Saturday, 25 October 2014

Theatre Review: Made in Dagenham (Adelphi)




  
Between the Broadway-by-numbers blare of the awful (and awfully popular) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the recent disappointment of the NT’s Here Lies Love, I’d begun to think that any affection I had for musicals had been left behind in the Lyttelton auditorium the day The Light Princess closed. Happily, though, that love has now been at least partially restored thanks to a somewhat surprising source: Made in Dagenham, by Richard Bean (book), David Arnold (music) and Richard Thomas (lyrics), which is currently in previews at the Adelphi Theatre before its opening on 5th November.
  
Directed – another surprise, this – by Rupert Goold, the new musical takes off, of course, from Nigel Cole’s 2010 film, which focused on the 1968 sewing machinist strike at the Ford plant in Dagenham, Essex, where female workers staged a walk-out in protest at sexual discrimination and in demand of equal pay. I wasn’t much of a fan of the film: it’s in the Monty, Billy, Pride-y tradition that I find myself allergic to by temperament, and it struck me mostly as a more feeble variant on Cole’s previous attempt at cosy girl-power uplift, Calendar Girls (2003).
  
But although the basic plot trajectory and most of the main characters have been retained in the musical, the end result is much more vibrant and enjoyable. Arnold’s appealing score is (predominantly) poppy and upbeat (though textured enough), and Bunny Christie’s set is big ‘n bold. But the focus on “ordinary” characters, and the gleefully incorporated abundance of local refs, give this show an important connection to British people’s lives and experiences that the rash of Broadway imports simply cannot match.
  
Indeed, what I liked most about Made in Dagenham is precisely its sheer, unrepentant Britishness. Cheerfully (sometimes excessively) crude, the material is (as often with Bean and Thomas) a combination of the witty and the strained. But at its strongest the show has something of the cheek, charm and cleverness of on-form Victoria Wood. In fact, with its lyrical nods to Swarfega and Stoke Newington, and one scene set in – believe it! – a Berni Inn, this is the most boldly British big-budget West End musical I can call to mind since Wood’s own fitfully brilliant Acorn Antiques nearly ten years ago.
  
The political context of the real-life events that inspired the show is lucidly sketched, and central to that aforementioned Britishness is a bracing (and currently quite unfashionable) anti-Americanism. This aspect of the show – pretty brave when US success is still deemed the Holy Grail for any British cultural product - is encapsulated by the great appearances of Steve Furst as the villainous US boss Tooley, who gets a sublime Act II number that’s a terrifically full-on satire on the Land of the Free’s sense of its superiority to … well, everybody else. Somewhat more affectionately lampooned is Harold Wilson (a full-on funny Mark Hadfield) who’s presented as a silly duffer bumbling and blustering in his response to the women’s demands.
  
Though the show doesn’t do as much it might to characterise the female workers, the cast perform together engagingly (especially on the wry early rouser “What We Want”), with a couple of stand-out turns. In the central role of the reluctant rep Rita, Gemma Arterton starts out overdoin’ the Essex girl diction a tad. But the performance deepens into something truly winning as the production progresses, with the actress singing by turns stridently and sweetly, and nicely charting the protagonist’s gradual growth into rebelliousness.
  
Sophie Stanton, as Beryl, isn’t given much more to do than saucy quipping but Heather Craney (memorable as the upwardly mobile Joyce in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake) gets a nicely eccentric solo spot, and the brilliant Isla (slummin’ it) Blair is wonderful as Connie, the shop steward who’s pivotal in Rita’s consciousness-raising (which occurs in that Berni Inn, wouldn’t you know). And in terms of feminism, the show at least puts its money where its mouth is, giving both Blair and Sophie-Louise Dann (a hoot as Barbara Castle) two of the strongest solo moments in the piece. (Dann’s impassioned rip through the brilliant, very Woodian “An Ideal World” is a true show-stopper.) Meanwhile, Naomi Frederick maximises her somewhat underwritten role as Lisa, the posh Factory owner’s wife who offers the women back-up and Biba, and excellent Adrian der Gregorian does well as Rita’s hubby, especially on a poor-me ditty that’s a variant on Merle Haggard’s great abandoned-man entreaty “Holding Things Together,” and that stands up well to that comparison.
  
