The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the Archive we have filed our reviews of several fringe and off-West End productions from 2002 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Oh What a Lovely War - Prince of Homburg - Riverdance - Saint's Day - Smoking With Lulu - Songbirds Ltd - Taboo - Too Far to Walk
Oh What A Lovely War Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park Summer 2002
This musical entertainment was one of the major successes of the legendary Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, one of modern Britain's first great experimental theatre companies. It was inspired by a nostalgic radio programme of First World War patriotic songs, which Littlewood, Charles Chilton, Gerry Raffles and the improvising company characteristically turned into an anti-war play in 1963.
The basic device of the show is to counterpoint the cheery songs with the harsh realities of war. So, typically, musical numbers like the bawdy music hall recruiting song "I'll Make a Man of You" are punctuated by slide projections counting the dead -- 30,000 at this pointless battle, over a million at that one.
A scene in the trenches is followed by one in which the British generals dance at an elegant ball back home while engaging in the pettiest of jealous back-stabbing. The generals on all sides are presented as idiots, some obscenely so, as when one cheerily explains his strategy of attrition -- we have more men than they, so after a few million are killed, they'll have 5,000 left alive and we'll have 10,000, so we'll win.
There are light moments. John Hodgkinson scores in a sketch about a nonsense-spouting sergeant-major that might have come right out of Monty Python. And there are tender ones, like the actual Christmas Eve when the German and British front lines serenaded each other with carols and met in no-man's land for a drink.
Ian Talbot's production for the outdoor Regent's Park theatre is entertaining and occasionally appropriately touching. What is completely missing, though, is the edge of anger that the work demands. Scene after scene that should bite is merely lightly amusing. A vicious cartoon picture of war profiteers is just a comic sketch. The obscene and bitter lyrics the soldiers set to the melodies of church hymns come across as just another musical number. The potentially powerful scene of gallant Irish soldiers pinned down and killed by friendly fire, or the climactic one of soldiers baa-ing like sheep as they march into slaughter have no real bite at all.
It may be that Ian Talbot is just too nice a man to give this show the angry edge it needs. Or it may be that he wisely knows that his audiences want nothing more unsettling than a light entertainment to follow their pleasant picnics in the park. In any case, that's what you'll get -- a nice, safe entertainment that is only a tame, defanged version of the original.
The Prince Of Homburg Lyric Hammersmith Spring 2002
This is a co-production of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Lyric, using RSC actors directed by the Lyric's artistic director, Neil Bartlett. It played a season in Stratford before transferring to the Lyric.
Heinrich von Kleist's 1821 drama is a real challenge to both actors and audiences. Its story is deceptively straight-forward a military man disobeys an order and in the process wins the battle, and his superiors don't know whether to court-marshal him or give him a medal. But Kleist's exploration of the complex moral and emotional issues leads him into sudden changes of mood and tone, and strange inconsistences of character.
A man walks out of one room confidently and immediately enters the next as a snivelling coward. A mousy, mostly silent woman suddenly displays courage, wisdom and eloquence. A cynical bystander who spends the play virtually twirling his mustachios in villainy proves a loyal friend. A benevolent and fatherly ruler is not only cold-blooded in enforcing the law but prone to moments of near-sadism. Far too much of the plot and the moral debate hinges on a difficult-to-believe episode of sleepwalking. And so on.
Faced with such inconsistencies, few in the cast are able to make their characters make much overall sense, though all have individual scenes of great power. And that is the audience's experience of the play, as a string of almost self-contained encounters that are both intellectually and theatrically exciting, but whose participants don't seem to be the same people they were a few minutes ago.
And yet the play really does work. If the characterisations and dramaturgy are hard to follow, the thematic and psychological issues are not. This is a play full of honourable people all acting honourably, coming into conflict because their concepts of what is right differ, and all being ennobled by the conflict. And that is exciting theatre, despite all the play's difficulties.
Director Bartlett characteristically creates style out of starkness and economy. Using a bare stage, and black-garbed actors against a black background, he produces an effect akin to a TV show full of closeups: with nothing to distract us, our attention is always on the individuals, and we focus intently on what is being said and felt.
Dan Fredenburgh presents the title character as a golden boy so certain he is destined for glory that setbacks totally disorient him, while James Laurenson gives the ruler a languid self-confidence that goes a long way toward assuring us that he knows what he's doing, even if we don't. Tanya Moodie as the suddenly-eloquent young woman and Will Keen as the cynical but ultimately loyal friend are each very strong presences.
