Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Last of the Haussmans Review

The Last of the Haussmans
NT Live - Lyttelton Theatre

Recently NT Live broadcasted a new play called The Last of the Haussmans. It was written by the National Theatre's new writer Stephen Beresford. I was interested to see Julie Walters act on stage alongside Rory Kinnear in this domestic drama.

Elderly Judy Haussman (July Walters) lives in an Art Deco house on the Devon Coast, where she has recreated the 1960s world of the Ashrams. Her time as a hippie meant that she had neglected her family. However an operation has forced her children, Libby (Helen McCrory) and Nick (Rory Kinnear), to return and look after the mother they dislike. Whilst the pair quarrel with each other, Helen has to deal with her rebellious daughter, Summer (Isabella Laughland). Other visitors include Judy's doctor, Peter (Matthew Marsh), and a young man called Daniel (Taron Egerton), who comes everyday to use Judy's swimming pool.

At first I was interested in the play. The plot about a dysfunctional family is a familiar one, but it was intriguing to watch Nick wait nervously for a mother who he has not seen for years. The play nicely established how divided this family was, but that is as far as it goes. The problem is that Stephen Beresford puts so much effort into establishing this family as dysfunctional that the characters become one dimensional, and as a consequence not very interesting. Not even the mysteries or revelations that occur throughout the play were engaging. A small moment for instance was when Daniel first appears, and at first it was weird to see this stranger walking freely around the house, and indeed Nick keeps giving him looks. It was inappropriate however, to suddenly bring up in that same moment that the reason why Nick keeps looking at Daniel is because he is gay.

This is just one of many problems with the play itself, which let down the actors considerably. For example, Nick's homosexuality was never brought up again until near the end, and he even seemed to disappear during the second act. It is a shame for Rory Kinnear because he played a nervous and touchy Nick nicely. Julie Walters however was quite the larger-than-life character as Judy. The highlight would be Helen McCrory, who played a frustrated daughter/mother who has to look after Judy, whilst dealing with Summer and realising that she was repeating what Judy did to her as a mother. 

Yet the sub-plot where she was flirting with Peter was lacking in depth. Matthew Marsh's character was the least interesting because Beresford did not give him much personality and he seemed to just be there. The same could be said for Daniel though Taron Egerton did play the reserved but friendly young man well. Isabella Laughland however played the most interesting supporting character as Summer. She was quite the rebellious and outspoken teenager. Yet when she returns from visiting her divorced father for the first time, she acted like someone who had just found paradise. 

One wonders why the play did not follow her because it just meanders through the stories that revolve around Judy. There was a lack of character development until Beresford suddenly went into fifth gear near the end. The result is a number of big revelations that, although they are hinted at, come out of nowhere in relation to what has been going on. He even tries to connect these revelations with the sub-plots, which made them feel implausible. What was worse was the humor that intertwined with the scene. Although there were some funny moments, the humor that occurs during the play felt like padding during this weak story. When the big revelations came the humor, along with any further sub-plot that are thrown in, undermined the drama that could have been created from this scene

Overall I would have recommended this at a low discount just to see the actors alone. But it does mean trudging through some uninteresting story lines that come together to create a mess. Even after the climax the play was stretching itself by including one more scene. Not even the cluttered set, which represented Judy's care-free life, had personality despite the rooms that are revealed by the revolving stage. Although the actors were good, I cannot bring myself to recommending this play on any level. Although the NT screened the last performance, I would give my lowest rating which is to AVOID this production.


Friday, July 12, 2013

Yes Prime Minister Review

Yes Prime Minister
Salisbury Playhouse, Salisbury

This a production of Yes, Prime Minister that has been surviving for nearly three years. It started at the Chichester Festival Theatre, went to the West End three times, and is now on its third tour. After all this Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have made modest attempts to keep this treasured sitcom up to date. From the start the play is full of references that are familiar to today’s audiences. It follows Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby as they struggle to deal with the recession, oil, illegal immigrants, sex trafficking, global warming, the EU and the BBC.

