13 April 2018

A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lyric Hammersmith was hilarious

Two years ago I was tempted to see this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Lyric Hammersmith and loved it so when it came back for a couple of warm up dates before a national tour I was tempted to see it again. My Circle Seat A22 was just three away from where I had been the first time and, remarkably, at £21 was about £14 cheaper.

I had remembered some of the main themes, like the ones given away in the poster of Oberon in a superhero outfit bursting through a wall, and some of the detail but I had forgotten just how funny it was. Obviously I knew that it was going to be funny, that is why I went, but it was much funnier than I remembered and I was laughing almost all the way through.

That started with the announcer who did a stand-up comedy routine to introduce the show with lines like, "I hope that you all have a good night. Not this one, obviously, but one day." He set the tome for the evening and was an excellent warm up session for what followed.

What followed was a Shakespeare / Pantomime mash-up. A lot of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was in there, including a lot of the original language, to which the pantomime added slap-stick, music and some topical jokes. The Shakespeare element was also there in the acting which was excellent all-round and I particularly enjoyed the way the characters interacted when they were not the centre of attention.

And the food fight was just brilliant.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was a cunning combination of culture and comedy.

7 April 2018

The Cherry Orchard at Union Theatre was sharp and satisfying

I am doing a pretty good job at seeing (almost) every Chekhov production in London even if it takes a bit of juggling to do so. To see The Cherry Orchard at Union Theatre I had to go into London on the weekend, a Saturday, and that was to catch the final performance.

I still think that Union Theatre undercharges a little and a ticket price of £22.50 meant a very full house. I was sitting in the front row, as always, so could not tell if it was completely full but it looked pretty close.

I had made something of a day of it in London going to Barbican Theatre for a matinee before walking down to Union Theatre in Southwark, taking in a visit to a Paul cafe and PokemonGo Raid along the way. The Millennium Bridge was ridiculously busy and needs widening.

I got to Union Theatre around 6pm and comforted myself with a pint of Kozel while waiting for the Box Office to open at 6:30pm. Once I had claimed my Batch 1 token I went to Culture Grub for my usual Szechuan style vegetable curry, returning to the theatre in good time to be at the front of the queue, i.e. to be number one not just one of the first ten.

The staging surprised me a little because in the first two shows in this series of three there had been stairs up on either side of the stage but this time is was set conventionally. And neatly. It just oozed faded Russian country house.

I had seen Cherry Orchard a few times, and as recently as the year before, and while I would not claim to be anything like word-perfect I did quickly spot a significant difference. Admittedly if I had looked at the poster I might have been less surprised.

This Cherry Orchard, written in 1903, was moved forward a few years to 1917 and the Russian Revolution. This added to the existing theme in the play where the landed gentry were losing out to the new merchant class. The Revolution took this redistribution of land a stage further. I think it worked well; The Cherry Orchard is partially a political play and to ignore the Revolution (which Chekhov obviously did not know was coming) left this thread effectively unfinished.

The rest of The Cherry Orchard is about the large cast of characters, their reactions (or lack of them) to the political situation and to each other and this Cherry Orchard covered this supremely. I got very frustrated with the people refusing to recognise what was about to happen to them, happy for the people who were unbowed by the changes and tearful for the couple who never quite came together. The non-proposal scene was the most poignant in the play.

Judging by the running time, something just under two hours with an interval, quite a bit had been cut here and there (much to the confusion of the man next to me trying to follow the script in Chinese) but Chekhov can be wordy and cutting a theme or two makes little difference to the totality of the play.

The ending was familiar enough though the thing that happens happened to another person. That change worked well too.

This was a very delightful and enjoyable version of The Cherry Orchard made sharper by its slight but significant shift in time.

Coraline at Barbican Theatre

I have no idea where the idea to turn Neil Gaiman's children's book Coraline into a opera came from but it was an interesting one, especially as the music was written by Mark-Anthony Turnage.

I was interested enough to fork out £37.50 for Seat A32 in the Circle. That interest came mostly from Neil Gaiman though I had only seen the film and had not read the book; I had read other books and shed-loads of comics. I was interested to hear Mark-Anthony Turnage's music too.

