All entries for March 2012

March 13, 2012

The House of Bernarda Alba, Almeida Theatre

3 stars

I would say that it’s quite unusual for a play to be transferred to an entirely new context and to work almost as well as its original. However, this is the case with Bijan Sheibani’s ingenious setting of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba at the Almeida Theatre in which mid-twentieth century Andalusia becomes rural twenty-first century Iran. With few changes in the new translation by Emily Mann, aside from the character names that have morphed from Spanish to being in the territory of Farsi, it seems to do so almost effortlessly.

We practically feel the heat and we see the cultural oppression – not just in the mourning outfits that the Alba daughters are wearing, but also in the way that a knock on the front door prompts the women to all cover their heads before they answer it. This even extends to Bernarda Alba, the tyrannical matriarch, who Lorca presents as demanding absolute authority over her household. A clever twist in Sheibani’s production is that even she must obey the strict codes of cultural conduct and it is only in her home that she is in control.

Shohreh Aghdashloo stars as the tyrannical matriarch, who is insisting that her grown-up daughters obey the period of mourning for their late father, by staying inside for eight years. With only the eldest daughter, Asieh (a superb Pandora Colin) being engaged to a man – ultimately because of her money and in spite of her unfortunate appearance – the rest of the daughters pine for love and sexual fulfilment.

Aghdashloo brings to the role a statuesque poise and an unwavering detachment from the other characters and her daughters. When shocking news is broken to her, or gossip shared, there is something blasé in her reaction that makes Bernarda all the more frightening. She barely blinks as a young woman is tormented in the street for abandoning her fatherless baby. She cracks a vague smile when she hears about a village woman who has been abducted and raped by the local men. Rather than a tyrant continually feeling the need to reinforce her hold on the family and situation through aggressive gestures and tirades, this Bernarda seems supremely confident that nothing could shake her authority within the household.

At times, Aghdashloo’s presence feels a little too much on the relaxed side and she perhaps could have benefitted from slightly more variation in her acting. And it’s a flaw of the production that, in spite of the context and the set-up being optimum, you never truly see the family reach a boiling point. Tensions bob to the surface, but then disperse, and you never fully see the extent to which sexual frustration and jealousy drives the daughters to behave like enraged caged animals. Combined with the fact that some of Lorca’s poetic writing inevitably can’t be conveyed so successfully in translation, the piece at times feels rather prosaic and ticks along at points like they’re all waiting for Godot.

I am pleased to see this powerful play being revived in such an imaginative way and, ratcheted up a few notches, it would be an even more disturbing and electrifying piece of theatre.

Cast


March 12, 2012

Les Miserables, HMP Erlestoke, Pimlico Opera

Les Mis

5 stars

(Image: right) Cast members meet Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, on her visit to the show

It seems that Pimlico Opera’s productions are truly going from strength to strength. 2012’s project is a production of Les Miserables in HMP Erlestoke, a Category C prison, housing just under 500 convicted male adult prisoners. Once again, this production was conceived by Wasfi Kani, and falls under the expert direction of Michael Moody and musical direction of Toby Purser. It’s a shining example of true integration between the professional and prisoner casts.

This is partly a feature of Moody’s brilliant vision, but also owes itself to the (mostly previously untapped) natural talent of so many of the inmate performers. Most notable perhaps is MARIUS, who describes himself in the programme as “a cheeky chap from Peckham”, and has a beautifully pure singing voice, and an earnest, intense stage presence, which makes him ideal for the role. His voice blends perfectly with COSETTE’s in their duets, and he has such a confident grasp of the often challenging music that you marvel at the fact that he is not a professional.

Also worthy of a special mention in the principal roles is RAM-trained Anthony Flaum as JEAN VALJEAN, who in many ways seems born to play this part despite his young years; Grange Park regular Caryl Hughes as a sweetly voiced and poised Cosette; and THERNARDIER, the seedy innkeeper who, in this version, is a dry East Ender on the fiddle, bedecked in gold chains and a gaudy leopard-print coat by the end. His cool rendering of ‘Master of the House’, which at the end evolves into the Maccerena, leaves the audience shouting for more. THERNARDIER, incidentally, claims to have signed up to the project on the understanding that he was to be a stage hand, and had never before seen or heard an opera.

