Sunday, 20 January 2013

Richard III - Apollo Theatre - Saturday 19 January *****

With still-fresh memories of Kevin Spacey’s amalgamation of Keyser Soze and Simon Cowell to give us a slick, sharp-suited Richard III, we trudged through the snow (well a bit of slush) eager to discover what Olivier, Tony, Bafta and Freda winning Mark Rylance would make of Shakespeare’s vengeful king. But first the bar. One of the glories of a middle aged theatre habit is that weekend matinees offer the ideal opportunity to start drinking at lunchtime without the slightest hint of a reproachful glance. In fact, the theatre was so packed with silver tipplers that I’m amazed there wasn’t a conga line during the interval, but I digress.

Mark Rylance makes his stamp before he utters a single line. A huge grin on his face, bellowing manic laughter, he immediately breaks the fourth wall and wrongfoots us. This Richard is an altogether different beast, strangely warm and conspiratorial, more Billy Dainty than JR Ewing, his limp and withered arm engendering pity not revulsion. It soon becomes clear that Rylance’s Richard is slowly descending into madness. His friendly demeanour gradually gives way to a bitter single minded pursuit of the crown. His moral compass is impaired to such an extent that he will let no-one block his sinister path to glory. Friends and family, women and children, are all summarily dispatched at the tiniest perception of threat. When he punches his elderly mother in the stomach and spits at her, we know he is lost. Haunted by the ghosts of those he has murdered, during the final battle scene we finally get a sense of remorse as Richard falls.

Mark Rylance transcends any superlative, holding us rapt for three hours, he truly is a wonder of the modern world. You never once notice he is acting, the words roll off his tongue and it sounds and feels the most natural thing in the world.  His presence in a company patently encourages the remainder of the cast to up their game, so there are any number of wonderful performances, not least from Paul Chahidi, who was in danger of stealing Twelfth Night as Maria. Here in dual roles as the doomed haughty Hastings and the mercenary Tyrrell, he is captivating. The three female roles, taken by men, are equally noteworthy. Johnny Flynn, another Freda winner, as Lady Anne, forced to marry Richard before he has her beheaded, is helplessly courted and eventually catatonic. Samuel Barnett’s Elizabeth is an altogether feistier creation, incredulous, as are we, at Richard’s demands and behaviour. Finally, in a small but pivotal role, James Garnon as Richard’s mother looks on in despair and disgust at the fruit of her loins, a mother’s love slowly evaporating.

I could go on, but I won’t. Just don’t miss any play that Rylance decides to be part of. One final thought though, how come Bradley Wiggins gets knighted for riding a bike, yet I see no letters after Rylance’s name? Come on Dave, do something about it.

Right that’s us off to the Menier Chocolate Factory for a matinee of Merrily We Roll Along, which will make it four 5 star prodctions in eight days for us and, crucially, the chance of a couple of guilt-free early doors vodka and tonics.

Booking until 10 February 2013, roll up, roll up to see a wonder of the modern world - Richard III

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Judas Kiss - Duke of York's Theatre - Thursday 17 January *****

Rupert “Lazarus” Everett has had more career resurgences than Kylie. I first caught him wet behind the ears and fairly new to London (me not him) in the original run of Another Country and have followed the travails of his career ever since. Now he is a grand elder Wilde boy of British theatre and I am just older.

Walking to the Duke of York’s to collect my tickets half an hour before curtain up, Everett is coincidentally walking beside me. In trainers, jogging pants and padded jacket, he looks exactly as you expect Rupert Everett to look, tall, trim, handsome, but drawing no attention from the other punters milling around the front of the theatre. 30 minutes later he is on stage inhabiting Oscar Wilde to such an extent that he is all but unrecognisable from the sporty, hot, metrosexual I had just clocked on St Martin’s Lane.

This transfer from Hampstead Theatre of David Hare’s 1998 play examines Wilde’s all-consuming and destructive relationship with the much younger Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie. The first act is set in the Cadogan hotel on the day Wilde is to be arrested and charged with gross indecency and the second five years later, after Wilde has served his prison sentence and is in penury in self-imposed exile in Naples.

