Confession time...I was sitting in the theatre, flipping through the pages in the programme when it dawned on me, I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play. It feels as if I had, his name has been synonymous with classic British theatre for decades and I have seen him around town numerous times but I never saw any of his plays, revival or not. And I don't have an answer for how that has come to pass.
Here we have a real classic. Premiering in the West End in 1982 , The Real Thing went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Best Play and subsequently premiered on Broadway in 1984 and won the Tony for Best Play. It would be easy to assume that subsequent productions would have to deal with either keeping in set within the era it was written or make some attempt to update it to reach a more contemporary audience, however what's so wonderful about this play is that it doesn't need either treatment to be relevant or 'contemporary'.
The Real Thing engages the audience from the start, giving us two scenarios which keep us wondering which is the real thing? Back to back we have two scenes with one common element - the same woman is in each and we're left wondering for a while how the two fit - was one or both just a scene from a play written by Toby Stephens (A Dolls House at the Donmar, The Country Wife in the West End, TV- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Cambridge Spies, Film - Die Another Day) playwright character Henry?
Characters collide, home truths are dished out and once the dust settles the play gets a more conventional tone, for a while. We are left with two of the originating characters - Henry and his other half as they navigate through their relationship. Considering how much of the play is essentially a two hander it is never less and captivating. Discussions about what is real ring true, whether it be the truth in relationships and what one needs from their partner or (what I found to be the pinnacle of the night) a conversation about what makes a good play. The basis of that conversation was a discussion about a play by a non playwright, one character thinks its a bad play and the other feels it says what it needs to say which gives it validity. It's that age old argument questioning the concept that there is good and bad art - some think it's simply a matter of taste and effectiveness and others feel its more prescribed than that.
In The Real Thing Stoppard uses a cricket bat to get his point across, explaining the craftsmanship that goes into making a cricket bat separates good bats from bad. A wonderfully crafted bat will elevate a players game where as a bad bat will bring it down. It's a wonderful argument and makes complete sense in context although, to be fair, making a cricket bat does not entirely equal full on creativity but then we could ask if Henry's plays are also indeed, the real thing.
I could run on and on with this 'real thing' concept and I think that's why the play works so well, It's tightly constructed and everything is there for a reason, feeding into the central concepts and thought processes.
Down to specifics - Toby Stephens is very effective as Henry. He's a middle class snob who, I believe, and based on my big ears during the interval, you could sympathise with or simply detest. It's a fine line he has to walk and he does veer a little too much on the negative side for me but it's necessary for the character I guess. As the two women in his life - Fenella Woolgar (Time and the Conways at the National, Motortown at the Royal Court, films Vera Drake, Bright Young Things and Stage Beauty) captures the slightly cynical and funny Charlotte while Hattie Morahan (The City at the Royal Court, Time and the Conways,... some trace of her, Three More Sleepless Nights - all National Theatre) took a while to capture my attention. There was a wonderful moment when I realised that her character had been influenced by Henry through a subtle switch in a conversation. Very subtle and difficult to do so hats off to her. Barnaby Kay (Closer, Man of Mode at the National Theatre, The Herbal Bed in the West End, Dying For It at the Almeida and A Streetcar Named Desire as the Donmar) as Max was wonderful. He brought a very playful, open quality to a character that only appears in the first few scenes of the first act.
The only downside for me was the introduction of additional characters in the final third of the play. I understand why they were there, I felt they were necessary for the development of other characters but a few of them were directly out of stage school and although fine, their lack of experience shown.
I'm no director but I would imagine that directing this play would be a tricky affair. It balances and counter balances so many ideas and character flaws that allowing the production to tip too much in one direction could throw the whole thing off. It's the careful point / counterpoint effect that is believably created and entirely entertaining that makes this a must see, especially if you consider yourself a 'thoughtful' person. I can't imagine anyone looking for a heavy duty storyline full of mystery and suspense to really hook into the magic of Stoppard's writing. If in doubt, give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Speaking of surprises...as I was writing this I realised that I had seen a Tom Stoppard play - Rock and Roll in the West End. And surprisingly, I didn't like it. I felt it relied too much on intellectual banter along with political and cultural references that to a point eluded me.That's not the case with The Real Thing. All the preparation you will need is your mind.
The Real Thing
with Tom Austen, Louise Calf, Barnaby Kay, Hattie Morahan, Toby Stephens, Fenella Woolgar, Jordan Young
Director: Anna Mackmin
Designer: Lez Brotherston
The Real Thing (Old Vic 19/4/10) 18 May 2010
Polar Bears is the second new play of the current Donmar season, the first being the phenomenally successful Red by John Logan which recently transferred to Broadway. I'm not sure where to start with this one. Thinking about it there really isn't much to say, which is sort of how I felt about Polar Bears. Again, drawn by the promise of another production directed by Jamie Lloyd I expected to at least be entertained, and I was, somewhat, but overall it was a slight evening.
I've never read The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night, the bestselling novel by Mark Haddon who has written this play. All I know it was a huge hit and as a result didn't really think twice about his first play premiering at The Donmar as all the productions are of such a high quality. I figured that there must have been something about Mark Haddon's writing that cried out 'playwright', why else would the Donmar take such a risk as they aren't known for championing new work? I have a suspicion but let's move on to the actual production.
For quite a while I didn't know what the play was about. I was intrigued, that's for sure. With a title like Polar Bears it could have gone into any direction really, but I finally pinned it down to a story about a woman with bi-polar disorder. Nifty. I like how he pulls that together. Then, from what I could tell the structure of the play was unconventional and seemed to be splitting audiences. I personally enjoy unconventional plotting and structure so I was up for the challenge.
The story itself is pretty straightforward - a bi-polar woman meets and falls in love with a philosopher, much to the dislike of the woman's mother and brother. I say, dislike because they aren't so much against the union as suspicious that the woman's disorder could prove too much for the man. So, how do we make this story more interesting? You start at the end. I'm all for that as it forms a basis to really explore the various characters needs and desires. Unfortunately, that didn't come to pass. We did get the ending first (I am now giving you plenty of notice by typing a very long sentence to alert you that a major spoiler is on it's way. Even though it's the first thing that happens in the play I still think that many would prefer to not know. - *SPOILER* the man confesses to the brother that he has killed the woman in what could be thought of as a crime of passion by pushing her down the basement stairs - *END OF SPOILER*).
What makes this story more complicated structurally is that it doesn't then go back to the beginning and trace the events that lead up to the ending, it replays events out of sequence. Normally I would have found this intriguing but in this case it comes off as a device for the sake of having a device. With such a non sequential structure I expect there to be a reason for presenting scenes out of order such as illuminating issues and actions in a different way. To know the outcome of actions prior to the inciting events should give those initial events a different spin. Not so with Polar Bears. I didn't really see any reason for the structure other than possibly making the story more interesting.
Actually, it's sad to say, and I don't like having to say it, but, one of the main problems was the central performance of the woman Kay, by Jodhi May (Blackbird - West End, The Talking Cure - National Theatre, Platanov - Almeida). Everything hinges on her actions. There wasn't any real extreme in her actions and her performance was just that, a performance, to the point that I could see why her man did what he did, and not for the obvious reason. There was probably a thought that by not playing th extremes we, like the the characters in the play, would wonder if the character really had a disorder. It didn't work.
The mother, Margaret played by Celia Imrie (Rivals - Southwark Playhouse, Acorn Antiques - West End, Film - Bridget Jones; Star Wars, TV - Cranford) is very clear in her warnings to the husband John played by Richard Coyle (After Miss Julie, Proof - both Donmar, The Lover and The Collection - West End, The York Realist - West End and TV's Coupling) that Kay's emotional swings are very difficult to handle and is continually challenging him in his insistence that it will be fine. The brother, Sandy played by Paul Hilton (The Wild Duck - Donmar, Riflemind - Trafalgar Studios, On the Third Day - West End, Mourning Becomes Electra - National Theatre) is also sceptical about John's ability to commit to what could be such a volatile relationship. These points are driven home through every scene that includes John with either the mother or the brother.
Theoretically this pressure that John is under is what the audience would be looking out for after knowing how it all ends. None of warnings actually carry any weight because we never experience Kay's extreme mood swings nor do we ever feel any real connection with either side of her personality. Everyone else does their best , with Richard Coyle giving the greatest performance, but without seeing and feeling what all the fuss is about it ends up being empty storytelling.
