Sunday 26 June 2011

Theatre Review: The Village Bike (Royal Court)


Penelope Skinner’s new play, just opened at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, concerns Becky, a pregnant English teacher who’s relocated to the country with her husband John, where the couple have acquired a cottage with clanking pipes and leaks. Immersed in various pregnancy and baby manuals, the rather pedantic John has developed some set ideas about how Becky should behave during her pregnancy, one of which is: no sex. Frustrated, Becky turns to other outlets, firstly pornography and then an affair with one Oliver Hardcastle, a married man from the village who has a reputation “as not very nice.” The title (also a reference to a sexually promiscuous woman, of course) refers to the bicycle that Becky buys from Oliver; it serves - a bit insistently - as a symbol for her increasingly reckless behaviour during the sultry summer in which her relationship with Oliver develops.

Skinner’s play gets into some provocative areas. It’s especially sharp on marriage, and the ways that pregnancy can change the dynamics of that relationship, on sexual double-standards, and on pornography’s role in promoting female sexual submissiveness as “liberation.” The tone of the writing is slippery: there’s plenty of comedy (some of it of a fairly lowbrow variety) but the piece becomes increasingly unsettling as it progresses. And playing out on a nicely-detailed domestic set that presents the couple’s bedroom and kitchen areas, and Oliver’s living room, Joe Hill-Gibbins’s production expertly conveys these shifts in mood. The play isn’t perfect: a couple of late scenes strike false notes, while the conclusion seems oddly retrogressive.

Even during the weaker moments, though, Romola Garai holds the piece together, delivering a stunning performance that pulls us right into Becky’s insecurities, her horniness, and her increasing desperation. Playing the men in her life, Dominic Rowan brings acerbic humour and increasing amounts of menace to the supreme egotist Oliver, while Nicholas Burns’s John, an organic-produce nazi who considers Horlicks to be a viable alternative to cunnilingus, is both exasperating and strangely endearing. In support, Alexandra Gilbreath is pitch-perfect, funny, touching and true as Jenny, the well-meaning neighbour whose inopportune appearances at the couple’s cottage are, we come to discover, an attempt to escape from her own obnoxious offspring (“I can’t tell you how wonderful this is after three days of Bob the Builder!”). As the affable, lonely plumber who ends up being used by Becky, Phil Cornwell maximises his cameo, especially in his first scene which turns into an orgy of innuendo. And although Sasha Waddell is somewhat wasted in a very small role, she manages to make her mark. Overall, then, an impressive production of a pungent and sometimes insightful new play; recommended.

The production runs for 2 hours 25 mins, and is booking until 23 July. Further information here.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Theatre Review: Richard III (Old Vic)

Six years ago, in his second year as Artistic Director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey took on the role of Richard II, directed by Trevor Nunn. The production was well received by most, but I remember it as one of the weakest stagings of a Shakespeare play that I’ve seen. Over-reliant upon poorly-executed gimmickry, with Spacey competent yet oddly colourless at the centre, the production didn’t do the play justice, for me, instead seeming to bleed most of the poetry and tragedy out of it.

Happily, Spacey’s latest, highly-anticipated foray into Shakespeare’s Histories has, I think, yielded much more successful and dynamic results. Collaborating with Sam Mendes for the first time since American Beauty (1999), in what will be the last production in the transatlantic Bridge Project, Spacey takes on the title role in Richard III and delivers an assured performance in a very strong production. This Richard doesn’t come close to matching Propeller’s current staging of the play for inventiveness, exuberance and sheer bloody bravura. But it remains an intelligent and persuasive production, perhaps the strongest I’ve seen during Spacey’s reign at the Old Vic. The following remarks were written after the third preview of the play on the 21st June.

Mendes first directed Richard III for the RSC 20 years ago with Simon Russell Beale in the title role. And, from the bits and pieces I’ve read about it, he seems to have recycled a fair few ideas from that production here.* For the most part, they’re good ideas, though. The first thing we see upon entering the auditorium is the word “Now,” projected in white on a black screen: a suggestion, if ever there was one, that the production is aiming for contemporary relevance.

