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Sunday, January 10, 2010


artSMart reviewer Maurice Kort talks about the Theatre Scene in London and New York (Part 1 deals with London)

During October and November last year I spent a fortnight in London followed by eight days in New York during which time I managed to see 19 and 13 shows, respectively. These might not have been the best or most popular, as these might often have been seen on previous trips to the West End and Broadway where shows run for many years, even decades. There is a big interchange of big shows between New York and London, originating in both cities, and films continue to be a great source of very successful stage musicals and plays. Shining examples of the former are Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Sister Act and notable amongst the latter are Calendar Girls, The Shawshank Redemption and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, not forgetting Shrek – the Musical playing to packed houses, deservedly so, on Broadway.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has been imaginatively transformed into the stage musical with Jason Donovan, who is now a Londoner, as Tick (Mitzi). Accompanied by Tony Sheldon as Bernadette the role played so well by Terence Stamp in the film, and Oliver Thornton as Adam (Felecia), the three drag artists trek across Australia from Downtown Sydney to Alice Springs to look after the hotel run by his ex-wife and spend quality time with his young son. The bus in which they travel takes up most of the large Palace Theatre stage and is a work of art. So are the magnificent costumes, as would be expected from drag artists. Many of the events of the film are nicely re-enacted in the stage musical which is a great evening’s entertainment.

Sister Act is another well-adapted film to stage with new songs and a great find in Patina Miller as the second class nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier who is hidden in a convent after witnessing a murder by her gangster boyfriend. Veteran actress Sheila Hancock contributes much class to the role of the Mother Superior. Magnificent sets, a slick production and the good story line of the film make this the popular hit that it is. Suspend belief slightly though that the nuns can sing and dance so well in the earlier numbers before Deloris has been able to mould them into the contest winning group of the show.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice tells the story of the painfully shy Little Voice (LV) who seeks refuge from her overpowering mother in her late father’s record collection of great female artists, singing along with the records. This comes to the attention of one of her mother’s boyfriends, a wannabe impresario. Also involved are a next-door neighbour, Sadie, who keeps popping in, a very amusing performance by Rachel Lumberg, and Billie, the Phone Man, who is in love with Little Voice. There are amazing set changes to accommodate the split-level home, the exterior of LV’s upstairs bedroom and the nightclub where LV delivers great impersonations of Dusty Springfield, Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Marianne Faithful, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey. Although not a big lavish musical, it had me enthralled from beginning to end.

Jersey Boys, a transfer from Broadway, is the story of Frankie Vallie who with Tommy deVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi made up the Four Seasons. Many of their greatest hits are featured but what lifts this from a tribute show to an entertaining event is the dramatic content of the highs and lows of their climb to fame and once there. No punches are pulled and much is shown, warts and all.

I had seen Avenue Q in New York in 2004 and in London in 2007 but took the opportunity of seeing it again, partly because it was the only Friday evening performance of a show that would allow me time to see a later show as well. It just becomes more and more enjoyable with each viewing and has lost none of its sparkle. The action takes place in front of an apartment block on Avenue Q, in a not-too salubrious New York City neighbourhood, the various doors and windows opening to reveal the cast, although most of the action takes place in front of the block. The cast are glove puppets, from the waist up and they are handled by a cast of six plus Edward Baruwa as Gary Coleman, yes indeed, the diminutive African American child actor, now an adult, and the butt of many very clever running jokes. The puppet handlers are completely visible, and there is much singing and dancing by the puppets and the live cast, and even a hilarious simulated sex scene by two of the puppets. Much clever use is made of superb video projection and the songs are brilliant; very catchy, contemporary and biting. Each of the puppets has his or her own character, beautifully delineated and a very clever story line is weaved into the action. Life’s hard lessons are learnt by the people, puppets and monsters as they attempt to scrape by and survive adulthood and the trials and tribulations of life. It is great fun and thoroughly entertaining.

Dreamboats and Petticoats is a nostalgic blast from the past featuring many of the songs of the 1960s and a young, talented cast although the story line is rather thin and rather predictable but the youthfulness and exuberance of the cast make up for it. The most is made of the simple set to accommodate the various scenes and locales.

