Thursday, April 10, 2014

View From The Stalls - The Next Generation

So, it's been a while.


But, we're back.  
Kind of. 
Just a little different.

During our extended absence (and largely responsible for it) we were working on our own 'small scale production' - a little 'Miss Ritz' as it were (Waldorf vetoed 'Miss Piggy').  And whilst pregnancy followed by sleepless nights knocked our theatre trips firmly on the head, as she's now five months old, Miss Ritz made her theatrical debut this morning.

I'll leave it for Waldorf to share her thoughts on Ipdip Theatre's 'Head in the Clouds' (it might take several days - some things never change!) but hopefully it will be the first of many shows for young ones that we'll be seeing and commenting on in the months and years to come.  

I don't expect that we'll ever get back to seeing as much theatre as we did a couple of years ago, but we hope that with our new perspective and interest in children's theatre, we'll be able to add something different to the online theatrical community once again.  And we promise this won't turn into a 'Mommy Blog' as we even plan on getting out on occasion to see some grown-up theatre too. Eventually.

In the meantime we'd be delighted to hear any recommendations for upcoming shows suitable from 6 months up.

It's good to be back. Thanks for sticking around while we were away,

Statler, Waldorf & Miss Ritz



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Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Humans Inc" - Edinburgh Fringe 2013


'Futuristic-good-cop-rescues-bad-corporation's-secret-test-subject-while-falling-in-love-and-defeating-OTT-Bond-villain' plot aside, Humans Inc is actually a rather good show.  Stylish, imaginative and with a bit of a swagger. I didn't even mind the elements that sailed perilously close to the dreaded 'Dance & Physical Theatre' section of the Fringe programme...

The seven strong cast deliver a very polished set of performances but there's a bit of a difference in tone that hampers the show as a whole.  Jonathan Stephenson has a genuine stage presence and plays Isaac, our cop-having-a-bad-day with a level of sci-fi gravitas last seen circa Blade Runner, while the rest of the cast camp things up Galaxy Quest style.  Individually, the performances are excellent but the contrasting styles didn't sit well for me.  The exception being Lily Levin's gloriously dead pan take on Isaac's wife which comes closest to matching Stephenson's approach.   I get that 'serious' sci-fi is a hard sell to an audience, but the creativity of the company displayed here suggests that The Alchemist are capable of pulling it off.

A fun bit of fluff to fill a gap in a schedule - and the venue in C-1 is as comfy as you're likely to get at the Fringe this side of 2440.


Humans Inc runs at C Chambers Street at 18:10 until 26 August

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"Bite the Bullet" - Edinburgh Fringe 2013

Back in the early nineties Sandy Nelson & Keith Warwick's fictional Proclaimers-esque duo "The Telltales" achieved minor chart success in the UK but were a surprise No.1 sensation in Japan.  21 years after their pop career fizzled out, they are reuniting to perform at a ceremony in their honour in Tokyo.  The show cuts between the present day and pivotal moments from the group's past, featuring a number of songs along the way.

Some shows at the Fringe have actors doing a very passable job of playing musicians, but Nelson & Warwick are undoubtedly the real deal - and should really be selling CDs post show in the foyer. But while the music is a strength, the show's desire to establish its 'muso' credentials works against it.  This was my era and I struggled with some of the references. There's certainly a danger that cultural touchstones written for its original incarnation as part of Oran Mor's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" in Glasgow simply won't transfer to the Fringe's more diverse audience.  But that's a minor quibble - the music, comedy and characters are universal.

Nelson & Warwick may play up the comedy, but they are equally comfortable as the tone shifts to more serious considerations of friendship and their post celebrity lives. Kirstin McLean completes the cast with a fine performance in a number of roles including the band's manager Zara. With the exception of an unnecessary filler scene in Norway, the show is slick and tight; never feeling anything like its one hour runtime.

