Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Frankenstein" (NT Live) - March 2011

The National Theatre's production of "Frankenstein" starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, directed by Danny Boyle has been one of London's hottest theatre tickets in recent months; so we weren't alone in being grateful for the opportunity to see it on the GFT screen as part of the NT Live scheme. The demand for tickets was inflated further through the gimmick high concept decision to have Miller and Cumberbatch alternate roles on a nightly basis between Frankenstein and the Creature which left many wanting to see both versions. And although we really enjoyed it, I'm just not sure it merits a return visit.

We won't rehash the debate about how well the whole NT Live thing works as we've covered all that before when we saw "Phedre" - it suffices to say that we're wholeheartedly in favour of it as a way of enabling us to see productions we would never get the chance to see. I'll just add that in some respects Boyle's direction of the show seemed well suited to the cinematic transfer but some of his more striking moments probably really have to be experienced first hand.

By the time we saw the show, we knew we would be seeing Miller as Victor Frankenstein and Cumberbatch as the Creature - which Waldorf had already decreed to be 'the wrong way round'. However, the show changed our opinions on that - but perhaps not quite as you may expect. And that was only the start of our disagreements about this show.

I quickly found Cumberbatch's creature to be lacking in subtlety - perhaps due to the camera zooming in for a performance designed to be viewed from a distance. Waldorf on the other hand loved his performance and was distinctly unimpressed by Miller's portrayal of Frankenstein, who I had thought excellent. And it wasn't enough for either of us to simply see the 'reverse' casting - I wanted to see Miller play both roles simultaneously and Waldorf wanted to see Cumberbatch do the same. But that might be an ask too far even for a director of Boyle's talent.

We also couldn't agree on the production's prolonged opening sequence as the creature is 'born' and gradually gains control of his body. For me this was unbearably long and I just wanted it to start already while Waldorf found it an important part of the character's development.

Our other significant disagreement was over the colourblind casting of Victor's family. I'm all for playing individual characters against 'expectations' as to their race but they should retain the relationship between characters. Without explanation of adoption or a step-relationship it was impossible for me to accept them as a family unit, particularly given the accents involved, which left me struggling to feel the pain the characters are put through. Waldorf again disagreed - not caring about the racial identities and more concerned by what she considered a poor performance by George Harris as Frankenstein Sr.

In fact, just about the only thing we do agree on is that we both really enjoyed it. And to cap it all Waldorf has just disagreed once more with my earlier statement and insists it would be worth a return visit - although sadly time won't permit one. It might not have succeeded in connecting with either of us emotionally but as a piece of spectacular storytelling it's hard to beat.

There is an NT Live broadcast featuring Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor on 24th March which will also be shown for a number of 'repeat' performances. The production at the National Theatre runs until 2nd May but advance tickets are sold out - a limited number of day tickets are available.
Image by Catherine Ashmore used with permission.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Love Letters to the Public Transport System" - March 2011

Molly Taylor's re-telling of her quest to thank a number of train and bus drivers who got her to the right place at the right time, combined with the public transport related stories of others, is a delightful piece of theatre. The peg on which the concept hangs may be a little shaky - one of the central tales only really involves a coincidental meeting on a bus - but the beauty here is in the telling. It's a long time since I've seen a performer in the Citizens Circle Studio hold an audience's attention the way Taylor did.

Despite that, its charm and confessional quality did leave me with a nagging doubt - and revealed a difference in attitude between Waldorf and I towards theatre of this kind. Large parts of the play are presented as autobiographical, and while I was happy to take things at face value I couldn't help doubt the spark of inspiration for the piece. The Molly Taylor we met last night - or at least her stage persona - just didn't strike me as 'cooky' enough to start shooting off letters to anonymous public transport employees. Unless of course the idea of creating a piece of theatre based on it was there from the very beginning. Such premeditation wouldn't invalidate what followed, but for me it would somehow take a layer of sheen off of it.

Unusually, Waldorf was more sceptical than I, questioning not just the motivation but to what extent the events presented were based in reality - so far as to doubt if any letters were actually sent (even though the replies appeared to be produced on stage). And interestingly, that wouldn't matter to her at all. It didn't need to be real - none of it.

