Tuesday 27 May 2014

Theatre Review: Directors Showcase (Squirrels/The After-Dinner Joke) (Orange Tree)

I always particularly look forward to the Orange Tree’s annual Directors Showcase. These short Spring seasons of plays selected and directed by the theatre’s resident trainee directors have, over the years, yielded some terrific work: the marvellously confounding 2012 triple-bill which mixed up St. John Hankin’s warm proto-Home Alone  Edwardian escapade, The Burglar Who Failed, Omar El-Khairy’s chilling Hanekian home invasion drama  Return To Sender and Amiri Baraka’s still-searing Dutchman remains one of my all-time favourite OT evenings.  In his programme note for this year’s presentation – sadly the last of such seasons under his aegis following his retirement in a couple of months - Artistic Director Sam Walters gently reminds us of the importance and the innovation of this scheme, which has given an early start to more than fifty aspiring directors, many of whom have gone on to have auspicious careers.        
This year’s trainees, Lewis Gray and Sophie Boyce, have chosen to present obscure-ish 1970s work by two major playwrights, pairing David Mamet’s 1974 three-hander Squirrels with Caryl Churchill’s 1978 The After-Dinner Joke, a piece originally commissioned for the BBC’s (late and very much-lamented) Play for Today series. The double-bill adds up to a provocative, engaging evening, and offers a valuable opportunity to see these rarely-performed works in such an intimate setting.          

Mamet’s piece is a highly mannered, Absurdist-inflected musing on the creative process, in which a writer and his amanuensis tussle over the composition of a narrative. Arthur, an egotistical author who has been working on the opening line of a story involving a man's encounter with a squirrel for fifteen years, has hired Edmond, a fledgling writer, as his secretary/collaborator. The two men’s styles predictably clash, and the stage would seem to be set for a prototypical Mametian male locking-of-horns -  were the two men not frequently joined by Arthur's cleaning lady, also an aspiring writer, who chips in with her own observations and suggestions, as the play shows snatches of stories getting written, adapted, tossed away, recycled and reclaimed.   

Peter McGovern in Squirrels (Photo: Robert Day)

I'm not sure that the super-arch Squirrels is much more than a curiosity, ultimately, and some may find its writerly wrangling tedious. But, despite an occasional staticism, Lewis Gray’s polished production proves entertaining thanks to well-honed  interplay from David Mallinson and Peter McGovern as Arthur and Edmond, and to  Janet Spencer-Turner whose wily gem of a turn as the Cleaning Lady (possibly the most hardboiled of the trio), provides almost all of the funniest moments here.   

Churchill’s piece is an obviously livelier proposition. The After-Dinner Joke is a broad, often cartoonish, Python-esque satire  that, rather like the playwright’s recent Love and Information, whips through over sixty scenes – most of them skits and sketches - as it anatomises and satirises the politics of charity. A through-line of sorts is provided by the experiences of Selby, an eager young woman (“I’m not a Christian. But I feel just as guilty as if I was”) who gives up her job as a personal secretary and takes up a post as one of her company’s charity campaign organisers, discovering along the way the ethical complications involved in the raising and distribution of charity funds.  

The play’s theses – that charities are businesses deeply implicated in capitalism; that money should actually be given to “peasant rebellions" which would bring about real change; and that, yeah, everything is political, OK?  - are glib, transparent and delivered without much shading; this is certainly a play to make those who don’t give to charity feel a whole lot better about themselves.

Ben Onwukwe and Lydia Larson in The After-Dinner Joke (Photo: Robert Day) 

But the piece boasts so much cheeky theatrical brio that it’s hard not to succumb, even if you find yourself objecting to the triteness of most of Churchill’s conclusions here. There’s speech-making; slapstick; some inspired silent movie, advertising and rock-star parodies; and a whole host of gags. Boyce’s carnivalesque production is impeccable in its zest and its attention to tone, while its marvellous quintet of a cast – Lydia Larson, Ben Onwukwe, Jonathan Christie, David Gooderson and Rebecca Pownall - share over forty roles and inhabit them with supreme inventiveness. (Onwukwe playing a baby is truly something to behold.)  If the scattershot approach leads to a certain shallowness of argument, at the heart of the shenanigans and spoofery is a radiant performance from Larson that brings genuine poignancy to Selby’s discovery of the politics, perils and compromises involved in “doing good.” This excellent production deserves a longer life.

