Review: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

Returning to the Sadler’s Well theatre where it premiered 14
years ago, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has become a massive success, winning awards on both sides of the ocean and becoming a staple in many a dance house, no mean feat for a production that at the time was considered to be highly controversial. I actually saw this back then as a tender youth, and whilst it may not have made me wanted to become a dancer, it did make me want to be held by a muscular swan!

Taking the revered ballet classic that is Swan Lake, with Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, Bourne refashioned it into a modern dance piece, retaining elements of the original story, about the search for love and what people are willing to do to defend it once found, with a few key changes: adding a considerable amount of humour and most notably, recasting the flock of swans from the usual delicate ballerinas to bare-chested men in feathery breeches, thereby changing the dynamic of the central relationship making it between two men. That said, this remains a truly universal story, the need for a mother’s love and the love of a partner can be recognised and felt by people of any sexuality.

This is the first revival that Matthew Bourne has been wholly involved in so there is a freshness to this production, which should even appeal to those who have seen it in recent years as some changes have been made: to the choreography, the staging, the lighting, subtle changes but important ones. And with 3 men covering the role of the Prince and 2 people covering each of the other main roles, each performance will have its own dynamic, so the company are really working hard at making this unique experience that would even bear repeat viewings during the run.

Having seen him in Dorian Gray earlier this year, I was particularly pleased to get Richard Winsor playing The Swan / Stranger. This is a dream of a role for a dancer as not only do they get the romantic hero role, but they also get to play the voracious, flirtatious, leather-trouser-clad lothario of the second act, and Winsor delivers both with a fluid grace that is just enchanting to watch. In particular, the way in which he demonstrates the Swan’s love for the Prince is crystal clear, despite only having the medium of his beating wings.

Christopher Marney’s Prince was good and well danced, but I would have preferred a little more subtlety in his performance, his angst-ridden face was a little too forced and brought out one too many times for my liking. Maddy Brennan’s Girlfriend is a great comedic role and she delivered it extremely well, constantly reminding us of the heart of gold underneath the ditzy blonde exterior. And finally The Queen, Nina Goldman is superb as the icy mother whose refusal to show genuine affection to her son is the heartbreaking repeated motif throughout this show, her firm resolve crumbling only when it is too late.

And the swans. The image of the troupe of bare-chested men has rightly become iconic: dancing together, they are physical, comic, beautiful, threatening but always swan-like, and as they group to make an attack and let out a hiss, they are truly menacing. Conversely, the first time we see them, veiled through a screen as the Prince staggers to a park, and we hear the familiar sound of the theme from Swan Lake clearly for the first time, it is a magical moment that makes the hairs stand on end.

The long-term success of this show has been remarkable: few could have imagined, not least my 15 year old self, that what we were watching back in 1995 would become one of the great dance classics and make a superstar out of Matthew Bourne. This production goes a long way to reminding us why.

Review: Edmond, Wilton’s Music Hall

“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.

Review: A Daughter’s A Daughter, Trafalgar Studios

“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!”

Review: The Misanthrope, Comedy

“Jesus Christ, you wonder why
I want to curl up and just die”

Try as I might, I was hoping not to be too misanthropic about this production of The Misanthrope, but all the talk of misanthrophy has left me somewhat of a misanthrope myself. It was one of those difficult experiences where it was hard to work out whether I really hadn’t enjoyed the play or if it was just the general experience of the most fidgety couple in the world in front of us forcing a constant search for a decent view, the realisation that we’d actually got quite poor seats despite being expensive (£35 for 3rd row of Royal Circle) and the feeling that we were the only sober people at the party, such was the raucous laughter at every other line. Either way, I was perilously close to leaving at the interval, but stuck it out to the end.