Bite the Bullet runs at the Assembly Rooms until 25 August.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

"Macbeth" (MIF / NT Live) - July 2013

With tickets for the entire run at Manchester International Festival selling out in nine minutes, it's fortunate that NT Live enabled us, along with thousands of others, to watch a live broadcast in cinemas around the UK and beyond.   The pairing of Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston is clearly one that features on many "Macbeth" dream cast lists, and it would be convenient to put our general sense of disappointment down to overly high expectations.  But in truth, despite glowing reviews just about everywhere else,  and some fine moments of spectacle, it was just a bit bland.  There's a distinct lack of any stamp of creativity or new take on the play.  Is it asking too much to want to remember the production in future as something other than 'the Macbeth where they traipsed through a lot of mud'?

There's no doubting Branagh's ability to deliver Shakespeare in a clear and accessible manner, and his ability to deliver a perfect tear on demand is truly impressive, but there seemed little behind the words to give insight into the character. For her part, Alex Kingston has no difficulty in bringing the text to life, but as a performance I found it largely forgettable - save the overcooked sleepwalking hysterics which stay in the memory for all the wrong reasons.  As a classic treatment of Macbeth it would make for a great 'study text' for schools, but brings little new to anyone familiar with the characters - and even with co-director Rob Ashford's pre-show interview giving crib notes as to how they perceived the characters' motivations, I saw no real evidence of this once the play began.

Yet, there are some great performances elsewhere in the cast.  I was just about on the verge of giving up on the play and joining Waldorf in her 15 minute snooze when Rosalie Craig as Lady Macduff revived my interest with a performance more affecting than any other on the night; closely followed by Ray Fearon's portrayal of Macduff's grief on learning of her fate.

I'm really glad we saw this, and can tick a 'Branagh Shakespeare' off our non-existent 'to-see' list (albeit virtually - although I don't think seeing it in the flesh would have been any more rewarding) but I can't say it made much of a lasting impression on me.

Macbeth has completed its run in Manchester, however recordings of the live broadcast are being shown in limited cinemas over the next few weeks.
Image by Johan Persson used with permission.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

"The Audience" (NTLive) - June 2013

Although we’ve been absent from the theatre for several months, it was never far away from our thoughts.  Indeed, at one point we came very close to booking up for a London trip with “The Audience” as the focus for our weekend, so when our trip fell through we were delighted to see that it was to feature as part of NT Live and be broadcast to cinemas around the UK and beyond.  We've seen a few NT Live shows in the past at the GFT and found the concept to work very well, and our concerns that that the intimacy might be lost in a large auditorium at the Cineworld were quickly dispelled.

Rather oddly, I was quite taken aback a little by the humorous tone of Peter Morgan’s play.  I can’t quite pin down why, but I was definitely expecting a more serious, possibly even academic, series of imagined conversations between Elizabeth II and her Prime Ministers over her 60 years on the throne.  Whilst Morgan’s writing certainly has its more sombre and political moments, it’s first and foremost a light hearted piece of entertainment.  The Queen’s encounters with John Major, Gordon Brown and David Cameron evoke the gentle-but-sharp humour of “Yes Minister” while those with Harold Wilson show a more relaxed monarch with a genuine affection for the politician.  During the interval Morgan when interviewed suggested that he couldn’t claim his imagined accounts were ‘accurate’ but hoped they were ‘truthful’, but I’m not entirely convinced there isn’t more than a little rose-tint being applied to all the characters featured here. 

The completist in me can’t help but feel a little cheated by the absence of some of those who have resided at No.10 including Ted Heath and Tony Blair.  While Morgan would no doubt argue that he’s already covered the Queen/Blair relationship on screen, on stage it felt like a missing chapter.  Although Eden receives an uncomfortable grilling over Suez, and troubles with Blair are hinted at, it’s perhaps Margaret Thatcher who receives the harshest treatment over her approach to apartheid South Africa. Surprisingly, despite an impressive portrayal by Haydn Gwynne, the scene with Thatcher is a bit of a lull in the proceedings where sparks were expected to fly – leaving both Waldorf and myself glancing at watches for the first and only time of the evening.

Of course, Helen Mirren is the star attraction here and she doesn't disappoint. It's almost breathtaking at time to watch the flash transformations between the eras and Mirren convinces entirely from the young novice finding her feet to the present day Queen who has seen-it-all-before.  It's a very demanding role with almost no time off stage (if any - as this was NT Live she may have just been out of shot) and in addition to the segments with each Prime Minister, Morgan uses a nice conceit to bring the young Princess Elizabeth on stage to interact with her older self.    