Freddie Fox as Doulgas is every inch the arrogant, petulant, spoiled rich kid with an inflated sense of his own self-importance. He considers his work as a poet to be every bit equal to Wilde's and even questions Wilde’s description of him as “one of the finest poets in Britain”. Selfish and boorish, but aristocratically beautiful in his powder blue suit, his only concern is saving his own skin. Everett’s Wilde is a towering creature with a towering intellect, treating servants as he treats the aristocracy, throwing money, thanks and glittering bon mots around in equal measure. Everett is magnetic, leaving us in no doubt that this is a man that knows he is about to be destroyed, his arrogance no match for Bosie’s, but helpless in the face of love, eating lobster then sleeping whilst awaiting his fate. He is well aware of the machinations of his toy boy, but is so enamoured of this foppish vision that he is stubbornly led to the slaughter on a wave of false bombast and procrastination. All to the incredulous frustration of his long time friend and first love, the grounded Robbie Ross, Cal Macaninch a study in quiet desperation, and whose every attempt at help is thwarted.
Act two opens five years on with Wilde, having served his time, disgraced, broke and broken, looking twenty years older and virtually immobile. He feigns disinterest as Bosie is buggered by yet another Neapolitan fisherman, Galileo, Tom Colley unselfconsciously baring his all for his art for most of the act and providing a focal point for most of our attention.

A beautiful moment, when the doorbell of the apartment rings and both Wilde and Douglas think it beneath them to answer so a naked Galileo wet from the shower lets Robbie in without question, is a wonderful prick to the pomposity of both men. It is also a reminder of the times in which the events are taking place and the changes that the 20th century is to bring. 

As if Wilde’s life could not get any worse, Robbie brings bad news that will leave him penniless and dependent on Bosie. Bosie, however, is given a lifeline by his mother and throws Wilde to the dogs once again with barely a second thought other than of his own survival, dismissing his homosexuality as a "phase" in which he overindulged. If anything Everett is even more astonishing, a destitute grand dowager in faded velvet and straw hat, his spirit diminished to a flicker, the long leash with which he may once have held Bosie long disappeared together with his passion and zest for life. It truly is a haunting portrayal.

Director Neil Armfield has done a remarkable job with this dark, sombre piece which nevertheless has plenty of Wildean wit. With a strong supporting cast and gorgeously evocative lighting, courtesy of designer Rick Fisher, often leaving Wilde literally alone in the spotlight, this is the strongest non-musical production I have seen in ages and proves what a force of nature Rupert Everett can be. The last actor I saw inhabit a character to the extent that Everett inhabits Wilde was Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. Without wishing to overdo the hyperbole, this really is one of those moments when you know you are in the presence of greatness. I’d hate to be his understudy.

Booking until 6 April 2013, the extraordinary extraordinarily portraying the extraordinary - The Judas Kiss

Monday, 14 January 2013

Salad Days - Riverside Studios - Sunday 13 January *****

If there is a better way to banish the January blues than tête-a-tête’s revival of Julian Slade & Dorothy Reynolds’ 1954 faux innocent and ultimately bonkers musical I’ll eat Cameron MacKintosh’s kilt.

Upon graduating from university, upper middle class friends Timothy and Jane face family and peer pressure to find spouses and do something useful with their lives. Timothy has a string of influential uncles that his parents hope will help him decide on a career, but all Timothy is interested in is Jane. She appears initially reluctant but agrees to marry Timothy in secret in the hope that love will follow.

An encounter with a mysterious tramp in the park sees them left in charge of a portable piano, Minnie, which, when played, causes everyone in earshot to start involuntarily dancing, cue prancing vicars, policemen, nurses, et al.

With the police hot on their tails because of the public nuisance that Minnie causes, they manage to lose the piano but with the help of Timothy’s uncle Zed and his unusual mode of transport recover her just in time to hand her back.

