design painted a very literal picture for the evening. A huge blood-red Swastika dominated a black backdrop, with a ‘shadowed’ version of the Third Reich symbol forming the heavily raked stage upon which the action was played out.

The opening saw Amery’s parents seated, transfixed to one of John’s speeches. The speech was delivered through a haze of radio static, morse code and big band music. Very evocative, yet slightly stilted, and dare I say a little cumbersome in places - it felt as if the subject was sometimes being battered home to the audience, when a lighter touch would have been sufficient and indeed preferable.

Given Harwood’s track record, it may seem churlish to criticise. However I felt there were a few over-extended speeches and some slightly clunky scene-setting.

Against this, the quality of the dialogue was excellent. Richard Goulding in the lead role was superb as John Amery, but all involved acquitted themselves extremely well. The almost complete absence of props gave even greater focus to the performances, delivered with great authority by the entire cast. Stark lighting and period costumes combined with clever use of light and sound to be very reminiscent of wartime posters. These components, and the fact An English Tragedy is a true story, made suspension of disbelief easy.
Some snappy, not always black, humour helped to leaven the inevitably heavy subject matter - John Amery’s bisexuality and love for his Teddy Bear providing particularly good source.

A missed opportunity for me was a lack of focus on the irony of Leo’s fine reputation matched against John’s eminently dislikeable character. Even aside from his chaotic and extreme politics, John seemed disagreeable in practically every respect, while Leo appeared to be very well-thought of. Even as John met his grisly end it was difficult to sympathise with his character, regardless of how well Goulding played it.

Despite some limited reservations, it’s good to see Watford Palace Theatre staging new, reasonably radical productions like this. As such I’d certainly recommend it, but I can’t help wondering if its appeal will be somewhat limited – at least in its’ current form.

Richard Goulding (John Amery); Michael Fenton-Stevens (The Major)photo by Manuel Harlan.jpg

The Rat Pack Live From Las Vegas - TOURING

The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas - Touring
Monday 18th February
New Wimbledon Theatre.
Reviewed by David Saunders

I must say I arrived at the Theatre in Wimbledon a little biased and ready for a good night out. I am a huge fan of this era of music and in turn of the three artists being paid tribute tonight. I already have the DVD recording of this show and have been to see Stephen Triffitt once before in his own Sinatra Tribute show.

The basic premise is that we are at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas witnessing one of the mythical ‘Summit’ shows that Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr played in the evenings in Vegas while filming the original ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ film in the early sixties. The set designed by Sean Cavanaugh is an arrangement of backlit and projected shapes this in conjunction with the stepped ‘Big Band’ style stage layout mirrors the easy elegance of the show itself. The minimal lighting design by Mark Wheatley is solid and serves to merely add the required glitz to what is a sparkling show doing what all good lighting should setting the right mood for the performers to ‘step on’ to.

The direction and choreography by Mitch Sebastian lends the piece an air of ease as the performers ‘swing’ their way around the multi layered staging never seeming to really have to work hard this is due to the flowing direction and choreography that while not flaming hot was slick and sexy enough to get the point across.

Now to the performers. The excellent Stephen Triffitt once again reprising his role as ‘Old Blue Eyes’ has the audience in the palm of his hand from the get go. He effortlessly channels Sinatra and gives a performance brimming with charm and elegance that would make the ‘Chairman of the Board’ sit back and enjoy a glass of Bourbon safe in the knowledge that he was being done justice.

Dean Martin was played by Nigel Casey and while not the most convincing impersonation the performance had the easy relaxed way with the audience that Dino was so loved for. It is in the links between numbers that Casey is strongest delivering the one liners with relish and nailing the Martin slurring delivery.

The hardest working of the trio seemed to be Michael C. Harris giving life to the nonstop energy and fizz of the ‘Smallest Man in Show Business’ Sammy Davis Jr. From the opening number which took the audience by surprise after the calm of Sinatra, Harris stormed the stage a bundle of showbiz razzle-dazzle. His finest moment came in the delivery of ‘Mr. Bojangles’ his rich tones giving the story of an old hoofer a deep melancholy which provided the evening with an emotional punch.