All in, this was a very enjoyable evening out at the 'theatre' and has given us a bit of our appetite for seeing some more 'proper' local theatre in the near future.

The Audience has completed its run at the Gielgud Theatre, but 'encore' performances of the NT Live show are available at cinemas across the country over the next couple of weeks.

Image by Johan Persson used with permission.

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Back again...

So, it's been a while...


We continued to struggle over the winter with intermittent illnesses, family commitments and day jobs, but after a trip to the NT Live screening of "The Audience" we're hopefully, finally, going to get out to see some theatre.  We've started looking through the Edinburgh Fringe programme and will be having a trawl through our local theatres' websites. 

Thanks for sticking around while we 'disappeared'.


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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Theatre needs 'Games Makers'

First off, let me be absolutely clear.  This post is in no way a criticism of Front of House staff at the theatres we attend - they've never been anything other than welcoming and helpful.  And we've also seen how effective they can be when needed. But recent months have convinced me that they might be missing a trick somewhere along the line...

Back in July and August we were fortunate enough to see a number of events at the Olympics and one of the elements that made London so special for those few weeks was the contribution of the 'Games Makers' (for the sake of simplicity I'm calling them all Games Makers but I'm also including the large numbers of staff from London Transport etc. in this).  This volunteer army helping spectators in venues and around London were given one of the loudest cheers of the evening during the Olympic Closing Ceremony and have been widely praised for their efforts.  I can't claim to be an expert on these things, but to my untrained eye the reason the Games Makers made such an impression was their willingness to engage with spectators - to chat about the Games, to take photos or just share a moan about the weather.

I'd pretty much written off the undoubted success of the Games Maker role as a transient magical bubble that was lost with the ending of the games, but on Friday night I witnessed something very similar... in Glasgow.  We were going along to see some of the UCI Track Cycling World Cup at the new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and as we'd been advised there would be no visitor parking we'd opted for the free shuttle bus from Glasgow City Centre.  As I waited at the bus station for Waldorf to join me, the SPT staff organising the services were chatting away to those in the queue, giving helpful advice for the return bus schedule and talking about the event.  They even offered to hold the bus a minute or two if needed as Waldorf was running (literally) slightly late.  On arrival at the Velodrome a number of hosts in Games Maker style uniforms were greeting people and offering assistance, and later, while waiting for our return bus after the event we had a lengthy conversation with some G4S staff about how the event had been going.

We've seen approaching 400 shows over the last six years and I could count on one hand the number of times we've actually been engaged in a conversation about theatre by front of house staff.  And off the top of my head I can only think of two occasions where it was more than a passing comment - once by a young usher waiting to go in to the Citizens Circle Studio and once by staff at the Pleasance during the Fringe.

Of course, theatres and companies make other efforts to connect with their audiences - the Tron staff mingle at 'Patrons' events, Nonsenseroom chat away with audiences after their 'Special Performances' at Rosslyn Chapel and Rapture often greet people on their way into the theatre. Cumbernauld Theatre also tried hard with an 'Arts Ambassadors' scheme while the National Theatre of Scotland run their 'Social Media Calls' and often hand out audience comment cards.  But that leaves a huge number of missed opportunities where audiences simply arrived to a welcoming smile and left with a flyer for another show.  There's no shortage of moments before house doors open where greetings could be exchanged and shows promoted - "I think you'll really enjoy this, I've seen it three times and am still laughing each night", "If you like this you might like XXXXX which is on next month", "Did you see their last show?  Wasn't it amazing?".  We don't think many people working front of house in theatres are there just for the money - they have a love of theatre and that passion should be cut loose and encouraged to be passed on to audiences.

It's a cultural change but it's one that can be made, and one that I think could make a difference.  Other places already seem to do it.  I'd noticed a while back that checkout staff in Asda were noticeably chattier than any other supermarket - it was almost impossible not to find yourself chatting to them. "Oh those must be new, I'm going to have to try them myself", "Have you tried the Honey flavoured ones of those?"  So much so, that I'm convinced they've been trained that way - and it's not just in one store.  Admittedly at first I found it a little odd, but actually I've come to quite like it.  It's the same thing that elevates a restaurant where the waiting staff have tried all the dishes and can happily make recommendations - "The Cheesecake is delicious but is quite heavy - if you prefer something lighter the Lemon Mousse is always popular."