To be fair, even is the central performance was better I don't think it all would have added up to much. I looked into Mark Haddon's experience (his programme biography is very slight) and it seems the majority of his writings are for young people with only two being for an adult market and this is his first play. Polar Bears feels like a first play and there are a few parts - namely two extended monologues one from Kay and the other from John - that feel very literary, as if someone was reading from a book. The dialogue is handled well but nothing is very illuminating and I felt much of it became very repetitive. There was an odd choice of having Jesus Christ having a conversation with Kay and then having the same actor, still looking like Jesus, also play Kay's ex-boyfriend. This was an obvious deliberate choice which probably has more meaning but I stopped looking, partly because I find using Jesus as an obvious device that I no longer find interesting.
It was all directed very well as to be expected from Jamie Lloyd, and Soutra Gilmour's split level minimalist set really hits the mark but it's a shame that there aren't more interesting ideas and characters to make it a more worth while experience. Which lead me to think, why this play? What was the process for choosing this play to be part of a Donmar season?
The Donmar have produced new plays in the past - John Logan's Red, Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan and The Cut by Mark Ravenhill immediately come to mind. Up until now the pattern seemed to be producing new plays by selected established playwrights. Polar Bears has changed this. From what I can tell, Mark Haddon has never written a play before so what was this choice to produce his first play at the Donmar all about?
I realise likes and dislikes are a very subjective thing but for some reason my dislike of Polar Bears didn't stop me from wondering about the decision to produce the first play by a mostly children's book writer about an adult with bi-polar disorder on the Donmar stage. I have nothing against children's books writers, it's, I'm sure, a very specific skill but how that skill translates into the ability to write for the stage, especially a world renowned stage, is a topic that interests me.
I'm pretty sure that everyone is aware that show business is indeed that - a business. Of course, the creative aspects of the 'show' part exists, and it would be safe to say that most everyone involved in the 'biz' started out with mostly creativity on the mind. But to survive, to be able to feed that creativity the 'biz' becomes a major part of the game. And it is a game. It's a business, like most businesses, where you have to figure out a way to keep working, and that comes down to marketability, how much money you can make for someone.
I've never, in my mind, equated the theatre world with the world of show business. That has always been the realm of film and television. Why would I? Those involved in producing theatre don't make near the amount of money of those other two industries but there are the odd exceptions, Cats and Phantom of the Opera have made their creators very wealthy but that took years. Those involved in theatre are involved mainly for the love of theatre. You have to be in love because you can make loads more money in other fields, doing the same thing.
Because of this love I want to think that the art comes first, with a keen eye on the finances coming second. Finances are a major part of West End productions, it has to be but it still has that sense of love and passion lurking in the background (there are a few exceptions which I won't go into). Whereas the arts council funded enterprises have less to lose so the quality (the love) tends to be higher. Also with these funded organisations there are usually a team of workers, leading, guiding, suggesting, crafting and creating work of a standard that they feel is worthy to put before an audience. I'll go out on a limb here and say that their ultimate goal is not West End but sold out houses - an indicator not just of financial gain (sometimes) but of audience engagement.
So we have a culture that now bemoans the inability to reach theatre audiences with new writing, but that seems to be shifting a little. I think we are seeing that interesting writing can still draw the audiences and not just on the back of celebrity names. We are slowly building back a stable of creatives that are associated mainly with theatre and their names stand for quality - Mark Rylance, Rupert Goold and Michale Grandage have helped to create new theatre royalty, artists whose association with theatre alone can sell tickets. This is true for venues as well with the The Royal Court and the Donmar really gaining momentum. So, with all this power why would you take a chance on a new play by a new playwright who has only written, from what I can tell, only one play? And not a great one at that?
I think there's something going on behind the scenes that we aren't aware of. Is the money monster rearing it's ugly head in the off west end world? I could be completely wrong but someone seems to have struck a deal somewhere or personal interest has cancelled out common sense. I'm not saying that a first time playwright / successful novelist can't have their first produced but I question the stage on which this happened. Surely someone would have questioned quite a few things about the piece and maybe they did but if so, someone trumped them. Who and why? I think of all the great playwrights who are struggling to be heard and then I see this play that, though not bad and really not good either, get produced on a major stage. I don't want to believe that the deciding factor was the hope that Mark Haddon's name would help sell tickets. That would be a big letdown.
It's all very confusing - I know that the Donmar has an association with American Producer Arielle Tepper Madover (to be inspired - listen to her interview on the Downstage Centre podcast a few years back - she is the founder of the Summer Play Festival in New York. I wish someone would model something similar in London - Podcast is here ) and there are annual residencies at the Donmar from American playwrights associated with the Festival so why not produce one of their plays instead?
I know I shouldn't complain, it has absolutely nothing to do with me but I just hate to see real theatre talent get pushed to the sidelines. Normally I would chalk it up to 'someone took a chance and it didn't work out' but with Polar Bears something smells a bit fishy.
Breaking News! Tennessee Williams long forgotten play Spring Storm, on its first trip outside of the US has been involved in a serious head on collision. Miraculously, or predictably, it has emerged - unscathed.
This is a great testimony to the genius of Tennessee Williams. Here we have a play that few have seen and even fewer are even familiar with, in a production that if it were a lesser playwright, would have been dismissed as a potential flash in the pan. That's not to say that Spring Storm is a masterwork, I don't think it is, but there's enough of what Tennessee Williams does best to rise above, even the most lazy and uninspired of productions.
Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm when he was in his 20's, it was never produced. Interestingly enough it was written in 1937, the same year he wrote The Fugitive Kind (the precursor to Orpheus Descending) and then a year later Not About Nightingales. The play was found amongst The Tennessee Williams Collection in Texas and received it's first public reading in New York in 1996 followed by publication.
This production currently at the National's Cottesloe Theatre is Royal & Derngate Northampton's transfer of two seminal American playwright's early work - the Young America Season. Spring Storm is paired with Eugene O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon which admittedly I know nothing about with the exception that it, like Spring Storm, was an early work.
Let's look at the foundation. Tennessee Williams was an amazing playwright. His style immediately puts the viewer into a zone, the Tennessee zone. The plays are witty, clever, heartbreaking with astoundingly good dialogue and often tackled complex issues. All those points are present in Spring Storm, but make no mistake, it's not one of his best and it's pretty clear that it's an early work. Some of the elements don't come together. Some of the themes and characters he was exploring aren't fully explored - I got the sense that he wasn't really sure of some of the characters himself.
Here's the story, Spring 1937 in Mississippi. A young woman from a good family, Heavenly has to choose between local tradesman Dick Miles, a man below her social class, and the son of the towns wealthy family Arthur (who is Heavenly's mother choice for a suitor). There's also the dowdy 30 year old library assistant Hertha who also has a dream of finding something better as does Dick. Just from those descriptions I'm sure you can weave a story of how these characters might interact and for the most part that's where Tennessee Williams takes the audience. What makes it less obvious are the twists he throws in that make these relations much more complex, mostly to do with Heavenly's character.
Heavenly is a conflicted character, she wants to be with Dick, makes it clear to her Mother that Arthur is not for her, yet in his presence she shows interest in him. Because she's had 'relations' with Dick she has become the talk of the town. It doesn't help that she drinks, smokes, really enjoys that new product called Coca Cola and is not embarrassed about any of it. Arthur also seems to be conflicted, he wants to be with Heavenly or so it would seem, but makes a play for Hertha early on. Dick is more straightforward, he just wants to get out of the town and is hoping Heavenly would join him but will leave regardless. All very complex, emotional conflicts are poised to run high, however, what I have just retold I got from hearing the words, not from the individual performances.
For me, the performances were pretty much way off the mark. Here are a few examples. The opening scene has Dick looking down at the Mississippi River, equating it with his need to leave town and experience another place. As far as I could tell, the actor was looking at the ground and just saying the words. I never got the sense there was a river there. Tennessee's words did all the work. A few scenes later Arthur is talking to Hertha. He is retelling a story that could be construed as a pick up line of sorts, which Hertha asks about and takes his word that it was not. Later in the play, a drunk Arthur confronts Hertha at the Library. He overpowers her and she struggles then gives in. It's a violent scene where the overtones are rape. So, why does she give in? She gave absolutely no indication of having any feelings for Arthur. She would have if the actress had played the earlier scene differently.
