Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Almost Perfect Day

We don’t exactly hit the ground running but fuelled by our combined appetites for culture, arts and shopping we strike out by astonishingly smart and efficient metro to downtown Santiago.

The modernity and uber-cleanliness of the stations and trains is momentarily alarming, used as we are to the rackety transport systems of New York and London, but not nearly as alarming for me as the fact that most platforms are furnished with multiple flat screen TVs regularly showing Susan Boyle giving us her rendering (here I remind readers that ‘rendering’ also means to melt down) of ‘Perfect Day’.

I am delighted that my Instituto Cervantes-learned ‘que bruja fea’ gets nods of approval from passing Chilenos.

First stop the Cathedral where we’re thrilled to find a Christmas Day mass in full swing and enjoy the wonderful flowers – immaculate white gladioli and lilies contrasted with bitter dark red roses - and casual atmosphere of a congregation enjoying itself. It’s a beautiful building with some lovely painted decoration but not as over-gilded and domineering as a lot of Catholic architecture, and when I find an order of service and am able to join in with ‘Silent Night’ in Spanish, it’s enjoyable for me for the music and the sense of theatre, and if the faith aspect seems to work for the locals, good for them.

Among the statuary is an elegant modern sculpture of a newly-canonised priest, installed in the last three months. The figure has his hand on the shoulder of a young altar boy and you feel that the distance between them and the lightness of touch has been carefully calculated to defuse the obvious charges.

We fan out to spot other important buildings but everything is closed for Christmas so we wander more or less at random and are pleased to sit down for a cooling juice in the Plaza de Armas just as a Peruvian marching band capers its noisy way past with the brilliant sunlight glinting off the instruments and costumes.

They're stupid beasts, does it say Plaza de LLAMAS ?

By late afternoon the sun has beaten us back to the hotel for some pool time and a siesta. In the bar Rhea spots one attractive half of a two-doctor gay couple from East Hampton, and since his partner is unwell, invites Dr Jim to join us for dinner. He’s a psychologist and perceptive company although as the evening proceeds and he gets further down the red wine the game becomes one of analysing the analyst since he has a tale and a half about a romantic adventure in London which climaxes with him being hunted down by the secret service and puts our various affaires truly in the shade.

Boxing Day and many more things are open so we subway again (Susan Boyle still at it in the stations) and enjoy the Las Domenicos craft village and funky bohemian Bellavista neighbourhood, before heading back to the hotel to brace ourselves for a ‘meet the tour group’ cocktail party.

We had been trying to ‘spot’ members of our tour party in the hotel on and off for two days but our hunting skills are poor and we don’t accurately identify either a promising looking middle aged gay couple or the most overweight man in the hotel who would certainly require two coach and aircraft seats.

We develop a strategy of not becoming too friendly too soon, as Curt had been buttonholed at breakfast by a female predator in polyester plumage asking if he were travelling alone, and among the routine fiftysomething couples from states with square corners there are a couple of more interestingly exotic families, one based on Czech parents and two attractive daughters one of which is married to an English boy, and another mixed American/Korean five piece troupe, which makes us a more cosmopolitan bunch than I’d feared.

Under the tutelage of our resolutely Costa Rican tour director - the looks-like-Lucy-talks-like-Ricky Carla - we have to stand in a semi-circle and introduce ourselves and when it comes my turn and I announce my name and provenance a diminutive couple pounces on it saying that they had been looking for me ... but don’t explain why so I am somewhat cautious.

The following day at lunch it turns out that he is an academic working between Oxford and Texas and that in a year or so they plan to relocate to London and would like some advice on where to live. This comes charmingly wrapped with an invitation to High Table at Balliol, so I am quite happy to help.

It also amuses me that the woman who styles herself ‘an educator’, an English teacher and vice principal of some institution which can barely spare her for the holiday is unaware of any of the Oxford colleges, or the meanings of ‘High Table’, ‘Dean’ and most glorious of all since I am impressed when George uses it in a casual sentence ‘subfusc’. Since despite her literary background she’s clearly never read any C.P. Snow, or G.K. Chesterton, or even Tom Sharpe, we explain it to her in Harry Potter terminology and feel very smug.

Dinner was pretty ropy, and we have to have one of those ‘conversations’ with management which is still paying dividends as platters of chocolates and macaroons and complimentary bottles of Evian keep appearing in our rooms, as well as free cocktails in the bar, and the staff try hard to bring us everything we need.

The tour began in earnest this morning and following a whizz round the city we’re taken to the Maipo valley and the boutique wine estate of Tarapaca with its handsome great house where after a short walk through the cellars with the equally handsome Diego we’re lunching al fresco under huge parasols and even more huge trees and I’m pinching myself to recall that it’s the Monday after Christmas when everyone I know is getting ready to go back to work, and I’m getting sunburned in a vineyard that could easily be Burgundy if it weren’t for the backdrop of the Andes.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Welcome to Santiago

I’m awake at ten to seven on Christmas morning.

Either I’ve regressed to the second childhood I’ve been promising myself for some time now, or it’s jet-lag.

Outside the window of the solidly American-vision-of-English-Country-House Ritz-Carlton bedroom sprawls the beating heart of Chile, Santiago. Except it’s flatlining today with everything closed for the holidays and besides it looks nothing like the old colonial capital of a banana republic. With its new but not quite excellent modern architecture, and the buildings reflecting in each other’s mirrored facades, Santiago reminds me of Atlanta. An early empty bendy bus bowls down the six-lane street, a lone sweeper in bright blue coveralls tends the immaculate pavements and planters of the shopping centre. Its six million people must be elsewhere.

It was touch and go if I’d get here.

The atypical mid-December snowfall in the UK and its ability to paralyse our transport system has been well documented and indeed slavered over by the press, so I turned up at the airport with a pillow, a coat to use as a blanket and a couple of sandwiches in case the tabloids were right and I might have to spend two nights on the airport floor invoking the spirit of the Blitz before getting a plane. I’d even prepared a couple of Vera Lynn numbers in case I was called upon to lead community singing. It was, of course, massive exaggeration – two minutes to check-in and two more to be through security and I’m in the Star Alliance lounge with a G&T wondering what all the fuss was about and why I’ve got two hours to kill before boarding.

TAM Brasilian – on whose wings I have flown courtesy of air miles – turns out to be a perfectly competent airline, and whilst their crew don’t speak the conversational English of BA (nor, thankfully, do they address paying passengers as ‘mate’) everything’s lovely. If I was their time and motion expert I might suggest it’s not necessary to perform a fawning at-seat attendance with a wooden boxed display of tea bags every time a customer wants a cuppa, but I’m not arguing.

The personal movie screen was bigger than my laptop although that served to make Julia Roberts appear with even more teeth than usual, in a simply dreadful film wherein she’s a divorcee who first overeats in Rome, then visits an Ashram where she can suddenly read Hindi before giving the benefit of her worldly advice to a holy man in Bali until after spending two hours telling us she’s sick of people telling her she needs a man, ends up with Javier Bardem. Solace-for-shopgirls rubbish from beginning to end, but such predictable and easy rubbish I was able to watch it without the headphones reading the Portuguese subtitles. Even in Portuguese, Julia, this is facile crap. Make a decent movie.

Changed planes in sticky Sao Paulo where the early morning warmth heralded what’s to come and then dozed fitfully for another four hours on the sector to Santiago, waking only for a glimpse of the high narrow ribbon of the Andes as we descend.

The rather classy American travel company with whom we booked this junket has sent not just a driver but also a uniformed host to collect me, and in some state we progress to downtown Santiago where it's great to be enveloped not just by the embrace of a good hotel but by two of my most delightful friends Rhea and Curt who flew in earlier this morning from Baltimore. As they're famished for late lunch I have the quickest of showers and enjoy the kiss of clean pants before we stroll in the sunshine to a smart place specialising in New Zealand cuisine (well, it's all in the Southern Hemisphere) and some rare tuna and glorious Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

All is suddently well with my little world.

Happy Christmas, more when I can ...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A Star is re-Born

Tracie Bennett (yes, Rita's adopted daughter from Corrie) fairly strips the skin and the bones off of that there Judy Garland. The 5* accolade is for an impeccable impersonation, maybe the production and script deserve 4 ... there's clearly a giant, or possibly a Giant, movie to be made from this excoriated life and in giving us only the last five weeks the stage show does Garland a disservice because there's no background or explanation of how she got into this terrible state.


