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November 2010

Shakespeare double bill and a bit of fun at the National

Am quite excited about this weeks trio of theatrical goodies mainly because I reasonably confident they'll all be excellent.

First up is the RSC's Romeo and Juliet which was marvellous in Stratford but now transfers to the Roundhouse in Camden. I'm really hoping they use the space imaginatively and that Sam Troughton as Romeo has learnt to deliver his lines with a bit more clarity.

Then there is Season's Greetings at the National which has got to be good with the likes of Mark Gatiss, Catherine Tate, David Troughton, Katherine Parkinson and Oliver Chris in it. Am particularly excited about Mr Chris as I nearly cracked a rib laughing at his Bottom (in A Midsummer Night's Dream, silly).

And to finish it off King Lear at the lovely Donmar. I'm not particularly fond of Lear as a play but it has Derek Jacobi in it so I have to go; Miss Egan my retirement-age, A-level english teacher had a bit of a soft spot for him so it's in her honour. And he is rather good, last seen in yellow stockings in the Donmar @ Wyndhams' Twelfth Night, demonstrating his comedy skills. Not expecting many laughs in Lear though.

He'll be supported by an equally fab cast including the wonderful Gina McKee and Ron Cook.


Stan sits in a box (and it's press night)

I'm one of those people that looks up from the stalls at those sitting in a box at the theatre thinking 'bet you get a rubbish view, must only be able to see half the stage'. And then when Poly and I get to sit in a box as we were very lucky to able to do this week,  I'm well chuffed and suddenly they are the best seats in the house.

Well they aren't quite the best seats in the house because you do have a slice, albeit just a small one, obscured by some ugly speakers at the side of the stage but there are other benefits that make up for it.

Firstly you have your own door and little staircase up to your chairs which aren't fixed to the floor so you can move them around to the best and most comfortable viewing position. And then there is all the space for coats and bags so they are nicely out of the way. There is also a little balcony to rest your drink and programme on.

You do feel a little bit special as people, like I do when I'm sat elsewhere, have a look to see 'who is sitting in the box'. If I'd known that's where the tickets were I'd have worn my tiara.

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The Rivals and why it gave me writer's block

Images-2 I confess I've been struggling with what to write about the Peter Hall-directed, Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles-starring The Rivals at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

It's not that I didn't enjoy this very polished version of Sheridan's 18th Century comedy because I did. Keith and Bowles demonstrated the skill and experience you'd expect from acting royalty comfortable with period comedy.

Indeed Keith as marriage-plotting Mrs Malaprop with her famous and highly amusing improper use of words and Bowles as her partner-in-plotting, Sir Anthony Absolute, who is always on the verge of a "frenzy" with his son Jack, were almost addictive.

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Dressing rooms and where to celeb-spot in Stratford

Right finally got time to sit down and go through my photo's from the preview tour of the RSC's new theatres in Stratford.

First can I say 'wow'. I love the way they've melded the old with the new keeping some stunning features like the gothic Victorian staircase in the Swan Theatre and the art deco ticket booth from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

I also think it's great that they've recycled bits that couldn't stay in situ. For example the wood that graced the stage has been relaid in one of the bars so visitors get to tread the famous boards themselves.

There is some great artwork too. I particularly liked the oil painting of a scene from Richard II in which he gives his last soliloquoy standing under pouring sand - at least that's the performance and production it reminded me of if it isn't (there is a picture in the slide show below). There is also a great explosion of pages from Shakespeare's complete works in one of the bars. It looks like the pupils of Hogwarts have been having a bit of fun with their magic skills (also have a pic).

Of course my favourite bit was nosing around the dressing rooms. Each has a balcony overlooking the River Avon so if there's a matinee on, in warmer weather, a slow stroll along there might yield some good actor-type spots when productions return to the theatre. (The first full productions will be existing shows when they return from the RSC's London season in February and then the first productions-designed specifically for the new space start in the spring.)

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RSC unveils its new Stratford Theatres

Day job collided with love of theatre yesterday as I was invited to a press preview of the Royal Shakespeare Company's newly redeveloped Stratford Theatres.

I've only been visiting Stratford for four years so I never got to see a performance in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or the Swan Theatre but what I learnt was that the actors loved the old thrust stage of the Swan and hated the proscenium arch of the RST (audiences didn't like the bad sound and view of the stage from chunks of the seats in the RST either).

So in the partial demolition and rebuild, the RSC has given both thrust stages. I had my camera with me and took loads of snaps. Here are a selection, the rest I'll post tomorrow (at the theatre tonight - naturally).

Dressing rooms all have balconies (handy for if a certain Dame wants to step out for a fag between scenes, someone commented on the tour) and went through eight different drafts before the company was happy:


The much loved Swan:


And the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre with it's thrust stage:


The Blasted review

Images-1 A woman, sat near me during the performance of Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith last night, spent quite a lot of time with her head in her hands, looking into her lap. The way she'd been smooching with her male friend prior to the performance inclines me to believe she wasn't sickening for something but just found the play as "disturbing" as it had been described on the official literature.

The problem I have when plays are described as shocking or disturbing is that I see it as a challenge: "So shock me." And most fail. It's not that I am unshockable, far from it, but the things that shock me are the totally unexpected and the more unusual.

