Friday, 20 December 2013

A Christmas Carol: That's My Cue at The Etcetera Theatre

The stage is very simple, the lighting basic and barely any set, just a couple of stools and a small table with some water. A few props which are unused, just for decoration. This production doesn't need anything else, the magic is provided entirely from the moment that Martin Prest begins to speak. The audience is completely transported to a Dickensian land when he opens as the narrator, speaking the words of a Christmas Carol from the version that he has adapted himself. 

As soon as he becomes Scrooge, you realise that this is going to be truly special. Most people know the story, Scrooge and humbug have entered the English language as synonyms for party poopers. But these words, as the actor says himself, were written to be read aloud. Dickens was a story teller and this is quite possibly the best piece of story telling that I have ever seen. The second he became Scrooge I was in hysterics, each character was carefully defined by voice, facial expressions, body language and movement. There were even such subtle character traits, the old Scrooge generally held his hands behind his back whereas the flashback to the younger Scrooge showed just one hand behind his back – a hint to the way that he was, the way that he had begun to change before he reached the point that he was at now. This level of attention to detail was evident throughout. 

The fact that he had adapted the script himself also enhanced the performance. There were certain lines that you could see he truly enjoyed delivering. The actor's enthusiasm and love of the performance was a pleasure to see and gave such energy to the performance. He went through over twenty characters in the course of an hour and it felt like five minutes. I laughed and I cried – and I know that sounds cliché but unfortunately that is just the truth. 

This is truly a magical piece of theatre which will transport you into the Christmas spirit whilst also leaving you in awe of such a talented actor. Children would be enraptured. You really don't want to miss this.

An easy ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

A Christmas Carol runs at TheEtcetera Theatre until the 21st December and at The King's Head on 22nd and 23rd December. There are matinee and evening performances. 

Martin Prest on Casting Call Pro  

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable: Punchdrunk at Temple Studios

I have been the only person following this suited man for the last minute or so. There is a long dark corridor, punctuated with spotlights which illuminate and hide him as he moves and I hurriedly walk behind him. He stops at a doorway, turns and inspects me, before taking my hand, pulling me into a dark room and locking the door behind us. He moves over to the light in the corner and turns it off.
I stand in the middle of this small room, surrounded by darkness, breath quickening as I wonder what might happen next. He takes out a torch and shines it into my eyes.
“Have you ever danced with a stranger in dark?” he asks. I shake my head – we are not allowed to speak. He switches off the torch and once again I am plunged into darkness. He takes my hand and puts it on his shoulder, the other on his waist. I feel him moving and we dance. I step on his toes, he doesn't flinch.
Suddenly, someone else enters the room, we hear them. He holds me close and I grip tightly. I still cannot see a thing. Then he moves me, and places my hands on someone elses. They are limp, they don't feel right, so I recoil. He tries again, he puts my hands onto someone elses chest. He is tall, I feel a woolly jumper. Once again I am dancing in the dark. Then he removes my mask and a light comes on. I am looking into the face of a total stranger. The light goes out and the door opens. The moment is over.

I am back in the warehouse that they call Temple Studios, the four floor elaborate set of Punchdrunk's new show The Drowned Man. I can go wherever I like, explore every room. There is a street, with a bar and shops, a fountain and benches. There are film sets of kitchens and locker rooms, there are bedrooms and dressing rooms and dark corners with shrines, all very dimly lit. As you wonder around, you come across the performers, the only ones without masks, they dance, they speak, they argue, they have sex, then when they are done, they disappear in different directions and you alone decide who you want to follow.

The concept of this immersive theatre experience is slickly executed, from the moment you step off the lift, you are in a different world, all on your own. The lighting is eerie and atmospheric, the music is deafening and grand, you are, quite simply, transported.

There are certainly moments of discomfort, feeling lost, disoriented, and the smell of one of the rooms became so overbearing for me that I had to escape as quickly as possible. In particular I loved the forest and the dressing table surrounded by mirrors.

Because of the nature of the idea, you can never see everything that is happening, you will follow some characters and miss others, you catch snippets of story but not all. I revelled in this to begin with, there is something very freeing about just going with your gut and feeling able to wander wherever you like in a safe space. Everywhere I looked there was a perfect image and I just wanted to have a camera with me and take pictures the whole way around.

For me, however, after an hour and a half or so of this, I began to tire of it a little. Because of the bitty nature of the storyline, I found that I was not invested enough in any of the characters to really want to know how it turned out at the end. I found that the full cast finale was a little incongruous with the feel of the rest of the experience, and also I felt that nothing could have topped the intensity of that moment in the darkened room.

