Friday, 24 January 2014

King Lear

National Theatre, London


****

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Mendes

Simon Russell Beale and Olivia Vinall

There’s a vogue at the National to thrust Shakespeare’s work into the modern era and with a nod to thrift, the military garb from the South Bank’s recent Othello is coldly furnishing forth the costume requirements of Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear. Indeed, as the closing act conflict plays out, the Dover denouement is often interrupted by the sound effect of jet fighters screaming overhead. It’s a leap in time that doesn’t always sit easily with a tale so firmly rooted in pre-Saxon history.

In an image that highlights the play's thematic plea for Lear to “see clearly”, the programme cover features a half-face close up of the bearded, brooding, Beale. The reality, at least for much of the first half is a very different King. Barely thirteen years since he delivered his career defining Hamlet, Russell Beale’s Lear, stooped and Stalin-like, scuttles around the stage suggesting a hybrid of Captain Birds Eye and Del Boy’s Uncle Albert. There are moments when his overly clipped delivery is eased off, but some noticeable early episodes of agony are squandered. His curse of sterility upon Goneril, arguably one of the most harrowing speeches written, falls short of the mark and that a few of the audience chuckled during Lear’s “O reason not the need” speech further suggests that the production still needs some fine tuning. After the break, Russell Beale excels and the moment late on, as Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia wakes him in his hospital bed is exquisite.

There is some outstanding company work on offer. Stanley Townsend’s Kent offers an energetic brute of loyalty to the King whilst Anna Maxwell Martin’s vitriolic Regan positively sizzles, first as the uncaring daughter and later as a steamily seductive merry widow. Sam Troughton’s bastard Edmund is as dark a baddy as he should be and Tom Brooke’s Edgar is an eloquent and touching interpretation of a complex soul, bravely performed nude through much of the Mad Tom storm sequence. As the Fool, Adrian Scarborough gives an intelligent interpretation to another of Shakespeare’s enigmatic characters and Mendes offers his own explanation to that Bard-Cluedo question: What exactly happens to the Fool? Well in this show he is brutally murdered: by Lear; in a bathtub; bloodily battered with the lead piping. Perhaps the standout performance amongst Lear’s court is that of Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester. Boxer effortlessly coaxes the beauty from his verse and rarely has his character’s confession “I stumbled when I saw” sounded so poignant. If Shakespeare knew that Gloucester’s blinding would entertain a blood-thirsty Elizabethan audience, so too does movie-maker Mendes who with an eye for a good visual and perhaps a nod to Quentin Tarantino, updates the hapless man's torture having him first waterboarded during the “wherefore to Dover?” interrogation before the required eye-gouging. In this production administered with a corkscrew, natch.

The production is unquestionably a brilliant King Lear, even if not one of the finest. It’s a fresh interpretation of the classic tale and its extremes of good, evil and the redemptive blessing of forgiveness prove as relevant today as ever. It’s a version that will be talked about for years and if you are lucky enough to acquire a ticket, (they are like gold dust) it is an evening very well spent.


Booking through to May 2014

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Drowned Man : A Hollywood Fable

Punchdrunk and National Theatre, London

***

Created in collaboration with the company
Directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle


Jesse Kovarsky and Fernanda Prata

There is currently a vogue for film studio experiences in London. Warner Brothers have long set up their family-friendly Hogwarts operation out in suburbia, whilst now in the city centre Punchdrunk together with the National Theatre have converted the multi-floor acreage of a disused Paddington warehouse to create their 1930s Temple Studios, an adult-only spectral opposite to the wizardry of Watford. If Hollywood gave us film noir, then The Drowned Man is theatre noir. Disturbing, challenging and ultimately murderous. 

Key to Punchdrunk’s achievement is their de-humanising of the audience from the outset. If you've come with a partner you are encouraged to split up, to wander around the show in non-speaking isolation. For many this suggestion proves too challenging, with audience members often seen clutching friends' hands for fear of separation. To enhance the de-humanisation, all attendees don masks that are designed to allow comfortable breathing and vision, but which completely obscure faces. With a mildly grotesquely beak-like design it's not only audience faces that are made ugly, it is their locust-like behaviour too. The jostling and shoving by the crowd, chasing after scuttling performers as they run between scenes, is often un-settling and occasionally aggressive.

Amidst the production’s cleverly created locations (though the dim light, as in fairground ghost trains of old, no doubt serves to mask over any cracks in the scenery) actors emerge from time to time to give tableaux of action and dialog that broadly follow a pre-published synopsis. And here's where the show gets really creepy. The audience walk around the performers, encouraged to observe what's happening because this is performance-art after all. Yet fifty masked people, voyeurs let’s call them, watching actors occasionally simulating sex makes for a disturbing spectacle in itself. It almost suggests a “frightfully tasteful” dogging session, laid on for London’s theatre-going intelligentsia. 

