Review: Songs of Innocence, South Bank Centre

Part of the Meltdown festival being curated by Patti Smith this year was an evening so perfect it was almost picked from my personal wishlist of people I’d love to see on one stage. The loose theme was William Blake’s Songs of Innocence though it was expanded in reality to include songs from and about childhood and even wider than that, protest songs. But essentially, it was just an excuse to see some seriously amazing female singers (and a couple of men) whom I loved for ages and I never thought I’d see on the same bill.

Tori Amos’ 4 songs were a personal highlight, getting to hear Silent All These Years and Winter from Little Earthquakes was amazing, plus Pretty Good Year and Mother Revolution added up to an emotionally wrenching and intense set. Sinéad O’Connor was much more low key than expected,  a gently-strummed guitar backing a murmured, even placid collection of numbers of which only Scarlet Ribbons really made the impact I wanted from her. Beth Orton’s endearing goofiness made her brace of songs highly engaging, returning later to deliver Dolphins exceptionally well, and Marianne Faithful commanded huge presence especially with a scorching version of Working Class Hero.

Eliza Carthy and Kristin Hersh counterpointed each other beautifully with folk songs from either side of the Atlantic; Smith’s own contributions rocked, including a sensational rendition of Birdland off her seminal disc Horses; and we were blessed with readings from the gorgeously mellifluous voices of actresses Miranda Richardson and Tilda Swinton. Even a bizarre interlude from Yoko Ono somehow worked for me, though I was probably more excited just to have been able to see her live without having to go through a whole show’s worth of her unique brand of randomness.

I’d’ve probably left the boys out of it in the end, Billy Bragg and Tim Booth (lead singer of James) feeling a little superfluous in the grand scheme of things, but the joys of the evening were so many and varied that the once in a lifetime feeling never really left me from start to finish. Cracking stuff.

Review: Henry IV Part II, National Theatre

Continuing from Part I, Henry IV Part II lends itself to a lighter interpretation due to the even higher comic content in its examination of the quirks of the human being, in particular of the Englishman. With one insurrection quashed by Hal’s victory over Hotspur, another mounts up to threaten England and in quashing it, Henry IV hastens his own death. The young Prince Hal now has to step up even further to the mark as his heir, all the while resisting the ever-present grasping hands of Falstaff who wants to milk his relationship to the future King for all it is worth.

I’m not sure what it was about this show that made me like it so much more than Part I, but I felt that the whole ensemble was pulling together much stronger: Susan Brown as Mistress Quickly and Eve Myles as Doll Tearsheet,the two women hankering after Falstaff were both good, Jeffery Kisoon as a fading Lord Percy roused great emotion for his fallen son and Gambon continues his excellent comic work.

David Bradley was much better here as the physically frailer King on his deathbed, stretched by his doubts and self-pity, but John Wood and Adrian Scarborough as Justices Shallow and Silence are scene-stealingly good with their comic relief scenes which were probably the best bits of the entire six hours. Scarborough is especially good as he also plays Hal’s sidekick Poins with little time to change but managing to affect a massively different physical performance.

Having seen Part II and enjoyed it so much more, I actually want to revisit Part I with a different mindset to see what I was missing. Much is done through the use of body language and I don’t think I was paying enough attention to that, rather listening intently to the language so perhaps much of that passed me by. As it stands though, together this Henry IV is a strong six hour epic which is at its best when focusing uncomplicatedly on the humour.

Review: Henry IV Part I, National Theatre

Forming a six hour epic, Nicholas Hytner’s productions of Henry IV Part I and Part II take up residence in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre. You can see them on the same day if you so desire (and your bum can take it) but we went on different days as a small thing called work got in the way!

The plays deal with the troubled reign of King Henry IV as he deals with rebellion and civil war, while his son and heir, Prince Hal, prefers to hang around East London with small-time criminals led by the aged, corpulent alcoholic Falstaff. They cover the whole breadth of English society at the time they were written, from aristocratic infighting right the way down to sleazy prostitution.

