London shows

  • How the Other Half Loves, 6/11/16 (Sat), West End
  • Showboat, 6/11/16 (Sat), West End
  • In the Heights, 6/12/16 (Sun), King’s Cross
  • Iris, 6/14/16 (Tues), Holland Park Opera
  • The Invisible Hand, 6/15/16 (Wed), Tricycle
  • Elegy, 6/16/16 (Thurs), Donmar
  • The Flying Lovers Of Vitebsk, 6/18/16 (Sat), Sam Wanamaker
  • The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, 6/19/16 (Sun), West End
  • Macbeth, 6/19/16 (Sun), Globe

How the Other Half Loves: A fantastic revival of a superior Ayckbourn piece. A man is having an affair with his boss’ wife, telling his own wife that he’s been out with a colleague who’s having marital issues. Unbeknownst to him, the boss’ wife explains to her suspicious husband that her late night was spent comforting that same colleague’s wife for her husband’s philandering. The cuckolded partners then invite those same colleagues to dinner parties on successive nights – and the fun begins.

The farce is bolstered by some mind-blowing stagecraft in which the two stories happen on the stage at once; that is, the home on stage stands in for both couples’ homes, and the action in the separate locations is interwoven in dizzying succession. The female lover dials the phone, and the male lover answers the other phone on the same table – but we understand that they are in separate homes. The characters crisscross and speak to each other in their own separate worlds in some amazing staging. That is especially impressive in the dinner parties, which are happening one night apart in the story but simultaneously on the stage: the invited couple, knowing nothing of the suspicions of their hosts, are in the middle, while the other two couples are at the same table but in different universes. The conversations and actions are timed within an inch of their lives, forcing the invited couple to switch hilariously back and forth with whiplash-inducing head turns. It’s a outrageous concept brilliantly realized.

The cast was outstanding, especially Nicholas Le Prevost as the doddering unsuspecting bank official and Matthew Cottle as the unwittingly accused nerd. Even the musical accompaniment between breaks was clever (“Suspicious Minds”, “I Heard It On The Grapevine”, “Oh, Darling (Please Believe Me)”, etc), such a contrast from the careless Japanese approach to music. I loved this show.

Showboat: This is the only musical that I had intended to see this time because of its rapturous reception by the critics. Productions of this show are never the same because of its sprawling structure, so I was prepared for anything. It was in a fairly small theater for a show of this scale (the Cats and War Horse theater), but the showboat rolled in effectively from upstage when needed, keeping the clutter out at other times. The singing was superb overall, but the acting was variable. Capt. Andy (the always excellent Malcolm Sinclair) was the standout on the acting side, others were good enough other than a substandard Julie and Joe (both understudies, as it turns out). “Ol’ Man River”, the usual highlight, was thus less powerful than I had hoped. Accents were all over the map, surprising for a show at this level. Sinclair was especially guilty, but his strong presence made up for it. The actors seemed hesitant to use the black vernacular, e.g. “tired of living/dying” rather than livin’/dyin’. I wonder if that’s an accent thing or a PC thing. The costumes and dances were lovely, and the staging as a whole was fluid and enjoyable. The book remains bigger in its ambitions than its achievements, but the music is as good as music gets (the lyrics are another story). With voices like these, it’s better just to enjoy it as operetta and ignore the rest. I’m skeptical of claims that this was a seminal show in the development of the musical; “Ol’ Man River” briefly lifts it into another dimension, but it drops back pretty quickly after that. Still, it’s undeniably entertaining, and this production was fine.

