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.

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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

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

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

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