The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Archive: OFF WEST END AND FRINGE 2004
For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several Fringe and Off-West End productions from 2004 together. This makes for a long page, but scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
adrenalin...heart - Bombshells - Camelot - Cruel and Tender - Fuddy Meers - Masks and Faces - Oliver Twist - Passion - Purlie - Quare Fellow - Roman Nights - Round the Horne Revisited - Singer - Skin of Our Teeth - Snoopy - Some Voices
adrenalin...heart Bush Theatre, Spring 2004
Boy meets girl, they start a relationship, things go sour and they split up. It's a familiar tale, and Georgia Fitch's short play doesn't add a great deal to the convention. But she tells the tale well, and offers enough flashes of wit and insight along the way for the tale to be worth hearing again.
The girl is a white single mother who hasn't had an adult social life in ages. The boy is a black college student who dabbles in drug dealing on the side. Issues of race, culture clash and gender roles arise, but not always in the ways you'd expect.
Is she truly falling for him or just desperate for a social and sex life? Is he as much of a Jack-the-lad as he pretends, or is there more to him? When they begin toying with his drug stock, does it actually help their relationship along, or does it expose an unexpected addictive personality in one of them? And is it that or something else entirely that leads them apart?
As I said, the answers aren't always the ones you might assume or guess, and the play keeps offering little surprises that carry it through what is in broader strokes over-familiar territory.
The script has the two telling us their stories in a his side - her side manner, and director Mike Bradwell has them stepping on each other's lines in their eagerness to get their versions told - but again not for the vindictive motives you might assume, but because each of them is trying to make sense of an experience that they don't fully understand.
Julia Ford gradually and sensitively lets us discover the deep hungers that are driving the woman, while Mark Monero shows us a man trying to convince himself that he's shallower and simpler than he really is.
By the end we haven't been told a lot that's new, just cautioned that there might be a little more to a story we thought we knew all about. And that can make for a quite satisfying experience.
Bombshells Arts Theatre Autumn 2004
Batten down the hatches - Hurricane Caroline has hit London, bringing enough energy to light up the whole of the West End. Caroline O'Connor's one-woman show is a whiz-bang of fun and a showcase for the Australian actress-singer-dancer-comic whose time for stardom has come.
O'Connor has been doing this selection of six character sketches by Joanna Murray-Smith down under for a couple of years, winning every award going there, and this August wowed the Edinburgh fringe with a shortened version - see our review below.
The economics of squeezing five or six shows a day in every playing space in Edinburgh force most shows into 90-minute slots, but now we get to see the four characters that were so great there, and two more.
directly to O'Connor's talents, Murray-Smith has created four of the six
as perky or high to the point of mania. A harassed young mother races
through the day in a cloud of panic, exhaustion and guilt - 'Feed the
baby. Clean the baby. Need a coffee. Bad mother!'
A teenager bubbles over with the assurance that she'll win the school talent show, even though at the very last second she has to make her Cats choreography fit the theme from Shaft. A bride bounces off the walls in a mix of excitement and fear. And a damaged diva in the Judy-Liza mode goes on with the show despite the ravages of time and unapproved chemicals.
Any one of those set pieces would stop the show in a star-is-born moment in a revue or book musical. One after the other, they're almost overwhelming in the display of O'Connor's abundant talent and inhuman energy.
Slight respite from the hurricane is provided by a couple of quieter pieces, a nervous after-dinner speaker whose lecture on cactus raising morphs into an exposure of her unhappy marriage, and - in a sketch that stands comparison to Alan Bennett - a widow who can speak with resigned irony of the emptiness of her life and who finds new joy in an unexpected source.
So powerful is O'Connor's personality that one might undervalue the skill, cleverness and sensitivity of Murray-Smith's writing. While all the characters are inevitably a bit cartoonish, each sketch is built on recognizable truth and each contains moments and lines of striking beauty.
Forced to find something to criticise, I can only suggest that the six-sketch evening might be a bit long. The Edinburgh package of four (the bride, the mother, the widow and the teenager) left you wanting more. This longer version just might be too much of a muchness. But when was the last time you had to complain about being entertained more than you really needed?
