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 "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.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A Lot of Night Music

The trouble with Andrew Lloyd Webber …

No, that’s too easy.

The trouble with Apects of Love is that it’s a trite plot centred on characters too self-absorbed to care about, woven with the relentless thread of ALW’s musical recycling. All the new Trevor Nunn production at the Menier Chocolate Factory does is illuminate the weaving flaws.

Apart from the fact the best-known song is hauntingly similar to a theme by Bach, one of the major melodies from Aspects ‘The Last Man in My Life’ is a shameless import from Tell Me On a Sunday, and the second trickles endlessly through Sunset Boulevard like a dose of musical dysentery.

Given this familiarity, and the fact that modern audiences expect less predictable lyrics than Don Black wrote in 1989 - sometimes you can spot the obvious rhymes bearing down on you like double decker buses – this revival of Aspects is less satisfying than perhaps it was when fresh.

It seems a frequent complaint that well-crafted performances are let down by the material, and there are some simply excellent singers in this production: Dave Willetts is outstanding, a beautiful mature timbre to his voice, but wasted on the banality of the music and lyrics, and it is especially refreshing to hear Michael Arden, as Alex, effortlessly hurdle the top ‘A’ in ‘Love Changes Everything’ without Michael Ball’s overexcited coloratura.

The plotting is tedious – self-centred actress Rose bounces between older and younger lovers, themselves uncle and nephew and one of which has fathered her coquettish teenage daughter with whom both men are further competitively infatuated. There’s a side issue of an Italian sculptress who may be mistress of both the uncle and the actress, ooh-er, sapphism Missus, and an uncredited ‘Hugo’ who incidentally has a lovely voice, who may also be shagging the actress. Although he looks like he'd rather do both of the men.

Throw in the wearing of a dress made for a deceased lady of the house, nicked directly from Rebecca, and the older/younger/actress/daughter quadrilateral borrowed from A Little Night Music and the source material becomes more interesting than the resultant musical.

It’s hard to warm to Rose Vibert because she’s such an unlovely character, but Katharine Kingsley’s confident performance shows the calculating coarseness lurking beneath the powder and paint, if rarely the warmth of a genuine romantic.

The production runs 2 hours 45 but you could trim half an hour of that by cutting the pretentious ALW operatic recitative (almost every word is sung) and turning it into dialogue between musical numbers. The set is a series of chipboard doors and picture frames which slide and occasionally reveal scenic implants including an Alpine panorama disturbingly reminiscent of Hilda Ogden’s ‘muriel’ from Coronation Street.

Sir Trevor Nunn is 70.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Feel the knead in me ...

Production photograph by Avshalom Aharony

You may not know much of Finchley: La Thatcher’s old constituency perhaps you recall, a pimple on the forehead of London’s map-face just before it breaks out in to the bushy afforestation of, well, Bushey and the rest of leafy Hertfordshire.

Be grateful though that someone has thought to fund its modern and enterprising ‘Artsdepot’ complex and to host part of the London International Festival of Theatre where Israel’s Nalaga’at troupe is packing not just the Jewish home crowd but people from all over London to its uniquely experiential show.

Nalaga’at is a company of eleven adult deaf-blind actors, most of whom lost their sensations from birth or in infancy, welded into a performing company by director Adina Tal and delivering an ensemble piece in which the group kneads, seasons and bakes bread on stage whilst telling personal stories and acting out pantomime-like sketches. The set is wonderful, warm with carpentry and golden light - we could be in Mrs Lovett’s pie shop, or the Baker’s house in ‘Into The Woods’.

For the hour it takes for the bread to bake, your mind may wander. Once you’ve accepted that this is a tremendous piece of work to inspire, coach and direct the deaf-blind, leading them with cues from a tambour drum or by touch, and that it took two years to develop and rehearse the show, you are allowed to consider where else this could go and what's the balance between occupational therapy and entertainment.

Showing off that you know waggling your hands in the air is the sign-language equivalent of applause is only part of the range of reactions available, but you will certainly marvel at the varieties of communication through signing, mime, translation of one-person’s hand gestures by his speaking neighbour, fractured speech, and the surtitles.

