Friday, July 31, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire, Donmar Warehouse

Of all the aspects of Rob Ashford's production of Tennessee Williams' play which can be praised - and there are several - I am sure that it is Rachel Weisz’s performance as Blanche DuBois that will be best remembered when the house lights come up on closing night.

As delicate as the Chinese lantern she uses to shade a naked bulb, Weisz’s Blanche is waif-like, easy to shatter – the ethereal silks and chiffons she wears seem more robust than her mental state.

When Blanche arrives at her sister Stella’s house at the start of the play, everything about her is at odds with her surroundings. She demands old world manners and chivalry, but is met with the brutal power of her “ape-like” brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, and the overt sexuality and occasional brutality of his relationship with Stella. She yearns for space and air, but has to endure oppressive New Orleans heat. She even looks out of place, wearing blues, reds and whites while all around her is a murky ochre.

This is a likable Blanche – or at least one that you feel sorry for rather than irritated by. She lies constantly (preferring magic to realism, of course) but there is something endearing about her, and her depression and anxieties stemming from the suicide of her husband as a very young woman are in evident from the moment she steps shakily into the Kowalski household. It is hard to hold mood swings and invention against a woman who has reason to be sad, angry and tired with reality.

Weisz’s Blanche is complemented by a wonderful turn from Ruth Wilson, who equally makes Stella an appealing character. She may live with a man who strikes her on a semi-regular basis but, for right or wrong, she never comes across as a victim - and with a mountain of a husband in Elliot Cowan’s Stanley, that shows that this Stella has a core of steel to match her smiley exterior.

Cowan certainly inhabits the overwhelming physicality of Stanley, then, and his own dual personality that veers from joker to raging drunk seems to mirror that of his sister-in-law – whose own mood is similarly affected by alcohol. It is just a shame that his wavering accent sometimes distracts from the performance.

Blanche’s tragedy and decline is certainly placed firmly at the centre of this production, perhaps to the point that other aspects of the play are not given as much prominence as they could - but it has the benefit of showcasing a wonderful performance from Weisz.

for MusicOHM.com

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Top Telly of the Noughties

According to this blog on MediaGuardian, there's going to be another of those 'Top [Number] [Somethings] of [A Time Period]' on Channel Four, this time populating the missing fields with [10], [TV Shows] and [The Noughties] respectively. I've come up with a off-the-top-of-my-head list over on the post, which as I say isn't exactly revolutionary, but at least it involved Cranford unlike any other up until that point! Feel free to make your comments over there, just wanted to flag it up :)

Jerusalem, Royal Court

The very first thing that strikes you about this production – after we see a mini outdoor rave in silhouette, but before a single word is uttered – is the height and sheer enormity of the acting space in front of you.

With three huge elm trees rising a good thirty feet, casting a soft, dappled light across the stage, the English countryside dominates the visuals of the production.

It dominates the text too - but just as the rural idyll is tempered by the remnants of last night’s ‘revelry’ - a broken TV, empty drinks cans and rickety garden furniture tipped upside down - so is the man at its centre a confusion of contradictions and dichotomies.

That man is John ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance). He is the ultimate Lord of Misrule who “brings the ruckus” as his waster, wannabe-DJ friend Ginger (Mackenzie Crook) would say. He’s of Romany descent, close to nature, and full of fantastical stories of the giants that once – and according to him, still do – stalk England's green and pleasant land.

But, just like a lot of the characters he brings to mind - in particular Bacchus - there is more than a hint of danger about Rooster; he is also a drug-dealer, a tax-dodger, and a squatter on the council’s land who has just 24 hours to get out before being forcibly evicted.

Byron, then, would be a gift to any actor, but few could inhabit him so completely as Mark Rylance. It is a stunning performance that leaves you in no doubt that a gaggle of hangers-on and fair-weather friends really would be utterly in awe of him. The audience certainly are. You even start to believe his ludicrous stories of being held captive by Nigerian traffic wardens (and watching the snooker semi-final with them) because he has an air of magic which suggests that literally anything could happen to him.

The moments when the Bottom-esque bluster recedes are just as affecting, however. Rylance brilliantly portrays Byron as a man out of time, clinging to ancient ideals while a new estate encroaches on the wild garlic and mayflowers growing around his trailer.