The Directors Showcase is booking until 7 June. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Theatre Review: Things We Do For Love (Richmond, & touring)

My review of Laurence Boswell's production of Alan Ayckbourn's Things We Do For Love is up at British Theatre Guide. You can read it here.

PS. I also composed this anti-Ayckbourn ditty after the show. To be sung to the tune of Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn", of course. Feel free to add an extra verse or two, Ayckbourn sceptics.

I thought I’d see a play brought to life
Actors on stage, quite a nice set, an audience inside.
I hoped to laugh and cry.
But this wasn’t a play I adored
It didn’t know, it didn’t care, what dramaturgy’s for
And I can’t take it anymore

There’s nothing there, the whole thing’s shite
Another wasted Monday night
That’s what’s going on…

Cos I can see this fucking play’s Ayckbourn.
I’m all out of faith
This is how I feel
Crap jokes, slapstick and farce
His writing’s just so poor
Illusion never changed
Into something real
I’m fast asleep cos I can see
This fucking play’s Ayckbourn
Fucking play’s Ayckbourn
Fucking play’s Ayckbourn

(repeat to fade)

Friday 16 May 2014

CD/Concert Review: Unrepentant Geraldines and Tori Amos at Royal Albert Hall, London (15/05/2014)

“Music more than anything else is what keeps me on this planet,” wrote Tori Amos in Piece by Piece. “I don’t know if in another life I would be given music. So I’m going to create with it as much as I can.” If there’s one thing we know for sure about Amos by now it’s that that impulse to create is pretty much insatiable. It’s been only a few months since the (all-too-premature) final performance of her “edible, delectable” first musical theatre project The Light Princess at the National Theatre (a.k.a. what September 2013 – February 2014 was ALL ABOUT for some of us). And already Amos is back again with a new record, Unrepentant Geraldines (her 14th studio album, no less), and an 80-city tour underway. (Hilariously, one recent commentator actually had the abject gall to suggest that it must be the announcement of a few gigs by notorious lazy-bones (sorry: perfectionist) Kate Bush that have got Amos’s current creative juices flowing.) I had the pleasure of seeing Amos’s London stop at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday and wanted to record some impressions of both the new album and the concert here.

If the immersive intricacies of The Light Princess score very much bore the influence of Amos’s classically-orientated work for Deutsche Grammophon - more the dynamic Night of Hunters than the rather underwhelming Gold Dust - then Unrepentant Geraldines has been widely heralded as a return to the “classic” Amos chamber pop of yore. It’s certainly evident that, having recorded and toured with a quartet and an orchestra and collaborated with so many folks on TLP, Amos is keen to get back to basics on the new record which she’s presented as an album of “secret songs” composed during the development of her other ambitious projects. The resulting album is, at base, a family thing, with Amos’s ever-inventive keyboard-work nestling snugly around husband Mark Hawley’s guitar-playing, and her regular band-mates Jon Evans and Matt Chamberlain absent from the scene. Following her great appearances as the shape-shifting instructress “Anabelle” on Night of Hunters there’s also another vocal assist from Amos and Hawley’s daughter Tash, on the corny yet irresistible duet anthem of mutual support “Promise.” In addition, the album comes without the conceptual befuddlements that appear to have alienated some people from Amos’s recent output and which have opened it to a lot of (I would argue, often very misguided) criticism.

I tend to be a fan of conceptual befuddlements, myself, and their absence may be part of the reason why Unrepentant Geraldines, for all its many strengths, doesn’t feel quite as cohesive as the Amos opuses I cherish mostBoys for Pele, Scarlet’s Walk, American Doll Posse, NoH – tend to. The idea of inspiration-by-visual-art that was initially announced as the album’s theme holds good only for a few scattered songs – the title track, the Cezanne-referencing “16 Shades of Blue” and the Rossetti-inspired “Maids of Elfin-Mere” amongst them – and nor does the record really boast the surprising, meaningful transitions and beautiful structural sense of Amos’s finest work.