Playwright: Peter Quilter
Director: Terry Johnson
Designer: William Dudley
Musical Director: Gareth Valentine
Sound: Gareth Owen

Reviewer: JohnnyFox

TPR score: 5 stars

Can you imagine what it would be like if Judy Garland were still alive? In her late eighties would she be shuffling from one tacky daytime chat show to the next still living off ancient glories like The Wizard of Oz and Easter Parade, trotting out the same old stories of booze and drugs to any daytime host who’ll listen and favouring audiences with her uncontrolled vibrato?

Or perhaps she’d have got sober, like Elaine Stritch, and be twinkling her way through A Little Night Music on Broadway or could it have been Judy instead of her parodic daughter officiating at the schlock gay wedding in Sex and the City 2?

'End of the Rainbow', Peter Quilter‘s smartly-scripted play shows a snapshot of this giant ego undermined by wracking self-doubt as she heads for a final meltdown in 1968 struggling to repay debts with a five-week season at the Talk of the Town in London buoyed by the romance of her newly acquired fifth husband (and allegedly third gay one) Mickey Deans.

In a gloriously inaccurate Richard Mawbey wig (for London, Garland had cut her hair in a gamine style like Peter Pan) Tracie Bennett has the face, figure, body language and voice of Garland as well as both the flame and the warmth of her fiery, funny character pierced by crystal shards of incessant need for reassurance and fear of separation.

Surely this is an Olivier award-winning impersonation and she carries the evening with power and sinew worthy of Judy’s own survival technique.

William Dudley’s richly pretty set mutates slickly between her suite at the Ritz and the Talk of the Town revealing a band of stunning capabilities thrashed to a frenzy by MD Gareth Valentine when Bennett takes the stage in a range of numbers from brassy You Made Me Love You and the Trolley Song to painfully reflective Over the Rainbow and The Man That Got Away. She’s in such fine, belting voice, that the reverb added to simulate the ‘stage’ acoustic is almost excessive.

In one sense, Bennett fails Garland because in performance she’s just too good. Judy’s London appearances were uneven to say the least: contemporary critics referred to her cracked, flat notes, her apparent lack of concentration, that her voice had ‘taken a beating’, or that the show was only successful because of her defiant personality, enduring popularity and ‘instant hysteria among an audience determined to clap itself silly’.

Although this is only a ‘slice’ of the fruit-loaf that was Garland, indeed - being the end slice it’s effectively the crust, Bennett measures the progress from the funny, smart, madcap Judy excited at the prospect of a season in London to the Ritalin-raddled wreck at the end with tremendous control and such authenticity that when, in a faultless best-supporting actor performance delivered with wit and affection, Hilton McRae as her loving gay pianist suggests a quiet mutual retirement to seaside domesticity, you almost believe Judy might take it.

At 2 hours 30, it’s arguably one ‘I’m not going on’ too long, and there’s a sense of cyclical repetition which is perhaps why Get Happy was trimmed from the list of songs.

Garland’s long dead, and when the audience rose to its feet to hail the star at the curtain call, the cheers were for Tracie Bennett, not Judy, and thoroughly deserved.

This review originally written for www.thepublicreviews.com

Sunday, 21 November 2010

We are dainty little fairies ...

Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

Book and lyrics: W.S. Gilbert
Music: Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director: Sasha Regan
Musical Director: Chris Mundy
Choreographer: Mark Smith
Designer: Stewart Charlesworth
Lighting: Steve Miller

TPR rating: 4.5 Stars

Whilst The Mikado and Pirates of Penzance have had a number of recent and successful modern treatments, wresting the rest of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon from the dead hand of D’Oyly Carte and its historically reverential staging has proved more difficult, so Sasha Regan and her all-male company at the Union Theatre are to be congratulated on a production of Iolanthe which is quite so inventive and engaging.

If you need to trouble yourself with the plot – well, the ones in underwear are fairies and the ones in dressing gowns are Peers, there’s a half-breed Arcadian shepherd who becomes a member of Parliament, and a ward of court who wants to marry him, and the Lord Chancellor is married to a friend of the Queen of the Fairies who has been banished to live at the bottom of a river … it’s all too silly for words, so relax and enjoy the ride.

And a ride it is – joyous, uplifting, funny, sweet, occasionally sentimental but mostly comic with moment after moment of sheer delight in both the musicality of the performers who strive for high accuracy in their falsetto and coloratura, but mostly for a genius theatrical device which allows the young cast to drive along the story and the musical numbers without bothering to age up.

It’s smart and sharp and whilst it doesn’t emphasise the satire on politicians which Iolanthe often invites, it brings in references from Harry Potter, and Peter Pan and Narnia which make the story even more accessible, and the ensemble numbers enormously enjoyable, particularly with Mark Smith’s complex and fluid choreography.

There are some remarkable voices: Gianni Onori as Strephon the romantic lead has a Scots accent which is sometimes impenetrable in the dialogue, but his singing is elegant and tender and Matthew James Willis, an Australian tenor making his London debut is outstanding as Earl Tolloller, with impeccable diction and a richly resonant tone almost too powerful for the tiny Union theatre.

Although for me the falsetto works best in the ensemble numbers, there are some highly skilled singers among the ‘girls’ – Alan Richardson as Phyliss reaches high and clear into the soprano range and Kris Manuel, in between stealing scenes as the Geordie fairy queen, exhibits a well supported contralto, especially in the aria ‘Oh Foolish Fay’.

Production designer Stewart Charlesworth’s costumes are a highlight, well matched with the battered attic set and carefully individualized for every character in the chorus. There’s no orchestra and on one piano musical director Chris Mundy emulates everything from fairy bells to trumpeting fanfares.

This is a gorgeous evening.

This review written for www.thepublicreviews.com

Monday, 15 November 2010

Thoughts on the Tinterweb

photo copyright Laura Babb, www.laurababb.com

Fellow Londonista, professional photographer Laura is working up a project on how the internet has (or hasn't) changes people's lives.

Check it out here

These are the questions she asked me:

What is the main influence that the internet has had on your life?

It’s so much easier in a half-hour to stroke, poke, comfort, cajole, encourage or merely check vital signs for your entire human entourage. I now have to make a superhuman effort to ensure I’m as conscientious with my non-facebook friends in enquiring after their loves, lives, jobs and dogs.

In other news, it changed my love life.

Emerging blinking into the daylight aged 47 from a long relationship about the time of the internet explosion, I had wondered if I’d ever date again but after a period of slutdom - which at times felt like I was hanging a ‘to let’ sign out of my bedroom window like some sort of sexual Foxtons - I was first stalked by then introduced to a partner so different in age, background, interests and energies from anyone I’d ever considered before the web broadened my horizons.

This led to three delightful years of romantic involvement (and resignation from all the dating sites) before I eventually released him back into the internet wild.

Has this influence been positive or negative?

Mostly positive, in terms of feeling connected to the wider world – particularly when travelling, which I sometimes do alone: on a long trip through the Caribbean which I didn’t entirely enjoy, I felt much better about it because I was blogging daily and getting feedback from friends and home.

If it has been positive, have there been any negative aspects?

It’s addictive, not always pleasantly, and too consumptive of time. I don’t seem able to do the internet equivalent of Matron’s ward round and skip through the sites and contacts in a brisk morning half-hour, but keep coming back to the facebook comments, and checking various sites for messages all through the day. I can make myself late for appointments by having one last hit before leaving the house.

I don’t like this, and I don’t like myself for doing it.

If it has been negative, have there been any positive aspects?

It keeps up my multi-tasking skills. As a Gemini I’ve always been able to do two things as once, like read with the television on, but now I can monitor tv, cooking and the internet all at the same time. Although I burn more things than before.

I also think that email/texting and online messaging has brought a smidgeon of literacy to a generation I thought had completely skipped it: now even teenagers can form a sentence, of sorts.

If the internet was a person and you met them in a pub, what would you say to them?

Let me buy you a drink and look over your shoulder to see if something more interesting’s happening.

Pink and juicy, and that's just the rack of lamb

Parked midway between the Kit Kat Club from 'Cabaret' and a jollier, ruddier Fat Sam's Grand Slam Speakeasy from 'Bugsy Malone', Burlesque and Blues at Volupte is one of the best things you can do on a Wednesday night in London.

Remotegoat reviews are meant to be about performance, but it's impossible to overlook the delicious cocktails whipped up by the friendliest of bar staff, the restaurant-quality food (pink and perfect rack of lamb, delicious fish) and the whole seductive atmosphere which on a windy and wet Wednesday welcomed everything from youngish couples on date night, to a team outing which could have been an episode from 'The IT Crowd'.

