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.


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.