The art idea isn’t sustained as a thematic through-line in terms of direct allusion, then. But, as often with Amos, it’s the songs themselves that paint indelible pictures. Pictures that project inwards into the human psyche and back into the world. Pictures that move backwards and forwards in time. Pictures that take us places. There’s delicate impressionism on “Oysters,” with its insistent, twinkling piano motif, its carving out of a space for renewal from past torments, its haunting falsetto vocal part, and Amos’s cherishable two-syllable enunciation of the word “pearl.” There’s broad-brush expressionism on “Rose Dover,” which suggests John and Paul collaborating with Queen on a lullaby. There’s goofy yet pointed political cartooning on the NSA/Snowden/spying jaunt “Giant’s Rolling Pin.” There are sketches, like the all-too-brief “Wild Way,” which finds Amos’s narrator sighing out her anger at her own emotional dependency on another person, though the tone of the song is more sad than seething.

And, of course, there are portraits: of a non-communicative couple trying to work themselves back to intimacy on the Celtic-tinged and Cocteau Twins-referencing “Wedding Day”; of a man fashioning a lost love from the elements on the exquisite, ethereal “Weatherman.” Meanwhile, the striking title track starts out with twitchy Police-ish guitars, ducks into a quintessentially Amos statement of intent (“I’m gonna free myself from your opinion… I’m gonna heal myself from your religion”) and closes as a drifting, gorgeous piano dirge featuring a Vicar’s wife who – yeah! - “plays the bass like a Messiah.” Musically, the album is full of such twists and turns in the arrangements: Beatles-esque bursts, folky flourishes, classical codas, Joni and Ricki Lee Jones-ish jonses. But the textures are warm, clear and embracing, with plenty of space in the mix. At times a further dose of Tori-testosterone wouldn’t go amiss (this kind, to be precise) but the beauty of the production is undeniable.

There are some lovely connections to earlier work, too. Lilting opener “America” suggests a footnote to Scarlet’s Walk (and “Angels”) as it gently probes complacency and apathy in the Obama-era Land of the Free. The twitchy, slightly hokey but inimitably catchy “16 Shades of Blue” serves as the final part in a trilogy connecting ADP’s “Secret Spell” and Abnormally Attracted To Sin’s “Curtain Call” as it highlights the challenges of the ageing process and the necessity of overcoming disempowering voices, Amos reaching the nub of the matter as she whips out: “There are those who say/I am now too old to play.” Ginger from “The Wrong Band” turns up on the brisk but burly first single “Trouble’s Lament” and it’s hard not to hear the voice of The Light Princess’s anti-lachrymose heroine Althea in her defiant: “There are no tears in my eyes.” And the achingly poignant closer “Invisible Boy” suggests a male companion piece to ADP’s great “Girl Disappearing” with a man mired in depression and contemplating retreat prompted back from the brink by some ghostly intervention, the song extending its loving hand of solace to the listener. (This is, by some considerable margin, Amos’s tenderest-ever album about men.) That’s where vital messages can come from, in Amos-land: from the sky, from the land, from a painting, from those long gone, from the whisper of “a scattering of birds.” Part of her great gift as an artist - evident in all the finest songs on Unrepentant Geraldines - is to translate them for us here.


At the Royal Albert Hall show, Amos played only two songs from the new album – a stately, chiming “Wild Way” and a meltingly gorgeous “Invisible Boy” which was dedicated “to all the wonderful boys” in the audience. She preferred, as is her wont, to take the crowd on a wide-ranging ride through her extensive catalogue. And what a ride it was: a cathartic emotional work-out with no lags and flags of pace and little let-up in the emotional intensity. This is Amos’s first solo tour since 2005 (though she’s done scattered solo shows in the interim; see here and here) and, positioned between Bösendorfer and keyboards, calling all the shots, her enjoyment of the freedom and spontaneity afforded by the set-up was palpable. As soon as she took to the stage and launched into a supremely pointed and marvellously pissed-off “Parasol” it was clear that she meant business. “This is our living room for the night,” she told the crowd. And so she made it, shrinking the venue to intimacy as she pounded out bruising low notes, bashed at the piano, slithered between keyboards and declaimed her extraordinary anthems of exorcism and empowerment in tones that shifted from tender croon to open-mouthed howl at will.

