Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Fine Execution at the Tower

Purism is not the issue here.

The evening started stately enough with Nigel Kennedy, still sporting his Gary-Rhodes-on-steroids butchered pineapple haircut, leading the Philharmonia orchestra through two melodious movements of Bach. So far, so dignified, so what.

What the audience had come for - and got in spades - was a hefty dose of Nige’s blokeish irreverence: chatting to the band, blagging half-finished glasses of champagne from the corporate stiffies in the front row, and generally parading his hallmark punch-drunk staggering routine like a pub comedian on a slow night in his native Brighton.

But when the man picks up a fiddle, and saws in to Duke Ellington’s ‘In a Jam’ it blows away every preconception, and his virtuosity is undoubted.

Perhaps sensing the audience’s preference for the more modern material, he confused the band by changing the running order - as he said ‘you don’t want to work up a sweat with this big band shit and then stop’. Some of the pieces were world premieres, of original 30’s Ellington arrangements re-worked by Kennedy to put more of the emphasis into the strings, and it’s a whole new sound.

It’s a whole new audience, too - many of whom don’t know how to behave in concerts, perhaps the idea that it’s in the open air makes them forget to stop chatting, particularly the chav in row P who answered his phone during the elegant and complex Bach Interventions in which Kennedy sparred electrically with cellist Karen Stephenson, before returning enthusiastically to the Swing era.

And then, just for a moment, with the lush big band sound washing over you, the first stars of the evening appearing over the battlements of the 900-year old White Tower, and the planes lining up for their descent into London City Airport, you begin to appreciate that setting this clumsily brilliant musical anarchist on a vulgar red gash of a stage against the stones of the Tower, in the historical, cultural and commercial heart of the city is what living in London is all about.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Blown by the 'Wind'

inherit the wind.jpg

Kevin Spacey’s timing is exemplary.

Not just in his personal performance but in bringing to the Old Vic such a dynamic production of the 1955 American war horse ‘Inherit The Wind’ - a courtroom drama based on the true-life story of a young Tennessee school teacher arraigned for promoting the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin against the orders of a Christian fundamentalist school board.

Written in the shadow of the McCarthy trials it is topical today because of the ongoing battle between religious right-wingers in the US who have repackaged their anti-Darwinist stance into a fresh campaign to coerce schools into teaching ‘Intelligent Design’ (by the hand of God) instead of evolution as an approved scientific theory of the origin of man.

It makes Madonna’s Kabbalist babbling look almost rational by comparison, and it’s coming to a courtroom near you pretty soon as they extend their campaign into the UK.

This play has a special resonance for me because, in my tortured youth wrangling with my parents about whether I should be allowed to 'go on the stage' or press on to University, 'Inherit the Wind' marked my 17-year old professional debut in the Harrogate Repertory Company's production. It's perhaps the phase that taught me there was no money in acting, since whatever I earned barely covered the fares for the last bus home each night.

I was pleasantly surprised how much of the dialogue I remembered, and the gospel songs, as taught to us by our unofficial chorus-mistress Zara Nutley, later language school owner Mrs Courtenay in the popular TV rubbish 'Mind Your Language'. I tried to Google some of the other actors from the show, Adam Kuryakin (possibly the first 'out gay man' I'd encountered in Harrogate) and Peter Codyre, or director Barry Howard, but I guess they're all dead.

In the meantime, enjoy the bareknuckle bout in 20’s Tennessee where Spacey is impeccable as the veteran lawyer Henry Drummond (real life Clarence Darrow) twanging his suspenders and twisting the witnesses’ words to barnstorming effect. He’s much shoutier than Spencer Tracy in the Oscar-winning 1960 movie, the internalised anger contorting his already hunched body into a shape that may physically recall Charles Laughton, but continuously commands the stage.

It’s possible Spacey was impressed by the 2007 Broadway production in which Christopher Plummer finally threw off the mantle of Captain von Trapp and won plaudits for his portrayal of Drummond.

For Drummond to have the audience on side is an easy win, you could argue, since the lawyer is fighting for the rights of the common man and the free thinker, but to succeed at this he needs a credible opposition.

