“There is a destiny that shapes our ends…rough-hew them how we may”
Edmond saw a couple of firsts: my first promenade production and my first ever trip to Wilton’s Music Hall, the oldest and last surviving grand music hall in the world apparently: it is a venue that has only recently come to my attention with some interesting programming, indeed Fiona Shaw will be performing The Waste Land there next month. Sadly though, the hall is semi-derelict and fighting a losing battle to secure the funds to be able to keep it open and serviceable, a shame as it really is an interesting place.
Marking Elliot Cowan’s directorial debut, this site-specific production of Edmond, David Mamet’s 1982 play, makes the most of its venue, utilising varying locations within the Wilton’s complex. Telling the story of a regular white-collar American chap whose meeting with a fortune-teller, who tells him “you are not where you belong”, sets him off on a journey through the seedy underbelly of New York city life, Edmond’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as less palatable sides of his character rise to the fore, in his search for self-discovery and redemption for his actions.
Following from his turn in A Streetcar Named Desire, Cowan takes on the title role with aplomb (and some lingering hints of his ‘interesting’ accent from that show) but did extremely well to convince us of the hidden depths in this initially quite bookish-looking man. A selection of additional players did well in their multiple supporting roles and the use of a bluegrass trio, The Bonfire Band, was particularly ingenious as they provided excellent accompaniment, not least during the scene changes.
Cowan’s decision to use the promenade format works extremely well on two levels: the play is quite episodic, with 23 short scenes, so it allowed for (mostly) quick scenes changes as we physically followed Edmond on his journey. But it also worked well in opening up Wilton’s Music Hall and showing the audience parts of the venue that you would never normally see, but also parts of the main hall itself that you wouldn’t necessarily notice during a traditionally staged event. It was a hugely fascinating tour which reminded you of the history of the building and how sad a loss it would be if it were to close. Limited to six shows, and 52 people per show, I feel particularly blessed to have been able to witness this great show, and I also feel Wilton’s would do well to use this production, or at least a similar format, in the future to show off its assets in such an interesting manner.
“The problem with the young is not just that they think they’re right, but that they know they’re right”A Daughter’s A Daughter, one of Agatha Christie’s lesser known and rarely performed plays , which was a very late addition to the programme at the Trafalgar Studios, running for just four weeks before The Caretaker takes over. It was written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, who was Christie’s alter ego for more romantic material, and is seen here for the first time in over 50 years in only its second ever large-scale staging.
It eschews the familiar thriller territory of Christie’s regular work for a more intimate drama, a tale of the relationship between a mother and daughter who allow bitterness, jealousy and resentment to challenge the bonds between them. Returning from 3 years in the army at the end of the Second World War, Sarah Prentice discovers a cuckoo in her family nest, her mother Ann is now engaged to a chap who is equally unfond of the new arrival in the life of his betrothed. In a battle of wills, Sarah’s behaviour then forces Ann into making the choice between her daughter and her fiancé: Sarah ‘wins’ but at a massive price, as we follow the pair for the next few years as they futilely search for happiness and comfort in men and booze whilst not letting go of the resentment and selfishness between them.
The mother is played by Jenny Seagrove and the daughter by Honeysuckle Weeks and between them they deliver cut-glass accents, icy hauteur and the sense of entitlement of the upper classes extremely well. I do find Seagrove a difficult actress to warm to, so it was nice to see her cutting loose a tiny bit at the beginning of the second act, but I would still like to see her be more natural on stage (or play a character who’s not an upper-class b*tch). Weeks was excellent at playing the spoilt brat, but as ever with unlikeable characters, found little to pull the audience in: her constant refrain of “why don’t you like me” had an answer that echoed resoundingly in my head! The show belongs to Tracey Childs though in a brilliant scene-stealing part as Dame Laura whose biting one-liners and rapier wit seemed to have wandered in from an Oscar Wilde play (and making me wish I’d made the effort to see her in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).
The pricing for this is insane though, £50 as a regular price? You must be kidding. Discounts are now available, but they’re still asking for £40 for Saturday nights which seems out of kilter with the rest of the off-West-End theatres: even if this were a good show I would have a hard time recommending such outlay. And £3.50 for a programme, it’s not even a good example of the oeuvre either. All these things add up to the whole theatrical experience and on this evidence, I feel that Trafalgar Studios have some work to do: as Ann says in the play “I can’t bear it, I just can’t bear it!”
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews
Coming back to the Battersea Arts Centre after selling out a run in Autumn last year, The Night Flyer is a show created by the Paper Cinema. And created is the right word as the show features pen-and-ink drawn puppets and scenes which are manipulated in front of a camera and the filmed results blown up onto a screen for us all to watch. The action is silent, but accompanied by music giving it a cinematic feel which elevates it beyond your average puppet show.
The story insofar as I could make out revolved around a young man who having just met a girl witnesses her abduction by a Child-Catcher like villain on a train and then sets off in pursuit on his bicycle to try and rescue her. Nic Rawlings’ drawings are beautiful and the way in changing perspective and focus is used is at times breathtaking: the scene where the boy starts to chase the train was particularly effective and all the more impressive considering that you could see how the scene was being created and how hard they were having to work in order to generate the feeling of increasing speed.
