Review – Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th June 2012

Torch Song TrilogyMrs Chrisparkle and I have very fond memories of seeing Torch Song Trilogy in the 1980s. We were fortunate to see it during a brief period after Anthony Sher left the cast when the writer Harvey Fierstein took over the role. It was one of those evenings of dramatic enlightenment that hits you right between the eyes, and you emerge from the theatre a different person from the one who went in. I wondered if this new production would have lost any of that impact, or if it would have become slightly dated over the years. I’m delighted to say that it remains a landmark in 20th century drama and this is a vivid and satisfying production at the Menier.

David BedellaThat it definitely still packs a punch is helped enormously by Douglas Hodge’s vision and staging. The intimate setting of the Menier is the perfect place to look David Bedella’s Arnold right in the eyes and experience at least some of what he is going through. For the first part of the trilogy, the acting space is confined to a narrowish strip at the front of the stage and that closeness gives it an added sharpness. Having the Torch Songs sung by individual members of the cast, rather than the dedicated “Lady Blues” singer in the original, also involves the rest of the “team” more and gives it a greater sense of unity. For the second part the back wall retreats to reveal a vast bed on which all four bedtime-clad characters spend the entire act. I loved the way the characters moved around the bed and established themselves in different areas of it, occupying corners, sleeping alongside each other, and doing forward rolls from one side to another, all to emphasise the ménage-à-quatre aspect of the story, and it works ingeniously well. The stylised sudden and surprise ending is also very effective, juxtaposed as it is with an ironically funny song. For the final act, the wall has gone back even further to reveal a large kitchen diner and living room area giving plenty of space for all the characters to grapple with the ogre that is The Mother. The clear, simple and effective staging works a treat.

Joe McFaddenAt the heart of the play is Arnold, and his journey through three stages of his life – meeting Ed; his relationship with Alan and how it intermingles with Ed and Laurel’s relationship; and his moving on later to foster and adopt David, tackling his relationship with his mother and with a possible hope of future happiness with Ed. The story is superbly crafted, the text snappy with New York Jewish humour, and David Bedella takes the part of Arnold as if born to it. From his first, larger-than-life appearance as the drag queen preparing to go on stage he is completely believable. His amazing full deep voice exudes natural confidence but is perfect for the pathos in scenes where he’s vulnerable and uncertain. I’ve yet to see Mr Bedella do anything less than a gutsy performance and he is, unsurprisingly, great.

Laura PyperIn fact all the cast are excellent. Joe McFadden as Ed does a good line in boyish enthusiasm and his full-on crying is uncomfortably realistic. He’s an excellent foil to Mr Bedella as he can be both scene-stealing and quietly discreet in the shadows while Arnold’s character takes centre stage – the mark of a generous and thoughtful performance. Laura Pyper’s Laurel is the perfect match for Mr McFadden – lively and loving whilst he’s more coldly happy reading the paper and her growing resistance and antagonism to Arnold on that fateful weekend is amusingly done.

Tom Rhys HarriesTom Rhys Harries as Alan pouts extremely well as he kneels disconsolately on the bed and succeeds in getting a lot of humour out of the role. Perry Millward, as flamboyant foster son David, is great as an over the top (but not too much) teenager and he clearly shows the boy’s propensity to potential wildness but also genuine affection and thankfulness for Arnold and the home he has safely provided. The character does get a little irritating – as any similar 16 year old boy would be. He captures the essence of David really well.

Perry MillwardThe role of Arnold’s mother, the sympathetically named “Mrs Beckoff”, is a delight for an actress gifted in the use of the Jewish Sharp Tongue, and Sara Kestelman revels in it. It’s not a grotesque performance, it’s extremely realistic and all the more effective as a result. Very cleverly, as she spouts her anti-gay venom, you realise you still have some sympathy with her. She really shouldn’t say the things she says but she absolutely makes you understand her position. A beautifully subtle reading of the role – and she also sings the Torch Songs with superb emotion.

Sara KestelmanGiven the production’s excellent attention to detail, two props irritated me because they were not in keeping with the time and the place. When Arnold and Laurel are doing the washing up you can clearly see that the plates have a “Churchill Made in England” stamp underneath – not impossible they would have Churchill plates, I grant you, but highly unlikely. Much worse was Arnold’s act one telephone – yes, it’s a nicely wall mounted round dial grey bakelite retro phone – but the number sticker on the dial is clearly British – with its reminder to dial 999 for Fire Police or Ambulance, and the visible phone number is a three-figure number on the Mostyn exchange, which I believe is in North Wales. You have to walk past the phone on the way in or out of the auditorium during the interval so it catches your eye and it really looks like a clumsy oversight in the Props department.