Here's a good one. I'm going to set up a scenario - now think of what you would do in the same situation. It's late at night and you are awakened by sounds of conversation in another room. You go down the hall to investigate and turn into the room where you thought you heard the voices. You enter, see a family member and ask who they were talking to? Out of curiosity, your natural instinct would be to look at the various doors in the room to see if you saw anyone, right? Same scenario in Spring Storm. What does the actor asking the question do? Look behind him, at the door he just entered through. That really stood out to me - I thought 'you just came through that door, you know no one's there because you were just there yourself, so why look back to investigate?' It reeked of acting school scene work.
Finally the big laugh of the night came from the woman playing Heavenly's mother. She has a scene where she is trying to impress the wealthy Arthur and it turns into (for all of you familiar with this British TV show) Keeping Up Appearances fused with some Noel Coward comedy. The audience roared. I wept.
I wondered if there was any preparation made regarding Southern lifestyles, locales and accents (on the latter - there is a dialect coach listed but I fear much of the instruction fell on deaf ears.) I never got the sense of location, era or society. The performances were mannered in that acting school sort of way and universally, there were no real connections to the imagery they were describing (which Tennessee is so famous for) or the other characters.
I sat in the Cottesloe and tried to figure out what the problem was. Was it the actors or the director? As I tried to unravel the problem (also a bad sign that I was going through such a lengthy thought process during a show) and came to the conclusion it must be the director as it would be near impossible to find such uniformly poor performances in the same production. Then I realised that I didn't like anything about the production (my friend liked the shoes). I wondered if it was intentional to not have anything ring true or logical.
Director Laurie Sansom - also Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate Southampton, has included voiceovers (by a voice assumed to resemble Tennessee's) of the stage directions and scene introductions at the start of most scenes and most irritatingly, at the end where we hear - 'end of play. Curtain.' It immediately alerts you to the fact that you are watching a play. Was the director trying to tell us that the production should be viewed as something other than a finished work and we as audience members need to be reminded that it is just a play and no semblance of reality should be inferred?
If this is true then they've hit the nail on the head as I am hard pressed to point out a performance that transcended the actors ambition. In fact, they pointed out their own deviations from the original character description. At the opening, the voiceover introduces the main characters with a physical description. For the most part, none of the descriptions matched the actor playing the role. Gun, foot, shoot.
There is one saving grace. During the second act it dawned on me that this was most likely an early version of A Streetcar Named Desire with Heavenly as a young Blanche. This could also point to Blanches attraction to Stanley. In Spring Storm, there's a scene at the end where Dick, covered in mud, tries to convince Heavenly, dressed in white for a party, to go away with him. They embrace, getting Heavenly's dress all muddy. The image of Dick as Stanley Kowalski came into my head. Dick leaves without Heavenly and you could imagine her never getting over it - this could be transferred to Blanche's the attraction to Stanley as a Streetcar back story. I've heard this mentioned before but I had forgotten about it until that scene.
What did I get from my evening? Hearing and seeing an unknown Tennessee Williams play that although not one of his best was still enjoyable in that Tennessee Williams way. There could have been much more made of it, if only the production had been up to it. I long for someone to have a real go, if you cast extremely talented actors this could be amazing. I know all the reviews have been raves, I'm not sure if they are reviewing the play or the production. Either way, Tennessee emerges fit as a fiddle and the production - DOA.
I got a strange reaction from people when I told them I was going to a recording of Over The Rainbow. I wasn't sure if it was because it has all those things stereotypically associated with musical theatre or the fact that it has that 'friend of Dorothy' element about it. Either way, I didn't feel it was anything to be ashamed of. I have always found backstage and 'the road to (insert production name here)' stories interesting. Okay, this isn't exactly as straightforward as some, there's a great deal of TV gloss and just a little bit of desperation about it all but I still really enjoy it.
Over the Rainbow wasn't my first Andrew Lloyd Webber in search of...recording. I was at two live shows for How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? (once in the front row next to the family of one of the Maria's who I wasn't supporting and had to wave goodbye on that particular week - very uncomfortable), I missed out on the Any Dream Will Do - couldn't get a ticket, was at the final of I'd Do Anything and just attended my second Over the Rainbow. Strangely enough, for a programme that's seen by many as just a piece of fluff, it's been steadily in the news and has had its fair share of controversy.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
The search for Maria in The Sound of Music
1. It made news first by being such a risky venture (what if the voting public choose a Maria that's not up to it?
2. As a safety precaution they hired seasoned actress Emma Williams to basically split the performances with the eventual winner).
3. Went under attack by actors equity about it's casting process.
4. Winner Connie announced she would be able to do most of the performances - Emma Williams then left the production as she would be relegated to a matinee only schedule.
5. Connie gets ill and blows her voice proving she wasn't as up to it as she thought.
6. The production went on to get wonderful reviews, make the producers loads of money and introduce many to the theatre.
Any Dream Will Do
The search for Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat
1. Contestant and eventual winner Lee Mead had been in the West End as an understudy in Phantom of the Opera which seemed to go against the productions intention of finding an unknown fresh face.
2. Joseph and The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat received so so reviews but still did great business and gets more theatre newbies in.
3. Lee Mead weds Any Dream Will Do panelist Denise Van Outen.
I'd Do Anything
The search for Nancy in Oliver!
1. Old Vic Theatre Artistic Director Kevin Spacey makes a public denouncement of the programme stating that he feels the BBC were promoting Oliver! through a 10 week advert. He feels the the same attention should be given to other theatre.
2. Oliver! producer Cameron MacIntosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber announce on the final programme that they feel contestant Jesse Buckley is their favourite. Jody Prenger wins and everyone seems uncomfortable.
3. Jody Prenger is given a great deal of preparation time and training including a short stint in the West End's Les Mis.
4. Oliver! has record breaking sales and respectable reviews.
5. SOLT - Society of London Theatre - announces the West End experienced it's best year ever and reality shows like I'd Do Anything are cited as a contributing factor.
Over The Rainbow
The search for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz
It's still early days but...
1. None of the previous Panelists return fueling speculation that John Barrowman and Denis Van Outen (now pregnant with Lee Mead's child) were sacked.
Personally I feel that these programmes have had an impact on West End ticket sales. Of course there will always be naysayers stating that audiences are coming for the wrong reasons but I know from experience that this sort of thing actually works. Years ago ,one of my first theatre jobs was for a theatre that relied mainly on subscribers. When I started they were just finishing an extended run of Phantom of the Opera (extended as in years) which had made it's first non New York appearance. My job was to ring those who attended Phantom and encourage them to become subscribers. Initial thoughts were in the vicinity of - good luck - but I was very surprised at the number of people for whom Phantom was their first theatre experience and were very interested in trying others. There was a second smaller theatre that produced straight plays also on subscription and many, many people became subscribers in the smaller house. It's the equivalent of casting out a big fishing net, there may be a large number of fish initially but when you pull it in there will be a great deal less, but you just have to keep throwing out the net.
I wonder if the tag 'reality show' is putting people off. I don't get it to tell the truth. Reality show? It contains real people but does that make it a reality show? To me a reality show is something like Cops where the audience is following something that would be happening with or without the cameras. All the others I would call either game shows or competitions. If there is a process that pre selected people go through in order to win or gain something at the end then it's a game show. Look at something like Mastermind. Contestants compete week after week, with big winners making it through to the semis and then the finals. It is a long process and someone wins at the end. Big Brother is the same thing as is X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent and Over The Rainbow. They're just flashier than Mastermind or Master Chef.
Anyway, to the experience. I'll save you loads of detail but just pull out some interesting bits.
It's a very different experience seeing it live. Being in the studio gives a better sense of how the contestants would be on stage. You get the whole picture and are able to see and focus on what grabs you. I've seen some really good performances in the group numbers that the TV audience don't get to see.