However, despite these easy targets, the dialogue lacks the wit that is cherished in the original TV series, and a lot of the first act received nothing but titters. The production feels as though it is going through the motions, as the writers tick off each item on a list of current issues. Some have recently been added, including the new BBC general manager, but other references are out of date, such as mentioning the Weakest Link. Furthermore, many of the current issues included have been around for years so that any satire around them feels a bit old hat. It is only by the second half that the play gradually turns into a farce. It does generate more laughter, though by the time Hacker starts asking God for advice, Yes, Prime Minister has entered into the absurd

What does work is the relationship between Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby who are played, though with some exaggeration, by Michael Fenton Stevens and Crispin Redman. It is charming to watch the two try and get the better of each other. Michael Fenton Stevens was an idealistic but pompous and incapable Hacker. Crispin Redman meanwhile is the pragmatic and diligent, but slippery Humphrey who gets a round of applause every time he produces a long-winded monologue. Elsewhere, Michael Matus played a moralistic but simple minded Bernard Woolley, whilst Indra Olive was an astute adversary to Humphrey as Hacker’s policy advisor, Claire Sutton.

The set is nicely detailed, showing Hacker's study at Chequers. The sound effects are a bit loud, and at one point the cast have to speak over the sound of rain, which sounds as if they were outside. Altogether, whilst making every reference to the current political climate, the production lacks the ‘gold standard’ of the original TV series. Either Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn should rewrite the play or they should bring this tired production to an end. That said, the cast is enjoyable to watch, and if you enjoy a good farce then try this production out at a low Bargain, otherwise be wary when seeing this.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Candida Review

Theatre Royal Bath

After the nightmare that was Heartbreak House last year, this production of George Bernard Shaw's Candida was a revelation for me. The play is set in the house of the Reverand James Morell. As a Christian socialist he indulges in giving ideological speeches everyday to his fellow parishioners, and he has narrow views on his role as a Christian and husband to  Candida Morell. After playing a fantastic Henry V last year, Jamie Parker succeeds as this righteous minister who proudly lectures everyone in the household, whilst verbally attacking anyone who does not fit into his little world.

One of these people is a young aristocratic poet, Eugene Marchbanks. The youth has become infatuated with James' wife, Candida, and he tells James outright that she would be better off with himself. James then pursues a battle against both Eugene and his own conscience as he wrestles with the thought that Candida does not love him. Meanwhile, Frank Dillane portrays this shy and inexperienced poet who is experiencing love for the first time. He has sudden moments of bluntness, confidence, pride and cunning like a child hitting puberty. Like James he is a bit self-centered, boring Candida with his lengthy poems whilst struggling to understand why she still loves James and how the couple manage their conventional domestic life. 

At the centre of attention is Charity Wakefield, who makes for a cheery, kind and caring Candida. She also portrays the character that Shaw had in mind when writing the play, independently minded and running the establishment instead of James. Indeed, what I enjoyed about this play is that despite James' flaws, everyone in the Morell Household are presented as equals, without having Bernard Shaw shoving his ideals down our throats. This sense of equality, is represented wonderfully by Jo Herbert as James' secretary, Proserpine Garnett. Stern and strict, she is a professional at her job.

James Morell's influence outside his house is also made apparent by two characters. Edwin Thomas plays a curatenand, Alexander (Lexy) Mill, and he is in awe of James and the support that he gives to the lower classes. Giving an opposing view is James' father-in-law, Mr Burgess, played by understudy (David Troughton was off for personal reasons), Christopher Godwin. Although the old man asks James at the start for forgiveness, he is a businessman who discriminates against his workers. He also displays a misogynist attitude towards Proserpine to her disgust. Overall George Bernard Shaw does get to show that everyone has a part to play in making the household run like clockwork.

It is a shame therefore that he stumbles during the second act. I give him credit that in comparison to Heartbreak House the characters in this play feel rounded, and I had a good idea of what was going on. However I did guess who Candida would choose in the end, and the dialogue in the second act feels like Shaw's own dissertation on why this is. He even brings in an altogether new aspect to the characters. Like Heartbreak House I had to keep reminding myself of what the characters are talking about and it is only by reading up on the play that I fully comprehend what exactly Bernard Shaw was trying to convey.

It is not as though I have a bias against his writing. The first act shows that he can produce a well written play, yet he could not help himself by turning the second act into a lecture on his ideals. I was expecting to give Candida a Low Full Price during the interval, but although the second act is a disappointment there are some wonderful performances to enjoy amongst the cast. I would recommend this at a High Bargain.

The 39 Steps Review

The 39 Steps
Tour - Oxford Playhouse

Like The Mousetrap, The 39 Steps seems to be withstanding the test of time, now that it is in its 6th year in the West End. Yet watching the current touring production I feel that the play is just a one-trick pony. This is a spoof on John Buchan's book and Alfred Hichcock's classic film. A cast of four tells the story about Richard Hannay being pursued by the law as he endeavors to stop a conspiracy that would undermine Britain in the upcoming Second World War; all of this goes on within an hour and thirty minutes. The actors play a multitude of characters whilst poking fun at Hitchcock and his films. However the production does use tricks that I have seen before in other productions without introducing anything new or clever. I was merely chuckling along.