It was well worth it to experience the splendour of the full two act opera The Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten by the English National Opera at the Coliseum, London, albeit performed by a small cast. It is, of course, based on the celebrated ghost story by Henry James and the appearances of Peter Quint, a former man-servant, and Miss Jessel, a former governess, were suitably eerie, as was the behaviour of Miles and Flora, the two children. However I don’t think the open-ended wings and set contributed to the mystery but then, the music and the singing are what are important.

Staging Breakfast at Tiffany’s after the film starring Audrey Hepburn would be a hard act to follow but the play sticks more closely to the original story by Truman Capote. This new play adapted by Samuel Adamson and directed by Sean Mathias from the novel is therefore not a stage version of the movie. The set consists mainly of two large fire escapes and there is a Manhattan skyline backdrop, with the action revolving around these, not the more lavish sets one would expect from a West End production. The flighty Holly Golightly and the Southern writer William Parsons completely infatuated with her are supported by a large cast. Mercifully the neighbour Mr Yunoshi was not the embarrassing Mickey Rooney of the film. It was very interesting to see the novel brought to life on the stage.

Calendar Girls, based on the film of the same name, originated when a group of ladies at a Women’s Institute in Yorkshire decided to bring out a calendar featuring some of the members in tasteful nude poses to raise funds for a hospice when the husband of one of them succumbed to cancer. The phenomenal success of the calendar has resulted in raising nearly £2 million for Leukemia research as well as a very popular film and now a great West End play. The events leading to the idea of the calendar, photographing the 12 pages and the subsequent events are faithfully recreated. One would imagine that it would be difficult to depict the nude scenes tastefully on stage without the use of the judicious camera angles of the film but this is accomplished by the similar placement of various props such as those used for baking, making marmalade or Christmas.

The Shawshank Redemption, based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption has become a much-loved popular film and it was perhaps inevitable that it would one day make its way to the stage. This has now been achieved by Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns in a riveting production which has many of the elements of the book although those additional aspects in the film could not be used, apparently because of copyright restrictions. Nevertheless, it is all there and the storyline is very easily followed, but then I know the film so well. Kevin Anderson as Andy Dufresne, the man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, and Reg E Cathey as Red, the long term prisoner, are well cast, being very reminiscent of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, respectively. The roles are so convincingly performed that the fellow convicts who gave Andy such a hard time early in the play were heartily booed during the curtain call.

For more serious theatre, one can always rely on the National Theatre which offered Our Class, Mother Courage and her Children, The Power of Yes and Pains of Youth.

Our Class refers to a classroom in Poland in the 1920s where Jews and Catholics are integrated – until the late 1930’s when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and the Jews are relegated to the back of the class. As the play progresses, one is exposed to more and more anti-Semitism and hatred culminating in the 1941 massacre of Jews burnt alive in a church in Jedwabne. The fate of the members of the class, Jews and Catholics, over the decades is portrayed in this gripping, albeit harrowing, version by Ryan Craig of the play, written by Tadeusz Slobodzianek. Performed in the round in the Cottesloe Theatre, with a bare minimum of props, only the chairs in the classroom at the start of the play, and the actors sitting around the performance area when not involved in the action, makes a very effective scenario.

Mother Courage and her Children by Bertold Brecht, as translated by Tony Kushner, is performed on the large stage of the Olivier Theatre with many stage-hands and technicians milling around ostensibly setting the stage while the audience arrives and at other times, not necessarily working for me. During the play Fiona Shaw as Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) drags her large cart, from where she sells her wares. In this way she tries to support her three children and protect them from the war raging about her, pretty unsuccessfully. There is much incidental music and singing by the dreadlocked Duke Special which also didn’t do much for me. One has to like, and appreciate, Brecht to enjoy his plays and this production is something very different.

The Power of Yes is a very timeous play written by David Hare in which the dramatist seeks to understand the recent global financial crisis. Anthony Calf, as the author David Hare, heads a large cast which includes an academic, hedge fund managers, journalists, bankers and others involved in finance who drift in and out and give their views on the debacle and answer the author’s questions. Much use is made of relevant projections. It is not therefore a play in the usual sense of the word but poses many questions, not all necessarily answered.

