Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Sweeney Todd, D2E Youth Drama, Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham

Stephen Sondheim has a dark side. Some of his lyrics in West Side Story have a bleak, nihilistic edge, partly camouflaged by Bernstein's vivace score. In Sweeney Todd, he explores the dark side of humanity - he washes us all in blood.

Imelda Staunton famously called Sondheim "the Shakespeare of musicals," and Sondheim owes much to the Bard. West Side Story is of course based upon the feuding Capulet and Montague clans of Romeo and Juliet. Sweeney Todd meanwhile has a direct blood lineage to Titus Andronicus. Like Titus, it is a revenge play and, in both, vengeance is against the perpetrator of a rape. In each, blood is splashed around liberally by brutalised characters. In both plays, the perpetrators end up in pies.

Sweeney Todd is thankfully a fictional character, who bloodily burst into the public zeitgeist in the mid nineteenth century. Since then, he has joined the demonic pantheon of popular horror figures. He is the proletarian counterpart to the very real Jack the Ripper, whose actions in 1888 resonated with the demonic barber's. From a social historical point of view, the Todd urban legend is interesting, as it plays on Victorian anxieties about food safety, murder and lack of regulation. Dickens raised these concerns in Pickwick Papers, where Sam Weller advises to buy pies only from women they know made them.

The show was first produced on Broadway in 1979, with Angela Lansbury as Mrs Lovett, and directed by Hal Prince. The writer and director had different visions of the play. Whereas Sondheim saw this as a timeless revenge tragedy a la Shakespeare, Hal Prince was more Dickensian in approach, seeing it as a vision of brutal society churning out "soulless, defeated, hopeless people." These two readings are not mutually exclusive, and in performance the play achieves both visions, resulting in an exciting, horrifying but dispiriting spectacle.

This production by D2E Youth Drama achieved this collision of Shakespearean revenge tragedy and Dickensian social commentary brilliantly. As soon as you entered the theatre, a dark mood descended. Behind a gossamer curtain the whole cast were assembled with their backs to the audience, all silently engaged in a slow-motion slashing motion. This went on for ten minutes, after which the usual audience chatter and laughter had died to an uneasy, expectant silence.

Suddenly, the curtain rose and the whole cast turned grimly towards the audience to give a disturbingly aggressive ensemble of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd. From then on, the audience were immersed in a brutal Victorian Fleet Street, populated by grotesque, pitiful characters. The stage was organised well, with a raised platform for a room above Mrs Lovett's pie shop - this became the focus for much of the action, and the gloriously grisly killings.

The energetic and enthusiastic cast kept the production pacey, lively and entertaining. For a young group of actors, taking on Sondheim is challenging. The score and melody lines are complex and often contrapuntal, with precise phrasing and stressing needed. The singers all managed their parts with confidence, and produced a musical of the highest quality.

The standout performance was that of Milly Parker as Mrs Lovett. Her vocals were superb as she beamed a seedy charisma throughout, and engaged the audience with a complicit warmth. The audience rightly loved her. It was a pleasure to witness such talent.

Todd was played well by Morgan Blakeman-Evans, who injected flashes of distorted humanity into the role of brutal butcher. There was a sick chemistry between Todd and Mrs Lovett, and the actors worked well together to achieve this, with Milly Parker bustling and scheming around the hate-filled portrayal by Morgan Blakeman-Evans. The two took on much of the singing, and they both deserve enormous credit for carrying it off so well.

The only ray of sunshine in the plot was the tryst between Anthony Hope and Joanna. Lewis Fitt played the romantic lead well, with some strong vocal performances. Ella Brookes' voice was wonderful - her clear soprano injecting a startling purity into the mire of sleaze and violence.

The corrupt Judge Turpin was played well by Joseph Zalas, who brought an unhealthy disdain and arrogance to the role. Sam Smith played his henchman, the Beadle, with a confident simmering brutality. Meanwhile, Kayleigh Hunt as the Beggar Woman (Todd's wife), alternated disturbingly between persistent pleading, and saucy wantonness. Kacey Hall, meanwhile, played the innocent turned murderer Tobias Ragg with open-eyed menace.

