The TheatreguideLondon 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.
Achtung Kabarett - Against His Will - Bridges and Harmonies - Burning Issues - Child of the Forest - Dreyfuss - The Dwarfs - The Local Stigmatic - Fall of the House of Usher - Lips
Achtung Kabarett! New End Theatre Autumn 2000
Chanteuse Alexandra Valavelska has done her homework in conveying a living soundtrack to one of history's more creatively volatile decades. Subtitled Berlin and Paris of the 1920s, via song and narrrative she tells the tale of Lola, a precocious Jewish lass who escapes her small-town shtetl to the cabaret bars of the bg city.
A classic crop of songwriters represented by the likes of Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky and their collaborators and contemporaries help guide Lola from Yiddish to German to French via the Polish border, Berlin and finally Paris. The songs represent more than a lew of greatest hits and there is a real cohesiveness to the sequence that more than justifies the slight biography that links them.
Eschewing the agonised torch song approach, Valavelska creates an authentic feel without creating museum pieces. Her strong, clear voice is further enhanced by the accompaniment of Matthew Freeman, a pianist equally at home with demanding sensitivity and driving rhythms.
The ballad Escale haunts and yet enchants, the incisive Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss receives a classic rendering and, on the spoken side, the MC monologue is utterly convincingly.
The downside is that some numbers have a parlour feel to them - Hollaender and Liebmann's Ich bin die fesche Lola comes across more whimsy than jaunty, while The Jews Are All to Blame and It's All A Swindle are in grave danger of losing their satirical edge.
So there I was, waiting to have my spine tingled - and then Valavelska does it with an unexpectedly punchy version of L'Accordeoniste into which she successfully exploits all the prior promise of her repertoire. Cue ecstatic applause, a vivid memory to waltz home with plus a vow to buy that CD waiting in the foyer.
And then the singer blows it all with a scripted encore of Hollaender's throwaway slice of whimsy Take It Off Petronella that breaks the spell, undermines the performer's strengths - and all one's good intentions fade away.
If this were a self-devised one-woman show, then it would draw deserved plaudits. However, one must reappraise this offering in the light of the fact that it has the presumably active input of writer Ron Hart and director Nicholas Tudor.
His Will Lewisham
Theatre, Spring 2000
Against His Will is the latest in a string of cross-Atlantic hits from Blue Mountain Productions. What marks this comedy is a script so tight there is no need to ham it up and so, played straight, the result is a farce that is also a first-rate drama of which Alan Bennett would be justly proud.
As the poster screams, the question posed is: can a woman rape a man? Top IT salesman Danny Bryan finds out to his cost when his pushy boss invites him back to her place to go over some paperwork and instead ties him down to have her wicked way. When his pregnant wife finds out, against his better judgement Danny goes to court to clear his name.
Director Keith Noel has a gift in David Heron's intelligent writing which allows each performer to shine as the plot requires. The Anglo-Jamaican cast is headed by Charles Tomlin, discomfortingly convincing as the reformed Lothario trapped by the lure of his old ways.
He is fortunate to have a formidable trio of women to play against: Sharon Harvey as the sassy vamp who will have her way (although bafflingly monotone - as are so many singers who act), Verna Francis as his long-suffering wife and Lavern Archer as the attourney who tries to combine honesty with ambition.
As the judge Lindsay Mohun brings much-needed gravitas to the proceedings while Munair Zacca threatens to steal the show by playing shamelessly to the gods as the slimy but dangerous defence lawyer.
The audience went for both the issues and the laughs. I half expected the final verdict to got to the audience but no, a scripted verdict was read out - and promptly provoked howls of protest.
As usual, after the well deserved encores the cast stayed on and went through a raucous yet thought-provoking post-mortem of what it was all about. The audience all stayed and got another show for free. Magic.
Bridges and Harmonies Bridewell Theatre Autumn 2000
Three of the hardest things to maintain in a play are whimsy, wit and open sentimentality. All three require considerable talent to create in the first place, and all come with the constant danger of running away from their creator and going too far, turning sour in the process. A playwright and a production that can master any one of the three promises a satisfying evening's theatre; the truly rare play that can combine all three is a real find.
Oren Lavie's new play, produced by the London Stage Company, is a romantic fable with an ideal balance of wit, whimsy and touching emotional truth. Two love stories are told in alternating and overlapping scenes: a young couple (Kedysha Sassi and Neal Foster) who meet cute and tentatively find their way to love, and a married couple (Eva Pope and Peter Blake) facing the end of their relationship.
