Review – Bananarama, Eventim Apollo, 9th December 2017

BananaramaMrs Chrisparkle and I have never really been into the pop/rock gig culture. My first proper concert wasn’t until I was 22 when a friend took me to see Simon and Garfunkel at Wembley; might as well start with a biggie. Then, one very wet day in 1984, I went with friends to see Genesis in the muddy squalor of the Milton Keynes Bowl – the last time that Peter Gabriel performed with them. Talk Talk were the support act – before their classic hit, It’s My Life. Before we met, Mrs C had seen both Howard Jones (yes) and Cliff Richard (oh yes) in Sydney. Some years later we would both see Howard Jones again – still a fan; and we were unfortunate enough to see Cliff Richard in the musical Time. Let’s draw a veil over that one.

BananasSince then we’ve seen a few, largely retro, performances of some big names of the past, such as Adam Ant, UB40, Lulu, and that doyenne of heavy metal, Petula Clark. Seeing these big names has always a most enjoyable experience. When it was announced that Bananarama were coming back with a mini-tour, my social media timeline went berserk. Unfortunately, so did the booking queues and at first I thought we’d missed out. But then they announced one extra date right at the end of the tour and somehow, with hardly any notice, I snuck in and secured us a couple of tickets.

Rough JusticeIt’s only looking back that you realise quite what a legacy of brilliant pop the girls left behind, although it’s fascinating to see from their discography that they never scored a UK Number One – unless you count their contribution to Live Aid. Starting off with those incredibly languid first few songs, they pepped up with some poppy cover versions, then ended up with the full Stock Aitken Waterman sound. Get one of their songs in your head and there’s no way out. I have a confession to make though, regarding two of their biggest hits; I prefer the originals. Don’t judge me.

Nathan JonesOf course, the Hammersmith Apollo was packed; our seats in Row S were surprisingly good, because the rake there is perfect and you’re still close enough to the stage to get the waft of a banana. They opened with Nathan Jones – one of the cover versions that I really like – and within a few minutes the crowd was ecstatic with nostalgia and appreciation for their really, very silly dance routine. I have to say the Bananas still look absolutely terrific; Siobhan’s older than I am, and that’s Really Saying Something. I’m no vocal expert but my guess is that you don’t have to be the best singer in the world to nail these numbers; their secret was all in their style.

Cheers ThenRather than have me tell you all the songs they sang, I’ll just say that, basically, they sang everything you’d expect. The only number missing that I would have liked to hear was their Comic Relief cover version of Help. An early treat was Robert de Niro’s Waiting, because everyone instantly sang along to create a great feeling of camaraderie within the Apollo. I was pleased that they performed Cheers Then, because I’ve always looked on it as the underdog of their repertoire, only getting to No 45 in the UK charts, and it took me years to track down a copy of the single at some obscure record fair. I hooted at delight when they sang Cruel Summer – that’s my favourite; their downbeat style suited perfectly the thorough sadness of that song.Venus As it did with Rough Justice, which I found surprisingly moving. Many of their songs were accompanied by video clips of them all, innocently larking around back in the day, meshed together in some very lively and exciting visual backgrounds which complemented the performances nicely. Siobhan left the stage when they sang Shakespeare’s Sister’s Stay – a certain irony there – and of course everyone went hysterical for Venus, I Heard a Rumour (which came over incredibly well), Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye and I Want You Back. For the final two songs we had a truly funky rendition of It Ain’t What You Do… and Love in the First Degree closed the show.

GoodbyeIt was an enormously fun night – the whole theatre was in a great mood – and there was a lot of love going on for all our yesterdays. Very glad we were able to make it!

StayP. S. OK! I’ll tell you which of those cover versions are not as good as the originals, IMHO. I prefer the hippiness of Steam’s Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye; and nothing can compare with the guitars on Shocking Blue’s original version of Venus.

FinaleP. P. S. There were a group of extremely well-dressed people in the row directly in front of us, including two older guys in very sharp suits. They all seemed to be having a great time, constantly saying hello to people, posing for selfies, and so on. It was only as we were on the way out at the end that we realised one of them was Andrew Ridgley.

Review – Imperium, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 7th December 2017

ImperiumWhat’s an imperium, I hear you ask? Good question. Tiro, Cicero’s slave, whom he frees to become his personal secretary, explains all in the first play of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. Imperium is the word the Romans used to mean the power of life and death given by the State into the hands of a single individual. In other words, if you get an imperium, you’re an awfully powerful guy.