Unfortunately, the feeling of boredom that overtook me towards the end seems to have cast a bit of a shadow over the whole evening for me. I was glad that I had obtained a half price ticket, I was glad to have experienced the show, but I am not sure that I would attend their next show. I might recommend it to people, but at the price of £39.50 per head, it would be rare. However I can appreciate that the cost and effort of pulling off such a high value production such as this means that it has to be expensive.

I would say that if you are interested in film, dance and not a usual theatre goer, this is probably the show for you. For me personally, I like a storyline that allows me to become invested in the characters, to care about what happens to them and my journey on this occasion did not allow me that privilege. That is not to say, however, that others who took a different path might not have had just that. Whatever you do, if you do go, heed their advice and go it alone.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable runs until 30th December, ticket prices vary from £19.50 to £85.00.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Same Deep Water As Me at The Donmar Warehouse

Upon a recommendation from the man who runs the local playwrighting group in Exeter, my friend, the playwright and I, the actor, went to see The Same Deep Water As Me. We are getting into a rhythm now, I cycle across town in rush hour traffic to queue up to buy the cheap day tickets, she will buy the expensive theatre-bar priced drinks at the interval. I duly cycled across town, arrived at the Donmar at 9am to find that there was no queue at all, so the day tickets were ours. At the Donmar, it seems that they only recently changed the system for day tickets and they are in fact for standing tickets, to stand at the back of the balcony. We don't mind, we just want to see as much good theatre as we can, tickets are bought.

So I was waiting outside the theatre for my friend, who was running late because she had only just finished work at ten to seven, and who should I see walk past me and into the theatre... but Niamh Cusack, of Radio 4's Ulysses which I listened to on podcast whilst walking laps barefoot around the field at Poltimore House during rehearsals for open air Shakespeare last year. Then, shortly after that... Kristin Scott Thomas, stealer of my heart and star of films such as Four Weddings and Il y a Longtemps Que Je T'aime. I started getting heart palpitations, I couldn't believe I was standing less than a meter from someone who just months ago I had been watching in Old Times at the Harold Pinter. Already, I was having the best night of my life, just knowing that I was going to be in the audience with such incredible actors. As if that wasn't good enough, when standing in our spot at the back of the theatre, one of the ushers came and offered us seats because a couple of people hadn't turned up – we got upgraded! As if to first class! We were sitting three seats away from Niamh and two rows from the side of the stage, a perfect spot.

The play opened with Nigel Lindsay (who I have just realised was in Four Lions, one of the best films ever made) and Daniel Mays (who I best know from Plus One, a short tv series in which he was a little over obsessed with Duncan from Blue). They were both solicitors in a personal injury firm. The play began with some incredibly witty and outright hilarious dialogue, the language was crude, there was lots of talk of Greggs and herbal teas and it was a reminder that offices now are not how they used to be, swearing is the norm, broken fans also, it reeked of realism and the humour came from that. The whole text was incredibly current, this was also what made it so funny, but at the same time, it made me realise how quickly this text will date. I realised that this was a show to watch and enjoy in the moment, rather than one to buy the script to take home and re-read.

Although the script was funny, the story line was getting serious, a school friend turned up, played by Marc Wootton, who had a proposition, they worked together to create situations in which a personal injury claim would arise, for example, a staged car bump with a supermarket delivery van, so that the supermarket would pay out compensation, settling out of court. The only problem was that one of the claims ends up going to court. There follows the court scene where the instigator and his pregnant wife have to testify to what happened when the Tesco van bumped into them, knowing full well that they were not actually in the car when it happened. Also giving a statement was the driver of the Tesco van, played perfectly by Isabella Laughland (who I recognised from Harry Potter, but is better known for roles at The National). The court scene, for me, was a little obvious and a little cliché, what followed with the argument in the office and the final scene was all, also, a little obvious. The writing was so witty and well delivered, that it maybe masked a slightly dull storyline. However the storyline did serve the purpose if the purpose was to create an entertaining play with a simple point, rather than one with a complex message. There is no law to say that theatre has to make you leave and discuss the big issues raised constantly for the next twenty four hours, I know I would do well to remember this sometimes!

A comment that my friend made was about the characters. There was a definite class divide and the play was perhaps a little judgemental of the working class characters. In fact, all of the characters had a slightly two dimensional feel. I don't think this was in the acting, I think the acting was very well delivered, I think the storyline and pace meant that there wasn't enough room to give the characters too many other dimensions. Again, was this really a problem? Maybe not, they were perfectly formed caricatures, slick, funny and real, whilst being recognisable as certain 'types' of people.

