Review: La Bête, Comedy Theatre

“I have listened to you speechify for what feels like a century in hell”

Written in 1991 by American David Hirson, La Bête is set in the French court of Languedoc in the seventeenth century and is a pastiche of plays by the likes of Molière, going so far as being written entirely in verse. The rather staid and self-satisfied Elomire is the leader of a troupe of actors in favour with the Princess, but when she orders him to include the brash and vulgar Valere the stage is set for an almighty debate on artistic integrity versus commercialism and the role of patronage in the arts.

It has been cast to the hilt, Mark Rylance following on from his well-received (if not by yours truly) turn in Jerusalem plays the boorish Valere, David Hyde-Pierce making his West End debut as the prim Elomire and Joanna Lumley making a rare stage appearance as the Princess. And such is the confidence behind this production that a Broadway run has already been booked to run straight after the West End run finishes. Such confidence is interesting given that the original Broadway run flopped quite badly, something that me and my companion both well understand, for a variety of reasons.

Much as with The Misanthrope, I felt isolated from the audience at large right from the start as they whooped and laughed heartily from the very first rhyming couplet. Maybe it was the Saturday night audience, maybe I hadn’t had enough to drink but it is a while since I found repeated fart jokes and the mocking of the afflicted as funny as those around me. I can respect the virtuosity of Rylance’s opening speech which lasts over 30 minutes; it is an impressive piece of theatre that probably only he could carry off right now and it is intermittently very funny, but resorting to crude toilet humour and its subsequent reaction just disappointed me.

The dominance of Valere as a character, but also Rylance’s portrayal means that the play has little place to go after the opening salvo. Hyde-Pierce reacts well to all the posturing but there’s only so many faces of disgust one can show over half an hour and even when finally allowed to speak, he isn’t allowed any depth or complexity, it feels a criminal waste of his talents. And sad to say, there’s no honesty in Lumley’s performance as the Princess until far too late when she is finally allowed to do something more than posture and pout: both these characters being sadly underwritten and ultimately having been cast way above their remit.

Part of the problem comes from the form. It is written exclusively in rhyming couplets and I have to say that all the cast did exceptionally well in their verse reading, all of them concerned with telling the story rather than making it rhyme. But it is one trick which soon begins to try one’s patience, it is clever for sure, but just not particularly dramatic or engaging and by the final act, unbearably repetitive. There’s a chance for a raucous Springtime for Hitler type rendition of one of Valere’s plays but it is just a wasted opportunity as Two Boys from Cadiz barely raises a chuckle.

I also could not really work out what the play was trying to say. Having invested so much work in setting Valere up as the epitome of self-obsessed, low-brow showmanship, we’re then asked to buy him suddenly becoming an erudite defender of commercial art. This tension between art and commerce is never really satisfactorily dealt with and so as we slog to the finish line, it does become somewhat heavy going. So a curious one: it will probably be a relative success here, I’m not sure how it will fare across the ocean, but ultimately, Rylance’s opening speech aside, it’s a bit of a waste of some considerable talent.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with no interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 4th September

Review: Wolfboy, Trafalgar Studios 2

“I can’t bear to put things in my mouth”

Wolfboy is a musical adapted from a play by Brad Fraser. The adaptation by Russell Labey and Leon Parris played at the Edinburgh Festival last year but now takes up residence in the Trafalgar Studios 2 for a month with a slightly different cast. 17 year old Bernie has been committed to a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt but shows little inclination for dealing with his issues which may or may not involve his older brother Christian his only remaining family, rather striking up a friendship with the inmate next door, David, who thinks he is a werewolf.

Generally speaking, this was a show where the sum of its parts sadly did not add up to anything greater, this was most obvious in the supporting performances. There was a bright showing from Emma Rigby as a dryly comedic nurse providing some much needed laughs and Daniel Boys was predictably vocally strong, but their characters didn’t feel fully integrated into the show: Rigby doesn’t sing a single song and Boys’ is often left singing to a doctor whom we never see. Continue reading “Review: Wolfboy, Trafalgar Studios 2”

Review: You Me Bum Bum Train, Barbican at LEB Building

You Me Bum Bum Train is something quite special and quite different. An exhilarating participatory Created by artists Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd in Brighton in 2004, the show/installation/experience has taken on different forms and different locations, developing each time. This particular incarnation has been supported by the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award which they won last year and having been commissioned by the Barbican, they’ve set up shop at the old London Electricity Board building in Bethnal Green.

