Monday 27 August 2018

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - Review

The Other Palace Theatre, London


Music and Lyrics by Eamonn O’Dwyer
Book by Helen Watts
Directed by Alex Sutton

Members of the company of NYMT's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Based on the short horror story by Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is perhaps best known for Tim Burton’s blockbuster movie starring Johnny Depp. Now it’s been brought to life in a new musical by Helen Watts and Eamonn O’Dwyer, commissioned by the National Youth Music Theatre and performed at the Other Palace Theatre as part of the company’s summer residency.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the tale of a 19th century New England town, where farming is the way of life and residents believe not only in God but in local superstitions, particularly the legendary tale of the Headless Horseman said to patrol the nearby woods looking for his next victim. Their lives are disrupted by the arrival of new schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (George Renshaw) from Connecticut, a progressive man who believes in science rather than religion and encourages his students to question the world around them. His new way of thinking inspires local farmers to fight to buy their own land, and also captures the attention of Katrina Van Fleet (Hayley Canham), the daughter of evil, greedy land owner Baltus Van Fleet and a woman betrothed to Brom Van Brunt, leading to disastrous consequences. 

Under Alex Sutton’s direction this all makes for a compelling and eerie tale, frightening at times. At odd moments the story drags, particularly in the first act. After the interval, the production really comes alive with performances, lighting, music and scenery combining to produce a gripping, atmospheric and spine-tingling piece of theatre. 

Very much an ensemble piece, it is hard to believe that this talented cast only had two weeks of rehearsal time given such polished performances. George Renshaw and Hayley Canham are believable and endearing as the star-crossed lovers and really have the audience rooting for them, while Joe Usher puts in a strong, well-rounded performance as Brom. Special mention must also go to Alfie Richards’ Baltus Van Fleet and also Jade Oswald, who as the troubled Sabine threatens to steal the show with her exquisite, haunting voice. 

The music by Eamonn O’Dwyer, skilfully played by musicians from the NYMT, is key to adding to the atmosphere of this production, from haunting songs such as Strange Child to catchier, lighter numbers like The Tale of the Drunkard Jack, a particular highlight showcasing both the company’s musical talents and Rebecca Brower’s clever design. Likewise Christopher Nairne’s lighting design builds tension perfectly, adding to the creepiness of the tale. 

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a strong production all round, theatre at its best, and this new musical is well written, brilliantly creepy and highlights the talents of the NYMT and the production team, who are all sure to have bright futures ahead of them.

Reviewed by Kirsty Herrington
Photo credit: Rob Youngson

Michael Blakemore - In Conversation with Jonathan Baz

Michael Blakemore (r) pictured with playwright Michael Frayn during recent rehearsals for Copenhagen
At Chichester right now, director Michael Blakemore’s revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen has opened to rave reviews. Blakemore has a remarkable history with the piece, having directed it to award-winning success in both London and New York when it premiered 20 years ago, and in the interim, staging the play in France and Australia too.
Finding a window in his hectic schedule, I spoke with Blakemore whose understanding of the play and its commentary upon nuclear conflict is probably unsurpassed. Our conversation was to range from theatre to politics and even the director’s take upon the internet and how we communicate today.

JB: Michael, how have you seen Copenhagen's philosophies evolve into the 21st century? 

MB:    Well, I think the science is still as it was. Some of the history of the Heisenberg story after the war has had additional material added to it. And indeed, Michael Frayn has modified his play in order to accommodate these changes (of which there were very few).

But I think that the messages it discussed are the same as they were 20 years ago. What has changed however is the world in which the play is being presented. In other words, towards the end of the last century, when the Cold War was over, the possibility of any kind of nuclear confrontation seemed remote. But since then, many more countries have acquired a nuclear capacity and suddenly the possibility of a nuclear accident appears much closer than it was then.

JB:    You are returning to the show after 20 years, and making a rather wonderful habit of this. Last year with the musical The Life at Southwark Playhouse last year, and now with Copenhagen.