Molière’s Le Misanthrope has been translated and updated to modern-day here by Martin Crimp and follows Alceste (Damien Lewis) a disenchanted playwright whose resolution to reject society and all its hypocrisy and shallowness, is challenged when he falls in love with Jennifer (Keira Knightley), a fame-hungry American filmstar. A timeless enough story, but one made problematic by the unlikeability of Alceste and Lewis’ performance which I found at times to be insufferable. Part of the problem is also in the script though: this is an incredibly self-aware translation, stuffed full of cultural references and one particularly galling joke about people paying £50 to see any old shit on the stage. For me, this just led to a form of mugging on the stage, Lewis might have well have just said ‘nudge nudge wink wink!’ at times.

It’s written in verse with rhyming couplets appearing every so often, which jarred at first but one soon becomes accustomed to it, but I did not like the constant heavy-handed references back to the source which was exacerbated by the performance of much of the second half in French period costume. It’s under the auspices of a fancy dress party, but it just felt to me like a copout: if you’re going to update Molière, then just do it, there’s no need to signpost it this heavily throughout the performance.

Acting-wise, it was nice to see Tara Fitzgerald get something to do with a few meaty scenes, after being somewhat sidelined in A Doll’s House earlier this year, and I rather liked Tim McMullan’s critic-turned-wannabe-playwright, desperate for approval. And Keira Knightley was good, with a consistent, passable American accent and an easy feel to her presence on the stage. Indeed there are no weak links in the cast which is commendable, but due to the material, I felt there was precious little opportunity for them to really shine.

This will probably serve as many a talking point over the festive party circuit, so I’m glad I’ve seen it, and indeed I am keen to see some more of Molière’s plays, but I cannot say that I could recommend this to anyone, not at the prices they are asking.

Review: The Night Flyer, BAC

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


Review: Molière or The League of Hypocrites, Finborough

“This man Molière, is he dangerous?
‘He is Satan himself'”

I hadn’t originally intended to see
Molière or The League of Hypocrites at the Finborough Theatre due to a packed festive schedule but reconsidered after a gap opened up this afternoon and a couple of realisations ocurred to me: having never seen a Molière play before I figured I may as well see one about him before going to see The Misanthrope next week, and also Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The White Guard which arrives at the National Theatre in February, so I thought what the heck and swung on down to SW10.

Explicitly about the French playwright Molière, a huge success in the court of Louis XIV until his plays started to make an enemy of the Church, which devotes its considerable energies to discrediting him by any means possible and ruining him. The play then follows Molière as he struggles to maintain “his integrity under a repressive regime”, a point made all the more poignant by the fact that Bulgakov was writing in Stalin’s Russia, suffering much the same treatment and risking it all by writing such plays.

Given the limitations of space, what this production achieves in terms of creating completely different atmospheres with the minimum of effort, and some beautifully judged costuming, was nothing short of miraculous: the shift from decadent palace to austere cathedral was particularly effective and Blanche McIntyre’s direction should be commended, although the use of Latin in the key final scene was a little alienating for those of us who did not receive a classical education. The acting was mostly strong: Paul Brendan’s turns as the court fool and Molière’s faithful companion were both effective and Gyuri Sarossy’s louche Louis XIV exuded just the right kind of playfulness and arrogance. Elsewhere I found the relative youth of much of the company a bit distracting and resulted in some miscast roles. And as the titluar playwright, I’m afraid I was a little disappointed by Justin Avoth who struggled to mine any of the requisite depths in order to engage us in Molière’s fate.

All in all, I found this to be slightly disappointing: not all bad, but in the end, not as strong a play as I was expecting, given the circumstances in which it was produced. Finally, it was an unfortunate matter of timing that with a start at 3pm and a 2 hour running time, I shared both my journey there and back with many, many Chelsea fans: not a pleasant experience and meant I had to wait 30 minutes for a tube home that wasn’t jam-packed. Saturday matinées should be booked with care here!

Review: A Christmas Carol, King’s Head

“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.

Review: Potted Potter, Trafalgar Studios

“Dumbledore’s the greatest sorcerer alive – and he went into teaching?”