It wasn’t particularly bad, but it just didn’t have the kind of quality of performance throughout the ensemble that I was expecting. The balance of the comic with the noble, which marks this play as rather unique in Shakespeare’s canon in that the comic content is unusually high for one of his Histories, needs to be carefully observed so that all aspects of the play work and I’m not sure that was achieved particularly well here. Michael Gambon’s Falstaff is wonderfully funny and strong, a huge stage presence but so much so that David Bradley’s King Henry is blown away: Bradley can’t really compete as he lacks the gravitas that the King ought to have. Likewise, Hotspur as played by David Harewood is such a physical presence that it is hard to imagine Matthew Macfadyen’s Prince Hal ever being able to beat him in combat as Hal’s journey from lad-about-town to potential King isn’t sufficiently developed, focusing too much on the drinking fun.

This is not to say that they are badly acted, all four men do good work as does Naomi Frederick as Hotspur’s wife, but as a whole it just didn’t work for me as a cohesive ensemble. The design is stark and spare, a giant ramp forms the most part of the stage with video screens adding depth and interest, lighting is muted, costumes are dark and traditional, the whole mood tends towards the sombre which is probably for the best, but resulted in my attention sometimes wandering.

Review: The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe

This visit to the Globe came in Mark Rylance’s last season as artistic director and was to a rather experimental production of The Tempest. Exiled from his rightful place as Duke of Milan, Prospero is set adrift at sea with his young daughter Miranda. They eventually reach a remote island where they create a new life for themselves with the magical creatures that populate it. But fate strikes 12 years later as his enemies are shipwrecked on the same island, old scores are settled and new love is found.
Did I enjoy it? I honestly don’t know how I felt about it. Even now, a couple of days later, it still bemuses me more than anything. It was just so confusing. I know the play fairly well but got frequently lost as to what was going on, even my Aunty Jean who’s an English teacher and has taught the play for many years found it most difficult to keep track of who was talking to who and at this point one has to wonder for whom is this production being put on? It felt a bit too much like a vanity project than an essential piece of drama-telling.

It was a herculean feat by the three actors to be sure, and there were moments of beauty: Rylance’s mastery of Shakespeare’s verse means he was a highly affecting Prospero, Edward Hogg brings more humour to Miranda than I’ve seen before which was a nice touch and Alex Hassell’s sheer physicality as Caliban was just excellent. And they each covered their other ‘main’ character well: Rylance’s Stephano gave hilarious drunken comedy, Hogg’s ethereal Ariel had a wonderful connection to his Miranda, really helping to make sense of where the production was coming from in terms of everything being inside Prospero’s head, and Hassell’s Ferdinand is a masculine delight. But drilling down further led to brains hurting with the minor roles with Rylance having a conversation with himself at one point as two characters and Hogg having to shift completely to play drunken as Trinculo.

The staging didn’t really help matters either with the few props being used so effectively once or twice and then overused, seemingly simply because they were there. The chess pieces and the hanging rope did both have their moments but became tiresome by the end. The dancers in modern dress (well 80s inspired tbh) didn’t work for me, only really making sense when explicitly referenced as the spirits being called forth. As ‘invisible’ Fates, they were much less successfully integrated into the feel of the piece. And the six singers from on high, although sounding wonderful, even exquisite in places, added another layer of confusion, both visually with their costuming (Ancient Greek) and in terms of their role within the production. Ultimately, they are just distractions, intermittently entertaining, but distractions nonetheless in an already confusing experience.

And so ultimately it come across as something as a disappointment in the final analysis. No matter how well versed you are in this play or well-spoken this production is, it is too concept-driven and too experimental to come off as a truly successful adaptation and sadly for us, it didn’t really deliver as a piece of entertainment either.