That brief synopsis does not do justice to the endless stream of joyous musical numbers (including We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back, which according to Mrs Front Row Dress is the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s “song”) delivered with straight faced aplomb by a supremely energetic cast who sing like angels, which is a mighty achievement considering their tongues are so planted firmly in their cheeks that I'm astounded they can even speak. Accompanied by a skilled jazz four piece and with innumerable full cast dance routines the fun does not let up for one second.

Presented in traverse on a technicolour set of canary yellow, verdant green and shimmering blue, the summer heat is palpable even though arctic conditions are forecast in the real world outside. Leo Miles (last seen in Call Me Madam at the Union) as Timothy and Katie Moore as Jane make the cutest couple imaginable and have the audience on their side from the off. With wide eyed exuberance they leap across the performance space like spring lambs looking for meaning to their lives. I suppose if anything the show proves that today’s youth have exactly the same problems as those of 60 years ago, how to find someone to love and something worthwhile to do, but essentially this is simply 2 hours and 10 minutes in which to forget the rigours and mundanities of the nine to five and to celebrate life itself.

Director Bill Bankes-Jones ensures that the cast play with total conviction and never once lapse into parody, with choreographer Quinny Sacks giving every company member (and some of the audience) the opportunity to shine in glorious ensemble pieces.

Finally I must single out Mark Inscoe and Tony Timberlake, two silver foxes with twinkles in their eyes and youthful springs in their steps, who take on numerous roles and effortlessly manage to charm the pants off the appreciative crowd.

With snow on the ground and a chill in the air, never has there been a better time to get down to Hammersmith, forget your own problems and sit in the sun with Timothy, Jane and the wonderful characters that populate the five star perfection that is Salad Days.

Booking until 2 March 2013, forget the snow with five star perfection - Salad Days

Monday, 7 January 2013

People - National Theatre - Sunday 6 January ***

After the excitement of the New Year’s Day Front Row Dress Awards we allowed ourselves one final holiday treat before the drudgery of January saps every drop of goodwill from our hearts, a visit to the National to see a play written by a national treasure (Alan Bennett) about a crumbling stately home that plenty of people, including the National Trust, would like to get their hands on.

With Frances de la Tour as former model and down at heel aristocrat Lady Dorothy Stacpoole, Linda Bassett as her cantankerous yet insightful companion Iris and Selina Cadell as Dorothy’s younger sister, lesbian archdeacon June, the omens are good.

The first act has Dorothy wooing potential suitors to restore and care for her South Yorkshire pile, the only worry is that most of the plans involve other people wandering around her beloved family home. When someone makes an offer on behalf of a mysterious organisation to relocate the building to Dorset, Devon or Wiltshire complete with Lady Stacpoole but with a minimum number of visitors because PST (people spoil things), she senses an acceptable compromise. So far, so Bennett, complete with witty one-liners (the National Trust membership is self-selecting, much like the National Theatre membership). Like a pair of favourite old slippers, the play is just too comfortable with its subject matter and its self-selected audience for whom many of the laughs derive from self-recognition. Suddenly we get a jolt as a blast from Dorothy's past, Nicholas le Prevost’s adult filmmaker Teddy, stumbles upon the perfect location for his latest opus “Reach for the Thigh” and we are plunged into the middle of a glorious farce, complete with a purple robed bishop and Iris’s hysterical cameo as a housekeeper. Both Lady Stacpoole and the audience are suddenly brighter and happier, but the happiness is short-lived and compromises are negotiated and with a second act balletic makeover the house and its inhabitants are bought back to life, or rather a stylised version of it.

The value of property and the disharmony that accompanies the bequeathing of it seems to be a current obsession with British playwrights with In Basildon, Children's Children, Love Love Love and The Last of the Haussmans all dissecting and examining it from various points of view over the past twelve months, with varying degrees of success. Bennett’s is a cosy, middle class, middle English dissection that is a little too eager to please, where even the final twist is writ too large for too long to be remotely shocking. Like many other things we have seen recently we had fun, but much like Lady Stacpoole we craved excitement, not to be reminded relentlessly that hell is other people.