Our Edinburgh review, August 2004:
Class tells. So does real talent and star quality. The one-woman show in which the actress plays a string of different characters is a fringe staple, but Caroline O'Connor makes it all seem new and delightfully alive. O'Connor, who looks more like Betty Boop than any living human being has a right to, and who has more energy than Starbucks' annual output of caffeine, introduces and instantly inhabits four very different characters in this script by Joanna Murray-Smith. From the bride-to-be bouncing off the walls in a mix of excitement and dread, to the teenager determined to win a talent contest even if she has to invent a new act seconds before going onstage, O'Connor fills the stage with her vitality while catching all the humour and unforced touches of pathos. In between, we get the run-off-her-feet guilt-ridden-because-she's-not-superwoman mother (and if I have any criticism at all it is that this one sounds a bit too much like the bride) and a quieter Alan Bennettish look at a widow thrilled by the improbability of a sexual fling. Without question one of the high points of the festival. Gerald Berkowitz
Camelot Open Air Theatre Summer 2004
Never underestimate the charm of an outdoor theatre on a pleasant summer night (and yes, we do have them) in London. The Open Air's annual Shakespeare productions are always a delight, and even a not-particularly-strong musical like Camelot can be a happily satisfying rounding-off of an evening that might have begun with a picnic on the green.
Lerner and Loewe's take on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle story is no My Fair Lady, but it was a moderate hit in 1960 on the strength of advance sales from those who thought it would be and of its original stars, Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet.
The songs are pleasant enough, though the nearest thing to a show-stopper is Lancelot's mushy ballad 'If Ever I Would Leave You', but the book famously had problems (more on that later) and was at its best a rather old-fashioned operetta even by 1960 standards. Still, if you don't expect too much, you can have a very pleasant time.
Daniel Flynn conveys the boyish idealism that is both Arthur's greatness and his fatal flaw, though he's weaker on the sense of despair and tragedy that must colour the second half of the play, when the love triangle dooms the Round Table (Burton, of course, could do despair and tragedy in his sleep).
Lauren Ward as Guenevere looks lovely and sings prettily in a generic ingenue way, but conveys no sense of the character and no force of her own personality. And veteran comic Russ Abbott skilfully milks all the laughs out of the relatively small role of the befuddled neighbour king Pellinore.
hurting this production is the fact that Matt Rawle has bizarrely been
directed to play Lancelot as a comic fool, with silly wig, silly accent,
and the general air of John Cleese doing a panto Frenchman.
This makes it virtually impossible to take the romance with Guenevere seriously, or any of the darker plot developments that go with it - the big dramatic turning point moment when Lancelot's piety produces a miracle raises laughs from an audience that has been primed to laugh at everything he does. (Goulet played him absolutely straight, the few hints of comedy coming from his own inescapable stiffness.)
Another slip in Ian Talbot's generally fluid direction comes in a clear misunderstanding of one of the better songs. The whole point of 'What Do The Simple Folk Do' is that Arthur and Guenevere are awkward and uncomfortable at dancing and the other time-killers they try. But Talbot has them enjoy themselves, making nonsense of the scene.
And it seriously weakens the dramatic power of the final scene, where Arthur passes the myth and ideals of Camelot on to a young boy, if you cast an adult actor in that role.
Despite the simplicity of its story, Camelot had major book problems back in 1960, running over four hours in previews (It's still very close to three), forcing drastic last-minute cuts, and the seams show. Lance and Jenny (and yes, the script's humour does descend to that level) fall in love so instantly that you'd miss it if you blinked - and another place Ian Talbot could have done better was by giving us some earlier hints of chemistry between them.
The villain - Mark Hilton as Mordred - doesn't even show up until Act Two, and whole chapters of the dramatic climax are rushed through in a single chorus song. But by that point the show, and the evening, and the setting, and perhaps the remainders of your picnic wine may well have caught you up so that you'll be in no mood to criticise.
Cruel and Tender Young Vic Theatre Summer 2004
Martin Crimp's free adaptation from Sophocles is exciting theatre for about half its length, but then goes astray not once but twice, making its two hours without interval seem much longer than it is.
In Sophocles' Trachiniae, the wife of Heracles greets his return from the wars with a magical shirt meant to make him ever faithful, but it kills him, leading to her suicide; the play is about the evils of war invading the domestic world.
Crimp's play is set in the present, as the wife of a military hero waits while he is shunted from one war zone to another. He's successful because he's brutal, and the politicians know they may eventually have to make him a scapegoat for war crimes. His wife knows this, too, which is why she is kept in decorous house arrest, surrounded by aides whose main job is to keep her distracted.
As she spends much of the play's length railing against the politicians, the war, male stupidity in general and her husband in particular, the stage is ablaze with all the wisdom women have always had about the murderous follies of men. Toby Fisher makes the woman's rage heroic, and carries the first hour with a high energy performance that gives full power to Crimp's words.