So, all the theatres out there, the next time you have a meeting with your front of house teams, maybe you could ask them how they would feel about interacting a bit more with audiences.  I'd like to think at least a few of them are just waiting for a bit of encouragement.  Some people will no doubt be sceptical about such an initiative, and in fairness I can't really blame them.  I would never have thought that London's Games Makers would make a difference.  But they most definitely did.



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Thursday, November 08, 2012

"Glasgow Girls" - November 2012


I doubt there's a greater compliment I can pay "Glasgow Girls" other than to say that at times it threatens to finally be the National Theatre of Scotland's 'next Black Watch'.  It can't maintain that high level throughout, but there are moments, several of them, that left my spine tingling.  And my only disappointment of the night was discovering when I got home that I couldn't buy the soundtrack.

Cleverly, David Greig's book mocks the very idea of a musical based on a group of schoolgirls campaigning against the treatment of asylum seekers in Glasgow - and some characters are happier than others to find themselves on stage.  Considering that the cast all play multiple roles (and at times themselves) it sounds on paper as if it could get very complicated, very quickly, but helped by some superfast costume changes it hangs together seamlessly.

While the show as a whole certainly doesn't feel overlong, some scenes and songs don't serve the show as well as others.  It's not that they weren't good - just that they dilute the truly great ones.  There are also times in the high tempo songs that the lyrics become very difficult to pick out.  It's frustrating for an audience when sounds levels aren't spot on, and a huge pity as the lyrics we did catch deserved to be heard.

From the playful "Opening Montage", through the earworm inducing "Glasgow Girls", the sinister "At It" to the devasting "It's No a Weans Choice" there is a massively diverse tone in the numbers, reflecting the contributions of the show's several composers (the Kielty Brothers, Soom T, Patricia Panther & Cora Bissett).  My own favourite was Bissett's "From the 16th Floor" - an ethereal lovesong to Glasgow, while Waldrof preferred the Kielty Brothers' punchy "Ain't Done Jack" but there are many others that last in the memory.

The cast all meet the enormous challenges set by director Cora Bissett and choreographer Natasha Gilmore admirably and it seems unfair to single out individuals but the short turns by Dawn Sievewright as Tommy Sheridan and Myra McFadyen as the 'headmaster' were magical.

Along with some wonderful songs, a talented cast and powerful story, "Glasgow Girls" has three more things going for it - its humour, emotion and a clear affection for Glasgow.  Despite the issues highlighted, it really wouldn't be a stretch to describe it as a musical comedy - there is no shortage of genuinely laugh out loud lines.  But there will also be tears - including many prompted by a single line, not even spoken on stage, that had half the audience reaching for their Kleenex.  Yet it rarely feels manipulative and avoids becoming mawkish.  The worst accusation you could legitimately throw at it would be that it gives a rose tinted portrayal of Glasgow, but it does acknowledge the city's problems and maybe it's no bad thing once in while to focus on the positive aspects of the city.

And just to show that I was paying attention, there's one more 'release' we'd like to see...

We, the undersigned, in recognition of our enjoyment of "Glasgow Girls" at the Citizens Theatre demand that the National Theatre of Scotland release, without delay, a cast recording of the soundtrack in order that we can continue our enjoyment.  While we recognise and appreciate that a version of the title track is already available, that's really just teasing us...  

What do We Want?  Glasgow Girls Soundtrack!  When do we want it? NOW!

Waldorf & Statler @ View From The Stalls

Feel free to add your comments on the show and demands for a soundtrack release in the 'heckles' below...

Glasgow Girls runs at the Citizens until 17th November and will be at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in London from 8th Feb to 2nd March 2013.  The show is presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Citizens Theatre, Pachamama Productions, Richard Jordan Productions Ltd in association with Merrigong Theatre Company, Australia
Image by Drew Farrell used with permission.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

"Glasgow Girls" - coming soon...