Review: Acorn Antiques The Musical, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Some shows you just know are going to get bad reviews but these are quite often shows that certain people are going to love no matter what and so it was with me and Acorn Antiques The Musical. I loved Victoria Wood’s sketch show from the moment I remember seeing it (I’m northern, it is in the contract) and so when I heard that she was writing a musical based on it, there was no doubt what my request for a birthday present would be: tickets to see it at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, Wood took on sole responsibility for the show, writing book, music and lyrics and managed to persuade many of the original stars from the show to reprise their roles: Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston and of course, Julie Walters. And when the show focuses on recreating the hilarity that was Acorn Antiques the show as we remember it, this has to be one of the funniest nights I have ever had at the theatre, I was helpless with laughter for so much of it.

Unfortunately though, Wood and Nunn between them have gone a bit meta with the first half which sees the original stars of the axed TV show meeting to rehearse a stage version of the show which has been taken over by a pretentious arty director wants to make it gritty and twisted. It isn’t bad but it doesn’t really fit into the world of the musical that well, certainly not this musical, and whilst there are some winning numbers in here, the Les Mis take off is particularly good and the shambolic dance number combined with Walters’ backstage microphone shenanigans during the open rehearsal were great, one could feel the relief of the audience as Act II opened with a straight rendition of Acorn Antiques the Musical as we all expected, instead of the slightly mocking tone which permeates to begin with.

And everything is there that we recognise from the show, the letters of the shop name falling down, the missed cues, the bumping into each trying to get into the frame, with added bonuses like tap routines, word puzzles, even an appearance from Ronnie Corbett. Wood feels much more comfortable writing here, the songs fit well, the humour is situated in the right place and the performances flow better too. Duncan Preston’s Mr Clifford could have been given more to do but he is good fun, Josie Lawrence is great value as both the dowdy costume woman in the first half and ball-breaking Bonnie in the second and I loved Sally Ann Triplett’s Miss Berta who never quite looks or sounds comfortable, just like Wood herself in the original, with brilliantly amusing awkwardness but also a beautiful singing voice when needed.

But it is about the dames-to-be Imrie and Walters when it comes down to it and neither of them disappointed. Imrie is brilliant as Miss Babs, her comic skills pull her through everything with ease and vocally she managed well, the customer song with Berta was one of my favourites and the vampy Have You Met Miss Babs was close to being a showstopper. But when there is a number devoted to macaroons, sprinkled liberally with hysterical profanities and delivered by a surprisingly strong-voiced Julie Walters, you know you’re onto a winner: I’ve never come so close to giving a standing ovation in the middle of a show before! And combined with the ensemble’s Mrs Overall song complete with moving staircase, these moments more than make up for the first half by amusing you no end and never letting you forget we’re squarely in Manchesterford.

So a hairy moment or two to begin with, but ultimately as good as I knew it was going to be. This will not change a single person’s mind about musicals or Victoria Wood but for fans of either or both, you are in for an absolute treat.

Review: The House of Bernarda Alba, National Theatre

I do love me some actresses, and I always get a thrill when I hear the words ‘all-female cast’ so I was very much inclined to book for The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre. A new version by David Hare has been commissioned of Lorca’s classic (I say classic, I’ve never read it…) which bemoaned the way in which women were treated at the time but hinted metaphorically at his own repressed homosexuality and the increasingly oppression that brought about Franco’s rule.

Set in 1930s Spain in a stunningly mounted (by Vicki Mortimer) palace of an Andalusian house, the Alba household is mourning the death of matriarch Bernarda’s husband but the actual feeling is one more akin to liberation as it turns out she relishes the chance to take control of the family, of her five unmarried daughters, and maintain the staunchly Catholic ethos of sexual repression despite the natural urges of her girls.

For there’s a man, there’s always a man, who becomes engaged to the eldest (and ostensibly the ugliest) as she inherits much of her father’s wealth. But jealous of her potential escape from the household through marriage, two other sisters also fall for the same gentleman, one of them even allowing him to deflower her and the explosive consequences result in tragic ends.