As it turns out, though, the caption is less an allusion to the production’s temporal setting than a pointer to the first word of Richard’s famous opening soliloquy. For, although clearly contemporary, the world of this production is pretty non-specific. Catherine Zuber’s stylish costumes suggest England in the 1940s or 50s (sometimes earlier and sometimes later), while Tom Piper’s effective design opts for minimalism, the stage-space expanding and contracting as it economically conveys the various locations, and giving the production a stark intimacy and an epic grandeur as required. Titles like the opening “Now” appear throughout the production, mostly serving to introduce characters at the beginning of scenes: my companion deemed this a somewhat patronising device, but I think it’s fairly effective, helping to focus a play that can seem diffuse and cluttered on a first viewing. Although the production is long (it runs for 3 hours 15 minutes), with few cuts, it maintains fluidity, momentum and drive throughout, with dramatic scene changes underscored by excellent sound and music (heavy on the drumming) from Gareth Fry, Mark Bennett and Curtis Moore.

There’s the occasional quirky touch, such as the presentation of ‘The Citizens’ as chattering commuters, while Richard’s fake-reluctant acceptance of the crown is the most elaborately staged set-piece, becoming something of a comic crowd-pleaser. But mostly Mendes avoids attention-grabbing gimmicks here, instead choosing to present the play's big scenes in as uncluttered a manner as possible. His approach carries over to the stagings of the murders, which, with the exception of the killing of Clarence, are handled very discreetly, contrasting sharply with the extravagant Saw-ish theatrics that are such a distinctive feature of Propeller’s production.

The sparse approach allows the actors plenty of space. From the moment we first see him, slumped bitterly in a chair before images of Edward IV’s coronation, Spacey’s Richard rivets attention. Hump-backed, left foot twisted inwards, every inch the “bottled spider” of Queen Margaret’s description, the role allows Spacey scope to exercise his special gift for communicating malevolence. And yet there’s nothing grotesque or excessive about this Richard; rather he cuts an all-too-human figure. There have been more insidiously charismatic, more sexually suggestive interpretations than this but few that have dug much more deeply into the character’s self-loathing, his profound sense of isolation, or his misogyny. (A few twists on a few key lines soon establish this Richard as one with clearly unresolved Mummy Issues.)

As in Richard II, Spacey uses the slightly affected mid-Atlantic accent that he seems to find appropriate for speaking Shakespeare, but he’s much more vocally expressive in this production. He takes the soliloquies very fast, as a rush of thoughts and ideas and impressions, and carries the audience with him every step of the way. He develops a nice line in ironic humour, too, but the performance also has its startling moments, from the sudden ferocity with which he turns on Jack Ellis’s Hastings to the awed shock tinged with anger with which he repeats “on me!” following his wooing of Anne. Indeed, the seduction-of-Anne sequence is particularly inspired here: Spacey and the excellent Annabel Scholey play the scene not simply as a war-of-words but as an intensely physical encounter that leaves Richard gasping with relief and disbelief, not quite able to believe his success. (Spacey makes the scene a transitional moment in which Richard really becomes aware of his power and potential to manipulate.) By the time Richard is writhing, bloodied, on the floor yelping “My kingdom for a horse!” Spacey’s performance has traced a clear and compelling arc. It’s a distinguished interpretation, and a great achievement for the actor.

Surrounding Spacey’s star turn is a strong ensemble of British and American performers, from Chandler Williams as a deeply sympathetic Clarence to Chuk Iwuji’s well-drawn Buckingham; Iwuji succeeds in making sense of the character’s journey from co-conspirator to doomed rebel. Broadway veteran Maureen Anderman brings wonderful feeling and intensity to her scenes as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, while as a ratty-haired, bag-lady-ish Margaret, Gemma Jones is goosebump-inducingly good, wonderful to listen to as she delivers curses and prophecies. Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know.” Jones’s Margaret functions here as just such a figure of power and knowledge, and, by making the character a ghostly presence in the latter stages of the production, Mendes succeeds in turning her into the heroine of the play.

Unsurprisingly for the preview stage, a few performances lack a bit of definition. Haydn Gwynne will no doubt dig deeper into Queen Elizabeth’s grief and strength as the run progresses, and Nathan Darrow’s Richmond is sadly bland, although that’s probably due to Shakespeare’s characterisation as much as the actor’s performance. And a couple of scenes still need work: the Eve-of-Bosworth nightmare, in particular, doesn’t yet pack the punch it should. Even so, the production is in terrific shape already and is sure to only get stronger as time goes on. If you only have space in your life for one Richard III this month, then I’d say make it Propeller’s. But Mendes’s production is a thoroughly involving and gripping account of the play, and (in more ways than one) it ends the Bridge Project initiative on a definite high.

