The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive, we have filed our reviews of several fringe and off-West End productions from 2002 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Dorothy Fields Forever - Evening With Charles Dickens - Homebody/Kabul - Island of Slaves - King Hedley II - Let's Kick Arts - Love Songs - Live from Golgotha - Michael Moore - More Lies About Jerzy
Dorothy Fields Forever King's Head Theatre Summer-Autumn 2002
The song-by-song salute to a composer or lyricist has become a staple of small-scale musical theatre -- there are at least a half-dozen Sondheim compilation shows floating around -- and so this Dorothy Fields retrospective joins a recognizable genre with assured pleasures and inherent limits.
Dorothy Who? That, indeed, is the show's structural backbone. Although her song-writing career spanned almost 6 decades, with collaborators including Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz and Cy Coleman; and although she won an Oscar for The Way You Look Tonight, wrote the book for Annie Get Your Gun, and had Broadway hits including Sweet Charity, Fields is perhaps the least-known of the Broadway-Hollywood pantheon of songwriters.
This show's script by Eden Phillips, who co-devised it with director David Kernan, suggests a cultural sexism at work, without belabouring the point, though a more likely explanation is Fields' lack of a signature style, which gives her more in common with the equally underrated Ira Gershwin than with Hart, Porter or Hammerstein. (Quick -- think of Hey Big Spender from Sweet Charity. If the first thing that popped into your mind wasn't the visual image of Bob Fosse's dancers, I'm sure it was the brassy opening vamp. The words come a distant third.)
Even this salute to Fields scores as much through the melodies of Kern, Romberg and Coleman as through the words. While it is clear that songs like Sunny Side of the Street and A Fine Romance depend on their superior lyrics, others, from The Way You Look Tonight (Kern) to the entire scores of Sweet Charity and Seesaw (Coleman) come across as merely serviceable words attached to superior melodies and arrangements.
But ultimately questions of credit don't matter. What does matter is that there is a rich songbook here, with classics ranging from 1928's I Can't Give You Anything But Love to 1973's It's Not Where You Start, and this modestly-staged little show takes us from one small delight to another. The inherent cliches of the and-then-I-wrote structure are kept to a minimum by keeping the talking to a minimum, with more than 40 songs squeezed into under two hours.
As Fields, Angela Richards provides the narrative, frequently joining Robert Meadmore, Kathryn Akin, Rebecca Lock and Stori James in song. The excellent arrangements by Nathan Martin, who also provides back-up vocals from the piano, turn most of the songs into elegant or rousing group numbers, with only the occasional solo. Meadmore croons a lovely I'm in the Mood for Love, Akin gives The Lady Needs a Change the Ethel Merman treatment, Lock introduces Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10, a haunting out-take from Sweet Charity, and James has a couple of flashy dance numbers. Richards herself scores with the comic and Hart-like He Had Refinement.
We're talking here about the Golden Age of American theatre and film music, the age of Berlin, Porter, Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein, and even the B-list is filled with treasures, so this salute to the undoubtedly underappreciated Dorothy Fields is a thoroughly enjoyable light entertainment.
An Evening With Charles Dickens Dickens House Museum Summer 2002; essentially the same show presented each summer, with different actors
Charles Dickens actually lived at 48 Doughty Street in central London for less than three years, but he wrote Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby there, so it is as good a place as any for a museum of Dickens papers, books, portraits and memorabilia. And on Wednesday evenings during the summer, actor Geoffrey Harris uses the authentic setting to speak and read to us in the persona of the novelist.
Devised by David Parker and John Greco, the evening is generically similar to Simon Callow's recent Dickens show, though considerably less flamboyant and show-offish. As Dickens, Harris welcomes us to his home and offers some memories of his childhood, punctuated by characters or episodes from the novels that were inspired by the biographical material.
So, for example, memory of an early schoolteacher is illustrated by a bit of the monstrous schoolmistress from Dombey and Son, while Dickens's childhood experience in the boot-blacking factory segues into a Pickwick scene of Sam Weller polishing boots. Other memories conjure up the irrepressible Micawber and Pickwick's genial fraud Jingle.