Reflecting rumoured rewriting, the structure of the piece isn’t airtight, with some thrown-away plot strands and a slightly rushed finale. However, the more ambitious numbers are slickly staged and the evening moves fluidly for the most part. Still, it must be said that I’ve never seen a show that’s quite so blatant in predetermining audience response. Ushering us into the interval with the inimitably catchy striker’s anthem “Everybody Out!” is a witty touch, but closing the show with a number named “Stand Up!” might be the most barefaced attempt to get a Standing O out of an audience that the West End has ever witnessed. (It’s a shame that that closing song is actually one of the show’s weakest, though damned if the audience doesn’t comply and get on its feet anyway.) But, despite a few shortcomings, Made in Dagenham turns out to be a very pleasant surprise overall. It’s a funny, characterful, congenial and quirky-enough new British musical that I for one would be happy to see do well.
  
Ticket provided by Official Theatre.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Theatre Review: Our Town (Almeida)

  
I’ve harboured hopes of seeing Thornton Wilder’s Our Town on the London stage for quite a while now, at least since seeing Sam Wood’s creaky, compromised yet perfectly charming 1940 film version some years ago. Often performed in the States, Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer-winner has never found so much favour on these shores, perhaps due to the slightly twee, quaint, folksy reputation that the play has developed, a reputation which belies the stylistic innovations and philosophical reach of this wryly metatheatrical, fourth-wall-busting portrait of an archetypal American small town at the turn of the century.
  
A long-running success Off-Broadway that subsequently toured to other American cities, actor-director David Cromer’s take on the play has now arrived at the Almeida. And if it’s not quite the production that I dreamed of seeing, it proves an arresting, sometimes fascinating experience nonetheless. Setting the audience on three sides of the action, in a way that makes us both detached observers and participants of the community represented, Cromer himself takes the role of the Stage Manager, a figure who’s our guide to the geography, history, and, most importantly, the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. And the production ups the Brechtian ante even further than Wilder’s text demands, with the actors appearing in what look to be their own clothes and speaking in their own (British) accents.
  
The result is a self-conscious “roughing up” of the play that sometimes cuts against the grain of the material: determinedly anti-lyrical, the production never becomes as moving as it might. But, at its best, the evening has something of the oddity and charge that American audiences seeing the play for the first time in the late ‘30s might have experienced. The play’s defence of the contours and patterns of “ordinary” life as a suitable subject for drama still resonates, and Cromer’s approach allows for an unforgettable Act Three flourish, one that makes the whole production come together.
  
Booking until 29 November. Further information at the Almeida website.
  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Theatre Review: The Distance (Orange Tree)

Helen Baxendale in The Distance (Photo: Helen Warner)
  
Attitudes to parenthood get probed in The Distance, the entertaining new play from Deborah Bruce, in which a forty-something mother of two, Bea, returns to Sussex from Australia having left a marriage that hasn’t worked out. In doing so, Bea has also left - or, in one of the play’s loaded keywords, “abandoned” - her children, a decision that the friends she reunites with, Alex and Kate, find hard to understand. Over the course of a couple of days, with the 2011 London Riots causing much consternation (especially for Alex, whose son is in the city), the women and their assorted intimates assess the fallout of Bea’s actions and what the future might hold.
  
Paul Miller opened his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree last month with a fine revival of D.H. Lawrence’s The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, a play about a women desiring, but failing, to leave her husband. He follows it with a play in which the female protagonist accomplishes that aim. As such, one might view The Distance as a contemporary variant on A Doll’s House set after that famous slamming of the door.
  
The play doesn’t manage to match the emotional impact of those forebears: it offers the joke-strewn, slightly trivialising approach to weighty issues that’s prevalent in contemporary British drama, rather than any real attempt to duplicate Ibsenite moral seriousness. But at its best it’s a sharply observed and often very funny piece that’s quite perceptive in its explorations of motherhood and friendship. As Bea’s friends question her conduct, and as she in turn questions what their friendship means, the play branches out into a variety of perspectives.
  
Sometimes the questions are posed a bit baldly; there are contrivances here. But what I admire about Bruce’s writing is how evenly its sympathies are distributed. The arch control freak Kate seems to be the play’s villain for a while, but that perception is gradually nuanced as we learn more about the character, especially in a wonderful late scene between her and her spouse, Dewi (Daniel Hawksford).
  