Later this week we'll be seeing the new musical from the National Theatre of Scotland, based on the group of Glasgow schoolgirls who fought a high profile campaign on the treatment of asylum seekers.  But before it opened I got the chance to pop along to a "Social Media Call" at the Citizens for a sneak peak and Q&A. We normally decline this type of invitation as we prefer to experience things as any audience member would, but this was just too interesting an opportunity to miss.  And a quick check of our archives revealed that we'd only ever said nice things about those involved in the show...

After a chat with NTS Digital Associate Eve Nicol who had kindly sent us the invite, I got to watch three scenes.  Before talking about the content, I want to say a bit about how revealing it was to see this process.  A sharp reminder that what audiences will see as fast paced, flowing pieces of theatre is the result of many hours of repetitive rehearsals and a lot of standing around waiting for other people to do their bits.   So it was quite a big ask for them to have a group of bloggers and tweeters descend on them  on the day of their first preview.  Especially as they had to run through each scene twice to let us take photos and some amateur organisation delayed things while they sorted out their sound.

Given that we'll be posting our thoughts on the full production in the next few days, it doesn't seem very sensible to comment much based on three short extracts.  But what was immediately obvious was how full of energy the show is, and how wide ranging its musical influences are.  I'm a little concerned that the combination of accents and high tempo songs made it tricky to catch the lyrics but I'm hopeful it will just take time to become accustomed to them.

Afterwards, in the Citz foyer, director Cora Bissett who is the driving force behind the show, was able to tell us how it came about and why it became a musical.  As she answered our questions we were joined by the cast who shared their thoughts on meeting the real 'Glasgow Girls' and why they expect the show to engage a London audience next year.

It all made for a very enjoyable couple of hours, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it all 'properly', but I think it will make it just that bit harder to write our post about it.  Actually, that's not true at all as I expect to be writing a wholly enthusiastic review. But it does worry me that in the unlikely event that I don't enjoy it I would find it that bit harder to write a negative review having met those involved and witnessed first hand their commitment and enthusiasm.  Actually, that's not true either.  I'd be fine writing the review - it's just that afterwards I'd feel really guilty about it.  Then again, I could always just get Waldorf to write it up...

Thanks to Eve Nicol and all at the National Theatre of Scotland, the Citizens and particularly Cora Bissett and the cast. 


We've now seen the full show and posted our thoughts on it.

Glasgow Girls runs at the Citizens until 17 November
Image by us (I'll take a camera next time if we get invited again!)

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Friday, September 28, 2012

"Wonderland" - September 2012

"Wonderland will be a dark, mysterious and magical new show" says the Vanishing Point website of their show that take an audience into the world of pornography.  And they are right - if perhaps not always as intended. The violence and nudity certainly qualifies it as 'dark', but I found it 'mysterious' to a point beyond confusing - bordering on frustrating.  And 'magical' - well, yes, in a Paul Daniels kind of way: I liked it, not a lot, but I liked it.


There's a place for leaving things open to interpretation and it can help ensure an audience actively thinks about a piece, but often there's a price to be paid in a resulting disconnection between audience and character. Wonderland's apparent non-linear timeframe, uncertain locations and the way its central character shifts between her Alice/Heidi personas (at times without clear signposts) left me so unsure as to the blurred lines between the in-show fiction and in-show reality that I was no longer willing to invest emotionally in Alice's fate for fear of being 'tricked'.

In Vanishing Point's previous productions "Interiors" and "Saturday Night", watching conversations take place silently behind 'glass' added another layer to the shows.  But despite the voyeuristic aspect being more pertinent to "Wonderland", it seemed to detract rather than add on the occasions it's used here. While I could certainly get the general drift of the conversations between Alice's parents, I was always grasping for the details and never quite getting them.  And my inability to decipher the final conversation between Alice and her father left me feeling simultaneously cheated and inadequate as an audience member.  Is it too clever for its own good - or just too clever for me?

