Saturday 27 February 2016

Review: Orange Tree Extras: Barb Jungr + I, Malvolio + Giles Terera, Simon Lipkin & Jon Robyns

Orange Tree Extras is an exciting new venture at the OT: curated by Matthew Poxon, it’s a series of one-night-only events showcasing a wide variety of performances - comedy, music, poetry, drag – and thus opening the theatre up to artists who haven’t performed there before (and to new audiences, too). I was happy to attend three of the evenings in the current series, which takes place between the closure of Chris Urch’s great The Rolling Stone and the opening next week of Alice Hamilton’s production of Robert Holman’s German Skerries.
The first evening set the bar almost ludicrously high, with the appearance of one of the best and most captivating of artists: Barb Jungr. Accompanied by the celestial team of Simon Wallace on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass, Jungr performed her set of Nina Simone-associated material, drawing in part on her 2008 record Just Like A Woman. (Jungr’s fantastic, just-released  new album, Shelter from the Storm [review here], also includes  a new homage to Simone in the shape of the beautiful ballad “Hymn to Nina.”)

I saw Jungr, Wallace and Mantovani perform this show at City of London Festival last year, and deliver an outstanding performance that triumphed over a somewhat disagreeable venue (ClubTEN), where inconveniences included a creaking stage and a weird seating set-up. The Orange Tree, though, could not have been more congenial a venue, nor could the audience have been more attentive or appreciative. “It’s quite puzzling to be doing this in the round,” Jungr admitted after the dynamic opening mash-up of “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” and “Break Down and Let It All Out”. “I do like to prowl, and I could get dizzy...”

In fact, the round proved particularly great for Jungr’s performance style: she is, after all, an artist who’s breathtakingly adept at showing us songs from multiple perspectives and in new dimensions. Here we saw her  from all angles: turning, bopping, grooving or swaying to Wallace and Mantovani’s superb playing, endlessly shape-shifting and spontaneous, hilariously irreverent between-songs, and then turning gleaming-eyed satire into overwhelming emotion. Sketching the images of the songs through gestures (turning her hand into a hummingbird on “Everything Must Change” or parodying a male fantasy of grasping femininity on her brilliantly subversive rendition of “Just Like A Woman”), Jungr is so vibrant when in motion that even when she performed a song with her back to us, it was expressive, and somehow an essential part of the story she was embodying.   

The set included some songs that weren’t featured at the ClubTEN performance, and ran the emotional gamut with exhilarating aplomb, from the distilled, aching tenderness of Judy Collins’s “My Father” to the joyful liberation of “Feeling Good.” Soul-replenishing womanly wisdom was dispensed on a stunningly beautiful “Angel of the Morning”; tension was ratcheted on a “Ballad of Hollis Brown” that closed with Jungr’s trance-like repetition of the lyric “Seven new people born”; and a cathartic “To Love Somebody” inspired the most enthusiastic audience singalong that I’ve heard it generate yet.(Go, Richmond!)  

Overall the tone was fiercer than at ClubTEN, though, highlighting the incendiary, political side of Simone’s artistry. This was nowhere more apparent than on a visceral segue from “One Morning in May” to “The Pusher”, Jungr charging the latter song with references to current events (from the refugee crisis to the US election) in an ad libbed section that reminded us that “pushers come in every size.” It was a total joy to see this brave and brilliant artist in this special space.   

The Orange Tree’s distinctive space was also much reflected upon in the following night’s show, Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio. Already highly lauded, Crouch’s solo show presents the story of Twelfth Night from the perspective of the “mightily abused” steward, spinning from his narrative a dazzling, very funny and sometimes moving reflection on audience ethics, actor/character relations, and theatre itself.  

Crouch’s Malvolio is already present as we enter the auditorium: centre-stage in tatty long johns and yellow stockings, eyeing us and muttering his displeasure. Malvolio’s parting shot “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” is one of the show’s refrains; another – closely related to the first – is “Find that funny, do you?” Before the evening’s out, Crouch has at once unfolded and embodied Malvolio’s sorry tale: that of a Puritan with a firm belief in order and a hatred of waste and excess, sacrificed on the anarchic improbabilities of Shakepeare’s plot for the audience;s delectation. Like Bob Barrett at the end of Propeller’s great  Twelfth Night, whose "pack of you" line was directed straight at the audience, Crouch implicates spectators at every stage, challenging us to rethink our responses to the character's humiliation as he picks out a boy from the audience to kick him (“You liked that didn’t you? There hasn’t been a good kicking in Richmond since 1780”), and generating both dark comedy and dramatic tension via the possibility of the character's suicide (for which two more audience members were roped in to participate).

It's a tricky tone to get right but Crouch manages with panache, generating big laughs alongside moments of real poignancy. His ad-libs and riffing around the text meant that the performance ran about 40 minutes longer than the advertised one hour show time.But it’s safe to say that no-one was complaining, so involving and appealing did the actor make this show in which critique of the theatre is intimately bound up in celebration of it.

Audience interaction turned out to be equally central to Giles Terera, Simon Lipkin and Jon Robyns’s    show last night - as the woman who was pulled from the front row to take part in a manic Mel Brooks medley probably won’t forget in a hurry. Reuniting three of the stars of the original London production of Avenue Q, the evening, overseen by excellent pianist and MD Alex Williams, had the joyous  feel of a reunion of three colleagues whose rapport and affection has clearly not dimmed a jot in the intervening ten years. 

Although there were a few lower-keyed moments throughout the night, including Terera’s fine solo on “Mr. Bojangles” and he and Robyns duetting on an acoustic guitar-led mash-up of John Legend’s “All of Me” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” the emphasis was placed on glorious silliness, banter and fun for the most part. The tone was set from the opening number, “Not in the Show”, a hilarious reflection on jobs that the trio didn’t get set to the tune of “Into the Woods”.

Standouts, in between silly sketches and Jewish jokes, included Lipkin’s amazing mash-up of a sequence of pop songs based around similar chords; Robyns taking to the piano for an impassioned rendition of “The Music of My Soul” (from Memphis); Terera’s sublime and scarily accurate parody of Judi Dench singing “Send in the Clowns”; and he and Lipkin getting retro on a delightful “Me and My Shadow”. Best of all, though, was the Avenue Q material and the appearances of Princeton, Nicky and Rod (plus surprise FaceTime with Christmas Eve!), and it’s “For Now” that I find myself singing the morning after this thoroughly enjoyable night.

This set of Orange Tree Extras concludes today with appearances by Wendy Cope and Dickie Beau. Further information here.

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