I absolutely loved the set. The office was fantastic, even down to the detail of having the lights in the ceiling at the back of the stage, and then hanging out in front so you really felt like the wall had just been cut away to let us in. Also the set of the court was spot on, down to the colour of the chairs and the musical interlude between scenes was upbeat and tension building whilst not being too noticeable, a very good choice.

The play was tackling a very big idea; the current compensation culture, people wanting to earn a quick buck easily. It was a magnifying glass on a very small part of a much larger culture, which, I would propose, also includes reality tv shows, kiss and tell magazine stories, baring skin and getting paid, buying a lottery ticket and making your millions, anything to avoid putting in hard graft. The play did bring up the morality of the situation, but other than one character saying it's bad, one saying it's ok and another being conflicted, it didn't delve particularly deep into the issue. But then maybe people in general don't really delve very deep into thinking about it, you either would get involved in it or you wouldn't, how many of us really think about every positive, negative and grey shade in between of every thing that we do?

What I liked about this piece was the realism, the fly on the wall style and the fact that, having worked in offices for many years, this was very true to life. That that was what made it enjoyable and outright hilarious at times, but I definitely preferred the first half.

Given the amount of times I laughed out loud and the buzz of the Friday night celebrity audience: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 

The Same Deep Water As Me ran at the Donmar Warehouse from 1st August to 28th September 2013.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

King Lear: Belarus Free Theatre at The Globe Theatre

Simply incredible. Rarely a show will have the full package of top notch acting, directing, creative ideas, atmosphere and soul, this production had it all, to the point where it is quite difficult to break it down and even begin to dissect why it blew me away.

I didn't know the storyline of King Lear, which raised a few eyebrows from the stewards who ushered me to my front row gallery seat which I had managed to get for free yesterday thanks to Spotlight. Surprised, because this show was performed in Belarusian and so I was unlikely to understand any of it at all. But the language barrier was no hindrance to my understanding of the play at all. There was a screen to the side of the stage which outlined the main plot summary of each scene and aside from that, it was surprisingly easy to follow. The physicality of performance meant that it was visually clear what was happening, but also the tone of voice and facial expressions gave all of the emotion that an audience member needed, it almost made me feel like I should always go to see theatre in different languages. Obviously, Shakespeare is renowned for his words, the poetic language, rhythms and puns and all of that would have been lost on me on this occasion, however, from my understanding, the translation into Belarusian kept the poetic nature of the text and it always felt melodic and lyrical.

One of the wonderful additions in this performance was the live music on stage, a piano, accordion and saxophone, and, of course, the power of singing which can be so electric when effectively used in a performance. When the daughters of King Lear initially declared their love for their father, they sang with a bluesy feel, as if in a jazz club, it made it seem modern and edgy, with slightly recognisable tunes but unknown words. However later, they used authentic Belarusian folk singing which was at times haunting and sent chills down my spine. It was similar to the choral singing that I saw in Teatr Zar's Essays On Suicide in Edinburgh in 2012 which was one of my favourite productions to date, the sound of the Eastern European language and the sound of that haunting singing just strikes me to my core. It is beautiful and wholly effective.

One of the musicians was the court's Fool, played by Chris Bone, who played the piano, saxophone and did some generally wonderful clowning around. I am not usually a fan of slapstick clowning but for some reason, in this, the fact that he was so English was at odds with the other cast members and the clowning seemed so authentically French that it just worked. He was totally engaging to watch. The other English speaking member of the cast was Michal Keyamo the King of France and the Announcer who I just loved. She had such a vibrant energy and looked like she was enjoying the performance as much as the audience enjoyed watching her.

However, to single these two out is almost unfair, because every single actor in this piece was perfect in their part. They were committed, they were in the moment, I believed every word that they said and act that they did, despite the minimal stage and lack of setting, they didn't need it, they were just there and I was transported to their world with them. The daughters looked crazy and edgy and beautiful, they were strong sexy women who were out to get what they wanted and totally rocked those fur coats and heels. Even Cordelia, the 'less evil' of the sisters, was out there and believable as a wild child. The side storyline of Edgar and Edmund slightly confused me at first as it felt like a completely separate story, but I came to love when Edgar was on stage. Aside from wondering if he had covered himself in real shit, when he played Poor Tom I was spellbound by his extravagant and camp performance.

The craziness of the world that they created meant that when King Lear descended into craziness himself it was believable and not contrived in the slightest, which I imagine could be a trap with this play. Aleh Sidorchyk was a radical and fairly young king, young at least to be giving his kingdom up, and his mourning of Cordelia was incredibly moving and allowed him to show so many changes in his character over the course of the play.