The Burelli sisters played by Sophie McEwan, Lisa Donmall and Lucy Holloway brought some wonderfully vivacious appeal to the piece. Each one of the sisters bringing Hollywood real glamour to the Wimbledon Theatre.

Finally the Band backing the boys gave the evening a real feel of what it means to be a talented musician each one of them playing with the sort of sharp style and flair that the wonderful arrangements demand.

To end this is not high emotional theatre. Trust me this is not Bond’s The Sea at the Haymarket or Othello at the Donmar but trust me it is all the better for it. The performance left this reviewer desperate to get home and hear his ‘Summit at the Sands’ records as soon as he got home.

Lucia Di Lammermoor - ENO

Lucia di Lammermoor – by Donizetti
English National Opera at London Coliseum
16th February 2008 (8 performances)
Reviewed by Mark Valencia

Hard on the heels of the Royal Opera’s triumphant staging of La Fille du Régiment, ENO has mounted what is, astonishingly, their first ever production of Donizetti’s masterpiece. In so doing they have assembled a first rate cast under former company musical director Paul Daniel and controversial stage director David Alden.

The big attraction in any production of Lucia is the casting of the doomed lovers, Edgardo and Lucia, even though they only share one scene in the entire opera. It would be hard to imagine a finer pairing than Barry Banks and the American coloratura soprano Anna Christy. Miss Christy, who had been suffering from bronchitis before the first night, has a youthfulness and vulnerability that are ideally suited to the role, and her tonal beauty and musicianship are impeccable. The after-effects of illness may have left her voice the odd decibel short – and there was a palpable tension before the high notes in her extended mad scene – but this remains a formidable reading of the role. For all that Alden’s pitiless direction pulls her about, requiring her to sing prone, upside down or contorted like plasticine, Christy’s vocal control remains supreme.

The opera is cast from strength throughout, and on opening night even bass-baritone Paul Whelan, singing from the side while an indisposed Clive Bayley mimed his fine portrayal of Raimondo, could hardly be bettered. Mark Stone’s cruel Enrico is beautifully characterised while Banks’s Edgardo, ludicrously bekilted like one of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart warriors, sings quite radiantly.

As so often with today’s ENO, the singers find themselves pitted against a director’s Big Concept. David Alden’s brand of lumbering expressionism won’t be to everyone’s taste; he doesn’t do subtle. His basic premise is undeniably persuasive: by advancing Donizetti’s (and Sir Walter Scott’s) action by 80 years he is able to mine a rich vein of Victorian values – genteel outward appearances that conceal (or even propagate) a more degenerate reality. So far so good: Alden reveals shades of The Turn of the Screw, still fresh in the minds of ENO audiences, that are apt and unmistakable. Effective use is made of faded ancestral photographs to accentuate the history between the Ashton and Ravenswood houses, and Charles Edwards’s ruined sets, lowering and cold, are creepily side-lit by Adam Silverman. It’s all very striking; but it’s expressionism of a kind that has been done elsewhere frequently, similarly, and so much better than here. Alden’s visual world closely resembles Polly Teale’s Shared Experience
A Doll’s House, but minus Ms Teale’s finesse, or maybe Marianne Elliott’s NT Thérèse Raquin, but without the mystery and menace. Instead, for every moment of inspiration, Alden commits a clunking howler that elicits titters rather than gasps. A scene of incestuous intent on the part of Enrico towards his sister shatters rather than intensifies the tension of their duet, and some bizarre business involving two men and a rope (don’t ask) ensures that in that moment our attention is on the director, not the composer. That can’t be right.

In the pit all is well, and the ENO Orchestra welcomes back its former music director with a dazzling display of fizz and brio, while a well-drilled ENO chorus is on unusually fine form. Bel Canto is back with a bang.

