Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Jackie Mason - Wyndham's Theatre - Tuesday 28 February ***

Initially I didn’t know if I should include these ramblings on Jackie Mason’s farewell shows on what is ostensibly a theatre blog, but then I figured it’s a performance in a theatre, get over yourself, hardly anybody reads it anyway, who cares?

So a Tuesday night finds me and my oldest friend in the bar of the royal circle of the Wyndham’s. After two nerve calming vodka and tonics (me) and two small merlots (him) we were ready for the 8pm start, anyone would think we were sitting on the front row of the stalls, which must be the worst seats in the house for a Jackie Mason show.

International treasure and former rabbi Mason has been peddling his Jew vs gentile shtick for the best part of half a century and is now bowing out with this run of shows in the West End. If this will be the same adieu as Cher’s, whose farewell outing ran for three years from 2002 to 2005, subsequently followed by several Vegas residencies and endless comeback tours, only time will tell.

We were promised topical material and we did get some commentary on the Olympics, Obama, Cameron and a particularly funny two minutes on the Millibands, but really it was the greatest hits the audience were after and the 75 year old Yiddish curmudgeon did not disappoint. George Bush, the Clintons, henpecked husbands, domineering wives, bargain hungry Jews, simple gentiles all felt the lash of Mason’s tongue and the men on the front row got ribbed mercilessly. However his endless rant on fancy restaurants and nouvelle cuisine must have first made his act around 1981 and has not weathered well. Assuming it’s still acceptable for Jews to tell jokes about other Jews in much the same way as Chris Rock tells endless n*gger stories and everyone else is fair game, it sometimes felt as if we were in a hotel lounge in the Catskills in 1961. I almost ordered a vodka martini and sparked up a Lucky Strike before remembering that I stopped smoking five years ago.

Uncomfortable and unfunny riffing on Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan and Shakespeare, combined with his constant  need for prompting from the wings made for awkward silences and only served to highlight his advancing years and lack of appreciation of the sophistication of his audience. For me the best parts of the night were probably the routines he could do in his sleep, unreconstructed  and self-deprecating at the expense of Mason and his beloved fellow Jews, showing the old spark may have diminished, but it’s still flickering somewhere beneath the layers of Borscht Belt fodder. However, he finished with toe curling impressions of Churchill, JFK, Kissinger and finally Alfred Hitchcock, who was the last of that bunch to pass away 32 years ago, I think you might get my drift.

Time has moved on since Mason’s heyday and, given his age, some of his gags are, understandably, tired and occasionally embarrassing. I’m glad I got the chance to see him, he is undoubtedly a legend and one of a dying breed, but I think he has chosen the right time to call it a day. Having said that, it would take a brave man to bet against a comeback sometime before his hair finally turns grey. 

Booking until 17 March 2012, age has slightly withered him - Jackie Mason - Fearless 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Hay Fever - Noël Coward Theatre - Saturday 25 February ****

Feeling emotionally drained from the matinee of Floyd Collins, we managed some steak and a bottle of red wine before heading to the suitably (re)named Noël Coward theatre for the evening performance of one of the Master’s early works, Hay Fever.

The play is set in the 1920’s in the country house of recently retired actress, Judith Bliss, portrayed by the ever elegant and suitably waspish, Lindsay Duncan, channelling the spirit of Edina Monsoon in a Regina Fong wig. Bliss, her husband David, a writer, and their grown-up but childish offspring, Sorel and Simon, have, unbeknownst to each other, all invited guests to stay for the weekend and, encouraged by the overly theatrical matriarch, all manner of scandalous behaviour ensues.

There really isn’t much plot to speak of, apparently Coward wrote the play in three days and it shows. Nonetheless, the actors spark off each other, with arch witticisms and bon mots coming thick and fast. Various trysts occur and the entirely self-absorbed Bliss clan selfishly ignore the needs of their guests with much arguing and familial discord, eventually not even noticing that their guests have departed.

In addition to Duncan, the phenomenal cast includes the sublime Olivia Colman, Jeremy Northam, Kevin McNally, Jenny Galloway and a marvellous Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the spoilt and indulged Sorel. To be honest with a role call like that it would be hard to go wrong and it rarely does.