Some much-needed comic relief was provided by Corey Hall as the fraudulent Italian barber Pirelli, who entertainingly played up the conman to great effect. The switch from Italian to Irish, as he dropped his mask, was well done. The audience loved him.

Jonas Fogg, the doctor of the asylum was played with effortless menace by George Neal, whose eyes darted ominously and threateningly to his terrified patients.

The above actors put on a fantastic show, and carried off challenging roles with great panache and enthusiasm. The rest of cast, who provided chorus and dancing were also terrific, providing an electric vitality to proceedings, approaching the audience en masse with seething menace.

Jade Goswell and Elaine Bishop deserve great credit for the production and direction of this musical. They did not play it safe, and stretched these talented young actors to embrace Sondheim's dark vision.

At the end of the blood and cruelty the lights went out on Fleet Street, and the audience jumped to their feet in a long and loud ovation. As I stood and clapped, I felt a real admiration for the hard work this talented cast had obviously put into this, and the enthusiasm they injected into achieving Sondheim's dark vision. I was relieved to have survived this episode in Fleet Street, and left the theatre thinking how we need these visions of darkness to appreciate the light and the good in people.

Later on that evening, I started thinking about pies - murder wrapped in pastry; darkness concealed in a thin civilised coating. From the Globe Theatre to Broadway, and now to Grantham .. this is a lesson for us all. Thank you D2E Youth Drama for putting on such an entertaining and challenging show.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, by Thomas Middleton. Rose Theatre.

Thomas Middleton had London in his DNA, and the city he lived and died in was a dirty, cruel and fascinating place. The turn of the century and change of monarch were accompanied by huge confessional, social and economic upheavals, and the rapid growth of an entrepreneurial and urban middle class. The era was beset by horrific plagues every twenty years or so, which wiped out 20-30% of the London population each time. With ongoing growth in economic activity, this meant more demand for less labour, and so even the proles experienced a rise in income and aspirations. Everybody was desperate to climb up from the mud and open sewers, and these people looked up at those with inherited wealth with growing envy and disdain. This after all, was England only thirty years before the Civil War, and the Levellers. As a London intellectual and jobbing playwright, Middleton was grappling with the complex creative destruction whirling around England's capital, which would all end in tragedy. One sensed that Middleton knew this. 

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside was his Abigail's Party - a funny, vicious exposing of the aspirational classes and the seedy urges lying beneath.  Cleverly directed by Jenny Eastop, the Mercurius troupe brought a pared down text to life, with hilarious and surprising results. One sat and chuckled as plot was joined by plot; and the narrative was lost as the pitch rose to a crescendo, leaving us with a marriage - the traditional resolution to Early Modern comedies. One was, however, left rather shaken - and the confusion, sleaze and artifice remained as the laughter and applause died down and we shuffled off into the night. All very Joe Orton - who also used over-complex absurd comedies to unsettle, and swivel the spotlight on his aspirational middle class audiences. It comes as no surprise that Orton was a fan of Thomas Middleton, and acknowledged a debt to his trailblazing work. 

Perhaps then, the play would have been better set in the 1960s than the 1950s, as was the case here. When I read that this production was set in the doo-wop decade, my heart rather sank; but  it worked well visually and musically, and wove some unexpected cultural synergies (flick knives used as combs, twirling skirts . . ).