Having looked at a few of the reviews now that I’ve had my experience, it is a little disappointing to see how many of them start “I’ve been sworn to secrecy about what happened to me, but I can tell I did do this and it involved that…”, so much of the pleasure comes from having absolutely no idea whatsoever lies in store and so I’d avoid reading anything at all about the show beforehand to let the experience hit you full on and unspoiled. The only thing I will say is that I did at least two things which I never thought I’d ever get to do, not quite lifelong ambitions but I’m tickled pink that I have done them nonetheless. Continue reading “Review: You Me Bum Bum Train, Barbican at LEB Building”

Review: Nevermore, Barbican

“All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream”

Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is a show by Canadian company Catalyst Theatre and is playing a short residency in the Barbican’s main theatre as part of their bite festival and the London International Festival of Theatre. Using a mixture of physical theatre and songs, it follows Poe’s life from his troubled childhood to the unexplained circumstances around his death, mixed into the narrative are hallucinatory dream sequences as we see the events of his life as if told in the manner of one of own stories.

There’s a whole raft of comparisons that one could make to try and describe the world created by Catalyst on the stage here; the Jan Pieńkowski books of my childhood, Tim Burton, the Lemony Snicket film, Dr Seuss, these should give you an inkling of the type of thing we’re talking about here as otherwise I’m not sure I could do it justice. Bretta Gerecke’s design draws on all of these, using a wall of gauzy black lace screens to move between reality and the imagination, and creates a world full of exaggerated, grotesque images and characters, enhanced by some very effective lighting and shadow-play. Continue reading “Review: Nevermore, Barbican”

Review: Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Presume not that I am the thing I was”
 

As we approach the mid-point in the Globe’s calendar for the Kings and Rogues season, Henry IV Part 2 is the latest play to open on Bankside, booking right through until October. Following directly on from the events of Henry IV Part 1, it follows the same characters as the increasingly frail King worries about whether his son Prince Hal is ready to assume the kingship, having fallen back into his wayward ways, Falstaff and his motley crew continue to live life to the full but the shadow of their mortality loom long on the horizon and though rebellion has been quashed, there are still murmurings of discontent.

This is indeed a more reflective play and nowhere is this better personified than in Jamie Parker’s Hal. He looks and sounds older, more mature, having grown into the role of a statesman able to forgive those that crossed him in the past and become the son his father has long sought after by outgrowing the feckless compatriots of his younger days as shown in the crushing final scene. Continue reading “Review: Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Feelings invade me and leave me in shock”

Part of the Blaze festival and renewing the co-producing relationship between Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Barbican, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky is playing at the East London theatre for a full fortnight. Composed by John Adams and libretto by June Jordan, the title of the play is taken from a quote by a survivor of the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles. The entirely sung-through musical play follows seven young Americans from different ethnicities and backgrounds, struggling to deal with the challenges urban life is throwing them, especially around race, sexuality and immigration.

Former gang leader Dewain is arrested for stealing two bottles of beer in a rush to meet his girlfriend, Consuelo, an illegal El Salvadorean immigrant, by rookie policeman Mike. The incident is caught on tape by Tiffany, an ambitious tv reporter and then used by Vietnamese-American lawyer Rick to plead for Dewain’s innocence. Consuelo is also being counselled on family planning issues by Leila, but she is having to deal with the attentions of local preacher David. Then, the earthquake hits and all the characters have to deal with the repercussions, emotional and physical, on their lives as priorities are significantly reassessed. Continue reading “Review: I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, Theatre Royal Stratford East”

Review: Assassins, Union Theatre

“Something bewildering occurred”

Assassins is the latest revival paying tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim in his 80th year, in a steady flow of productions which looks set to continue throughout the year with Into the Woods and Passion at the Open Air Theatre and the Donmar respectively. Playing in Southwark’s Union Theatre, this play looks at 9 people, all connected by their attempts to kill a President of the United States of America, some successful, some unsuccessful, as they re-enact their crimes in a timeless smoky limbo where they can interact with each other and we see their own twisted take on the American dream as they look for meaning in what they tried to do. 