The costumes and set perfectly reflect the bohemian decadence of the protagonists and the performances are, as to be expected, flawless. Duncan, in particular, is tremendous and it really is an honour to spend an evening watching this mistress of her craft at work.

All in all, fabulously enjoyable fluff. If you need cheering up, which you will do if you’ve just seen Floyd Collins, head to the Noël Coward for some classic Noël Coward, you won’t be disappointed. 

Booking until 2 June 2012, Blissful - Hay Fever

Floyd Collins - Southwark Playhouse - Saturday 25 February *****

Our first double header in a long time, not attempted since a Sunday duo of Salad Days and Lance Horne, First Things Last in January 2011. This marathon was to be a matinee of Floyd Collins followed by Hay Fever in the evening, dinner in between and drinks all around. Sounds like my kind of Saturday.

Floyd Collins was a new one for us, Tina Landau and Adam Guettel’s 1996 musical based on the true events surrounding the titular Collins, who became trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925, and the subsequent media circus that engulfed his plight and the attempts to rescue him. It had hitherto passed us by, but a cursory look on Wikipedia was enough to whet our appetites. It sounded like a country version of 127 hours, so we snapped up a couple of the early bird £10 tickets that the Southwark Playhouse offers to those that get in sharpish, like a theatrical Easyjet but without the surcharges.

We meandered down to Southwark on a gorgeous spring-like Saturday afternoon to the relatively new performance space called the Vault which has been created from a pair of arches off the shabby chic bar area. We availed ourselves of a couple of vodka and tonics before taking our seats in the suitably cold and dank auditorium, which really couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for what was to follow.

West End stalwart Glenn Carter takes the title role and, as the action begins, we find Collins exploring Sand Cave, which he is convinced could become a profitable tourist attraction and make his fortune. Collins’ foot gets trapped, wedged by a relatively small rock, and the remainder of the action follows the efforts to free him, during which time his fate becomes a news story that grips the entire nation.

Collins aspirational brother, Homer, touchingly played by Gareth Chart, climbs down into the cave to try to help to no avail, but becoming an unlikely tabloid hero and potential movie star as a result. Diminutive cub reporter, Skeets Miller, a sensitive portrayal from Ryan Sampson, squeezes through a small gap and manages to reach Collins, unsuccessfully trying to free his leg. He does, however, bring food and drink and keeps him company, informing him of the huge press interest and the fact that over 30,000 people are gathered in the fields above in a gruesome parody of a carnival, waiting to hear news, including his troubled sister Nellie, a tremendous Robyn North. After a collapse in the passage leading to Collins and numerous failed attempts, the rescue team finally manages to dig a shaft to where he is trapped.

All of this is relayed via a wonderful bluegrass inspired score which casts a spell quite unlike any other I’ve experienced in the theatre, partial as I am to a horn section and tap dancing. The eight piece band, which includes a string quartet, is excellent, although the sound balance needs some attention, as they sometimes overpower the soaring vocals of the exceptionally talented cast. The minimal set of wooden crates and ladders is simple and effective in what really is an ideal marriage of location and material.

I suppose the piece is a treatise on the fleeting nature of tabloid fame and is a salutary reminder that Warhol’s 15 minute theory and the recent phenomenon of instant X-Factor, TOWIE and Big Brother “stardom” are really nothing new. However, at its’ heart is a heartbreaking story and devastating central performances from Glenn Carter, Gareth Chart and Ryan Samspon. The songs are great too.

Beware, there is a huge plot spoiler on the front of the newspaper style programme, do not even look at it if you don’t want to know the ending.

Booking until 31 March 2012, unique and shattering - Floyd Collins

Sunday, 19 February 2012

She Stoops to Conquer - National Theatre - Sunday 19 February ****

The National have hit a rich vein of comedy recently with the runway success of One Man Two Guvnors and the smart updating of Comedy of Errors, so it was with high hopes that we took in this Sunday matinee of Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century comedy of manners. With a 2.30pm start and the snow a distant memory, we sauntered down to the river and found ourselves in the Olivier bar at around 2pm for early vodka and tonics, very nice they were too.