About the time your main course is served, the music starts with Pete Saunders' powerful attack on the ivories, literally driving the rhythms along Route 66, and his own 'Don't Say You Love Me' where stamping every beat on the floor is perhaps unnecessary when you're accompanied by a talented drummer like Jonathan Lee. But the music really builds the mood up to the entrance of Vicious Delicious whose comic timing is every bit the equal of her burlesque.

Also known as circuit standup Leah Shand, Ms. Delicious handles the audience brilliantly, and both her renditions of 'I'm Tired' from 'Blazing Saddles' and a wickedly funny version of 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' were excellent. What's all the more surprising is how well she also interprets the dancing and burlesque, this is a very classy act.

For both Vicious and her partner Bouncy Hunter, the choice of material is intelligent and hugely entertaining: 'Whatever Lola Wants' from 'Damn Yankees' works very well, and whilst Sondheim's 'Making Love Alone' is hilarious, I'd have preferred it taken at a more sultry pace, particularly before the rousing finale of 'Tool Man'.

The costumes and jewelery are lovely, the lighting flattering even to the audience, and the professionalism and confidence of the performers can't be understated.

Clever, funny, charming, friendly, elegant, sexy but not in the least bit sordid, this really is an outstanding evening delivered with charm, wit and polish.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Wanking in a Winter Wonderland

The Reindeer Monologues
written by : Jeff Goode
director : Matthew Lloyd Davies
venue : Above The Stag, London SW1
TPR rating : 2.5 stars

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening.
A beautiful sight, but there’s rape here tonight in Santa’s pervy wonderland …

At North Pole Central, a traumatized Rudolph beats his hooves softly against the walls of his padded cell, Cupid admits his masochistic taste for the whip and describes Santa’s grotesque penile tattoo, feminist Blitzen stages a walkout, kosher Dancer wants time off for Hannukah, ex-hell’s angel Comet finds salvation in St Nick and foxy Vixen explains how she has been taken from behind in the way only Santa knows how …

It’s a brilliant concept, but lamely developed in Jeff Goode‘s script which accuses Santa as a sadomasochistic freak with penchants for everything from bestial rape to child abuse, and his wife as an alcoholic nymphomaniac. One by one the eight reindeer fill in the details of the horrific violation which has led to strike action jeopardizing the Christmas sleigh run.

There are two ways to play this: out and out ‘Jerry Springer’ confessional where the reindeer are snow-white trash dishing the dirt on a monster and the characters exaggerated for comic effect, or here as in Matthew Lloyd Davies‘ flatly directed production where the monologues sound more like courtroom evidence.

Part of the problem is the material which doesn’t seem to have been updated: in 1995 it may have been smart and edgy to use the word ‘vagina’ repeatedly onstage, or to make nudgy jokes about rape and paedophilia, but with a slew of press reportage of everything from Michael Jackson to the Catholic Church, sexual abuse hasn’t exactly retained its rib-tickling appeal.

The structure of the reindeer team is interesting, as are the glimpses of how the Santa industry is run, but apart from revealing that the elves were formerly towel boys in an Irish brothel, there’s very little satire of the Christmas business.

The performances are enthusiastic and earnest: I liked James McGregor’s earthily Northern born-again Comet, and Heather Johnson’s plumply Bristolian Dancer coming dangerously close to the work of Matt Lucas whom she somewhat resembles. Domenico Listorti’s lisping queerdeer Cupid is the easy scene-stealer, but only because the others don’t play up nearly enough and their characters are less obviously drawn.

It’s an evening of missed opportunities: the crime scene is a bare room with three sets of antlers on the walls, the colourless lighting is appalling, there’s almost no music, and the costumes are cheap and dowdy. The audience knows the show’s intentionally funny, but the laughs are few and you can feel the actors straining for them as the monologues grow increasingly repetitive, building too slowly towards Vixen’s anticipated but obvious final testimony.

Sometimes, reindeer don’t know how to fly …

This review written for The Public Reviews

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Marx and Spencer

I think Jeremy Hardy’s show was very good. Every time I woke up, people seemed to be laughing.

That’s a slight exaggeration of course but despite the fact I’m a big Jeremy Hardy fan and try never to miss his appearances on radio, two and a half hours is a long set for any stand-up comedian, and Hardy doesn’t have the hyperactive stage presence of a Michael McIntyre or Lee Evans to keep the joint jumping. Nor as an observational comedian does he have a bottomless inventory of veteran jokes like Ken Dodd whose first notebook must date from Methuselah’s schooldays.

Indeed, in super-sedate Richmond-on-Thames “it’s really South London but you all probably think it’s still Surrey” and a house filled by his core audience of Men With Partings and Women in Husky Jackets, it’s surprising there wasn’t a little more light dozing going on.

It started well enough with topical remarks about Nick Clegg concealing his smoking habit from the children, and he tested the audience’s receptiveness to his foul-mouthed delivery as an alternative to his somewhat modulated Radio 4 appearances. They lapped it up, F-word C-word and all.

He struck at his usual political soft targets including Vince Cable “tasked with shafting the poor in their own accent” and a neat suggestion that after her demise, Tony Blair might bask in her reflected glory by lauding Lady Thatcher as “The People’s Pinochet”, but the newish Coalition team didn’t seem to provide the same range of hairy old coconuts as New Labour, and some of his balls fell short.

Hardy is the first to acknowledge he’s not a household name, and that his stature and Marks and Spencer beige dress sense are as far from celebrity ‘stage presence’ as you can get. When his material is sharp and topical, it doesn’t matter, but after the interval the Marxist political points were diluted and the anecdotes less ordered – several times he asked the audience ‘what was I talking about?’ and often between the several hundred of us we couldn’t come up with the answer.

Later still, he began to reminisce about his political activism and ramble about his Streatham-dwelling Waitrose-shopping domesticity, so it all felt a bit like Billy Bragg’s dad telling you the highlights of his Saga holiday.

Top priced tickets for the show were around £28, and Hardy’s subversism ran only to saying he thought this show was “worth about £14.75” but not encouraging the audience to storm the box office for refunds.

Mark Thomas would have done.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Sondheim's Airs On A Shoestring

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times pic shows what you could do with a bare stage, although not in Walthamstow

The friend I invited to come with me was vehement: "I ****ing HATE it … screw Follies, and screw Sondheim's pappy pastiche score too". That's the problem with 'Steve', he polarises even his devotees and this is one of his most divisive works, combining a banal and disjunctive book by James Goldman with some of Sondheim's best songs.

The 'book' pairs two retired musical stars, and their interchangeable husbands, with their four younger selves meeting in a condemned theatre - here Ye Olde Rose and Crown Walthamstow was particularly convincing - on the eve of its demolition. The songs explore their current and past relationships and reveal much of the bitter compromises made along the 'road you didn't take'. Oh, and someone has a nervous breakdown.

Unless you can afford to throw vast money and stardom at it as in the glossy revivals in London in 1987 led by Julia McKenzie and Diana Rigg, or the immaculate 2007 City Center concert in New York, it works best as a series of showstopping 'turns' for veteran performers to get a crack at fantastic cabaret solos and duets.

Unfortunately, in the Walthamstow production, these are poorly served: Ellen Verenieks' 'Broadway Baby' was crucified and neither 'Ah, Paris' nor 'Rain on the Roof' (admittedly a difficult number) fared any better. Among the principals there's a lot of popping neck veins and red faces as they strain to support their notes - Frank Loman as Ben carrying the heaviest workload but with limited variety in his performance.

Staging and choreography have two settings: clunk on and off atop a hollow wooden catwalk, or enter sideways in a showgirl glide. The high point of the evening was undoubtedly the tap number 'Who's That Woman' where all eight Follies 'girls' confront their younger selves, and an absolute gift to its lead soloist whether JoAnne Worley bringing the house down in New York, Lynda Baron falling out of her frock in London, or as here the magnetic Mahny Djahanguiri exhibiting genuine talent and confidence, as Stella.

Given her own chance to reveal an inner jazz baby in 'Jessie and Lucy', with stolid left and right hand signals, Julie Ross as Phyllis appeared to be directing the traffic on the nearby Tottenham road, and again threw away an opportunity with an underpowered 'Could I Leave You'. Maggie Robson as Sally had some pitching problems but showed real tenderness in both 'In Buddy's Eyes', arguably Sondheim's most genuinely sentimental song, and brought a convincing climax to 'Losing My Mind'.