Charlotte Gwinner’s animated production finds the play’s strengths, and feels fully inhabited by the cast who create interesting, believable dynamics. Returning to the stage after an absence, Helen Baxendale delivers a subtly shaded performance that gradually reveals Bea’s sense of her inadequacies as a wife and mother, and the reasons for her escape. Emma Beattie is very funny as the slightly out-of-it Alex, and Clare Lawrence-Moody spot-on as Kate. And though Timothy Knightley is underused as the fled-from spouse, excellent young Bill Millner maximises his second act arrival as Alex’s fretted-over son teenage Liam, with some supremely dry delivery and one of the production’s funniest moments.
  
Some may feel that the play wimps out by not really resolving Bea’s decision satisfactorily. Indeed, the piece feels no more “resolved” than life itself. But at the coda Bruce beautifully brings the drama full circle for a poignant and touching finale.
  
Booking until 8 November. Further information at the Orange Tree website.
  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Theatre Review: Here Lies Love (Dorfman, National Theatre)

 
 
 
With that old Rice/Lloyd Webber warhorse Evita currently taking up space back in the West End, ‘tis the season for musicals focusing on the polarising spouses of quasi-fascist dictators, it seems. Following its successful run at New York’s Public Theatre, David Byrne and Norman Cook’s Here Lies Love, directed by Alex Timbers, pitches up in London to become the first production to open at the National Theatre’s refurbished and renamed Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe) auditorium.
 
Byrne’s Evita-for-Imelda opus sketches out the notorious Ms. Marcos’s rise to prominence against the backdrop of forty or so years of Philippines history, and focuses particularly on her fraught, finally acrimonious relationship with Estrella Cumpas, the woman who raised her. The material was originally presented in a concert setting and then appeared in the form of a starry concept album back in 2010, as Byrne continued to develop and rework the piece prior to its first production proper. I love that album, flaws and all, and I’ve hoped to see a version of the show staged since first hearing the songs. Did the experience on Friday night live up to expectations? Well, let’s just say that, in contrast to last year’s NT extravaganza – also a first musical theatre foray by an art-rock icon, of course - I don’t think I’ll be tempted back to Here Lies Love ten times.
 
About as far as can be imagined from The Light Princess’s classically inflected, immersive intricacies, the disco, techno and Latin-beat saturated score that Byrne and Cook have composed for Here Lies Love is a predominantly upbeat, candy-coated concoction that certainly won’t be drawing many complaints about – gah – a lack of instantly “catchy” tunes. The show takes its cue and also its concept from Marcos’s well-known predilection for dance music, its conceit being that the action is occurring in a club in which the audience have the opportunity to take a place on the dancefloor, sharing space with the performers. (“If it’s a club, then where’s the bar?” wondered my ever-picky companion as we took our positions.)
 
This set-up, which nicely suggests a parallel between the rabble-rousing techniques of a DJ (Martin Sarreal takes that role here) and those used by unscrupulous politicos, is by far the most distinctive aspect of Here Lies Love. At its best, the evening gives you the giddy sensation that you can have, when clubbing, of being in a glorious, untouchable bubble, entirely liberated from outside concerns: a feeling that, Byrne contends, is mirrored in the ivory towers that power couples such as the Marcoses construct for themselves. And if one were to see this show ten times from the dancefloor vantage point, each visit would be slightly different due to the shifts in perspective and position that the production’s format demands.
 
But that’s due to the participatory staging rather any real richness in the text, I’d argue. The album had its share of problems but Byrne’s revising of the material for the show doesn’t seem so much to have solved those flaws as to have exacerbated them. He’s snipped several key early songs that added texture to the Estrella/Imelda dynamic, clumsily conflated others, and composed new tracks – in particular, for the beefed-up role of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (Dean John Wilson), Marcos’s political nemesis who was also (bizarrely) Imelda’s early beau – that, frankly speaking, aren’t up to scratch. Boasting no book to speak of, the show’s rhythm is super-swift, lurching from one number to the next, with the result that some crucial emotional beats are just skirted over. And the show’s attempt at a crowbarred-in, folky, up-with-the-people coda (oh look: real instruments!) is embarrassingly feeble. (Byrne must suspect as much, since the show quickly resorts to a reprise of the title song to close.)
 