With a plotline of decadent deceit, deception and death, the script could easily have been written by Stanley Kubrick out of Billy Wilder. It is an ingenious concept, with performers bringing the same levels of detached excellence that one could expect wandering around the attractions at a top notch theme park. Interactive and immersive maybe, but this show’s chilling fourth wall is unmatched in its opacity. The choreography and balletic movement throughout are faultless (well done Maxine Doyle) and any show that includes April March's Chick Habit in its soundtrack, a paean to murderously vengeful girl-power, has got to be worth checking out.

The Drowned Man is more of a themed experience than a theatrical story. Heavily stylised, the continuous and often very loud music masks what little dialogue there is. If the story becomes hard to follow, relax. Be safe in the knowledge that if you are struggling to keep up with the narrative, it’s probably the same for the creepily masked guy stood next to you. Ultimately this is a show that has more to do with recreating the intrigue of a bygone era than following a detailed arc. 

On one’s feet for three hours, the promenading is at times arduous and some form of interval for half-way sustenance would not go amiss. After the finale there is an opportunity to de-mask and purchase kitsch cocktails in a themed pop-up bar. Refreshment that is too little, too late and too pricey, but at least Punchdrunk spare us having to exit via a gift shop.

Depicting a bygone era of America's Pacific coast, the show suggests either Hollywood Babylon or the Hotel California, take your pick. Though as the last half hour ticks down and you find yourself stumbling across the same played-out scene for a second time, there is more than a hint that whilst you may be able to check out any time you like, you can never leave. 

Nick Hytner shocked us with Jerry Springer The Opera on his arrival at the South Bank and amongst his parting shots, The Drowned Man offers another assault on our mainstream expectations. Beautifully imagined, it is distinctly unconventional. With the show's run now extended into 2014 this is, if nothing else, certainly a stylish component of the capital’s theatre scene.


Booking until 9th March

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Lost Boy

Charing Cross Theatre, London

***

Book, music and lyrics by Phil Willmott.
Arrangements and additional music by Mark Collins
Directed by Phil Willmott

Steven Butler

J M Barrie’s Peter Pan is currently proving the inspiration for many a new piece of theatre the most recent of which, Phil Willmott’s musical Lost Boy, has just transferred to the Charing Cross Theatre. Focusing on George Llewelyn-Davies (a stirring performance from Steven Butler), one of the real-life inspirations behind Pan and set during the First World War, Llewelyn-Davis dreams of being the boy that never grew up, poignantly considering the nightmare that his generation has to face, sent out to fight whilst on the cusp of adulthood. The audience is made aware of being taken on an “awfully big adventure” and as we begin this year that commemorates the centenary of the war’s outbreak, there is an enormous sense of foreboding as we are introduced to the story’s young boys. 

It's a brilliant concept and to begin with the 'grown up' versions of Barrie's beautifully crafted characters are entertaining, cleverly suggesting their Neverland charm. It quickly becomes apparent though that you can have too much of a good thing. Wilmott’s plotlines become too complex, finding little room for the development of the multitude of stories. 

That being said, the many subplots do provide the cast of 12 with an opportunity to showcase their talents. Joseph Taylor gives an enchanting Michael Darling, Joanna Woodward an impressively gutsy Tinkerbell and Richard James King sings, arguably the best song in the piece, 'Jungian Dream Analysis' displaying brilliant comic timing to re-inspire us at the opening of the second act. 

The music – executed brilliantly by Isaac McCullough’s on stage trio of keyboard, clarinet and cello – tries to marry together contemporary styles and sounds with Edwardian Music Hall. The two don’t integrate well but, again provide a platform for the talents in the cast and in the final moments of the show the sound of the youthful ensemble is powerfully moving.

Having just moved across London from the Finborough Theatre it’s apparent that the show has had an opportunity to grow. It’s a charming idea, with incredible potential and is a moving tribute to the lost boys of the Great War.


Runs until 15th February 2014

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A Spoonful Of Sherman

St James's Theatre, London

****
The Sherman Brothers

It was with good reason that Walt Disney labelled Robert B. Sherman “The Poet”. Together with his brother Richard, Sherman was to pen Oscar winning scores for Disney movies during the studio’s golden era of animation in the 1960’s and 70’s, before then going on to create the songs for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That both Disney’s Mary Poppins and Chitty were to be given fresh interpretations as spectacular West End and Broadway shows, only served to see the brothers’ talents span the centuries and it is a wonder that this charming show has not been staged before.

No other songwriting partnership has created so many numbers that have become fused into our psyche. Amidst a sold-out St James Studio, every member of the audience would have either sung the Shermans’ songs as children, or sung them to their own kids (or grand-children). The hard-wired familiarity created by songs such as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has a value in Western culture that is priceless.