An odd choice of starting point doesn't help the show either.  Why and how Alice came to be auditioning to join the pornographic industry is unclear - and is potentially the most interesting aspect. Similarly, how did her father find himself drawn into the darker side of the internet? Without seeing the seeds of their 'downfalls' the show lacks much of the 'this could happen to you' element common to most morality based fairy tales (or modern urban myths). 

"Wonderland" is at its best when highlighting the power balance between exploited and exploitee. Who really has the power?  Who is left feeling ashamed of their actions?  But my inability to settle on a 'real' version of events left even this up in the air.   "Wonderland" feels like a show with something to say - but I couldn't hear or understand it.


Wonderland is a co-production with Fondazione Campania dei Festival - Napoli teatro Festival Italia and Tramway in association with Eden Court.  It runs at Tramway until 29 September.
Image by Francesco Squeglia used with permission.



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Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Jesus Christ Superstar" (Arena Tour) - September 2012


Our views on this 'Arena Tour' of "Jesus Christ Superstar" will be significantly coloured by the fact that we had very good seats at Glasgow's SECC - second front row just to the left of the stage.  Your mileage may vary - by up to 50 metres here and potentially more at other tour venues.  The stage design also means that there will be a high number of seats with varying degrees of restricted view - of both the stage and the large screen. What we saw from row B was a theatre show enhanced by clever use of a video wall.  What much of the audience saw was essentially a rock concert viewed on a big screen.  On the plus side of things, one of our great fears was that the sound would be so over-amplified that the lyrics would be lost - but despite sitting ten feet from one of the speaker banks we left with our hearing intact and in the main the levels were good.

We're not big Andrew Lloyd Webber fans but we both have a genuine fondness for 'JCS' - in my case largely due to its sympathetic attitude towards Judas.  It's easy to take for granted how groundbreaking the show was when originally created by Webber and Tim Rice.  A 'rock opera' based on Jesus Christ's passion and death?  With a 20th century twist? Really?  The show hasn't dated significantly but here it's given a 21st century setting reminiscent of 2011's protest camp at St Paul's Cathedral.  As an updated theme it works well and also allows some nice references to social media.

Despite its title, the show - this production or any other - should really belong to Judas, and the casting of Tim Minchin in the role made this an absolute 'must see' show for us.  Minchin's vocals have a real grunge rock element and while it may dismay purists who want to see the songs showcased it vividly displays the character's emotions.  His "Jesus Christ Superstar" was surprisingly lacking in energy but his short rendition of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" was simply devastating.

The casting-by-reality-show of the role of Jesus was almost sufficient to put us off the show entirely, but Ben Forster proved that this can be at least moderately successful.  "Gethsemane" was a highlight but in some other songs his vocals dipped beneath the music.  And while I can often relate to Judas' actions,  never more so than here - Forster's Jesus at times appears so smug and self satisfied it would be a pleasure to hand him over.

Melanie Chisholm's Mary Magdalene was a disappointment.  While Minchin trades technical vocals for emotion, Chisholm charts the reverse course and delivers a fine vocal but one lacking in emotion.  Even on the large screen I found it difficult to get any real sense of the character.  Chris Moyles on the other hand exceeded our (admittedly low) expectations as Herod with a performance that was no more or no less than the role requires - and which benefits here from some nice staging.  But there was no doubting that the performance of the night belonged to Alex Hanson as Pilate - beautifully expressive both vocally and facially, this was musical theatre at its absolute best. 

The ensemble works well physically in the set piece numbers - particularly the opening 'riot' and as the mob outside Pilate's.  But perhaps due to the effort of the choreography or there being simply too many of them at times the lyrics lacked clarity - especially in "Hosanna" and "What's the Buzz?"

In its strongest moments the show is spectacular and we don't grudge that we paid more for these tickets than any other - ever.  But good as it was, it could have been even better.  90% of the audience may have given it a standing ovation, but while we certainly enjoyed it, we stayed firmly in our seats.

Jesus Christ Superstar has completed runs at the O2 in Greenwich and the SECC in Glasgow and continues its UK tour.
Image used with permission.