The autobiography barely gets through Dickens's childhood before the device is dropped, and the last part of the evening is a direct reading of extended passages from the novels, such as Dickens himself frequently gave. Highlights are the ominous first chapter of Tale of Two Cities, the airheaded Flora Finching from Little Dorrit and the melodramatic deaths of Nancy and Bill that climax Oliver Twist.
Geoffrey Harris's performance is amiable and low-keyed. Unlike Simon Callow, who tends to make all his Dickens characters sound alike (and like Simon Callow), Harris economically and effectively sketches each figure, including Dickens, with his or her own voice, posture and attitude, filling the room with the novelist's creative bounty.
Perhaps not a performance that would work on a large stage, Harris's is exactly right for the intimate space. And as you sit in Dickens's own library with perhaps a dozen other people, sipping the glass of wine provided as part of the evening, it makes a delightful topper to a day of sightseeing or museuming.
Homebody/Kabul Young Vic Theatre Spring 2002
Tony Kushner's Angels in America was the best American play of the 1990s, and his Slavs was an honourable follow-up. But Homebody/Kabul is a big disappointment.
Kushner has won considerable admiration for his prescience in realizing when he wrote this play in 1998 that Afghanistan would be a place of symbolic resonances, but that tragic coincidence may have blinded critics to the play's weaknesses.
Afghanistan is, for Kushner, a symbol of the fascinating but ultimately unknowable Other, of levels of repression and bestiality the West can barely imagine, and of forces that hate the West with immeasurable passion. His play opens with a 40-minute monologue by a rather foolish English woman fascinated by Afghanistan as her interest-of-the-week. We then jump to Kabul, where she has evidently rather foolishly gone and foolishly walked the streets in her Western clothes, playing Western music on her Walkman, and been horribly murdered. Her husband and daughter have come to retrieve the body but, while he sits in the hotel room sinking into drug-supported inaction, she follows hints that her mother is still alive, hints that may be merely part of a plot to con her into smuggling an Afghan woman and documents of the anti-Taliban underground back to England.
If I've made the play sound thematically and structurally coherent, I apologise, because the outline I've just given is constantly being buried under the author's other, irrelevant obsessions, which include language, antidepressants and Frank Sinatra. And those overriding waves of the play's attention are entirely self-directed and self-satisfying. Kushner obsesses over these things because he enjoys them. And the fact that we may be watching and listening (and trying to make sense of them) seems of little interest to him.
The opening monologist, for example, admits in her more lucid seconds to a rambling logorrhea. She never uses a single one-syllable word when four or five multisyllabic ones will do, and she is constantly in danger of disappearing up her own subordinate clauses. This might be an interesting characterisation if she had any reality, but she never becomes more than a literary conceit, a vehicle for the author's playing with words. A little of this goes a very long way, and well before she has stopped talking our brains have shut down.
Later we meet a character obsessed with Esperanto, another whose English is made up entirely of phrases from old Sinatra songs, another who changes languages every two sentences in the course of a wild screed against America. And in between, the other purely personal topics - drugs, Sinatra, etc. - get their own irrelevant and eventually off-putting attention.
Remember the early plays of Tom Stoppard, when the wordplay and verbal razzle-dazzle sometimes seemed compulsive? Or are you old enough to remember some of the San Francisco rock bands of the late 1960s who were so into their own music that they would turn their backs on the audience and play for each other? There are echoes of both in Homebody/Kabul, which never escapes the feel of an author talking to himself. One of the glories of Angels in America was its theatrical vitality and delight in its own expansive imagination, which reached out to embrace the audience. Homebody/Kabul is a whimper of despair, all passion subdued by its intellectual overlays and by its determinedly inward-looking closedness.
I have seen bad plays by bad writers and bad plays by good writers. But never before have I been forced to stand outside while a brilliant writer talked to himself, and made to feel that I was a barely-tolerated presence interfering with his self-absorption.
The usually admirable director Declan Donnellan and a cast including Kika Markham as the mother and Jacqueline Defferary as the daughter can do nothing to make any of this come alive or even turn toward us.
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The Island Of Slaves Lyric Hammersmith Spring 2002
Neil Bartlett, whose work I have always admired, has adapted and directed this 1725 play by Pierre Marivaux, and I fear that he has not convinced me that it is the masterpiece he clearly feels it is, and that even at less than 90 minutes' length, it is a long, hard slog.