Cicero the ConsulI had no expectations of this theatrical treat in advance of the full day’s commitment required to see the plays in one fell swoop. Gentle reader, I am no classics scholar, unless you count my Latin O level, Grade B, of which I am (I believe) justly proud. Before seeing this production, I knew very little of Cicero; apparently, he came from a family of chick-pea magnates, who knew? I haven’t read Robert Harris’ books, although I did spot him in the audience – along with, inter alia, Richard Wilson and Jeremy Irons. I know, shamelessly star-spotting. If anything, I was fearful of a rather dry and dusty Latinate trawl through speeches and murders and Ides of March. And whilst those elements do exist in this seven hours plus marathon (yes, really), there’s absolutely nothing dry or dusty about it. In fact, I had no idea at all that within the first ten minutes I’d be laughing my head off at the interplay between Tiro, nattering intimately with the audience, and Cicero, moaning in the background, complaining of Tiro’s excessive exposition.

Tiro the SecretaryThis is a hugely entertaining, beautifully written, superbly performed examination of Cicero at the heart of Roman Republic conspiracies, and one of the most enjoyable trips to the theatre I’ve had in ages. There are two plays – Part One, Conspirator, and Part Two, Dictator, and if you don’t see them all on the same day I would most definitely recommend you see them in the right order. Each is split into three parts, so you get the rather old-fashioned delight of having two intervals. I always think that makes more of an event of an evening at the theatre; Coward, Rattigan and their ilk would have been thrilled. Part One follows Cicero’s successful election as Consul, much to the annoyance of his rival Catiline; and the machinations of those other power-players, the super-rich Crassus and the ambitious Julius Caesar. We also see Cicero’s family life, with his loyal but frequently dismayed wife Terentia, and his adored daughter Tullia; and there are his protégés, Clodius and Rufus, neither of whom are entirely reliable. By the end of the first play, Cicero seems to be on his way down, and Clodius is on the ascendant. The second play moves on to Caesar’s success and his murder – which has consequences that permeate the remainder of the evening, plus the subsequent misrule of Mark Antony, and the rise of young Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son.

Antony the UnreliableAnthony Ward’s superb design literally sets the scene, with a close-up of two mosaic eyes on the back wall suggesting that, when in Rome, Frater Magnus is always watching you. Stairs descend on to the stage, creating the perfect illusion of the Senate; behind them are hidden further stairs where the mob might approach from below. Beneath the surface of the main stage, the floor opens up inventively to reveal further stairs down; or Lucullus’ fish pool; or any one of a number of clever entrance/exit opportunities. Gareth Ellis’ merry band of six musicians play Paul Englishby’s stirring incidental music to great effect, at times both spookily conspiratorial and triumphantly magisterial.

Terentia the HumiliatedThere are a couple of things that slightly irritated me about the production; and they are slight. The first, I guess, is Robert Harris’ fault. I was a little disappointed to discover at the beginning of the second play that we don’t get to see what happened under Clodius’ rule; he ends the first play so menacingly that there’s got to be a fine tale to tell there. Sadly, we don’t see it for ourselves, although good old Tiro fills us in with all the missing information that happened between the two plays. Secondly, why does Cicero age throughout the second play, so that by the end he is an old man, whereas neither Tiro nor Cicero’s brother, Quintus, befall the same fate? Maybe they dosed up on the Caligae Numerus Septem; they should let us know their secret. And they didn’t need the unsubtlety of presenting Pompey as a Roman Donald Trump, which was basically a cheap laugh at the expense of a more appropriate characterisation. He should have taken a leaf out of Tiro’s book, who makes some very funny allusions to 2017 Britain and its crises whilst still remaining definitely Anno B.C. However, having a couple of aberrations in seven-and-a-half hours’ worth of theatre is, I think, perfectly forgivable.

Catiline the BrutalI’ve seen Richard McCabe on stage a few times in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for how stupendously good he is as Cicero. I know it’s a cliché, but this genuinely is the role he was born to play. He captures every aspect of his personality perfectly, from his oratory, his thinly veiled faux-humility when he’s told how great he is, his calculating ability to take a risk when dealing with powerful people, to his doting on his daughter and his severe disappointment to his wife. Noble of spirit, but also delightfully human too, he’s a sheer joy to watch. For much of the time he performs an incredibly effective double act with Joseph Kloska as Tiro. A faithful servant, but always on hand to speak his mind and give valuable advice, Mr Kloska gives a tremendous performance. He takes us the audience into his confidence and we look on him as a likeable old pal and a direct conduit for us to get involved in all these political machinations. We trust and admire Tiro, and believe every word he says. For this to work, it’s vital for Mr Kloska to build a great relationship with the audience and he truly does.