The whole event is best bracketed with the two hands-on options: BlackOut bar in which, rather like Dans Le Noir restaurant in Clerkenwell, you are led by your blind waitress to eat and drink in total darkness, where every movement has to be tentative and (particularly if you are seated with Henry Hitchings the theatre critic of the Evening Standard) every conversation sounds like double-entendres from a Carry On film.

There’s also a full-service and brightly-lit restaurant run as ‘Café Kapish’ in which charming and totally deaf waiting staff will take your orders in sign language. Best brush up on your charades for ‘Goat Cheese Panini’ …

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Of Thee I Sing, but not memorably


Book: John Wiedman
Music and Lyrics : Stephen Sondheim
Direction and staging : Michael Strassen
Musical Director: Michael Bradley
Lighting: Steve Miller

Reviewer: JohnnyFox
The Public Reviews Rating: [3 stars]

U.S. Presidents get a raw deal from musicals … in Kaufman and Hart's 1937 I'd Rather Be Right George M. Cohan starred as Franklin Roosevelt who despite his polio paralysis sings and dances - at least in Annie he remains confined to his wheelchair whilst the ginger moppet bawls a succession of shaky key-changes into his ear. Contemporary musical satires like Michael Friedman’s 2009 Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Obama: The Musical have yet to build on early promise but at least in those none of the contenders gets shot at, as do the nine (count ‘em) potential victims in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins currently in a new production by Michael Strassen at the Union Theatre, Southwark.

Assassins is a difficult musical to pigeon-hole. Despite comparing its vengeful plot with Sweeney Todd, it doesn’t fall in to Sondheim’s tuneful-and-waspishly-witty category alongside Follies, Company and Into The Woods. Nor is it in the obscure-but-intriguing box with Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park. Some claim that as a series of sketches about each of the assassinations, it’s more like a revue than a musical – certainly it defeats Sondheim’s ability to make comic capital out of human relationships since the nine would-be murderers in this show scarcely have one between them and losers and loners don’t make for snappy lyrics. It’s the lack of connectivity between the characters that limits the show, and leaves you feeling cheated with only 8 songs in 90 minutes (although this version runs 110 which indicates a need for tightening and cutting).

If it has a theme it’s that in modern America ‘everybody’s got the right to his dreams’ and that even achieving notoriety by killing the President, can legitimise your pathway to fame and a book deal. In this, it shares its theme of unattained dreams and a consequent ruthlessness with Mama Rose in Gypsy, but this music is as far from the pit band jollification of the Orpheum Circuit as possible. There’s a certain cleverness in the way each is matched to its assassin’s historical period whilst still belonging to the Sondheim canon, such as a Sousa March, a Bacharach-and-David styled lounge ballad, barbershop harmony or ragtime, but none can be extracted as a ‘standard’ to survive outside the musical’s context and they don’t stay in your head long enough to hum on the way home.

Despite these structural difficulties, there are some excellent individual performances and a consistently good ensemble. The whole cast sings clearly and accurately without miking, and Glyn Kerslake (as John Wilkes Booth) John Barr as Charles Guiteau (who shot President Garfield) and Leigh McDonald as Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin Sarah Jane Moore, are particularly strong.

Not all the characters are drawn in three dimensions or allowed the full range of emotions, but Nick Holder drew every ounce of humour as well as anguish from his brilliantly realistic characterisation of Sam Byck, a bankrupt salesman in a Santa Claus suit who initiated a plot to fly a 747 into the Reagan White House.

Although there’s no set save the dingy bare walls and floor of the railway arches which form the shell of the Union Theatre, costumes and lighting are of a high standard for what is essentially a low-budget profit-share production. Fresh and thoughtful orchestrations by Richard Bates give new life to the score as played by a versatile six-piece band.

Director Michael Strassen deserves great credit for the illuminated way in which the stories are presented, and for his huge versatility in staging this recondite and convoluted piece as smartly as his much-lauded production of Company in the same space last year.

But now, please - have a go at Follies.

This review written for The Public Reviews