At three and a quarter hours, this play is certainly on the lengthy side, but time spent in the company of these dreamers and drop-outs is certainly time well spent. It is only a shame that reality must hit home in the sombre, at times shocking , third act, and bring this Shakespearean Dream to an inevitable (and as such unfortunately rather predictable) end.

Overall though, the outstanding Rylance is supported by a cast who excel simply by not being completely overshadowed by such a big performance – Crook shines in particular. And, they are all served by a wonderful script that manages to be rich, expansive and inventive, while consistently eliciting the sort of laughs that stand-up comedians would kill for.

Also at MusicOMH.com

Monday, July 20, 2009

Desperate Romantics

The more observant among you may have noticed that TVScoop, along with all the Shiny blogs, is now existing in a state of suspended animation (Shiny's gone into administration, but that's about all I know...) But dammit, I'd alread written by Desperate Romantics review! So here it is...

The BBC have been promoting Desperate Romantics pretty heavily of late, so they must be proud of it - but I've actually heard rumblings that it is not, in fact, all that great. Our head honcho Paul had an early look, and it wasn't so much that he didn't like it, as that it wasn't quite what he had expected; rather than a serious look at these apparently serious men, it's something of a fun, BBC Three Casanova-esque romp. Sign me up...

He's right you know, Desperate Romantics *is* fun. Over the top, yes, to the point of silliness, probably, but when has that ever stopped me enjoying something? It usually enhances my enjoyment, to be honest. And what's better, it's over the top fun performed by really engaging actors.

Leading this merry band (band being the operative word - they're made out to be rebellious rock stars, raging against the establishment of the Academy) is "half Italian, half mad" Rosetti, played by the brooding vampire in Being Human, Aiden Turner as a ladies' man who has an artistic temperament, big dreams, all "wit and bluster". Then there's intense Mr William Holman Hunt, played by Rafe Spall, who is also known as 'Maniac' (sweet) and the hugely engaging, rather fey John Millais AKA Samuel Barnett, who excelled as the older Simon Doonan in Beautiful People.

And finally, with their reputations (and ability to afford food...) in his hands, there's art critic Ruskin, who also provides the only storyline approaching drama in this drama. Played with his usual aplomb and delicacy, Tom Hollander steals the show from under the noses of the young bucks as the repressed critic who - inexplicably to most - refuses to yield to the advances of his wife, played by the delightful Zoe Tapper.

I've no idea how accurate Desperate Romantics is (not particularly, I'd imagine), and yes, I would also like a sister documentary on good ol' BBC Four just to keep my TV diet balanced, but overall, I can't pretend for a moment that I would have preferred this programme to be more cerebral. It's gossamer-light but, thanks to some lovely performances, is saved from being completely inconsequential.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Karaoke Circus at The 100 Club

There are some crappy things about living in London, but we're also often very, very spoiled. I went to the latest Karaoke Circus on Wednesday, which has made a quite significant leap from a tiny room downstairs at the Albany to the legendary 100 Club. After last time's joyous, magical affair, I have to say I was slightly concerned that it couldn't be matched and not only that, but that the show would lose something by moving to a bigger room. But in fact, it was just the same. The atmosphere was just as wonderful, the audience once again more than happy to join in, and performances equally special.

But this time, the band was expanded to a full orchestra, allowing for some pretty ambitious song-choices. Being the Macca fan I am, it was a joy to hear Live and Let Die performed with strings and horns, and Waen Shepherd fronted an astonishing version on Rock and Roll Suicides. The award for bravery, however, simply has to go to an audience member for choosing to go for MacArthur Park ("someone left the cake out in the rain") - though no-one could argue with the judge's decision in terms of the winner. That rare accolade went to Angel who performed Beastie Boys' Sabotage with what can only be described as true chutzpah.

The other celebs and comedians on the bill included (big breath) Bridget Christie channelling Kate Bush with worrying accuracy, the Penny Dreadfuls tearing up Under Pressure (take that as you will), the legend that is Kevin Eldon mashing up One Day Like This and Hey Jude (identical chord progression, it would appear), poet John Hegley displaying one hell of a voice with Sunny Side Of The Street, the wonderful Andrew Collins dropping an octave to perform Tom Waits's Way Down In The Hole, Peep Show's Isy Suttie smiling her way through Piano Man and Miles Jupp bringing it all to a singalong end with Come On Eileen.