Complete with a glitter ball, performers hopping from podium to podium, pink-suited ushers instructing us in dance moves, and screens clunkily flashing up explanatory information and images of Imelda, Timbers’s production practically redefines the term “busy.” And yet, as we were herded in to position for the umpteenth time to accommodate another bit of David Korins’s shifting set, I began to feel that a lot of this activity is really just so much window-dressing for material that Byrne still hasn’t sufficiently thought through. Yes, the show has scattered wonderful moments: Mark Bautista’s Ferdinand charming and smarming his way through the crowd on “A Perfect Hand”; a wittily choreographed “Eleven Days” that dizzyingly captures the whirlwind Marcos courtship; Natalie Mendoza’s Imelda falling hard for New York on the Talking Heads-esque “Dancing Together”; a scintillating “Solano Avenue,” reconceived as a taut duet for Imelda and Estrella (Gia Macuja Atchison); Imelda pleading with the exiled Ninoy not to return to the Philippines on a “Seven Years” that scales practically operatic heights. But the whole thing never develops into a dramatically satisfying whole: indeed, overall, it seems much less cohesive and textured than the patchy album did.
 
In interviews, Byrne keeps expressing his disdain for “traditional” musicals and his concern that Here Lies Love wouldn’t end up “too campy.” Such statements seem a bit rich, since you’d be hard pressed to point to a single moment in this show that doesn’t qualify as camp. Whether its Imelda’s beauty queen episode on the Disney-ish “The Rose of Tacloban,” Estrella peeping through the gates to observe her former charge on her wedding day on “When She Passed By,” or the scantily-clad dancers hoofing through the crassly-staged scorned-woman anthem “Men Will Do Anything” the show is about as gaudy, artificial, shallow and exaggerated as can be. It’s still shallow when it’s trying to be deep (recalling Sontag’s definition of camp as “a seriousness that fails”), as in that awful coda or the moments that attempt to convey the devastating effects of the Marcos regime. Byrne and co. may have thought it necessary to express their disdain for what the Marcos’s did to their country. But artists show their feelings in the way that they construct their characters, and it’s clearly Imelda who most engages Byrne’s interest rather than the entirely generalised Filipino people or even Estrella, who ends up pretty much a cipher in this account.
 
These may sound like the musings of a killjoy, but as someone who’s spent half the summer in clubs in London, Spain and Poland (all in the name of research for a forthcoming project, of course :)) I don’t think you could find a viewer who was more up for Here Lies Love than I was. My high expectations for the show doubtless account, in part, for the disappointment I experienced, and it’s worth saying here that I think Here Lies Love will be a hit: it’s attention-grabbing and obvious and immediate in a way that people clearly respond to right now. But peer beneath the novelty-value staging, and what’s left seems pretty skimpy, after all. Despite Byrne's intimations, the piece goes no further into its subject than Evita did, and watching it, I began to think of it as, essentially, a reverse Wicked, charting two women’s trajectory from friendship to enmity. But this is a whole lot less of a show.

The production is booking until January 8.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Theatre Review: Here Lies Love (Dorfman, National Theatre)


  
With that old Rice/Lloyd Webber warhorse Evita currently taking up space back in the West End, ‘tis the season for musicals focusing on the polarising spouses of quasi-fascist dictators, it seems. Following its successful run at New York’s Public Theatre, David Byrne and Norman Cook’s Here Lies Love, directed by Alex Timbers, pitches up in London to become the first production to open at the National Theatre’s refurbished and renamed Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe) auditorium.
  
Byrne’s Evita-for-Imelda opus sketches out the notorious Ms. Marcos’s rise to prominence against the backdrop of forty or so years of Philippines history, and focuses particularly on her fraught, finally acrimonious relationship with Estrella Cumpas, the woman who raised her. The material was originally presented in a concert setting and then appeared in the form of a starry concept album back in 2010, as Byrne continued to develop and rework the piece prior to its first production proper. I love that album, flaws and all, and I’ve hoped to see a version of the show staged since first hearing the songs. Did the experience on Friday night live up to expectations? Well, let’s just say that, in contrast to last year’s NT extravaganza – also the first musical theatre foray by an art-rock icon, of course - I don’t think I’ll be tempted back to Here Lies Love ten times.
  
About as far as can be imagined from The Light Princess’s classically inflected, immersive intricacies, the disco, techno and Latin-beat saturated score that Byrne and Cook have composed for Here Lies Love is a predominantly upbeat, candy-coated concoction that certainly won’t be drawing many complaints about – gah – a lack of instantly “catchy” tunes. The show takes its cue and also its concept from Marcos’s well-known predilection for dance music, its conceit being that the action is occurring in a club in which the audience have the opportunity to take a place on the dancefloor, sharing space with the performers. (“If it’s a club, then where’s the bar?” wondered my ever-picky companion as we took our positions.)
  
