Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Into Victoria's Wood

It’s 21 years since I saw Into The Woods break new ground by bringing English pantomime to Broadway and twisting its neck, and this is the first production since that comes close.

Director Will Tuckett has lost none of the values in paring the show down to its bones for Covent Garden’s elegant but compact Linbury Studio, and the mirror-surrounded set and manually shifted scenery frame the stories as effectively as the 16-piece orchestra supports the clarity of diction and expression which make this production soar above its predecessors.

Flattening the characters’ vowels to an indeterminate “Northern” brings a Victoria Wood/Alan Bennett quality to their speech patterns which both Anglicises and endears them to a broad spectrum audience, many of whom clearly didn’t know the show of old.

Suzanne Toase stands out as a pert and plump Red Riding Hood whose bluff Yorkshire attitude suited the part in a way Sondheim probably didn't envisage, and Gillian Kirkpatrick’s enjoyably pivotal Cinderella reminded me of the mental posturing and facial expressions of Miranda Richardson’s Queen from Blackadder.

Singing Sondheim is difficult-to-impossible at the best of times, but in Into The Woods actors have the added frustration that the numbers are so often fragmented or truncated by the action. Singing is undeniably patchy: from the otherwise wonderful Anne Reid who struggles to make Jack’s Mother as lyrical as she is funny, to the blithe precision of Anna Francolini’s Baker’s Wife.

When given their head, though, it’s a treat to hear Clive Rowe add weight and resonance to “No One Is Alone” or Beverley Klein wring every emotion from a powerful but beautifully-shaded “Stay With Me”.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Road to Damascus

Coming soon ... story of my trip to Syria

It's certainly not the Axis of Evil as defined by the Bush/Blair propaganda machine.

Mind you, it's not the Axis of Clean Toilets either ;-))

Friday, 1 June 2007

Drowsy Chap

I couldn't go with my gang of friends to The Drowsy Chaperone on the outing last week, so had to catch up yesterday. Everyone I know who saw it on Broadway raved about it, and the London crew were no less enthusiastic.

Well, on Thursday either it had an off night, or I did. I'd had a bottle of wine and a pretty generous Mojito immediately before the show, but that ought to have put me into a receptive mood for some light comic pastiche of tinkly twinkly twenties musicals. Shouldn't it?

I quickly "got" the narrative schtick of co-author Bob Martin as "Man in Chair" and enjoyed his asides and three-dimensional persona much more than the Pantomime characters paraded across the stage performing the musical numbers.

Summer Strallen (and some so are not) was dental-drillingly shrill as Janet the bride, and so obviously school-of-Italia-Conti that it reminded me her aunt is actually Bonnie Langford. Her cheesy bridegroom was so annoying I've happily blanked him out. There was a tap-dancing best man who was like a toe-curling Tory MP in a House of Commons Christmas review, and a big broad black aviatrix whose only purpose in the show seemed to be for rhyming a finale number and testing the tensile strength of sequinned lycra.

The ridiculous brokers' men routine of the gangsters-disguised-as-bakers bored me rigid, and their corny puns were feeble - was it ever explained WHY they are disguised as bakers, or what the nature of their gangsterhood is? If there was a plot, this is the point at which I lost it to a momentary doze.

And who or what is the Drowsy Chaperone herself? Why, for example, is she "chaperoning" a bride on her wedding day, but not in any way preventing her from seeing the groom? Why is she "drowsy" - roughly interpreted as a narcoleptic alcoholic - and why doesn't she have a name or a personality?

Of course, this is a vehicle (even tumbrils are vehicles) for Elaine Paige, in my humble opinion one of the most self-indulgent actresses on the London stage, and this part certainly ain't a stretch for the short one.

No amount of vertical feathers or cantilevered millinery gives her the stature a commanding central role requires. Not that she was ever a subtle interpreter of female characters; now in fact square of jaw, bejewelled of gown, curled of wig and smooth-trowelled of complexion she has finally mutated into a sort of Danny La Rue mini-me.

The songs are universally forgettable, except perhaps Strallen's thumping "I Don't Wanna Show Off No More", a motto which Ms Paige really should have woven into a sampler and tacked to the wall of her dressing room. She needs better material and better direction to make use of her mature vocal talents: in this tosh, she's just coasting.

What really annoyed me about this production was how unfavourably it compared with Curtains, which ran parallel to it on Broadway in the same genre of pastiche musical, but penned by Kander and Ebb and with the impeccable David Hyde Pierce in the central role as a stage-struck detective who solves a murder in an out-of-town theatre but also manages to "fix" the musical show at the same time.

I think what's wrong with Drowsy Chaperone is that it's a spoof of a spoof. Trading so heavily on Salad Days , Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Boy Friend it's trying to parody a group of musicals which were already themselves pastiches of an earlier age.

It's not much of a consolation, but it was a delight to witness the exhumation of Anne Rogers, a musical comedy star of great magnitude in her heyday, looking trim and singing competently as a dotty older lady.

I'd last seen her on stage in No, No, Nanette at Drury Lane in the early 1970s wiping the floor with Anna Neagle, and she must have been forty even then: it's good to see her still stealing scenes.