If you've ever watched Simon Cowell on American Idol or X-Factor you will probably be aware of his 'when you watch this back...' phrase, usually accompanying a performance that everyone else thought was great but he wasn't so keen on. He is so right. On Saturday night I thought Bronte was pretty good and was very surprised when she got the least votes. It wasn't until I watched it back that I could see why she would have not been a favourite. I think that the one who wins has to be able to come across well on stage and on TV.
From the Dorothys that didn't make it, Teghan was my favourite (She comes across much better live) and I think the Leading Ladies (first show mentors Kerry Ellis, Ruthie Henshall and Tamsin Outhwaite) who were present during that first show which whittled it down to ten Dorothys, she was their favourite as well. After the announcement of the final 10 and the group was split into two, there was a short filming break. Tegan was very upset and all the Leading Ladies got her attention and gave her a private pep talk.
Both the live show and the results show are filmed back to back. It's a long evening especially after queueing for quite a while before getting into the studio. As with all of those variety type shows there's the warm-up guy, a semi comedian who gets the crowd enthused by making everyone stand up and dance, clap along to dance tracks and have to endure the 'which side can scream louder' competition. Unfortunately it's been the same warm up guy since I'd Do Anything, along with the same tired jokes. Especially wearisome was the tossing chocolates into the audience bit where he encourages a woman to catch chocolate in her cleavage in order to win a prize - this week, an Over the Rainbow mug. Anyway, part of the routine is to instruct the audience to clap along (and if you are in camera shot - as we were - they really want to ensure you keep the clapping going to look good). The audience is also encourage applaud high notes and interesting vocalisations. I now forgive all the audiences I've damned from the comfort of my sofa.
We spent alot of time on Saturday waiting while a huge Great Dane couldn't be trained to sit still. I think it was supposed to be part of the results show to tie in with the search for Toto. The dogs lead was tied to Lord Webber's chair and almost took the Lord with him as he dashed to his owner. Each time they brought the dog in they had to take away the podium with the ruby slippers. This in and out with the slippers prompted someone to let us know that the slippers are worth over £2000. They didn't say what they were made of but Graham Norton said they were a size 6, the average size of all the Dorothy's. He could have been joking about the size. Not really sure.
Halfway through the results show taping, the Lord whispered to Charlotte Church and John Partridge. He seemed to be quite upset. John whispered it to Sheila Hancock and they all seemed shocked. I think they found out who was in the bottom two which makes sense as I had wondered why Lord Webber never had the look on his face which comes from hearing such news for the first time.
There are three Dorothy's that I think would work - Steph, Stephanie and Jessica. All three come across really well live which is what I'm looking for.
If you want to apply for tickets the are still taking requests for the final three shows as of this posting - you'll have to register at The Applause Store.
That was pretty much it - oh, for the moon effect - the girls are not strapped in - just holding on for dear life.
Here we are at part three. In addition to the LPC evening the week before, I bought a ticket to Box of Tricks Theatre Company's Word:Play 3. Box of Trick is 'a new writing company committed to developing and producing the best new work around; discovering, nurturing and promoting the next generation of playwrights. We are drawn to plays that have an immediacy and relevance today: stories that need to be told, the voices that need to be heard.' (click the blog title for more)
Word:Play 3, as the title suggests, is the third in their Word:Play series where six new playwrights are commissioned to write a 15 minute plays based on a single word. This year the word was - obsession. I have never really considered the idea of short plays as something I would find interesting. I've never found short stories to be as fulfilling as say a full length novel or novella so I figured I would have the same sort of reaction to a short play. I figured I'd give it a go.
Back to Theatre503, a full house again (I neglected to mention that fact for the LPC evening) but the atmosphere was different. I was sure there were more people in attendance not directly associated with the production.
Unlike the LPC's Crash Test Audiences, Word:Play was unencumbered by an existing on stage set. The stage was bare with the exception of black chairs and tables carefully piled in a corner and a large collage of newspaper clippings on the black back wall, not entirely legible with the exception of certain words.
First up - Shove by Kenneth Emson, directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder.
'And I started to feel like I was about to fall. Like I was about to come crashing to the floor and this feeling took me over'
This solo piece explored the feelings surrounding a particular incident involving being in a crowd, feeling people behind you and eventually being shoved to the ground. At the time I couldn't figure out what the incident was but once I settled into that I enjoyed it as a meditation on thoughts and emotions. Simon Darwen was wonderful in the role and the lighting and direction very appropriate to the switch of emotions throughout the piece. Honestly though I think I admired it more than enjoyed it. I'm not a fan of solo pieces, preferring interaction between two or more people to spark my imagination. I discovered later through one of Box of Tricks Theatre's tweets that it was about the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots last year.
Next - That Dark Place by Anna Jordan, directed by Adam Quayle
Nathan can't find his pen. He wants to write his confession. Constance fears the repercussions in a small community. But why are they guilty?
For this this one was a mixed bag. I really liked the story - a man wants to confess to something he probably didn't do, his wife has been trying to talk reason to no avail. What worked for me was Jonathan Harden's performance as Nathan. I believed his obsession and he played it as quiet desperation as opposed to wild crazy frenzy. What didn't work was his wife. I felt that her obsession - trying to convince her husband that he didn't do it - wasn't strong enough. And going by the snippet of information about the piece, she is supposed to be obsessed with what the neighbours are saying and thinking. I didn't get that at all as she seemed to be a foil for the husband. Also, I wasn't entirely convinced by the dialogue, I have an issue with characters over using the names of the person they are speaking to - people rarely do that. But, great story and good direction.
The last piece before the interval - With (Toxic) Love from Anna by Elinor Cook, directed by Hannah Tyrell-Pinder
Anna's new to London. But she left her heart in Australia. A funny and heartbreaking tale of a lonely girl in a big city.
What I really liked about this was that it looked at a few different issues. Most of us, I would imagine, have spent at least one relationship waiting by the phone, waiting for 'that' call. Times have changed and we now spend that time waiting on our computer, connected to many, waiting for one. And while we wait we interact with 'friends' both real and virtual. Without realising it we are basically attached to our computers in a way that's far more personal than we ever could have imagined. With (Toxic) Love From Anna looks at a young woman from Australia, in London on her own who is hoping her 'boyfriend' will miss her and get in touch. While she waits she sets up camp in the land online and pretty much cuts herself off from any real human interaction. A nice touch was the separation anxiety she suffers when her laptop is taken away for repairs.
I enjoyed the immediacy of the content but wished the performances were pushed a little more. We understand the pain of waiting for that email or having your computer taken away for repairs which can leave you with the most desolate feeling but that sense of urgency, the obsessive nature of the situation was missing. We got the sense of the situation through the writing but the performance didn't push it to the level I felt it needed to be seen as obsessive. I have to note that I attended the first of week long performances and I suspect it got stronger through the run. All the signs were there.
The first piece of part two - Awake by Hannah Nicklin, directed by Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder
Flo is lost. So is Jon. A story about new ways that we connect, disconnect, reconnect and plug ourselves into the digital age.
I had a problem with this one. Although I loved the premise, a woman wakes up in a place she doesn't immediately recognise. The only other person present is a man who speaks with in a strange stilted manner. We discover that they are in an online game and the man is the gaming character the woman has created. Great premise but I suspect the author had issues with constructing a story around it. We get stories about the woman's troubled relationships with family but it never really goes much further in relating that to the gaming character and understanding how that particular moment is important in her life. To be honest, I felt it was a bit clumsy in the writing department and ended up being fairly run of the mill and the obsession part didn't come through. Pity because the elements were - premise, direction - there but the writing let it down.
Next - Struck by Love/Train by Evan Placey, directed by Adam Quayle
Sarah fell in love today. Before she fell under a train. But she needs to break up with her husband. One woman's journey to find true love on the London underground.
This one was a great tour de force. A woman on a tube platform observes her dead body on the tracks below as she recounts the many different times she fell in love while riding the tube. She had recently fallen in love with a fellow passenger and tries think of ways to let her husband know. This had a wonderful stream of consciousness air about it with some very funny lines and great observations. I really got the sense I knew this woman. We all knew that he was in a sad state but it ever ventured into pity due to the direction and the performance by Natasha James who really inhabited the character but unfortunately fell into the trap of speeding through some of her lines to the point where they were lost. As with some of the others this was more than likely rectified and I wish I could have seen it again later in the run.