In both stories Lavie (who also directed) and the cast maintain a lightly comic tone while hinting delicately at deeper and sadder truths below the surface. All four of the main characters, we gradually come to learn, have fragilities and uncertainties that their banter cannot completely hide. Both men, in their different ways, use verbal wit and a mask of nonchalance to protect themselves from the dangers of emotional vulnerability, while both women, in different ways, are aware of emotional hungers that only independence seems able to fulfil.
The play catches us off guard from the start, when the young couple slip with surprising ease into intimate joking and the husband responds with startling calm to his wife's announcement that she is leaving. There is a warmly comic scene between the husband and an unusually sensitive hooker played by Sophie Bold, and a sweetly intimate moment for the young couple involving a cinema projector, an obliging friend (Timothy Speyer) and a window frame. Of the four main characters only the husband is allowed the courageous breakthrough into the open expression of love, but the play ends on a note of hope for all.
It is not just the appearance of a piano and a piece of potent cheap music that evokes comparison to the best of Noel Coward. Like the master, Lavie is equally comfortable with wit, whimsy and sentiment, and able to combine them, without clashing, into a fully satisfying evening.
Consider this as a subject for a play: a real challenge to liberal sensibilities on the question of censorship. Is there any book so evil and dangerous that it should be burned?
Or consider this: a satire on the publishing industry with all those idealistic bookish types backstabbing, playing up to the boss, sleeping their way to the top.
No, here's an idea: a play about the gap between art and life - say, a deep and brilliant artist who turns out to be a petty, unpleasant human being in real life.
Better yet, how about a black farce, one of those plays in which the minute an offstage character is mentioned, news comes that he has been killed in some bizarre accident.
Or, more seriously, one on the impossibility of fully knowing someone - say, by having a biographer draw all the wrong conclusions from his research, and in the process expose himself as a second-rate mind. (Actually, Tom Stoppard already wrote that one, and called it Arcadia.)
The problem with Ron Hutchinson's Burning Issues, as you may have guessed, is that he couldn't decide which of these plays he wanted to write, and so he tried to write them all. No two scenes - sometimes no two consecutive five-minute segments - are part of the same play, as his tone, focus and intention constantly shift.
A publishing house discovers that its most revered author is a closet racist and generally unpleasant person. His official biographer discovers that he got the man all wrong. And the question of whether to publish his distasteful journals leads to a censorship debate.
Actually, many of those bits and pieces are quite well-written. The scene in which the reclusive author (Kenneth Colley), first politely and then with increasingly chilling sadism, lets his hapless biographer (William Chubb) know what a totally inept job he did is powerful. But it has nothing to do with the rest of the play and, indeed, neither character is seen again.
The satire on interoffice politics is entertaining, though built a bit too lazily on familiar stereotypes: the bookish idealist (John Gordon-Sinclair, playing boyish ineptitude, as he always does), the money-grubbing American boss (Rob Spendlove, with a particularly poor attempt at a New York accent), and so on.
The best of the bits and pieces is the censorship debate, especially since the characters find themselves taking unexpected positions, Gordon-Sinclair's booklover arguing pragmatism while Spendlove and the fellow American played by Miranda Pleasance discover their capacity for ethics. I suspect this is the play Ron Hutchinson thought he was writing, although in fact it only shows up halfway through the second act.
What Ron Hutchinson desperately needed was a dramaturge or editor to make him decide what play he wanted to write so that he could cut away the other material and focus his considerable skills to one purpose.
Child Of The Forest Finborough Theatre, March 2000
Catholicism in Poland has much to answer for, particularly the nurturing of anti-Semitism for many centuries and then helping out with Hitler's final solution. It even gave us one of the most destructive Popes ever (remember I'm Catholic too), who is currently busy atoning for highly selective ills of the Church.
I must have seen ten plays in as many months dealing with the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe and Poland across the ages, but Child Of The Forest stands out from the general slew of works since it deals with things from a Gentile viewpoint.
Writer Anthony Melnikoff has come up with a thoughtful and quite believable slant on the dark 1940s. As the forces of Hitler (also a Catholic) stream into Poland, a Gentile woman Paola finds a baby in the forest, left by her Jewish father to spare her from the death camps. Paola longs for a child but cannot have one so she takes the girl and claims her as her own in the face of her drunkard husband's aggression and his mistress's scepticism.
Rumour of the baby's true origin spreads through the village, poisoned by the mistress, until Paola is forced to flee in order to spare her child from the police state which the Nazis have built speedily around her.