MB:    Well, I revived The Life because we almost got it to the West End when it launched on Broadway back in 1990. We’d had very good London reviews of the New York production and everybody said, this will go across to London. But we couldn't find a management brave enough to take it on, because they found the subject too disturbing. So, I was sort of trying to make something happen that I felt deserved to happen. There may yet be a transfer of that Southwark production that I hope will happen.

But of course, that's very different to Copenhagen. Michael (Frayn) very much wanted to get it revived, while I was unsure as to whether he would want to go with another director, but he wanted to go with me, and I'm pleased.

Of course, I didn't know how I would react going back to this material and in fact it's been a thrilling experience. I know so much more about the play now and with this exceptional cast there is so much more to learn and new possibilities to see. 

I'm doing it largely, in principle, the same way I did it before, but with a lot of the technological advances that weren't available to me when I first did it. And so, I think it's going to seem very, very different. Not just because of the personalities of this cast’s actors, but also, I have changed, theatre has changed and the audience has changed too. A lot's changed!  But Copenhagen is undoubtedly a great play which does not date.

JB:    When we spoke earlier, you mentioned your view that technology and the internet have changed the world, and not necessarily for the better. 

MB:    What I don't like about the new technology is that I think we've done a swap. We've invented this new two-dimensional world that takes place on a screen. And this new world we've invented allows us everything: It allows us instantaneous communication with all our friends; It allows us to travel; It allows us access to a glut of entertainment. You can spend six hours every night in front of Netflix and find something to entertain you.

It gives you everything. It gives you sex. It gives you everything you want, except that it's artificial. And we've virtually exchanged the real world, which is three-dimensional and smells and is covered, and we can run around in, for this substitute world, which is comparatively valueless.

I speak as a grumpy old man who doesn’t like it because I'm no good at it. I'm hopeless at technology. But I also don't like it. I have a computer and I receive emails, even if I don't like sending them. And as a research tool, the internet is invaluable.

But as a way of communication, I think it's hopeless, particularly in the theatre. The great thing about theatre is that it is entrenched in human relations. Theatre is live people getting up in front of a live audience, to whom they have to make an effort to pretend that they're playing other people!  It's a much more sophisticated and real experience than, say, seeing a film, because you've got to make all sorts of adjustments during a performance.

JB:    I would completely agree with you, but the staging of any theatrical piece, even if it's playing to a 1,000-seat auditorium, is only going to scratch the surface of a tiny proportion of a population, whereas a movie, and in particular a big, acclaimed and successful movie, can ultimately reach the world. 

MB:    There's no doubt about that. I agree with that. And initially, I was interested in movies! I wanted to be a movie director and didn't want to do theatre at all.

But equally, you can say that the theatre is so cheap that you can mount a show, even if it only plays to 500 people, you can mount it for a tiny bit of money, and you can have a greater freedom to explore subjects and say things that the movies would never allow you.

And any theatrical endeavour is tied to more of a village society. Your audience has got to be within walking (ok, travelling) distance of the theatre, so they're more of your neighbours than they are with a movie. 

And it may be, in the event of some horrific political catastrophe, that the theatre is the only kind of dramatic entertainment readily available to us.

JB:    And of course, theatre offers a great challenge to performers too. As Terrence Mann said, "Movies will make you famous. Television will make you rich. But theatre will make you good."

MB:    Oh yes. I think that's probably true.

Copenhagen plays at Chichester's Minerva Theatre until 22nd September

Photo credit: Conrad Blakemore 

Friday 24 August 2018

Swan Lake - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Tchaikovsky
Directed by Konstantin Tachkin

The Corps de Ballet

It is all too rare that this blog visits the ballet for it is, quite simply, a treat to be able to sit in the Coliseum and savour the St Petersburg Ballet’s Swan Lake that is here in London for a fortnight.

The tale is a classic. Prince Siegfried falls for the beautiful Odette who has been placed under a spell by the evil Rothbart, condemning her and her peers to live as swans until the spell can be broken. The ballet is enchanting and under the vision of the company’s founding director Konstantin Tachkin, the interpretation is riveting.

