Review: Debbie Reynolds – Alive and Fabulous, Apollo

“I know I’m alive, but have I been fabulous…?”

Making her first UK appearances since performing at the Palladium in 1974, Debbie Reynolds arrives at the Apollo theatre after a short UK tour with her one woman show, Alive and Fabulous. Accompanied by her longtime pianist (25 years together and counting) and drummer, she revisits her long and eventful career encompassing motion pictures, television, Broadway and Vegas shows and encounters with some of the biggest and brightest names ever to grace showbusiness.

And what stories she has to tell. Ranging from her colourful marriage history, to tales of quiet days with the children round at Judy Garland’s place, the anecdotes fly at us like sequinned bullets. On more than one occasion, the anecdotes are half-told as she whips through them a tad by rote and she flits onto the next one or a song with breathtaking speed. I guess this is part of the problem in trying to make a show feel fresh when the same old stories are repeated night after night and she did have lots of fun adlibbing and interacting with the audience much to the stalls’ delight. There’s also a few impressions, a great Katharine Hepburn and a wicked Barbra Streisand were my favourites and a couple of nods to her recent small screen success as Bobbi Adler in Will and Grace.

With such a vast musical heritage to revisit, Reynolds often resorts to medleys of numbers in order to get as many songs as possible in. This is employed to brilliant effect in the first half with a montage of songs from some of her early movies played on a large flatscreen, with a spotlight on her as she sings along to her screen image. Later medleys include a Gershwin collection presaged with a lovely Rhapsody in Blue from the piano and a show-stopping Judy Garland selection, which if nothing else proves that Debbie should be Dorothy! However, these are also slightly frustrating as it means that we don’t get more than a snippet of each of the songs, there’s a tantalising section of ‘S Wonderful that I would have liked to hear more of and approximately a 90 second clip of The Man That Got Away that is hands down the best moment in the show and it was just heartbreaking as she quickly segued into the next number.

These were minor quibbles though in what was a splendid evening of great entertainment. Ms Reynolds is such an engaging performer and winning raconteur that I can’t imagine that anyone would have left disappointed, and indeed the rush to the front of the theatre to shake her hand as she took her bows was faster than any audience member managed at the end of Hair, despite the average age being somewhat higher!

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £10 for a signed souvenir brochure

Review: Akram Khan – Gnosis, Sadler’s Wells

I’m not the world’s greatest fan of dance it must be said, but I have been known dabble here and there and I actually saw Akram Khan a couple of years ago in in-i, his collaboration with Juliette Binoche, so when I was asked if I fancied Gnosis, a new work by Khan, at Sadler’s Wells, I thought I would give it a go. One of the greatest exponents of kathak dancing currently working, Gnosis is a fusion of this ancient style with more modern movement as well and it was originally meant to be premiered last year but a shoulder injury prevented it from being presented in its entirety. It is now in its fully fledged version and played for two nights here in London.

Khan dances on a mostly bare stage, with his musicians ranged on either side of him and with the highly effective stark lighting, the focus is clearly on the purity of the dance. With feverish twists and turns, stamps and intricate arms movements, Khan duels with the music to initially great effect. But I have to admit to finding it a little dull after a short while as there was no story being told and the solo dance became a little wearing, seemingly repeating move after move (I realise he probably wasn’t but that is what it looked like to this novice).

When the dancing stopped and the soft-voiced Khan brought a microphone onto the stage, I did wonder what was coming next and we were then treated to a bit of a rambling monologue which culminated in him introducing the musicians accompanying him. Whilst they truly were superb and deserve credit, this did drag and completely broke the mood that had been established. Following that with a musical number further made me question just what kind of show I was watching. The ensuing improvised section with face-offs between the tabla and Khan’s rhythmic movements started off brightly but soon meandered into rather repetitive territory for me as before.

So a little disappointing all in all, but it won’t put me off sampling bits of dance here and there if I get recommendations.

Running time: 2 hours
Programme cost: £4

Review: Kontakthof, Barbican

Just a short review as it was a last minute cheap deal through Facebook and I’m never too sure what I’m saying when it comes to dance.
Kontakthof is a dance piece by Pina Bausch (now sadly passed away) for a large group of dancers which is set in a dancehall and purports to explore male/female relations and the pursuit of desire. It is performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, the company for whom it was written, but there’s a twist in its presentation here at the Barbican: there’s two casts, one made up of over-65s and one made up of teenagers so you can have two very differing experiences here: I saw the teenage cast.