Monday, 4 February 2008

The Mikado - ENO

The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan
ENO @ The Coliseum: 2nd Feb – 4th Mar (9 Perf)
Originally Directed by Jonathan Miller
Revival Direction by David Ritch
Conducted by Wyn Davis
Reviewed by Laura Evelyn

The dazzling contrast of the brilliant white and cream set against the darkness of the auditorium kicked off Jonathan Miller’s glorious 2008 adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic ‘The Mikado’ in a most spectacular way.

The set, designed Stefanos Lazaridis, was a perfect backdrop to the action as it unfolded. It formed a richly textured background without being overwhelming. Particularly effective details included some dramatic shadows, an elaborate expressionist-style parquet floor and a working fountain. The interesting use of proportion; for example a giant cocktail glass and a man climbing a ladder to reach a mantle piece, added to the eccentric nature of the opera.

Sue Blane is to be congratulated on her fabulous costumes. Whilst almost entirely monochrome, the costumes, which included school uniforms, bridesmaid dresses and morning suits, were entirely in keeping with the period and the attention to detail was exquisite. Touches of colour, such as red and yellow button holes were a clever contrast, adding yet another dimension. Katisha’s evening dresses were wondrous and the pairing of an elegant silk dress with nylon pop socks during her best high kicking efforts, had the audience in stitches.

The dancing maids and bellhops were very talented and had been expertly choreographed by Stephen Speed. There were lots of exuberant high leg kicks mixed with Charleston dance moves and tap dancing. At several points, most of the cast were dancing and the effect was magnificent.

Richard Suart stole the show with his wonderfully comic portrayal of Koko. His lapses into cockney patter were hilarious, as was his very physical and camply dramatic acting. His infamous Little List song, which apparently he writes different lyrics for at each performance, was most funny. The audience roared with laughter as he sang about topical issues and celebrities like Derek Conway, Nigella Lawson, Jeremy Paxman’s pants, Ed Balls, David Beckham, Facebook and Northern Rock. Suart’s irrepressible energy added a real vitality to his character.

The jilted elderly Katisha was another triumphant performance. Frances McCafferty was every inch the Prima Donna. Her sudden arrival on stage, complete with flying goggles, appeared to surprise both the actors and audience alike. This talented singer was able to switch easily between being haunting, when she sang a solo about being alone, and comical, when she was reminding everyone to bow down to her as Mikado’s daughter-in-law elect. Her stage presence was very powerful and she certainly came across as a force to be reckoned with.

The great Pooh-Bah, played masterfully by Graeme Danby, encapsulated an unbelievable snobbishness and arrogance. Full of his own self-importance, Pooh-Bah was a suitable comic foil for the more delicate and feminine Pitti Sing. Pitti Sing (Anna Grevelius), whilst glamorous, was the weakest singer of the main characters. At times it was a struggle to hear her clearly.

Robert Murray totally had the measure of the hapless love-sick Nanki-Poo down to a tee. His interactions with Koko and his on-stage chemistry with the beautiful, expressive and musically talented Yum-Yum (Sarah Tynan) was very believable and amusing.

As one would expect at the ENO, the music was divine. The orchestra, directed by Wyn Davies, was superb and the clarinets delivered a particularly noteworthy performance.

The show ended with several extremely well deserved curtain calls, some standing ovations and rapturous applause from the audience. Now in its 12th revival, this performance was totally sumptuous and is definitely a must-see.

Rafta Rafta - Birmingham Rep

Rafta Rafta by Ayub Kahn-Dinn
Birmingham Rep: 31st Jan – 16th Feb
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Reviewed by Helen Chapman

Ayub Khan-Din’s clever adaptation of Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time follows the commotion of two down to earth Indian families in 1960s Bolton after they are brought together by the wedding of their respective son and daughter, However wedded bliss was not all that it was hoped to be as it emerged that after six weeks, the happy couple had not consummated their marriage.

In itself this caused awkward tension between Vina Patel and Atul Dutt, but they also had to contend with the “concern” of their interfering family deciding what needed to be done, making for many hilarious moments as both sets of parents tried to sensitively discuss the issue.

