Friday, 28 May 2010

Black and White Dog

A review, for ThePublicReviews of 'Dream of the Dog' at the Trafalgar Studios, 27.5.10

In the living room strewn with tea chests and cardboard boxes it could be cosy Priestley or Coward, ‘Laburnum Grove’ or ‘This Happy Breed’ as an elderly housewife packs away the last of the family belongings before the house move to a peaceful retirement by the sea. But instead of South London we are high on the windswept veldt of KwaZulu Natal where Janet Suzman as Patricia Wiley is leaving the farm she inherited and has sold to developers.

We see her truculent, crude, memory-failing husband Richard, played with brutal intensity by Bernard Kay as an unreconstructed old colonial hand whose bigotry runs deep, before he storms out into the night to do some unexplained task on the hillside. A stranger arrives – another echo of Priestley – the son of one of the farmhands, named ‘Look Smart’ as a boy and whom Patricia had loved like a son and paid for his schooling returning after fifteen years to demand she now face up to some harsh truths about the dreadful event that caused him to leave.

What follows is an hour of possibly the best one-act play seen in London in recent memory.

The writing is so authentic and natural, and Ariyon Bakare as Look Smart has all the fierceness and pride of the emancipated African, but also a far subtler humility when facing an admission of his own self-deception. In other hands, this could have been a predictable exchange of taunts about racism and patronage, but Suzman – who participated in the development of the play with writer Craig Higginson – resists the obvious and in one of the finest performances you can see in London at the moment, delivers an honest and intelligent reading of the white woman who feels responsible for her actions but cannot find the resource to atone for them completely, nor to assuage the pains and isolation she feels from her own perspective on the past.

The strength of Suzman’s acting is palpable when you feel the strain of her frustration in attempting to explain her thoughts and feelings, and realize that this is not stage technique, but actual emotional truth.

It’s true that the plotting is somewhat over-tidy and the political issues familiar from Athol Fugard and other writers, but in an 80-minute piece there must be some compromises.

This is a play about black and white people whose issues are so far from black and white that you must follow them intently to the end which, even if you can see it coming, is enthralling.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Goodnight, Vienna

There is an array of all-American talent squished onto the Menier Chocolate Factory stage that is both formidable and incomprehensible. From Mandy Patinkin, arguably the finest Sondheim interpreter of his generation, to Broadway back-catalogistas like Judy Kaye and John McMartin, this is the stuff of dreams for many producers.

I won’t hazard a guess at the total number of awards between them, but it must be over fifty. Some dullard from Leeds will undoubtedly tally up the Tonys, Drama Desks, Oscars, Oliviers and BAFTAS listed in the programme and write in to correct me.

Such a pity, then, that they have been assembled, in the no less luminous hands of Evita-to-Phantom director Hal Prince and prima choreographa assoluta Susan Stroman in a complete barrowload of tripe.

It is impossible to fathom what passed through whose mind when it was first suggested that the Shah of Persia’s visit to Vienna in 1873 would make a viable subject for a musical, that modern lyrics could be welded to genuine Strauss tunes, or that it was a good idea to convince Jewish actor Mandy Patinkin to shave his head and play a fey Muslim eunuch in a performance exactly midway between Alec Guinness’s equally racially unrealistic Dr Godbole in A Passage to India, and Kevin Chamberlin’s Uncle Fester in Addams Family the Musical.

It’s called ‘Paradise Found’ but the only reference to Milton I can find is that you’d have to be blind to see the good in it.

Was Max Biyalistock originally Viennese?

Whilst Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar was a fascinating and cultured monarch – a painter, a poet and photographer who held sovereign power for almost 50 years, outstripped only by Queen Victoria whose reign ran parallel to his own. He was the first ruler to visit Europe and the first to publish his diaries – but in the Richard Nelson script, he’s a randy one-dimensional buffoon played half a degree above Baron Hardup and in a series of cheap lurex kaftans by five times Tony nominee John McMartin who looks understandably bewildered throughout.

The gist of the plot is that the Shah becomes infatuated by the Empress of Austria, and demands his servants procure her sexual favours. To spare the court’s blushes, a prostitute masquerades as the Empress and receives from the Shah a massive pearl necklace. Two, if you count the one she can wear in the street.

There’s a duet about masturbation set to the music of a Strauss mazurka.