There was also some very clever directorial choices, the waltzes that were put in were perfect, always at moments where the characters were 'dancing around' a subject with the words and with their feet too. Also, the storm and the war, represented by the moving tarpaulin sheets, very effective, again with such minimal set.

This was a true example of how a big budget is not needed to make moving and educational theatre. This was Shakespeare in a modern world and is, I am going to say it, the best Shakespeare production that I have seen to date.

Definitely ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

King Lear is on at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London, for only two more performances: Friday 27th September 2013 at 7.30pm and Saturday 28th September 2013 at 2.00pm.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Vic

When I got on the bus afterwards there was a couple sitting next to me who had also just seen the play. They were discussing an email that the girl had received from her boss, not the play. That, to me, summed it up.

There are a number of people that I know, who would have considered this production to be almost perfect. It was clean and tidy, the costumes were nice, the acting was competent, it made sense out of Shakespeare and there was a dancing curtain call.
I, however, would have to agree with the title, in that any hype surrounding this play could only be much ado about nothing.

There was a slow start, I struggled to get into the story, it all seemed very general, very bland, very beige, from the set to the costumes to the acting. There were some nice 'pictures' set up, by that I mean if someone was to take a camera shot at the set at any one time the actors would be neatly balanced and it would look really quite good. But the whole production was rather two dimensional and completely lacking in soul or heart. I found myself watching scene changes and background acting avidly, most likely because the main scenes were just too boring.

There were some highlights however. I absolutely loved the song, performed by Kingsley Ben-Adir as Borachio. I am always a fan of the harmonica and the blues and this song was beautifully and hauntingly sang and amusingly accompanied by the ukelele. The dancing in the background, however, was far too distracting from what I considered to be the best moment of the play. We should have been given permission to enjoy that song without slapstick being thrown all over it.

The children also were a highlight whenever they appeared, but particularly at the start of the second half when we see them sitting, facing away from us towards the police officer. Some fantastic comic timing from Katherine Carlton as Beryl made me laugh out loud. I also liked the physicality of Beth Cooke who played Hero, particularly in the scene where her and the nurse were trimming the hedges and talking about Benedick's love for Beatrice. This was one of the better scenes, but again, it was a good scene in the old fashioned sense of a good play, my old drama teacher would have loved it, as would my grandparents. For me it was still lacking something.

I started to wonder if it was the subject matter that was causing me disinterest. As a Shakespeare comedy, much of the humour comes from hiding and overhearing and mistaken identities and I started to wonder if these were types of humour that are no longer relevant to a modern audience. I find it hard to suspend disbelief in these situations – just because someone wears a mask does not mean that you cannot recognise who it is. But then if the production was given more meaning, a more specific context and a bit more oomph, it should be made as relevant to a modern audience as a Jacobean one. 

I haven't even mentioned the lead actors, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. I have seen a couple of films recently with Vanessa Redgrave, Blow Up and Trojan Women, both of which were superb, so I had very high hopes to see her perform at this stage in her career. I found her to be engaging to watch, her voice carried well up to the top circle and she had a nice spirit about her. It was all a bit 'safe' and for her generation, which is great for those viewers, just not so inspiring for me. As for James Earl Jones, I am aware of his accolades, however I spent many of his speeches worrying that he would not make it through. It was clear that he and Vanessa had a lovely friendship between them, it was just unfortunate that this was a little too obvious.

In all I found this production to be bland, confusing in context and lacking in anything that truly sparked my interest. I am sure that these actors are good but this production just did not show them at their best. I have been dying to see the Joss Whedon film of this play which had more excitement in the trailer as this show had in the full play. I would recommend this if you want to take your grandparents to a play that is safe and nice and beige. I would not recommend this as a play that will add anything new to your life.

With apologies... ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ 

Much Ado About Nothing runs at The Old Vic, London until 30th November 2013.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Chimerica: Headlong at The Harold Pinter Theatre

I saw this performance at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London on Tuesday 10th September 2013 at 7.30pm.

It was my first time cycling in rush hour traffic in London, I set off at 8am to make sure that I could get in the queue at the Harold Pinter by 9am, so that I could get two £10 day tickets for my friend and I to see Chimerica that night. I cycled through Victoria Park and along Regents Canal before joining the CS3 cycle superhighway and heading to Charing Cross. The roads were busy, the cycle paths were busy. My general cycle pace is fast, I was trying to overtake slower commuters but then had to keep stopping to check my map to make sure I was going in the right direction so they inevitably caught up and overtook me so I was stuck behind them again. But no matter, I was on a mission and I was on time. I pulled up at the Harold Pinter, saw that there were only four people in the queue so far and locked up my bike around the corner. I walked over to stand in the queue and then opened my bag to pull out my book... which, in my mad dash to leave by 8am and not forget both the D-lock and curly lock for my bike, I had forgotten. That meant I had one hour to stand in the queue, with no book to read and not wanting to use my phone and drain the battery, for fear that I would not have the Google Maps function to see me home. Damn.