Caesar the RuthlessNo one in this wonderful cast puts a foot wrong, with some stunning individual performances and extended scenes of really exciting and memorable drama. Joe Dixon is superb, first as the aggressive and bullying Cataline, scarred and scary, and then in the second play as the mercurial Mark Antony, with his alternating soft and violent approaches to dealing with the SPQR. Peter de Jersey is also riveting to watch as the cutthroat Julius Caesar, from his early days “discussing land reform with the wife of a client” (yeah right) to his maniacally imperious ascendance to becoming a god. Pierro Neel-Mie is outstanding as the louche Clodius, following his progress from caring Ciceronian acolyte to power-mad Tribune; a man who says it’s time to seek a wife, and this time not someone else’s, a man prepared to commit sacrilege at the temple of the Vestal Virgins by waving his willy at them. Mr Neel-Mie returns in the second play as the quietly vicious Agrippa, Octavian’s right-hand man; and you wouldn’t want to cross him.

Cato the InspirationalThere are also excellent performances from Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s follower-cum-opponent Rufus, and as the totally unnerving Octavian – if ever butter-wouldn’t-melt turned into the sourest desire for retribution, he’s your man. Siobhan Redmond is excellent as Terentia in a performance that progresses directly from comedy to tragedy; as is John Dougall as a delightfully hesitant Brutus, Michael Grady-Hall as a scruffy but charismatic Cato and David Nicolle as a slimy Crassus. But the whole ensemble is magnificent, and everyone works together to create a superb piece of tight, gripping theatre. You’d never know you’d spent virtually all day in the theatre, it’s so enjoyable that the time just flies by.

Octavian the VengefulIf you don’t know how Cicero’s story ends – well I’m not going to tell you, but if a cat has nine lives, I guess he reached his tenth. Find out for yourself by going to see these brilliant plays between now and 10th February 2018.

Production Photos by Ikin Yum

Review – A Christmas Carol, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 6th December 2017

A Christmas CarolIn the absence of Mrs Chrisparkle, who was called away on urgent business in the States, I was graciously accompanied by Lady Lichfield to see the RSC’s new production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by that fantastic writer David Edgar (Yes! Nicholas Nickleby! Destiny! Albie Sachs! Author of so many superb contributions to our stages over the past forty years or more). There are few books that have lent themselves so effectively to adaptations over the years as A Christmas Carol – from Alastair Sim to the Muppets, and not forgetting Tommy Steele’s regular reappearances in Scrooge The Musical.

Phil DavisAnd here’s another one to add to the canon. David Edgar has taken the familiar redemption story of Scrooge, the Cratchits, Marley and the Ghosts and framed it inside the creative mind of Charles Dickens. Many of the more exhilarating works of art are about the creative process that brings about that very same work of art. Consider the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is about the film crew making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Or Elton John’s Your Song, which is about how he came to write Your Song. Now we get the chance to observe how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

The CompanyHis original notion, according to Edgar, was to create a hard-hitting tract on the poor and the workhouses. But as his editor and friend John Forster, who accompanies Dickens on this creation-fest, points out, it’s Christmas and no one wants to read a gloomy but worthy pamphlet. Forster makes Dickens think again. Brainstorming names, Scratch becomes Scrooge and a legend is born. Dickens then himself appears in many of the scenes as he tries to imagine himself in his own story, encouraging his characters to reveal themselves as truthfully as possible. It’s a fresh and enjoyable approach to the story and helps to place it in the context of early Victorian poverty.

Phil Davis and Gerard CareyNevertheless, I was still surprised by how very sentimental I found it. Of course, it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing, or not. Some people like to wallow in it; personally, I find the story rather mawkish. It’s not often that one looks to Agatha Christie for a critical assessment of someone else’s work, but I can’t help but agree with her character Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, when talking of the snowdrift, says “takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim. So bogus.” When the adult (not so Tiny) Tim emerges at the end, alive and well due to the generosity of Scrooge, Lady Lichfield confessed to releasing a few sobs. Sentimental? I rest my case.

Nicholas BishopIt looks as authentic and ravishing as you would expect from an RSC production, but with your imagination having to do a lot of the work to fill in the blanks – which I always think is more rewarding anyway. A couple of movable doorframes suggest a maze of corridors at Scrooge’s offices or at the Cratchits’ grim digs. A few lush furnishings create a comfortable environment at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s place. Palely lit windows in the sky are all that’s needed to conjure up a densely populated living city; and with a mere gesture Dickens can cause the snow to fall – because, after all, everything we see is in his imagination.