Much has been made of the casting of Katherine Kelly, late of Coronation Street, as Kate Hardcastle, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who poses as a barmaid (see what they did there?) in order not to intimidate her nervous suitor, and I am happy to report that RADA trained Ms Kelly equips herself admirably amongst an exceptionally strong cast, banishing the ghost of Becky to the back streets of Weatherfield.

The plot gets sillier and sillier as it progresses, with the Hardcastle’s country house mistaken for an inn, as the result of a practical joke from Kate’s mischievous half-brother Tony Lumpkin, a lovely comic turn from David Fynn, and all manner of confused identities and situations ensue. Sophie Thompson, as Miss Hardcastle’s mother, plays it extremely broad, but is repaid in spades with guffaws of hysteria from the appreciative audience, us included.  Mugging and chewing the scenery for all she is worth, she seems to be able to drain every last drop of humour from seemingly innocuous lines. Her scene with Harry Hadden-Paton, as Marlow, the would-be suitor overawed by women of his own class and his friend Hastings, played with much foppish relish by John Heffernan, is worth the price of admission alone, as her attempts at a "London" accent and city sophistication had me crying with laughter. That is surely no bad thing when the world at large seems to be headed to hell in a handcart.

As we’ve come to expect from the National, the costumes and sets are sumptuous, with the Olivier’s revolve and drum used to full effect for seamless scene changes. As in One Man Two Guvnors and The Comedy of Errors, the scene changes are also marked with musical and sung interludes with no words, just phonics, akin to a Georgian Cocteau Twins, which serves to heighten the sense of ridiculousness. Under Jamie Lloyd’s snappy direction, performances by the entire ensemble are faultless, but Thompson really is in a class of her own and I hope she is recognised come awards season.

Another great big comedy hit for the National. I would recommend this unreservedly, do yourself a favour and grab those tickets, you won’t regret it.

Booking until 21 April 2012, miss at your peril - She Stoops to Conquer 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Pippin - Menier Chocolate Factory - Thursday 16 February *****

I’d really enjoyed this production of Pippin in January with Caroline Quentin making a guest appearance as Berthe, so when the opportunity for a return visit arose during half-term, I decided to drag my god-daughter along on the pretext that she loves the same composer’s mega-hit Wicked and I really needed to see Louise Gold’s turn as Pippin’s grandmother.

My god-daughter is 18, but no matter how hard I tried she could not be persuaded to join me in a thirsty Thursday pre-show vodka and tonic, she opted for Jack Daniels and coke instead. The youth of today are very strange indeed, much like the premise and plot of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 musical. A medieval troupe of players enact the dark story of a young prince rebelling against his father, the king, on a quest to find the meaning of life and fulfilment, along the way discovering the futility of war and a boring normality with a widowed single mother. This has previously proved mostly unpalatable for British audiences, where it has never had a decent run, although it managed a healthy five years on Broadway.

In much the same way as Timothy Sheader did with Into The Woods at Regent’s Park in 2010, director Mitch Sebastian has rejuvenated the production and resolved many of the anomalies with a seemingly simple framing device. The majority of the action now takes place within a computer game, which the eponymous anti-hero, played with tortured wide-eyed innocence by Harry Hepple, is engaged in as the audience passes him on its way into the auditorium, which has itself been cleverly transformed so that we punters are virtually inside the action.

The Menier Chocolate Factory has assembled a stellar cast of West End veterans, including the magnificent Frances Ruffelle as Pippin’s scheming stepmother, Ian Kelsey attacking the role of Pippin’s unrefined regal father with gusto, Matt Rawle’s seductively malevolent lead player and the gorgeous & funny Louise Gold raising the roof as one in a long line of leading ladies of a certain age that have taken shots at Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, complete with a witty, one-size-fits-all, biography in the programme.

