The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive, we have filed our reviews of several London Fringe shows from the year 2000 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Talking Heads - Tear From a Glass Eye - Translations - The Ultimate Man - White Baptist ABBA Fan - Box the Pony - You're Gonna Love Tomorrow
In 1988 Alan Bennett wrote a series of television plays notable for being, as the umbrella title suggested, simply an actor or actress talking to the camera. Quickly transferred to the stage, the pieces, in various permutations, have become a staple of the repertoire. The current selection of three provides three popular actresses with effective and engaging showcases.
Bennett's subject is the small, quiet drama to be found in the lives of small, quiet people. As one of his characters asserts, "This is not a tragic story! I am not that type." And so the pleasures come in the subtle exposures of character and situation, and the task of the performers is to let these revelations slip out, seemingly by accident.
This current production opened at the Palace Theatre in Watford before touring, and director Lawrence Till, while skilfully theatricalising the monologues with appropriate action, seems for the most part to have given each of the stars her head in developing characterisations.
Most fully realised of the three performances is Nichola McAuliffe's in Bed Among the Lentils. Playing a vicar's wife wryly commenting on the emptiness and absurdity of church and congregation, she gradually exposes a quiet sadness beneath her cynicism. Her admission of alcoholism and of a shabby affair with a shopkeeper have a darkly comic tinge that McAuliffe captures beautifully, at the same time letting us watch her character's ironic detachment modulate into a deep and impotent bitterness.
The weakest writing in the three monologues comes in Soldiering On, since Bennett's usual subtlety escapes him and his demonstration of the thin line between English stiff-upper-lipness and victimisation is all there on the angry surface. Zena Walker plays a well-off widow facing a series of reversals with determined chipperness, making us fill in the outrage for her. As the chicanery and indifference of others, along with unpleasant discoveries about her late husband, reduce her horizons from a large and bustling social life to shabby poverty and afternoon television, Walker's performance is all one-note cheeriness, unable to find much beyond the surface outrage of the piece to carry it.
Much-beloved veteran actress Dora Bryan created the role of the old lady frightened of losing her independence in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee in the original televison version, and won all sorts of awards for it. By now, she knows where every possible laugh in the piece is to be found, and delivers them with growling gusto as the fragile but indomitable old bat voices her opinions on everything from the laziness of her home help to the evils of the old folks' home she fears being sent to. Bryan's comic mastery is so complete that the darker sides of the piece, notably the gradual discovery of how empty and sterile her life has been, are almost lost.
A bit uneven, the programme offers sufficient delights to satisfy any theatre-lover capable of appreciating Bennett's small-scale insights and the actresses' subtle performances.
From A Glass Eye
This new play by Australian Matt Cameron was developed in the National Theatre's Studio, and is a co-production with the Gate, one of London's leading fringe theatres. Nothing if not ambitious, it raises the very elemental question of why bad things happen, to good or bad people. What causes terrible accidents, and why do people commit unthinkably evil acts?
Titus (Ian Drysdale) is an airplane accident investigator who takes comfort in the fact that ultimately there are answers to everything. But he himself has committed an inexplicable act, horribly burning his lover Iris (Sandy McDade). She must now try to make sense of what has happened to her, while dealing with premonitions of doom for him. When an airplane he is on explodes in mid-air, she needs to know if somehow what he did to her was the cause.
But, in what may be fantasy or illusion, Titus seems miraculously to have escaped the crash. Amnesiac, he must try to discover who he is, which means who he was, and what made him the man capable of the arson. This involves scenes with his parents (Eliza Hunt and James Hayes) and with a mysterious figure (Darrell D'Silva) who tantalisingly promises answers he doesn't deliver.
As the action switches from past to present to what may be hallucination, possible explanations are discovered -- psychological for the man, mechanical for the airplane. But explanations are not answers, and the realisation that sometimes things just happen is all the comfort the play can offer.
If that sound a bit confusing, it is, and the play is a little more obscure at times than it really has to be, though you can understand that Cameron must retain some mystery when discussing the inexplicable.
At its best, the writing approaches Beckett in its ability to evoke large concepts through minimal suggestions, as when an evocative connection is made between Iris's burned skin and Titus's emotional untouchability; and approaches Stoppard in its wordplay ("Can the security cameras see my insecurity?")