Multi-instrumentalist Kieron Maguire provided some beautiful music throughout, especially on the viola, which created a wonderfully intimate atmosphere to accompany the visuals. Perversely though, this mainly served to highlight the major weakness of this show for me. On the one hand, you are witnessing this unique creative process at work, having this form of art deconstructed and then reconstructed in front of you. On the other hand though, you have this wonderfully immersive musical experience which is begging you to just surrender your attention and just watch the storytelling. The two didn’t quite fit together for me, the story isn’t quite strong enough or indeed long enough to warrant your sole attention, and in any case much of the beauty of the evening comes from the opportunity to watch the puppeteers at work.
On a final note, the show is preceded by a scratch version of a new work in progress, The Odyssey, which offers an insight into the creative process behind this kind of show and an opportunity to ask questions. This is accompanied by a generous Greek buffet, so you can eat away whilst enjoying what’s on offer, and save money on dinner out
“Is there no festive spirit in that businessman’s heart of yours?”
Of all the various productions of A Christmas Carol that can be found dotted around London this winter, I doubt any are as well suited to their venue as MokitaGrit’s production at the King’s Head Theatre on Islington’s Upper Street. There’s something old-fashioned about this cosy theatre pub and it suits this Victorian, gothic-inflected version of Charles Dickens’ famous story down to the ground.
Opening with, and then continually narrated by Dickens himself (played by a genial Nigel Lister), trying to convince a publisher and a pub full of locals that he has a story worth telling, a cast of 16 effortlessly sing, play and dance their way through this familiar tale with such inventiveness and vibrancy that you could not feel more festive by the end if you tried. Using every inch of available space, the cast flow around the full scope of the stage and even up and down the aisles with such ease and confidence, bringing the audience with them right into the heart of the action. I loved the arrival of the chain-dragging spirits, though its probably not for the faint of heart, and there was some clever use of puppetry and props throughout which kept the dynamic energy going.
Jonathan Battersby’s Scrooge is nicely curmudgeonly and blessed with some excellent facial expressions (one mustn’t forget that Scrooge actually spends a lot of this story just watching things) and his flight over London with Kilke Van Buren’s Cinderella-like Ghost of Christmas Past is beautifully realised. Adam Stone’s Bob Cratchit, a character that is impossible not to like, is also really well accomplished, his concern for his family movingly played.
What Phil Wilmott has cleverly done is ensure that much of the music is instantly recognisable, as in places he has written new lyrics over familiar Christmas tunes, and elsewhere traditional carols are used which allows the audience easy access into the emotion of the material. And what emotion is evoked: a beautifully moving and truly affecting In The Bleak Midwinter gave me chills and a Silent Night with a candlelit vigil for the dying Tiny Tim was touchingly emotional without being mawkish. But there were lighter moments too: Christmas in Camden Town was a hoot and is surely destined to become a staple song of the season if it gets into the right hands (the Christmas in New York team would be my bet) and the choreography that accompanied The Miser’s Dead was well-drilled and visually pleasing.
Everything about this production felt highly professional: the singing was as good as a proper choir with some beautiful harmonising and complex arrangements, impressive musical ability from the numerous instrumental, clever and interesting choreography and to top it all off, strong acting. What makes it even more impressive was the ease with which the cast frequently switched between all of these roles. On a final note, it was pleasing to see a large number of children in the audience for this show, as I really felt it was fringe musical theatre at its best: accomplished, inventive and above all, highly enjoyable.
“It’s what is called a dilemma boy, you are on the horns of it”
After a discussion over the weekend about people who have not yet been made Dames and damn well ought to be, Imelda Staunton’s name came up amongst others (Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson being my other choices), but when I had a check on this blog for the delightful Ms Staunton, I saw no mention of her despite being sure I had seen her earlier this year. Eventually I remembered it was Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Trafalgar Studios, way back in February, but somehow I’d neglected to write up the review. As I want this blog to be a full record of my theatregoing, I’m just going to make a few comments about what I remember of it with the help of some notes I made back then.
The play, written by Joe Orton in 1964, is one of the darkest comedies I think I have ever seen. In brief, a landlady and her brother are both overwhelmed with sexual desire when a charismatic young lodger moves into her house. Caught in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse as his psychopathic tendencies come to the fore, as the balance of power continually shifts around them in this battle for power and possession. As the duelling sister and brother, Imelda Staunton and Simon Paisley Day had a crackling chemistry as their cosy existence is shattered by the sexual tension brought in by the arrival of the eponymous Mr Sloane played by Mathew Horne. In a well-designed letterbox set peeling away at the edges, Staunton was brilliant in a caustically funny, highly revealing(!) performance which veered grotesquely from demanding that Sloane call her Mamma whilst seducing him to the endearing lonely side of her that is frequently exposed.
That said, Paisley-Day’s homosexually repressed Ed was a absolute sheer joy to watch. His struggle to conceal his instant reactions to the leather clad intruder with a bristling insouciance was hysterical. Mathew Horne suffered a little bit by comparison to these two performances, especially with a shaky Midlands accent (at least early on in the run), but he did well at conveying the casual ruthlessness of Sloane as he turns this world upside down.
This was a black comedy in the true sense: bitingly funny yet horrifically dark at times, and excellently performed by everyone. And a production which I thought would have figured more in the nominations coming out for the various theatre awards, but maybe it came too early in the year for that.