Having never previously been to the tiny Studio 2 in the basement of the Trafalgar Studios, I’ve now been twice in three weeks: after the highly enjoyable Public Property comes now “the unauthorised Harry experience”, otherwise known as Potted Potter. A whirlwind trip through all 7 of the Harry Potter books, performed by two CBBC presenters, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, with a collection of wigs, props and a generous helping of tomfoolery, this was 70 minutes of warm-hearted, unchallenging, silly fun.

It’s a family-oriented show and so is strictly PG-rated, but this is probably for the best as it meant the material has worked harder to be funny rather than just smutty and innuendo-laden. And it did feel more like an extended comedy routine at times than a show per se: not that that was a bad thing, just a little unexpected. As with all the best parodies, there was some affectionate mickey-taking along with the story-telling, especially in the constant references to the outside world, but there’s no doubting how much fun the two performers were having onstage and that was infectious.
Best bits were the game of Quidditch with audience participation, including two scarily enthusiastic children who were definitely not playing for fun(!), the PowerPoint presentation explaining just who is evil in Book 3 and the final duet which brought tears to my eyes! Sadly for a family show, there was probably only about 10 kids in the audience, but as the holidays approach I hope this will pick up and in any case, this really is a show that works well for all ages.

Review: Cock, Royal Court

“Maybe you’re the most complicated sexual being that ever existed”

Staged in the round upstairs at the Royal Court, inside a three tier plywood ring (which unfortunately put both me and my companion in mind of the set of Big Brother’s Big Mouth), the provocatively named Cock is a play which is performed without artifice, without props, just remarkably intense acting and the suggestive power of movement. Ben Whishaw plays John, a gay man tumbling out of a long term relationship with an older man, M (Andrew Scott) and finding unexpected solace in the arms of a woman, W (Katherine Parkinson). What follows is a messy struggle as John finds himself conflicted, not just with his fluctuating sexuality but also with issues of identity and the nature of the relationship that he wants to pursue, whether that be with M or W.

As John, Whishaw is good here, frustratingly indecisive but charismatic enough to carry it off and Parkinson shows that her comic skills (as honed in Channel 4’s The I.T. Crowd) are truly excellent, but also matched by an unnerving capacity for remaining still yet evoking a whole emotional world around her. But it is Andrew Scott who should take no notice of Charles Spencer’s lazy and borderline homophobic comments and rather focus on other reviews and the audience reaction to what is a brilliant performance as John’s boyfriend. Taking complete ownership of the words and inhabiting them so fully, this was a convincing a display of acting as you will ever see, all the more impressive given the how exposing the set-up is. Manipulative, lovestruck, bitingly funny, this is a highly complex character but one who we connected with straightaway, even if we questioned his treatment of his younger lover, but Scott kept him touchingly vulnerable.

If I’m being honest, I found the arrival of a fourth character, the father of the boyfriend, somewhat intrusive and an unnecessary addition to this dysfunctional trifecta. Paul Jesson was good, and the dinner party scene was admittedly extremely funny, but dramatically I felt he served only as a distraction from the central relationships. And I did find it hard at times to credit the devotion displayed to John despite his overt selfishness, but on reflection I see now that this was part of Bartlett’s intention: to show that we are all only human when faced with loss and that idealised, romanticised perfect partnerships are but a fiction.

Thought-provoking in content, and indeed in its staging, Cock was a real treat, and a great opportunity to witness some excellent acting, up close and incredibly personal. Transcending the predictable analysis of bisexuality this could have been and the traditional strictures of theatrical performances, this engages, exposes, questions and challenges the audience to think about what relationships should and could look like and how we treat those we profess to love. The Royal Court continues its run of excellent shows and the rest of London’s theatres would do well to take note.

The run is now sold out and there are no day seats are available from the theatre, although you can contact the theatre to see about any last minute availability.

Review: Entertaining Mr Sloane, Trafalgar Studios

“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.