It wasn’t as much of a dance show as I was expecting, the moves were fairly limited but it seemed to be much more focused on the interactions between the performers and indeed their characters. There’s a great scene where they all line up on their chairs and pass a microphone along so we get snippets from their lives, the dates they’re on, the relationships they’re in and combined with the synchronised movements of the dating games that they play for the rest of show, it really gave you a sense of them as people rather than performers which surprised me, but in a good way.

It was musically quite entertaining, with 1930s songs populating the soundtrack and fifully visually very arresting. There was a nice deal of humour in there to keep one engaged, but at three hours, it did feel a little overlong to me: there’s a lot of repetition of moves and with a rather stately pace, it began to drag a little for me by the end.

Still an interesting experience which broadened my horizons, and thanks to the Barbican for the last minute deal: if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, I’d recommend friending them as great deals pop up quite often.

Review: Posh, Royal Court

“And these people think we’re twats? Are we going to just sit here and take it…”

Posh, a new black comedy by Laura Wade at the Royal Court, follows a group of young toffs, calling themselves the Riot Club, as they meet up to get thoroughly drunk or “chateaued” and trash the private dining room of the Oxfordshire gastropub where they are spending the evening. It is apparently inspired by Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club which has given us such scions of society as David Cameron and Boris Johnson though I can’t see either of them making the trip to see this as it does rather skewer their antics (that said, the vast majority of the audience had a much closer affinity to the title than I would have imagined, and on cheap Monday prices too, shame on them!)

The writing is beautifully delicious in places, I loved the quip about reading languages in Newcastle (you’d have to, up there!), the scene with the prostitute with a mind of her own is wonderfully awkward and so much of the dialogue has clearly been finely crafted, reflecting the intelligence, no matter how odious they get, of many of these chaps. Wade also captures the righteous indignation of those who feel their birthrights have been slowly eroded but yet insist on the maintenance of the system of privileges that accompanies membership of the upper classes. Continue reading “Review: Posh, Royal Court”

(Not a) Review: Ten Plagues – a work-in-progress, Royal Court

“In London
Came the plague in sixteen sixty five
One hundred thousand dead
But I alive.”

I’m a big fan of Marc Almond so when the opportunity to see him performing in a workshop of a new musical at the Royal Court came up, I was eager to snap up a ticket. Presented as an early part of the Rough Cuts season of works-in-progress and experimental readings, Ten Plagues is a new musical with libretto by Mark Ravenhill and  music by Conor Mitchell.

Taking inspiration from both Samuel Pepys’ and Daniel Defoe’s accounts of living through the Great Plague of London, but also using Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphor to also help define the ideas, Ravenhill tells the story of a man’s journey through a city going through a profound crisis as one in five people die.

The story is told through Conor Mitchell’s songs, sung here variously by Almond, Nigel Richards and Omar Ebrahim, although we did have a brief spoken section by Zubin Varla too.

As it is a work-in-progress I won’t be reviewing it, I’m including it here more for completeness for my theatregoing records, but I will say that is does seem like an intriguing piece of work and Marc Almond’s contributions in particular and the final flourish make me very excited to see how this develops further.

Review: Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks; be bright and jovial among your guests to-night “

Opening the 2010 Kings and Rogues season at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank is Lucy Bailey’s production of Macbeth. Fans of the Scottish play are being well-served this year: Cheek By Jowl may now have left the Barbican but you can catch them again in Brighton in May, the Open Air Theatre will be running a re-imagined for kids version in July or you can witness this decidedly less family-friendly production in the Globe.

Katrina Lindsay’s design has clearly taken the circular shape of the theatre into consideration and used the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno as the main inspiration. The Yard is mostly covered with a canopy, with holes for the groundlings to poke their heads through, representing the frozen sinners trapped in the underworld, and it is also populated with the occasional bloodsoaked writhing tortured soul popping up. I can’t comment on how comfortable or otherwise it was, but there’s plenty of room outside of the canopy if you’re not too sure about it: it did look fun though. The weird sisters therefore are the guardians of this final Hell and flow in and out of there onto the stage, trying to drag as many people down with them. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Holding the Man, Trafalgar Studios

“I may have killed the man I love”

Importing the two main leads and the director from the highly successful Australian production, Holding the Man makes its UK debut at the Trafalgar Studios. Written by Tommy Murphy but based on Tim Conigrave’s 1995 memoir of the same name, it is a love story charting the high and lows of the relationship between Tim and John Caleo, the captain of the football team at their high school no less, over 15 years. It has garnered much acclaim in its native country, but added to that with this transfer is the UK stage debut of comic genius Jane Turner, Kath out of Kath and Kim, as you will not have failed to notice if you’ve seen any of the advance publicity for this show!