At its worst, it strains too hard to make its symbols (the title false eye, a crow, a picture frame) carry too much weight.
Sandy McDade dominates the play as Iris, even though she spends most of the evening wrapped in bandages. But the whole cast, under Erica Whyman's direction, effectively hold our attention and emotional involvement by making us understand that their characters are striving to answer the same questions the play poses to the audience.
This co-production of the Palace Theatre in Watford, the Salisbury Playhouse and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry will play a season in each theatre this summer.
Brian Friel's 1990 play is built on a historical insight that makes a brilliant dramatic metaphor: that mapmaking and place naming is an act of cultural colonization. In 18th-century Ireland, a British mapmaking party sets out to normalize - i.e. Anglicize - place names, in the process half-deliberately destroying local traditions and culture.
Friel stresses the irony of what is presented as progress by having a local resident assist the English and get more enthusiastically caught up in the project than his English counterpart, who comes to love the country and culture he is helping to destroy. (Adding further to the irony is the fact that the local culture is not only rich in itself but better educated than the colonizers; the Irish farmers study Greek and Latin in their spare time.) A romance between the Englishman and a local girl, neither of whom can understand the other's language, leads eventually to both personal and cultural tragedy.
To present these many ironies, Friel employs a marvellous theatrical effect: all the actors speak English, and yet it is always clear to us (and frequently comical) when they are meant to be speaking different languages and not understanding each other.
The play is not without its structural flaws, the most significant of which is an uncertain shifting of our empathy. At first we are encouraged to identify with Manus (played here by Jonathan Keeble), son of the local schoolmaster and brother of the translator, who is sceptical of the English and involved in a fruitless romance with Maire (Annie Farr). Then our sympathy is switched to the Englishman Yolland (Jonathan Wrather), as he falls in love with the country and with Maire. But then the play decides it's really about the translator Owen (Alan Mooney), as he discovers the cultural and personal betrayals he has been complicit in.
Two never-seen and barely-mentioned offstage characters end up playing too big a role in events, while the intertwined romantic triangles on which the plot turns can have the effect of trivializing the play. Still, this is a powerful work, which can involve the emotions while stimulating thought.
Lawrence Till's revival is more successful with the play's personal stories than its political message. The lively, rich culture of the Irish villagers is nicely captured in the comic opening act, though playing the drunken schoolmaster (Patrick Drury) as less of a buffoon than in the original production has the unexpected effect of making his flashes of wisdom seem heavy-handed editorializing rather than startling ironies. Certainly the central love scene between Yolland and Maire, neither able to speak each other's language, and driven to expressing their feelings through the musical sounds of Irish place-names, is beautifully done.
But underplaying and the constant shift of focus diminishes the tragedy of the translator when he finally realizes the cultural crime he has been complicit in, while a rushed quality to the second half keeps scenes from reverberating outward from their purely plot function (We should, for example, have time to realize that the beautiful place names Yolland and Maire are communicating through are exactly the ones he's been busy erasing.)
Audiences are likely to be entertained by the slice-of-life drama in this revival, rather than being caught up by the play's thought-provoking challenge.
The Bridewell has developed a strong reputation in recent years as one of London's best small fringe theatres, particularly for its small-scale but professionally polished musicals. I'm afraid The Ultimate Man will not contribute to that reputation.
If you told me this new musical by Alistair King, Paul Gambaccini and Jane Edith Wilson was actually a revival of an Off-Broadway musical of the early 1960s, one that originally starred, say, Austin Pendleton and Alice Playton (whatever happened to...?), I would have believed you.
Modest musicals with silly plots and generic music were a staple then, and the sheer novelty of seeing a musical in a small theatre, by and with relative unknowns, gave some of them a real sense of charm. (Do the names Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire ring a bell? They churned shows like this out by the half-dozen - except that the songs, if not the shows, had some originality.)
To call The Ultimate Man's plot silly is to beat a dead horse. To call its songs generic is generous. To call the staging (by Paul Tomkinson) awkward is merely accurate.
Basic plot: a cartoonist drawing a superhero strip is having an artistic crisis - should he be true to his artistic vision or pander to his publisher's sex-and-violence demands? Meanwhile his hero, the Lois Lane figure and the dastardly villain cross over into the real world, where he can't control them.