The fact that truly great septuagenarian and octogenarian artists such as Alan Bennett, David Hockney, Woody Allen, Stephen Sondheim and Bridget Riley still feel compelled to produce new work is reason enough to celebrate. If those works are not quite on par with the best of their back catalogue, there is usually still plenty to enjoy, which is the case with Bennett's People. I for one cannot wait for Sondheim’s All Together Now, even if proves to be closer to Road Show than Sweeney Todd.

Booking until 2 April 2013, fun, but preaching to the converted - People

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Front Row Dress Awards 2013

On the first day of a brand new year, I am delighted to announce the winners of the inaugural Front Row Dress Awards. I hope that these much anticipated theatre awards go a little way to providing some light relief in the post-festive gloom and help to alleviate the January blues, well for the winners at least.

I launched the Fredas as a response to getting to the interview stage of the Olivier’s judging panel but not being chosen for the past two years. I was going to apply again this year but I just thought sod it, I’ll do my own.

The only criterion to be considered for a Freda is that I have seen the production between 1 January and 31 December 2012. I decide the winners, with a smidgen of input from Mrs Front Row Dress, and my decision is final, so no bleating and bah humbug to democracy (much like the other honours being announced around this time). The victors receive a gorgeous glass trophy, as pictured above, which I am sure will be a welcome addition to any mantelpiece/downstairs toilet/dressing room/car boot, but if I see them turning up on Ebay I'll be sending the boys round and re-gifting them.

So without further ado and with nary a toot on a trumpet or a cymbal crash, the recipients of the very first Front Row Dress Awards are as follows:

Best New Musical – Soho Cinders by George Stiles, Anthony Drewe and Elliot Davis, directed by Jonathan Butterell at Soho Theatre

Best Revival of a Musical – Mack and Mabel by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, directed by Thom Sutherland at Southwark Playhouse

Best New Play – In Basildon by David Eldridge, directed by Dominic Cooke at the Royal Court Theatre
Best Revival of a Play - Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams, directed by Robert Chevera at the Kings Head Theatre
Best Regional Production – Gypsy by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents directed by Paul Kerryson at Leicester Curve

 Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical – Paul Baker for Taboo at Brixton Club House
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical – Imelda Staunton for Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi Theatre

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play – Mark Rylance for Twelfth Night at the Apollo Theatre
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play – Sophie Thompson for She Stoops To Conquer at the National Theatre
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical – Steven Webb for The Thing About Men at the Landor Theatre

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical – Suzie Chard for Soho Cinders at Soho Theatre
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Play – Johnny Flynn for The Ruffian On The Stair at the Criterion Theatre

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Play – Johnnie Fiori for The Sunshine Boys at the Savoy Theatre

Best Newcomer – Louis Maskell for The Fix at the Union Theatre

Best Direction – Mitch Sebastian for Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Best Choreography – Robbie O'Reilly for Curtains at the Landor Theatre

Best Set Design – Anthony Ward for Carousel, Opera North at the Barbican Theatre

Best Costume Design – Laura Hopkins for A Midsummer Night's Dream at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

 Best Lighting Design – Jon Winn for Call Me Madam at the Union Theatre

and finally ...

 Theatrical Event of the Year – Taboo at Brixton Club House

Congratulations to all of the winners. The trophies have been beautifully engraved by the cobblers on Leather Lane called with astonishing synchronicity "That's Shoe Business" (you could almost believe I'd thought these things through) and are winging their way to you. Those of you within ambling distance of Front Row Dress HQ may even get to varda my dolly old eek as I make like a post Christmas Santa and hand deliver them personally.

Hopefully the 2014 awards will be presented by Hugh Jackman and/or Judi Dench in a glittering star studded ceremony televised live from the Albert Hall on BBC4.

In the meantime all that's left for me to say is a Happy New Year to one and all.