The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Archive: OFF WEST END AND FRINGE 2000
For the archive, we have filed our reviews of several London Fringe shows from the year 2000 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Mademoiselle Colombe - Makinde - Mating Behaviour - Mourning Glory - Moving On - Mrs. Steinberg and the Byker Boy - On A Clear Day You Can See Forever - The Prayer
Mademoiselle Colombe Bridewell Theatre Autumn 2000
Perhaps it's always been so, but this year seems to have been quite a bumper one for British theatre's ongoing love affair with the 48 plays of French playwright Jean Anouilh.
First produced in 1951, Mademoiselle Colombe is a biting satire on his own great love, the theatre. Set in 19th century Paris, Colombe is brought to a theatre where her pianist husband Julien wishes to introduce her to his estranged mother Madame Alexandra - typical of her time in that she is a star of the drama world and astute businesswoman.
Along with her we're invited into a strange world of egotistical poet-playwrights, lecherous managers, busybody dressers and stuck-up leading actors. Helped by his brother Armand, Julien dumps his wife on his mother's charity as he departs to do military service.
Naturally, in his absence Colombe experiences an awakening of many parts, and at one point the play becomes a detective story when, after a tip-off, Julien arrives unexpectedly on 24-hour leave to discover who Colombe has cuckolded him with.
The first half has very little to redeem it, I regret to say, moulded as it is by sloppy direction that has neither feel for the period nor for the simple yet complex interactions between the characters. Returning, however, for Act 2 reveals a turn of pace as the plot strands unite and the comic impetus get under way. A highly talented cast is at last revealed and Anouilh's sprightly script re-emerges.
One would be forgiven for thinking that this is a run-of-the-mill vehicle for ex-Bond movie star Honor Blackman. Not so. Her Madame Alexandra is as considered a performance as any, and the scene where she finally takes Colombe under her wing is rivetingly thoughtful.
In fact, Blackman is comfortably part of a tight ensemble - standing out in particular are Timothy Speyer, truly obsequious as her henpecked assistant La Surette, and Roz McCutcheon as the wise but batty dresser Madame Georges.
Sophie Bold and Neal Foster's final scene leaves impressive images of interleaved humour and pathos as Colombe and Julien reassess their relationship in a verbal battle from which there can be only one victor.
Despite the inexcusable missed opportunities of a production which fails to be both farce and love story, as a whole it works and is somehow well worth the viewing.
Makinde Oval Theatre, Spring 2000
Over the past few years British-based West African theatre has seemed a worthy successor of bearing the torch for new drama in the UK. Tiata Fahodzi's Macbeth-inspired production of Makinde, however, goes some way to extinguishing it, albeit unintentionally.
After an extraordinary nude bubble bath opener with his newly wedded wife, Makinde is summoned from Britain to his West African homeland. There all is not well since his father the king has just been murdered and a hundred-year civil war is threatening to take a turn for the worse. In what becomes a bloody study of tyranny and revenge, Makinde becomes embroiled in the conflict of love and loyalty that follow at home and at war.
Written by Femi Elufowoju, who co-directs with Adeola Folarin, all the elements are here: gods, drumming, good versus bad, the call of the spirits across the ocean, plundered lands and strong women, weak men.
The effort Elufowoju has put into Makinde is admirable but clearly takes its toll. Since he also takes on the lead role as an actor, he suffers, in the process producing a wooden performance that fails to give the other characters the spark they need.
Still, the ensemble works hard - Omotolani Adagunodo, Ayan Ayandosu, Craig Blake, Alan Cooper, Tunde Euba, Charmain Falode, Sesan Ogunledun and Funmi Olowe take on dual parts with aplomb and sing, dance and act their hearts out.
All in all, therefore, you'll see a classic curate's egg of a production. The audience sits around three sides of a royal compound complete with pillars, well and carved doors - equally evocative and functional, it still creates frustrating problems of projection and blocking. And, sure, you can enjoy the Shakespeare and even earlier Greek framework of the drama, but plot and characterization remove it from the international arena and limit it not even to West Africa but most specifically to South-West Nigeria.
With very little filling in between the bath sandwich of opening bubbles and closing blood, it's clear that Kurasawa this ain't.
Mating Behaviour Pentameters Theatre Winter 2000-01
This witty and insightful romantic comedy is a model of London fringe theatre at its best - an interesting new play that would be overwhelmed and lost in a West End theatre, but that is just right for a room above a Hampstead pub, where both the play and its attractive young cast can be fully appreciated.