In the Heights: Sunday night offered little, so I finally went for this show after missing it for years. My low expectations were met. It’s a by-the-books sob story about Hispanics in Washington Heights, where money issues have forced a girl to drop out of Stanford to the sharp disappointment of her immigrant family. Her father determines to sell his business to fund her, meaning the boy that they virtually raised will be left without a job. Nevertheless, the father says family comes first – that is, the boy is not family as he had thought. Meanwhile, another guy struggles to keep his family’s neighborhood snack shop open. His beloved “abuela” dispenses important advice to him and dies. And so forth. I can’t believe this show vied for a Pulitzer Prize with this soppy book. The music was hip-hop or rap or something along those lines, basically expressing all feelings outright with clichéd phrases and questionable rhymes but no real poetry. There were some attractive melodies along the way, including one (“Carnaval del Barrio”) that was eerily reminiscent of a song on my Cuban music CD. The cast was good enough for this schlock but little more. The dancers were energetic, and the Latin dance choreography, though narrow in scope, was nicely matched to the setting. That was probably the best part of the production. It does not make me want to rush to see the similarly rap-inspired Hamilton.

Iris: Part of the Holland Park Opera series. This is a little-known opera of 1898 by Mascagni, known mainly as a one-hit wonder for Cavalleria Rusticana. I was attracted because of its setting in Japan. But this is no Butterfly (which was seven years in the future), using Japan only as an exotic locale with no real cultural or musical insight.

Its wacky story sees an innocent country girl abducted from her blind father by the lustful rich guy Osaka and brothel owner Kyoto (seriously). They lure her away by putting on a puppet show and drag her to Yoshiwara. In the brothel, she is approached for sex by Osaka but rebuffs him, then is put on display by the owner for potential clients. Her father comes looking for her, but just when she thinks her troubles are over, he accuses her of purposely abandoning him for a life of sin and humiliates her in front of everyone. In despair, she attempts suicide by throwing herself into a geisha pit (seriously). Worse, she awakens to find beggars pulling the clothes off her body. She is eventually absorbed into a chorus of light and salvation in a pseudo-Wagnerian ending.

It is an intriguing plot if only for its what-else-can-go-wrong dynamics. Iris’ weak character is irritating after a while; at least Butterfly takes action and stabs herself. There were some moving moments, such as the blind man calling out for his daughter without realizing she was abducted, and the girl waking in the brothel thinking she is in paradise. It would have been nice if they had performed an actual puppet show, though the dance (two shirtless guys in black pants and girl in black tights) was an interesting variation, presumably symbolic of something. The choral roles were the big attraction in this opera, especially the thrilling opening/closing number. Anne Sophie Duprels was outstanding as Iris in both singing and acting, giving the role of the hapless girl great pathos. Noah Stewart as Osaka had a nice strong voice; I assume he’s American given his abs. It’s an attractive score and fascinating show, a curiosity well worth seeing.

The Invisible Hand: A black comedy-thriller about a Citibank financial whiz kidnapped by Islamic radicals in Pakistan by mistake (they were aiming for his boss). Held hostage in a small room, he gets them to agree to let him play the markets to raise the money for his $10 million ransom, though they will only allow his minder to touch the PC. They make bundles of money from betting on signs of an impending terrorist incident that prove tragically true, but the hostage warns the excited minder against getting greedy. He tells him, “Bulls and bears make money, pigs get slaughtered”, to which the minder says glibly, “Not in Pakistan.” As Smith’s “invisible hand” works its magic, things eventually spin out of control. The imam, who initially demanded money to help his people, is found skimming cash for himself, and the minder organizes a murderous event to the hostage’s shock in order to ensure that the markets move his way. The show is an adept and powerful look at the corrupting power of cash. The tension is kept high by an attempted breakout, a threatened execution at gunpoint, the merciless beating of the imam once his sins emerge, and more. The financial lessons about puts and shorts and such were succinct and lightly worn. The four actors – the American hostage, British-raised minder, Pakistani imam and barely English-speaking assistant – were all close to perfect. One clever touch was the blinding lighting used to disguise the quick set changes, keeping the audience uncomfortable even amid the pauses. A very strong show.