Running time: 3 hours 15 mins. The production runs until 11 September 2011 at the Old Vic. It will also tour internationally – taking a break from London for the Athens and Epidaurus Festival (29-31 July), and then post-London, visiting Hong Kong Arts Festival (16-18 September), Spain’s Centro Niemeyer (28 September-1 October) and Singapore Repertory Theatre (17-26 November) – before opening the at BAM, where it concludes from 10 January to 4 March 2012. Additional international 2011 dates to be announced.

*I’d dearly love to hear from anyone who remembers the 1992 production and can confirm what Mendes changes and retains here. In particular, as Richard makes his way to the throne for the first time, doesn’t Spacey recycle a moment that's gone down as a classic SRB moment?

Tuesday 21 June 2011

CD Review: In Your Dreams by Stevie Nicks

The songs written by Stevie Nicks always stood out as the most soulful and original in the Fleetwood Mac repertoire; they’ve also proved to be among the most enduring and certainly the most frequently covered by other artists. While operating within the limits of instantly accessible mainstream pop/rock, Nicks’s wonderfully melodic compositions for the band retained a mystery and a depth that took them onto another level. Enhanced by the blurry intimacy of her distinctive vocal delivery, songs like “Dreams,” “Landslide” and “Rhiannon” have become classics that still speak to the listener very personally, sounding fresh and revealing each and every time you hear them.

The trajectory of Nicks’s solo career has been a somewhat chequered one, but her status as inspiration for a range of younger artists was affirmed on her last album, 2001’s Trouble in Shangri-La, a record which found her collaborating with Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow and Macy Gray. Following the Unleashed reunion tour with Fleetwood Mac, Nicks now returns with a new solo album, In Your Dreams. Produced by Glen Ballard and Dave Stewart, the record can’t be said to take Nicks in many new directions musically: the sound is slick AOR, and occasionally a little too polished for its own good. But the album’s best tracks are memorable and accomplished, and fit snugly into Nicks’s body-of-work.

Indeed, proceedings get off to a superb start with three songs that are as strong as any Nicks has penned. The opening track and first single “Secret Love” isn’t the Doris Day cover the title might lead you to expect, but rather a bright, mature and well-crafted pop song that Nicks originally wrote for Rumours but that didn’t make the cut; here, it serves as a warmly inviting welcome to the album. Spacy synths and the sound of a chiming streetcar-bell then usher in “For What It’s Worth,” a delightfully brisk folk-pop strum that finds Nicks nostalgically recalling an illicit romance. The ringing, propulsive title track - one of several songs that Nicks has co-written with Stewart for the album - is equally good.

After this dynamic start, In Your Dreams loses momentum a little, its songs satisfying more fitfully. Best of the bunch is the vampires-and-Anne-Rice-referencing “New Orleans,” a lyrically clichéd but melodically irresistible paean to The Crescent City; the supple, tender pop song “Everybody Loves You”; and the punchy rocker “Ghosts Are Gone.” “Wide Sargasso Sea,” a riff on the Jean Rhys novel, starts out tentatively, but builds to a good fiery finish. And a couple of tracks that, by rights, shouldn’t work actually prove beguiling. An adaptation of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” set to soft-rock accompaniment sounds like a fairly grisly prospect but an artful arrangement and a strong vocal from Nicks combine to make the piece quite effective. And “Italian Summer” is such an unabashed slice of romantic melodrama that all the listener can do is swoon contentedly in submission.