As the five daughters, Sandy McDade, Justine Mitchell, Katherine Manners, Jo McInnes and Sally Hawkins were all excellent, evoking a lifetime of simmering resentments and sibling rivalries with their acting and particularly with their heavily weighted silences and as the girls with perhaps the most to lose, McDade as the eldest and Hawkins as the youngest really were exceptional.

But it is Penelope Wilton as the vicious, stick-wielding Bernarda, as much a damaged product of the society as anyone else, but a darkly dominant force, determined to protect the family’s reputation even if it means tearing the family apart from inside by closing her eyes and ears to the power of emotions like love, lust and jealousy. Deborah Findlay as her servant/confidante matches Wilton well, trying in vain to warn her, but ultimately serving her mistress.

But though the sense of devastating tragedy is never far away, what makes this production directed by Howard Davies so engaging is the humour that is laced through so much of the play. The strained family relations chime with recognisably human moments, beautifully played by this excellent cast, and making me wish there were more opportunities for all-female casts to impress so much as they do here.

Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre

Most of what I wanted to say about His Dark Materials have been made in the earlier review of Part I, but I wanted to separate the reviews out as they are treated as separate plays although I can’t imagine anyone would just see Part I, especially with its cliff-hanger ending, and I know I couldn’t have waited any longer than the couple of hours that we did to see Part II on the same day.

This part is where some of the more obvious changes to the original books are more evident. Much of the third book has been excised, the character of Mary Malone not used here and the amber spyglass becomes less important as a result. But the story still works nonetheless, and the trip to the Land of the Dead has to rank as one of the most beautifully realised pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, haunting and incredibly moving. Likewise, the ending to the whole story was devastatingly done, leaving me crying for a good 10 minutes after we had left the theatre even though I knew what was coming.

Altogether, it just formed a purely magical day of theatre: everything I hoped it would be, mightily impressive technically, so very movingly acted and a perfect adaptation of the novels which was unafraid to strike out a little to form its own artistic merit.

Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre

The National Theatre revived their adaption of His Dark Materials for a second run in answer to my prayers, or so I like to believe, in order to let me see it. The novels by Phillip Pullman are among my all-time favourites and though the idea of translating them to the stage caused me a little trepidation, I was immensely glad of the opportunity of the chance to see the shows.

Adapted with love and precision by Nicholas Wright who has been daring enough to make the judicious cuts necessary to create a workable piece of theatre out of the at-times-sprawling works of literature that form Pullman’s trilogy, the story that is told here is strong and cohesive and told with a sensitive clarity (although I can’t be sure how clear it actually is to anyone who hasn’t read the novels, truth be told). We follow the coming-of-age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and their adventure across a set of parallel universes as they search for answers to huge questions they both have, a journey that causes them to cross paths with polar bears, angels, witches, Texan explorers and in one of the most contentious of the strands of Pullman’s work, the organised might of the Church.

Though all elements are extremely strong, the design work by Giles Cadle is just awe-inspiring with a multitude of universes and locations created by a stunning set which utilises the full capacity of the revolving and rising drum of the Olivier in a way I could never have imagined. And the way in which the daemons, the animal embodiments of the human souls in Lyra’s world, were done, using various forms of puppetry and human interaction was just magical.

In a large ensemble cast, it did not feel like anyone at all was weak. Adjoa Andoh’s Serafina Pekkala was just perfect though, in a slightly expanded role, Elliot Levey’s cleric was suitably creepy, David Harewood’s Lord Asriel nicely aristocratic and Lesley Manville’s Mrs Coulter was a brilliantly tight ball of malevolent love, matching my thoughts of how the role should be portrayed very well. Elaine Symons’ Lyra was beautifully earnest and being slightly older, made more appropriate use of the sexual awakening of the character than I was anticipating, convincing as someone on the cusp of maturity and she was well matched by Jamie Harding’s eager Pantalaimon. Michael Legge’s Will was a more different interpretation to what I was expecting though, more of a miseryguts which made his own vulnerability a bit more touching.