The timing of the performance meant that I had to have lunch at Barbican Kitchen and a sandwich with a coffee did the trick. I was a little worried but not surprised to see so many children around. I was worried that either they were in the wrong show and would be rowdy or I would be in the wrong show and would be bored. I was relying on the description "opera' rather than "musical" to give it a serious edge. I would probably not have gone to see a Coraline musical.

Somehow we were both right and Coraline managed to keep both the children and the grown-ups engaged. I cannot possibly comment on what children thought of the show (apart from the young girl who was screaming in terror in the interval that she wanted to go home) but I will try and describe how I felt about it.

I loved Coraline.

Firstly it was a proper opera that made little or no concessions to the children other than being a story that I presume they were all familiar with. All of the words were sung and there were no sur-titles to check against. Fortunately all of the singers were absolutely clear and could be understood perfectly. That is not always true for operas sung in English.

The music was modern without being experimental, and it sounded like an opera and nothing like a musical. The set was child-friendly but then Coraline is a child so that was fair. It also did some clever things as it became one room then another with doors to move between them.

And, of course, the story was a good one. I had forgotten the details of the story so I was interested to see what happened too. It was told in a mature way, as all the best children's stories are, and there was a genuine sense of menace about it; that girl was terrified for a reason.

At the heart of it all were Coraline and her two mothers and the both sang beautifully.

Coraline the opera knew what it was doing and did it all very well. 

6 April 2018

Lovebites at White Bear Theatre was pure gold

White Bear Theatre is one of my nearest theatres and thanks to its inventive and varied programming it is one of the ones that I go to most regularly. I had not seen a musical there before and it took the suggestion of something “hilarious and heartbreaking” to make me want to see Lovebites. At £16 there was no further discussion required.

The hard part proved to be getting there. Despite putting it my calendar correctly as a 7pm start I then forgot this and allowed myself to attend a work meeting that did not finish until 6pm (on a Friday!). Some panicking followed but thanks to some seriously brisk walking from Vauxhall station I got to the theatre with seconds to spare.

I called Lovebites a musical and while that is true it also called itself a song cycle which is more true. Lovebites told the story of several relationships in a series of songs; there was one song for each relationship showing how it started and another after the interval showing how it ended. There were no spoken words.

The many parts were played by a cast of just four, two men and two women, supported by a lone pianist. A small platform from which some lovely stories flourished.

There was a good mix to the stories too; a young woman pretended to be into rock climbing to be with a man she fancied only to confess to us that she could barely walk, two young men met at a book club, a film star hooked up with an air stewardess on a flight, a man fell in love with a woman on the day she married his boss, one woman bought a flower for the woman who owned the flower shop, and a woman did something deeply embarrassing after a one-night stand that she wanted to build on.

After the interval some of the relationships flourished, some faded, some died, one had a surprise happy ending and another had a very surprising happy ending. The stories were varied in tone and the "hilarious and heartbreaking" clam was easily justified. I would also add "charming" for the stories that ended somewhere between those two extremes and "realistic" too as these were very human stories not rom-com fantasies.

All of the songs worked well both as vehicles to tell the stories and as works of music in their own right.

Lovebites was an unusual and unexpected show that delighted me in everything that it did. It was pure gold.

27 March 2018

Moonfleece at Pleasance Theatre was perfect

The Pleasance Theatre is hidden in a yet to be gentrified area of London just of the Caledonian Road which I had walked past a few times when based at Kings Place (back in the days or extensive walks during extended lunch breaks) but which I had not signed up to. Then my Google Alert for "Ridley theatre London" alerted me to the pending arrival of Moonfleece and I subscribed to their newsletter.

A couple of months later and I was on the Piccadilly Line to Caledonian Road. My research earlier in the day informed me that the theatre was above a pub, The Depot (appropriately named from  its recent use), which boaster a gastro menu, that is one without pound signs and big numbers with no decimal points in them. My Fiorentina Pizza cost 10 and took over half an hour to arrive but was delicious.

Front of house at Pleasance surprised me. There was a decent bar and generous seating which excelled those of some more mainstream theatres I frequent (no names!). I had had one pint with my food in the pub so I settled for an ice cream, also taking into account that there was not going to be an interval.

I waited casually at the bottom of the stairs and was the first person into the smaller of their two performance spaces (they will soon have a third) and claimed a seat in the middle of one of the two front rows facing each other. That seat cost me 17, a bargain in anybody's book.