Fortunately we can both agree that regardless of what level of dramatic license she has employed, Taylor is a wonderful storyteller who is equally at home making an audience laugh as tugging their heartstrings.

Love Letters to the Public Transport System is presented as a work in progress as part of the National Theatre of Scotland's Reveal season. It has concluded its runs at the Traverse and the Citizens.
Image by Drew Farrell used with permission


"Count Me In" - March 2011

Gary McNair's "Count Me In" is one of those shows whose success (or otherwise) really depends on what the artist wants to achieve. If he's aiming to inform and provoke his audience then it probably has to be regarded as a failure; but if it's all just an excuse for a fun evening then it's a big success.

McNair's main problem in any attempt to educate his audience is its self-selecting make up. The vast majority of those choosing to see a show about the political system will have sufficient interest/understanding of politics that there is unlikely to be much here that will be new to them - and some will be frustrated by his inaccuracies. While his insistence that in Westminster elections we don't vote nationally for a Prime Minister but vote for a party may be de facto correct for many voters, it ignores the reality that we vote only for an individual person in a constituency - and one who is capable of changing their party allegiance at will. To be fair, McNair makes no claims to be an expert and is on journey of learning himself - but that's a fairly big mistake to make.

Most of the show is pitched at too basic a level for the majority of the audience - when he drops 'gerrymandering' into his illustration of varying constituency sizes it seems like we're about to go down a more interesting road but it's instantly discarded. And we get no mention of party funding, political broadcasts, media partiality etc. We don't even get the contrast between the various voting systems used in the UK in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, European elections etc with the question as to how they can all be 'the best' system. It's also disappointing that we're given a largely Anglicised version of the development of British democracy.

In a couple of weeks, Mark Thomas appears at the Citizens - a comedian/activist who manages to highlight the absurdity of the detail and complexity of the systems that run our society, and although McNair's previous show on finance, "Crunch", showed he's capable of that, "Count Me In" falls considerably short.

But what it lacks in substance it makes up for, at least in part, in entertainment value. McNair's self deprecating approach works well and the electronic voting pads add the novelty factor = if perhaps not used to their full potential. His audience interactions are handled well, but at times he would benefit from a stand-ups killer instinct to shut-up an audience member enjoying their moment in the spotlight a little too much. What he does have, is a brilliant eye for a well crafted routine - particularly the creation of his 'digital assistant' (although she is then allowed to drone on far too long). There's no doubt that "Count Me In" is entertaining, but the overwhelming feeling we were left with was of a missed opportunity to really attack the flaws that exist in UK politics.

Count Me In was presented as a work in progress as part of the National Theatre of Scotland 'Reveal' season. It has now concluded its runs at the Traverse & Citizens.
Image by Drew Farrell used with permission


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Gagarin Way" - March 2011

How good was this show? That's an easy one to answer. Due to scheduling difficulties we had to drive two hours through snow and sleet to St Andrews to see it at the Byre Theatre. And two hours through mist and rain back home again. But even with a dodgy sat-nav inspired detour to Dundee, we don't grudge one minute of the drive. It was that good.

Yes, you could make a case that the political or social commentary aspects of Gregory Burke's play are overshadowed in turns by humour and violence. But when the laughs are so genuine and the brutality isn't out of character you really just have to hold on tight and enjoy the ride. Burke has created characters and circumstances which, while not believable in any real sense of the word, are certainly recogniseable - and director Michael Emans has put together an excellent cast to portray them. Jimmy Chisholm convinces as the activist who finds himself in over his head; Finn Den Hertog gives accidental witness Tom a nice balance of naive optimism and insecurity; while Dave Anderson manages to make us care what happens to Frank - despite spending much of his stage time unconscious. But it's Jordan Young's performance as Eddie, the driving force behind events, that makes the biggest impact with his character's fast paced dialogue and raw energy. It's a commanding performance and one that leaves you nervous of encountering him on the street outside after the show.