Like many fringe shows, it's the product of an ongoing company, in this case the 15-year-old Traffic Of The Stage, and like many, there's a certain inbred quality about it. The author, John Cooper, is a founder and director of the company, while actor-director Harry Meacher and actor Christopher Gilling have worked with the company several times before. But such interconnections don't in any way imply a vanity production, but rather the smoothness and authority that come from having worked together before.
Mating Behaviour is a witty and insightful dissection of sexual politics, proving that even an overly-familiar subject like love among the thirty-somethings can still yield fresh comic and dramatic material.
In the beautiful-people world of trendy north London, would-be writer Matthew (Gilling) yearns for former model Anne (Sonya Vine), but she has come under the spell of oily TV presenter Pierce (Meacher). Friend Sara (Michelle Livingstone) offers gallantly to help Matthew make Anne jealous, but it is the changing career and financial fortunes of the two men that lead both women to reconsider their choices.
There is an
advantage to writing about educated and clever people - that is, if you
are clever yourself, as author John Cooper is. You can make them
self-aware and eloquent enough that they can talk about their feelings
in entertaining ways.
In this case, each of the four characters has opinions on the psychology of sex and of the different drives and rationalizations of men and women, which they take turns explaining in witty epigrammatic mode. A lot of the fun of the play then comes from watching them each behave in ways that prove how right or wrong their so-glibly expressed theories were.
Along the way, there are also satisfyingly sharp side-swipes at the worlds of publishing, porn, and Britain's down-market Channel Five, as well as a dissection of the prestige and hipness ratings of different north London addresses or TV chat shows.
While the two men play off each other most strikingly, Meacher's flashy seducer contrasted to Gilling's stolid romantic, it is the two women who prove to have the meatier roles, Vine keeping us off balance about just how shallow her character is, and Livingstone gradually exposing the hidden agendas of hers.
You may think there's nothing new to say about a topic that is the backbone of a dozen TV sitcoms. But playwright Cooper, director Meacher and the cast repeatedly surprise you with both insights and jokes you can't predict.
Mourning Glory Jermyn Street Theatre and tour 2000
David Benson is an actor-monologuist whose solo show on Kenneth Williams was a success at the Edinburgh Fringe three years ago. He had just finished his run there when the first news reports of the Princess of Wales' accident were broadcast, and he has developed his responses into a new show.
His one-hour monologue pushes his way through the gauze of sentimentality that has covered the Princess since her death, and takes a jaundiced and frequently laugh-provoking view of the national orgy of sentiment that followed the accident three years ago. Though uneven, his combination of barbed insight and campy humour hits the mark more often than not.
He starts by reminding us of how fragmented and contradictory the first news reports were, and then how instant the compulsion to participate in national mourning was. He is alternately comic ('Someone said her car crashed while being chased by Pavarotti'), cynical (He reminds us that the general view of her right before her death was considerably more negative than we remember) and absurd, speculating on what it is about metal fencing that compels people to lay flowers there.
He plays several roles, from a wickedly-imagined Barbara Cartland to a Queen who sounds a bit too much like Kenneth Williams, and then walks us though the funeral, from the overblown television coverage, through the grotesque parade of celebrities entering the Abbey, to Elton John's performance and Earl Spencer's infamous speech.
He is particularly astute in decoding subtexts in the behaviour of the royals, with everything from a nod by the Queen to the order in which the men lined up to march behind the casket coming under cynical examination.
In the tiny theatre, Benson calls on audience involvement and feedback, with uneven results. Getting us to hum along with the funeral procession is chillingly effective, as is timing our applause to show us how long an ovation Spencer got. But asking us for our memories is risky; it may work some nights but fell flat when I was there, and repeatedly broke the spell of the evening.
So the show, for all its brevity, has its longueurs, and Benson has trouble sustaining the energy of the best moments. His material, tightly structured, would make a brilliant 20-minute stand-up routine. Stretched to an hour, it occasionally shows its thinness, and he must constantly fight to regain the rhythm and effectiveness he keeps letting slip.
(Benson revived the piece in Edinburgh in 2007. Click Here for our review)
Moving On Bridewell Theatre Summer 2000
Moving On is a Stephen Sondheim compilation show put together by the guiding force behind the original Side By Side By Sondheim 25 years ago, David Kernan.