In between those seats was a simple room in something of a mess. It was quickly established that this was an empty flat on the top (21st) floor of a Council block. Squatting in it was a young woman and making their dramatic entrance by smashing the door down were two young men in identical grey suits and red ties who were working for Avalon an alt-right party campaigning in local elections.

The situation got as messy as the room soon afterwards as an Avalon leader arrived soon followed by an ex-girlfriend, her current girlfriend, a massively camp journalist and a psychic librarian in a wheelchair, followed later by another alt-right leader (step brother to the first), his Towie wife and, finally, the first woman's boyfriend and street storyteller.

With that mix lots of things could happen and lots of things did.

The play started as a confrontation between the alt-right young men and the young female for foreign squatter. Sparks flew and the young woman gave as good as she got. One of the Avalon team was very pit-bullish and was a good source of humour.

Gradually the story changed to being about the Avalon leader and then about his real brother, the one in the Moonfleece jacket. There were other stories bubbling around arising from the various partially shared histories of the many characters. Finally it was the story teller who brought things to a close by revealing some unpleasant truths in a powerful improvised story.

Moonfleece had lots of familiar Ridley elements and reminded me most of Piranha Heights (piranhas got a passing mention) and Ghost from a Perfect Place. It was deeply East London in geography and feel, had people trying to make sense of the past, had significant elements of myth and was very strange yet close enough to reality to be believable. Ridley's plays manage to be complex, engaging, fantastical and relevant all at the same time. I find them an immensely rewarding experience,

Because of this Philip Ridley is one of my absolutely favourite playwrights, which is why I have that Google Alert set up, and so I was always likely to enjoy Moonfleece. I enjoyed it even more thanks to the excellent cast, all ten of whom were spot on in capturing their characters, and the staging that set the scene precisely.

This production of Moonfleece was perfect.

24 March 2018

Yes at London Palladium

The t-shirt that I wore this evening confirm that it was four years since I first saw Yes in concert, then it was at Albert Hall. I had seen them once since then, also at Albert Hall, and also Steve Howe doing a solo gig just across the water in Teddington. I was hooked and so when they announced that they were playing at London Palladium to celebrate 50 years of their music I was keen to see them again.

Unfortunately, so were lots of other people and by the time that I got online there were no decent tickets left. Then they announced a second night and I was in quickly. Even so the price was bit of a deterrent and I settled for the top layer, Upper Circle, where seat A27 cost me £54.

That proved to be a bargain as I was right in the centre and though I was warned about the safety rail that had no impact on my view, as this photo shows.

It would not really have mattered what Yes played it was always going to be a good evening and including large chunks of Tales From Topographic Oceans merely lifted the excellent to the sublime. But let's start at the beginning.

The show opened with two solid classics from the early years, Yours Is No Disgrace and I've Seen All Good People, both from 1971 and The Yes Album. It was one helluva way to open a concert and set the marker for the evening. They were followed by songs from other early albums like Fragile and Close to the edge before treating us to Wondrous Stories and Parallels from 1976's Going for the One, the final album from the classic period. The first part ended with a return to Close to the Edge and And You and I. It had been about an hour and a lovely hour it was too.

After a short break Yes were back for Sides 1 and 4 of Tales from 1973's masterpiece Tales From Topographic Oceans. They were joyous beyond belief and despite being very familiar were fresh and exciting. If not for the perilous drop to the stalls I would have been tempted to dance.

Yes had been playing with a session drummer and then in the chaotic session in Side 4, Ritual (Nous sommes du soleil), they swapped and brought on Alan White to loud cheers which he repaid with an impressive drum solo.

The second set ended all to quickly but Yes returned for an extended encore that started with a surprise. Trevor Horn joined the band on vocals for Tempus Fugit from 1980's Drama.

Finally it was back to two solid gold classics, a lengthy version of Roundabout followed by Starship Trooper.

Yes had played from 8pm to approaching 11pm with one short and one minuscule break making it over two hours of scintillating music. I expected Yes to be good and they were much better than that. This was a simply astonish concert that started high and stayed there.

20 March 2018

Vincent River at Park Theatre was riveting

There was a rush of Philip Ridley plays early last year and then again this. Vincent River was one of three different Philip Ridley plays on across London in just a few weeks. I would have gone to see this wherever it was on and being at Park Theatre, one of my regular haunts, just made things like travel and easting easier.