I went to see this play without knowing anything about it or the circumstances in which it was written and so therefore, its impact on me was phenomenal. If you don’t know anything about it either, then I have to say I would recommend coming back here at a later date to read this review, but rest assured that this is probably the first stone-cold must-see play of the year. Continue reading “Review: Holding the Man, Trafalgar Studios”

Review: Pressure Drop, Wellcome Collection

“Because that’s what we’re fighting for, innit…our roots”

In dealing with the rise of far right politics in East London, Pressure Drop could be just one of many similar plays, A Day at the Racists and Moonfleece both dealt with related themes very recently, but this is really is something special, bringing together Mick Gordon’s writing, songwriting from Billy Bragg and the unique venue of the Wellcome Collection, their first foray into theatre, as part of their Identity project.

Describing it as a ‘part-gig, part-concert, part-installation’ is somewhat unnecessary, it’s a promenade play with some songs in it, but it is a carefully judged production, balancing each of the elements well into a most satisfying whole. It looks at three generations of the Clegg family, white and working class in a rapidly changing East London, and how they struggle to maintain their identities even as everything familiar alters around them.

It is powerfully presented, painfully real and totally engrossing. I was completely hooked by the story, complemented excellently by the music and the staging works very well. The dialogue is just superb, so perfectly crafted and frighteningly realistic, no more so than in David Kennedy’s menacingly thuggish Tony, a powerful presence full of endless bluster and seething with prejudicial rage.

Any play featuring not one but two actors from one of my absolutely top-rated shows from last year, Our Class, had to be good and Michael Gould and Justin Salinger did not disappoint, both providing touching performances as brothers whose lives have taken them on completely different paths. Susan Vidler works magic with few scenes as the struggling matriarch of the family, trying to avoid remembering childhood dreams and aspirations in the face of disillusionment of the daily grind and Shea Davis also deserves a mention as the young George, desperately trying to find his own identity in the face of the prejudice around him. The play cleverly shows how complex and messy it can be to maintain these ideas of identity in the face of conflicting pressures, the two different father/son relationships showing this perfectly in how the sins of the father don’t always have to be passed down to the son, but also acknowledging how difficult it can be to escape these long held values.

The staging is highly effective and all the more brilliant considering this is normally a regular exhibition space at the Wellcome. A red slash cuts through the walls of the room, with three small raised stages as a pub, a chapel and a living room, with Bragg and his band perched on a fourth in the middle of the room. Bragg’s songs are lyrically powerful and imbued with a lifetime of passion for politics, and musically, cleverly show up the irony inherent in the close links between the reggae music that came over with the Windrush and the ska music beloved by skinheads, despite their overtly racist posturing.

I must confess to a history with the Wellcome Trust. I was a Wellcome scholar as a postgraduate and should have done a doctorate with them, but then I would have been Doctor Foster and I’d’ve had to move to Gloucester etc etc so I left academia as a mere Master of Philosophy. That said, I did spend much time in the fabulous Wellcome surroundings and it is a highly recommended, and free, destination where you can happily while away an afternoon in their galleries and exhibitions.

As Billy Bragg himself said afterwards, art may not be able to change things but it can make you think. And in these precarious times, especially for Bragg’s native Barking and Dagenham, Pressure Drop is a timely reminder of both the need to recognise the frustrations of a working class who feel betrayed but also the importance of showing up the abhorrence of far right politics and how it can never be the answer.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Playtext cost: I’m not sure, sorry guys
Note: lots of bad language in this one

Review: Women Beware Women, National Theatre

Women Beware Women is a cautionary tale of the consequences of the pursuit of wealth, power and lust in the 16th Century Florentine court written by Thomas Middleton. It takes up residence at the National Theatre, in the Olivier, as part of its Travelex season, so lots of £10 tickets should become available when the new season opens for booking to the general public on 30th April.
The plot goes a little something like this: Bianca, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian family, elopes to Florence with a poor merchant’s clerk Leantio. While he’s away on business the Duke of Florence sees Bianca and is determined to seduce her. Bianca leaves her husband when the Duke offers her a life of luxury. In a separate plot line, Isabella is faced with going into a loveless marriage with a rich yet stupid ward. She’s appalled when her uncle Hippolito confesses his love for her. But her aunt Livia, Hippolito’s sister, cunningly persuades Isabella that she isn’t related by blood, so she’s tricked into an incestuous relationship with her uncle. That’s clear, right?