Oddest, and simultaneously most brilliant of all, however, was the appearance of Gary Richardson. Gary Richardson! The BBC Sport guy! Singing, of all things, Daydream Believer! Read Mr Collins's great blog post about it if you think I dreamt it. I didn't. It happened. (In fact, read the blog anyway - there are photos too.)

This did feel more like a 'proper gig' than the previous Karaoke Circus, so huge kudos to Martin and Danielle for retaining that wonderful atmosphere - I didn't actually think it possible. If anyone's going to Latitude, the circus will be rolling into town on the Sunday, and then there'll be more comedy karaoke at the Edinburgh Fringe. Neither of which I can make. Dammit...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Torchwood - spoilerific of course!

My proper review is up over on TVScoop, but with my SQUEEILUVNOOWHOOO hat on, the thing I'm most interested in is how Captain Jack as a character can recover from what he's done. I *know* he had to do it to save millions of children but.... you know. Still a bit much, sacrificing your grandson in front of his mother, isn't it?

Where does that leave Jack - the Jack who throws up a "whatever" sign and comes onto anything with a pulse? I *liked* that Jack. Is that Jack gone forever?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Avenue Q, Gielgud Theatre

I really should have gone to see Avenue Q before now - it was clearly my kinds thing. Thanks to MusicOMH then for getting me tickets to the opening night at the show's new home where as well as the musical, I also saw Eddie Izzard, Julian Rhind-Tutt AKA WHY ISN'T HE THE DOCTOR? and Kimberley from Girls Aloud. All in all a good night...

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Of all the consequences of George Bush leaving office, the fact that the writers of a Broadway puppet-based musical would have to tweak a lyric was probably one of the least earth-shattering.

But that was in fact the case - Avenue Q’s closing ode to ambivalence, compromise and mild optimism For Now contained the line "George Bush is only for now", and replacements including "recession", "your mother-in-law" and even "this show" were all considered.

In the end, though, they opted simply to swap "is" for "was", and why not - it's probably best not to play around too much with a show that is already rather wonderful.

Opening in its new home, the Gielgud Theatre then, very little has changed about Avenue Q. It might seem strange to say of a show where puppets are the stars that it doesn’t have many gimmicks, but in terms of the staging, that is entirely the case, and as such Avenue Q could make most theatres its home.

The look of the puppets instantly brings to mind Sesame Street, but in fact the relationship between the stage show and the TV show goes a lot deeper than that. Sesame Street attempts to help children learn how to grow up emotionally as well as educate and entertain, and that’s just what this musical is about – only transposed twenty years later in a person’s life.

It charts the confusion, fears, and struggle for identity and purpose that young people fresh out of college or university very often feel, and little cartoon films that punctuate it try to help the characters along, just as similar cartoons are created in the TV show to help young children.

It’s not all twenty-something angst, of course, though. This is essentially a fun, funny show that wants you to leave the auditorium as happy as possible, without suggesting that things are going to be happily ever after (but maybe happily "for now".) Irreverent but ultimately rather good-natured songs such as Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist and Schadenfreude go down a storm, and the central love story between Princeton and Kate Monster - both puppets - is genuinely aww-enducing if a little sickly at times.

The real joy of having the puppets operated by people in full view of the audience is that there are always two performances to joy for every character on stage. It really isn’t long before you start watching the puppets rather than their counterparts, but it’s good to sometimes switch your focus back to the men and women in all-black clothing to see how they interpret the movements and emotions of their characters.

In the case of Julie Atherton, that focus is often pulled anyway, as she is such an engaging performer, and imbues Kate and the Lucy The Slut with such wonderful comic timing. She is more than ably supported by the rest of the cast, though – notably Daniel Boys and Mark Goldthorpe, who has a Cookie Monster-style voice down to such a tee that the Jim Henson Workshop would surely be happy to have him on staff.

It might be easy to say that Avenue Q is simply a smutty Sesame Street, and there are certainly elements of that. But in reality, the stage show retains much of the heart of the iconic programme, and is as much a paean to it as a parody. Warm, very sweet and anxious that we all just accept who we are and try to get along, its ideals are not so far removed from those of its main inspiration as it tries to make out.