The two female leads impress the most: Emma D'Inverno gives a sustained, powerful portrayal of Paola Simiak, striking the play's mood from the very beginning, while Kristin Milward as the village bitch Mira is beguiling and poisonous at the same time. The rest of the cast - Hazel Ross, Mark Katz, Mark Lacey, Martin Bendel, Elaine Redwood and Charlotte Rosenthal - all give spirited performances, although the men are oddly muted.
There are some chillingly effective moments, such as the split dialogue when Paola converses with the virgin Mary while husband Jan (Katz) receives instructions from an army recruitment officer. Chilling too is Bendel's German Captain who has all the sinister joviality of a bank manager - in microcosm precisely why the Nazis were so efficient at their horror.
The play makes for great drama but there is little logic and the shortcuts are obvious. And while it is excellent for bringing the characters to life, it is irritatingly woolly on time and place, and despite a good stab made at it, there is little sense of village life and its interrelations. The transition from republic to Nazism to Communist pawn is glossed over more than it should.
The episodic nature of Melnikoff's script is efficient kept buoyant by the strong story, but in Act II things fall apart somewhat as the grand themes take over and the personal touch vanishes. Paola's final confrontation of returned father from the extermination camps becomes a clash of pure ideas - yes, these touch the heart and mind deeply, but the concepts eclipse any real humanity.
But director Neil McPherson weaves it all together well, and mercifully resists the temptation to impose on the cast cod East European accents, as well as laying off the Œmensch'.
Near the end of this revival of Jean-Claude Grumberg's play about Jewish actors in Poland in 1930, they rehearse a broad comic scene from Tevye And His Daughters, which is a tactical mistake, because it reminds us that the outer play has been performed with the same broad playing and comic ethnic stereotypes.
The new translation by Jack Rosenthal is so crammed with yiddishkeit that it might as well be Fiddler On The Roof. And it is directed by Nicolas Kent to be played just as broadly, getting some easy laughs, but almost completely subverting the play's deeper and darker side.
The play depicts the troupe of Jewish amateur actors rehearsing a play about the Dreyfus affair, the infamous episode of antisemitism in France in the 1890s. The central irony, laid on with a trowel, is that they cannot identify with the story ('Why would a Jew join the army?') and see no application to them; at the end several move hopefully to Warsaw and Berlin.
Dreyfus is a comedy, and there are the predictable verbal and visual jokes arising from amateur actors in rehearsal, along with the exploitation of ethnic stereotypes - the loquacious know-it-all, the bustling tailor, the intense intellectual, the quietly wise mother figure, etc.
These could coexist with some serious content if we were allowed to believe in and empathise with the characters, but the broad clichés of direction and performance repeatedly stand in the way. One trivial example: the range and consistency of 'Jewish' accents and inflections varies from performer to performer, and scene to scene.
The few moments when the actors give us real people stand out in their resonance. At one point Doreen Mantle, her character unhappy with her small part, improvises a scene as Dreyfus' mother. It is a comic stereotype, but one that suggests a wealth of cultural history in the character presenting it, and so we laugh, but don't just laugh.
Another brief scene between Mantle and Harry Towb as secret middle-aged lovers pushes both performers past the easy stock playing they and the rest of the cast have been doing.
Dreyfus wants to explore the various faces of antisemitism through humour, and admirable and difficult ambition. There are hints in the text that a more sensitive production might be able to pull it off. But this one perversely runs from every hint of truth, hiding in comic cliches.
The Local Stigmatic Lyric
Theatre Studio, Spring 2000
In this double bill of 40-minute plays, the Mandrake Theatre Company recreates a famous 1966 bill that introduced the lesser-known Heathcote Williams alongside a early and rarely-performed play by Harold Pinter.
The Pinter is an adaptation of a then-unpublished early novel, that also exists as a radio play. The novel was a semi-autobiographical story of three young friends from London's East End who gradually drift apart in adulthood. By the time it became a play, it was a study in madness and the world's callous indifference to it.
In the course of the 40-minute play, Len gradually sinks into psychosis, losing his grip on reality, having paranoid delusions, and imagining a troupe of dwarfs to sort out his life for him, only to have them desert, leaving him to chaos. His two friends, vaguely aware of his decline, are more interested in their petty triumphs and disputes, and tend to treat him like a boring entertainment, a TV show they can't be bothered to turn off.
Steven O'Shea goes a little over the top in depicting Len's madness, and I suspect Pinter would probably have preferred the process to be hinted at more subtly, in keeping with the implied tensions Chris Porter and Jon Welch bring to the roles of the friends.