That said, the efforts of the cast must not be ignored. My favourites would have to be the two supporting actors. It is enjoyable to watch Tony Bell and Gary Mackay alternate amongst the majority of the characters in the play, including policemen, train passengers, paperboys, and the occasional female role. Richard Ede is the embodiment of the stiff upper lip. When he is not being hunted down, he is a boisterous and gallant Richard Hannay. Charlotte Peters plays all the love interests that Richard meets during his adventurous, from an enigmatic spy, Annabella Schmidt, to the reluctant lover, Pamela.

The set design consists of a theatre-within-a-theatre, with boxes on either side of the stage. The rest of the set consists of a brick-walled backstage area. Against this sparse backdrop the cast recreate scenes including the Forth Railway Bridge and the plane chase, using all sorts of props and occasionally some shadow puppetry. Despite my reservations, the gags that the cast create using the set would have to be the funniest of the play. Otherwise, if you have not seen shows like The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) then you should enjoy this immensely. I myself find The 39 Steps to be a rather average, and at times gimmicky, production. It is only because of the acting and set that I will give this production a Bargain.

If Only Review

If Only
Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Following the success of The Pajama Game, the Chichester Festival continues with what is unfortunately a dud. If Only is set during two periods. The first act takes place in 2010, following the first televised prime ministerial debate and the eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajokull. Three MPs are stuck in Spain and they decide to travel back to the UK in a car. Most of the remainder of the first act is taken up by their speculation en route as to the whether a hung parliament is imminent discussions as to how a coalition would be created. Having successfully arrived back in the UK, the second act jumps to the 100th anniversary of WWI in 2014. By this date UKIP have become a strong party, and a discussion between the three MPs turns to the possibility of the Conservatives forming a second coalition with UKIP after the 2015 election.

Playwright David Edgar aimed to write a political comedy but the result is mediocre. What we get are three main characters who are nothing but cardboard representatives of their parties. They relay nothing but some verbose and dense conversations on politics, giving numerous theories on what will happen at the 2010 election, even though we already know the results. What this lacked was political wit. When the funniest comment you could think up is about an apostrophe you are in trouble. After all the disappointment, perhaps the play displays some warmth in the second act as the three MPs discover some humanity. They come to the conclusion that politics is an "arms race to the gutter", but it is too little too late. The characters basically feel one dimensional.

Not that the cast was bad. Martin Hutson as Gordon Brown's advisor, Sam, tries to hold onto any integrity he has left. Jamie Glover as Peter is a proud, smug and discerning Conservative, but during the second act he comes off his high horse as he jadedly relates the possible situation with UKIP. The same goes for Charlotte Lucas as Liberal Democrat, Jo. Hers is the highlight performance as she tries to ignore the possibility that the Conservatives would abandon her party. Eve Ponsonby was adequate as college student, Hannah. However if David Edgar thinks everyone in my generation speaks with the word "like" in every sentence, then he is much mistaken. I almost felt embarrassed for the poor actress.

The simple set consists of screens at the back that show images representing different locations during the journey in Act 1. Occasionally they are raised to reveal other set pieces behind, including a Peugeot 205. On a revolving stage the car and other props turn around, which kept certain scenes moving. So, "like", If Only is full of one-note characters and political jargon that, "like", only make me titter. Maybe there are a few moments of, "like", morality, and the cast do the best they can with the script. But this is a pretty forgettable play and should only be seen at, "like", a Restricted View.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Review

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is certainly worth a family day out, but I can think of a good number of shows that I would choose over this production, (without having to mention any in particular). The structure of the musical is simple. The first act introduces Charlie, the mysterious renowned chocolate maker, Willy Wonka, and the golden ticket winners, before they enter the factory. The second act then consists of the factory tour, during which the undeserving children disappear in strange and elaborate ways.

For the most part the musical basically goes through the motions as it relates the story. It does not expand on the plot or the characters. It is only near the end that the musical interestingly sheds light on Charlie's character, as Willy Wonka puts it he is 'something from nothing'. It is sad therefore that this was not addressed elsewhere.

The other issue is that the songs are unmemorable. The only exception is the well-known Pure Imagination, and hearing the opening notes sent goosebumps down me. The rest are dull, bland, and inaudible to boot. There are some glimpses of potential. The four children in particular have their own songs that display their different personalities. Despite this the musical felt empty of any songs that left you humming along to.