It's fairly standard practice in fringe productions like this for the director to back up a van to the loading dock of Arts Educational Schools and fill it with all it can hold in the way of aspiring talent. But Follies requires eight vivacious actresses in their fifties or sixties so Tim McArthur's van must have done a double journey to the back door of Debenhams where surely they can't ALL have been demonstrating food mixers in the basement?

Fiona Russell's set and costume design showed ingenuity and caught the period feel, but crippled by the shoestring budget. Paring the orchestra down to four is fine for a chamber production but the entire score was played ploddingly from the book without any variation of tempo to suit the performers, and far too loud, given that the actors aren't miked. Pity too that they couldn't get a real piano up the stairs instead of the electronic keyboard.

For all its faults, 'Follies' is certainly overdue a revival. In fact, I've had an idea - why not re-cast it with the quartet of 'kids' who played the 'young' parts in 1987 at the Shaftesbury Theatre now playing their adult roles? Why? Because in 1987, Young Sally and Young Phyllis were played by Sally Ann Triplett and Jenna Russell.

Now THAT I'd pay to see.

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Friday, 22 October 2010

Hens in the skirting board

In the Victoria Wood 'shoe-shop' sketch, Julie Walters apologises for the haphazard service by telling her customer 'we think we've got hens in the skirting board'. It has the pattern of normal speech, but is patently absurd. The roots of this sort of comedy, in a long line from Monty Python to The Mighty Boosh stem directly from the absurdist writings of 'A Resounding Tinkle' author N.F. Simpson.

The trouble is that in the fifty years since he wrote it, audiences have been exposed to so much more of the same thing in sketch shows and stand-up routines that the original now seems rather less shiny.

Simpson's plays work best when they are delivered with as much naturalism, in set, costumes and acting as possible and you may feel shortchanged in Kim Moakes' production with a mere suggestion of the domestic surroundings of Bro and Middie Paradock. Ben Higgins and Lizzy Mace make a convincing married couple even though their performances may come from observation rather than experience: Simpson was satirizing their middle-class preoccupations rather than middle age, the original actors were also in their 20's.

Mace is best when she steps out of Middie's flatly argumentative character to quiz the audience directly as a white-coated researcher in technical theatre, and this and another couple of short bursts of comedy featuring Alex Morgan and Hayley Richardson as the live 'home entertainment' the Paradocks prefer to the radio are what lift the level of the performance, perhaps because the sketch-like structure and pointed delivery have become more familiar to contemporary theatregoers.

There are two versions of this play: a one-acter compressed into fifty minutes and this full-length extension. In the superfluous second half, the actors become four critics assessing the merits of the play in random accents and drawn-out conversations which undermine the naturalistic dialogue and emphasise how slowly the time seems to pass.

In his ex-pat life in Spain, N.F. is known to his friends as 'Wally Simpson' in homonymic reference to the Duchess of Windsor. This in itself is funnier than the whole of the current production.

This review originally written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Really dirty kitchen sink drama

Clenching your cheeks to maintain equilibrium on a collapsible chair in the teeniest of London's fringe venues, it's not hard to believe you're a visitor to the abject little flat occupied by washed up opera singer John McLachlan in 'Bright Is The Ring Of Words' at Wilton's. After all, we are perched on the grottier edge of Limehouse and walking home in the moonlight I wondered how many similar unwanted and unloved pensioners were stacked in the tenements of Tower Hamlets I passed on the way to the station.

The opening banter follows a familiar pattern between the elderly and defiantly unwashed and the fussily dutiful carer who despairs at the filth and the adandonment of standards. So far so 'Steptoe and Son' except that John Garfield-Roberts plays Stanley as a mumsy recidivist whose combination of Lancastrian homilies derived from his beloved 'Nan' and occasional eruptions of violent anger are both wholly credible and endlessly watchable.

Jeffrey Mayhew never shies away from the actualities of his character's complete abandonment of personal standards. Retching and drooling and occasionally immobilized in a helpless contortion of pain and exhaustion, he engages the audience's curiosity and sympathy but spiked with an intellectual acerbity that keeps it mercifully free from pathos.

Although there are some great lines, and the comic moments are well-delivered, it's the authenticity of the central performances that holds your attention, and both the struggle over the alcoholic's grasp on the vodka bottle and the final catastrophe seemed entirely real to me.

This review written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Brilliant 'Bells'

When you examine the 1956 credentials of Bells Are Ringing: book by Comden and Green, score by Jule Styne near the top of his game three years before his impeccable ‘Gypsy’, originally directed by Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Fosse, and whose kooky comedienne star Judy Holliday beat Ethel Merman and Julie Andrews to the Best Actress Tony award, you wonder why on earth it hasn’t been revived much till now.

The jolly, silly plot revolves around phone operator Ella Petersen who can’t help helping her disembodied clients with advice and support, falling in love with a stalled playwright, and at the same time exposing an underworld gang which is exploiting the answering service for illegal gambling. On its slender back, however, director Paul Foster and the talented cast build a series of slick production numbers and a truly engaging romance.

Best of all, in the Judy Holliday role, is the outstanding Anna-Jane Casey. In a red-tinted crop she seems to have absorbed all Carol Burnett’s comedy skills along with the hairstyle and captures the audience’s affection from the get-go such that you’re willing her to get out there and get her man. Her singing is impeccable, too, from the wistful ‘Perfect Relationship’ and powerful ‘I’m Going Back’ to a version of ‘The Party’s Over’ that's so tremulous it could be David Milliband's theme song.

This is a strong dance show for which the Union has cleared its stage to the maximum width and, as so often in fringe venues the choreography’s cleverer and more powerful than in the West End – here in the inventive hands of Alistair David - or perhaps proximity exaggerates it as when 15-year-old Sasi Strallen’s high kicks threaten to take your eye out. The combination of acrobatics and half-staggering dance moves in the drunken party scene exhibits rare technical brilliance.

The ensemble work terrifically hard doubling and trebling roles as well as keeping the scene changes moving briskly and whilst they are typically too young for the parts they’re playing, and some of the cameos are slightly more Arts Ed than West End, it’s worth mentioning Bob Harms, Tama Phethean and particularly Marc Antolin as names to watch. Prompted by a distant memory of his unusual surname, I Googled Tama Phethean and it turns out I went to University with his aunt Ellen and directed her in Coward's 'Hay Fever' in 1973.

As Ella’s love interest, Gary Milner brings tremendous energy to the role of the lazy writer and bravely defers his character’s warmth to the last moment possible, making for a far more credible romance when it happens. Corinna Powlesland, excellent as Sue the spinsterish owner of the answering service, looks disturbingly like Princess Margaret but dying to burst into song and dance given the slightest encouragement, even watching her move a table whilst her feet ache to cha-cha is wonderful.

It’s a small theatre, and some performances are already sold out, so book now. Even if it transfers to the West End which is highly likely, you’ll kick yourself if you missed it in all its charming intimacy at the Union.

Limp Dicks in Hollywood Shtick

Adam Blake and Sid Phoenix in the Courtyard Studio production

With an overlapping plot told partly in flashback, about an ex-Hollywood actor with a 1949 gay past and an unmarriageable son who has acquired an East German mail order bride in about 1989, the first-act setup of 'Secret Boulevard' takes a while. Long enough, in fact to count the polystyrene tiles on the low-slung ceiling of the Courtyard Theatre's studio and reflect how inadequately they protect you from the ruckus of Marat/Sade in the main house where the inmates of the asylum of Charenton sounded to be having more fun.

Dylan Costello's play has the germ of a good idea. His heroes are two closeted gay actors, loosely based perhaps on Lon McCallister, who gave up movies aged 30 after a gay affair, and Rory Calhoun whose career was thrown to the wolves when Rock Hudson's notorious agent Henry Willson revealed his secrets to 'Confidential' magazine to prevent them printing an expose of Hudson's own private life.

Using identifiable named characters like these could have made for a more interesting play, as the ones in Secret Boulevard are somewhat two-dimensional to care about. Sid Phoenix as the ingenue from England is a bright actor worthy of better material. The women are ciphers, Anna Sambrooks is the most convincing as a Monroe-breathy but by no means dumb blonde: her character complains she's not given parts with enough depth and emotional range, and it's equally true for this production which sometimes feels like the book of a musical denuded of its songs.

Two-dimensionality is reinforced by Ilaria D'intinosante's low-budget set which captures none of the glamour of the MGM era and has entrances wedged so tightly against the back wall that the actors enter sideways. Coupled with their difficulties with props, particularly handling the copious smoking, it looks beyond awkward.