At the less successful end of the album is “Soldier’s Angel” an over-wrought and somewhat hokey duet for Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham, and “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream),” a song suggested by Nicks’s viewing of one of the Twilight films, that ends up as bland and colourless as its inspiration. And in an unfortunate bit of sequencing Nicks saves the very worst track for last: “Cheaper Than Freer” is an embarrassment, a clunky chunk of country-rock that finds Nicks and Stewart trading some excruciating lyrics (“More exciting than high fashion? High passion!”). Such dips in quality control mean that In Your Dreams sadly skirts greatness. But there’s enough strong material here to make this a most enjoyable release overall, and a worthy new addition to Nicks’s catalogue.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Theatre Review: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the second production in Trevor Nunn’s season as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Sadly, though, it comes nowhere near to matching the success of the first, Nunn’s truly gorgeous staging of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. Actually, Nunn's production, which opened at Chichester last month and takes up residence at the TRH until August, is serviceable enough. The problem is the play itself. Stoppard’s comedy, which famously imagines the extra-textual reality of two of Hamlet’s minor characters, may have looked like “an amazing piece of work” when it premiered in the late 1960s but now it seems mostly tiresome: a thin, effete, painfully derivative piece of gimmickry that filters Shakespeare through Beckett and Pirandello and is based around a central conceit that’s more interesting than anything that the playwright does with it. Stoppard would go on to achieve interesting marriages between what he calls "the play of ideas and farce or high comedy" later in his career, but here the jokes are corny and the metatheatrical elements laboured, while the philosophical musing - on fate and free will, mortality and identity - feels trite.

The fact that the production remains mildly diverting is down to its actors. The casting of two of the original History Boys as Ros and Guil pays dividends: Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker work together with the skill and ease of actors who know each other well; the pair’s rapport and respect is palpable throughout, and Barnett in particular has some inventive physical moments. And replacing an indisposed Tim Curry, Chris Andrew Mellon brings lewd gusto to the play’s best role, that of the Player King.

Nunn, who has been known to stretch a production beyond endurance, paces this one fairly well, although his inventiveness deserts him in a miserably staged pirate scene. But playing out on a grim dark-toned set that is too obvious an evocation of an existential limbo (the opening tableau is way too Godot) the production never really breaks through the aridity of Stoppard’s conception. The playwright offers quips, with little insight and no feeling. He doesn’t even play fair with his source material, truncating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s most significant scene in Hamlet, presumably because it doesn’t quite fit his conception of the pair as perpetually befuddled innocents. And so what we’re left with is skimpy and insubstantial: a competent but unspectacular production of a play that now seems a lot less ingenious than it thinks it is.

The production runs for 2 hours 40 minutes and is booking until 20th August.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Film Review: Potiche (Ozon, 2010)

God bless François Ozon, surely the most confounding, as well as the most prolific, of contemporary film-makers. The director’s latest work, Potiche, apparently began life when Ozon was asked to make a film about Nicolas Sarkozy, a docudrama in the Peter Morgan “mould.” (Both senses of that word seem apt here.) Somewhere along the way, however, Ozon got side-tracked, and turned his attention instead to a 1970s boulevard comedy by Pierre Barillet and Jean Pierre-Grody that explored women in the workplace. That text, filtered through Ozon’s observations of the misogynistic media discourse surrounding Ségoléne Royal’s unsuccessful 2007 presidential campaign, has inspired Potiche - not the piece of bogus impersonation that a film on Sarko might have been but rather a bright, high-camp foray into gender politics and 70s kitsch that takes its place alongside Ozon’s earlier subversive comedies, Sitcom (1998) and 8 Women (2000).

As successful as most of his dramatic forays have been (and his last one, Le Refuge, was my favourite film of last year) it’s nice to find Ozon letting his hair down with this confection. And one of the central pleasures of Potiche is that it reunites the director with one of his 8 Women, Catherine Deneuve. Here she’s Suzanne: wife of a wealthy industrialist, Robert Pujol (Fabrice Luchini), and mother to two 20-something children, daddy’s girl Joëlle (Judith Godréche) and mummy’s boy Paul (Jeremie Reiner). Suzanne is presented, initially, as a slightly daffy woman who’s content with her lot, whether she’s composing doggerel on country walks, or (in the movie’s most charming scene) singing and dancing along to pop ditties as she does the housework. But when Robert is held captive by a bunch of striking employees, and has a heart attack, Suzanne is left to take over running the factory, a role in which she proves thoroughly adept. Her new post brings her into contact with the Communist mayor, Babin (Gerard Depardieu), with whom she has a romantic history, and of course into conflict with Robert who, once recovered, reacts rather badly to the turning of the tables.