The cast do a fine job playing the characters, but because of the book and songs they have little to work with. Consequently they feel like cardboard cut-outs of the characters we all know. There is sweet little Charlie, dithering old Grandpa Joe (played adequately by Nigel Planner), the greedy Augustus Gloop who makes loud burps a number of times, and the selfish Veruca Salt in a ballerina costume.  A disco theme was chosen for Violet Beauregarde in this adaptation, though this is only put to good use in her songs.  Mike Teavee  is the most violent of all the incarnations I have seen, to the distress of Iris Roberts as Miss Teavee.

I am in two minds about Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka. At times he portrays a dark side to the character. There is no "twinkle in his eye" when he first appears at the end of the first act, singing a rather chauvinistic It Must be Believed to be Seen. He might as well say "Enter my factory if you dare". In the second act he suddenly becomes the eccentric man I was expecting. In addition, he pulls of a number of wacky acts that did put a smile on my face, such as when he appears in the orchestra pit to conduct the entr'acte. All in all, I prefer Hodge to Johnny Depp, but Gene Wilder knew exactly how he wanted to play the role which I thought Hodge struggled to do.

If there is a reason to see this musical, then it would be for the production values. The musical starts with a animated film, showing how chocolate is made; it was interesting and the animations were drawn by Quentin Blake himself. During the first act the black and white world that Charlie lives in has a Dickensian feel about it. A lot of the act is set in Charlie's house and at times it can feel a bit static. There are some neat projections however, and the announcement of the winners is cleverly shown within a gigantic TV set piece at the back. The factory tour is spectacular and the method employed in the demise of each child is amazing to watch.  Only Violet Beauregarde's scene is the least impressive and the climax does not make sense. The Oompa Loompas were nicely done and the Great Glass Elevator was fantastic, though I have seen better effects in musicals like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins.

Overall then, if you do go and see this musical you will get what it says on the tin (or wrapper), an adaptation of Roald Dahl's treasured novel. The special effects are amazing and children will not be dissapointed. However I can pick a number of musicals that are currently on in the West End that are of higher quality. I have no need to see this again, and it is only worth a Low Bargain.

Relative Values Review

Relative Values
Theatre Royal, Bath

The year is 1951 and the play opens with a newsreel  of Winston Churchilll during his election campaign, proclaiming that class does not exist anymore. There is a sense of truth in this as the play's focus moves to the Marshwood family. This upper class household is divided over whether Countess Felicity's son, Nigel, should marry Hollywood star, Miranda Frayle. As a consequence the world of the Mashwoods is invaded by film actresses, directors, press reporters and girl guides.

One person who is upset by the marriage is Felicity's maid, Mora Moxton, who reveals that Miranda is her younger sister. Playing Mora is Caroline Quentin, and she wonderfully portrays this distressed servant, concerned that her connection will bring shame to her, her employers and Miranda. The Marshwoods decide that Mora should climb the social ladder by pretending to be Felicity's personal secretary who has come into the possession of a large inheritance. As the play progresses it is both hilarious and sad to watch the poor woman struggling to keep her identity a secret from Miranda.

Less concerned with the marriage is Felicity. Patricia Hodge is an upstanding but aging mother who cares for those close to her, to a fault. Caring and reliant on her servant, she is desperate to keep Mora. Playing her nephew, Peter Ingleton is Steven Pacey. He is jocular to the point that he enjoys the most distressing of moments, but he proves to be a resourceful young man. Making his theatrical debut is impressionist, Rory Bremner. He is such a pleasure to watch spouting some wordy speeches as the egotistically philosophical butler, Crestwell. At the same time he is a shrewd servant, accepting Mora's revelation within seconds without surprise.

Katherine Kinglsey is an alluring Miranda, who puts on an act fir sympathywhen describing how she had an awful childhood in the slums, much to Mora's disgust. Sam Hoare did not really have much to do as a rather underwritten Nigel Marshwood. For most of the play he acts impulsively defensive of Miranda, until he reveals his true character towards the end. During the second act Miranda's previous boyfriend, Don Lucas, appears to confront her engagement and Ben Mansfield shows a man desperate to get back the woman he worships.

The newsreels were a nice addition when establishing Britain in 1951. The massive set of the library in Marshwood house is a classical architectural phenonemon. Trevor Nunn is known for stretching out the running time of his productions, but I enjoyed this farcical plot and could not wait to see what would happen next  amongst all these different characters. What helps is that the cast makes this a fizzing delight, so I would recommend this at a Low Top Price.