The piece picks up in the second half and there are flashes of comedy and the potential for considerable improvement in a rewrite. Talking of flashes, there's full-frontal nudity, but it's surprisingly unerotic and the flaccidity is symptomatic of the whole evening.

Rory Calhoun on whom the story may be based

This review originally written for www.remotegoat.co.uk

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

World Famous in Australia

Going to a one-woman show with a big West End diva. Caroline O’Connor. Who? You know, she’s British but very big in Australia, was in the Sondheim Prom and played the taxi driver in ‘On The Town’ at the Coliseum … judging by Tuesday’s audience it was the most gay, geeky or Australian show-tune fanciers who had beaten a path to Ms. O’Connor’s discounted Garrick door.

We even found one who’d paid to get in.

Which is a pity, because she’s bloody good at what she does. And for those of us who share an allergic reaction to the strain of Strallens currently running through the West End like a norovirus, here’s antidotal relief in a musical star that isn’t a shrill leggy blonde with hyperextended stage-school technique.

Neither a narrative production nor a simple cabaret act, the show incorporates anecdotes - the muezzin’s interruption of Chicago in the Lebanon being one of the best - brilliant spoof movie clips, and medleys from several productions as well as well-sung belted standards like ‘Zing Went The Strings of My Heart’, ‘And the Beat Goes On’ and a lovely affectionate version of ‘I Move On’ from the film version of Chicago.

If you compare their performances as Cassie in A Chorus Line or Chicago’s Velma Kelly, Ann Reinking may be more balletic or Ute Lemper more memorably Weimar, but no-one else better captures the characters’ raw-veined desperation - as O’Connor herself puts it - like a cat falling down the wall, clawing to hang on.

But like everything else in this show, she captures it loudly.

If there’s a fault in the otherwise ravishing orchestrations, it’s that they indulge her capacity for arm-raising crescendo once, or possibly ten times, too often. By the middle of the second half, this feels like a two-hour audition as she gives us her Piaf, Judy, Liza, Into-the-Woods Witch and Merman. Setting aside the fact that by the time Piaf was Ms. O’Connor’s age she was dead, this is possibly one diva too far.

There’s a seven-piece band which would be an entertaining act in itself, led by MD Daniel Edmonds whose Rachmaninov variations on Roxanne were the hit of the night - and the production is richly glossed by Andrew Wright’s inventive choreography, ranging from Fosse hommage to unashamed 42nd Street hoofing and delivered with great charm by the young quartet of Cole Kitchenn protégées.

If it's an audition, it may work: rumour says that there's a West End revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman on its way, and Ms O'Connor is ideal for Aurora.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bazaar Experience

If you’re the kind of theatregoer who likes to arrive ten minutes before curtain, settle into a red plush seat with a box of Black Magic and a programme, this is not the show for you. Or maybe it should be.

There’s been a tidal spate of ‘site specific’ theatre experience in London recently, from Punchdrunk’s Banksy-inspired underworld in the dripping tunnels beneath Waterloo Station to the Menier’s current ‘Accomplice’ in which 10-strong random groups of audience roam the streets round Borough Market chasing cryptic clues and gangland characters until – some of them – solve the puzzle and make it back to base.

Now enterprising collective Theatre Delicatessen has transformed its temporary offices – in the former Uzbekistan Airways building behind Selfridges – into a popup theatrical marketplace with at least a dozen shows, cabarets, and one-on-one experiences in its corridors, meeting rooms, basements and even toilets.

Predicated on ‘the value of money’ the deal is a £7 entrance fee gets you in to the building but you must barter with the performers touting for business in the hallways to gain entrance to their shows, mostly by small independent theatre companies like Straight Out Of Line and Curving Road, typically £1 or £2 is all that’s needed so even if you saw and did everything it’s coming out less than a ticket for The Mousetrap. The bars are also insanely sanely priced compared to captive-audience West End theatres.

Even though most events run five to twenty minutes, you probably couldn’t sample everything but there’s a huge range from a cleverly realistic suite of mirror-image hotel rooms on the top floor for a piece in which a chambermaid, or possibly two, wrings her hands over the corpse of a customer. There’s a casino in which your stake at the roulette table dictates how the next scenes are acted, and whilst a lot of the material is clearly improvised, there’s a genuine attempt to move beyond ‘acting by numbers’ and to present evolved and three-dimensional characterisations.

Sometimes this works, for example in a three-handed about disillusioned employees set in an office purporting to be that of the marketing manager of Uzbekistan Airlines in which plans for the Tashkent-Frankfurt-JFK route are chalked on a blackboard on the office wall. For me this was startlingly realistic - not least because for eighteen bizarre months in the mid-90s I was actually design director of Tashkent Airport working on a renovation scheme with British Aerospace. The space reminded me of one we found in the old terminal labelled ‘Flight Simulator’ which was a classroom of old school chairs and on the wall a fold-out double-page photo spread from something like the Big Boys’ Book of Aircraft with the cockpit instruments of a Boeing 767, for instruction of putative pilots.

I enjoyed the one-on-one experiences best, mainly for their unpredictability, for example a clever fortune telling booth, with a twist, by Barometric Theatre, or the bizarre opportunity to pluck, wax, shave or tweezer a hirsute male model in private, and Keiko Sumida’s gentle shrink session in which your ambition for the next ten years of your life can be safely explored.

The atmosphere’s excellent, and the audience as interactive as the performers – when a young man rushed along the corridor panting ‘I’m looking for the autopsy’ you’re unsure if he’s cast or customer. And without giving anything away, the most thrilling of the pieces starts with Catherine Cusack falling four flights down a staircase, without a body double …

In many ways it’s like a vertical slice of Edinburgh Festival handily shrinkwrapped into one convenient building just off Oxford Street.

Perhaps because it’s an old and unmaintained building there are a lot of health and safety precautions which means the stage management of the whole event is a bit obvious, and whilst you’re encouraged to open every door in finding your way around, some of them are just bundles of actors taking downtime, although at least one is a bundle of actors pretending to be off duty. Or was it? Still, with a couple of bars and a cabaret space, there’s plenty of opportunity for downtime of your own.

Very worthwhile. Without being selfconsciously ‘worthy’.

This review written for The Public Reviews


I'm quite chuffed to be quoted on the theatre company's own website - think this is the first time it's happened for me.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Stopping By Woods

As a child, I was fascinated by the story that Princess Elizabeth had been informed of the King’s death at the exclusive ‘Treetops’ game lodge in the Aberdares national park of Kenya. Forty years later, when I could finally afford to experience it for myself, it turned out to be an arthritically creaking wooden assembly on stilts facing a rain-sodden pit of mulched foliage to which, at sunset, drifted a random collection of forest-floor wildlife.

Soutra Gilmour’s rickety stick-ety four tier set evokes the same image as the cast creeps out of the undergrowth to launch Into the Woods in a blindingly obvious setting that has somehow taken the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre twenty years to realise but in Timothy Sheader’s brilliantly detailed production comes close to a perfect match.

The folklore’s as complex and tangled as the branches overhanging the stage: half a dozen Perrault or Grimm fairytales are Magimixed with an original story about a childless baker and his wife, cursed by a witch and ultimately redeemed in a messily-written second act with a crude motif about everyone needing other people, outing Sondheim as the mawkishly sentimental sap he really is.

The fine cast, strong singing and excellent orchestrations under the enthusiastic baton of Gareth Valentine drive the show, but on a long wet evening you’re uncomfortably aware that Sondheim threw one too many plots into the mix, and that despite the intriguing cadences, too few of the musical snatches mutate into actual songs.

In such a polynuclear script, there are some brilliant turns: Hannah Waddingham first and foremost as possibly the best Witch yet seen in the role: enjoying the crippled disfigurement and working it like Anthony Sher’s three-legged Richard III, then transformed into a page-boy-bobbed vamp disturbingly reminiscent of Fenella Fielding in ‘Carry On Screaming’, but singing throughout with such clarity and distinction it’s like hearing the material for the first time: ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Children Will Listen’ both quite outstanding.

Not far behind come Jenna Russell, one of the cleverest Sondheim interpreters as she showed in the recent Sondheim Prom at the Albert Hall, as a sardonic and abrasive Baker’s Wife, and Helen Dallimore equally brilliant as an unconventionally tetchy Cinderella with consummate phrasing in ‘On the Steps of the Palace’. It’s harder to warm to Beverley Rudd‘s scene-stealing chavvy Red Riding Hood since she seems directly derived from Suzanne Toase’s clever characterization in the 2007 ROH/Linbury production.

Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas make a pair of preeningly self-absorbed princes, complete with drainpipe leggings and Russell Brand hairpieces, Xavier particularly strong in partnership with Jenna Russell in ‘Any Moment’. It’s also refreshing to see the minor role of Jack’s Mother played by someone who is both an experienced comedienne and a fine singer, Marilyn Cutts (from Fascinating Aida) appropriately wearing a carpenter’s tool belt and nailing this part totally.

In such an exposed setting, you wonder how they’ll ‘manage’ the magic – a beanstalk must appear, a wolf devour a grandmother, a giant tramples the world underfoot and there’s a transformation scene as challenging as any pantomime … suffice it to say that this is where the director and designer’s ingenuity come into their own, and all the devices – particularly the appearances of the giant voiced by Judi Dench in what you could call ‘Dame Ex Machina’, are cracking.

Murder Will Out

Ed Fringe 2010: Girl, Constantly F*****g Interrupted
Writer/performer: Celia Peachey
Director: Tim Stubbs Hughes
The Public Reviews Rating: 2 stars

Great title, rubbish play.

I was about to launch into a diatribe against this piece – a sketchy, tentative overlong rummage around the physical and mental attic of the solo character Faith’s brain as she retreats from her murdered mother’s funeral to debate her mental state with the voices in her head. It sounds far-fetched, the voices aren’t well differentiated and it feels rather like an extended audition for accents and characterisations, but not good ones.

But journalistic ‘research’ sometimes leads you up a strange path and I came across the blog and website of the uncredited author and performer, Celia Peachey

Turns out the whole thing is true: her mother was indeed murdered – strangled with a dog-lead by her former lover who was himself a previously convicted killer, and her body hidden in a toilet. Here's the news item. Peachey is going through an angry and uncomfortable postrationalisation in a shroud of psychobabble about ‘the universe’ as well as battling alleged maladministration in the Essex Police, and her own recent grief.

So the faults are really in the marketing – if this weren’t scheduled as a comedy (it isn’t) but as a theatre piece, and if preferably the character(s) were played by someone other than Peachey herself, it might fare much better as a scarily well-informed drama about bereavement, mental imbalance and shock. Maybe bring it back to Edinburgh next year in a fresh treatment, and populate it with more of the living/deceased characters?

Meanwhile, I’d suggest a pre-performance voice-over to identify that this is a true story, as experienced by the actress because that’s not apparent from the performance.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

No Shoes Company? No Stars Review ...

A million years B.C., when I was a first-year drama student, we were encouraged to tit about with improvisation and gradually take, from the frankly ludicrous scenarios and inane characterisations we invented every wet Friday afternoon of the Autumn term, some semblance of a skill set which could be useful in actual acting performance, if any of us made it into the profession which at the last count only two of us did. And one of those gave it up after three weeks.

What we didn't do was invite paying customers to observe the painful process, which is the first mistake perpetrated by the No Shoes Theatre Company in its mostly execrable 'Improvised Musical' which shows its shameful face at 6.30pm nightly in C Venues in Chambers Street.

The press release says the 'energetic company' has worked on productions of 'Sweet Charity', Jason Robert Brown's 'Songs for a New World' and 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change'. Clearly they learned nothing from this collective experience, since not one of them can put together a coherent melody line or a quatrain of lyrics without dead air pauses, mugging at his fellow cast members and the audience, or dissolving into self-indulgent giggles.

We might have struck them on a bad night. Somebody should.

They invite the audience to propose a title, a theme song, and a location for the show. Our audience chose the location as a Job Centre, on the grounds that it would be good preparation for them, and despite it being a situation which would be largely familiar to most of the population, these actors couldn't posit a plot, or realistic characters, or a song which had any site-specific relevance or commentary. Their lack of imagination was breathtakingly poor and they conspicuously failed to bring the plot to any kind of resolution in the painful hour during which they kicked it around like a dead rat in a midden.

They are hampered by a 'band' comprising keyboard, drums and something which scarcely made an impact, which has a collection of vamps-till-ready so interchangeable and anodyne that there's no possibility of anyone launching into a recognisable 'musical theatre' genre.

The only countervailing comment is that you might admire their tenacity in persevering with a production which so frequently defies their own abilities. They aver that this is part of the 'experience' of the piece, and that there's validity in the activity even on nights when it all falls apart. As an exercise in gestalt therapy for embryo actors, you could agree. But not for paying customers.

The ineptitude is spectacular. And if I see any quotation which says 'spectacular - The Public Reviews' I shall be back to Edinburgh to slap each and every one of them individually.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Brass Polish

Not having had previous exposure to this group, I spotted one of the lederhosen-clad soloists in the bar before the performance. ‘What part of Bavaria are you from?’ I asked in all innocence. ‘Fulham’, he replied.

Part of the wise and worthy ‘Five Pound Fringe’, Oompah Brass’s “A to Z of Oompah” can be found in the GRV venue, on the back steps behind C Venues in Chambers Street.

It’s a gem.

Two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn and a tuba form a band not know for its lullaby potential, indeed their proud boast is that people in the front two rows may regret sitting so close. But there’s plenty of subtlety in their musical arrangements and in the virtuosity of each member: it’s extremely hard to coax high clear and sharp notes from a trumpet, or to make a tuba play the lead line of a complicated melody, but these guys (and one girl) just laugh it off.

Apart from ‘Do you play the Trumpet Voluntary?’ ‘No, only for money.’ there’s scarcely a corny pun or old musical joke not explored in the commentary between the songs, but it’s delivered with such natural charm by Oompah founder Nathan Gash and particularly by the handsome trombonist Patrick Johns who had all the ladies in the audience, and a couple of curious men, swooning when he shoved the bell end of his instrument in their faces.

In their random alphabet, they cover everything from Bach to Megadeath but the focus is on recognizable rock and pop thrashers they can serve up with a Bavarian twist.

They’re all music teachers, but performers at heart since the energy and enthusiasm of the show is infectious, you just want to join in – and at the end, in ‘the greatest pop song ever written’ you get your chance in their brilliant climax. Just make sure you know ALL the words to Bohemian Rhapsody.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Rea Window

There’s a plethora and a half of one-woman shows at the Edinburgh Fringe where the material spills from the uncoordinated ramblings of an early-disappointed or pre-menopausal harpy at the microphone. ‘Look at my awful life’ they rant ‘and feel better about your own’.

In 'Pension Plan' at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, the oddly spelled but also oddly engaging Leisa Rea cherrypicks some of this theme but the structure’s markedly different from the other vaginal monologues on the fringe. Her set celebrates the undeniable but rarely-accepted truth that not everyone can be a Winner, and it’s OK to lose sometimes, because therein may lie the key to your sanity.

There’s some lovely home-baked interactive TV, including on-screen graphics that hark back to the ‘Vision On’ deaf children’s programme in their unabashed clumsiness, and an ‘outside broadcast’ clearly from outside Rea’s back door by ‘the biscuit-eyed lady’ that binds you to her in sisterly affiliation and mutual love for sandwich creams. She makes origami birds out of her medical diagnoses and rejection letters, and in a combination of courage and confectionery encourages the audience to eat a biscuit she’s baked in the shape of a foetus.

Like a lot of self-written and self-staged work at the Fringe, Rea could benefit from an ‘act doctor’ to sharpen the focus and presentation of the material. But the content’s her own, and all the better for it.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

No Shoes Company? No Stars Review ...

A million years B.C., when I was a first-year drama student, we were encouraged to tit about with improvisation and gradually take, from the frankly ludicrous scenarios and inane characterisations we invented every wet Friday afternoon of the Autumn term, some semblance of a skill set which could be useful in actual acting performance, if any of us made it into the profession which at the last count only two of us did. And one of those gave it up after three weeks.

What we didn't do was invite paying customers to observe the painful process, which is the first mistake perpetrated by the No Shoes Theatre Company in its mostly execrable 'Improvised Musical' which shows its shameful face at 6.30pm nightly in C Venues in Chambers Street.

The press release says the 'energetic company' has worked on productions of 'Sweet Charity', Jason Robert Brown's 'Songs for a New World' and 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change'. Clearly they learned nothing from this collective experience, since not one of them can put together a coherent melody line or a quatrain of lyrics without dead air pauses, mugging at his fellow cast members and the audience, or dissolving into self-indulgent giggles.

We might have struck them on a bad night. Somebody should.

