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.

Exhibitions: The Half - Simon Annand / Theatre and Performance Gallery (V&A 5/3/10) 11 March 2010

'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.