People Places & Things: An unsettling play about a struggling actress and junkie (Denise Gough) who goes to an AA-type recovery program resisting help (she snorts coke in the waiting room) while wanting it at the same time. Ever the actress, she defensively assumes various names and attempts to pass off Hedda Gabler as her story, finding it difficult to give herself over to a higher power as per the 12-step program. She clings to her addiction as the only thing that loves her. She is ultimately guided through by the tough approach of the no-nonsense head therapist (Barbara Marten), who throws her out of the program entirely at one point. The junkie gradually drops her defenses and participates in a role-playing game in which she envisions herself dealing with her family. Unfortunately reality proves starkly different when she graduates the program and returns home to her parents, showing how difficult it is to leave the past behind – or is the past truly as she represented it? A disturbing ending that calls into question all the preceding events.

Great staging shows events from the addict’s view much as The Father proceeded from the Alzheimer victim’s view. The startling opening reveals the actress breaking down on stage during a performance of The Seagull, then the walls suddenly drop to reveal the clinic (as well as audience members sitting on stage facing this way). Her hallucinations are portrayed with doubles and triples of herself (dressed eerily in same hair and costume) crawling up from inside bed or around furniture and moving about simultaneously on stage, along with melting wall tiles and lots of strobes and noises and voices and other effects, much better handled than the same Headlong’s 1984. The junkie notes that the therapist reminds her of her mother, who is in fact played amusingly by the same actress. The shape-shifting sets and performers adeptly portray her confused mind without going overboard. Great set design: the clinic room, which contained a bed and changing room in dispassionate white tiles, came in two halves rolled in from either side of the stage, while the bedroom of her family home was a donut-shaped structure lowered from the ceiling.

Gough gave a scorching performance as the actress in a high-intensity role that starts from a nervous breakdown and remains almost constantly on stage. The therapist/mother and black fellow patient (Nathaniel Martello-White) also offered beautifully calibrated performances. A superior production, but not for the faint-hearted.

 

Elegy: A hard-to-get ticket for the Donmar Warehouse production of Nick Payne’s latest piece on his favorite theme of memory and the brain. Lorna, a woman in her 60s, can be rescued from a fatal brain disease only by a procedure that will wipe out twenty years of memories, including all of those with her lesbian spouse Carrie. The show goes backwards in time to examine the decision behind the operation and its consequences. As the couple only found true love late in life in their 40s, would wiping out those memories make life worth it? Or would dying with her joyful memories intact be more dignified? Is life at any cost worth the price? The doctor says that a similar operation once removed a patient’s Christian belief, which shocks the religious Carrie, and reveals that her own mother chose to die (at age 84) under the same circumstances rather than effectively become a new person. Carrie hopes that Lorna will at least be the same person as when they first met, allowing her to start the relationship anew. But things aren’t that easy. We meet the couple at the end of the journey after the operation, when they are now strangers. That same conversation is repeated at the end of the play in a return to the present, providing a different perspective.

A brainy work posing intriguing questions about the nature of love and identity. The setup recalled the great movie Memento, where we similarly have no memory of the past since, in the reverse-time format, we haven’t experienced it yet. The staging was nicely unfussy with some abstract touches, such as Lorna clawing out books from gravel containing half-remembered poetry about death. The one silly feature was the cleft tree that stood mid-stage in a glass case filling occasionally with smoke, a clumsy and unnecessary symbol (I kept thinking of a vagina, but that’s probably my dirty mind). They would have been better off with an empty stage, letting us to fill in the gaps as with the story itself. Zoe Wannamaker was reliably good as Lorna, but Barbara Flynn was the real standout as her worried lover.