John HodgkinsonPhil Davis is every bit as good as you would imagine as Scrooge; viciously arrogant and miserable when at work on Christmas Eve, his mouth curling with disgust at what he interprets as the weak laziness of others, who expect to be given a day off work and for him to bear the financial loss. His unease turns to genuine fear as he encounters the three (female) Christmas ghosts; and there’s a lovely, funny scene where, invisible, he observes the games they play at nephew Fred’s and how he is hurt by the things they say about him – all this, while the Ghost of Christmas Present (a surprisingly hilarious performance by Brigid Zengeni) is tucking into their candied fruits. And I did like the not-so subtle dig at Boris Johnson.

Vivien ParryScrooge’s transformation to a paragon of charity is very nicely done and contributes to another excellent scene with Gerard Carey as Bob Cratchit, where, at the end of his tether, Cratchit finally plucks up the courage to tell Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him….and then realises how the miser has changed his tune – very funny. Among the rest of the cast, Nicholas Bishop is an amusing Dickens, John Hodgkinson a hearty Fezziwig, Vivien Parry a scary ghost and a comic aunt (Is it a Bison?) and Emma Pallant a singularly unamused Mrs Cratchit. But the whole cast work together splendidly as an ensemble.

Brigid ZengeniThere are a few musical and dance interludes that I found a little self-indulgent; one early in the show seems to go on for ages, long beyond what I felt the story required or could sustain at the time. And there was something about the show overall that for me didn’t quite soar. It’s sentimental, but in a very shallow way; I didn’t get a pounding of emotion at anyone’s plight. But there’s no doubt that it’s a classy show with an excellent central performance and an unusual approach which gives it an extra kick. If you’re a fan of the story, you’ll definitely want to see this blend of the traditional with a quirky modern take. It’s in repertoire at the RSC until February 4th.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Jungle Book, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd December 2017

The Jungle BookI agree with Tez Ilyas, the best Disney film of all time is The Jungle Book. Great songs, great characters, terrific suspense; and how I cried the first time I saw it when I thought Baloo had died. (Spoiler alert – he isn’t dead.) Over the years it’s certainly captured the imagination of generations, from those early Kipling years (my favourite – Rikki Tikki Tavi) through Disney and beyond into other spin offs, on the large and small screen, both animated and real action. Since 1894 we’ve made friends with Mowgli and cheered him on against Shere Khan and either welcomed him back to the man village or regretted his decision not to be a bear with Baloo, depending on your level of maturity.

TJB4Jessica Swale’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling stories for this year’s Royal Theatre Christmas Play, nicely draws from all the original source materials and not just the Disney film. There’s a lot more about Akela and the wolf pack which is often overlooked; Shere Khan is menacing the jungle right from the start, there are no vultures or elephants, and it’s his mother to whom Mowgli is drawn in the man village rather than the potential girlfriend material of the Disney film. Joe Stilgoe has written some brand new and high quality songs, so you can forget the Bear Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You – it’s Mowgli who gets all the best numbers, including a recurrent theme whose name I can’t remember – the wolf howl one – but with a brilliant hook that I’m still singing to myself three days later. Peter McKintosh’s moving set has all the attributes of a series of climbing frames that create all the branches and clearings of the jungle.

TJB2As with the best of these Christmas productions, the play has a very warm and positive message to impart. Mowgli is different from his brothers and sisters in the wolf pack (there’s a good reason for that – he isn’t one) and the message is that it’s okay to be different. When they’re assessing who might be good stand-in parents for Mowgli, it’s pointed out that it’s perfectly okay for Mowgli to have two daddies, if that’s the best way of bringing him up, or two mummies. Enlightenment indeed, and hurrah for that. But I can’t help but think that Kipling would have been nonplussed at the prospect.

TJB5Unfortunately, the performance we saw on Sunday afternoon was interrupted by a technical problem. Mowgli was just performing her (yes her) first round of wolf howl refrains when her microphone failed and half the lighting fizzed out. It was a good twenty minutes before they could get the show going again, and it really did affect the building momentum of the storyline. Everyone handled it with consummate professionalism though, and I appreciated one of the monkeys confessing that it was all his fault for chewing through some electric cables backstage.

TJB1Keziah Joseph plays Mowgli ostensibly as a boy or as a tomboy girl if you prefer – it doesn’t really matter which – and she’s excellent. She has a great voice, a mischievous stage presence and she really gets the audience on her side as she fights to survive in the jungle. There are some superb supporting performances, including Dyfrig Morris as a perpetually hungry and greedy Baloo, with insufficient intelligence to be a good father to Mowgli, and he knows it (which is ironic, really); Rachel Dawson as a surprisingly charming Kaa, sporting her long snaky body as though it were some Burlesque Boa (geddit); Tripti Tripuraneni as a serious and earnest Akela, and Lloyd Gorman as the brash and brutal Shere Khan. If the late Lemmy from Motorhead appeared as a panto villain – I think you get the picture. But my favourite of all is the sassy and streetwise performance by Deborah Oyelade as Bagheera; she’s rather like one of your stricter teachers but with a heart of gold.