The acting was utterly terrific. Beth Eyre had a difficult role in Moll, in the sense that she was the love interest in the piece, the sweetheart, but she subverted these expectations well through some clever stances and glances. Stephen Good was wonderful as the successful but naive goldsmith, Yellowhammer, bringing a welcome authenticity amidst the whirling artifice. His wife was played by Josephine Liptrott who gave an engaging and powerful performance of the pragmatic brains in the marriage. Timothy Harker (as Allwit) simply burst onto the stage, effusing glee with his ill-earned lot, and continued to entertain throughout. Fergus Leathem ably played Sir Oliver Kix, one of the undeserving rich, desperate for a son, not because he particularly liked children, but because it would mean a large inheritance. Richard Reed portrayed Touchwood Senior as a louche teddy boy, bringing a sly, lascivious humour to the proceedings. Harry Russell took on the role of  his younger brother, another ted and chancer, but with a just discernible heart amidst the seething moral swamp. The role of Sir Walter Whorehound is a gift for any actor, and Andrew Seddon didn't miss an opportunity to camp up the memorable Falstaffian reprobate. At one point he collapsed into the seat next to my friend and engaged her in smutty Jacobean double-entendres. If only I'd had a glove handy I could have joined the play.

Overall, then, the quality of acting was outstanding - nuanced, skilled and tuned into the audience. Bravo Mercurius! However, the - the - stand-out performance of the evening went to the marvellous Alana Ross, who played two roles to jaw-dropping effect. As Lady Kix, she simply lit up the Rose with a sassy, mercurial, hilarious performance tinged with desperation. Brilliant. 

This then is a must see. Well done, Mercurius, and you lovely people at the Rose for having the imagination to put this on, and pull it off so well. And thank you to that great Londoner, Thomas Middleton, for writing something so entertaining, so unsettling, so now. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Shakespeare and Impermanence: Henry IV Part II, Barbican, and Winter's Rages, Rose Playhouse

Hang on - I thought Henry IV Pt II was meant to be inferior to the first. I mean, that's what critics throughout the ages have said. A couple of weeks back I saw the Donmar's all-female Henry IV, which one might think would span the works equitably - but Part II hardly got a look in, with only a couple of scenes tagged on to bring us to the crowning of Hal. Director Phyllida Lloyd was unrepentant about this, dismissing parts of the sequel as "bucolic meanderings".

Blimey. Well, the RSC folk obviously didn't see it this way, and staged a performance of Part II that rivalled any theatre I have seen in terms of depth, charm and sheer joy. Much of this joy and charm came embodied in Antony Sher's masterful Falstaff, who drank, lied, and confided to the audience with such candour that I was sorry to leave his company. I have now seen Sher's Falstaff in both parts, and I feel like I know him personally. I know I'm going to miss him.

Shakespeare based Falstaff upon Henry V's old friend, Sir John Oldcastle; and this caused something of a spat at the time. Part I was a smash hit, a sell out, but somewhere along the line it is likely that one of Oldcastle's progeny - possibly Baron Cobham himself - watched on with horror at the lampooning of a beloved ancestor. Letters flew, arms were twisted, and Shakespeare felt obliged to include an epilogue to the next play, explaining that Falstaff would be back . . hurrah! . . but, by the way, his character had nothing to do with noble, courageous, honourable John Oldcastle. Mumblings. Snorting. Yeah right. 

Falstaff is great company. He is always up for a party; he drinks continuously and is forever weaving schemes and inventions. Inveterate liar, whore monger, thief - there's little to dislike about him. For instance, in Part 2, he gives a thoughtful speech praising the twofold effects of sherry. I wish more playwrights would explore the subject as eloquently.

As we sat chuckling through Sher's monumental performance, it occurred to me that here Shakespeare had immortalised  a prototype - the roistering soak, who liberates us temporarily from the iron cage of puritanism. In Elizabethan England, with its mutaween, Falstaff was a provocative, and wholly necessary, figure. And so he remains in today's climate of PC, self-censorship and myriad -isms. Falstaff coupling with Doll Tearsheet spawned all the tragic, but challenging ne'er do wells that keep us from turning into automata . . . Oliver Reed, Liz Taylor, Georgie Best, Gérard Depardieu, Jeffrey Bernard . . Talking of which, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was obviously inspired by Pt 2. Keith Waterhouse merely locked Falstaff into the Boar's Head for an evening, and had him reflecting upon his adventures. I will never think of the Coach and Horses in the same way again.