Aladdin: I hadn’t felt compelled to see this even after 2-3 years on Broadway (though I did enjoy the Japanese version) but took advantage of the unusual Friday afternoon matinee. It was a slick production as expected, basically the same as Tokyo on a bigger scale. The script was efficient with the usual sitcom-type jokes every other line, which was wearing after a while, and it goes way overboard in its desperation to show Jasmine as an independent woman – we get the idea, already. Aladdin’s reminiscing about his late mother is also lame, including a bland song. None of the characters go beyond stereotypes; in British terms, it’s practically pantomime (the villain even gets booed at the curtain call). The lovers in particular remain cartoons with no evidence of any real feeling. But the show is not trying to be profound, and the virtues and flaws of the film are pretty much transferred as is. It certainly gives audiences their money’s worth in special effects, especially in the exuberant “Friends Like Me” sequence, and some of the newer songs, like “High Adventure”, are appealing. It’s a polished transition overall from film to stage, closer to Beauty and the Beast than the transformative The Lion King.

The show can’t work without a good genie, and it has one in Trevor Dion Nicholas, an import from the US production. He’s able to make his rapid-fire dialogue sound spontaneous rather than a simple knockoff of Robin Williams, throwing in a few local jokes as in Tokyo (e.g. British flag at start instead of Asakusa lantern). I’m sure every word was carefully planned, but his delivery didn’t give that impression at all. He’s the show’s single biggest asset. Dean John-Wilson was energetic as Aladdin, but Jade Ewen as Jasmine was a screechy singer and did not have the acting ability to make her irritating feminist character believable. Others were fine within their stock characters, with perfect American accents all around, and the dancers were excellent (I wonder if Disney makes them shave their chests). The point really isn’t the acting anyway but the spectacle, and the show delivers big time on that front. It’s entertaining for what it is, and I imagine this is set for a long run.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk: A silly show about Marc Chagall and his first wife. It consisted mainly of stretches of narrative explaining some event in their lives spruced up with cutesy touches like sudden bursts of song and acrobatic movement, typical of Emma Rice’s Kneehigh group, and a plastic cow (representing the many cows in Chagall paintings, none of which were presented here). It was no-show and all-tell. It would have been nice to see why we’re supposed to care about these people in the first place other than the fact that Chagall is famous. The mood was helped by nice violin and accordion accompaniment, but the use of electrical lighting took away the entire point of candlelit theater. In addition, there was a big wooden structure that obscured the view of those of us on the second floor. This was not good direction. Maybe Rice, who’s just taken over as the Globe’s new artistic director, is still getting used to the place. In any event, this was not a compelling piece.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery: Hilarious farce by the makers of The Play That Goes Wrong. A would-be thief breaks out of prison, his eyes on a precious gem held in a bank owned by his girlfriend’s father. The girlfriend has meanwhile been playing the field in her lover’s absence in various money-making scams, but along the way has picked up a clueless kid who falls in love and gets entangled in the mess. The rest of the plot is way too convoluted to summarize, and frankly it doesn’t matter. The jokes and pratfalls arrive at intervals of approximately 10-15 seconds throughout the entire show, ranging from shamelessly bad puns – “Hey, Neal!” “Okay” (kneels) – to scads of intricately timed physical humor. It was set in Minneapolis for some reason, giving the UK actors lots to play with in terms of accents and US character types. They threw every possible farce convention into the mix: falling trousers, bashes on the head, lovers hiding under the bed, slamming doors, mistaken identities (including two characters who disguise themselves as the bank owner, with the requisite confusion among the three), actions misinterpreted as sex acts, and on and on. There are clever visual puns, chief among them a gravity-defying bird’s-eye view of the office (character “sitting” in chair: “This is driving me up a wall!”). That’s not to mention a hyperactive Murphy bed, a rope trick with multiple actors angling for position, loose scenery pieces, and wild costume ideas like fake moustaches and outrageous wigs. The best of the best was the bedroom scene, where the kid has to don various disguises in his bungling attempts to escape; in one riotous sequence, he’s dressed as the banker and subjected to questioning by the villain as the girl frantically mimes the answers behind the villain’s back. There’s also a great bit where the kid’s mother and a policeman have sex in a closet – but, unbeknownst to them, not with each other. The play is a breathless series of such gags. A bit of a shock comes toward the end of the show when several characters are actually murdered, but the bad guys get their comeuppance in a happy ending, including a fun last-second surprise. The cast was uniformly excellent, with particularly strong turns from the irascible bank owner, the jailbird (mainly playing the straight man), the dense lover, the girlfriend – actually everyone was pretty fantastic. I can’t believe they do this twice a day.

