All entries for February 2010

February 21, 2010

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory

Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket for the sake of Charity

5 stars

sweet charity

Sweet Charity, which originally burst onto the Broadway stage in 1966, running for 600 performances, tells the quirky and poignant tale of a resilient spirit. The show, written by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields, with original choreography by Bob Fosse, depicts a young woman – a dance hall hostess – in her quest for love and to be loved. Charity Hope Valentine is the flaneur of the title, wandering through transient love affairs and, at each stage, ending up disappointed, but never downhearted. She is initially pushed into a lake and robbed by her fiancé number one, Charlie, and then later let down by fiancé number two, Oscar, who is so prudish that he decides he cannot deal with Charity’s sexual past. Yet the more this Jack in the Box is pushed down, the more heartily she pops up.

Matthew White’s production of Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory is absolutely top-notch. If you are tempted to roll your eyes at the fact that East Enders star Tamzin Outhwaite has been brought in to play the title role, then don’t bother. She is terrific and carries the show with oodles of panache, a smile as broad as a letter box, and an infectious zest for life, even in the face of Charity’s bitter disappointment. With her Doris Day freshness, sassy top hat and cane dance moves, and slightly smoky voice, Outhwaite carries the show with a vital drive and confidence that surely few leading ladies could offer.

She is supported by an ensemble so committed and energetic, doubling up roles with true originality and executing Stephen Mears’s challenging choreography with startling precision and class. Highlights of the show include “The Rich Man’s Frug” in which the Fosse influence is at its most pronounced and eccentric, and “Rhythm of Life” as a group of drugged-up hippies are led by “Daddy” in an alternative sermon under the Manhattan Bridge.

A special mention for character should go to Mark Umbers who plays all of Charity’s love interests with impressive variation, switching swiftly from the sinister Charlie to the suave Italian film star, Vittorio Vidal, who regards Charity with an affectionate bafflement, to the goofy Oscar, whose sincerity and shyness are heart-breaking.

An equally integral part of the show, of course, is the powerful nine-piece band, under the direction of Nigel Lilley, which produce a thrillingly fat jazz sound that pumps the whole Menier auditorium with life – not least because four of the band are spread across the back of the stage and so create an exciting surround sound.

It’s a treat to see a musical in a space as intimate as the Menier and, as always, the creative team have overcome its spatial limits. Simple moveable raked steps act as a fairground ride, the Manhattan Bridge, and the fire escape steps outside the seedy Fan-Dango Ballroom, over which the hostess girls nonchalantly drape themselves . The costumes provide the necessary colour, as well as a painted proscenium arch, and – more importantly – a stellar cast and band, who appear to relish every moment of this simultaneously wacky and heart-wrenching show. It is brilliant news that this Sweet Charity has a life in the West End after the Menier.


February 14, 2010

Serenading Louie, Donmar Warehouse

2 stars

Serenading

Admittedly, not many people in the UK have heard of Lanford Wilson, the American playwright whose 1970 play, Serenading Louie, is currently being shown at the Donmar. Based on the evidence of last night, it’s not absolutely clear why we should have heard of him either. Serenading Louie is a meandering presentation of two decade-long marriages, both of which are going down the toilet. According to Alex, it’s because his somewhat unstable wife Gabby is sex-mad apparently, so much so that he feels “castrated by his own wife”. For Carl it’s because his wife, Mary, is having an affair with her husband’s company’s accountant and – it seems – also with Alex, but, unlike in his youth, Carl can’t even summon up the energy to care. Over the course of the two-hour play, we see the couples on their own, not communicating, one trying desperately to facilitate some contact, the other resolutely avoiding their spouse, and both taking refuge in other aspects of their lives to distract from their marriages. In the second half, the couples get together for drinks at Mary and Carl’s, and muse about the past, their rosy high-school days, and when they first got together. As Mary rather astutely says in one of the rare moments of insight in the play, “I didn’t love Carl then but I love Carl then now”. The play abounds with anti-feminist attitudes, male “business” talk, and rather crude glimpses into the secrets that these couples have.

In a plethora of American plays about disintegrating marriages in the face of unattainable aims, and the disillusion that comes with this, Lanford Wilson’s work does nothing to carve out new territory and has, frankly, very little to recommend it even in isolation. For the majority of the play, you feel that you are sitting in on a very dull dinner party of drunk, brash Americans, who are reminiscing about people you don’t know and aren’t really worth reminiscing about anyway, and occasionally indulging their nostalgia by breaking into old college songs (hence the play’s title). It is like Edward Albee on Calpol, and the play becomes an aimless extended dialogue between the four characters about where it all went wrong.

Which is all the more unfortunate when you consider the brilliant acting talent on show here. Indeed, it’s rare to see such four such polished performances. Jason Butler Harner makes an excellent Alex, weasel-like in his deceitfulness, scarily emphatic in his criticisms of his wife, and turning into a chaotic, hair-tugging mess at the end as his affair with a seventeen-year-old is discovered. Charlotte Emmerson as his trusting and somewhat juvenile wife gives this difficult part a husky charm, coping especially well with the rather random cluster of subjects she has to cover in a monologue at the start, and Geraldine Somerville plays Mary as a steely, controlling woman with an ice-like presence and poised assuredness. The rapport between the four actors is inspiring and most convincing. I felt sorry for them being lumbered with such a lethargic and clichéd script.

Simon Curtis’s direction is mostly good, although I feel his overall spatial concept doesn’t quite work. Peter McKintosh’s ‘70s living room set is very appealing and acts as the home for both couples, with their separate existences drawing closer and closer towards the end so that the space becomes almost without walls. With this superficially realistic set, however, the occasional moments when characters have to step out of the situation and address the audience directly for a fleeting line only jar. “You’ll probably remember this” Carl has to suddenly say to an audience member in the middle of an otherwise wholly realistic scene. Whether we are supposed to be participants in this drama or onlookers I’m not sure, and this only leads to the overall sense of this play having very little clarity. Maybe Curtis could have experimented with a more minimalist set and experimented with lighting and other more abstract effects to make this play feel less of a schizophrenic drawing-room drama and more of a study of time and space. The characters stepping out of character maybe only three times in the play – and only for a line at a time – felt as peculiar and alienating to me as if Willy Loman had come out at the end of Death of a Salesman to throw sweets to the audience.

The Americans, we know, like their epic drama. We have only to look at the fantastic success that was August: Osage County last year, along with older American works that Kevin Spacey has been staging at the Old Vic, to appreciate that. But unfortunately, Lanford Wilson’s play is an epic without an epicentre, and consequently, this lends itself to a very tedious evening.


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