But this part of the play goes on at least a half-hour too long, and as she begins to repeat herself, the energy flags and much of the power of what came before dissipates. As if to admit this, the play then loses all interest in her, kills her off offstage, and begins anew with a new protagonist.
Crimp's equivalent of Sophocles' poisoned shirt is a vial of liquid the wife stole from a chemical warfare lab, designed to make enemy soldiers lose the desire to fight and become homesick. She sends it to her husband, but something goes wrong, and it severely damages him both mentally and physically.
The last quarter of the play is given to displaying this wreck of a man as he awaits arrest for war crimes. Though Joe Dixon works hard to portray the invalid and even to make him sympathetic, the General is simply a character we don't know and don't care about, and so neither his pathetic condition nor his fate have any dramatic meaning.
And in that absence, his attempts at self-justification - that he has been roaming the world fighting terrorists and the only way to do that is brutally - plays like a clumsy and vaguely distasteful attempt to borrow resonances from the world outside the play.
Director Luc Bondy generated this project, and thus could be expected to have a clear guiding vision for the play as a whole. But his inability to keep it alive past the halfway point - however impressive it was until then - is a serious failure.
Fuddy Meers Arts Theatre Spring 2004
This enjoyable romp from New York has been received with howls of critical disapproval -- and unjustly so. It's a neat little farce that, although it aspires to be more than it is, keeps you entertained and even guessing right to the end.
Claire (Katie Finneran) wakes up in her bed -- or at least she assumes it's her bed, because she has amnesia. A man who says he's her husband Richard (Nicholas Le Provost) enters from the bathroom dressed only in his robe and proceeds patiently to explain to Claire that this is her home. A bored teenager walks in and explains that he's her son, Kenny (John Gallagher Jnr). Richard is happy to answer all her questions except, mysteriously, the one about how she lost her memory.
Barely a few minutes into the action, things are turned on their head as Limping Man (Tim Hopper) bursts in and somehow they end up at her mother's house where a whole gaggle of miscreants and oddballs appear to remind Claire of her past. What starts off as Groundhog Day descends into a rollercoaster ride more akin to Pulp Fiction as it turns out that everyone has a secret to hide.
An unexpected and quite entertaining member of the cast is Hinky Binky, the glove puppet attached to the hand of Limping Man's gormless sidekick Millet, who blurts out the truth whenever Millet clams up. Both are played with manic charm by Matthew Lillard, who has already made a respectable living as of the chirpy youth of innumerable Hollywood movies (Serial Mom, Scooby Doo, etc).
Admittedly there are several good reasons why a West End audience won't have much patience with David Lindsay-Abaire's play. Produced by Sam Mendes' new production company, Scamp Film and Theatre, it's hard to see how this fits in with the trademark "golden boy" fare he once created up the road at the Donmar. Fuddy could never be a truly slick production, hampered as it is by a script that clearly needs another rewrite and an extra couple of scenes to make it the hit it deserves to be.
Another hurdle is that this genre of farce is very American in style and resonance, and really only appeals to British tastes when served up as movies starring Quentin Tarantino and William H. Macy. And, despite the presence of a box-office draw like Lillard and solid stage support from the likes of Julia McKenzie as the supremely dotty aphasic mother (her trauma-induced muddled speech gives the play its title), the cast doesn't hold together -- less the fault of the writer than director Angus Jackson, who is just a notch above pedestrian.
Nevertheless, Fuddy Meers still manages to be a thoroughly enjoyable night out and makes a welcome difference for a presently tired West End.
Masks and Faces Finborough Theatre, Spring 2004
Nineteenth Century plays all pose problems for modern performers and audiences, simply because tastes and styles have changed. They tend to be slower-paced and more given to bursts of rhetoric, and they often mix comedy and sentimental melodrama in ways that seem now to clash. Even established companies like the National Theatre are wary of them.
So when a young fringe company playing in a tiny above-a-pub room takes on a 19th century sentimental comedy and is actually considerably more successful than not in meeting its challenges, we must celebrate both their courage and their accomplishment.
The Penny Dreadful Theatre Company and director Caitriona McLaughlin do as much justice to this 1852 hit by Charles Reade and Tom Taylor as I can imagine anyone accomplishing. It's not perfect - the play's gears creak sometimes as it shifts from witty comedy to sentimental drama and back - but it is for the most part a very pleasant evening.
Set in the theatrical world of the early 18th century, the play mixes historical figures such as actors Colley Cibber and Peg Woffington with fictional but quite likely theatrical hangers-on - a pair of acerbic critics, some stage door Johnnies, an impoverished would-be playwright and the like.