There have been 2 or 3 other such anthology shows in between, and one might wonder whether the well is running dry. But this is, after all, the best theatrical songbook of the past 40 years, and (to mix a metaphor) there are still plenty of gems to be found.
The show is loosely biographical, with recorded comments by Sondheim introducing each section. So, for example, a few words on his teenage years lead to Red Riding Hood's song from Into the Woods and Take Me to the World from Evening Primrose.
Sometimes the selections are obvious. I don't really need to tell you that his comments on friendship are followed by a medley of Hello Old Friend and Side By Side. Other connections are very tenuous, like how his talk about hobbies gets to Ah Paree from Follies.
For the most part the show skips over the chestnuts, except for a brief salute to his first musicals with songs from West Side Story and Gypsy. There's a lot from lesser-known scores, like Saturday Night and Merrily We Roll Along; and for the real Sondheim buff there are songs cut from shows. Multitudes of Amys would have been all wrong for Company, but it's a nice song on its own, as is Ah But Underneath, the Follies cut-out that manages to get the words 'interior', 'inferior', 'exterior', 'superior' and 'query her' all into one sentence.
As happens in shows like this, the five performers are typecast in their onstage personae and allotted songs. There's the boyish one (Geoffrey Abbott), the rugged one (Robert Meadmore), the ingenue (Linzi Hately), the sophisticate (Belinda Lang) and the veteran (Angela Richards). After a very short time you can predict who is going to get which song, and there are no surprises.
David Kernan has directed them in his own performance style, which is not a subtle one. Every song is belted with the same intensity, smiles and eyes are perpetually wide, and every number is treated as a showstopper. This makes every one a crowd pleaser, but also has the effect of homogenising the show, so that real classics, like Everything's Coming Up Roses, are on exactly the same level as lesser songs.
The only numbers that really stand out are those that break the pattern, either because the singers give them something extra (Lang camping up Ah Paree) or just get out of their way and let them shine (Richards simply and thus overpoweringly finding the drama in In Buddy's Eyes, or the five presenting the beautiful harmonies of On a Sunday).
The sizeable Sondheim cult will flock to this, of course. But even the casual theatre-goer will find much to delight in. Appropriately for a salute like this, the real stars are not the performers, but Sondheim's words and music.
Mrs Steinberg And The Byker Boy Bush Theatre, June 2000
Michael Wilcox is the author of several award-winning plays on gay themes, including Rents, but Mrs. Steinberg is his first new play in years. Unfortunately it is something of a disappointment, a shallow comedy with no depth and not enough laughs to carry it on the surface level.
Steinberg is an old-style socialist who runs a charity shop in the north
of England (Byker is a local town), benefiting left-wing causes, like
pencils for Cuba. Her staff is made up of volunteers, a couple of
unemployed women who have been with her for years, and a couple of young
men in training programs.
Everyone knows everyone, everyone makes bawdy jokes at each other's expense. The women put aside the best donations for themselves or borrow from the till, the two gay boys start a romance.
When Mrs. Steinberg leaves for a month, her staff, led by one of the boys, completely overhaul the operation. Realizing that some of the second-hand stuff they sell is valuable, they move the shop upmarket and online, scouring local street markets and other charity shops for things they can mark up and resell, and almost overnight quadrupling the profits.
Mrs. Steinberg returns to this transformed and thriving business and, to their surprise, is not delighted. Her principles outraged by all this rampant capitalism, she sacks everyone, returning the shop to its old ways while they go off to open their own business next door.
I've given that detailed plot summary because that really is just about all there is to the play, and most of it - the transformation of the shop - takes place offstage between acts. Wilcox is not really interested in telling a story, or in making any social comment. There are a couple of half-hearted gestures toward a point, about the value of integrity, or the role of the charity shop in the community and these people's lives.
But most of the play is devoted to incidental business and the comic interaction among the characters, with running gags about sex or borrowing from the till. Jane Wood and Gay Soper play veteran shop volunteers with the easy bawdry and running quarrels of old friends, while Aiden Meech and Paul Nichols are gay youngsters forming a relationship as they work together. Miriam Karlin is the loving but ultimately no-nonsense boss.
Ultimately, this is less a play than a pilot for a TV sitcom in the mould of Britain's Dinner Ladies or any American sitcom set in a workplace, all situation and colourful characters, with little depth or content.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever Bridewell Theatre, January 2000
What can I say? This long overdue UK premiere of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's 1965 rarely performed musical is a knock-out show with knock-out performances.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever has a frustrating history, one that everyone has tried and failed to pigeonhole by genre, by subject matter, by songs, by characters, by success rate. Rarely performed at all, many have had to settle instead for the baffingly turgid Vincente Minnelli 1970 film version starring the unlikely pairing of Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand.