The original Broadway production was choreographed by Bob Fosse and this is echoed throughout and recreated wholesale during the paean to war “Glory”, to suitably gloriously gory effect. The design is visually stunning, with numerous video screens allowing us to witness both sides of "the game" and the band sound great too. I have read a few complaints about the volume, but it sounded perfect to my middle aged ears, having been weaned on seventies glam rock and punk. With phenomenal performances and a strong pop score, if the story was only a little more accessible, maybe a West End transfer would have been on the cards. As it is, this is a qualified triumph, a strange, but strangely successful reinvention and, together with last year's Road Show, a welcome return to form for the Chocolate Factory. My god-daughter loved it and we both agreed that Harry Hepple has the potential to be a major force in the West End in the not-too-distant future.

Booking until 25 February 2012. Extraordinary - Pippin

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Lucky Stiff - Landor Theatre - Sunday 12 February ****

The Landor, recently dubbed "the unluckiest theatre in London" by Time Out, following a string of cancelled musicals last summer (Gypsy, Moby Dick & Little Shop of Horrors), continued the tradition with the whole first week of Lucky Stiff postponed because of electrical problems. However, having just won several "Offie" awards for productions of The Hired Man & Ragtime, things are looking decidedly rosie at this intimate little venue above the very welcoming Landor pub in Clapham and, electrics sorted, Lucky Stiff was able to belatedly open.

We do love a Sunday matinee, I know actors hate them, but remember what they say about the customer. What else are you going to be doing on a freezing Sunday afternoon other than watching the Eastenders omnibus while snaffling down toasted tea cakes dripping with lurpak and clock watching until it’s cocktail hour? As usual, we got there nice and early and settled into the bar for a couple of vodka and tonics, which we would never normally touch until 6pm, well maybe 5pm on a Sunday, before trundling upstairs for the 3pm performance.

This musical romp through "The Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte Carlo" is written by the same team that went on to give us the gorgeous, aforementioned Ragtime and is a hoot. With two lovely central performances from James Winter as Harry Witherspoon, the unassuming shoe salesman set to inherit his recently deceased uncle Tony’s $6million fortune on condition that he takes the corpse on one last holiday to Monte Carlo, and Abigail Jaye as Annabel Glick, the mild-mannered representative from Brooklyn Universal Dog’s Home, which stands to inherit the money should Harry not follow his uncle’s instructions to the letter, this is classic musical comedy. Mayhem ensues as uncle Tony’s short-sighted mistress, a scene stealing comedic tour de force from Lucy Williamson, arrives with her optometrist brother in tow to claim the millions as her own and all manner of "french maids" pop out of the numerous doors in the simple but effective set.

It proved impossible not be won over by the silliness of the story, the numerous comedy songs, which forward the plot as spoken dialogue is sparse, the talented young cast and a wonderful dance routine led by a tap dancing corpse. Finally look out for Samantha Darling as a fabulous nightclub chanteuse who brings the house down with “Speaking French”. The Landor does it again.

Booking until 25 February 2012, a real winter warmer - Lucky Stiff

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest - Theatre Royal Haymarket - Thursday 9 February ****

This transfer of Oscar Wilde’s most popular and oft-revived comedy from Islington’s tiny Old Red Lion theatre is on for just 15 performances, so huge respect and congratulations to all involved for the herculean effort of organisation that saved a west end theatre from being dark for two weeks.

We are partial to a Thursday evening out, the weekend starts early and it’s an excuse to break the no-alcohol on a school night embargo - thirsty Thursday they call it in Scotland, so we ensured that we were at the Haymarket early enough for a vodka and tonic in the doubles bar. Before we knew it the tolling of the bell was drawing us towards the red velvet, in exceptionally responsive moods.

Initially the play feels like a curate's egg of a production. Semi-updated to include mobile phones, wii & the internet, the cast in almost-period dress and constantly breaking the fourth wall, it seems to inhabit a virtually Whovian alternate reality - what would Oscar have said? However, this fresh inventive production won me over within the first few minutes and I'd like to think that Mr Wilde would have loved it too. Of course, at its heart “Earnest” is a farcical comedy of manners, replete with mistaken identities and social climbing.  As such, it is totally reliant upon the comic timing of the cast and this company do not disappoint. The quartet of young leads, James McNicholas’s louche Algernon, Simon Grujich’s mittyesque Jack, Stephanie Lane’s desperately fashionable townie Gwendolen and Harriet Ballard’s not-so-simple country lass Cecily are all astonishingly good, the audience being seduced by the protagonists before their quarry was. Mainly though, it is really, really, really funny. Thanks to the ingenuity of set and costume designer Katherine Heath, there are some smartly effective design touches, including a simple act two scene change involving luminous green astroturf and lovely comedic flourishes from Owen Roberts’ Merriman. Plus the hats are fabulous!