Emans never allows the pace to flag - even in the moments when little is happening - and from the very first bars of the Kaiser Chiefs track used to open the show the audience knows it's in for a great evening. Rapture Theatre have been one of our favourite theatre companies since we first saw their shows back in 2005 - and Gagarin Way just serves to remind us why we enjoy their work so much.

Gagarin Way still has several Scottish dates to play on its tour including the Tron in Glasgow and ends with performances at Greenwich Theatre in London.
Image by Eamonn McGoldrick used with permission


Sunday, March 13, 2011

"King Lear" - March 2011

It's from one of the UK's foremost theatre companies, stars one of the country's most esteemed performers and has garnered five star reviews left, right and centre. So why did the Donmar Warehouse production with Derek Jacobi as King Lear leave us unmoved and, quite frankly, disappointed?

Don't get me wrong, this is in no way a bad show, it's just safe and unimaginative. I'll admit that I am a sucker for directors that play around with Shakespeare - either in setting or a complete re-interpretation but while I'm not averse to productions taking a classic approach I do need them to put some kind of stamp or character on it. With the quality of the cast and production team involved here - and yes, the ticket price - I wanted something more than I could expect to see from any local theatre. And we just didn't get it.

Jacobi is of course the main draw, and as both the 'angry' Lear and the 'old, frail' Lear his performance is pitched perfectly but I found his 'mad' Lear badly misjudged. The scene where Lear reunites with Gloucester was cringeworthily over the top - much closer to someone faking madness than a genuine and moving failing of the mind (only one step short of Blackadder's 'wibble' moment) . Watching a performance of King Lear with elderly older parents and grandparents (like we did here) should increase its impact. Given that it didn't resonate with us, even under those circumstances, it's difficult to consider it an overwhelming success. King Lear should have no difficulty in finding a relevance in the modern world.

Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell give fine performances as Goneril and Regan; revelling in their misdeeds, but Pippa Bennett-Warner's Cordelia has so little stage time she struggles to make an impression or give the character any real definition. Ron Cook succeeds in making the Fool hugely sympathetic - his affection for Lear shines through the verbal barbs and the scene where he appears usurped by 'Poor Tom' was the one moment in the play to generate any real sense of emotion. Alec Newman's Edmund and Michael Hadley's Kent are also particularly noteworthy amongst a strong ensemble cast.

I'm struggling to work out if our response was out of kilter with the rest of the Theatre Royal audience - there was certainly prolonged applause but not the standing ovation that might have been expected for the pairing of Jacobi & Lear. Perhaps we should adopt the attitude of Lynn Phillips, a friend who saw the show earlier in the week - "It's culture - you're not supposed to enjoy it."

King Lear has completed its run at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and continues its UK tour.


Sunday, March 06, 2011

"Lear's Daughters" - March 2011

The timing of XLC Theatre's "Lear's Daughters" fitted in perfectly with our plans to see the Donmar Warehouse's touring production of Shakespeare's play the following week, and having enjoyed several of their shows previously we made our first trip of the year to the Citz Circle Studio. And this prequel certainly provided an interesting take on the characters.

Written by Elaine Feinstein and The Women's Theatre Group, I'm finding it difficult not to feel that the choices made for the characters are more in the interests of advancing a political agenda than in creating a work of theatre of value in itself. But what Feinstein has delivered is a very lyrical script which the cast perform well. There were a couple of moments early on when some of the semi-monologues came over as more recited than spoken with real meaning, but once we get into the main part of the play all five cast members give impressive performances.

Caitlin Cummins Duffy, Skye Cooper-Barr and Rehanna MacDonald as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia handle the transition from young children to womanhoood effectively. As The Fool, Vasso Gergiadou holds the show together and appears very comfortable getting up close with the audience. Miriam Sarah Doren makes her character(s) sympathetic but the fact that we're unsure if her billing as Nurse/Nanny was a single character is indicative of a wider lack of clarity in the script and David Lee-Michael's direction which left us with a number of plot points on which Waldorf and I disagreed on our understanding of. And we're also now disagreeing as to how much of this was intentional ambiguity.