The play is social satire and comment: a male and female aristocrat and their respective servants are shipwrecked on an island ruled by escaped slaves, where they are forced to switch roles and even names in order to learn how the other half lives and repent their sins, in a process Bartlett translates with the eerily Orwellian word "re-education." At first the newly-liberated slaves revel in the opportunity to curse at and mistreat their former masters, but they soon find revenge unsatisfying and decide to forgive them instead. The former aristocrats are inspired to repent, and the now-wiser foursome are allowed to go home.
You can see the point, and the fact that it is fairly heavy-handed wouldn't necessarily spoil it if it were presented with some dramatic life. But the original play has too many basic flaws by modern theatrical standards. That there is virtually no action, and everyone just stands there and makes speeches at each other is endemic to French drama of the period, and you could live with it. But, given the opportunity to catalogue their masters' sins, the former servants can find nothing but petty complaints - she is vain and flirtatious, he is bad with money - that trivialize the play's message rather than expanding it to a condemnation of social evils. (The conclusion - "You have to be kind" - has the same bathetic letdown.)
The fact that it is the servants, primarily the male one, who work their way toward re-education is a nice irony, though they do it a bit too quickly for us to follow the psychological process. But the aristocrats change instantly, with no visible mental-emotional journey at all, and thus don't seem to earn their happy ending. And the whole has very little wit or linguistic energy to carry its leaden preaching.
All of these are problems of the original that one would look to an adaptor and director to triumph over or find a way past. But I fear that Neil Bartlett, who is open in his admiration for Marivaux, either doesn't see them or is too in awe of his source to rework them. Though the play is done in modern dress, with occasional anachronisms like the insertion of modern pop songs for those one character hums, one could wish that Bartlett had taken more liberties with the text, using his theatrical skill to the play's advantage.
(In passing, I should at least mention that Bartlett has transformed the Lyric for this production, extending the stage out over the top of the stalls seats and sitting the audience in a circle around the playing space. I can see no particular thematic or theatrical gain from this staging.)
With the two aristocrats (Gregor Truter and Amanda Harris) given virtually nothing to do but sulk silently, only the three other performers make any impression at all. Guy Dartnell is as successful as one could imagine in taking us through the servant's journey from vengeance to reconciliation, though Anita Dobson as his counterpart gives us little more than a parody of Eliza Doolittle, swinging wildly between mock delight in her new poshness and a fishwife's vulgarity. Crispin Redman plays the island's lawgiver as a coolly objective social scientist just putting the lab rats through their paces.
I won't let this disappointment keep me from the next Neil Bartlett production, but I'd advise all but the most dedicated to wait for that next one.
King Hedley II Tricycle Theatre Winter 2002-03
In 1968 American dramatist Ed Bullins wrote a play called In The Wine Time, showing an African-American family outside their home, just passing the time as we got a picture of life on the thin border between poverty and minor criminality. When the play ended with a piece of almost accidental deadly violence, we realised how very thin that tightrope they had been walking was.
And now August Wilson has written essentially the same play, with essentially the same characters having essentially the same experiences, right up to a similarly shocking deadly climax. But because Wilson is the superior playwright, his version resonates and moves an audience much more successfully and profoundly than his predecessor's.
At three hours, the play is overlong, and would have benefited from rigorous cutting and a better-paced production than director Paulette Randall gives it. But it has some important things to say, and it says them with power and eloquence. Wilson unquestionably belongs in the top rank of American playwrights and, if this play does not show him at his absolute best, it is still way beyond anything anyone else is producing today.
The title character is not royalty, but a 40ish black man whose first name is King (He has a buddy named Mister). He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and his mother, and the circle is completed with his buddy, a neighbour, and his mother's on-and-off boyfriend. King and Mister live on the border of respectability and criminality; they have occasional real jobs and are saving to open a video store, but also peddle stolen refrigerators on the side. King has been jailed for killing a man, and the two almost casually pull off a robbery during the play.