Above all though, it just felt like a perfect adaptation, unafraid to step outside of the established world of the books and create something new, although wholly recognisable. And the unexpected pleasure of the cliff-hanger ending to Part I was something I’ve never experienced before in the theatre and should be used more!!

Review: Don Carlos, Gielgud Theatre

Taking up residency on Shaftesbury Avenue, this production of Don Carlos directed by Michael Grandage was originated at the Crucible in Sheffield last year and received rave reviews. It is one of Schiller’s less performed works apparently, but I have to admit this was the first time I had seen any his plays (or indeed heard of him, eek!) so a new experience for me.

Don Carlos is passionately in love with Elizabeth, the French Princess to whom he was once betrothed. Carlos’ tyrannical father, King Philip II of Spain, decides to marry Elizabeth himself. The young prince’s hatred for his cold and distant parent knows no bounds. He enlists his oldest friend the Marquis of Posa to act as go-between. But Posa decides to convert Carlos and Elizabeth’s youthful passion into a full scale rebellion against King Philip’s oppressive and bloody regime.

It is heavy stuff, examining the nature of the relationship between church and state, especially with a dictator at the helm, but it is also an intimately personal drama with a King who is incapable of normal human relationships, even with his own son. As Philip II, Derek Jacobi dominates the stage with a hugely brilliant performance of an isolated man, unable to gain the same succour from power as he would from love and equally unable to change.

Around him though are a range of good performances: Richard Coyle’s titular Carlos is a dreamy romantic irreparably damaged by the lack of love from his father and he is brilliantly balanced with Elliot Cowan’s Posa whose idealistic nobility pushes everyone closer to the precipice; Peter Eyre’s Inquisitor is a vision in chilling scarlet and I was also impressed with Una Stubbs and Claire Price as the captive royal wife.

It looked amazing with Christopher Oram’s design evoking a starkly religious Spain and with menacing music and lighting enhancing the mood, this was a highly enjoyable production, fiercely intense and excellently acted. My only complaint was the use of so much incense in the swinging thing they used: it was a little too much especially for us up in the gods as it collected up there and lulled several to doziness!

Review: Chicago, Cambridge Theatre

If you wait long enough, it feels like you could watch anyone you wanted to in Chicago such is the roundabout that is their ever-changing cast, but recently it has become to go-to place for television stars to come and tread the boards. Jill Halfpenny is the latest person to make this journey, but in winning Strictly Come Dancing, has already established her dance credentials and so this show feels like a good fit for her.

She’s in the role of Roxie Hart, an ambitious chorus girl who murders murders her lover, smears her husband’s name and razzle-dazzles her way in court in order to make herself a star. The show mixes great songs, Fosse-inspired dance routines and a whole load of showmanship into an exuberant whole which is now probably one of the longest-running shows in the West End.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as mad keen on the rest of the show around her which disappointed on a few levels. Anna Montanaro’s Velma Kelly was vocally quite weak and lyrically very unclear, French looked like her was just going through the motions and there was not a lot of cohesion in the chorus, most of them look gorgeous and buff but there were rarely synchronised well. Maybe this is because I had the film in my mind throughout, but ultimately this production did feel a little shabby.

Halfpenny does well as a character who seems so very far from her own (one disadvantage of reality tv over regular acting means that one gets a greater sense of actors as people rather than their acting skills) but pulls it off really rather well. Her American accent was flawless, her dancing strong and she has a great sense of comic timing too, her rendition of We Both Reached for the Gun with Michael French’s Billy French was hysterical. She seems very much at home on the stage, no awkwardness or over-acting and given that she was reason I’d booked to see the show, this made me very happy.