The last piece of the evening - Safety by Marcelo Dos Santos, directed by Adam Quayle
Ben's new to all this. Mark's a grizzled veteran. Olly's in love. Someone pass the tea. A daring black comedy set in swinging South London.
The evening concludes with a bang. Mystery, sex, sleaze and ultimately love collide in a very surprising piece. Two men and a boy sit in a flat, one of the men seductively whispers in the others ear. We're not entirely sure what's going on but based on the seductive quality of the man doing the whispering, Mark, we feel it's something sexual. What transpires is a game of sorts. The other man, Ben, has answered an ad but we're not sure what the specifics were. We are aware that part of the deal was getting the boy, Ollie, who at that point is with Mark and there seems to be the added extra of domination. Mark controls the situation, taunting and instructing Ben, using Ollie as a pawn and prize. It seems like an almost straightforward transaction, Ollie moves from Mark to Ben, but it gets more complicated. Mark has grown attached to Ollie, something that moves beyond the parameters of their situation and Ollie has fallen for Ben. This could have been just a quick look at the games people play but it's Jonathan Harden's performance as Mark which gives this piece depth. Portraying quite the different character from his performance in That Dark Place, he moves from being the sexual manipulator, the dominant force in the transaction to the one most hurt by the situation. A very subtle shift. Excellent. Of all the pieces this had the most elements to navigate and it was all done beautifully.
Overall a wonderful evening. There was a great attention to detail, not just in the individual pieces but as a whole, no clumsy set changes here, they were carefully thought out and made the evening seamless. I've come away a fan of the short play, not only can they be great launchpads for new writers, directors and lighting designers but also as a standalone theatrical experience.
One thing I paid attention to as well as the LPC performances was the audience reaction - the level of attention, the applause at the end.We are all acutely aware of how live performance affects audiences and vice versa and I wonder if we as arts practitioners should pay more attention to this because it's very difficult to fake an immediate response. I wonder if this could be more useful than filling in pieces of paper.
When we are more willing to accept that there might not be an enthusiastic reaction during or after a performance then we all could be a little more mindful of what we put on stage. There will always be a argument for and against how much one should pander to the audience but that's not what I'm speaking of. Writers write because they have something to say, because they want to communicate something to an audience. Whether or not this is communicated will usually be felt on the night. Putting everything in place to allow audiences to have the pieces affect them is a good start.
As the two artistic directors of Box of Tricks Theatre were also the two directors for all the pieces I feel it safe to say that they chose writers and pieces they believed in. They worked on them to give audiences the best possible experience of the highest quality. They proved that limited resources does not equal shabby and thrown together and they've shown me the value of theatre shorts.
How about this? Until pieces are completed how about presenting a 15 minute self contained (ish) segment as a finished short work and then listen, look and hear how audiences react. If we want the audience's attention we must pay attention to them.
Here we are at part two of my new writing month. I went to Theatre503 - the self proclaimed home of fearless writing and the theatre that was first to put on this years Olivier winning best play The Mountaintop - twice. The first for an evening of new writing from The London Playwrights Collective I figured that I keep going on about new writing and figured I had to make more of an effort to support it. I had been intending to go to Theatre503 for some time and when I went onto the website to see what was on I discovered London Playwrights' Collective - a collaborative supportive ad proactive community for writers. Taking chances is what it's all about, right?
When I first read about this one-off evening of new writing my expectation was to see extracts from new work. I figured it would be about showcasing four new writers by giving a peak at their full length plays. The fact that this ended up only being partially true was not a huge problem but I only wished I had known in advance what I was letting myself in for prior to attending, so I could get into the right frame of mind.
As mentioned, this was my first proper visit to Theatre503 and I have to say it exceeded my expectations. For those who have been to the Gate Theatre is Notting Hill, imagine the same with 10 times the amount of foyer space. After I collected my ticket I received a programme from what I believe to be the organiser. She let me know that there was a questionnaire and asked if I could complete it at the end. I had no problem with that but it sort of took me by surprise. For me to give feedback I would have to quickly adjust my head from punter to critic. I took a look at the programme which gave a good deal of information - play titles, cast lists with biographies, playwright biographies and a bit about the evening. Here it is:
'The Platforms are opportunities for the playwrights to go beyond the relative comfort of the writers' group an get a real taste of the theatre making process. More than a simple showcase, it is a crucial step in the development of the playwrights and their work both through working with directors and cast but most importantly by the immediate response of the audience.
These exciting platform performances are the result of a 4 month development period where our writers came together during specially designed LPC workshops, generously pooling resources and sharing knowledge in order to support each other in the creation of their piece. Once selected, the playwrights we given feedback and recommendations from the Theatre503 selection panel and got rewriting. They were then each paired up with a specifically appointed professional theatre director, who, through proactive feedback and dialogue, provided additional support in the conceptualisation of the piece whilst fully involving them into the directorial process. The directors were selected by the LPC artistic team out of the forty plus who applied!'
It sounds as if a great deal of work and energy went into the evening, but unfortunately I had difficulty seeing that work onstage, much to the detriment of the plays themselves.
The evening started on a promising note. The first piece The Inappropriate Conversation by Reen Polonsky, directed by Jackie Kane was a two hander involving an teenage girl and an older man. What I liked about it was the aspect of not knowing if these two were lovers. It was eventually revealed that the man was the girls god father but the girl obviously really fancied him. This story could be spun off into an interesting dissection not only of Lolita style attraction but, as was hinted at here, the differences between age groups. The actors were off book and although I found the performances to be a little stilted and actorly, not entirely convincing, I could still see see the play beneath.
Next up The Lesson Before We Break by Colin Bell, directed by Alexander Summers. Unfortunately I found this one to be a bit of a disaster.
This play concerned an elderly teacher who it seems in the past was convicted of a relationship with a younger male pupil (we sit through an interrogation scene where it is revealed the male officer knows the teacher). He befriends a young male student who is new to the school while he is reading 'Catcher in the Rye'. During a school assembly the teacher verbally insults a female student after she laughed during a bit about the holocaust. It seems that he had been forced to wear a pink triangle during WW2 (This can't be confirmed as we only really see him putting on an armband with the pink triangle). This young female student is 'inner city tough' and files a complaint in a scene where she, accompanied by another teacher, confronts the elderly teacher. She has knowledge of his prior conviction and threatens him with spilling the beans.
Along the way, this female student meets the new kid and tries to get him on her side by threatening violence, he is not interested. He gets a lesson in the 'Catcher in the Rye' from the teacher who dissects the books characters names - Holden Caulfield becomes - Hold On (with all that implies) and Caul - the membrane around a baby - blah blah blah. (I think Catcher has already been done to death). Finally, the girls gang beats up the boy and he goes to the teachers home for help. The teacher is afraid that he will be seen as having a relationship with the boy so tries to get him out. At this point the student brings up how he is scarred by his father being in Afghanistan. I can't really remember how it ended. Mind you, this was just an extract. It was very long and everyone was on book and there were a great many 'scene' changes which made it very difficult to watch and follow. Honestly, just two of those issues raised could make for an interesting play but it was all too much.
After the interval came Cold Hands by John Anderson, directed by Anna Brownstead. This one was partially off book, but I really couldn't figure out what was going on. It's hard to say whether a few scenes were shoved together to give a bigger picture of the story or we were just dropped into it. This concerned something about a cryonics laboratory. Here's the description - 'When the Director of a cryonics firm finds his business world shattering into shards around him, he finally confronts his won personal grief.'
There was something very cold and distant about this, as if it was written by someone from the medical profession. It got a bit too technical at times and I really didn't see the personal grief. Again, it seemed very under rehearsed and this got in the way of seeing the play. From what was presented on stage I didn't find it very interesting.
Finally, the best all rounder of the evening - Waterton's Wild Menagerie by David Bottomley, directed by Daniel Burgess. Here's the description - 'Charles Waterton 1782 - 1865, a traveller, naturalist and benefactor to the local poor. He created the world's first nature reserve at Walton Hall, his ancestral home. This extract recalls his encounter with a group of starving beggars and supposes what might have occurred had he invited them back to eat bread with him at Walton Hall.' Although all actors were on book, it never interfered with the story or performances. It was well directed, very simply relying on the actors to tell the story. It was also funny, witty and well observed. The only downside for me was that for an extract, it seemed to go on for quite some time.