I eagerly forked out my £14.50 for a seat. I presume that was a preview price as it was ridiculously cheap. It was the first night of the run but that was just a co-incidence and was chosen because it was about the only free evening I had during the run.

I also forked out £12 for Park Theatre's new Pizza and Drink deal to make the food even easier. That sort of worked but as a vegetarian I only had two choices of pizza and one of those would have been cheaper to buy without going for the deal. The London Bohemia Lager was nice.

The main show started at 7:30 and keen to secure a good seat that is when I joined the queue for Vincent River. There was only one person in front of me in the queue and, not unexpectedly, he was another Ridley fan. We both claimed seats in the front row.

We were in a slightly dishevelled living room, not unlike that for Killing Time. In the room was, Anita, Louise Jameson in an aggressive red wig. There was a knock on the door and in came Davey (Thomas Mahy), a young lad who moved nervously and continuously.

For the next hour or so we watched as the couple sparred with each other. There was a reason that Davey was there and Anita knew it. There was also a reason why Anita had moved into a new flat.

As they sparred the emotions grew in intensity and in direction. Davey threatened to walked out at times, was told to go at others and they also shared drinks, drugs and a few kisses. As the emotions waxed and waned it was hard to predict how it would all end though I was not expecting many laughs.

Their conversations also uncovered more about their shared past, and why their pasts were shared, and it was the typical Ridley unravelling of layers to expose the raw truth. That truth hit in a recollection of a bus journey that Davey had taken and that changed the whole narrative.

As the play drew to its conclusion it became more of a monologue as Davey described the pivotal events that had brought the two together. It was powerful stuff.

Vincent River was the most normal Ridley play that I had seen. Yes it had dark secrets that were finally exposed but there was no fantasy in the story and no strange characters to explore. It was a simple dark believable story told the Ridley way and that made it magical.

This was the first night and afterwards Philip Ridley disappeared back stage with his notes which meant that I had no chance to bump into the cast afterwards. I made up for that a few days later when I was back at Park Theatre for another play, A Passage to India, on the press night for Vincent River and was able to have a very quick congratulatory word with Thomas Mahy then. 

16 March 2018

Summer and Smoke at Almeida Theatre was beautiful

I had one simple reason for wanting to see Summer and Smoke and that was Tennessee Williams wrote it. Almeida Theatre is awkwardly situated half way between Angel and Highbury Islington so it takes something a bit special to get me there.

The layout of the theatre had been slightly different every time that I had been there so I was not sure where to book my seat. I was a little late so some of the options were taken from me. In the end I chose Circle A29 for a humble £32. I had not been on that side of the theatre before and the seat proved to be reasonable and there were only a few moment when the action took place out of site below me.

I loved the stage from the moment I took my seat. The centre was bare, apart from a old style microphone in the centre, it was ringer with pianos and the brick wall at the back of the stage was harshly lit to show every facet of its uneven surface.

The simplicity was maintained throughout the play with the only props allowed to make an appearance being some chairs, a few white pills and a child's jigsaw puzzle. I like simplicity.

I like music and light when they help a performance too and they both did here. The pianos were put to effective use at select moments throughout the evening in both quiet and noisy moments and the lighting change subtly, almost imperceptibly, to encourage the mood.

The centre of the stage was dominated by Alma and John and their story. They were neighbours with little in common, she was a nervous preacher's daughter with no expectations and the was a brash doctor's son who was expected to become a doctor too. Disturbing their story were their families and a few friends.

I thought that it was a nice touch to have some of the cast play multiple similar roles without changing their costumers; one actor played their two fathers and another played three of John's girlfriends.

It was a coming of age story, of sorts, filled with the loves, lusts and mistakes that we all make at that age. There were some moments of humour, sadness and anger and even more of acute embarrassment.

The pacing was superb too and I particularly liked the long slow scenes where little, if anything was said.

All that was very good but was as nothing to the performance of Patsy Ferran as Alma. She dominated the stage for two and a half hours with her touching performance that was packed full of little gestures and expressions. She was stunning and an obvious star in the making.

Summer and Smoke brought all the elements of theatre-craft together and made something quite beautiful.