Art-directed, designed, costumed and choreographed to within an inch of its life, Potiche (the title means "Trophy Wife") looks a treat. Filtered, Ozon has claimed, through his own childhood memories of the 70s, the movie is at once deeply textured and cartoonish; the images have a gorgeous pop lusciousness that, coupled with Ozon’s brisk story-telling skills, brings a heart-lifting charm to the opening sequences of the movie in which Suzanne is introduced. As with much of the director’s output, the film runs the risk of being labelled a mere style-exercise, but its visual flair is combined with some good points on gender politics too. The feminism here may be fairly rudimentary, but it’s fully appreciated nonetheless, taking Potiche, at its best, into the realm of early Almodovar-esque “kitsch-and-think” comedy.

As usual, Ozon elicits highly enjoyable performances from his actors. Deneuve, an underrated comedienne, is wonderful, though a case could be made that Suzanne, like Born Yesterday's Billie Dawn before her, is much more fun before her awakening: the movie’s greatest flaw, I’d argue, is that it doesn’t quite succeed in making her empowerment as exciting as it should be. The hyper Luchini is good value as always, although some of his scenes seem to lack punch-lines. Judith Godréche does well in an unsympathetic role, and it’s delightful to see Jeremie Renier (reuniting with Ozon for the first time since the devilish Criminal Lovers [1999]) liberated from Dardenne-angst and delivering a very funny and appealing performance - he’s also the protagonist of the movie’s cheekiest twist. Karin Viard is great as the secretary who’s sparked into rebellion by Suzanne’s example. And Depardieu is, well, Depardieu: lumbering, awkward, endearing. The role doesn’t allow him the room for manoeuvre that his great role in The Singer (2006) did, but he delivers a game performance nonetheless. Ever the cinephile, Ozon riffs on the actor’s screen history with Deneuve in amusing ways, even if his attempt to inject their characters’ back-story with “real” emotion (via weak melodramatic flashbacks) falls sadly flat.

Potiche is always on the verge of becoming wilder and crazier and funnier than it ever actually does. For the most part, that verge isn’t a bad place to be, but it does mean that some scenes are let-downs: in particular the sequence that should be the great highlight - Deneuve and Depardieu hitting the dance floor - is a damp squib. (Apparently, Depardieu couldn't master the moves!) It doesn’t help, in addition, that the trailer for the movie reveals all the major plot points and most of the best bits. And towards the end, when the film should be gaining momentum, it becomes oddly tiresome, degenerating into a series of dressing-up-Deneuve montages as Suzanne extends her ambitions to a political career and goes on the campaign trail. Happily, a brazenly ridiculous musical flourish redeems the film’s final moments. And if, ultimately, Potiche can’t quite match either Sitcom or 8 Women for big laughs or subversive surprises, it remains a great deal of fun nonetheless.

Potiche is released in UK cinemas on 17th June.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Theatre Review: Butley (Duchess Theatre)

Simon Gray’s play Butley, which focuses on a few hours in the life of an academic in meltdown, premiered in the West End in 1971 in a production starring Alan Bates in what was to become something of a signature role. The play has not been frequently seen since then (a Broadway production with Nathan Lane had a limited run in 2006) but now, 40 years on, it gets an excellent and very well-cast revival directed by Lindsay Posner at the Duchess Theatre.

Our eponymous protagonist, Ben Butley, is an English Literature lecturer at a college of London University. Self-absorbed and drink-dependent, we encounter him on the first day of term as he dodges persistent students, and learns that his estranged wife, Anne, is to divorce him, and that his protégé/lover, the assistant lecturer Joseph, is to leave him. Butley’s response to these and other disasters is a stream of barbed insults and a dose or two of mischief-making, a default mode that masks the protagonist’s pain regarding where his professional and personal life have ended up.

Gray’s play doesn’t feel dated: the portrait of academia - its rivalries, frustrations and insecurities - still rings true, and the dialogue retains its freshness, pungency and wit. And in our monstrous hero Gray has fashioned a vivid creation indeed. Harold Pinter, who directed the 1971 production, described Butley as “a character who hurls himself towards destruction while living, in the fever of his intellectual hell, with a vitality and brilliance known to few of us. He courts death by remaining ruthlessly - even dementedly - alive.”

All of these interesting contradictions are embraced in Dominic West’s dynamic performance. His Butley is at once petty and shrewd, captivating and awful, charismatic and impossible. Physically lithe and vocally dexterous, the actor brings a marvellous gusto to the invective while also communicating the insecurity and sheer neediness that underpin it. Indeed, what’s especially impressive about West’s performance here is how it shows - without a hint of sentimentality - Butley’s bluster to be the recourse of a man who’s sick at heart, and who can deal with loss and failure only by lashing out, alienating those he desires to bring closer. It’s an indelible portrait of a man set upon sabotaging himself that gives the piece its measure of poignancy and power.