Sadly we couldn't see a credit in the programme for the costumes - and it's a pity as they were fabulous. "Lear's Daughters" was an entertaining night, and it will be interesting to see just how much it colours our view of "King Lear" when we see it later this week.

Lear's Daughters from XLC Theatre in association with Langside College has completed its run at the Citizens.


"The Belief Project" - March 2011

Perhaps it was the show's title; or maybe the philosophical sounding blurb on the Tron website; or the worrying director's note in the programme which described it as "an experiment to explore the effect our beliefs can have on our lives". Whichever it was, we were expecting something unconventional, rough round the edges and quite possibly a bit, well, pretentious. So it came as quite a surprise to find that it was actually accessible, polished and relevant.

The story of a young couple crumbling under the pressure of their hopes, their past and society's expectations in the face of the current financial climate is horribly true to life. The characters of Kim and Mark, and their lodger Scot are all fully formed and complex - while some things are black and white there are also plenty shades of grey here. And it's only at the very end that it strays into sensationalist territory.

Amy Conway's performance as Kim is close to heartbreaking and Richard Gadd makes Mark at times funny and even sympathetic despite the unpleasantness of the character. There's no specific programme credit for a fight director, but I have to say that the violence here is either the best or worst I've ever encountered in the theatre - it's either beautifully choreographed and executed or Amy Conway is taking a real beating every night of the run. Dòl Eoin completes the cast with a strong performance as the lodger they take in to make ends meet - and acting as our narrator. Eoin also contributes the musical elements that form an integral part of the show.

Waldorf took the view that as a whole the show was overlong at two hours (including an interval) and that the same could have been achieved in 75 minutes. I'm not sure I'd have been taking that much red ink to the script (written by Stephen Redman in collaboration with the cast) but there are certainly moments that added little to it - most notably the two scenes that are most overtly about belief.

"The Belief Project", either by accident or design, makes an excellent companion piece to "Staircase" which has been playing in the Tron's main theatre - and in truth I think "The Belief Project" is the better of two - and certainly the most current. And while it had a considerable audience in the Tron's Changing House studio space, were it to be billed/marketed more conventionally there is a much wider audience for this show out there.

The Belief Project from Flatrate has now completed its run at the Tron.
Image used with permission


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"Staircase" - February 2011

Charles Dyer's play sees Charles and Harry reach a crisis point in their relationship when Charles finds himself facing prosecution for a drunken incident - just as he is about to be reunited with his long lost daughter. And tensions rise further as Harry accuses Charles of trying to sweep their relationship under the carpet. As a comedy, black or otherwise, "Staircase" misses the mark - while a play set in the sixties is clearly going to have a period feel, here the comic lines seemed dreadfully dated. Or maybe you just have to have lived through the sixties to appreciate it (the older couple sitting next to us certainly found parts of it hilarious). But then, for me, the play's strength lay elsewhere - as a consideration of an abusive domestic situation. And on that level it worked rather well.

Andy Arnold gives Charles the sense of unpredictability and lightning quick mood shifts so often at the heart of domestic abuse, with Benny Young making Harry a textbook battered wife. They certainly managed to transfer that element of being 'on edge' to me in the third row. And in fairness the anticipation of where things were heading may have been in part to blame for my inability to appreciate the attempts at humour. Part of me is left disappointed that this aspect of the play is overshadowed by both the comedy billing and a final plot twist, when the abusive relationship seems both more interesting and contemporary.

Arnold and Young both give strong emotional performances, but due to the accent and fast paced delivery we did struggle to catch some of Charles' dialogue. Arnold also directs effectively and what could be a very static two hander maintains a considerable level of energy throughout. Special mentions also for Kenny Miller's clean design and Karen Bryce's atmospheric lighting.

"Staircase" serves as an interesting reminder of just how recently lives were destroyed by society's attitudes to homosexuality, but it's difficult not to feel that a more contemporary consideration of the issues might have been more worthwhile.

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.

Staircase is a 'Tron Stripped' production and runs at the Tron until Saturday 5th March.
Image by John Johnston used with permission