TJB3This is a very enjoyable, well-constructed show, perfect for a Christmas outing – although, like a dog, it isn’t just for Christmas. In the new year it’s on quite a tour, so between January and May you can catch it at Chichester, Richmond, Liverpool, High Wycombe, Bromley, Malvern, Cambridge, Newcastle, Plymouth, Norwich, Nottingham, Canterbury, Salford and Blackpool. Great fun for a family theatrical treat.

Review – Hair, The Vaults, 2nd December 2017

That ground-breaking hippy happy musical HairHair is now a demi-centenarian! It first hit the stage in New York (off-Broadway) in 1967 before smashing it all over the world, including becoming the first new show to open in London after the withdrawal of stage censorship in September 1968. As an aside, gentle reader, I shall be saluting the fiftieth anniversary of the end of British theatre censorship next year with a series of posts on the subject – it’s something I studied closely as a postgrad many decades ago and it’s high time my research was unleashed onto an unsuspecting world. So please watch out for that next year!

Come Join the PartyMeanwhile this year… my good friend and local co-blogging reviewer, Mr Smallmind, nipped up to Manchester last November to see this production of Hair at its birthplace, the Hope Mill Theatre, and he loved it; as a result, I’ve been looking forward to seeing it ever since. I’ve always had a fondness for the show, not only because of its significance in the history of theatre censorship, but also because it’s jam-packed with brilliant songs. We saw the 2010 revival in London – which for some inexplicable reason, I didn’t review – and enjoyed it, but I remember that it didn’t quite soar. Surely this 50th anniversary production would deliver in spades where the earlier one just slightly played it safe.

Hippy barSo here we come to one of the most awkward reviews I’ve ever had to write. You’ve heard of a Tale of Two Cities, or a game of two halves? Let me introduce you to the story of The Tale of Two Audiences. I’d not been to The Vaults before, and I must say, first impressions were very favourable. They’ve decked out the bar and reception area in all sorts of psychedelic paraphernalia; chill-out zones, groovy coloured fabrics, listening to fab tunes like Traffic’s Hole in My Shoe and the Lemon Pipers’ Green Tambourine… it couldn’t have been more delightfully 60s. Evocative retro posters lined the walls; it was so effective we could have been raided for evidence for the Oz obscenity trials.

Bombing for PeaceSo why two audiences? The Vaults doesn’t have a proper ticketing system that allows them to allocate seat numbers to its customers. Instead you choose an area of the auditorium, designated by a colour and its own seat price, and then it’s a free-for-all when you get in to get the best seats in your colour zone. I’ve always taken it as a rule of thumb that the higher the price, the better the seat, the better the view. Seems to make sense to me. There are two rows of seats either side of the stage area, seated in traverse – the red seats. Facing the stage in the traditional layout, you have the front two rows (yellow seats) then the next six rows were the green seats (top price) and the back row was the blue seats (cheapest price). Not knowing any better, we booked green and ended up in the fifth row from the stage, farthest left. If they’d allocated seat numbers, they would have been E 1 & 2.

Andy CoxonWhat a terribly poor decision that was on my part. The whole show is designed to be played to the red seats, as that was the prime layout at the Hope Mill Theatre. If you’re in the red seats, you enjoy great interactivity between the cast and the audience. You could see how the people in the front red rows simply beamed with nonstop pleasure throughout. The people in the second row of the reds don’t get such a good deal because, bizarrely, their seats weren’t raised. The people in the front row of the yellow seats would also have been able to see everything that went on. They also came in for their fair share of interaction from the cast. However, everyone else was, frankly, ignored. Additionally, the rake of the green seats, whilst in itself effective, meant that you could not see the front quarter of the stage at all. We spent the entire show being surprised when a member of the cast suddenly popped up from our end of the stage to perform – and we had no idea anyone was there.