Pains of Youth by Ferdinand Bruckner, in a new version by Martin Crimp, is set in Vienna 1923 in a room of a boarding house occupied by young medical students. The dominance over them by the sinister manipulating Freder and their sexual exploits and neuroses epitomise the selfishness of youth.

War Horse, also a product of the National Theatre where is was first produced in 2007, has been revived at the New London Theatre, the venue taken over by the long running 23 years of Cats. This play is about an entirely different animal based as it is on the novel by Michael Morurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford, about the use of horses in the First World War. These horses were made by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company, originally from Cape Town, and they make one’s heart swell with pride at being a South African. Made from bamboo, wood and metal and operated by two men inside and a handler to control the head and movements and who also supplies the sound effects, the puppets are indeed works of art and are so lifelike one forgets they are puppets. The play starts with the horse, Joey, as a foal (a smaller puppet) bought at an auction by Albert’s father to outbid a rival. Albert trains the horse which is then depicted by a very large puppet. Joey is enlisted by the army and Albert conceals his young age to enlist to try to find his horse. The horrors of war, where not only 10 million humans paid the price, but 8 million horses also died are vividly depicted. There are several other horses, notably the majestic Tophorn, the Captain’s horse. Equally captivating is an animated goose propelled by a small wheel and a crow which pecks at a dead soldier’s eyes so realistically. The play is more than worth the admission price.

Less enjoyable was End Game, Samuel Becket’s parable of human fate in a world where everything is running out – including painkillers. The blind Hamm (Mark Rylance) is wheelchair-bound, his father Nagg (Tom Hickey) and mother Nell (Miriam Margolyes) pop out periodically from their dustbins and Clov (Simon McBurney), his crippled servant, shuffles slowly around the stage.

More intriguing was Speaking in Tongues, a four-hander in which the actors take multiple roles. The play starts with two couples in the same motel room with each husband intent on having an adulterous one night stand with the other’s wife. The dialogues take place simultaneously and alternately, so the audience has to concentrate. The play continues with each couple in their own home relating different events, in one the wife tells her husband about a woman’s shoe and in the other the husband tells his wife about a man’s brogues found on the beach. All these loose ends, and the actors portraying different characters in the second half, prove to be interrelated and even though all are speaking in English it could appear that they are “speaking in tongues”, hence the title of the play.

Life is a Dream is a new version by Helen Edmundson of the poetic epic play by the 17th century Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barca. Segismundo has been imprisoned in a remote tower since birth to protect the country from the horrors prophesied by his father, King Basilio of Poland. There he can but hope that life is a dream. The King subsequently testing fate brings his son to the palace. Other characters in the play are the vengeful Rosaura, the insincere Clotaldo and her comic sidekick Clarion, the regal Estrella and Astolfo, pretender to the throne of Poland.

Prick Up Your Ears is a new play by Simon Bent, inspired by John Lahr’s biography and Joe Orton’s diaries. It tells of the rise to fame of Joe Orton, the celebrated playwright, and his turbulent domestic life with the increasingly disturbed envious partner Kenneth Halliwell ending with Halliwell brutally murdering Joe Orton. Making many appearances in their bed-sitter is their landlady Mrs Gordon; excellent performances by all three. How the simple set denoted the passage of time with it being increasingly more covered by the collages of Halliwell deserves special mention.

Half price tickets (with an additional small handling charge) can be obtained at the “tkts” booth in Leicester Square, London. In the past, one could only obtain tickets for the matinee and evening performances for that day. However, in a pleasant surprise one can now also obtain advance tickets for future performances, although not all of them are necessarily discounted. Credit cards and cash only are accepted in London. I made good use of this facility but tickets for the real blockbusters are often not available at this venue. In addition, I would book in advance for the more popular shows, always by going to the theatres. There is seldom any problem obtaining single seats. Copies of The Official London Theatre Guide can be obtained at the box offices of all the theatres and at the tkts booth when available. These are replaced with updates every fortnight. It takes some arranging, planning and foresight to see so many shows in so short a time. – Maurice Kort