They invite the audience to propose a title, a theme song, and a location for the show. Our audience chose the location as a Job Centre, on the grounds that it would be good preparation for them, and despite it being a situation which would be largely familiar to most of the population, these actors couldn't posit a plot, or realistic characters, or a song which had any site-specific relevance or commentary. Their lack of imagination was breathtakingly poor and they conspicuously failed to bring the plot to any kind of resolution in the painful hour during which they kicked it around like a dead rat in a midden.

They are hampered by a 'band' comprising keyboard, drums and something which scarcely made an impact, which has a collection of vamps-till-ready so interchangeable and anodyne that there's no possibility of anyone launching into a recognisable 'musical theatre' genre.

The only countervailing comment is that you might admire their tenacity in persevering with a production which so frequently defies their own abilities. They aver that this is part of the 'experience' of the piece, and that there's validity in the activity even on nights when it all falls apart. As an exercise in gestalt therapy for embryo actors, you could agree. But not for paying customers.

The ineptitude is spectacular. And if I see any quotation which says 'spectacular - The Public Reviews' I shall be back to Edinburgh to slap each and every one of them individually.

written for THE PUBLIC REVIEWS www.thepublicreviews.com

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Bargain Bucket of Sondheim


This is not the best week to put on an intimate Sondheim revue.

Overshadowed by the glorious Sondheim Prom at the Albert Hall, by Maria Friedman’s all-Sondheim set at Cadogan Hall and the reputedly outstanding Into The Woods just beginning at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Throw in the fact that acts in the Camden Fringe have minimal preparation and stage time before strutting their fretful hour in the Roundhouse Studio and the cast of Sondheim by Sondheim more than have their work cut out.

And yet - the Tuesday audience was more than receptive, and for many it was an inexpensive opportunity to hear some of Stephen Sondheim’s less well-known material culled from rarely performed shows like Passion, Evening Primrose, Anyone Can Whistle and Marry Me A Little.

All the performers are ‘actors who can sing’ and the three men do much better than the eight women, particularly Peter Kenworthy, recently excellent as Dexter Haven in High Society at the Gatehouse, although even he has trouble with the top notes in ‘Being Alive’, and the very strong and elegant voice of Michael Stacey who rather outshone his partner in the duet ‘It Takes Two’.

Many of the pieces are performed as an ensemble, including an opening ‘Weekend In The Country’ from A Little Night Music which showed up the cast’s nervousness and felt more under-rehearsed than even the hasty staging of a fringe festival should allow. The later ‘The Sun Won’t Set’ from the same show, and the closing ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park were much stronger and hinted at improvements to be expected later in the week.

Musical Director Aaron Clingham is at the keyboard and unfortunately the balance of voices and accompaniment is uneven, as is the cueing in the ensemble pieces when the cast would benefit from being able to see a conductor.

Sondheim material always works best in its original context, and the same company is mounting one of his best, Follies, long due a London revival, at Ye Old Rose and Crown Theatre from 21 October to 13 November. May even be worth the trek to Walthamstow.

written for www.Londonist.com

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Speaking in Tongues

'Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome' ... well strictly that's 'A Chorus Line' but it could apply to almost any show in the airless attic that is the Finborough Theatre and particularly to Charlotte Randle's shouty performance as an English teacher in 'Lingua Franca'.

I'm sure she's a subtle and sensitive actress, but veteran Peter Nichols' new play doesn't give her free rein to express it as he confines all his characters trapped in a Florentine language school in the 50's to one-dimensional stereotypes: particularly Rula Lenska visibly straining to add a sophistication and depth to her flatly-written Russian emigre countess, Abigail McKern's hard-workingly crude but ultimately uncomical Aussie lesbian, and perhaps most wasted Natalie Walter as a Nazi-sympathising Mädchen just two telephone plaits short of Helga from 'Allo 'Allo.

What saves the production from the scrapheap is the two semi-autobiographical characterisations: Ian Gelder as an ageing monolingual aesthete who turns to sculpture as a substitute for sex, and Chris New playing Steven Flowers now transplanted from soldiering in Malaya in 'Privates on Parade' and with a burgeoning socialist conscience fighting a complicated provincial diffidence.

It's as if Nichols is interested only in developing these two characters as projections of his own self, and that the others are disposable caricatures. It's how all self-centred people see the world and consistent with Benedict Nightingale's review of Nichols' 2000 autobiography in which he found the writer 'touchy, crusty' and 'disappointed with himself'. Gelder has the best material and gives a careful and considered performance, highlighting the fact this intelligent actor is sadly underused.

Apart from one bizarre scene in which the Italian school manager puts his head up the skirt of the German girl in a realistic display of what you could call cunnilingua franca, the play is terribly static, imprisoned in one room of the language school with only scruffy louvres hinting at windows in the low-budget set, although Will Jackson's sound brings cicadas, street noise and music to colour the space, and James Smith's lighting design occasionally projects Florence in all her glory across the blind windows.

Every teacher's entrance seems to be marked by a rummage in bag or briefcase, the extraction of a book or journal which is never read or used, and its careful replacement or repositioning for use by another actor. There are too many monologues and limited interaction since they are such ciphers, so the emotional climax when two women vie for Flowers' attention is unrealistic, and when the German gets stabbed in the eye the quickly-produced eyepatch just begs for her to sit astride a chair and sing Marlene's back catalogue.

What makes it all worth the effort, though, is the opportunity to see at close hand the work of Chris New. Since graduating from RADA in 2006 he has been the most perfect foil of 'Horst' to Alan Cumming's 'Max' in the Daniel Sherman production of 'Bent' before taking a storming lead himself as Joe Orton in 'Prick Up Your Ears'.

As Flowers, he is the ideal suburban Everyman of Nichols' imagination, combining pathos, humour and inner confliction in a performance of subtlety and understanding which makes the audience impatient for his next entrance. In his vocal delivery, he could be the new Leonard Rossiter and I suspect his comic potential has only slightly been tested to date. He has a very confident singing voice, too, which suggests an option to revive Privates.

He's clearly got a sense of humour because he tweeted the excerpt from Billington's Guardian review which referred to 'the sexiest seduction scene on the West End stage' with "Crow, Crow! ... who says gays cant pull off being straight!??"

Perhaps Lingua Franca would work better as a musical comedy, it's not so great as a, er, straight play.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Warsaw Disconcerto

I'm back from Europride in Warsaw. In one piece, but with mixed and fractured feelings.

In short, I led a group of 125 members of the London Gay Men's Chorus to Poland to sing in the concert hall Joseph Stalin had given to the People of Warsaw (despite the fact they voted for an Underground railway) and to march in the Pride parade in which some of us were assaulted in the name of freedom. By turns, I've felt proud, angry, frightened, relieved, and ashamed.

I've also felt indigestion from the mammoth meals we arranged including one gargantuan pork-fest at which I calculated fifteen pigs gave their lives, or at least their knuckles, in the name of homosexual satiety, and at which for the first time ever the LGMC was defeated by the quantities of available food.

Idly Googling the subject of satiation, I find there is a 'Satiety Index' invented by a researcher with my surname at the University of Sydney. According to Mendosa.com "Holt's tool" is "what really satisfies" and "tells you when you're full".

I couldn't have put it better myself.


We flew, it feels a long time ago, and the first day passed in a whirl of e-tickets and counting heads and room keys and on-board gin and tonic. My BA flight had about half our singers on board and not only did it run out of gin, the crew had to raid the bar carts reserved for the return flight, and those ran out of gin too. Thanks to airmiles for upgrades, I'm not hugely familiar with economy class and thought the free alcohol only partly made up for the disgusting pre-digested chicken sandwich which was the only food offered for a two and a half hour flight.

We landed in something like 35 degrees, and the plane doors opened to a wall of torrid heat. I've felt cooler in Singapore.

In the evening, though, we bussed to the amazing restaurant 'Kompania Piwna' in the old town of Warsaw. Coaches can't go right into the centre so we had a lovely stroll through the picturesque squares, to what was essentially a pissup in a very attractive and hospitable brewery.

First courses of salads, pickles, pates and sausages were on the tables and we literally fell on them after a long day thinking perhaps this was a substantial part of our meal. No need, because after a soup course it then started to rain meat.

Delicious, meltingly tender spare ribs in smoky glaze were followed by duck, chickens, peirogi - the curious half-moon dumplings filled with minced meat or with cheese, then fish (dressed in bacon, just in case you thought it might be lighter pork-free option), and huge inverted chandeliers of deep golden crackling.

When the waitress shoved aside dishes of potatoes, sauerkraut and red cabbage to make way for the wooden trencher of massive pork knuckle at my end of the table, I thought she might bring two for the twelve of us.


