Monday, July 30, 2007

"His Dark Materials (Part II)" - July 2007

After the ups and downs that Part I provided, we went into this with a little less enthusiasm than we normally would, for fear of another marathon performance. By the end of the evening Part II had proved to be a little lacking in polish, technically challenged, at times confusing but most of all hugely enjoyable...

From early on it was clear that Part II was going to play up the humour in the piece, and along with some stylish direction and design choices this helped grab the audience from the outset. With a cast change from Part I we were cleverly and effectively re-introduced to our characters as they stepped in and out of spotlights repeating elements of dialogue of Part I which also served as "Previously on..." for those needing a short reminder. These nice touches continued with the flipchart "this is where we are" scene, the well driven on stage 'vehicle', and the radio transmissions.

Sarah Helena Ord and Mark Wilson performed well as "Lyra" and "Will" while Robert Tracey as "Lord Asriel" and Lousie Mackay as "Mrs Coulter" were particularly strong, especially together. The Daemons were all well portrayed but were generally less active and involved than before, and Ashleigh Kate Wilson and Maread Ladyman put in show stealing performances as "Salmakia" and "Tialys". It was also nice to see Fiona Murray and Yanael Queval return to continue their good work as the older "Lyra" and "Will" from Part I.

The supporting cast did well although a few stumbled lines and the aforementioned technical difficulties such as missing/miscued sound effects and a curtain issue at the start of Act II did mean that it wasn't as polished as we've become used to for the Scottish Youth Theatre. While this is understandable given the scale of the production and the ambition of effectively running two shows at once, I'd worry it may detract from the enjoyment the cast feel at the end of a performance.

However, for the audience Part II certainly had the sense of fun that was somewhat missing from Part I, and had a pace that ensured it ran to time, and was sufficient enough to overcome the problems and a hugely anticlimactic final 'confrontation'.

I remain unsure of the wisdom of the SYT decision to undertake such challenging material in such a short timescale. The SYT pieces I've enjoyed most in the past have also tended to be those that the cast have seemed to have a little more involvement in the development of. Although while thinking up suitable alternatives for next year, my best suggestion would be the stage version of "Strictly Ballroom". But whatever they come up with - we'll be there to see it.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

London Calling...

We've had a London theatre trip in mind for some time and were waiting for a particular show to really grab our attention. I had been persuaded to combine a Friday evening show with a Saturday matinee of "Wicked" which Waldorf had high on her list of things to see.

A couple of months ago we heard of a planned production of "Othello" at the Donmar Warehouse that seemed to fit the bill perfectly. With Chiwetel Ejiofor cast as 'Othello' and Ewan McGregor as 'Iago' we knew this would be a popular show, so were aware our best chance to get good tickets was to sign up for the Donmar's 'friends' scheme for priority booking and had included that in our budget. Unfortunately we had underestimated just how attractive this would be and a few weeks later when we went to sign up as 'friends' we discovered that due to unprecedented demand they had changed the scheme so that future friends will not receive priority booking for "Othello". It wasn't really practical for us to hold off and take our chances when they go on public sale mid-October as we need to be able to book flights/hotels in advance to get decent prices.

But having mentally taken that first step on the road south we weren't going to be deterred and I soon found another show that was equally persuasive. I'd seen some of the reviews for "Elling" and they had pretty much all been very favourable and the main cast in this "Odd Couple" style story are the excellent John Simm and Adrian Bower of Channel 4's "Teachers". "Elling" proved relatively easy to secure good seats for and at prices that wouldn't break the bank.

"Wicked" on the other hand proved more problematic, and Row R of the stalls is a little further back than I'm used to, and £60 for a ticket is about four times what I'm used to! And that's nothing compared to the price I fear I'm going to have to pay in non-monetary terms for suggesting that my brother-in-law come along with us. I suspect he may never forgive me...

So... look out London in late September, View From The Stalls is heading your way. And who knows, if the trip goes well we may even still try and get lucky with those "Othello" tickets.

Any tips on reasonably priced restaurants/bars gratefully received.


Friday, July 27, 2007

His Dark Materials (Part I) - July 2007

Back in 1997 we saw our third Scottish Youth Theatre Production - it was "Into the Woods" and we really enjoyed it (despite a little confusion over if there was a second half or not). The following day the Glasgow Herald published a review which was far from complimentary, making a number of criticisms of the musical itself and the stage effects that the production had used, but making almost no mention of the performances. Feeling the review to be unfair we sent off a fax that morning to the cast saying how unhappy we had been with the Herald review and expressing our own opinions that the performance had been just as enjoyable as we had seen in previous years. A few days later we received a nice letter from the SYT saying that the cast had been really down after the Herald review and that our fax had been a real pick-me-up for them to hear positive reviews from someone unconnected with the show. I say all this because I'm now going to try my hardest not to produce our own updated version of that disheartening Herald review, while keeping to our policy of reviewing all shows as if professional performances.