For example, I've never been able to watch the deep-fat fryer episode of Spooks ever again because it still haunts me, likewise the Last King of Scotland for the meat hook scene. There is a description a character in Philip Ridley's Fastest Clock in the Universe gives about a fur factory that also stays with me.

By I digress slightly. *Plot spoilers* Perhaps there is something wrong with me but Ian's (Danny Webb) implied rape of Cate (Lydia Wilson) and then the Soldier's (Aiden Kelly) rape of Ian didn't so much as raise an eyebrow. Neither did the nudity for that matter - when you've seen Ian McKellen, as King Lear, drop his pants and dance about, you are sort of prepared for anything on the nudity scale.

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The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic theatre

Glass_menagerie_500 The Glass Menagerie set is one of those that makes you stop in your tracks when you first walk into the theatre. It's not particularly lavish but I've never seen the Young Vic opened up and used in quite the same way, revealing the full extent of the stage with metal walk ways and steps hugging the exposed brick walls.

After seeing two very disappointing plays at the weekend being impressed by the set was a very good start indeed and the cast wouldn't need to do too much to revive my faith in theatre as an entertaining and engaging way of spending an evening.

And they didn't let me down. Indeed where Saturday night's Dracula was stage school this production and the performances were PhD at a top university.

Leo Bill as Tom, the son torn between family duty and living the life he dreams of, immediately grabbed attention, delivering the opening lines slowly and deliberately meeting the gaze of the audience as if a master magician creating a distraction:

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

The rich red velvet pelmet that fringed the stage then like a magician's cape rose up to the fly briefly obscuring the stage so that the rest of Tom's family, mother Amanda (Deborah Findlay) and sister Laura (Sinead Matthews) seemed to magically appear. And so the scene was set for the story of family that is living not so much in an illusion but in their own dillusion.

Amanda's lives in the past of her youth. Life on a plantation when she had her pick of gentlemen callers clinging on to the hope that she'll glimpse it all again through her daughter. Tom meanwhile is struggling to reconcile his duty as bread winner and man of the house in the absence of his father with his desire for adventure and a life quite different. He is a poet working in a warehouse.

Meanwhile the painfully shy, self-conscious, nervous and mildly crippled Laura retreats from her mother's match-making to her father's gramaphone records and her collection of glass animals.

Son is pitted against mother, mother against daughter and son but nothing can quite break the illusory life they all lead until Tom's friend Jim (Kyle Soller) is invited for dinner one evening.

Continue reading "The Glass Menagerie, Young Vic theatre" »

Double bill duffer #2: Dracula, Greenwich Playhouse

2183639Picture40 Somebody should tell the cast of Dracula that when performing in a venue with a capacity of 80 you don't need to project and exaggerate your performance as if you are in a venue with a capacity for 280 (with two notable exceptions in the cast that is but I'll come onto that).

Dracula is a big story to adapt into a play and putting it on, on a little stage presents problems particularly if, as I've already mentioned, the cast are performing as if in a space two or three times bigger. 

It is also easy to caricature and here lies another problem. Putting on a similar accent to the Count from Sesame Street and walking slowly around the stage in an overly purposeful manner does not a scary Dracula make, sorry Louis J Parker.

Then there was Laura Blackmore as Mina and Daisy Burns as Lucy. Bearing in mind the play is based on Bram Stoker's Victorian novel and the period has been preserved in this production, if you take the sexual awakening of these two Victorian women too far then you lose the element of innocence that explains the mens overt fear for their safety.

Blackmore's and Burn's stagey, vampish precociousness just made me long for Dracula to sink his teeth in. There was certainly no feeling of 'poor little Lucy' and neither was I convinced that Matthew Grace's turn as solicitor Jonathan Harker gave the character the charisma to turn the head of wealthy heiress Mina.

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Double bill duffer #1: Life After, New End Theatre

Images Anyone who can write a play, get it performed and get people to pay to see it has to be admired but with Andrew Olins' Life After, at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, I couldn't help thinking that someone should have put the brakes on the whole process before it reached an audience.

Life After is morality 101. Olins does get points for writing about what he knows. He's a lawyer by day and the central character of the play is Aaron, a fledgling city lawyer.  Aaron has his conscience pricked when, on the day he wins big in court, he chooses to go drinking Dom Perignon with his boss rather than stopping to help an obviously distressed young man who hours later commits suicide.

The main problem is that it feels like you are being spoon-fed large, sickly doses of the moral of loving thy neighbour. The programme even has a list of what it calls 'The Golden Rules of World Religions' which are quotes from different faiths extolling the virtue, presumably in case you fall asleep and miss the point. (You'd have to have a pretty long sleep).

Coupled with a script that was clunky in the mouths of actors trying their best, stereotyped characters and a contrived and slightly ridiculous ending  there is nothing challenging, thought-provoking, moving or even entertaining about this play.

The New End Theatre is lovely though (although there is an annoying hand rail which blocks the view of seat C5). The upstairs cafe bar is like sitting in a geriatrics cosy lounge with a mismatch of chairs in a semi circle and tea served in cups and saucers.

And I have to thank Andrew Olins for luring me to Hampstead for the first time, such a delight of twee-ness I never thought existing inside the M25.

I'm going to give the play two stars out of five. It gets an extra star for the theatre.


There is a connection, which I admit surprised me: Daniel Gosling who plays Aaron's best friend was in the marvellous After the Dance at the National Theatre which already has 6DS link with Mr W via Pandora Collins who was in ...some trace of her.