But to single out principals doesn’t do justice to the spirit of this production where talent and commitment run right through the ranks, in keeping with the message of the show. Moody has clearly got to know his company thoroughly because he has cast exceptionally to their strengths. GAVROCHE, for instance, is excellent, making up for his small stature in heaps of attitude and charm; ENJOLRAS is stirring as the motivated leader of the revolution; and there are some stunning vocals from two very talented signers, LEON and GRANTAIRE, in ‘Drink With Me’ – here ingeniously re-imagined as a campfire song and hauntingly accompanied by a guitar, making it one of the highlights of the night.

They say a show is as good as its weakest chorus member, and the chorus here are difficult to fault. Ensemble numbers are tightly choreographed and executed, the singing is impassioned, and individual characters are given a prominence and distinctive identity, which can so often be missed in professional productions, which tend to present the chorus simply as a depersonalised ‘mob’. From the chapel to the brothel to the barricades, you watch relationships and events unfold on so many levels, and you witness new characters and new talent rise to the surface at different points in this committed and versatile ensemble.

The quality of the on-stage performances is enhanced further by a great band, a dramatic and sombre set with a bridge that’s used to great dramatic effect, and some striking stage effects, including swivelling lights, which, at the end, rotate from focusing on the cast to illuminating the audience. It seems to represent the importance of the audience and supporters of Pimlico Opera, which is entirely funded by individuals and charities, receiving no government funding. One cast member comments about his involvement in the show: “I am really enjoying it. Now I feel a different person and very normal.” It’s our responsibility to ensure this opportunity is given to more people in his position over the coming years.

To support and find out more about Pimlico Opera’s work, visit: http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk/about-us/pimlico-opera/support-pimlico-opera-in-prison


Singin' in the Rain, Palace Theatre

3 stars

Chichester Festival Theatre seems to be on a roll at the moment with glowing reviews and a plethora of London transfers. It is a credit to their Artistic Director, Jonathan Church, that this regional theatre is now in such a healthy state when many are struggling to pull in the audiences that are needed to keep the businesses afloat.

And it’s not hard to see why this production of Singin’ in the Rain has been hailed as such an unqualified triumph. Not only is its arrival timely with the Oscar-soaked film The Artist, which takes as its theme silent movies versus the Talkies, but it stays close to its screen buddy by not fully recognising itself as a stage show. It does exactly what the 1952 film of Singin’ in the Rain did, but cleverly makes it a bit more modern by being a little more in-yer-face. And, in many ways, it needs to because – in spite of some cracking numbers – the show, for want of a better word, can at times be a little bit wet.

Adam Cooper is undeniably a joy to watch as Don Lockwood, the famous silent movie star, and his classical ballet training brings a strength, grace and control to his dance sequences that (dare I say it) surpass even the sprightly Gene Kelly. The rain is funny, the front rows get very wet, and the classic numbers (‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, ‘Moses Supposes’ and ‘Good Morning’) are all very enjoyable.

But, that said, the production suffers from two things. Firstly, from its relative lack of imagination and reluctance to depart from what the film did so well. (I was alarmed that even potentially inoffensive departures hadn’t been embraced, such as the decision to make Lina Lamont’s voice coach a clone of the film’s, or not to have Lina be a fiery redhead, for instance, rather than the same peroxide blonde that we saw in the movie.) Because the production hasn’t carved out its own dramatic identity, replicas of sequences we know from the film can only really be inferior: real-life Cosmo sadly can’t run up the walls and ceiling, so he has to topple through a paper wall instead; the live ‘fit as a fiddle’ boy violinists by definition have to be a little less agile on the stage and so the virtuosic gymnastics never happen; and the rain, by nature, has to be operated by a machine, caught in a trough, and then drained out and mopped up.