In the real story, three-times failed presidential candidate, and tub-thumping bible-basher William Jennings Bryan came to Tennessee as the prosecuting counsel. The character’s called Matthew Harrison Brady and in David Troughton’s strong performance he’s also a lurchingly crippled titan, matching Spacey barb for barb in the war of the words over bible passages and driving himself to a personal resurrection of his political career. If he’s ultimately weakened by the fight, the fault’s in the script rather than the performance. This man’s on his way to King Lear.

Half ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ half ‘Gone With the Wind’, the design whips up a confectionery vignette of the Old South. Director Trevor Nunn punctuates the court action with gospel singing and torchlight processions lovingly dressed in shades of sepia like the Kansas scenes in ‘Wizard of Oz’. Given the script is by Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence - authors of ‘Mame’ - it’s clear Sir Trevor is desperate to turn it in to a musical.

Outstanding among the 40-strong cast, something not usually seen outside the National, Mark Dexter plays the visiting cynical journalist who orchestrates the defence, based on Baltimore satirist H L Mencken, with a handsomely attractive oily charm - as he says ‘I may be rancid butter but I’m on your side of the bread’, and Ian Cunningham adds convincing value as the banjo-twangling court supervisor Ralph Meeker.

An old-fashioned ‘well made play’ but an excellent production. Go.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The sound of one hand Clapham

As I've said before, it's 21 years since Stephen Sondheim took panto by the throat and throttled it into a self-styled morality play called ‘Into the Woods’.

If nothing else, the current production at the Landor theatre highlights the age of the material, and the bum-numbingly lengthy exposition necessary to tell the stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk before the interval - after which the plot thickens and the cast thins as many of them are picked off by a marauding giant whilst blaming each other for collective and individual misfortunes.

It’s intended as a metaphor for the disintegration of society, but the jury’s out on whether Sondheim was presenting an original metaphysical deconstruction of America at the end of the 20th century, or smoking crack.

The tedious first half needs pace which the cast couldn’t deliver on Friday since they were struggling with too-recently-arrived costumes and a clever oversized bookshelf of a set which demanded mountaineering feats whilst singing in a hoop skirt and minor key.

An announcement asked the audience to treat it as an open dress rehearsal and on that basis, it was just about OK. It also started over half an hour late which allowed us the opportunity to appreciate what a scrofulous pub the Landor really is, perched on the edge of an edgy housing estate. It’s a shame, because the theatre upstairs has a great reputation which doesn’t percolate down to the bar, and at closing time we had to shoulder our way through a number of chavs in what looked like pyjamas, and endure some colouful (I use the word advisedly) banter from dusky youths lounging about on a street corner.

The lead characer of the Witch is in disguise for the first half - and Lori Haley Fox was the only cast member to use a strong American accent so she appeared initially to be Ruby Wax in a burka (not in itself an unattractive prospect) but after the ‘transformation’ revealed blonde streaks and an overbite unfortunately reminiscent of Julia Davis in Nighty Night.

Others were more promising including Ryan Forde Iosco and particularly Luke Fredericks as the swashbuckling but shallow Princes, the latter clearly relishing a second outing in knee-length boots after his stint as Rolf the boy Nazi in Sound of Music, and with a lovely voice.

It’s notoriously hard to sing Sondheim because the lyrics are so often truncated or interrupted, but Sue Appleby as Cinderella and Leo Andrew as the Baker overcame this particularly well, and Andrew‘s ‘No One Is Alone’ had great resonance.

One of the best quotes from Into the Woods is ‘nice is different than good’.

This is a nice production.

A Talent not to amuse

Back in the days when boys became bands without the unwelcome attentions of Louis Walsh, or girls sang aloud without a televised vote - young Victoria Wood penned a simple, funny and sweet piece for the Sheffield Crucible based on her own experiences backstage in a provincial talent show.

Revisiting it thirty years later, she freely admits she had to explain a lot of the references to the cast, so it's not surprising many of the jokes had to be audibly elaborated by the older audience to its younger boyfriends during last Thursday's first performance at the Menier. There is hardly a gay bar in London in which you couldn't hear someone 'doing' a Victoria Wood sketch, and for the previews they were out in force, and lapping up the familiar comic lines.