Based on the best selling trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman and adapted by Nicholas Wright "His Dark Materials" had been a major hit for the National Theatre in London, so we went into this with high hopes. Okay, lets get the problems out of the way first. At an official run time of 3 hours this was way overlong, and when the actual performance runs a further 30 minutes this is far beyond what is reasonable to expect from an audience. There will always be problems adapting novels for the stage and I'm unsure how tied the SYT was to the existing adaptation, but this could have been halved without losing the central feel and themes involved. As a result the majority of the audience spent at least the last 50 minutes wishing each scene to be the last - not the best state of mind for appreciating some of the show's funniest scenes. To be honest, after the first 30 minutes the show had lost a substantial part of the audience as with a lack of humour and sharp dialogue to generate laughs the audience fell into a mode of sitting in silence, and then later when there were touches of humour the chance to create that kind of mood had been lost. There were nice touches such as the choreographed dance/fight and the marching scenes but much of the enthusiasm and goodwill of the audience was used up long before the end.

I admire the SYT for their ambition, and can appreciate how difficult it would be to turn down the chance to do this show, but it was a bad decision. To keep the attention of audiences for over 6 hours requires a level of entertainment that the material in the current format simply doesn't provide.

There are positive aspects to the production including an excellent realisiation of the daemons with Alasdair Hankinson's "Pantalaimon" and Kendra Williams as "Salcilia" particularly expressive. Kirstie Steele gives a hugely impressive performance as the show-carrying "Lyra" while Andrew Jones as "Roger", Sandy Howie as "Iorek", Katya Allcott as "Master" and Andrew John Illsley as "Will" all provide strong support. There were problems with some of the other performances, including some dialogue being lost to the music (even near the front of the stalls) but for the most part the supporting cast performed well. We were drained watching the show, I can only imagine how the cast feel at the end of it.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy large parts of the show but it simply dragged on for so long that it took any fun out of it. We've got a couple of days to rebuild our enthusiasm before we see Part 2 back at the Citizens, but the high hopes I had for this are now a distant memory.


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Suggested Further Reading

As you may have noticed we're having some "quiet time" at the moment - a kind of calm before the storm. I've taken the chance to expand my reading of other theatre blogs, and although we don't really want to add loads of additional links to our sidebar on every page, I guess you could consider this post "suggested further reading".

The Guardian Theatre Blog is usually good value - particularly when Lyn Gardner is writing the articles. Topical discussion and you can expect many familiar faces from other theatre blogs to pop in with comments. Just don't mention public funding of the Arts - I did once and didn't remotely get away with it...

Interval Drinks
can be relied on for regular reviews with entertaining commentary but not at the expense of fairness.

I've mentioned Fin Kennedy's blog in our Fringe Preview as we're seeing his "Mehndi Night" in Edinburgh. Sadly Fin has a self imposed 'ban' on providing much more than an outline of his thoughts on the theatre he sees, but the blog is a fascinating insight for those of us with little appreciation of what it is to be a playwright.

Similar insight can be found in the writings of David Eldridge at One Writer and his Dog along with coverage of wider theatre issues.

Andrew Field's The Arcades Project is always worth reading as it's well written and thought provoking.

Sean Raczka's Sean in the Stalls gets to see a huge amount of London theatre, and writes reviews in some depth. He also has the most incredible schedule of reviews planned for the Edinburgh Fringe.

Butts in the Seats
can be guaranteed to produce thoughtful posts on theatre management, marketing and audience involvement amongst others. Although US based, many of the issues discussed are just as relevant here.

Mark Shenton over at The Stage is also worth a read on a regular basis, although there's a little too much about Musicals for my taste!

And a few others I'm currently getting to know...
Postcards from the Gods is a new blog but I like what I've seen so far, and I've also recently discovered Persons Unknown. The Scottish Theatre Forum now has its own blog for highlighting current activity and is worth keeping an eye on, as does TAG Theatre which has lots of interesting pieces about TAG and the Citz.

I think that covers most of the theatre based ones I've been reading regularly, but if that isn't enough, I find most of those on the West End Whingers blogroll worth a look. And if anyone knows of a UK theatre blog that's on a par with Alison Croggan's Australian based Theatre Notes, please, please let us know.