My first thought was to find the closest newsagent and pick up a copy of the i, but what if someone then came and took my spot in the queue and then I couldn't get a ticket? No, I had made the rookie mistake, I had to live with it. I stood in the queue and decided to just enjoy the atmosphere of London and do you know what? I did. The sounds, the people, the cold air on my sweaty-from-cycling back, I was lapping it up, because this was my second week in the big smoke and I was just thankful to be there. When a truck turned up in front of the theatre with the words 'Food Supplies' on it, I asked the guy in the queue next to me if he thought they were maybe supplying us all with bacon sandwiches and coffee while we stood in the queue. A little laughter and then a long discussion about how to be an actor in London ensued and before I knew it, the box office was open and my tickets were being booked.

I asked the box office employee if he had seen the show, he said he had, I asked him what he had thought of it, he looked at me from behind his glass partition and he said 'Spectacular', then handed me two tickets for the front row. We were in business.

The set consisted of a large cube which took up most of the stage and rotated. The existence of the cube enabled projections onto the outside of it, of images, backgrounds and the like, but there were also sets set up within it, so the rotation could move you from one flat to another, from China to New York. When it rotated, people would walk past, or stand and be moved, all to create the setting of the next scene. The result was the most cinematic experience I have ever seen in a theatre, it enabled all those quick scene-setting images that films can use, to locate and contextualise the next scene of the play. It was used to great effect.

The play followed the journey of Joe the American photojournalist who had taken a photograph of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. Joe returns to China many years later and learns that the 'tank man' is still alive, it then becomes his mission to find him.

This mission overtakes Joe's life, to the point where all of the other surrounding characters who had been helping him in some way, seem (to him) to become obstacles to his goal. His boss Frank (Trevor Cooper), his friend and colleague Mel (Sean Gilder) and his love interest Tessa (Claudie Blakley) but most upsettingly his friend Zhang Lin (Benedict Wong). One by one, he alienates himself from them, all in pursuit of his goal.

This play addresses many issues and does so with witty dialogue, clever direction and superb acting.

One of my favourite scenes is Act Three, Scene Two, where Joe meets in Washington Square Gardens with his boss and colleague while they discuss the fact that Frank wants Joe to drop the story. The order has come from above in relation to strategic planning for the company that owns the paper, wanting to open up into the Chinese market. Frank is carrying out the orders, afraid for his job when he has a son with leukaemia and mounting hospital bills. There are so many important issues raised in this scene, about censorship, free press, bias of the media and reporting matters of public interest, versus the individual's need for a job, a wage, their personal circumstances massively affecting how they may react and behave to the bigger issues.

There are also some very well depicted relationships within the story. The heart wrenching one is that of Zhang Lin and Liuli. To describe this in detail would ruin the story for anyone who has not yet scene it, suffice to say that their performance, their story, even the hallucinations, are all performed to perfection to provide the most subtly beautiful love story that I would consider to be the heart of the play. 

For me there were just a couple of loose ends tied up at the end that I did not think really worked. Again, not wanting to give any spoilers, but the condition that Tess is in in the last scene that her and Joe meet, seemed a little contrived, obvious, unnecessary really, I think their relationship was worth more than that. She had felt that she couldn't be with him while he cared more about the bigger issues and not enough about her. This is something that they never really dealt with and perhaps would have been too big to deal with in the end of the play, but I feel that the resolution here was not the right one and would have rather this was left more open-ended perhaps.

I feel similar about the 'twist', as it were, with the tank man's identity. I feel that the earlier revelation about Pengsi and his brother, that should have been the real twist, the real ending to that part of the story – who was the real hero? I prefer that as a final thought, to the thought that you might be searching for something that was under your nose all along.

However my mentioning of these two little things by no means tainted the production for me. I felt that the play, in its entirety, was simply incredible. Having been to playwriting workshops over the last couple of years, I find it very hard to watch a play and not dissect the writing and structure completely. In this play, the direction and acting was to such a high standard that I was immersed in the world from the second it started until long after the play ended. I have been dipping in and out of the script ever since, reminding myself of scenes, re-hashing what happened in my mind. This was an incredible production and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to see good professional theatre and new writing at its best, I will certainly be on the lookout for more writing from Lucy Kirkwood in the future.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Chimerica runs at the Harold Pinter, London, until the 19th October 2013.