Asked to comment on her friend Julie Walters' appearance in "Mamma Mia", Wood explained to the Daily Mail that musicals 'really weren't her thing' - which may have been tact as Walters was uncharacteristically dire, but also disingenuous since Wood recently wrote 'Acorn Antiques the Musical' with a swathe of pastiched production numbers. For 'Talent', the musical additions are modest parodies of cheesy cabaret songs which mostly serve to give the male cast members an opportunity to perspire copiously in velour suits with polyester ruffles.

Wood appears to have cast this production with a number of old friends - Jeffrey Holland, once the comedian Spike in Hi-de-Hi is amusing as a pensioner magician, but former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry rather less convincing as the randy compere of the rotting Bunters night club.

It's like an explosion in the comedy section of the BBC archives, or at least in the skip where they throw the stuff they don't use any more.

The stronger casting is in Suzy Toase playing the role created by Wood, and the ever reliable Mark Hadfield doubling a magician's assistant and the night club's catering manageress in the funniest segment of the show when she organises the table allocations. Both these actors excel at deadpanning the flat northern inflections of Wood's material and illustrate both her easy facility with the language, and its ultimate failure to satisfy.

To genuine Lancastrians, the camp non-sequiturs of Wood's dialogue "she was going to be a nun but they kept having tomato soup and she lost her vocation" are routine, being heard on the bus from Bury to Bolton every day of the week, and Wood's skill was to spot the patterns and write it down. Custard creams aren't inherently funny, but when suggested by a northern housewife as a more palatable alternative to oral sex, it gets a laugh.

Whilst she has undoubtedly become a 'national treasure' through sketches and sitcom, comparison with more structurally capable dramatists like Alan Bennett are inevitably disappointing. In fact, the way Christopher Luscombe's recent production of Bennett's 'Enjoy' outshines 'Talent' despite the fact they were written at similar times, reflect on both Wood's script-updating and directing skills.

Sometimes, Talent alone is not enough.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Captive Audience

Banged up in a US prison two inmates from opposite sides of the tracks forge an unlikely friendship against a background of corrupt wardens, wisecracking murderers and a hanging. The stage version of 'Shawshank Redemption' is ‘Chicago’ for straight men.

Whilst not actually channelling Renee Zellweger and Catherine Z. Jones, leads Kevin Anderson and ‘The Wire’ star Reg E. Cathey draw parallels as Anderson’s innocent-behind-bars learns quickly who not to trust and how to manipulate the corrupt system, while Cathey’s persistent recidivist tries to distance himself from the morality but eventually succumbs.

Like most current screen-to-stage adaptations (Sister Act, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) legal ownership of the movie rights prevented a direct adaptation from the filmscript and the source material reverts to a less sparkling original novel or treatment.

The dialogue’s too fluent for movie realism but works well enough on stage where the supporting cast turn in sharp characterisations, notably Ryan McCluskey’s engaging performance as the cheerful gambler Heywood. McCluskey is billed as first cover for Anderson’s lead role and it would be interesting to see him play it.

Equally outstanding is the least sympathetic character, the violent sodomite Bogs played with utter conviction by Joe Hanley whose priapic readiness to exact the ultimate rite of passage on new inmates gives new meaning to the phrase ‘hardened criminal’.

Ferdia Murphy’s two-tier set of prison bars is simple to the point of emptiness, and bizarre when placed in the blue white and gold cherub-studded proscenium of Wyndham’s Theatre. Lighting Designer Kevin Treacy could have worked harder to reduce the spill on to the auditorium and focus more harshly on the prison.

An interesting echo on the sound system actively suggests the hard surfaces, but otherwise there's little to indicate place, the passing of time or seasons, or to convince us that this is a real penitentiary.

There’s plenty of shouting and banging, and a lot of booted stomping in the fight scenes but ultimately this Shawshank is hollow. As Roxie says - it’s just a noisy hall where there’s a nightly brawl, and All That Jazz.