How she achieves these searing shifts between emotional states with so much apparent ease I still have no idea, but it remains one of the most arresting aspects of her artistry. B-Side gems such as “Purple People” and a shudderingly intense “Sugar” rubbed up against classics like “Winter” and “Crucify” (seldom fresher) while a trio of Scarlet’s Walk tracks – a savage “Pancake” (complete, wonderfully, with bridge from Neil Young’s “Ohio”), a biting “Taxi Ride,” and a sad, soulful (and singalong!) “A Sorta Fairytale” – were among the night’s highlights, alongside a frankly staggering “Little Earthquakes.” Given the CRAZY covers that Amos has been performing on the tour so far (from an inspired Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor pairing to Moby and Metallica) the audience might be forgiven for mild disappointment that the familiar “Rattlesnakes” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” formed the Lizard Lounge section of this particular show. But the latter was delivered with such ferocious banshee intensity that any regrets were soon blown away. “Too old to play”? No way. At 50, Tori Amos’s drive, talent and fearlessness make her as vibrant and vital an artist as ever.

Unrepentant Geraldines is available on Mercury Classics. Tour dates, clips and, well, everything else you could possibly desire are at Undented.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Theatre Review: The Commitments (Palace Theatre)

It’s been a weird, volatile moment for new West End musicals of late, with the early sinkings of The Full Monty, From Here To Eternity and Stephen Ward and the recently-announced closure of I Can’t Sing!. Elsewhere, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda are thriving, though, as have sub-par tribute ventures like the now-touring Let it Be. Meanwhile shows that, by rights, should have had a much longer life - yeah, you know the one I’m talking about - end up not making it across the river at all.

One new show that does appear to be doing solid business for itself since its debut last autumn is The Commitments. Published in 1987, Roddy Doyle’s rough-and-ready tale of a Dublin soul band’s formation, rehearsals, spats and success was the author’s debut novel, and was, of course, made into a much-loved film by Alan Parker in 1991. Directed by Jamie Lloyd, with a book by Doyle himself, the stage version comes across as a canny combination of jukebox show and (slightly) political working-class musical, and it adds up to a fun, good-hearted crowd-pleaser.

With a set design by Soutra Gilmour that whips the action rapidly between locations (concrete council estate, community centre, pub) as it captures 1986 Dublin with a visual nod or two to late-80s British cinema (My Beautiful Laundrette, in particular), Lloyd’s production is busy, brash and blaring from the off; it makes the material and the characters considerably broader and more cartoonish than the film did. There’s some strained comedy in the rather awkward earlier stretches and, somewhat surprisingly given the author’s involvement in the book, the narrative has really been stripped to its bare bones, with little in the way of real character development: indeed, the second half pretty much dispenses with any semblance of a story to become, essentially, a concert show designed to get the audience on its feet.

But while the language has been toned down a tad (there’s more “feckin’” than “fuckin’” here) there’s still plenty of rude wit on display and the show wins you over as it progresses. What carries it, primarily, is the great charge and energy of the performances. Denis Grindel brings charm to Billy Rabitte, the budding impresario who puts the band together, and Ben Fox is wily and amusing as Joey Fagan, the older trumpet player who claims a past of working with the American soul greats. Fagan is given to pontificating on the political and sexual subversiveness of soul music, all the while working his way through the band’s backing singers, who are nicely characterised by Stephanie McKeon, Sarah O’Connor and Jessica Cervi.

But while Lloyd’s cast all complement each other well, it’s Killian Donnelley who takes over as the star of the show as Deco, the band’s tricky lead singer. Blessed with a marvellously commanding, supple soul voice, and great, expressive physicality, Donnelley is terrific value as he rips through the likes of “Mustang Sally,” “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” and “Try A Little Tenderness.” When he’s centre stage, the rambunctious charm of this unsubtle but likeable show is at its most genuine, and its most impossible to resist.

Booking until 15th January.

Friday 2 May 2014

Film Review: Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead) (Vernoux, 2013)

My review of Marion Vernoux’s Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead) is now up at Polari. You can read it here.