The beauty of this play lies in the portrayal of each relationship and the exploration of past loves, hurts and expectations. It was Eeshwar Dutt, the bridegroom’s father, who stole the show for me. A vivid and energetic performance (by a very competent understudy) revealed a complex character, well known and respected in the community for bringing his family from nothing to a stable and happy home, yet inside that same home, he is unmasked as a proud tyrant, revelling in the downfalls of his family. Feelings of rejection and disappointment remain between father and son, and are handled in an honest yet light hearted way. Meera Syal delivers a fantastic performance as Mrs Dutt as she combines motherly love with strength of character as she helps to bring father and son together, not sparing some heated yet comedy arguments often in the company of Vina’s parents who themselves are covering up a not so straight forward marriage.

A creative and well used set designed by Tim Hatley added to the atmosphere of this play. To open the play, a huge print of a terraced street was lifted to reveal an elaborately decorated (neatly fitting the British perceived stereotype of Indian homes) two storey house bringing each phase to life and allowing a continual flow from scene to scene.

Rafta Rafta is a hilarious play dealing with some real and prevalent issues in today’s family units. The National Theatre have done a great job!

Madame Butterly - ENO

Madame Butterfly by Puccini
ENO @ The Coliseum Jan 31
st -7th March (9 perfs)
Directed by Anthony Minghella

Conducted by David Parry

Reviewed By Kimberley Knudson

Any production returning for a second revival brings with it a promise of something extraordinary. Anthony Minghella’s interpretation of Puccini’s tale of doomed love set in Japan, brought back by Associate Director/Choreographer Carolyn Choa, gives us precisely that in a production at times quite breathtaking in style. The spartan set, with its polished floor and huge mirror above, echo the black lacquered box within which Cio-Cio-San keeps her few possessions. As the mirror rises at the opening of the performance the stage is bathed in a deep blood red, slowly a silhouette of a young Japanese bride emerges, and around her four masked dancers begin to wind crimson silk. All of this before a note is even played. If you came expecting cinematic style opulence from Minghella you will not be disappointed.

Whilst the set is minimalist in appearance, the use of screens emulating the bamboo ones used in Japanese houses, the pink cherry blossom falling gently on the lovers at the end of Act 1 and the curtain of petals falling slowly from the roof all add to the stunning visuals.

Minghella also brings more invention in the use of Bunraku puppetry, the puppets being manipulated by black clad figures. Whilst this device works in the thought/dream sequence during the intermezzo in Act 2 using a puppet for Cio-Cio-San, we are left without the usual focus for our emotions namely Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San’s son. The puppeteers manipulate the figure with consummate skill making all the movements incredibly lifelike, however the slightly macabre, skull like head of the puppet detracts from the image and renders any attempt at emotional connection nigh on impossible.

Peter Mumford’s lighting sympathetically emphasizes the mood of the piece, particularly when Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki are starkly lit centre stage against a white screen, the sense of loneliness and desperation are palpable.

Han Feng’s costumes are bursting with a riot of colour from across the spectrum and with the reflections in the mirrored section of the set the effect is dazzling but somehow not distracting, as the orchestra, splendidly conducted by David Parry, keep us focused on Puccini’s enthralling score.

Judith Howard’s Cio-Cio-San is at once innocent and trusting, yet clearly no ordinary Tea House girl who can be bought and herein lies her downfall. Howard brings naivety and vulnerability to the role, her voice carrying clearly even at the quietest moments. Gwyn Hughes Jones reprising his role as Pinkerton provokes disgust at his attitude towards his marriage to Cio-Cio-San, cutting the imposing figure expected of a naval Lieutenant. Ashley Holland as Sharpless, at first a little drowned by the orchestra, grows with each scene and by the end shows a level of emotion hitherto unexpected but perfectly judged. Karen Cargill imbues Suzuki with the love of a mother for her daughter, rather than that of a maid for her mistress, thereby evoking much sympathy for the plight of the two women.

Of the remaining cast William Berger of the ENO Young singers deserves special mention for his well received role as Prince Yamadori.

Photos by Alastair Muir

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