Heathcote Williams' play, still the lesser-known, is a dark salute to the Lee Harvey Oswalds of the world. He skilfully takes his time introducing us to two smalltime hard men, convincing themselves of their own badness while proving equally inept at handicapping dog races and terrorizing drunks.
Imperceptibly they move from ineffectual posturing to engage in some celebrity stalking that evolves into gay-bashing, as they pick up and then beat up a minor actor. The chilling study in the way insignificant people avenge themselves on the world by targeting those who represent all that they are not, is made particularly effective by the underplaying of Jon Welch and Chris Porter.
Director Aaron Mullen shows an impressive facility in guiding his actors to fully developed characterisations that flesh out the sketchy texts.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher Jackson's Lane Theatre Autumn 2000
Graeae Theatre Company is a group of professional actors who are physically disabled. That's not as grim as it sounds - they don't exploit their limitations or pretend they're not there, but absorb them into the performance. In their current touring production, for example, one performer has difficulty walking, so some sensitive text editing lets the role be played almost entirely while seated.
Poe's short story tells of a decayed family living in a decayed house, both coming to an end together as a result of illness and distorted passions. Playwright Steven Berkoff turned it into an exercise in Grand Guignol shocks, but Graeae have toned down his shock tactics, opting for a more subtle sense of unnatural doom.
Under Jenny Sealey's direction, the cast of three play actors reading and gradually getting caught up in Poe's tale. They speak Berkoff's stage directions while following them, creating an ironic distance and a disjointed, shifting reality that is satisfyingly uncomfortable. Sinuous movement, much of it on the large bed that is the central prop, offers an inventive parallel to Berkoff's signature stylized choreography.
To the side of the live action, a film alternates between a sign language interpreter and evocative visual imagery. The result is frequently very suggestive of Poe nightmarish world of Freudian and erotic subtexts, though it must be admitted that it really helps to know the story beforehand. Between the spoken stage directions, the maintenance of the stylized performance mode, the establishment and sustaining of multi-levelled characterizations and the synchronisation with the film sequences, simple narrative is occasionally sacrificed.
In the role of Roderick Usher, Simon Startin's haunted face and twisted body contribute significantly to the play's tragic tone, while Pamela Mungroo is strongest in the frame scenes, playing the actress playing his sister. An actor's illness forced director Sealey to fill in at short notice in the role of the Visiting Friend, yet the result is no book-in-hand walk-through, but a fully developed characterization that effectively weaves the gender change into the play's erotic and reality-shifting vocabularies.
New End Theatre,
This entertaining solo show, written by C. M. Covington and performed by the author under his stage name of Chris Kirby, has been developed over several years and workshops, from a stand-up act to a fully developed play. Mixing laugh-out-loud comedy with some nicely moving touches, it provides evocative and engaging twists on a familiar dramatic premise.
Kirby plays 'Lips' Buchanan, a minor ventriloquist who finds himself in Limbo after a spectacularly bizarre automobile accident. Greeted by his seemingly independent and malevolent dummy, he is driven, as souls in Limbo tend to be, to relive his life, telling of how his satanic dummy controlled and destroyed it.
What we have, then, is actually two familiar stories. From a variety of old horror movies comes the ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is alive, while dramatists from Chekhov to Arthur Miller have presented the plight of the little man coming to grips with the emptiness and failures of his life.
It is to Covington's credit that the combination revitalizes both genres, and to Kirby's that the performance imbues them with reality and warmth.
It also helps that, both as writer and performer, Covington/Kirby has a weird sense of humour. Typical of his creations is Lips's father, introduced as Australia's leading transvestite ventriloquist and part-time werewolf. He also gets good comic mileage out of the repeated equation of ventriloquism and sex, imagining, for example, the teenaged trainee ventriloquist in bed, wrestling with the forbidden temptation and secret pleasure of moving his lips. Elsewhere, a passing reference to premature articulation gives some of the flavour of the piece.
Among his other talents, Kirby is no mean ventriloquist, able to manipulate multiple voices and rapid patter, and giving his dummy antagonist a real personality and reality. This skill (and one wonders which came first, the ability to throw his voice or the idea for the play?) makes possible such show-stopping set pieces as an excerpt from Hamlet with the dummy heckling and Yorick ad-libbing.
Lips proves that the most familiar material can be made fresh by an inventive talent.
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Review - Achtung
Kabarett - New End 2000