The play is built around Peg Woffington, presented as a cool manipulator and exploiter of her many male followers who surprisingly exposes a heart of gold when she is kind to the starving writer and send one of her admirers back to his loving wife.
Thus scenes of her sparring wittily with fellow performers or a lecherous fop alternate with the more serious moments that advance the plot, and the director has chosen just to ignore any clashes in tone and play every scene with full commitment to either its brittle artificiality or its open sentimentality.
And it actually works. The result is more a series of strong scenes than something that really hangs together. But the funny scenes are funny and the serious scenes are touching, and I don't think it would be fair to ask for more.
The cast of ten are all fine, but special mention should go to Jonathan Lisle as the writer and Thomas Power as the fop, each of them setting and sustaining the tone in their respective halves of the play, and especially to Charlotte Pyke as Woffington, carrying us back and forth between comedy and drama with style and believability.
Oliver Twist Lyric Hammersmith, Spring 2004
Neil Bartlett's new adaptation from Dickens is surprisingly (and refreshingly) dark and moody and, as one would expect from director Bartlett, theatrically inventive. If it also has occasional lapses in narrative clarity and character definition, those too are signatures of Bartlett, and small prices to pay for his strengths.
Bartlett strips the novel down to its barest plot outline so that Oliver seems to go from 'Please, sir, I want more' to the undertaker's shop to Fagin's gang in seconds, and major characters like Bill and Nancy just appear with little introduction, so those few who don't know the story might be excused for losing their way from time to time.
This might be compounded by the use of a small cast doubling and redoubling roles with the slightest costume changes, and the same unadorned space becoming different locations with only the barest of cues.
Both these things are done smoothly and inventively, and I should note that my ten-year-old companion, with only a brief introduction to the story in advance, was able to keep up. And more important than whether she or any of us occasionally lost our way momentarily was the fact that she was sad in the sad parts and laughed at the funny parts and was appropriately scared by Nancy's murder and Bill's death (both done symbolically rather than graphically) and was happy with the happy ending (which she predicted).
So the play works, and it's also interesting as a study in inventive eclecticism of styles. Using Victorian melodrama as his basic theatrical vocabulary, director Bartlett draws on such diverse models as the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby of two decades ago, in the choric narrations and role doubling, and the recent Shockheaded Peter (coincidentally returning to the Lyric after this show) in the toy-theatre inner stage and flashes of grotesque makeup and broad half-camp performances.
Michael Feast's Fagin alludes directly to the tradition of Panto villains in addressing the audience and seeming to expect hisses in return, while Mrs Sowerberry is a Panto dame and other conventions of the form are echoed as well. The mix works, with only occasional lapses into self-consciousness.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of the condensed plot and emphasis on atmosphere over narrative is the character of Oliver himself, who is even more of a cipher than usual, though Jordan Metcalfe gives him the shell-shocked look of a child irreparably damaged by his love-starved life. Owen Sharpe doubles as Artful Dodger and rueful narrator, giving both roles a fresh complexity.
Passion Bridewell Theatre, Spring 2004
The Bridewell Theatre has made something of a specialty of reviving Stephen Sondheim musicals, so it is appropriate that they celebrate their tenth anniversary with the first major revival of his 1994 Passion. And while both play and production are less than perfect, they should please the legions of Sondheim fans out there.
With a book by James Lapine based on an old movie and a nineteenth-century novel, Passion tells of an Italian soldier who must leave his beloved for a posting to a remote garrison. There he encounters an unattractive and sickly woman who, because the newcomer is polite to her, falls madly in love with him. At first repelled by her obsessiveness, he gradually comes under its spell, leading to a tragic ending.
The plot almost shouts Puccini or Verdi (or Andrew Lloyd Webber), and this is Sondheim in his quasi-operatic mode, with occasional musical echoes of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. (It was originally intended to be part of a double bill on obsessiveness, along with Sondheim's repeatedly-workshopped but never finished piece on the rubbish-hoarding brothers, and was eventually produced on its own in this 90-minute form.)
Passion is not my favourite Sondheim. It works far too hard at trying to be Deep and Tragic, and the music constantly resists any temptation to break into actual melody. But it does have two strong musical acting roles, and the modest scale of Carol Metcalfe's production at the Bridewell contributes to its claustrophobic quality and, not incidentally, allows for the rare pleasure of listening to unamplified singing.
Mark Carroll gives a strong performance as the soldier, showing in his face and voice the range of emotions and confusions his character goes through on his way to what seems at the start the least likely, love for the woman who repelled him.