Iconic songs demand performers of confident stature and Robert J. Sherman (the son of Robert senior) who compered the evening had assembled a cast that represented the finest of Britain’s young but accomplished musical theatre performers.

Stuart Matthew Price was as assuredly excellent as ever. Singing the little known Music Of The Spheres,written by Robert J, his tone was sublime and during his take on Hushabye Mountain from Chitty, tears were flowing in the audience. Charlotte Wakefield is another gifted actress who only last summer presented her credentials as a governess with an acclaimed Maria in The Sound Of Music. Tonight, with her performance of A Spoonful Of Sugar, one can confidently say that the position in the Banks’ household is hers. It was an enchanting cover of Julie Andrews' legendary performance and when Wakefield later sung My Own Home from The Jungle Book, the crystal clarity of her gorgeous performance could almost have suggested that the movie had been digitally re-mastered.

Emma Williams, who had created the role of Chitty’s Truly Scrumptious on stage, lived up to that character’s reputation for perfection. Amongst her first half highlights, Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins was to prove another moment of tear-streaming delicacy, whilst her Chitty contributions were as fresh as when first performed at the Palladium some 12 years ago. 

Greg Castiglioni provided the final voice to the quartet, an accomplished performer whose acting through song was a treat throughout the evening. Allocated perhaps more than his fair share of comic animal-songs, his Ugly Bug Ball was a blast, whilst one of the funniest Disney songs ever, I Wanna Be Like You from The Jungle Book, was sung brilliantly notwithstanding the almost show-stealing simian accompaniment from Stuart Matthew Price’s gorilla-esque whooping and chimp-like chatter. (Should the singing work ever dry up, Price would make an excellent Johnny Morris.)

Accompanying all, Colin Billing’s piano work was outstanding often suggesting the low-keyed elegance of a cocktail bar, whilst ramping up the tempo when required. Robert J. Sherman’s narrative through the evening was not only undoubtedly authentic, but also sincerely presented and if he stumbled occasionally, the atmosphere of the room was nothing less than warm and forgiving. 

With a second act that could be slightly trimmed and an encore that’s simply a treat (no spoilers here) the show is a glorious tribute to some of the USA’s finest songs of the last century. Amidst all of Broadway’s giant songwriting partnerships, none reaches out to the child within us quite like the legacy of the Sherman brothers. Cleverly crafted songs that speak of hope against adversity, written in verses that talk to every age. This show deserves to tour and when it comes to your town, don’t miss it!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

An Evening With Sylvester Stallone

The Palladium, London


****



Everyone knows that Sylvester (Sly) Stallone created the Hollywood’s boxing legend boxer Rocky Balboa. Less widely known is that in his early days, Stallone (who scripted the movies’ series) was offered a fortune for the rights to Rocky that would have cut him out of the starring role. A poor writer at the time and in a show of steely character that echoed the eponymous boxer, Stallone resisted the siren-like temptation of the million-dollar deal, ultimately accepting a far smaller sum in the belief that no-one else could create the Philadelphian hero. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thus it was that Stallone held a packed Palladium rapt, as for 90 minutes Jonathan Ross (who else?) quizzed him on his career. Sometimes the slip of an actor’s mask can disappoint and it was Paul Newman who famously advised that one should “never to meet your heroes”. Sly is the exception that proves the rule. Under Ross’ well researched probing, Stallone proved himself so much more than just the all round action-hero. He writes with perception, knowing what makes for a well-structured movie and what an audience will want. But above all at the Palladium, he spoke with wit and insight and the resonant confidence of a man who is a giant in his craft.

Sly spoke of a humble upbringing and of being a truanting schoolboy with a passion for film. Kirk Douglas was his hero and later as an usher on $38 a week, he would see movies like Easy Rider sixty times, absorbing style and genre whilst back at home churning out countless screenplays for studios to summarily reject. (Apparently there’s a Hasidic Western buried somewhere in his pile of scripts!). He spoke of the writer’s loneliness as he worked towards the precise honing of ideas and in a candid revelation, he hinted that writers simply steal other folk’s ideas crushing ‘em “like grapes” in pursuit of their own vision.

Opening with a montage of his work, screened to Bill Conti’s legendary Rocky trumpet theme, the selection of classic Stallone moments was eclipsed only by a trailer of his new movie with De Niro, Grudge Match. It was remarkably cool to watch a big film’s trailer on the big screen, with its star sat on stage watching too, modestly and (charmingly self-deprecatingly) chuckling as it plays out.

Stallone’s presence and charisma is exceeded only by his many talents. With a revealed desire to still play Iago, he could have talked all night. As he left to return to LA, Ross and the audience rose as one to applaud the man, a true Hollywood Great.