So far it’s Kismet crossed with The Merry Widow and a side order of Indecent Proposal.

In the second half those of us who returned to the airless auditorium were rewarded with a further descent into farce as first there’s a prison scene where the prostitute is reunited with her favourite client, a cardboard Baron played with more conviction than the production deserves by the explosive bass-baritone talent of Shuler Hensley. Hensley is most noted in the UK for his outstanding portrayal of Jud Fry in the National’s Oklahoma! where he briefly but powerfully diverted the audience’s attention from its seat-wetting adoration of Hugh Jackman, and subsequently in a string of Broadway hits including playing the Monster in Young Frankenstein.

She’s been in prison, he in alcoholic penury, but they come together as actors in a coarse vaudeville which summarises the plot all over again only to oom-pah-pah music, after which the authors clearly got bored with the plotting and tie up all loose ends in a single scene worth of a provincial pantomime. Three Strauss strains are briefly reprised – even though we’re all now back in Persia - and we stagger out to the bar to try to make sense of it all.

Apart from airfares and accommodation for the cast, it’s not an inexpensive production – costumes, set and lighting are way above the Menier’s usual budgets: the programme refers to a number of producer type individuals as ‘Enhancement for this production has been provided by …’. Presumably ‘Enhancers’ are Angels who haven’t a hope in hell of seeing their money back.

Maybe it’s a tax loss, maybe it’s just an aberration on the part of otherwise competent and talented individuals, but this has the feel of a work-in-progress, perhaps a tryout where the European setting will be more familiar to audiences, prior to an opening on Broadway. If so, it will need the kind of eighteen month long re-write that kept Sister Act so firmly out of town, or closed Imagine This in its second month.

Either way, the presence of so many fine actors and singers is a bait to lure audiences to a production which fails to deliver either as musical comedy or a genuine operetta.

Go on then, they should call it The Strauss-Trap.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Holding the Man

Apocalypse Soon-ish

Home to Hammersmith is one of my least favourite journeys on public transport. It's the 'wrong' side of London for me which on a good day never takes less than an hour, and on one particularly horrible Saturday during tubular disruptions of an epic scale, two and three-quarters.

Although I like and admire the Lyric Theatre there - an extraordinary Victorian proscenium box airlifted into a concrete shell atop one of the nastiest shopping precincts in England - it's always with a heavy heart that I dither and defer my departure from home to make for a 'just-in-time' delivery in London W6. Scene set, then, for a preview of 'A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky', a play about the end of the world.

I was reminded of that moment in Through The Looking Glass when Alice is introduced to the Plum Pudding 'Alice, Pudding. Pudding, Alice' and then cannot bring herself to carve into something she's just met - in that my lovely theatre-blogging friends introduced me at 7.28pm to David Eldridge, one-third of the triumvirate responsible for the new playscript.

He appeared a perfectly nice chap and I now feel hobbled that I can't bring the full weight of my puny invective to bear on a play I really didn't enjoy. Not that it would be legitimate to post a proper review since it sent me to sleep within the first forty minutes.

It SEEMED to be about a disparate family, mostly of fatherless brothers - five of them ranging in age from about seventeen to just past fifty which is surely biologically impossible for the mother unless she had the first in her early teens and the redoubtable but grimly aspected Ann Mitchell certainly didn't look that type - and their need to be together, or not, on a pig farm in Yorkshire at the impending Apocalypse which is neatly scheduled for midnight in three weeks from the start of the play.

Things happen. A charming dog appears in one scene and is subsequently beaten to death with a hammer. The fiftysomething man, who suffers from colon cancer and is otherwise a bit artless, is washed standing up in a tin bath genitals and all, by his mother. I might have preferred it if she'd washed the dog onstage and he'd been beaten to death with the hammer.

Certainly washing the dog on stage would have trumped Meera Syal's nightly preparation of chips and egg in Shirley Valentine, as well as provided some leavening laughs to this rather wordy, rather morose piece. 'Pinteresque' is all very well, but not when it emulates Pinter's capacity for logorrheic tedium.

There's presumably some significance to the leitmotif of smoking - the youngest brother is learning to do it, the oldest one has cancer because of it, the middle-middle brother is concealing the fact he does from his wife, then does so openly as an act of defiance - but all the actors handle it awkwardly and the opportunity to figure out their motivations eluded me as by the end of the first half I had lost the plot and caught the tube.