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.