The play wants us to see how very fragile their hold on respectability and even stability is. When the neighbour is mugged around the same time they do their robbery, they commiserate with him without seeing the irony. They and the others take turns telling oft-told or new stories, and it may take a while for us to notice that every single one involves an absent or dead husband/father figure.
That sort of subtle, sneak-up-on-you symbolism is absolutely typical of Wilson at his best, as is the overpowering eloquence into which passion sometimes moves his characters. When King's pregnant wife tries to explain calmly why she doesn't want this child (They're too old, they can't afford it, etc.), she moves inexorably into a pained litany of the horrors of poverty, hopelessness and violence that she can't bear to imagine her child facing - a speech that is as powerfully poetic as anything any American writer since Tennessee Williams has achieved.
And by the time King tells the story of his killing and we realise that he lives in (and accepts as natural) a world in which a misplaced casual greeting can be suicidal, any of the lightness of tone that the play's considerable incidental humour has generated is gone, and the shock ending is inevitable.
Nicholas Monu as King carries much of the play, movingly showing us a well-meaning man fighting a losing battle against fate and his own nature. Strong support is provided by Rakie Ayola as his wife, Pat Bowie as his mother and Joseph Marcell as her man, a deeply flawed character who is nonetheless the nearest this world offers to the wisdom of experience.
Let's Kick Arts!/Love Songs Bridewell Theatre March 2002
They don't seem to do double-bills like this any more and after an entertaining and, indeed, educative experience like this, one wonders why. Producers Rex Berry and Richard Jordan should certainly take a bow for dishing up one of the best value-for-money nights on the town.
Kicking off is the comedy revue Let's Kick Arts!, boasting the talented line-up of Adèle Anderson (one of the Fascinating Aidas), musical blockbusterette Jessica Martin, Gavin Lee (most recently in Peggy Sue Got Married and A Saint She Ain't), and comic actor Chris Stanton. They share a palpable generosity to each other and a deeply satisfying sense of fun -- add an equally talented team of writers under devisor Anthony Chalmers' firm hand, and you have a quick-fire night of topical sketches and ditties that are as polished as the poshest West End production.
Running gags abound, and the show in time-honoured fashion is topped, trailed and tailed by a spoof of the squabbling panel of BBC TV's arts review The Late Show. While not exclusively so, showbiz references abound: Stanton's wicked parody of a theatre critic sets the tone nicely (if unsettlingly for some!), paving the way for skits such as the "Small Fellas" take on bickering Scorsese wiseguys. Music highlights include Anderson taking a pop at the West End with "My Voice", a self-penned lament about her deep voice blowing her out of auditions, Martin's exquisite "All American Girl ", and the ensemble's nod to MC Coward, "Mad Dog Posse".
Showstopper, however, is "Brief Encounter 2002" where Lee and Stanton play it utterly straight as two gay strangers in a railway cafe are jolted from their otherwise blissful monogamous lives. What is potentially a white-knuckle ride through un-P.C. territory turns out to be a gloriously funny-sad scenario that somehow all makes sense.
In Britain shows like these were an important part of theatre -- best exemplified by the Cambridge Footlights or Ned Sherrin and friends -- but by the early eighties the genre had retreated to radio, although isolated pockets of resistance have continued, such as the long-running Newsrevue at London's Canal Café Theatre (Stanton's work there connects neatly here).
Piggy-backed onto the revue is Love Songs, billed as the "premiere of a new one-woman musical". Penned by Charles Hart on both lyric and music fronts, it has already had the de rigueur first airing at Andrew Llloyd Webber's private residence and a BBC radio brodcast with full orchestration.
It's a song cycle for solo female voice, musical vignettes of finding love and losing it. Hart, better known for lyric duties on Lloyd Webber's The Phantom Of The Opera, started assembling Love Songs as early as 1984, intended as a "sort of "graduation" piece' when he was still a post-grad music student. Comparisons with Tell Me On A Sunday will likely abound, but here the feel is darker across these ten otherwise up-beat numbers -- peel away the pop veneer and you'll find a healthy dose of Sondheim.