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Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Jersey Boys" - August 2012


As you’ll see, our experience of “Jersey Boys” was a little different from the nights out at the theatre that we usually write about at View From The Stalls.  Firstly, although we’d heard good things, it wasn’t near the top of our ‘to see’ list - but for once the choice of show was out of our hands.  Secondly, while we don’t accept press/complimentary tickets from theatres, our “Jersey Boys” tickets came as part of an Olympics trip won through Cadbury/Trebor and entirely unrelated to our witterings here – but we jumped at the chance to include a theatre trip as part of our weekend.  And lastly – although on our London trips we do usually splash out on good seats, we don’t normally go for the VIP option with private bar area, champagne, canapés and a personal host for the evening!

My musical taste (as in music not musicals) doesn’t really go any further back than the late 80’s so I had my doubts about a musical based on Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.  Fortunately the show recognises the need to deliver a hook for younger audiences and helped by Madcon's recent version of Valli’s “Beggin'” and a French rap take on “Oh What a Night” we’re made to appreciate how the group's influence lasts to this day.  And that generates sufficient interest until the characters themselves secure a significant level of emotional involvement.

For this isn't a jukebox musical where songs are shoehorned into what serves as a plot. All the performances are 'justified' - the characters don't burst into song in an outpouring of emotion. They only sing when the band is performing. The cast are all top notch, and it's worth noting that on the night we attended Dan Burton played Frankie Valli (usually played by Ryan Molloy) and we would never have questioned that this wasn't his usual role. The show doesn't shy away from the less happy times experienced by some of the group but handles them with sensitivity and avoids shifting the tone too dramatically.  It also succeeds in delivering an upbeat ending that doesn't feel overly artificial.

Now, as for the VIP element of our evening – well that depends on who you ask. While I very much enjoyed the hospitality provided by our friendly and knowledgeable host, some aspects didn’t sit well with my ‘normal’ theatregoing self - in particular being escorted to our prime seats in the centre of Row G seconds before curtain up and making all those sitting in our row stand to let us pass.  Especially when we did exactly the same thing after the interval.  I hate people in the centre of rows taking their seats at the last moment and I hated being one of them – even just for one night.  Waldorf on the other hand felt no shame whatsoever and loved the special treatment and the glances we received from others in the audience wondering who the VIP guests could have been – although I suspect the two thirds of a bottle of champagne may have helped her in this.  And of course it all comes at a price, but even I can’t disagree that if you want a taste of how the other half / one percent live this is a very effective and memorable way to achieve it.

Jersey Boys continues at Prince Edward Theatre in London
Image by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg used with permission

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Avenue Q" - May 2012 (Catching up)


Adult puppet musical "Avenue Q" had been on our 'to do' list for a couple of years, but the timings never seemed to work for us on our London visits, and I resented paying 'London prices' when it previously toured to Glasgow.  Fortunately, this time round we managed to track down a 2 for 1 offer - but after seeing the skill and energy involved we were left in no doubt that even at full price it would have been value for money.

While it's not unusual for us to come out of a theatre saying that it was exhausting just watching it, it's literally true of this show, because 'watching' isn't quite as simple as you might think.  The puppet stars of the show are animated and voiced by one or two operators visible on stage, and my initial thought was to ignore the performers and focus on the puppets.  But I quickly realised that doing so was to ignore half of the show as the human operators use their own expressions and movements to complement those of their puppet characters.  The trick is to be able to focus on the puppet characters and their operators simultaneously, and while we're not talking about something akin to 'magic eye' pictures, it's certainly an acquired skill - one that does take concentration.

And that wasn't the only element that I had to make a conscious effort over.  The inclusion of the character of former child star "Gary Coleman" - to make the other characters realise their lives could be so much worse - was for me, in desperately poor taste. Even more so, after a quick google during the interval revealed that Coleman was unhappy about it.  To continue with the character after Coleman's death in 2010 is unforgivable - so much so that if I had been aware of the character's role beforehand I probably wouldn't have booked the tickets.  Looking around online it seems I'm in a small minority offended by this - but it's such a dated cultural reference that I would have hoped that regardless of any sensitivities they would have reworked/updated it by now.