This was the second preview so they are still clearly ironing out some issues: it was a full half hour shorter than the first outing, but still a lengthy three hours and the first half in particular had a very slow pace with little use of the vast space of the Olivier. It must be said though that this is as much a fault of the play as anything, too many scenes in which too little happens. Things only really kicked into life just before the interval for me, but once it did, the play flew furiously by as the machinations of all involved got more and more twisted resulting in a finale of epic proportions which currently has less of the ‘wow!’ factor and more of a ‘huh?’ factor. In a ten minute mostly wordless scene, each of the plot strands reaches its climactic end as the set endlessly revolves, resulting in a complete visual overload of information, currently with insufficient narrative clarity to drive home the true scale of what we have just witnessed. It also recalls the opening scene of the recent production of The Revenger’s Tragedy which I can’t decide if it is a nice homage or just plain unoriginal.

Middleton’s strengths seem to lie in witty dialogue and being unafraid to go to delve in darker places than one might expect. That said, acting-wise, I found it solid rather than outstanding. Harriet Walter is strong as the manipulative Livia, but the honours probably go to Samuel Barnett who brings a real hurt and vulnerability to the cuckolded Leantio and Harry Melling has an absolute ball as The Ward, revelling in his insouciant foolishness and coming preciously close to stealing almost every scene he is in. Lauren O’Neill is also good as Bianca whose journey once sucked into the machinations of the Florentine court brings out a much darker side to her character.

This production is not lacking resources by any means and Marianne Elliot has brought together some delightful elements along with Lez Brotherston’s design. The live music and singer provide great sonic accompaniment, the costumes are beautifully opulent, Harriet Walter’s red dress in particular is gorgeous, there’s an amazingly sumptuous banquet which opens the second half, but the highlight for me was one of those design touches that only the National can manage. As the Duke wanders past Bianca’s balcony, he appears at the back of the stage and crosses over with a spotlight following him as glitter cascades from above all the while, it is a stunning image and highly effective. There is naturally a couple of occasions when the already rich pudding is over-egged though, most notably with the winged attendants in the final scene who sent the cry of ‘fly, my pretties’ dangerously close to my lips.
The more I think about this production the less I think I enjoyed it: with such a slow beginning and such a convoluted ending, I’m not sure how much I engaged with it at all. However, it is well-acted and the scale of the show is suitably grand for the Olivier and indeed, I left the theatre in quite a good mood so maybe it is one to just enjoy in the moment and then don’t bother contemplating it again!
Running time: 3 hours (for second preview, so most likely subject to change)
Programme cost: £3
Note: gunshot and smoking

Review: Ruined, Almeida

“People come here to leave behind whatever mess they made out there”

Working in partnership with Amnesty International, the Almeida theatre gives us the European premiere of Ruined, the Pulitzer Prize winning play from Lynn Nottage. It is set at Mama Nadi’s, a bar and brothel in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mama runs her bar with a rod of iron, serving anyone who will pay, no matter what side they are fighting for, along as they leave their weapons and their politics at the bar. As the civil war encroaches ever nearer and two new arrivals who have suffered particularly badly at the hands of soldiers, she is forced to reassess her life of providing women and whiskey without question and decide if it is enough.

As Mama Nadi, Jenny Jules is excellent. She’s rarely off-stage and holds the whole play together with her irrepressible hostessing, able to charm any customer yet possessed of an indomitable spirit, no soldier, no matter how threatening, gets past her with a weapon and she rules over her girls with a rod of iron. Starting off like Brecht’s Mother Courage, a similar profiteer from wartime chaos, her motivations remain mostly ambiguous but as events catch up with her, she becomes much more emotionally engaged. Jules is supported extremely well by Pippa Bennett-Warner as Sophie, bright and beautiful yet ‘ruined’ by a bayonet, Michelle Asante as Salima, gang-raped by soldiers but then even more painfully, shunned by her husband and Kehinde Fadipe as Josephine, the most sexually confident of the three but just as damaged. Together, they form an uncompromising group of women, scarred both inside and out by rebel soldiers, government soldiers, even their own families, and only able to dream of what might be in the (relative) safety of each other’s company. Continue reading “Review: Ruined, Almeida”