The songs are deceptively complex and the diminutive Linzy Hately tackles them admirably. Yet Hart's songs need a more rigorous, more experienced interpreter, and one who is possibly more American-tuned. Hately's voice is pleasant in a West End way but she wastes the emotional range she builds -- her tonal delivery is stuck at a single setting throughout. And though overall she gives a wonderfully bubbly performance, she lacks presence to convincingly hold it all together.
Potential stand-outs are "I Belong To Myself", which has the makings of a power ballad, the up-tempo, very Broadway "Wondering", and the multi-layered closer "I Was There", which is also perhaps the most interesting lyrically as the sad lover flashbacks through all the moments that created and sustained her now failed relationship.
Alexander Bermange's inspired piano threatens to be the star of the show, aided and abetted by Philip Reynolds' restrained double bass lines. Whether comping or solo, Bermange rolls out lick after lick in subtle cascades that start as Lloyd Webber and end as Sondheim via Winston or Copeland (although here one feels he would serve Hately better by substituting his acoustic grand with a more flexible electric).
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Live From Golgotha Drill Hall Autumn 2002
This is a sadly missed opportunity, or perhaps an exposure of a work's inherent weaknesses. Novelist-essayist-playwright Gore Vidal is (as he himself will tell you) America's closest thing to a Juvenalian satirist - a witty, patrician and undisguisedly sneering commentator on the culture. His satirical novel is a scattergun attack on targets ranging from Christianity in its variety of forms - those of Jesus, Paul and TV evangelists - to American television, corporate politics, and the multinational military-industrial complex. Such wide-ranging disdain would be difficult to focus sufficiently for effective drama, even if Vidal hadn't further burdened potential adaptors with a time-travel plot so complicated as to defy summary, and director Malcolm Sutherland is unable to bring order, bite or theatrical life to the stage version he has devised.
I'm eliminating half the story's complexities when I summarise by saying that all records (and, presumably cultural memory) of early Christianity are being mysteriously wiped out, so that 21st century time travellers contact St. Timothy ( he of the Epistles to...) to beg him to write his gospel and, incidentally (since the time travellers work for an American TV network), to front a live television broadcast of the Crucifixion. In the process they uncover any number of conspiracies, both ancient and modern, that call into question the entire Christian story, among other things we're less interested in.
It may work in a novel, where the author has time to meander through his plots and satirical digressions. But as a play it is frequently impossible to follow, and even when you know what's going on, you rarely care. Too many of the satirical butts, from Pauline Christianity to American TV, are far too easy targets, hardly worth the effort of ridiculing. The time travel device may read well, but actually plays very clumsily, with the fiction's own ground rules of what is possible constantly being changed to meet plot convenience, while a 90-minute running time reduces all the characters to one-dimensional and - worse - uninteresting stereotypes.
Sutherland has compounded both the incoherence and the uninterestingness with awkward and inconsistent stabs at updating that also introduce a string of annoying minor anachronisms and errors. (For example, Japanese corporations are no longer the dreaded enemy du jour, and Fairleigh Dickenson University is in New Jersey, not California.)
Direction and performances don't help. As Timothy, David De Keyser betrays either under-rehearsal or a failing memory by relying constantly on a script he carries around, while Bruce Purchase as St. Paul keeps tripping oqver his costume. It is Vidal who imagines Paul as a low-camp old queen, but Purchase's dreadful attempt at a New York accent - only one of several pointless and badly-done efforts at funny accents in the play - is his own fault.
Sylvester McCoy wrestles to little avail with a particularly unintelligible subplot that has him playing a modern scientist at two different ages (with two different accents) frequently arguing with videotaped versions of his other self, while William Hope plays Jesus as a lip-curling megalomaniac out of a James Bond film. Indeed, except possibly for Maggie Ollerenshaw as Mrs. St. Timothy, who has little to do but repeatedly go off to make tea, nobody involved in this production, from Gore Vidal on down, comes out with much dignity intact.
Michael Moore The Roundhouse Autumn 2002
This is a really lousy show. About 25% of it is offensive, without being witty or fun, about 25% is annoying, and the rest is just plain dull.
I should begin by saying that I probably agree with American film-maker, author and corporate gadfly Michael Moore on most things. But this show still alienated me.