West is well supported by Martin Hutson, who is at once deeply sympathetic and ever-so-slightly irritating as Joseph, the young man who knows he must escape Butley’s grasp. As the stolid Reg, Joseph’s new lover and facilitator of that escape, Paul McGann also makes his mark in a memorably tense and funny encounter with Butley in which the latter’s penchant for insult goes into overdrive. (McGann’s brilliantly controlled performance lets us know that Reg will give Joseph neither the pain, nor the excitement, that he’s experienced with Butley, and that that’s why he’s necessary to him.) Amanda Drew, meanwhile, brings a marvellous straightforwardness to her brief appearance as Anne, but it’s a woefully underwritten role. Penny Downie is luckier: as Edna, a colleague of Butley’s who’s dealing with a problem student, this expert actress manages to pack the suggestion of a whole life history into a handful of scenes, imbuing them with fresh and surprising touches. And I also enjoyed Emma Hiddleston as Miss Heasman, the student whose eager persistence at gaining a tutorial with Butley is finally shaken when she finds him pretending to projectile vomit over her essay on The Winter’s Tale.

Set as it is in one room on one day - a conceit that leads to a good self-reflexive joke on the “three unities,” one example of much enjoyable “literary” banter in the play - there’s a static quality to Butley that Posner’s production can’t quite solve. Even though Peter McKintosh’s office set is both imposing and expressive, there’s little to engage the eye here except the actors. In addition, the play doesn’t, ultimately, go quite as deep as you might hope, and there’s a sense of anti-climax about the ending, which requires a stronger punch-line. Nonetheless, this is a highly entertaining evening, and a must-see for West’s tour-de-force alone.
Butley runs for 2 hours 20 minutes. It's at the Duchess until August 27th.

Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Monday 6 June 2011

Last 10 Things Seen in the Theatre Meme #1

It's a rare month in which I see more plays than films, but, somehow, May turned out to be one of those months. So here's that meme/questionnaire.

List the last 10 things you saw at the theatre in order:

1.Three Farces (Orange Tree)
2. Much Ado About Nothing (Globe)
3. The Mousetrap (St. Martin's)
4. Hamlet! The Musical (Richmond)
5. Hamlet (Northern Broadsides)
6. Moonlight (Donmar)
7. The Cherry Orchard (Olivier, NT)
8. A Delicate Balance  (Almeida)
9. I Am The Wind (Young Vic)
10. Bette & Joan (Arts)

Who was the best performer in number one (Three Farces)?
Enjoyed all the performances, but Clive Francis was especially memorable.

Why did you go to see number two (Much Ado About Nothing)?
Word-of-mouth about the production. And (whisper this) hadn’t been to the Globe before.

Can you remember a line/lyric from number three (The Mousetrap) that you liked?
No. But it was fun while it lasted.

What would you give number four (Hamlet! The Musical) out of ten?
Ten, without a doubt.

Was there someone hot in number five (Hamlet)?
Not that I recall, I'm afraid. A solid Hamlet. But not a sexy one.

What was number six (Moonlight) about?
Ha! What indeed? Dying. Remembering. Forgetting. The place of the past in the present.  Familial estrangement, how close and how distant our family members can be, simultaneously. Mostly I think it was about David Bradley saying: “Bollocks to the lot of them. And bugger them all.”

Who was your favourite actor in number seven (The Cherry Orchard)?
Again a great ensemble all round. But Kenneth Cranham as Firs was particularly brilliant, especially in the final moments.

What was your favourite bit in number eight (A Delicate Balance)?
Loved the whole thing. But especially fond of Diana Hardcastle as Edna saying : "I do [speak my mind] sometimes… When an environment is not all that it might be." A line with a lot of resonance for me, clearly.

Would you see number nine (I Am The Wind) again?
Hahaha. Love Chereau. But no.

What was the worst thing about number ten (Bette & Joan)?
Nothing really, enjoyed it thoroughly. Although I do regret not jumping up to pick up Anita Dobson’s knitting when it rolled off the stage in the first five minutes.