Clare Burt is less effective as the invalid, not fully conveying the power of her obsession. A catch in her voice, possibly the result of hoarseness on opening night, led her to speak-sing, adding to the sense of absence of melody.
As the girl back home, Kate Arnell appears primarily as the voice of letters between the parted lovers, but does carry much of the musical burden successfully.
The decision to insert a mood-breaking interval in the 90-minute piece was probably a mistake, however it contributes to the bar's revenues, and Carol Metcalfe's direction underplays the dramatic and musical contrasts between the central figures and the military world around them, losing some of the sense of their growing isolation.
I would not recommend Passion as anyone's introduction to Sondheim, but the afficionados will want to see it, and will find more to please them than to be disappointed by.
Purlie Bridewell Theatre Autumn 2004
This 1970 Broadway musical gets its belated British premiere in a thoroughly enjoyable first-class production at the Bridewell, which has long made a specialty of musical revivals that are far more polished, elaborate and successful than you might expect from a small fringe theatre.
Based on Ossie Davis' 1960 comedy, the musical - book by Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell, music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Udell - is a fable of American race relations built deliberately on broad stereotypes for an almost fairy-tale effect.
There's the fiery black preacher prone to getting carried away by his own rhetoric (Tee Jaye), the scatterbrained Butterfly McQueen type (Joanna Francis), the solid black matriarch (Victoria Wilson James) and the slyboots who manipulates the whites by playing Uncle Tom (Mykal Rand). On the other side of the racial divide are the very unreconstructed plantation owner (John Lyons) and his wimpy liberal son (David Menkin).
The preacher wants to con the white boss out of some money he stole from them, in order to open his new church, and the generally farcical plot twists expose the evils of racism circa 1960 while also celebrating an indomitable black determination to work around or plow right through them.
The peppy music, unsurprisingly, has a gospel base, though you can also hear occasional echoes of Jerry Herman and more persistent ones of Lieber and Stoller, and even Gershwin.
Performances are first-rate all around, with Tee Jaye's bible-thumping flights of eloquence particularly enjoyable. Director Omar F. Okai keeps things moving and sustains the fragile balance between farce, fable and political commentary; while Mykal Rand's choreography is exciting and literally high-kicking from the opening number on.
The Quare Fellow Tricycle Theatre Spring 2004 and Summer 2005
Brendan Behan's 1954 play was one of the new works by new writers that helped revolutionise British theatre a half-century ago, and was also one of the biggest successes of Joan Littlewood's legendary Theatre Workshop.
Amazingly, it has not had a major London revival since then, which makes this production of the Oxford Stage Company especially welcome.
Director Kathy Burke has stripped away some of the vaudeville elements - interpolated songs and the like - that were part of Littlewood's signature style, leaving us with a raw, moving and occasionally comic portrait of anonymous men in an inhuman situation.
The play takes place in a Dublin prison in the twenty-four hours preceding the execution of a prisoner - the title character, never actually seen. What we do see are other prisoners, carrying on the routines of their lives with the almost welcome addition of this monotony-breaking event, and the equally limited lives of the warders and prison officials.
So, alongside bumming cigarette ends and straining to catch a glimpse of the women's cell block, we hear prisoners describe the rituals of execution with the reverence of sacred folk tales. Those on the grave-digging detail are sobered by their task, but not too much to lay bets on whether a reprieve will come. An ambitious warder is not inhibited from shafting a colleague, even as he works at the task of keeping the hangman sober enough to do his job, while another is torn between his humane instincts and his rigid religiosity.
Kathy Burke keeps it all anchored in understated reality, and her large cast create and sustain the sober-but-not-sombre mood impressively, so that after all these years The Quare Fellow more than lives up to its reputation.
Roman Nights New End Theatre Winter 2004-2005
The relationship between Anna Magnani and Tennessee Williams was surely one of the most vibrant 'marriages' in showbusiness - two divas who were muses in equal measure to each other's genius. And surely they would have approved of Franco D'Alessandro's bio-play, oozing la Dolce Vita and the Great White Way in a loving no-holds-barred re-creation of key moments the actress and writer spent in each other's company until death's separation.
Admittedly the scenes slot together a tad awkwardly - while this neither distracts nor affects the final result, one senses D'Allessandro is really adapting a screenplay. However, you can see him being torn between fly on the wall biography and going for a 'story'. In the latter case, it is their lives reflecting the themes of fading glory eternally present in Williams' work - - crucially, director Caitriona McLaughlin highlights this with tasteful skill.