I opted out of filling in the questionnaire. I considered starting it during the interval but I didn't have a pen and then when I had a proper look at the sheet I realised it would prove an impossible task. There was only a very small comment space for each play accompanied by a 'rate this' from two to five section. It also asked which of the pieces I would be interested in seeing as a full length version. Because of the presentation I couldn't comment on the play without commenting on the direction and acting. Did I not like the play because of the directing? or were the actors so under rehearsed that it showed the play in a poor light? I didn't know and there wasn't enough room on the sheet to explain.
Although the intentions were honorable I fell this was a good example of why some 'scratch' type performances don't work. I like to know what I'm getting myself into, how I am supposed to experience the evening. I was never made aware, as a punter, that I would be seeing such unfinished extracts. The plays themselves may have been considered finished but the presentations were so fussy, unimaginative and under rehearsed I felt the only people that would have really gotten anything out of them would be the playwright and those also involved in each writers writing group. In fact, I have the feeling the audience was mostly made up of those two groups and those associated with LPC. There was a very 'in crowd' feeling about the evening, as if they all knew what was to come and I was the only one out in the cold.
What would have made this evening work for me?
1. An introduction on stage to each extract - giving a small overview of where it fits within the whole of the play - finished or not.
2. Better rehearsed actors so not to distract from the play itself.
3. Unfussy direction so the audience could concentrate on the play and not get bogged down with fussy blocking and set pieces.
4. Allowing on side of an A5 sheet of paper for each play and a way to either send in your comments later or email them through.
I think LPC were trying to straddle two worlds by trying to make both playwright and punter happy. I can't imagine the average punter being that interested in seeing something so unformed. Although these were works in progress I feel they should have been shown as finished works with more time put into presentation. If this is what is to be expected from scratch performances I can't see myself attending more unless I am associated in some way.
I wonder if what's keeping scratchs from being an integral part of the process is how the writers view their work. This came up during my 'Devoted and Disgruntled' session. Either you can present something as a work in progress or as a finished piece. My feeling is that there aren't many people who are interested in works in progress but as theatregoers are aware that as with all types of art, things can change. It's all about your intention.
In the present format I'm not sure I will be attending another of LPC's evenings. Funny enough they waited until you arrived to let you know what you were in for. Unlike the description on the website, the evening had a title, it was printed on their programme - Crash Test Audience 2. Enough said.
This past month has been heavily populated by new things for me. A new play at the Bush Theatre, two evenings of new writing and with the first of the two, the first time I had been to Theatre503. Add to that my finding out that I will be starting a new job in May (Marketing for Arcola Theatre - which now marks a self imposed embargo on Arcola blogs) and it all adds up to a pretty momentous month. My original intention was to discuss each of the three new theatre works individually but in my mind they always seemed to come together as three parts of one conversation so that's how I have decided to approach it this time around.
Back at the end of January, beginning of February I attended Improbable Theatre's Devoted & Disgruntled weekend where, using Open Space Technology, participants set the agenda. If you had a topic you wanted to discuss then you made it, titled it and scheduled it into one of the predetermined time slots. It was your responsibility to act as moderator of your 'session' and take notes as a record of the discussion.
One session I attended has a direct correlation to these new works and the thoughts I've had surrounding them. There was a woman who has been presenting her work at scratch performances for years and felt she was has fallen into a scratch circle. Can you scratch too much? I had never been a part of a scratch evening as a participant or viewer so I thought it would be interesting to hear if it was something I should pursue for my own work and if so maybe I would find out some of the pitfalls to avoid. The one thing that stood out for me was the question - when is your play or work finished and ready for a real production? This one went back and forth quite a few times until one of the participants - an Improbable regular - finally said - when you say it's ready.
That seems an obvious answer but it wasn't something that many had considered - partly because we are all used to having the 'powers that be' tell us when something is finished or possibly we as artists sometimes don't have enough faith in what we produce. Either way it was something to chew on.
Keeping all that in mind, I approached this month of new writing with the thought that all of the artists involved (as well as the powers that be) feel that, unless otherwise noted, the work on show is the finished deal.
Here is Part One.
Production 1: Eigengrau by Penelope Skinner at The Bush Theatre, Directed by Polly Findlay
Following on the heels of the stonking The Whisky Taster , to my tastes, Eigengrau had alot to live up to and on many levels if fell way short. I tend to have a thing about booking the final preview performance before a press night, the reasons being that for larger productions I can take advantage of a preview ticket price and ensure I'm getting the press night quality of performance. Also, I like to see things earlier on so not to be swayed or influenced by word of mouth and reviews. Unfortunately in this day and age, the press performances tend to be a bit fluid so I found myself surrounded by reviewers, the only ones I recognised were Mark Shenton and Lyn Gardner. Oh well.
For those who don't know, Eigengrau tells the story of two men and two women whose lives are intertwined. There's Cassie (Alison O'Donnell) a radical feminist and her flaky flatmate she found through Gumtree, Rose (Sinead Matthews - Our Class and The Women of Troy at the National, The Wild Duck at the Donmar and The Birthday Party in the West End), and on the male side there's Rose's city boy almost one night stand Mark (Geoffrey Streatfeild - Pains of Youth, The History Boys and The Bacchai - all National Theatre, Journey's End in the West End and Henry VI 1, 2, 3, Richard III, Henry IV 1, 2 and Henry V - all RSC) and his slacker flatmate Tim Muffin (John Cummins - A Stab in the Dark at the Kings Head, Edward II at BAC and The Beaver Coat at the Finborough).
Once all the characters and situations have been established, you can see how they will be interacting a mile off. City boy Mark has had a brief fling with Rose and runs into her flatmate Cassie the next morning in the flat. Cassie challenges Mark with her feminist views. Rose who has become obsessed with Mark, goes to his flat and meets Mark's flatmate Tim Muffin who in urn takes a shining to her. Mark starts fancying Cassie and it all gets a bit brit-comesque.
Going one step further each of the characters has a 'thing'. Cassie, as mentioned, is a feminist and is actively involved in the movement. Tim Muffin's grandmother has recently died and he keeps her ashes in a teddy bear shaped urn. Cassie is a flake and early on seems to be the eternal optimist but is revealed to be a bit psychotic in her single visioned pursuit of Mark, against all odds and signs to the contrary. And then there's Mark, the city boy. That's it. He's a city boy with all the trappings that one would expect - a bit laddish, a bit middle class with a dark side of liking to dominate sexually. No surprises there.
There's not much else to say about the actual storyline other than things happen and you can't really figure out why because they're never explored or brought up again. After a night of domination sex Cassie never speaks of feminism again. We learn that Rose has a history of not paying bills but is that a reason for her excessive behaviour? She refuses to see reason in regards to her pursuit of Mark, justifying every action in her favour, she debases herself by giving Mark the longest onstage blowjob ever (complete with the spitting out of sperm) to help secure their relationship, then goes onstage at a karaoke club and sings a complete song off key which concludes with self mutilation, only to bounce back at the end to her almost original self. And there's Tim Muffin, the only character with two names, (most likely for the humour factor) who we find out at the end has been devastated by the death of his grandmother. How that gives reason for his pursuit of Rose and his general slackerishness is beyond me.
Basically nothing seemed to add up. Yes, there were some wonderful comic touches and lines which the audience ate up but when you got to the end you just weren't sure what you just saw and why you saw it. At the end, two things came to mind - either the characters were poorly written or the director (Polly Findlay - Thyestes at Arcola, Romeo and Juliet at BAC) or the actors didn't assist enough in the creation of the characters.
Kind of sidestepping for a moment - I was working at a theatre in Los Angels during their pre Broadway run of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. At that point it was still a work in progress and I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on a discussion between the actors a group of young people for one of the theatre's outreach programmes. They told the eager listeners about all the cuts that had been made throughout the production.
The actors performed the previous version of the script for quite a while but it became evident that the play was running too long and many of the scenes were dragging down the pace. As a result, there were some major cuts - mostly involving character backstory. Some of the kids wondered if the cuts made the actors work more difficult. The reply was that it made their work easier because although they didn't perform those scenes anymore the information that they imparted became part of their performances, they informed how the characters acted and reacted within the scenes. It was something I hadn't considered before and has since stayed with me. (Unfortunately to the extent that I have issue with seeing replacement casts for long running productions). Having that much information is a luxury and that the majority of actors (and directors) have to get that sort of information on their own. It may be difficult at times to figure out but I think it's a necessity to gaining well fleshed out characters.