Moore has fallen into a trap I've encountered before, usually at the Edinburgh Festival - a popular performer overestimates the power of his personal charm and thinks it can carry him through an underwritten, under-prepared and under-rehearsed show.
Whatever his success on film, Moore turns out to have very little charm or stage presence in person. He wanders aimlessly about the stage, mumbles, giggles at his own jokes, forgets the points of his stories, and doesn't know what to do when bits fall flat.
And boy, do they ever fall flat. There really are only so many times we can be told that George W. Bush is an idiot and Tony Blair is a toady. Moore opens by singing (badly) a song about them and other world leaders whose lyrics could have been written by any snotty eight-year-old. He makes a prank call to the FBI in Washington and then is (or pretends to be) surprised when they quite rightly hang up on him. A mock quiz show pitting the dumbest Brit in the audience against the smartest Yank dies when the American wins, spoiling his point.
At his very best, for no more than one or two lines, he is doing the same thing American Mort Sahl was doing 40 years ago, but without Sahl's wit; or the same thing his British TV counterpart Mark Thomas does, but without Thomas's solid preparation and authority.
And he doesn't know where the boundaries are. Scoring an anti-Bush point by arguing that Al Q'aida is just an innocent men's club like the Elks might just barely be acceptable. But his longest set piece of the evening is a deeply offensive attack on the passengers of the September 11 planes for being cowardly and complacent middle-class wimps who wouldn't fight back - a tirade the audience meets with stunned silence, perhaps remembering, among other things, that the one plane that knew what was going on did just that. The sermon on complacency that follows drags on long enough for you to begin to wonder just what moral authority he possesses to whip us from.
By the end, desperate to score some comic points, Moore is reduced to attacking such irrelevantly trivial targets as antibacterial soaps and supermarket reward cards. In sum, a totally disappointing evening for anyone hoping to encounter wit, intelligence or effective social criticism.
More Lies About Jerzy New End Theatre Autumn 2002
"We did not live in an age of truth - certain lies are essential for survival," recalls a refugee drag artist in Davey Holmes' gripping often unsettling tale of a super-ego tricked into tragic decline. And author and celebrity Jerzy Kosinski certainly survived well in his adopted America.
He became a well-known guru of literature and the talk-show circuit after penning not only tomes like 1965's The Painted Bird, an "autobiographical fiction" about his experiences as a Jewish child in Nazi Poland during the Second World War, but also 1971's Being There - made into a Oscar-winning movie with Peter Sellars two years later. Yet a wave of accusations that he was merely another Munchausen led to creative demise and his subsequent suicide in 1991.
Holmes pays homage here via a similar blend of fact and fiction to create a writer who may or not be Kosinski but whose fate is the same mapped out skilfully by director Guy Retallack's bold eye for pace and character. A cast of mixed experience flows well with the script, fleshing out a variety of roles each - and frequently lapsing into tolerable Polish.
As Jerzy Lesnewski, George Layton captures Kosinski's own spirit and schmoozes his way through a compellingly believable portrayal. Poignant yet strong is Karen Archer as his long-suffering ex-girlfriend and amanuensis while completing the triangle is Jacqueline Nairn as a spirited, betrayed lover. Lining up in return to betray Lesnewski are enough blasts from the past to put the ghost into ghostwriter.
There's the affable boyhood chum fresh from the Old Country - and his mum - egged on by an embittered Village Voice hack plus the flashback apparition of a young girl Jerzy claimed once to know in wartime. Meanwhile, making his life further misery are a battery of officials from the Writers' Union investigating accusations of benefitting from the fruit of other people's labour.
Ultimately the play fails to fall on a theme - be it celebrity, creativity or truth to oneself - yet it somehow manages to create a thoughtful portrait of a unique individual.
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Review - Dorothy Fields Forever - King's Head 2002 Review - An Evening with Charles Dickens - 2002 Review - Homebody/Kabul - Young Vic 2002 Review - The Island of Slaves - Hammersmith 2002 Review - King Hedley II - Tricycle 2002 Review - Let's Kick Arts & Love Songs - Bridewell 2002 Review - Live from Golgotha - Drill Hall 2002 Review - Michael Moore - Roundhouse 2002 Review - More Lies About Jerzy - New End 2002