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