Of course it's unrealistic. Of course it's meant to be campy. But it would nice if it had some sense of style - if, for example, we could tell when it was being a parody and when it wasn't. If your cartoonist is meant to be a serious hero, it's probably not a good idea to make him sound like a nerd by giving him a song cataloguing every obscure name from the Cartoonists' Hall of Fame. It took me all of Act One to work out whether we were to take his romance with a reporter seriously, since it was played in exactly the same tone as the comic book sequences.
Under the best of circumstances, in a really good show, one might be able to take one actress speaking and singing in a silly voice throughout. But two actresses using silly voices are at least one and a half too many. Convention calls for a serious "eleven o'clock song", but having the bland superhero smilingly croon "Why do we die?" over the chubby body of his beloved transcends camp.
The only hint of musical wit in the show (and I'm giving them credit for post-modern irony here, rather than blind plagiarism) is a direct quote of the famous vamp from A Chorus Line. The only hint of witty staging is a brief dance choreographed around a swivel chair. The only performer who emerges with any dignity is Howard Samuels, who has the admittedly easy role of the over-the-top villain, but at least gives it some energy.
Linking this powerful double-bill is the theme of Australia's 'stolen generations', the Aboriginal children forcefully removed from their families and placed with white families or in homes. Some argue the programme still continues in the face of government denials that it ever existed.
Reprising its success last year in Edinburgh, Leah Purcell's Box the Pony, co-written with Scott Rankin, tells the tale of growing up in a small bush community. Half Aboriginal half white, Purcell's experiences provide a window on the strange and even stranger characters that surrounded her, all woven into a vibrant narrative, directed by Sean Mee.
Sung interludes form a natural part of the story, and in a world where it seems every singer emulates Whitney Houston (and that's just the guys), Purcell's startling fresh voice rounds off a performance that is technically impressive, personally moving and very funny.
Deborah Cheetham presents a very different world in White Baptist Abba Fan. A sort of dyke-by-numbers, we get the account of suburban girl growing up to discover the joy of singing in the local church, the opera-bug after watching Joan Sutherland in action, the traumatic pleasures of gay self-discovery.
The difference is that Cheetham is an Aboriginal brought up in a white family who clearly loved her but denied her her racial and cultural roots. She interpolates her reminiscences with classical interludes sung in a fine, clear voice (but of Abba there is sadly little).
But she falls into the trap of relying too much on her real experiences. Deeply moving if this was a speaking tour to promote her autobiography, as a dramatic work it is one-dimensional and oddly loses focus the more detailed it becomes.
Directed by Cathy Downes, Cheetham's show is exclusive rather than inclusive - perilous for someone with such an extraordinary message to share.
Gonna Love Tomorrow
It's Sondheim season, and you can add to the treats for the holiday month this sprightly little musical review at a pub theatre next door to the Greenwich train station. The cast of seven romp through about two dozen Sondheim songs with unflagging verve and real sensitivity to both music and lyrics.
One of several Sondheim compilation songs that have been put together over the decades, this one focuses on lesser-known songs and shows. Where else, for example, would you encounter the witty put-down of unruly audiences that opens Frogs? Or the early salute to Brooklyn that includes the memorable line "there's a lovely clink whence come juvenile delinquents"?
There are selections from Pacific Overtures and Merrily We Roll Along, and also infrequently played numbers from Company, Sweeney Todd and A Funny Thing Happened.
The cast, equally adept at singing, acting and moving to Elizabeth Marsh's clever choreography, can only honourably be credited in alphabetical order: Alan Atkins, Kirstie Austin, Stewart Briggs, Gareth Davies, Maxine Gregory, Tim Mcarthur, Jenna Shaw.
I almost feel churlish singling out Ms Gregory's "Not a Day Goes By" or Mr Briggs' "Johanna" since that would seem to imply that the others were not up to the same high standard. So let me just say that those are two of my favourite Sondheim songs, and it was a delight to hear them so artfully sung.
Producer Alice de Sousa and director Simon Bell of the Galleon Theatre Company have put together the perfect remedy for winter blues or a cold winter's night.
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Review - Talking Heads 2000; Review - Tear From a Glass Eeye - Gate 2000; Review - Translations 2000; Review - Ultimate Man - Bridewell 2000; Review - Box the pony & White Baptist Abba Fan - Pit - 2000; Review - You're Gonna Love Tomorrow - Greenwich 2000