This set-up, which nicely suggests a parallel between the rabble-rousing techniques of a DJ (Martin Sarreal takes that role here) and those used by unscrupulous politicos, is by far the most distinctive aspect of Here Lies Love. At its best, the evening gives you the giddy sensation that you can have, when clubbing, of being in a glorious, untouchable bubble, entirely liberated from outside concerns: a feeling that, Byrne contends, is mirrored in the ivory towers that power couples such as the Marcoses construct for themselves. And if one were to see this show ten times from the dancefloor vantage point, each visit would be slightly different due to the shifts in perspective and position that the production’s format demands.
  
But that’s due to the participatory staging rather any real richness in the text, I’d argue. The album had its share of problems but Byrne’s revising of the material for the show doesn’t seem so much to have solved those flaws as to have exacerbated them. He’s snipped several key early songs that added texture to the Estrella/Imelda dynamic, clumsily conflated others, and composed new tracks – in particular, for the beefed-up role of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (Dean John-Wilson), Marcos’s political nemesis who was also (bizarrely) Imelda’s early beau – that, frankly speaking, aren’t up to scratch. Boasting no book to speak of, the show’s rhythm is super-swift, lurching from one number to the next, with the result that some crucial emotional beats are just skirted over. And the show’s attempt at a crowbarred-in, folky, up-with-the-people coda (oh look: real instruments!) is embarrassingly feeble. (Byrne must suspect as much, since the show quickly resorts to a reprise of the title song to close.)
  
Complete with a glitter ball, performers hopping from podium to podium, pink-suited ushers instructing us in dance moves, and screens clunkily flashing up explanatory information and images of Imelda, Timbers’s production practically redefines the term “busy.” And yet, as we were herded in to position for the umpteenth time to accommodate another bit of David Korins’s shifting set, I began to feel that a lot of this activity is really just so much window-dressing for material that Byrne still hasn’t sufficiently thought through. Yes, the show has scattered wonderful moments: Mark Bautista’s Ferdinand charming and smarming his way through the crowd on “A Perfect Hand”; a wittily choreographed “Eleven Days” that dizzyingly captures the whirlwind Marcos courtship; Natalie Mendoza’s Imelda falling hard for New York on the Talking Heads-esque “Dancing Together”; a scintillating “Solano Avenue,” reconceived as a taut duet for Imelda and Estrella (Gia Macuja Atchison); Imelda pleading with the exiled Ninoy not to return to the Philippines on a “Seven Years” that scales practically operatic heights. But the whole thing never develops into a dramatically satisfying whole: indeed, overall, it seems much less cohesive and textured than the patchy album did.
  
In interviews, Byrne keeps expressing his disdain for “traditional” musicals and his concern that Here Lies Love wouldn’t end up “too campy.” Such statements seem a bit rich, since you’d be hard pressed to point to a single moment in this show that doesn’t qualify as camp. Whether its Imelda’s beauty queen episode on the Disney-ish “The Rose of Tacloban”, Estrella peeping through the gates to observe her former charge on her wedding day on “When She Passed By,” or the scantily-clad dancers hoofing through the crassly-staged scorned-woman anthem “Men Will Do Anything” the show is about as gaudy, artificial, shallow and exaggerated as can be. It’s still shallow when it’s trying to be deep (recalling Sontag’s definition of camp as “a seriousness that fails”), as in that awful coda or the moments that attempt to convey the devastating effects of the Marcos regime. Byrne and co. may have thought it necessary to express their disdain for what the Marcoses did to their country. But artists show their feelings in the way that they construct their characters, and it’s clearly Imelda who most engages Byrne’s interest rather than the entirely generalised Filipino people or even Estrella, who ends up pretty much a cipher in this account.
  
These may sound like the musings of a killjoy, but as someone who’s spent half the summer in clubs in London, Spain and Poland (all in the name of research for a forthcoming project, of course :)) I don’t think you could find a viewer who was more up for Here Lies Love than I was. My high expectations for the show doubtless account, in part, for the disappointment I experienced, and it’s worth saying here that I think Here Lies Love will be a hit: it’s attention-grabbing and obvious and immediate in a way that people clearly respond to right now. But peer beneath the novelty-value staging, and what’s left seems pretty skimpy, after all. Despite Byrne's intimations, the piece goes no further into its subject than Evita did, and watching it, I began to think of it as, essentially, a reverse Wicked, charting two women’s trajectory from friendship to enmity. But this is a whole lot less of a show.
  
The production is booking until January 8.