Secondly, I felt that some of the show’s charm is cancelled out here by a tendency for over-acting. Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley)’s dialogue is often very drawn out and her voice doesn’t seem genetically bad enough to make it funny. Cathy Seldon (Scarlett Strallen) ups her game to keep up with her exaggerated fellow-principal to become rather shrill and neurotic herself, so at times you feel sorry for the sandwiched Don.

Nevertheless, there is no lack of gusto in this production, and the show signs off with a stylish sequence of the cast as Don Lockwood-lookalikes, sporting silver umbrellas with multi-coloured undersides, splashing in unanimous enthusiasm in the second shower of rain.

This show is ideal if you want a trip down memory lane but have seen enough of the film. Don’t go expecting anything wildly different or inventive, however, as you will be disappointed.


Patience, Union Theatre

5 stars

Patience cast

I’m rather glad that I hadn’t been studious enough to read the (not-so) small print on the advert for Sasha Regan’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience at the Union Theatre. You can imagine my surprise then when twenty lovesick maidens came on in tea dresses with hairy legs, chests, shadows of facial hair, and some noticeable bald patches. After getting over my initial shock, I realised quite soon that – in more ways than the obvious – this production was something special.

The young men, mostly in their twenties, were comfortably singing the soprano line of the score as they wafted about the stage, often in sync, emotionally wound up, but physically wilting on account of their mutual love for the Aesthetic poet, Reginald Bunthorne (a comic and obstinate Dominic Brewer). Soon, Bunthorne and his sublimely prosaic poetry are ditched in favour of a newcomer in the ladies’ midst – the narcissistic beauty Archiblad Grosvenor. The milkmaid, Patience (Edward Charles Bernstone) – new to love and all that accompanies it – understands that the act of love must be one of self-sacrifice and so, with both men adoring her equally, she must choose the least desirable one (though this proves more complex than anticipated).

Bernstone as Patience is wholly engaging. With a sweep of thick blonde hair, piercing, enquiring eyes, and tanned, sculpted limbs, he captures the unintentional tease about this milkmaid, who – in trying to be self-sacrificial – becomes entirely self-obsessed. Bernstone perfectly mimics the verbal inflections of the era with exclamations such as, “Oh, horror!” containing both a clipped formality and a sadness that seems to hang over her as a woman and therefore with relatively little free will.

There is a bold and brilliant performance from Sean Quigley as Lady Gray, who pursues Bunthorne relentlessly, but cannot deny that she is losing her figure and her youthful looks. Once again, this actor seems to capture both the superficial humour of the character’s bitchiness, but also portrays a more deep-seated tragedy about this woman in grey calf-length socks and a shapeless frock who is desperate to love and be loved.

What I responded to so acutely in Sasha Regan’s production was the fact that it was not a piss-take. While extremely funny, it was never self-consciously so, and every principal and chorus member had found a truth in their character. There are some simple but stunning directorial touches, such as the maidens all hanging bunting in preparation for the husband raffle; the synchronised, almost other-worldly tea-drinking ritual as they sing their romantic troubles into their china; and an imaginative dance sequence that the (intentionally) clumsy dragoons execute.

The Union’s space is small, but presents no barriers for this production, though a glimpse of the ‘maidens’ after the show, trying to get changed while plastered up against the back of the set, brought home the realities of working as a large cast in this confined a space. The decision to pare the orchestra down to a single onstage piano, played adeptly by Richard Bates (who, I only observed after the curtain call, slunk off stage also in a skirt, not looking entirely comfortable about the fact) does not damage the music in the least, and the singing is sublime throughout.

I take my bonnet off to Sasha Regan who has committed to a startlingly bold vision for a lesser-known operetta that many people may consider to be dated. The result? Brilliant, clear, original and classy. Let’s hope this production has a life beyond the Union.


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