With Eigengrau I would say the lack of fully fleshed out characters are a result of the writer, the actors and/or the director not realising that something was missing. The writer introduced many elements that were either dropped without explanation or not explored beyond one or two lines. There is the possibility that the actors had worked on their characters stories but unfortunately this work never appeared in their performances (with the exception of Sinead Matthews who gave a wonderfully heartfelt performance which in fact revealed the flaws of the text). If they had worked on their back stories then I would say it was the director who failed to realise that the physics of cause and effect were not in play here.
Physically, the space itself was just a small traverse with audience on both sides. With the exception of a fast food stand where Tim Muffin briefly works, four chairs were used in various configurations to determine settings with a shelf on one wall for the teddy bear urn to indicate when they were in Mark's flat. The scene changes were a little clumsy and there were times when I had to think a little too much about where the characters were supposed to be. It mostly wasn't as obvious as it should have been.
Afterwards, I thought about Eigengrau, not for the good reasons that stimulating theatre can do but wondering what determines a finished play? Does it read better than it plays? Who could have read it and not seen all the missing pieces? Have I missed something? Am I crazy? I don't know. The audience I saw it with laughed up a storm, I didn't find it funny. A little humorous but too obvious for my tastes. Most of the reviews were glowing but I did read one that had the same questions about not following through with storylines. It is almost a deja vu situation. It reminds me a little about a certain play I blogged twice that was pipped to the post of a major award. It's almost like the title of the play exclaims - eigengrau: the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness. Like the character of Rose it may seem the world only wants to see the good. I can excuse alot but I love theatre too much to wear rose tinted spectacles.
Stay tuned for the continuation of the new writing discussion with London Playwrights Collective and Box of Tricks' Word:Play 3 at Theatre503.
The Sanctuary Lamp (Arcola Theatre 12/3/10) 21 March 2010
Here is a surprising gem. It's not what I expected but that's not a bad thing. Actually, I'm not sure what I expected but sometimes if you just dive in you can be surprised.
Surprises always abound when entering Arcola Theatre's Studio 1, you never know how it will be configured. For b*spoke theatre company' production of The Sanctuary Lamp you immediately feel as if you are in a church. The five or six rows of seats flank one long side while the other is half of a church interior, dimly lit - about six pews, a confessional, pulpit and the titular sanctuary lamp - with a smoky haze effect diffusing the light (design by Monica Frawley). There is also some wonderful sound design that hits you from the get go - a reverb, echo that gives the impression of being in a large empty place that continues throughout the production (sound design by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty). Subtle yet effective.
What happens then reminded me of getting involved in a good book. Harry (Robert O'Mahoney) an ex circus strongman meets the churches Monsignor (Bosco Hogan) and as he has nowhere to go is hired as a sort of a church custodian / security guard and one of his duties is keeping the sanctuary lamp lit by changing the candle.
Now, I didn't know what a sanctuary lamp was, it was discussed a bit in the play, so I looked it up, and to save you the bother:
'The General Instruction of the Roman Missal in the Catholic Church, for instance, states (in 316): "In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honour the presence of Christ." The sanctuary lamp is placed before the tabernacle or aumbry in Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, and Anglican churches as a sign that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved or stored.' - Wikipedia
As the confessional is now used a storage cupboard, Harry takes to using the sanctuary lamp to confess his problems with his wife and his once close friend Francisco as part of a small circus that performs for private parties. This is a longish segment which initially worried me as it seemed the pace and story were going to be very slow going. I wasn't entirely sure where all the talk was going and I had difficulty seeing when the actual story was going to emerge. However, like in the recent Serenading Louie at the Donmar, the longish start pays off. All the information given in that beginning makes the rest of the story all the more powerful because you get a sense of who the character is and what his station in life has become.
Interesting side note - both Serenading Louie and The Sanctuary Lamp first premiered around the same time, the early 70's, and although from two different countries, have that same aesthetic, the longish opening segment whose purpose is not to necessarily dump you in into the story but to set the tone, give the audience a sense of the characters lives. This seems to definitely have been of an era as I can't remember any recent plays giving that sort of breathing space, everything seems to drop you right in the middle of the action. It made me realise how the theatre has pretty much gone the same way as film.
Have a look at films pre Jaws, they were well structured stories with great characterisations which were not so much concerned with the immediate hook but in allowing time to build the scenario which makes subsequent events resonate even more. Post Jaws, box office became more important and so did quick hooks and thrills. To an extent I feel that plays went this same route. I guess it also comes down to talent - it's difficult to write expository dialogue that doesn't give you the feeling of reading a quick summary or programme notes before the actual story starts.
But I digress. A second character is introduced properly, we've seen glimpses of young girl. Once found by Harry, we hear the story of Maudie (Kate Brennan) who has also sought sanctuary in the church. After many tentative steps Harry gains Maudie's trust and she reveals her secrets, the reasons why she has gravitated to the church. The final piece in the puzzle, a man (Declan Conlon) looking for Harry becomes the third in the triad of people seeking refuge.
On the surface it seems rather straightforward and predictable. At least that's what I was thinking when in fact this is furthest from the truth. Based on what was revealed early on, I assumed many connections and events that never came to pass. It's a play that never goes where you expect and doesn't set itself up to lead the viewer down the wrong path only to throw a spanner in the works. What evolves is very heartfelt and genuine, dealing with the complexities of forgiveness, truth, faith and spirituality versus religion and church. It's never heavy handed and never absolutely damning of one or praising of the other. It never preaches, it engages.
Like Arcola's last production Heldenplatz, there seems to be an agenda, something that the author has to say for or against something. In Heldenplatz it was Austria, in The Sanctuary Lamp the church and maybe more generally - organised religion. From what I have read this play caused quite a stir when it was first produced. Seeing how explosive and anti-church ideology can be today, I can imagine it could ruffle some collars. There is however, a big difference between Heldenplatz and The Sanctuary Lamp. Whereas Heldenplatz seemed to be created to condemn and work solely on an intellectual level, The Sanctuary Lamp's ideology is born organically from the characters while engaging the mind and the heart.
Considering the author Tom Murphy has also directed this production, I find the plays ability to 'argue' it's points in a balanced way surprising and is a testament to why it works. More often than not, there is a loss of objectivity when a playwright directs their own work. That's definitely not the case here. Just the opposite. Like reading a good book, or seeing an engaging 70's film, I got lost in The Sanctuary Lamp and it kept me thinking for a good few days after.
Love Never Dies (Adelphi Theatre 8/10/10) 14 March 2010
First things first. I've never seen Phantom of the Opera on stage. Ever. I've kind of seen the film version, I made my way through it from beginning to end once, but didn't really concentrate. I tried it again but never got all the way through it. So, what I'm trying to say is that I came to this sequel without any baggage. Also, let's get this out there as well. I love Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita (seen the original American cast three times), Cats and Sunset Blvd, so there is no bias there.
Unlike some in the internet world, I didn't come to the show with any expectations of loving, hating or being indifferent to the production. I heard a few musical excerpts on TV and they were nothing to write home about but often songs written for the stage don't work as well out of context. So, onto the show.
Much of this will sound familiar if you've been keeping up with reviews. First off, on the whole, nothing moved me, provoked me, made me think, made me want to hum along or made me forget that I was in a theatre. That last one was a very strange experience. For 98% of the show, I was very aware of my surroundings, the lights, the proscenium...that's always a bad sign. It didn't suck me in and there are a few reasons for this.
There has been alot of chatter about the story - it takes place ten years since the end of Phantom of the Opera, and since Christine has seen the Phantom. Since then, he has moved to New York's Coney Island and is still obsessed with her. Anonymously he invites her to the amusement park to perform but unfortunately for him, she is now married to Raoul and has a 10 year old son. That's the story. I personally didn't find it a problem. What I did have a problem with was the script. Not only was very pedestrian it also, and I don't care what anyone says, relies on having known the story of Phantom of the Opera.