Nevertheless, if you're unperturbed by all that (or can simply put it out of your mind for a couple of hours as I did) there is a huge amount of fun to be had.  While the emphasis is definitely on the comedy, it doesn't come at the expense of the musical numbers which are polished, memorable and impressively sung by the cast.  Just remember that this is very much an Adult show with a capital A.  If you are unsure if it will be to your taste, Youtube may be your friend.

Avenue Q has completed an extensive UK tour.  Future dates will be available on the show's website.
Image by Nick Spratling used with permission

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Stones in His Pockets" - July 2012

I guess it's somewhat appropriate that a show that sees two actors inhabit 15 characters and has a significant change of tone between acts, has left me struggling with my own split personality. One part of me was happy to be swept along by two phenomenal performances from Keith Fleming and Robbie Jack who have taken a lightning change act to a whole new level. We've become used to seeing plays cut down or restaged to accomodate small casts, although the performances almost always involve a brief pause between characters, an additional prop or a quick exit/entrance. But here Fleming and Jack often morph seamlessly right in front of your eyes. The problem is that another part of me, while appreciating the skill involved, sees it as a way of covering over what is at times rather weak material.

In fact, the first half of the show left me pretty cold and feeling that it was over-reliant on the inherent amusement value of the performance style. I couldn't help thinking that had it been played with a 'full' cast I'm not sure I would have even broken into a smile. And that's the 'comic' half of the show. It's disappointing, as a show based on the events when a Hollywood production descends on a rural Irish community should be ripe for comic scenes more than capable of standing on their own merits.

Fortunately, I found myself enjoying the second act significantly more. It wasn't that it was funnier, but perhaps the more serious tone to it made for a more even script where I was no longer expecting to be laughing out loud. It also finally managed to generate a level of interest that I'd been previously missing as the balance of power shifted between film-makers and the extras.  But even in its best moments I found the play frustrating in its simplistic treatment of drug use, one sided stance on cultural exploitation and use of media in-jokes and caricatures.

The performances will make or break any production of Marie Jones' play and Fleming and Jack make the absolute most out of it - their curtain call alone makes it worth seeing.

We received our tickets for the show through our membership of the Tron's Patrons scheme which we thoroughly recommend for anyone who is a regular attendee at the Tron.

Stones in His Pockets runs at the Tron until 21st July
Image by John Johnston used with permission

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Macbeth" - June 2012

It's fair to say that at 'View From The Stalls' we're unashamed fans of Alan Cumming. His performance in "The Bacchae" remains the most electric and charismatic that we've seen on a Scottish stage; we immensely enjoyed his solo show "I Bought a Blue Car Today" at the Fringe a couple of years back; and we love watching him steal just about every scene on TV's "The Good Wife". So I'm absolutely stunned to be writing that 40 minutes into the National Theatre of Scotland's "Macbeth" we were both bored enough to be glancing at watches and horrified by the prospect of another hour of it. In the interest of balance it's only fair to report that 90% of the audience gave the show a standing ovation - but as we don't make any claims of objectivity I do also want to say that my shocked reaction to this audience response was an only-just-unspoken "You have got to be kidding me!"

We don't want to take anything away from what is an impressive performance from Cumming as he works his way through all the main players in what is more-or-less a one-man version of Shakespeare's tale. It's an immense challenge for any actor and he handles it remarkably well, but as a concept it absolutely killed the play stone dead for us. Without the genuine two-way interactions (and being able to see characters unspoken responses) it made it almost impossible for us to invest any emotion in them. All the characterisations are clear enough for those with a passing knowledge of the play - although those with no foreknowledge will likely struggle.

There could be some justification for the one-man aspect of the show through its setting in what appears to be a secure psychiatric unit but there isn't enough information given to the audience to make links between 'reality' and 'the play'. This isn't helped by the fact that I didn't really get any sense of 'the patient' having a damaged or fractured mind - just one that left him retelling 'Macbeth'.

Alan Cumming is arguably as big a star as Scotland currently has, and he deserves both respect and gratitude for his consistent willingness to work in Scotland. But I'd hope he wouldn't expect to be treated with kid gloves or given New York style automatic standing ovations. But that's what today (and some of the reviews elsewhere) felt like. 

Macbeth runs at Tramway until 30 June before transferring to New York.

Image by Manuel Harlan used with permission.

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