Friday, 25 February 2011
or rather, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
95 mins straight through. A preview (though we hadn't realised that and it was as polished and energetic as if it had been running for weeks). A familiar set-up to anyone who's seen the film documentary Spellbound: this was the fictional version, set to music and well-directed by Jame Lloyd
We thought it was great, though Billington in the Guardian evidently saw it when he was feeling especially dyspeptic (he called at "a flimsy vacuous diversion":The Indie caled it "a dippy, spirited mix of the genuinely funny and gratingly fake," which seemed fairer. It had its faults, It dragged a bit two-thirds of the way through, partly because everyone had to have their solo and some of the songs weren't as snappily-written or tuneful or well-sung. It was (being American) essentially a sentimental, feelgood affair beneath the superficial satirical bite. The music wasn't memorable. But in a small space like the Donmar a musical can't really fail if it's done with sufficient verve and panache and this had both.
We were in a school gym in Putnam County as six contestants lined up to compete for a place in the national finals. Children played by adults, plus a wonderful question-master, at once pompous, portentous and sleazy (Steve Pemberton unrecognisable in specs and sports jacket), the man charged with counselling and comforting the losers (a prisoner on community service dressed in a bright orange bee costume), and best of all the mistress of ceremonies, herself a former winner, now a real estate agent resplendent in blonde hair, electric blue miniskirt and jacket and high heels (Katherine Kingsley, superb).
There was some doubling as well, mainly in scenes representing the kids' parents. One frantic overachiever had two dads pushing her relentlessly. The lonely girl who pals up with the aggressive fat boy no-one likes (David Fynn) had a dad too busy to make it to the competition and a mum who'd gone off to find herself by the Ganges (sung rather movingly by Kingsley in a headscarf). There was also one ill-conceived intervention from Jesus.
The Donmar's regular bench seats had been stripped out and replaced with blue metal gym-style chairs. The back wall was hung with a huge Putnam County banner. And there was some audience participation, with four people invited to play contestants in the early part of the show and being gently ribbed while being given impossible words with silly definitions to spell. One man clearly wished he was somewhere else. One woman seemed to be enjoying it immensely but blew it when she couldn't spell "lachrymose". Another man played along marvellously and, when given an impossible word, delivered an impossible answer which was declared correct to much hilarity.
I always say I don't like musicals, but I liked this, just as I like Sondheim and most musicals produced at the Donmar. D said afterwards that in fact what I don't like is big West End musicals in big West End theatres, and she's probably right.
Wednesday, 16 February 2011
16/2/11, National (Olivier)
2 hrs (just under) straight through. Nick Dear's version, directed by Danny Boyle, designed by Mark Tildesley, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller boxing and coxing alternate nights as Frankenstein and his Creature. Seen at a preview with three more performances to go before the first of two opening nights.
First the positives. One is a great performance by Cumberbatch as the Creature; first seen emerging naked from a backlit semi-transparent womb-like structure, writhing, groaning and twitching, then gradually acquiring the capacity to walk, to feel pain and fear, and (under the tutelage of Karl Johnson's blind old man) to read, to think and to quote great chunks of Milton.
The other is a spectacular set by Tildesley, which features (among much else) an extraordinary array of lightbulbs across the roof of the theatre under a reflective sheet, which flash blindingly as the creature comes to life. Tildesley makes more extensive use of the Olivier revolve than anything I recall since His Dark Materials and at times seems positively profligate with its visual imagery and the budget. Early on, after the creature's emergence, when he has found a great red cloak to clothe his nakedness but is still wandering alone, a sort of railway engine shoots forwards, harshly backlit, along rails to the front of the stage, with huge cogwheels on top and half the cast hanging off it: they do some sort of dance, and then it withdraws never to be seen again. Likewise for the scene with the boy by Lake Geneva enormous slatted walkways were dropped vertically from the flies to be spread out across the stage with the aid of stagehands, only to be whisked up and away again a few minutes later. And (spoiler alert) I caught a reference to at least one great romantic painting, Fuseli's The Nightmare, as the Creature crouched on Frankenstein's bride's bed having murdered her. No visual trick nor expense was spared.
I wish I'd liked the rest of it better but I remained largely unmoved and unengaged. Jonny Lee Miller looked like Colin Firth's Mr Darcy but sounded hoarse. He appears very briefly at the start, running away appalled at the sight of his creation; then doesn't reappear for 40 minutes. The moral and philosophical punch of the play is packed into two or three scenes between Frankenstein and the Creature, and a couple more between Frankenstein and his fiance, as they debate the Creature's ambiguous moral status (an outcast abandoned by his creator and so deserving sympathy, and yet a murderer; a putative Adam who sees himself instead as Milton's Satan), and Frankenstein's right to play god. Those scenes failed to spark, but that may just be preview-itis.
I should say that D who knows Mary Shelley's original well liked it a lot and so did S, but A agreed with me that it was dull. The audience (loads of teenage girls) screamed satisfyingly when the Creature appeared suddenly and unexpectedly at one point, and
gave the show a standing ovation.
Friday, 11 February 2011
2 hrs. Every bit as good as they say it is (which is always a relief and a pleasure to report): scabrous, funny, discomfiting and superbly acted, an absolutely riveting expose of the continuing cancer of race in American society. At several moments there was that rare complete stillness in the theatre which seems to happen less often in the West End than in the subsidised/Off West End sector: pure theatrical magic.