Williams' cliched exterior belied immense depths, and this makes him difficult to pin down. Nolan Hemmings takes a while to warm up, and it is only once the story finally kicks in that he finds his groove. By wisely avoiding any overplay of the playwright's alocholism or homosexuality he discovers an unexpected dignity.
But the night belongs to Franca Barchiesi. A performance like this comes round once a decade - if you're lucky. Effortlessly she flits between Magnani the icon and Magnani the woman - making career decisions around her polio-stricken son, introducing Williams to the nightlife of Rome, juggling a string of lovers, standing up to the mighty producers of Cinecittą. Sassy, sensitive and sexy, Barchiesi's own charisma ratings are impressively high.
Combined with the intimacy of the New End, it is a convincing heartfelt romp of a tale with a bitter-sweet ending that lingers long after.
Round The Horne Revisited The Venue, 2004-2005
This salute to a much-loved radio comedy show of the 1960s will delight fans of the series, but newcomers need not feel left out. The jokes were good then, and they're just as much fun now.
Round the Horne followed a familiar format. In addition to self-contained sketches (e.g., movie parodies), host Kenneth Horne played straight man to a collection of colourful characters, all played by Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden, with support from announcer Douglas Smith.
Just as each character on, say, The Simpsons has his or her own running gags and catch phrases, so audiences looked forward to the voices of plummy dowager actress Dame Celia Molestrangler or amazonian Aussie Judy Coolibah (Marsden), incomprehensible folk singer Rambling Sid Rumpo (Williams), aging juvenile Binky Huckaback (Paddick) and the wildly camp duo of Julian and Sandy (Paddick and Williams)
What made the show something of a cult, aside from the generally high level of the writing by, at various times, Barry Took, Marty Feldman, Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke, was the ever-present sense of slipping something past the BBC censors.
In a tradition carried forward later by such as Benny Hill, lines that could claim to be totally innocent were turned into double entendres, so that, for example, when Julian and Sandy set themselves up as gourmet chefs, in a sketch included here, their menu was bound to include mince, faggots, rump, fruits and, inevitably, the British dessert called spotted dick.
(There was a subversive element to all this, too. The grannies who giggled at home to the nonsense language sometimes employed by those sweet boys Julian and Sandy probably didn't realise they were listening to the actual argot of the wilder fringes of the gay world.)
Anyway, Brian Cooke, the last remaining member of the original team, has brought them all back in a recreation and adaptation of some of the best original material. It is barely theatricalised, the cast standing in front of microphones and holding scripts, just as the originals would have, with the only physical humour coming from the kinds of mugging and flirting with the studio audience that went on back then.
And it's funny. Jonathan Rigby as Horne provides the appropriately solid and avuncular presence of the straight man, while Robin Sebastian does an admirably broad copy of Kenneth Williams, Kate Brown mugs away as Marsden, and Nigel Harrison and Charles Armstrong provide some necessary ballast as the generally more subdued Paddick and Smith.
But you don't have to recognise the impersonations or remember the originals. If your groans at jokes like 'I used to clean out the stables with another slave. Then they gave me a broom' are tinged with guilty pleasure, you'll have a gay old time.
Singer Tricycle Theatre, Spring 2004
It's a flawed play, but Peter Flannery's 1989 epic has more invention, more energy, more ambition and more theatrical life than half the plays in the West End put together. I would much rather watch a play that reaches high and doesn't quite make it than one with low ambitions fully achieved.
From the opening lines, which cleverly echo the Chorus of Shakespeare's Henry V, Flannery announces his epic ambitions - to relate and make sense out of the second half of the Twentieth Century through the experience of one fictional character.
Seen first as an Auschwitz inmate at the edge of despair, Flannery's protagonist proves himself the ultimate survivor, even if he has to become a chameleon and change his identity and character every decade or so to do it.
As a postwar
refugee in England, he uses the wheeler-dealer survival skills learned
in the camp to become a slumlord, buying cheap properties, harassing
their tenants out and renting to black immigrants who will pay more for
less because no one else will take them.
Exposed, he becomes an avenging Nazi-hunter in the 1960s and a social worker in the 1970s, only to discover in the 1980s that his earlier property manipulations are now being celebrated as he becomes a hero of Thatcherism. Along the way he and the two fellow Holocaust survivors who are his companions must wrestle with the moral burdens their experience and memories impose on them.
It is really remarkable how nearly successfully Flannery pulls all this off. Both the epic flow of the play, giving shape to the postwar history of Britain, and the personal tragedy of a man who cannot run away from who he is, are conveyed with great power.