Robert MetsonAs I watched the finale where everyone in the red seats jumps up and dances with the cast, I felt like I was eavesdropping at a party where I hadn’t been invited but could still see everyone else enjoying themselves. I felt so excluded, and it was a really depressing feeling. And, in case you think I’m being over-sensitive, you only had to watch the different ways in which the audience reacted at curtain-call time. Everyone in the red seats leaped up for a standing ovation within about one second of its finishing. Everyone else sat, and gave muted, polite applause, and not for too long. My advice is – whatever you do – DON’T BUY GREEN. It’s a total waste of money. BUY RED; or maybe if the cost is an issue – buy yellow. And make sure you sit in the front rows of those colour codes. I certainly won’t be going back to the Vaults unless and until they change their system, so they can allocate individual seats to individual customers. The current system is way too unreliable. I know it’s regarded as a fringe venue, so you might expect a bit of pot luck and give and take on where you sit; but they’re not charging fringe venue prices. £55 for a seat in the green area is £10 more than we spent earlier that afternoon for a sumptuous centre Row E seat at the Olivier. I simply expected more for my money.

Jammy KasongoThere were some very good performances; Andy Coxon’s Berger is a decadent, rather sexually ambivalent chap, full of mischief and all out for the pursuit of personal pleasure. Robert Metson’s Claude is a natural leader, charismatic and likeable. Shekinah McFarlane is superb as Dionne; I particularly loved her performance of White Boys, which gave me goose bumps, just like the lyrics suggest. I loved Laura Johnson as Sheila, reminding me what a beautiful song Easy to be Hard is, and Jammy Kasongo is a very high impact Hud who seems to be sadly under-utilised after the first twenty minutes or so.

TribeHair was, of course, always notorious for its ability to shock. When I saw it in 2010 I remember thinking that the burning of the draft cards was much more shocking than the nudity, which was tasteful, decorous and in the dark. In this production, the draft card burning scene had absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. As far as the nudity is concerned, I think it should either be no holds barred and in your face, or totally subtle and nuanced. Here, the cast members gradually undressed in near-darkness but then the act ended with a tableau of stark lighting for about three seconds of full-frontals then blackout. It felt like it was staged simply to prove that they had definitely got naked, but I got no sense of the purpose for the nudity. They weren’t doing naked hippy dancing for the sheer fun of it; and if it was meant to represent a naked protest, well that didn’t come across either.

ReceptionBut my opinion of the show is very badly affected by the fact that I felt like a spare prick at a wedding. I was so estranged from the performance that all I really felt was that it was a great opportunity wasted, and it wasn’t until sometime the following afternoon that my miserable mood lifted. A show shouldn’t do that to you. A five-star production destroyed by a one-star experience.

Review – Saint George and the Dragon, Olivier Theatre at the National, 2nd December 2017

Saint George and the DragonI saw this marketing poster for Saint George and the Dragon whilst I was idly looking at shows coming up in the next National Theatre season and it really tickled my fancy. The out of place, out of era, aforementioned Saint, glumly tucking into a full English at some greasy spoon. Hardly the stuff of legends, is it? But then as George says in the play, he genuinely is a legend.

SGATD1There are loads of excellent ideas in Rory Mullarkey’s play which has just ended its run at the Olivier, but, to be honest, I’d be surprised if it turned up anywhere else again in the future. In ancient days, when Chaucerian meter was all the rage, a Knyghte y-clept George found himself wandering through the green pastures of Merrie England (or was that a couple of hundred years later) and chanced upon an old man and his daughter, both verray parfit villagers forsooth. We meet the other villagers: Crier, Miller, Smith, Butcher, Healer, Driver, Brewer…. can you guess what services each provided the community? Of course, that’s where our surnames come from. So I have no idea why Mr Mullarkey has called the old man Charles and his daughter Elsa. Presumably his other kids Dave and Wayne were at some crusade or other.

SGATD2Elsa is about to be eaten alive by the local ruler, a Dragon (that’s King Dragon to you) so Charles pleads with George to challenge the Dragon to save his daughter’s life. Unfortunately, George hadn’t had much luck with Dragons recently and refused (most ungallantly) Charles’ beseeching to fight the Dragon to save his daughter. But then George looked in Elsa’s eyes and Bingo! It was love at first joust. George fights the Dragon, and, blow me down with a fire-throwing breath, he defeats him. But just as he’s about to enjoy his well deserved courtly nuptuals, he hears the call of the Brotherhood, and he’s off to fight another quest, leaving Elsa to darn her medieval mittens for centuries to come.