She brought six.

Now I have seen the LGMC hoover its way through a finger buffet like locusts in a wheatfield, but not even they could cope. A few die-hards gave up eating in favour of more beer, in 1.5 litre steins, and only the hardiest 20 made it through to the strudel. Nobody stayed for coffee.

I've just checked my credit card. The bill for 92 of us was £1962.33 - including two hundred and sixty beers.


My best day. The tour of the Communist parts of Warsaw I'd organised in vintage vehicles was a big hit with all who took it - as well as his little yellow Soviet-era minivan, Rafal Patla had chartered an old school bus for us from the museum and although it felt occasionally like a metal sauna, when it was moving there was a breeze through the open windows and we trundled around Constitution Square, in and out of social housing blocks, and over the river into the still-unrenovated Praga district where in a funky pub and watched from upstairs windows by bemused Polish proletariat, we consumed vodka, pickle, sausage and jellied chicken before singing slightly raggedly in the street.

I loved the contrasts in the architecture, and even felt that the clean lines and 'heroic' Socialist-realist statuary on the buildings had its own kind of beauty which is still not dated, and the proportions of 7 story facades flanking wide streets reminded me of Rome. We stopped by the Palace of Culture where the concert would be held later, and although despised by Poles because of its association with Stalin, it's a great composition by Lev Rudnev the architect of my favourite building in Moscow, Lomonosov University.

Not many people know it was partly inspired by the Royal Liver Building in Liverpool.

Quite a lot of the boys were as much captivated by Rafal as with his itinerary. It was hard to break to them that the beautiful female guide for our walking tours was his lovely girlfriend Marta.

We also walked through the one street preserved from the Warsaw Ghetto and I was surprised how affecting I found it. The buildings seem decayed on the outside, with large-scale sepia photo banners showing faces of the typical families who once lived there, but nowadays the apartments are expensive and occupied by wealthy Varsovians. However, one of my contacts - the otherwise helpful Marcin Pienczuk from Mazurkas Travel who organised our airport transfers - later said to me somewhat sneeringly that 'only the Jews can find the money for these apartments' in a shocking indication that such prejudice still exists in modern Polish society.

Lunch, and an air-conditioned rest before going to help Front-of-House for the concert. I couldn't sing in it because I'd been trapped in the US by the volcanic ash cloud and missed too many rehearsal to catch up with the repertoire, but I was hugely proud of the boys. In many ways this concert showed up the musical arrangements, and the quality of the singing better than we had in the Roundhouse where the 20-piece band drowned some of the subtleties.

There were five standing ovations, and I was first on my feet for most of them. Afterwards, we almost could not put the CDs into people's outstretched hands and take their money quickly enough. I've never seen them go so fast.

We then walked to yet another meaty dinner, although this time I had perhaps foolishly delegated the organising to Polish friends of one of our second tenors and it was a bit of a disaster. Although seated in a cool cellar of refectory tables, the kitchen simply couldn't cope with dinner for 80, the staff varied between bored and hostile, and despite the fact we waited nearly two hours for our main course, there wasn't enough food to go round.

If they'd just kept us supplied with drinks it might have been more bearable, but clearly 'something was up' as when I went into the kitchen I found the waiters screaming and gesticulating at the cooks, so it certainly wasn't a happy ship.

Such was the level of bonhomie in the Chorus, whilst people were disappointed with the food and service, they treated it largely as a joke and I'm very grateful to Mike and Bob who poured expensive red wine down my throat until three in the morning to help me get over the stress.


Because of the problem with last night's restaurant, I ditched my own sightseeing plans this morning and went to check out the second restaurant recommended by those Polish 'friends'. When I got there, 'Green Patio' had no idea about our booking, certainly weren't prepared, had no English-speaking staff and the formica-topped tables and fluorescent lighting confirmed my impression that it was actually a juice bar - with a sideline in bicycle hire - rather than the sort of place the LGMC would enjoy spending its Saturday evening.

I cancelled and hastily rebooked for '99' an excellent place with modern fusion cooking close to the hotel.

And so to Pride.

Because he doesn't walk so well, Feroze and I took a taxi to the meeting point in Bank Square, and had a quick (soft) drink before joining the rest of the choir on the march. We had just walked out into the crossroads at the starting point when I saw riot police running to support their colleagues just across the road from us. They were holding back a shouting mob of all-male all-young(ish) skinheads, and we instinctively veered away.

As we were heading for the opposite pavement, I saw another group who had been holding large placards with 'pro-peace' and 'pro-equality' messages carefully peel off the posters to reveal anti-gay slogans beneath. Then the eggs started flying, about forty of them over our heads, one glancing off my shoulder to break on the tarmac. Feroze shouted 'whatever happens, let's not lose each other' and we hustled between one of the floats and a police car until the noise, and the eggs, subsided. There was an explosion of firecrackers and I was suddenly nervous.

In that moment, I thought 'you know who your friends are'. I also learned something about myself. I was angry but not fearful for my own safety and if I could have commandeered a stick or a baton I would have thrown myself at a bunch of fascist skinheads to save my disabled mate.

I know, I'm not even sure of it now that I've written it. But in that nanosecond it's how I felt.

Fortunately the well-drilled police, who had been drafted in from forces all over Poland and received special training, did the job for me and I saw more than one thug dragged in handcuffs and with a bloodied nose that certainly wasn't administered by gay hands, to the police wagon.

As we found the rest of our friends, learned other stories of trouble including one who was hit by a rock, eventually the relentless heat of the day became more of a hazard than the rioters, and I began to think about the heritage of oppression to which we are all heirs: the obvious model being the Warsaw ghetto where fascism penned in the Jews. At least this time it was the fascists who were being corralled by the security forces.

These thoughts don't leave you, especially in the night, and I've since wondered what would I stand up for, and why? Initially, it's obvious that we want to show solidarity with Polish gays, lesbians, bi- and tran- sexuals and to campaign for their equality. But as far as statutes are concerned, Poland is quite a progressive country: homosexuality was decriminalised in 1932, discrimination on grounds of sexuality is banned in Polish employment law, and gays may serve in the military.

So what you're fighting is bigotry, neo-nazism and - how often it's true - Catholic fear and ignorance. I have two illustrations of the complex equation most Poles must deal with in a country where conservatism and Catholicism run in such deep and parallel seams: one of our members picked up a nice young guy in a bar and slept with him overnight. When they were leaving the hotel, I asked if the Polish lad would be at the march - his response was that it was all right for us to swoop into town, parade and perform, and go back to the safety and tolerance of London, but he was reluctant to be 'seen' supporting his own sexuality.

The other was Wojciech, another of our Polish entourage, who was as gay as a goose during Pride but left immediately afterwards on a pilgrimage to Częstochowa, home of the Black Madonna painting and a shrine for devotees of the Virgin Mary.

It then began to bother me just how far we should be campaigning for the freedom of Polish gays. What is it we want them to have? Freedom from persecution, of course. The right to marriage or civil partnership. Naturally. A commercial gay scene to compare with London's with all its associations with organised crime, prostitution, drugs and disease? Maybe not. The 'rights' exploited by one of our more venal Chorus members to suck off mahogany-tanned old men in the steam room of the Radisson Hotel?

I'm not taking a rock or an egg in the face for that.


Picking my way among the semi-comatose in the lobby of the Radisson, I felt like Florence Nightingale at a casualty dressing station in the Crimea. It had clearly been a heavy night for many, and who can blame them after such a traumatic day, so our numbers for the 'posh lunch' were severely depleted.

Eventually eleven stalwarts made it to the remarkably named restaurant 'U Fukiera' where in a bordello atmosphere of swagged curtains, caged birds, silk flowers and lace trimmings which I dubbed 'Never Knowingly Undecorated' we had a convivial and mostly delicious meal.

The borscht was a super-concentrated clear rubine distillation of beetroot, in its sweetest and purest form, it could have passed for Ribena. However it ran through Chris P and myself like an instant purgative and by the time we got to the airport we both thought we'd had internal bleeding. I also loved the desserts including 'Soup of Nothing' which allegedly is what your Polish grandma makes when there's little in the fridge. Evidently cream, meringue, hazelnuts, strawberries, vanilla and liqueur are considered basic staples in a Polish kitchen.

The group were subdued on the plane home, but generally content with their weekend.

I think it's one of the most significant thing the Chorus has done, and a fitting climax to my ten years with the LGMC.

I'm not sure where else we could go, metaphorically or geographically, from here.