Nevertheless, this still very strong play is brilliantly realised with Douglas Hodge’s direction which, with some excellent performances makes this another winner for the Menier. Highly recommended.

Review – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 7th August 2011

Road ShowThe great news is – it’s a new Sondheim! Well, reasonably new. This show first saw the light of day back in 1999, and has since undergone re-writes and re-titles, all of which made me think – uh oh, here we go, another show that ought to be really great but will probably turn out to be a bit duff. But the even better news is – I was wrong! This is a terrific little show, beautifully played, excitingly staged, with a classy classic Sondheim score emotionally realised.

It tells the story of the brothers Mizner, instructed by their father on his deathbed to go out into the world and make something of themselves, and how they follow their various lucky stars all round the world, through the Alaskan Gold Rush, poker games, rich widows, fabulous success in architecture, dabbling in sports promotion, playwriting, and much more. It would either have to be a monstrously large and long production to get these two vividly lived lives studied in detail; or a 95 minute romp that tickles the surface but gives us just enough information to flesh out the aspects of their lives in our imagination. The 95 minute romp wins; and as such it’s a fast, furious, engaging piece and I loved every minute. Mrs Chrisparkle would have preferred it to be a 115 minute romp to include a 20 minute interval. I have some sympathy with that view. Even improved as they are, the Menier seats are not the most comfortable. Commercially I never understand a decision to do away with the interval and its associated opportunity for food and drink sales. However I can also see that its uninterrupted presentation increases the sense of relentless urgency as the brothers’ lives are played out.

John Doyle has directed it so that the staging is in traverse. Sat in the centre of Row A you are so intimately involved in the production that not a bead of sweat, nor a raised eyebrow, nor a turn of the heel goes unnoticed. When you’re so closely wrapped up in what’s going on, it couldn’t be more thrilling – although the gentleman to my left spent I$300 think 75 of the 95 minutes fast asleep. Must have had a large lunch. Action takes place in front of you, but also to the extreme sides, so that at times you have to dart your attention all round the room like a lizard at a tennis match. But it’s well worth the effort, as the entire cast hold the mood and never let their attention slip for a second; every person you watch at any time is deeply in their role. A major aspect of the staging is the way that people chuck money around – literally. It’s a really strong visual assertion of how much cash went through those brothers’ hands during the course of their lives. I have never seen so many 100 dollar bills scattered around me, even if they are “for theatrical use only”.

David BedellaThe two brothers are very much at the heart of the story. I had read criticism that the two actors are so different in their appearance and expression that it is too much of a leap of faith to imagine they are brothers. Well, I say nonsense to that. Yes they are different, but so – very much so – are the two characters. David Bedella (a real star who we twice saw and loved in Jerry Springer The Opera) as Wilson is brash, charming, a rogue and a villain, with pizzazz written through him like a stick of rock. Michael JibsonMichael Jibson’s Addison, on the other hand, is hard-working, astute, cerebral and restrained. It comes as no surprise that it is he who is left to care for his mother whilst Wilson is gambling and living the high life; and in a knife-twisting moment his mother reveals that despite Addison’s care it’s Wilson’s charisma that gives meaning to her life.

Both David Bedella and Michael Jibson (new to me – a star in the making) are superbly cast and run through the gamut of emotions with watertight perfection. David Bedella’s honey voice oozes confidence and fantasy success; Michael Jibson’s more delicate tones are set firmly in reality and day to day problems. It’s a great pairing.

Gillian BevanGillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake, as their parents, give encouragement and a sense of belonging, both alive and dead, to the sons as they make their way round the world with varying degrees of success and failure. Jon Robyns, as Hollis, who inspires Addison to his greatest success both in career and love, has a great singing voice and presence; and how grown-up it is to have a gay relationship as a central tenet of the plot dealt with completely without judgment or sensationalism.

Glyn KerslakeThe remaining cast are strong musically and in their minor characters, and bring Sondheim’s new songs to life wonderfully well. There are some great songs here – including “Waste”, that sets the opening scene and acts as a finale too; “That Was a Year”, that enumerates the elements of Wilson’s erratically brilliant early career; “Isn’t He Something”, where Mama Mizner reveals her true feelings about Wilson; “You”, where Addison dispenses architectural joy around Palm Beach; and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”, where Addison and Hollis touchingly and simply reveal their love for each other.

Jon RobynsYay! You can now select your seat online, rather than trust to the Menier’s system to deal with your seat request fairly, which has in the past made one very grumpy indeed. Thank heavens for that improvement. It’s so rewarding to see the Menier back on really top form again too. After a number of flops and so-so shows, it’s back where it should be, hosting one of London’s must-see productions.