As the Disney corporation discovered decades ago, you can’t beat a fairy tale for a ripping yarn.  These ancient fables are typically simple, easily defined, make our imaginations soar, and are built upon strong moral foundations. But long before Disney, the Russian Tchaikovsky recognised Swan Lake’s magic, going on to write a score that is chock full of  absolutely banging tunes. Aside from those richly symphonic familiar melodies that we all know and love, the work is littered with exquisite references that draw upon Latin and Baroque influences to name but two. And to have the opportunity of hearing the score played live by the magnificent  ENO Orchestra (under the baton, on press night, of Vadim Nikitin) only adds a further layer of delight to an already fabulous occasion.

Ballet of course demands that its narrative be played out through dance. Movement and nuance are everything - and Tachkin has coaxed virtually flawless work from his entire company. Prima Ballerina Irina Kolesnikova plays Odette (and also Odine, Rothbart’s daughter - google for a more detailed plot summary), bringing perfection in her poise and presence. Compelling us to empathise with her plight, Kolesnikova is a picture of enchanting athleticism, while her pirouetting (and at a ridiculous rpm!) is almost Regan-esque in its intensity. Denis Rodkin dances Siegfried - a man who looks as good as he dances and, to use the Cockney vernacular, is clearly as fit as a butcher’s dog. His powerful moves appear effortless - and as he picks up and spins Kolesnikova, we have a rare chance to witness poetry in motion.

It’s not just these two though. Dmitriy Akulinin brings a captivating menace to Rothbart and in the ensemble there is excellence too. Sergei Fedorkov’s Jester is a delight, pirouetting and cartwheeling across the stage with as much acrobatic talent as dancing skill in his delivery. Likewise, the Four Little Swans’ routine provides another delicious moment, while the entire Corps De Ballet are just immaculate - not only in their dance - but in how they hold themselves poised and still on both sides of the space, frozen in time for what must be agonising minutes, framing the action that's playing out centre stage 

The production’s sets are as enchanting as the tale with Act 2 in particular, set in Siegfried’s castle, bearing the Gothic illusional finesse of an MC Escher graphic. In short, a marvellous evening's dance and a production that should appeal to both connoisseurs and novices alike. Now that’s what I call ballet!

Runs until 2nd September

Monday 20 August 2018

The Senator - Review


Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan
Directed by John Curran
106 minutes
Certificate - 12

John Curran’s film The Senator is released to DVD and download this week. The fact that in the USA last year it was released under the title Chappaquiddick should tell anyone with a reasonable knowledge of 20th-century American history that the movie’s titular Senator is Edward (Ted) Kennedy.

The youngest of the four Kennedy brothers, America’s dynasty of Democrats, Ted'sthree siblings pre-deceased him. Joseph, the eldest, killed in action during World War Two and John (JFK) and Bobby both brutally assassinated. There might have been every chance that Ted could have followed both John and Bobby on his own path to the White House, until a fateful night on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts in July 1969. There, with Mary Jo Kopechne alongside him in his car, Kennedy's car crashed off a bridge and into a shallow stream below. Although Kennedy managed to free himself from the submerged and upturned vehicle, Kopechne died, her body being recovered from the car the next day. 

History has blurred the events of that terrible night into both fact and folklore - What is known is that Kennedy left the scene of the crash and then took 10 hours to report the incident to the police. What has never been confirmed are the circumstances surrounding why Kopechne, a young single woman who had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s Presidential campaign was alongside the (married) Senator in his car, nor whether there was any foul play surrounding her death. Kennedy was tried and found guilty, by his own admission, of “leaving the scene of a crash causing personal injury”, for which he was sentenced to a suspended two months jail term. The greater consequence of Chappaquiddick however was that his prospects of becoming President were effectively shattered.