In my obsessive viewing of Shakespeare plays, I have seen some wonderful performances, but Antony Sher's Falstaff is someone I will never forget. I feel privileged to have met the great man.

Another highlight of this week was seeing "Winter's Rages" at the Rose Playhouse. In this inventive piece, Sophie Kochanowska has cut and pasted together snippets of Shakespeare, and Bard-influenced music to produce a stark, post modern exploration of impermanence. Blioux Kirkby was superb as she played a mentally ill Ophelia, and a fragile, traumatised Ariel; and her singing was rich, alluring and charismatic. Hannah Yip played the keyboards throughout quite brilliantly - in the cold as well. It was, however, Sophie Kochanowska herself who dominated, with the unsettling Drei Lieder der Ophelia by Richard Strauss, and Fear No More the Heat O'The Sun, by Gerald Finzi. Her playing of the youthful, doomed Juliet about to take a sleeping potion was fresh and disturbing. Congratulations to all for highlighting a theme that runs through so much of the Bard's work - impermanence. In many ways, Shakespeare was a Buddhist, and here tonight, as Sophie Kochanoska's singing echoed around the Rose, the truth and tragedy of impermanence was given a voice.

Fresh, disturbing, post-modern . . . how adaptable Shakespeare is. What would Falstaff have made of "Winter's Rages"? Well, he would have enjoyed the singing and the beautiful players . . . but he probably would have disgraced himself, and got himself ejected from the Rose. I'm glad then I left him roaring with laughter in the Boar's Head. More sack, boy . . more sack!!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shakespeare's Rudest Sonnet? 151

Love is too young to know what conscience is, 
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
   No want of conscience hold it that I call
   Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall

Friday, December 5, 2014

Measure for Measure, HT Theatre Company, Baron's Court Theatre

By 1603, Shakespeare was wealthy and respected. Poet, playwright and shrewd businessman, the Midlands maestro was at the heart of Jacobean London. His relationship with the newly crowned James was amicable but careful. James was a fan of the Bard's work, and Shakespeare duly obliged with plays in tune with the monarch's interests - Scotland, witchcraft. and the rule of disparate peoples. In spite of a youthful phase torturing witches, James was a cultured man - he had been tutored by the poet George Buchanan - and had a liberal appreciation of theatre. His close engagement with each new dramatic work was highlighted by Ben Jonson in the First Folio, where he mentions ..

"Those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James."

Shakespeare was in some ways a royal poet - but with the ruler peeking over the Bard's shoulder as he wrote. This tension between freely expressing the human spirit, and potential sanction by the powerful, explains much in his writing; and these contradictory pressures undoubtedly contributed to the greatness in his plays. Measure for Measure is a masterful, complex product of these tensions, which sails close to the wind in its examination of corruption in high places, and the caprice of royal rule. 

The scenario: Duke Vincentio has temporarily put his deputy Angelo in charge. Unlike the wise, tolerant Duke, however, Angelo is a puritan who has a dichotomous view on things. He has a particular problem with sex, and targets the suburbs, which in the 17th century were not places of faux respectability, but of crime, dissolution and vice. We thus find ourselves in a suburban brothel, where we witness drunkenness, arrests and confusion. Angelo has ordered a crackdown on the sex industry, causing consternation among the women and their punters. The suburbs are in chaos. 

The play interweaves two narratives. The virtuous Isabella seeks pardon for her brother - who rests in prison awaiting hanging - by petitioning the puritanical acting-ruler Angelo. However, he is struck by her beauty; and, overcome with lust, he demands sex for the release. Not a great guy. The second story line involves the wise Duke disguising himself as a monk, so as to check up on the state of his fiefdom, and the character of his deputy Angelo. His investigations lead him to the prison, where he hears about Isabella's desperate plight. 