Which was best?
A Delicate Balance.

Which was worst?
I Am The Wind. It made me feel. Like. A. Concrete. Wall. A concrete. Wall. That’s crumbling. To pieces.

Did any make you cry?
Not majorly but had a tear in the eye when Eve Best, as Beatrice in Much Ado, said : "But then there was a star danced, and under that was I born." And Penelope Wilton's Agnes suddenly recalling her lost son in A Delicate Balance touched me alot. 

Did any make you laugh?
Oh yes. Three Farces, Hamlet! The Musical, Much Ado, Moonlight, A Delicate Balance, & Bette & Joan. And a bit of an inappropriate giggling fit in The Cherry Orchard. Blame that there Ought to Be Clowns. (“Fluff.”)

Which roles would you like to play in any of them?
Well, the big H of course. Musical or non-musical. Otherwise, Laertes or Horatio will do just fine.

Which one did you have best seats for?
Bette & Joan. I Am The Wind. Front row’s the place to be, sir.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Concert Review: Emmylou Harris (Royal Festival Hall, 1/6/2011)

I first discovered Emmylou Harris’s music over 11 years ago now, and I’ve been listening to her work pretty consistently since then. Harris is, without a doubt, one of the several artists who are in The Pantheon, for me. What’s so special about Harris’s music, to me, is not only the inventiveness and elegance with which it has blurred and blended genres, from rock and bluegrass to gospel and folk, but also the way it’s served as an entry point into the work of so many other artists. I’ve lost count of the number of musicians I’ve discovered because Harris has sung with them or covered their songs. That collaborative ethos seems an integral part of the richness of Harris’s body-of-work and the way it gestures backwards and forwards in the American roots tradition, forging links, making connections. In addition, the solo albums that Harris has released since 2000 have had an unerring tendency to appear at emotional low points in my life, and I’d credit each of those fine records with helping me through stressful times in one way or another.

The opportunity to see Harris live had passed me by up until now, so it was a particular pleasure to finally see her in concert at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday night, with her current band the Red Dirt Boys. The tone for the show was set early, when Harris, resplendent in knee-length black cowgirl dress and cowboy boots, bounded on to the stage and launched into “Six White Cadillacs,” from her wonderful new album Hard Bargain [review here], the song’s deluxe honky-tonk gaining grit and volume in this live incarnation. The song established Harris and her band’s ethos for the night: to have fun and get loud. Still, a rather inadequate sound mix, coupled with Harris’s notoriously murky diction, conspired to render almost every word she uttered inaudible, and the same applied to the following two songs, “Orphan Girl” and “Red Dirt Girl.” It wasn’t until the fourth song, “Beneath Still Waters,” that Harris could really be heard satisfactorily, and after the slightly shaky start, it was pretty much plain sailing from thereon in.

The excellent, thoughtfully sequenced set-list touched almost all corners of the Harris repertoire, encompassing material old and new, covers and original compositions. The tribal-hymnal qualities brought to the Wrecking Ball/Red Dirt Girl material (“Goin’ Back To Harlan,” “Every Grain of Sand,” “The Pearl,” and “Bang the Drum Slowly”) were especially impressive. But the multi-tasking five-piece band (playing drums, accordion, keyboards, fiddle and electric guitar accompanying Harris’s own array of acoustic guitars) proved equally adept at delivering the more polished, straightforward mid-70s tracks as well. Harris has clearly put together a group capable of covering the polished twang of the Hot Band and the deep soulful atmospherics of Spyboy with equal verve.

Harris alluded to the last time she played in the “fair city” of London at last year’s Kate McGarrigle tribute concert and paid homage to her dear friend and collaborator not with the lovely “Darlin’ Kate” from her new album but rather with a stunning cover of “Talk To Me of Mendocino,” certainly the first time I’ve heard her perform this song. Another tip of the hat to influences led to a simply beautiful Gram Parsons-suite comprising new song “The Road,” “Boulder to Birmingham,” and Parsons’ own “Wheels,” perhaps the highlight of the evening for me. To hear Harris sing a line like “the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive” is at once achingly poignant and wonderfully inspiring now, with the weight of the years, and our awareness of the creative uses she’s made of her survival.