SGATD3I don’t think it matters that I’m telling you the plot, because of the reason I mention in the first sentence of my second paragraph. George comes back in Victorian times, and basically the same thing happens again; then he comes back in today’s era… and basically the same thing happens again. Repetitive? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There’s the nugget of a very clever play in here. The nation needs a knight in shining armour to come and rescue us from the mess we’ve got ourselves into; a character that represents true England – its nobility, its bravery, its courtliness, its generosity of spirit. Against him, the Dragon, who vows to continue his war against George in more subtle, subconscious ways in the future, affecting the minds of the people, encouraging evil and ignobility; selfishness and weakness. You might say the play sticks two fingers up at Brexiteers; I couldn’t possibly comment. At the end of the play George exhorts the townsfolk to join him returning back to the good old days, but, of course, no one wants to go back in time. This is modern England, a land of smartphones and skyscrapers, of Megabowls and watching England lose at football in the pub. You cannot go back.

SGATD4Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s a very wordy, overlong, and lumpy play. It starts with George’s sub-Anglo-Saxon introduction and, I kid you not, Mrs Chrisparkle had nodded off for forty winks and woken up again before he had finished his opening monologue. There are some excellent moments of comedy, created by the incongruous juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern – rather like that marketing photo on the programme. There’s a very enjoyable scene in the second act where George, who has no clue what football is, finds himself getting absolutely plastered watching an International England match in the pub, and it’s genuinely very funny. George blames England’s poor performance on the fact that the supporters have lost sight of the fact that we are world beaters. Just have belief, and we will win the day. Good luck with that, George.

SGATD5There are some very splendid actors involved in this production who really did put in an awful lot of fine effort. John Heffernan brought great virtue to the role of George, with some lovely comic timing and excellent stage presence. I’d really like to see him in something good. Julian Bleach’s characterisation of the Dragon was very amusing, especially in the first scene as a slimy pantomime villain. Brilliant actors with CV’s as long as your arm, like Gawn Grainger and Jeff Rawle, breathe as much life into the play as possible. And there are some excellent special effects – I loved how the Dragon set fire to his servant Henry’s scroll of Terms and Conditions; although the setting up for the descent of the fiery Dragon’s heads onto the stage, using two wires that slowly came into view, was cumbersome and made the whole thing look very ham-fisted.

SGATD6At 2 hours 50 minutes it has some very long longueurs. My solution – omit a lot of the opening exposition and completely cut out the whole Victorian era episode. It adds nothing to the story and Mr. Mullarkey would still make his patriotic point only far more succinctly. You could probably bring it in at about 2 hours then and it wouldn’t feel anything like as hard going. Overall, it wasn’t too bad; but it wasn’t good either. Faint praise indeed. Can’t win them all!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre on Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2017

Beware – there are spoilers! But then the play has been around for 126 years now, so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise…

Hedda GablerImagine a hypothetical meeting of all the best directors and producers in the country, all getting together to decide which play they next want to work on. One says I know, let’s do Ibsen, and another says, yes, great idea, what about Hedda Gabler? And everyone goes hurrah! And thus another production of Hedda Gabler takes to the stage, ignoring so many other of Ibsen’s great works that – it seems to me – get staged comparatively rarely. I first encountered the terrifying Ms Gabler (or Mrs Tesman, as Ibsen avoided calling her) in 1977 with the thrilling Ms Janet Suzman in the part. In recent years there was the slightly less than extraordinary Theatre Royal Bath production with Rosamund Pike as Hedda, and also the Royal and Derngate’s very own ex-Artistic Director, Laurie Sansom’s production in 2012, with Emma Hamilton as the arch-manipulative, butter-wouldn’t-melt bitch.

HG1Hedda Gabler, by the way, is Laurie Sansom’s favourite play and he describes the character as a female Hamlet. That’s interesting, because the programme notes for this National Theatre production, directed by Ivo van Hove, include Ibsen’s own preliminary notes for the play – which make fascinating reading and definitely worth buying the programme for that one page alone. One of these notes reads: “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous – and that cannot be borne.” Not tragic? So much for the female equivalent of Hamlet, then.

HG8So, if you’re going to stage yet another production of Hedda Gabler, at least make it different. And, boy, have they done that! This version has been written by Patrick Marber, so you can guess it will be brought bang up to date, maybe with some sacrifices to the original text, of which purists are unlikely to approve. One look at the set alone tells you you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. If this is Kristiana in 1891, it’s not as we know it. Blank, colourless MDF panels surround the cavernous room; an electronic security system with camera buzzes visitors in and out; Hedda sits in a trendy 1960s style Scandinavian armchair; she uses an industrial stapler as part of her feng shui kit; Brack drinks from a ring-pull can (invented in 1959, according to Mr Wikipedia). Scenes are interrupted by music – uncredited in the programme but you’d swear some of it was Enya – creating a vivid, unsettling mix of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

HG7The lighting plays a significant role in creating tension. The set and lighting were both designed by Jan Versweyveld, obviously to complement each other and it really works. It’s the lighting that in many ways controls the play. A very sudden lighting change starts the performance; darkness ends it. After the interval, and when Hedda pulls back the blinds to let the daylight in, those blank colourless panels slowly take on colour. Pale at first, they grow richer through yellows and golds into redness as Hedda builds up to executing her catastrophic act at the fireplace. The final scene, where Ibsen directs that the room begins in darkness, opens with Brack and Tesman boarding up the window, drilling the boards into place, so the light is blocked out – and with it, all hope.