Shakespeare is at the top of his game in disrupting these narratives, resulting in a classic "comedy" - one beginning with tragedy, and ending with resolution and marriage. It is a work, however, which involves  dark currents and bitterly observed scenes. Here is the Bard at his most Dickensian. 

HT Theatre has produced a powerful and sincere rendition of this play, and Director, Jaclyn Bradley deserves credit for convincingly evoking a threatening and atmospheric world, with no props other than a small table and a tankard. The narrative involves demanding roles, particularly that of Isabella, who was played with great conviction and skill by Leah Lawry-Johns. Meanwhile, her lusty tormentor, Angelo was portrayed powerfully by Adam Cunis - and the scenes between the two were fresh and taut. Jonathan Curry played a masterful Duke, embodying moral authority and wisdom, but occasionally lapsing into needless cruelty. At one point, the play was disrupted when a drunk man stumbled noisily into the theatre at a crucial dramatic juncture. The cast, however - notably, Jonathan Curry - forged resolutely on, with not so much as the bat of an eye. 

All the players were strong, however. Natalie Harper portrayed Angelo's estranged wife, Mariano, with restrained passion; and Joshua Jewkes' Lucio was light, time-perfect and entertaining throughout. Isabella's condemned brother, Claudio, is a pivotal role and Rob Fellman did a great job expressing the tensions between desperation and resignation. Carly Jukes' provost was one of my favourite performances - utterly convincing as somebody with a soul caught up in the ruthless machinations of state. Martin Sales' Abhorsen was brutal, with a strong and daunting presence. Finally, David Gurney's playing of Pompey - the dissolute bawd, or "tapster" - was delightfully funny and inventive. Here  is a group of hugely talented actors; and in Measure for Measure they have put on one of my favourite performances of the year. Well done to all concerned. 

Measure for Measure is a fascinating work - dark, clever, funny. Its portrayals of the vice trade reminded me of the later and quite wonderful Pericles, written with the dissolute bawd George Wilkins. Indeed, I wonder if there isn't a connection between the two plays. The bard was certainly familiar with the seedier side of London society, and was likely no stranger to the Winchester geese.

I like to imagine Shakespeare sitting back with a cup of beer in a dodgy pub, hooting with laughter as his companions out-lewd each other. After a while, one puts down his ale, clears his throat, and slightly crooks his finger . . .

"Nah, nah . . Better than that . . . Much better . . . Groping for trout in a peculiar river". 

Silence. Gasps. I'll have that, thinks the Bard. 

That line will stay with me forever. Thank you HT Theatre. 

Measure for Measure is playing at the Baron's Court Theatre until 14th December.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Not a man in sight: Henry IV, and Man to Man, by Manfred Karge.

As I clapped at the end of an entertaining performance of Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, it struck me that in my last four visits to the theatre, I had not seen one man on stage. This trend started a couple of weeks back, when I saw Martin Parr's beautifully realised "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang". Actresses Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro were so compelling, I was lured back the following evening. Sitting in the ruins of the Rose, I was even more swept away with the heady brew of sonnets, cello and narratives of loss.

The next women-only venture was a mistake, actually. I thought I had booked a ticket for Hamlet, so turned up at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park ready to marvel at a finely wrought analysis of mind. Turns out, I had got there a week early, so I asked what was on that night. It turned out to be Man to Man by Manfred Karge - a solo play about an East German woman faking being a man, through her whole life. Her husband had died, leaving her with no livelihood, so, after considering her few options, she decided to go into work disguised as her dead spouse. This saga through Nazism, post-war reconstruction and German reunification sets up a harrowing tale of deception, risk, humiliation and slow and unsettling transformation into a defeated, bitter, male retiree, who has almost forgotten his sex. The play was written by Manfred Karge, who joined the Berliner Ensemble in 1961 at the behest of Helene Weigel, wife of Bertolt Brecht. The Brechtian themes are strong, and actress Tricia Kelly bravely laid bare the frustrations of sustaining male identity amidst wild lurches in German society and identity, transforming herself into an embittered, drunk, unattractive pensioner. You could almost smell him.