Coming to it as I did, I wasn't aware of how the original story ended - I'm guessing that Raoul and Christin were married at the end but it could have happened between parts one and two. I'm guessing that Christine had to choose between Raoul and the Phantom, who knows. I may have to give the film another go. Anyway, to script - as it stands doesn't start as a whole new story, it is just a continuation of Phantom. It's as if there was really long interval and we have taken our seats for acts three and four. I just didn't get the importance of all these characters to each other and as a result, I didn't get involved or really care. And it has to have one of the worst endings I have ever had to bear witness to. Not so much the story but the direction. Director Jack O'Brien (the amazing Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty and Broadways The Coast of Utopia) must have run out of time during rehearsals to figure out how they should handle that scene, It was embarrassing and it had the longest death scene I can recall. At one point I was thinking 'just die already'.
I didn't find the music that enjoyable. Having said that, there were two exceptions - 'Dear Old Friend' from act one is a humorous take on reuniting with people you don't really like and 'Devil Take the Hindmost' from act two which explores that darker sides of the main characters. Other than that I can't really recall any other except the title song which unfortunately has one of those melodies you have to work at to get out of your head.
I was mostly disappointed with the performances and some of the casting. Let's start with the Phantom, Ramin Karimloo (Phantom in Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Sunset Blvd). He has a majestic voice, as can be expected, however, now don't take this the wrong way, I thought he was a little too short. I had a difficult time believing he was this powerful force, the manipulator of all, maybe I was expecting the movie Phantom. Christine (Sierra Bogess - Christine in Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, Les Miserables) also has a wonderful voice but there never seemed to be any urgency in her portrayal of the love torn character. In an early pivotal scene, she meets the Phantom for the fist time in ten years. I would think that her reaction would be 'shock, horror, oh my god!', what we got was 'goodness - it's you'.
Of the other three leads I found Liz Robertson as Madame Giry (original A Little Night Music, Side by Side by Sondheim and Eliza Dootlite in May Fair Lady at the Adelphi) suitably devious although she was given some really dodgy direction at one point. Summer Strallen (Maria in the recent Sound of Music, Janel Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Maisie in The Boyfriend) as Meg Giry and Joseph Millson (The Priory - Royal Court; Judgement Day - Almeida; Every Good Boy Deserves A Favour and Pillars of the Community - both National Theatre) as Raoul were entirely wasted. They do the best with what little they were given.
The sets were nice, the effects wonderful, the evening - flat.
There's nothing much else to say but I would like to comment on all the hubbub that was happening on the internet during previews. I am of two minds about the controversy surrounding early online blog and message board reviews. First, I find it really sad that people who purport to be theatre fans would write a review of the first preview or any other preview and not put it into the proper context. We all know that things change during those performance so not giving the show a chance to evolve is irresponsible, hurtful and unfair. On the other side, the producers cannot expect to go into previews, call them previews, not discount them and expect the audience to not think what they were seeing was the finished product.
Somewhere along the way, I think that some theatre fans have taken a wrong turn. More and more internet related activity is reported in on TV and in the broadsheets and I wonder if the 'power' has gone to the heads of some. I hope that we all can remember why we love theatre and support it no matter what.
'Whatever theatre actors do during the daytime, each evening they go on stage to give a performance as "somebody else".
The dressing room is a physical space that allows for concentration and privacy so the psychological negotiation between the actor and this physical character can take place.
When "The Half" is called over the loudspeaker backstage, it signals the start of a 35 minute countdown to facing the audience. There is no escape.
It is rare to see actors in this point in their work.
Over 25 years Simon Annand has been give unprecedented access to photograph this in-between world that the audience never sees.' - V&A Exhibition Introduction
The Royal Court Theatre tipped off its Facebook and Twitter followers to this exhibition about a month ago. Simon Annand has been one of it's main production photographers for years. I did a little looking around on his website and was intrigued at the idea behind his non production photographs. You don't need a trained eye to differentiate between great, average of poor production photography. Just think of what attracts your eye when seeing the photos in relation to an article or review. There are some that you can get lost in and make you want to see a show and there are others that, possibly unintentionally, reveal a production on a low to nil budget. Great and interesting production photographs are really important as they are the ones that get published in publications like Time Out and ultimately help sell show.
What separates a professional production photographer from the rest is the professional can shoot all levels of productions and get wonderful pictures no matter what physical space, costumes or lighting is available. What also separates them is the ability to identify and capture a specific moment with a production that can speak volumes - usually the actors expression or a subtle interplay between two or more actors. This ability to genuinely understand a production or more specifically actors is the reason why The Half, Simon Annand's 'in-between' photos are so wonderful.
I kind of divide the photos into three categories - resting, active and waiting. The 'resting' photos could sometimes be mistaken for posed shots. Two examples come readily to mind. There's a lovely serene photo of Obi Abili leaning against a black brick wall backstage at the Old Vic during Six Degrees of Separation. At first glance it could be mistaken for a fashion shoot but it perfectly captures a moment when he just happened to be leaning against a wall while mentally preparing for his scene. There is another photo of Christopher Eccleston with a cigar (see photo above) which could seem staged but there's something about what is going on behind his eyes that says otherwise.
The 'active' photos come in two forms - actively preparing to go on via makeup or costume which, although interesting to see, didn't reveal as much about the actor as the others, and the physical process actors engage in prior to going on. My favourite of these is of Ruth Wilson, I think from her performance in Philistines at the National, lying on her back on the floor of her dressing room, doing mild stretching exercises. The moment that's captured almost has a religious quality, partly due to her costume and the pose. Finally, I find the 'waiting' photos the most revealing. They could almost be grouped with 'resting' but there's something active about them although their physical pose is passive. You can see the mind working. There's a great one of Cary Mulligan sitting on stairs backstage during the 2007 Royal Court revival of The Seagull where you can almost see her thoughts.
There is another division beyond this. The photos on the three walls of the gallery are all black and white, covering productions basically from 2008 backwards. In the center of the gallery there is a temporary mount with all colour photos from recent productions - some just finished and a few still running - Breakfast at Tiffany's, Over There, Six Degrees of Separation and Annie Get Your Gun to name a few. These are glorious. The colour captures an added essence.
The final element of the exhibition is the moving image. There's a looped short film that gives a little background information about Simon Annand and (my favourite bit) a filmed 'half', backstage at the Royal Court during the recent production of Cock. It alternates between filmed images in the dressing room, and moving images of the same period of time. It then goes onto the Cock stage to show three of the actors doing warm-ups consisting of stretching and running around. It ends in the hallway leading to the performance space as they wait to go on. If you go onto Simon Annaud's site (click this blog title above to go there) you can see the video. There's a portion that isn't on the website, a slide show of more recent production photos - some are also in the exhibition.
If you love theatre or are just fascinated by what goes on backstage than you'll really enjoy this. Simon has a book also called, funny enough, 'The Half' which has been out for a while. Most of the photos in the exhibition are included with the added extras of additional photos of the same subject. The more recent productions however, aren't included.
If you have never been to the V&A or the Theatre and Performance Gallery you more than likely will have to ask for directions. To be honest, I was a bit thrown as I had completely forgotten that the V&A now housed the contents of the old Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. The exhibition itself has not been heavily promoted and the listing for it on the website and in their literature is not obvious.
Before I headed into 'The Half' I looked around the Theatre and Performance Gallery. It has a few interesting things to see with my highlightbeing one of the horse heads form the original production of Equus. Unfortunately, the entire gallery only mildly diverting and one gets the impression that either there isn't alot to put on display or there isn't enough space to put everything out so only the items that pertain directly to the 'theme' of a specific section are there - 'rehearsal', 'design', 'costumes' etc...However, that proved to be a bit problematic because the theatre items are interspersed with costumes and items from the music world - a smashed Pete Townsend guitar, Adam Ant's Prince Charming costume, an early Mick Jagger unitard (god he was small), an early Elton John costume (with platforms) and a replication of Kylie Minogue's Wembley dressing room. It must be a nightmare trying to tie all the various elements together and it's not an easy fit. Overall I would say it is very run of the mill and think it was designed as an general theatre introduction. We can only pray that Theatre gets its own comprehensive museum in the future but until then this is all there is but the good news is - it's free.
Posted by Barry Wilson at Thursday, March 11, 2010