I was surprised to find that I just didn’t get it. Indeed I found it quite hard work: musically I did not find it particularly tuneful (only ‘Unworthy Of Your Love’ has a melody that you could remember 15 minutes after the show had ended) and consequently rather uninvolving. And in its subject matter and structure, it assumes quite an intimate knowledge of American political history, with its array of mostly (to me at least)unfamiliar  characters, all out of their historical context to make things even easier. Continue reading “Review: Assassins, Union Theatre”

Review: Live at Wilton’s Gala Launch, Wilton’s Music Hall

“Fate beckoned her…into a rather queer, unfamiliar atmosphere”

Entering the atmospheric entrance space of Wilton’s Music Hall for the gala launch of their Live at Wilton’s cabaret shows, my heart sank upon seeing the sign that said “due to unforeseen circumstance Hannah Waddingham is unable to perform tonight”. I’d booked mainly to see her again and having seen her at the Open Air Theatre on Tuesday watching The Comedy of Errors, I was rather disappointed but when the rest of the line-up includes Gwyneth Herbert, David McAlmont and Siân Phillips and you can call on Marc Almond for back up, you know you’re in for a good night anyway.

Live at Wilton’s is an attempt to secure the future of cabaret in London, somewhat timely with Pizza on the Park closing and Wilton’s Music Hall is laying claim to actually being the birthplace of cabaret in 1858, some 23 years before Le Chat Noir. It was an eclectic bill for sure, mixing the traditional with the ultra-modern, musical theatre with jazz, proper old-school music hall singalongs with the downright quirky. But it’s a programme that fits with Wilton’s Music Hall’s vision for its future, bringing together a vast array of talent to perform within its history-filled walls and covering all sorts of musical bases with a strong vein of storytelling running through them. And this evening displayed how it can suit so many styles of music perfectly; McAlmont’s vocal improvisations and Herbert’s ukulele-driven final number both making the most of the venue’s acoustics without microphones and being all-the-more effective for it. Continue reading “Review: Live at Wilton’s Gala Launch, Wilton’s Music Hall”

Review: The Road To Mecca, Arcola

“You are more radiant than all your little candles”

Set in 1970s South Africa, The Road To Mecca is part of an Athol Fugard mini-season at the Arcola Theatre, the UK premiere of Coming Home taking place in the smaller Studio 2 there. Miss Helen lives alone in an isolated village in the Karoo desert of South Africa. She has discovered herself as an artist since the death of her husband and her house and garden is now filled with works of arts and statues and glitter and candles as she tries to keep the darkness at bay.

Her pursuit of her craft has left her isolated from the community and the local church, thus her circle of friends has resultantly dwindled and we meet two of the most significant during the play as they try and persuade her that they know what is best for them. Marius is the local pastor who believes that she’d be better off in an old people’s home. And there’s Elsa, a young teacher but an old friend, who now lives in Cape Town who has made the 12 hour drive to see her friend because she is seriously concerned for her welfare. Continue reading “Review: The Road To Mecca, Arcola”

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Open Air Theatre

“For they say every why hath a wherefore”

The second play in this year’s season at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. An early farce featuring two sets of identical twins separated at birth, they end up in the same town and several cases of mistaken identity then lead to a series of madcap capers and general confusion as everyone begins to question their relationships with others. This production is set in 1940s Casablanca and features amongst many, many other things, live swing music.

There’s so much going on and so many different tricks and whistles that it ultimately feels quite schizophrenic as a production. There are elements of ‘40s screwball comedy, jazz musicals and Carry On films amongst others, but they just didn’t feel well integrated. This was particularly obvious in Egeon’s scenes which were played straight and without fanfare and so felt tonally as if they were from a whole different play: scenes tend to stop and start as whatever new device is employed rather than flow from one to the other. Continue reading “Review: The Comedy of Errors, Open Air Theatre”