Other highlights at the quieter end of the gig included an intimate “Prayer in Open D” and a surprise outing for the exquisite “Shores of White Sand,” while “Luxury Liner” and “Born to Run” (Paul Kennerley’s, not Bruce Springsteen’s) both rocked spectacularly. At the encore, Harris went for nostalgia, opting for the lovely “One of These Days” and Townes van Zandt’s superb “Pancho & Lefty,” both of which sounded dynamic and fresh. The entire show demonstrated once again the exciting, ever-evolving fusion of rock energy, folk intimacy and country soul that has characterised Harris’s work over the past 40 years. Cosmic American Music, indeed.

Harris was supported by the charming young Greenland singer Simon Lynge, who delivered a compelling set of songs from his record The Future, which is well worth checking out.

Theatre Review: Three Farces (Orange Tree)

Farces have long been something of a staple of the Orange Tree’s programming, resulting in some of the theatre’s most popular and crowd-pleasing productions. Over the years, the theatre has presented work by Feydeau, Hannequin and Verber, and, last year, Reggie Oliver’s enjoyable adaptation of Hennequin and Delacour’s Le Procés Vauradieux, translated by Oliver as Once Bitten. For only the second time, however, the theatre has turned its attention to the work of a British farceur, in this case John Maddison Morton, the Victorian writer best known for his 1847 play Box and Cox, which was turned into an operetta by Arthur Sullivan. Editor Colin Chambers and director Henry Bell have adapted three short plays by Morton into one package, as Three Farces. The result is a most enjoyable evening that benefits from the wonderfully inclusive intimacy of the Orange Tree’s space.

Attractively designed by Sam Dowson and fetchingly costumed by Katy Mills, Bell’s production sweeps the audience up in cheerful bonhomie from its opening moments, in which Daniel Cheyne arrives on stage (complete with ukulele) to welcome us to this “veritable smorgasbord of farcical frolickings” and to introduce us to the other actors - Clive Francis, Stuart Fox, Edward Bennett, Jennifer Higham, David Oakes and Natalie Ogle - each of whom comes with their own epithet. Cheyne serves as “Master of Ceremonies” throughout the night, singing an introductory scene-setting ditty before each of the plays, and bantering with the audience during the two intervals. Proceedings kick off with “Slasher and Crasher,” the most anarchic (and also the funniest) of the three comedies. It’s a satire on duelling, with Francis as a patriarch concerned about the cowardice of the eponymous fellows (Oakes and Fox), who are suitors to his niece Rosa (Higham) and sister Dinah (Ogle). The madcap shenanigans culminate in a truly spectacular fight scene between Fox and Oakes, and there’s also a hilarious performance from Bennett as Lt. Brown, another potential suitor for Rosa.

It’s followed by “A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion,” an effective two-hander for Francis and Bennett in which a North London husband’s quiet day alone is interrupted by the appearance of a strange young man who’s trying to commit suicide in his garden. Underpinned by a hint of menace, the piece suggests the “home invasion” thriller as skewed by The Two Ronnies, and ends with a very neat, rather Brechtian flourish; Francis and Bennett are a dream team here. The final play, “Grimshaw, Bagshaw and Bradshaw,” also pivots around a home invasion, as Mr. Grimshaw (Fox) finds his room appropriated by a host of characters on the run. With its mistaken identity plot, disappearances into cupboards, and romantic confusions, this feels like the most conventional of the three pieces, but it’s consistently amusing nonetheless and played with infectious enthusiasm by the actors.

The star of the evening is undoubtedly Mr. Francis, who morphs brilliantly from fussy patriarch to befuddled bourgeois and finally Cockney-sheriffs-officer-cum-bovver-boy across the three plays. But all of the actors here get a moment to shine. The tone of Morton’s writing is less caustic and more generous-spirited than that of some of his French counterparts, and, mercifully, none of the plays resorts to funny-foreigner stereotypes or characters with speech impediments in order to draw laughs, opting instead for some marvellously surreal non-sequiturs. (The best involves a reference to a cotton umbrella.) Bell’s fluid, well-paced production avoids the trap of becoming too frenetic or strained, even as it embraces the self-conscious artifice and theatricality of the plays, and their glorious silliness. This is a thoroughly charming and enjoyable evening to convert even the farce adverse.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.

Three Farces runs for 2 hours 20 minutes and is booking until 25 June. Further information at the Orange Tree website.