In the programme, special mention was made of the translator of the script, the late Antony Vivis, who produced an inventive, jarring and sometime rhyming word flow. Listening to the rhythms and juxtapositions made me realise the crucial role of the translator in art such as this.

Later on in the bar, an attractive well dressed woman  breezed in and greeted friends around the table. I realised with a shock, this was Tricia Kelly, who only twenty minutes earlier had festered resentfully in stained trousers.

A week later, I got a standing ticket for Henry IV, which was set in a women's prison. Effectively, this was most of the glorious Part 1 with the main bits involving Falstaff and the rise of Hal from Part II added on. This was highly entertaining, but worth seeing for one overwhelming reason - Harriet Walter playing Henry IV. Shakespeare was cautious in his portrayal of the usurper King, and the role thus has rather limited, subdued material. Walter, however, used these lines with such world-weary authority, that she shed new light on the whole role. No longer a marginalised part; with Harriet Walter, Henry IV reclaims the play that bears his name. It was an amazing performance.

Tomorrow I'm off to see the Hamlet I had intended to see last week. Looking forward to it - though seeing men on stage will be something of a novelty. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. The Rose Playhouse.

This performance expresses everything I love about theatre - a daring, high-wire piece that leads the mind through unexpected visions and emotions. "Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" is woven together and directed by Martin Parr, who prior to this staged a memorable Doctor Faustus, also at the Rose. When I heard that Parr was doing Shakespeare's sonnets, I thought - great - that will be worth seeing. However, nothing prepared me for this.

What Parr has done here, quite masterfully, is to shape Shakespeare's most intimate writings into a haunting play, which explores every facet of loving relationships. He has done this through letting the Bard's words flow through a morphing love affair as it goes through stages of lust, longing, disdain, outrage, anger, separation and reconciliation.

He sets the stage in Autumn, and sitting expectantly with glass in hand, I found the setting fascinating. The stage and lighting team of Florence Watts, Max Mosley, Christine Dubois and Francesca Baker present a scene of an unmade double bed, a half drunk wine bottle next to it, with several lamps, a bare table and a old chair, with dead leaves scattered around it. Highly atmospheric. A realistic nowhere. A double bed in a room for one person.

This is a fragile piece, that depends entirely upon its two actresses, Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro. Lucia is the muse of the piece, the partner, the object of desire, hope and regret; and she embroiders this role with virtuoso playing of the cello, which at times becomes a third person in the relationship. Katherine is alone, but not alone, expressing her evolving and sometimes contradictory feelings for Lucia, who is relatively unchanging.  Katherine, the lover, experiences wildly varying feelings - from infatuation to irritation; at times reflecting upon the inevitable death of her partner, at other times spitting out poisonous jealousy.

Sitting in the audience, this is powerful stuff, and the flowing, but unpredictable performance raises strong emotions. These come powerfully to conclusion in the final scene where a distraught, lonely, Katherine is trying to play her (possibly now dead) lover's cello in the hope of capturing just a little bit of her magic, her voice, her scent. I won't spoil this for you, but it is one of the most powerful and creative scenes I have ever witnessed in theatre - one that has stayed with me, and lured me back last night for a second chance of seeing it.

Walking away from from the performance, I drifted towards the Thames, and reflected that this gem of a play shows why theatre is increasingly necessary and important. In this era of easy media, of electronic access round the clock to any movie/ video/ Shakespeare play etc., a sincerely felt rendition like this becomes rare, precious and significant. One has to travel to see it. Pay to see it. One has to sit in real space, as breathing people take breathtaking risks. They play their heart out, and break ours. Like the tempestuous relationship between Katherine and Lucia, the performance enchants, excites and ends, leaving only memories.

"Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" plays until 29th November. Go see it. It's that good.