HG6Then there’s the casting, which in some cases distances itself as far as possible away from Ibsen’s original stage directions. Christine Kavanagh, for instance, who plays Tesman’s Aunt Juliana, looks at least twenty years younger than Ibsen’s suggestion of a 65-year-old woman. Abhin Galeya, as Tesman, doesn’t look a bit like Ibsen’s description of a stoutish man with a round face and fair hair and beard. This is a Hedda where they’ve cut away all the trappings of 19th century convention and performance style to bring it in to sharp modern focus. As an audience member, the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional compels you to give it your full attention.

HG14It’s vital for a production of Hedda Gabler to have a strong central performance that really makes you understand the character’s motivation. Lizzy Watts’ Hedda is, without doubt, a smooth operator. Not merely the bored young housewife with nothing much to do and already fallen out of love with her husband; no, this Hedda is pathologically cruel, deliberately contrary, gleefully malicious. You can see her eyes widen and her smile break out when she thinks of a brand new way to cause pain and wreak havoc. It’s no coincidence that Hedda’s existence is contained within these four blank walls – you cannot imagine her existing outside them. How on earth would Tasman, or indeed Lovborg, ever imagined that she was a plum candidate for a relationship? Yes, she’s manipulative and no doubt presented well, but I don’t see how she could have held back from inflicting cruelty on even a first date. Fortunately, everything that’s gone before is in another time and place and we don’t have to consider it.

HG13It’s at the moments when Hedda is at her most destructive that Ms Watts shows us how much the character is pleasured by the sensation. Forcing Lovborg into drinking again is her first victory; getting him to take one of her father’s pistols so that he does the right thing is another. Burning his work gives her an inner contentment and satisfaction; hearing of his death damn nearly causes an orgasm. This is a study of someone sexually turned on by evil. When Brack confronts her with his knowledge of her involvement, and she realises that Lovborg’s death was not as poetic as she had hoped, he in turn drips, pours and spews his can of drink on to her (in her sensual, satin nightdress) which reveals itself as spatters of blood, the evidence of her guilt in an homage to Grand Guignol. It’s a gruesome, visceral sight that no one else seems to be aware of; is this Hedda’s brain telling her that she has, finally, gone too far? Or is Brack equally predisposed to making a grotesque gesture? However you interpret it, it’s a truly stunning image.

HG5Abhin Galeya’s Tesman comes across as far from being a dusty academic. He’s much more of a lad, skipping and jumping about in childish delight when he hears a bit of good news; an immature sop who’s no challenge to Hedda’s cunning. When he and Mrs Elvsted are seated, trying to piece together the original notes of Lovborg’s masterwork, it’s no surprise that they’re on the floor in the corner, like two kids playing a game. Adam Best’s Brack is a suitably nasty piece of work, affecting an air of respectability whilst concealing his own agenda; trapping Hedda against the wall, desperate to control the uncontrollable. Richard Pyros, Christine Kavanagh and Annabel Bates all give excellent support as a deeply pathetic Lovborg, a bright and kindly Juliana and a surprisingly feisty Mrs Elvsted. And Madlena Nedeva provides a slavishly dour presence as the maid, Berte; hanging on to her job for grim death by sitting permanently by the door like a grouchy Babooshka.

HG10This is a production that occasionally provokes nervous laughter from the audience at what you might feel are inappropriate times. No more so than the final scene, when Patrick Marber has Tesman slowly approach the lifeless Hedda with the flat response “oh, she’s dead”. Such a ridiculous thing for this great tragedy to end with – but wait, what was that Ibsen note? “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous”. So, that’s spot on for this approach to the play. It’s a very different interpretation from what the average Ibsen-goer will be used to. The sterile, stylised setting won’t work for everyone, and, if I’m honest, some of the intrusive music really got on my nerves. But, then again, I think it was meant to. Not for the purist, not for the complacent; but definitely for the theatre buff who likes to have their ideas shaken up and turned on their head. After Northampton, the tour continues again from January to March, visiting Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Woking, Nottingham, Newcastle, York, Milton Keynes and Dublin.