Researched from the court transcripts and such information as was accessible, Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan have written a tight and convincing screenplay. Jason Clarke plays Kennedy, bringing an uncanny resemblance between the actor and his subject. The nuances of corruption and abuse of power are strong throughout the movie and there is well fleshed out work from Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan as Edward’s friends and confidantes Joseph Gargan (Kennedy’s first cousin) and Paul Markham. In a punchy, almost throwaway comment from Bob McNamara (Clancy Brown) a heavyweight fixer in the Kennedy campaign, he observes that the furore around Kopechne’s death has created a bigger political storm than 1961’s Bay of Pigs fiasco.

What has also been forgotten by many is that the death of Mary Jo Kopechne was to coincide, almost to the day, with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Curran has his movie play to this, with the scheming and machination of the Kennedy team as they strive to bury the news of the Senator’s crisis amidst the jubilation of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk proving to be a timelessly recognisable trait of our political class.

Kate Mara is the doomed Kopechne, immaculately capturing a complex role. The movie suggests neither sexual contact between Kopechne and Kennedy, nor that she was murdered. Rather, it leaves all avenues open to question, with Mara’s masterful performance proving critical to the intrigue. A neat cameo from the veteran Bruce Dern as the Kennedy boys’ father Joe Snr, defines the old man, wheelchair bound and with only months to live, as controlling and compelling. With minimal dialogue, Dern defines the dominating and profoundly disappointed paterfamilias.

As an observation, Hollywood’s allegiance to the Democrat cause is well established. While Tinseltown barely hesitated in picking over the political corpse of Richard Nixon (it only took 4 years for Watergate to be committed to celluloid in All The President’s Men) it has taken nigh on 50 years for producers to back Curran and offer up this take on Chappaquiddick. Moving to more recent times and it is nearly 18 years since Bill Clinton left the White House, making it all the more remarkable that there has yet to be a movie about the (unquestionably sensational) Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's subsequent impeachment. Clearly America's tentacles of power and influence continue to reach from sea to shining sea and against that backdrop, The Senator is indeed a brave and well crafted movie.

Available in DVD format and for digital download from the usual sources.

Friday 3 August 2018

Grindr The Opera - Review

Above The Stag Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and book by Erik Ransom
Directed by Andrew Beckett

The company of Grindr

In an ingenious conceit, Erik Ransom’s show embodies the Grindr app into a Mephistophelian being who wields a strange, yet credible power over all who engage with the software. It transpires that Ransom’s vision translates perfectly to musical theatre with this sung through “opera” proving to be one of the most refreshing examples of new writing to grace London’s stages in quite some time.

Four men interact with Grindr and strike up liaisons. Throughout, Grindr’s magnetic attraction (ultimately, addiction?) is never far from the surface, with Christian Lunn putting in a strong and perfectly sung performance as the human face of the infernally addictive app. 

The tale’s four Grindr users straddle the ages - ranging from 20-somethings through to mid-fifties - with a sprinkling of bisexuality in amongst the gay. The scenarios that play out appear credible and convincing and even if the play’s denouement is a belief-defying hokum it nonetheless ties the story into a very tight narrative.

The casting of the four (take a bow casting director Harry Blumenau) is immaculate. In decreasing order of age Dereck Walker, David Malcolm, Matthew Grove and William Spencer are, in equal measure, all on top form, with their respective arcs taking them through lust, passion, love, deceit and hypocrisy. The show’s comedy is perfectly delivered, while its pathos is painful. The libretto’s political digs against the Tory-right may be a bit cliched (even as this review is typed, a senior Labour politician cum washing machine salesman is still in the news over his drug-fuelled rent-boy antics) but the songs work, the rhymes are clever, the musical sources are many and the whole thing cracks along under the experienced baton of Aaron Clingham and his three piece band.

There are echoes here of Jerry Springer The Opera. Grand human designs played out to lyrics of utter filth and sometimes scorching wit. Running through most of August in Above The Stag’s new railway arch home (air conditioned and brilliantly laid out it must be said), Grindr - The Opera is great theatre!

Runs until 26th August
Photo credit: Gaz at PBG Studios