Originally entitled I Picked a Daisy in the planning stages, the premise is an intriguing one - for a Broadway musical at least. A New York psychiatrist, Dr Mark Bruckner, discovers that one of his patients, Daisy Gamble, has psychic powers and can make her plants grow and predict events.
Further sessions reveal that she is the reincarnation of an eary feminist, Melinda, who lived in 18th century England. Love naturally beckons, only to suffer an upset when Daisy feels that Mark is using her only to get to the real object of his affections, Melinda.
In general the songs are effective rather than catchy but there is something for everyone: the achingly powerful Come Back To Me, the duets Melinda and Wait Till We're Sixty-Five - emotional and witty respectively - and, of course, the title song, sung as an Act I ballad by Mark and then reprised stormingly by the company to close the show.
Jenna Russell is magnetic in both roles as common-or-garden Daisy and posh alter-ego Melinda, although her accents distracted by their tendency to wander (i.e. difficulty in separating her Jewish Yonkers from her Maggie Smith). Special mention indeed for her delightful rendition of the comic wordplay of Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here.
Matching Russell is Harry Burton, whose youthful yet stuffy Mark successfully infuriates and captivates the inquisitive Daisy. As a quibble however, one felt that his voice was not given the fullest of opportunities to show its real range.
The rest of the cast give the best of their many talents - although, as is common in such productions, the odd miscast character jolted things somewhat. Director Carol Metcalfe, for example, has badly let down Maurice Clarke in his role as Melinda's beau - a direct import from Martin Guerre or Les Mis, his vocal style and lack of comic timing is at odds with the lighter American format.
On A Clear Day... has eluded the stage because it is always considered a 'modern' tale of ESP and reincarnation. But that's a red herring really: what you have here is a wonderfully inventive variant of the eternal triangle, with touches of Pygmalion abounding.
Interestingly, Lerner came under fire for his book but it's clearly the book that makes the show happen rather than the lyrics. On A Clear Day... is the missing link between the old musical tradition and that yet to come, with the story, humour and classic plotline of the former while omitting the obligatory 'zany' sub-plots and chorus line numbers.
As they say in the trade, a magical experience.
The Prayer Young Vic, Summer 2000
There are times when one wishes one could cut out the middlemen that keep audience and cast apart - in the case of Talawa's The Prayer, the writer and director.
A boy lives in the terrifying shadow of his bullying union official father, an ordeal he shares with his terrified mother. Denied any chance to shine, he grows up a failure and leaves to live on the streets but returns one fateful night...
The point made by writer Grant Buchanan Marshall is that the odds continue to be stacked against black people in Britain - but this could be any family of any origin in what is a run-of-the-mill kitchen-sink drama.
The main problem lies in the fact that this is not a fully fledged play. Nowhere near it. Act I comes across as a series of set audition pieces, flexing a predictable gamut of emotional responses within the established situational parameters. And while Act II picks up, every second clunks its way to a denouement we've all already worked out over a beer in the interval.
Clearly a small, workshopped vignette prematurely stretched beyond its means, and with director Michael Buffong seemingly AWOL, Talawa is therefore fortunate to draw on a pool of talented actors who somehow make it all work.
Gordon Case, supremely effortless as always, is unsettling as the violent pater familias whose successful union career masks the monster at home. Anthony Lennon makes the transition from trod-upon child to rootless adult with great sensitivity.
As longsuffering wife and mother, Jean 'Binta' Breeze is riveting in a heartfelt performance that makes it clear that this should really be her character's story. Dominic Letts makes a brief appearance as the union's oily Mr Fixit.
They create characters which the audience instantly recognises and empathises with, and carry the play to a point where the majority of theatregoers can leave at the show's end with some degree of value for money.
Someone deemed this worthy of a gong for new writing - the Alfred Fagon Award. I didn't. That's showbusiness.
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Mademoiselle Colombe - Bridewell 2000
Review - Makinde - Oval House 2000
Review - Mating Behaviour - Pentameters 2000
Review - Mourning Glory - Jermyn Street 2000
Review - Moving On - Bridewell 2000
Review - Mrs Steinberg - Bush 2000
Review - On A Clear Day - Bridewell 2000
Review - The Prayer - Young Vic 2000