I am so glad we caught this, as I am almost ashamed to say that we missed it in its original incarnation at the Old Red Lion, despite living virtually opposite.

Booking until 11 February 2012 only, be quick - The Importance of Being Earnest 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Crazy For You - Novello Theatre - Saturday 4 February *****

With snow forecast for later, I walked to the Novello theatre for around 10am and to my delight, my two requested £25 day seats were fantastic row G stalls, presumably £85 “premium” seats that in the current climate people are avoiding and spending their savings on heating bills and food. If this is “dynamic pricing” I’ll take it thank you. We had intended to walk again to the theatre for the performance in the evening, but the snow had started so we hopped on a bus and were in plenty of time for two vodka and tonics in Ivor’s bar before curtain up.

The production was every bit as joyous as it was in my hazy recollections from Regent’s Park over the summer. Sean Palmer, as Bobby Childs, the reluctant Wall Street banker who dreams of Broadway hoofer-dom, is a terrific quadruple threat (the usual three, plus he is exceptionally pleasing on the eye) and he plays to every inch of the auditorium with his easy charm and 100 watt smile. Two standouts in the featured ensemble were Rachel Stanley as Tess, the world weary lead chorine and James O’Connell as Billy, the most athletic, charismatic cowboy imaginable. The story is hokum, in a “let’s put the show on here to save this theatre from foreclosure” kind of way (that’s the entire plot), but the Gershwin songs are a treat and the performances a knockout.

So why is this glorious show closing early? This was an admittedly short notice transfer to fill in for the similarly doomed, but equally splendid “Betty Blue Eyes”, so there was not much time to build up an advance. But coming hard on the heels of the early bath for “Lend Me A Tenor”, this must be worrying for the producers of the upcoming transfer of Chichester’s “Singin’ In The Rain”, which started London previews last night, and “Top Hat”, which opens in a couple of months. Have traditional (kind) or old-fashioned (not so kind) musicals had their day? With “Ghost”, “Matilda” and “Wicked” packing them in every night, there is obviously still a demand for musicals and these three productions all bring the medium into the 21st century and add something new to the genre. It is such a pity that some limp shows seem to be thriving (take a bow “Thriller”), whilst wonderful genuinely creative shows such as this falter and fail to find an audience. I’m just glad I’m a punter and not a producer.

Booking until 17 March 2012, you’d be crazy to miss it - Crazy for You

Thursday, 2 February 2012

February treats

Upcoming this month we've got Crazy for You at the Novello - we saw this last year in Regent's Park and it was one of the most joyous evenings we have ever spent. However, that may have had something to do with the Open Air Theatre's "bring-your-own-bottle" policy, so we thought we'd better catch it indoors before it closes. Also on the cards is She Stoops to Conquer at the National which, if the reviews are anything to go by, promises to be a real treat. The intriguing Floyd Collins at the Southwark Playhouse is booked and we're hoping to catch the extremely short transfer of the Old Red Lion's The Importance of Being Earnest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, Hay Fever at the Noel Coward and Lucky Stiff at the Landor (if they get the electrics sorted out). So that's no Sondheim or Shakespeare!  I will attempt to illuminate all productions with my glittering prose once I have seen them.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Company, The Comedy of Errors, Pippin & Master Class

January blues and theatrical highs

So it's February 1st, it's freezing outside and January was personally dreadful, but theatrically wondrous and I have high hopes for the remainder of 2012. So far this year we've been to the sensational Company in Sheffield, the hysterical Comedy of Errors at the National, the redefining magic of Pippin at the Chocolate Factory and the wonderful Master Class with the magnificent Tyne Daly at the Vaudeville. We've never experienced a strike rate like that before and I just hope that the rest of the theatre-going year matches up. That's unless we up sticks and relocate to Chichester. Today I decided to start a blog.