Of course, the history has to be told in broad strokes that don't always hold up under close scrutiny, and the central character is forced repeatedly to change not only his surface mask but his basic personality in order for the playwright to get him into the situations he needs - and sometimes these gear changes grind and the author's manipulations show. But for most of the evening the sheer energy of the play's scope and imagination carry it over the rough spots.
Much the same is true of Sean Holmes' production for the Oxford Stage Company, which has a lot of little flaws that one can't help noticing and being bothered by, but which generally pushes past them to success.
In the title role, the ever-reliable Ron Cook carries most of the play on his shoulders. While his Singer might lack some of the demonic energy that Antony Sher brought to the play when the RSC did it in 1989, Cook shows us a man defined through his entire life - and all the seeming personality changes the play forces on him - by the burden of survivor guilt, the absolute conviction, even at his peaks, that he is undeserving of anything he has.
I've admired Cook since his early days at the RSC more than two decades ago, but I've never seen him so solidly absorb and embody so weighty a role, and for the first time I can see that someday - perhaps not quite yet, but someday - he'll be ready for King Lear.
Director Holmes keeps the play moving with an epic sweep, though individual scenes are too often lacking in spark, and any time there are more than two or three people onstage the blocking is startlingly clumsy and shapeless. With a large cast doubling and redoubling roles, only John Light and Edward Peel stand out as the fellow survivors who function and different ways as Singer's frequently unwelcome conscience.
As I said, if you're prepared to overlook incidental flaws, a play that tries for a lot and almost delivers is far more exciting than one that promises and achieves much less.
The Skin of Our Teeth Young Vic Theatre, March-April 2004
Thornton Wilder's 1942 play is an American classic, a brilliant flight of imagination that was decades ahead of its time and that anticipated Beckett, the Absurdists and most of what the second half of the century called avante-garde. Unlike Wilder's other masterpiece Our Town, it is almost never revived, which makes this new production very welcome - despite the fact that it is not particularly good.
Wilder's subject is nothing less than the history of the human race, presented through the adventures of a typical American family. Mr. Antrobus comes home to his suburban family after a hard day at the office inventing the wheel and the alphabet, greets his pet dinosaur, copes with his rebellious son Cain and faces the approaching glaciers of the Ice Age - and that's just Act One.
Happily mixing metaphors, Wilder takes us through evolution, the repeated battles of good and evil, the ongoing tensions between the impulses of adventure and domesticity, and Noah's flood. There's something in there about the indomitable human spirit but, except for a couple of preachy moments, it's all done with a high comic spirit, inventiveness and wit few writers could dare.
Along with the ever-building Mr. Antrobus and his ever-destroying son are the preserve-the-family-at-all-costs Mrs. Antrobus, a flighty daughter, and the eternal Other Woman Sabina, appearing at various times in the guises of household maid, temptress and wartime camp follower. It's a theatrically exciting play, constantly surprising you with its imaginative leaps and toying with the conventions of drama itself.
And so it is too bad that director David Lan has given us such a stodgy, rhythmless and clumsily staged production. The strengths and virtues of the play survive, but they are not helped by either direction or performances.
The play is staged in the transverse, along a narrow strip of stage with the audience on two sides. This is a difficult mode at best, but particularly inappropriate to a play that draws many of its jokes from breaking the illusions of conventional staging - the running gag, for example, of actors supposedly stepping out of character to complain about their lines just doesn't have the effect it would have on a proscenium stage.
The transverse also means that the actors have their backs to some part of the audience much of the time, which is particularly troublesome if, like Indira Varma as Sabina, their voices are so weak they can't be heard when they're looking away.
Varma is also burdened with a number of monologues that she genuinely seems not to understand or know how to deliver, so that she too often looks lost onstage. Yes, I know it's Wilder's joke that the actress supposedly dislikes her character and is repeatedly uncomfortable. But I'm talking about something more real, that affects almost everyone else in the play as well.
David Troughton as Mr. Antrobus looks throughout as if he feels miscast and unable to capture the character's unquenchable optimism. Instead of the archetypal American businessman, he comes across as a rough working man dressed up for company in an ill-fitting suit - think of William Bendix in old movies, or a less manic version of Joe Pesci. Again, we're repeatedly aware of the actor's discomfort rather than the character's personality.
To continue my analogy to American actors, Maureen Beattie plays Mrs. Antrobus as Tyne Daly from Cagney and Lacey, matronly and New York ethnic, but without the steely commitment to domestic normalcy the character is described as having. And in a featured cameo as a fortuneteller Bette Bourne does the best Maria Ouspenskaya he can manage while having trouble remembering his lines.