Not having seen Lorraine Hansbury's Raisin in the Sun I had no idea, until we read Matt Wolf's excellent essay in the programme at half time, that Bruce Norris's play is a riff on that one -- related to it, according to Matt, in much the same way as Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is related to Hamlet.
In Act One we see a white couple and their neighbours, plus their black maid and her husband, as they argue over the couple's plan to sell their house to a "colored" family. The husband Russ (Stuart McQuarrie) is sunk in gloom; the wife (Sophie Thompson) maintains a brittle jollity. In time we learn their son, convicted of killing civilians while serving in Korea, had committed suicide upstairs (the maid found his body). The central encounter comes when a neighbour, Karl (Stephen Campbell-Moore), argues against the sale on all the expected grounds: it will depress property prices, the neighbourhood will go down the pan, "these people" live differently, eat differently, will be more comfortable if they live separately in their existing neighbourhood. The act climaxes with the confrontation between Karl -- unable to comprehend that his intervention is utterly unwanted, that his arguments have entirely failed to persuade -- and Russ.
Act Two brings us to the present day. A young couple (Campbell-Moore again, wonderfully insensitive, and Sarah Goldberg) have bought the now thoroughly dilapidated house and want to demolish and rebuild; they are meeting the local residents' committee, including a black couple Lena and Kevin (Lorna Brown and Lucian Msamati), to discuss the proposal. Superficially the new owners and the residents' committee all belong to the affluent middle classes. But underneath black and white still have their differences. An elliptical remark from the Brown character leads by degrees to a competitive joke-telling session which is at once hilarious and horrifying: the jokes themselves aren't funny; the characters' reactions are.
How this toxic confection would play in other hands doesn't bear thinking about. With this director (Dominic Cooke) and this cast, playing it with a kind of stylised, heightened naturalism, it's mesmerising and jaw-droppingly effective. And they are good. Though it's invidious to single anyone out, Campbell-Moore plays two very different characters, buttoned-up (literally) 50s suburbanite and Rotarian and superficially liberal but actually boorish 90s man in shorts, and does it brilliantly: they are the two key characters since it's their intervention which propels the action in each act. It's a measure perhaps of what a strong ensemble this is that Lucian Msamati, one of our favourite actors, is here not exactly outclassed but doesn't stand out.
Wednesday, 9 February 2011
8/2/11, Royal Court
Superfluous smoking near-miss*
2 hrs 45 mins. Penultimate preview with Juliet Stevenson of new Richard Bean play. Billed as about climate change but actually two plays. A conventionally-plotted old-fashioned farcical melodrama with some good twists, and an inadequately-developed didactic climate change play bolted on.
Part one is an intermittently interesting piece of limited plausibility about a university earth studies lecturer who steps out of line to claim that sea level rise as a result of climate change isn't happening. It's set in her office, where she gives one-to-one tutorials (and where does that happen these days outside Oxbridge?), fences with her boss and one-time lover, the professor, and then falls foul of the management and gets fired after an unauthorised appearance on Newsnight (filmed in the Newsnight studio with Paxo himself doing a turn).
Part two is a thoroughly implausible denouement set in the kitchen of her converted barn at Christmas, with much plotting ingenuity devoted to getting the characters to the location and in and out of the back door at the necessary moments and culminating (spoiler alert) in violence, near-death and a wedding. Some good jokes which should get even better as the performances bed in, lots of fizz and bubble, and a lot more entertaining than last week's climate change play, the NT's Greenland, but actually a bit of a mess.
You got the impression that Bean had started with the situation in part two and cast about for a suitable McGuffin to set the clockwork in motion, finding it in the timely but slightly arbitrary business of climate change sceptics.
The highlight: a wonderful performance by Johnny Flynn as a, like, climate-obsessed, right, personally troubled, like, bicycling, like really, really, um, confused student who gets belly-laughs from the audience, brings out the maternal in the Stevenson character and provokes naked lust in her daughter (a "purging anorexic") and even at one point sings a song he's "written" to his own guitar accompaniment... which could have been toe-curling but was actually rather sweet.
Stevenson and James Fleet as her boss and one-time lover have some equally good lines but haven't yet quite got the measure of them (and as A said may still be struggling with cuts and rewrites); as the performances mature I'd expect the dialogue to zing and the audience reaction to increase. But Stevenson has some awkward speechifying which slows things down: it didn't worry me too much, though revealingly I can't remember what the speeches were actually about; S got really cross.
Bean has invented some spurious science to move his plot along. The Stevenson character's life's work is measuring sea level rise in the Maldives, where she has planted a tree, and where she deduces sea level isn't rising at all. In Part Two our friends hack into the website of a rival university to discover from their emails (shades of the UEA scandal here) that their data has been massaged. The hacking is of course illegal, and none of this seems remotely plausible; worse nothing really happens in the play as a result of these revelations, which by that time have become much less important than the love story, the death threats story, the mother-daughter relationship story etc, the will-she-get-back-together-with-her-ex-lover-now-his-wife's-thrown-him-out story etc etc, which all provide "texture" but are all a bit of a distraction from the main event.
But there are nice touches: the Newsnight; the battery of laptops brought out for the hacking episode; and the polar bear (yes, this play has a polar bear as well, just like Greenland -- a teddy brought on as our scientist's union rep during the sacking scene which ends Part One).
*There's much talk of smoking dope and the Prof does come on at one point with a joint... but it's unlit.