Macbeth: This new production at the Globe was completely sold out, but I managed to get one ticket on the top tier in dead center – perfect view, as it happens. Unfortunately the show was a case of a director desperately seeking a concept rather than just giving us the play. The most notable oddity was the introduction of a child into the proceedings as the son of the Macbeths. He is featured prominently at the opening and throughout the drama, and stands alone center stage in the spotlight at the very end of the show, with all characters looking to him. What the heck was that all about? There might be references to a child in the text (I don’t recall them), but the director is imposing a very 20th-century view of child-rearing here. It’s ludicrous to think that a child would be allowed into the banquet or given piggyback rides by Lady Macbeth, and Malcolm’s first action as king would be to kill the evil Macbeth’s progeny, not stare at him like some savior. I haven’t the slightest idea what director Iqbal Khan wanted to say, and I suspect that he doesn’t either. Line readings elsewhere were stilted, often going for an easy laugh, and characters behaved unnaturally, such as the hugs and jokey behavior of Duncan, who is not very kingly. The porter, always a teeth-grinding affair with all those lame knock-knock jokes, was even more of a stretch than usual with the Trump and Brexit references, and way overstayed her welcome. The staging overall was unduly busy without clear purpose. This was not helped by the strangely random costuming, which ranged from period to punk.

Acting-wise, no one came off well here other than a strong Banquo (Jermaine Dominique), though that may be largely the fault of the staging. Lady Macbeth (Tara Fitzgerald) lacked intensity and was not convincing in any of her scenes. Her interaction with her child may have been introduced to show a softer, more motherly side, but that only muddled the picture. Ray Fearon, who played Macbeth, was a black actor (as was Banquo), an interesting casting choice given Malcolm’s unflattering reference to “black Macbeth” as an indication of his evil nature. The child was also black, so I presume the character himself is supposed to be – a moor? an African? I have no idea. I think we’re generally supposed to assume that the characters are who they are regardless of the actor’s race, but the child really threw things off for me. In any event, the actor was as affected in his portrayal as everyone else.

The director also had a bizarre concept of the witches. Puppets are an interesting idea, but the lines were chanted (not read) through a sound system rather than directly by the actresses, making them impossible to understand. The concept overwhelmed the practical issue of connecting with the audience. Also, when the scary puppet head is later placed in Banquo’s hand, he just shrugs and hangs it on a tree, which rather flattens the moment. And what’s with the four witches anyway? The text still refers clearly to three.

My biggest problem with the show was the use of artificial lighting and sound. The whole point of the Globe is its unique setup recalling the theater’s past, giving us an idea of how plays might have been staged under conditions in Shakespeare’s day. Sound and lighting effects can be done in any theater, making it pointless to troop all the way down to the Southbank for this. That was true the night before in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Theatre as well. This may reflect the thinking of the new artistic director Emma Rice, whose plays in her Kneehigh days made extensive use of such effects. Globe shows that have transferred to the West End, like Twelfth Night and Farinelli and the King, preserved the Globe’s singular elements as much as possible, making them a special experience. This has its equivalent in the Kabuki performances at Konpira (location of the only extant Edo Era Kabuki theater), where the whole thrill is seeing the shows in the type of theaters for which they were written and under the same conditions as audiences centuries earlier. It’s not that the effects in this production were all poorly conceived – the appearance of Banquo’s ghost was very effective – but that’s not what we’ve come here to see. Let’s hope this is a brief experiment that will be quickly dropped. These are the first two shows I’ve seen in the Globe that I would not recommend. Not a good omen for Rice’s reign.

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