Blocking throughout is awkward, with secondary characters and crowd scenes seemingly left to their own unshaped devices, and a couple of interpolated dances choreographed by Kate Flatt and songs by Tim Sutton clash badly with the tone and style of the play.
As Artistic Director of the Young Vic, David Lan has been busy in recent months with a major fund-raising campaign, and it is possible that he just couldn't focus all his energies and attention to this production. You certainly have the repeated sense of a cast struggling heroically to shape performances and production in the absence of sufficient directorial guidance.
As I said, though, the play is one most theatre-lovers will want to see, even in such a flawed production. And enough of it survives to let you see and appreciate Wilder's genius.
Snoopy New Players Theatre Summer 2004
The Players Theatre, underneath the arches behind Charing Cross Station, was for decades the home of an Old Time Music Hall. It has been refurbished into a very nice (if, at the moment, poorly air-conditioned) little theatre, and its first offering is a revival of this 1973 Off-Broadway musical based on the Peanuts comic strip.
And a pleasant enough evening it makes, in its modest, unassuming way. Most of the gang are there - Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally, Peppermint Patty and of course the titular beagle and his feathered friend Woodstock. (A quick reassurance - there are no masks or elaborate costumes. Snoopy is just an actor dressed in white, while the children wear simple versions of their familiar comic strip clothes.)
And so we get a string of four-line interactions and jokes with the familiar rhythms of the daily strips, interspersed with about 20 perky songs by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady. And it's fun. The only serious complaint to make is that most of the songs are generic and don't really grow out of the characters.
This is particularly true of Robin Armstrong's Snoopy, who has to change personality from scene to scene to fit the songs he's given. That the others characters are all pretty much one note is built into them from the comic strip, and Steven Kynman's wistful Charlie Brown, Sarah Lark's brassy Lucy and the others are all just as we'd expect them to be. Special notice must be given to Alex Woodhall, who turns Woodstock into a Harpo Marx-ish mime and steals all his scenes.
A few of the songs work particularly well. The one in which Snoopy writes his Great American Novel is fun, and Charlie Brown has a lovely little number about how nice it would be to have a friend. My 10 year old companion particularly enjoyed a house-that-Jack-built type song whose chorus got longer and more complex each time around.
There were a lot of kids in the audience and, like my little friend, they seemed to enjoy themselves throughout. Adults may notice the weak stretches more than the kids do, but they'll find enough to be entertained by, so Snoopy may settle in for a nice run as one of the most broadly accessible family shows in town.
Some Voices Young Vic Theatre Studio, Spring 2004
Joe Penhall's play won awards when it was first done a decade ago, so critics and audiences must have seen something in it. But you couldn't guess what from this shapeless, lacklustre revival.
As directed without rhythm or focus by Matthew Dunster, Some Voices comes across as another case of that odd syndrome, the idea for a play masquerading as the play itself.
What happens to mental patients released into the community too soon, Penhall asked himself. Well, we know what happens - too many of then sadly end up on the streets, unable to cope. But Penhall sees other possibilities, and just presents them in case-study form.
His central character is a young schizophrenic judged to be able to function and released into the custody of his well-meaning but ill-equipped brother. In no particular order, the boy stops taking his medications, risks relapse when he joins up with an old buddy from the hospital, alternately tries to connect with his brother and pushes him away, meets and falls for a girl with a violent boyfriend, and eventually winds up back in the hospital.
Yes, so? you find yourself asking again and again. Each of these things could happen to someone in that position, but so could a lot of other things, and the play seems to have no reason to be showing us these events, in this order.
Why does the brother run a restaurant? Why is the girl pregnant? Why does the otherwise totally raving second patient get some of the most sensible lines in the play? Why does the play end with a cooking lesson?
Why does Anna Fleischle's unit set, a wall of panels that open in unending permutations and combinations to create different settings, constantly threaten to be cleverer than anything going on in front of it?
Much of the fault must lie with the director, who has his cast sleepwalking through the play. Tom Brooke plays the patient as so lost in himself that he rarely makes eye contact with anyone, rather staring through them in a kind of vaguely horrified wonder - what I always think of as the Jeremy Irons stare, the one he employed throughout Brideshead Revisited and half his other roles.
But no one else in the cast makes much eye contact or relates to anyone else either. The general effect is of an early rehearsal, in which everyone has their lines down but haven't begun to think about character or relationships.
Now, I'll give audiences of 1995 enough credit to assume that there must have seemed some unity, purpose and point to this play then, but this time around it all seems random. There's no apparent structure there. There's no real play there.
As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there's no there there.
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