My companion at the theatre was an American in town for a few days. She commented afterwards that this would not have been her first choice for her one theatre evening in London, but that she was very glad to have seen it. And that, I think, is a strong recommendation: the play may not sound like one you'd choose to see, but - despite its confusions of characterisation and tone - it is likely to be a powerful and satisfying theatrical adventure.
Riverdance Hammersmith Apollo Spring 2002
After touring the world for seven years, the immensely popular salute to Irish and other dancing comes to London for a short season, and it is fully as entertaining and exciting as you could hope for it to be.
Dance purists may grumble at the show biz glitz, and anyone with any taste will cringe at the ponderously "high-poetic" narration. But the fact is that a stage full of people dancing is theatrical dynamite, and if they happen to all be wearing taps, it's even better.
Actually, only about half the evening is devoted to glitzed-up Irish-style dancing, which is probably a good thing, because much more would let us begin to notice a limited vocabulary and tendency toward repetition in the choreography. Samplings of other dance styles offer a nice variety, and the evening is punctuated by purely musical interludes, either choral or instrumental. Indeed, one could argue that the real star of the show is the live band, especially fiery violinist Mairin Fahy, who energizes many of the dances, and whose duet with drummer Noel Eccles is the highlight of the first act.
Principal Irish dancers Breandan de Gallai and Joanne Doyle don't have the personalities or sexiness of the original stars, familiar to many from earlier tours and TV appearances. But that actually serves the evening well, by keeping our attention on the ensemble.
(Incidentally, those who remember how original star Michael Flatley left the company to form his own competing show will be amused at the way he's become a non-person in the program, his credits as principal choreographer in the smallest possible print, while the text sneers at "bad commercial shows" that "exploit the forms and feelings they make use of, finally sucking them dry.")
After a first act focused on Irish music and dance (though there's curiously a Flamenco solo in the middle), Act Two is loosely structured on the theme of Irish emigres abroad, which allows for an American square dance sequence, another Flamenco number, and a flashy and colourful performance by members of the Moscow Folk Ballet. But the high point in this half is the appearance of a trio of African-American tap dancers, and especially the exciting and witty challenge dance contrasting the styles of three Irish dancers and the more loose-limbed Americans.
I am all in favour of theatre-for-people-who-don't-go-to-the-theatre, especially since discovering the fun and excitement of this live performance might make some newcomers more willing to stretch and try a more mainstream West End show next time. So by all means bring the children, bring your "I hate theatre" relatives, bring your out-of-town visitors. They -- and you -- will have a great time.
Saint's Day Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2002
The Orange Tree in suburban Richmond is one of London's oldest and most admirable fringe theatres. Originally a traditional upper room in a pub, it moved about ten years ago into a purpose-built space in a converted church, where artistic director Sam Walters continues to offer adventurous seasons mixing new works with imaginative revivals of overlooked or forgotten old plays.
The unfortunate fact, though, is that most forgotten playwrights are deservedly forgotten and very few lost masterpieces turn out to be masterpieces. John Whiting, who flourished in the early 1950s, was of the generation immediately before Osborne, Wesker, Pinter et al, and therefore had the ill luck to become instantly outdated. But the fact that few of his plays have ever been successfully revived might have prepared us for the discovery that 1951's Saint's Day would prove a disappointment, a confused and badly-constructed piece whose nihilistic message, far from anticipating Beckett and Pinter, just seems self-indulgent and self-pitying.
The play opens on an aged poet who retreated from the world twenty-five years ago when he went out of fashion, and has lived in poverty in a remote village with whose residents he is constantly feuding. His granddaughter and a servant look after him, along with her husband, a painter who has himself run away from his early promise and fear of failure. Into their lives comes a young, currently fashionable poet and champion of the older man, with promise of reviving the veteran's critical reputation and perhaps his artistic energies.
So far that's an interesting premise for a play, and it takes up the first half of the evening to establish. But then Whiting junks the entire premise and starts a new play. The visitor accidentally kills one of the others and, evidently feeling that this act has cut him off from all morality, joins some runaway soldiers in a rampage of motiveless arson and murder. Since this new plot is all about characters we've barely met, and since we never really understand why they're doing what they do - and since Whiting literally kills off most of the original characters - this new story has little reality and little to engage us. To add to the play's problems, the language is artificial and overly literary throughout - although printed as prose, it frequently scans as self-conscious verse, a poor cousin to the contemporary verse plays of Eliot and Fry.
One can only guess that Whiting was expressing a deeply traumatised postwar nihilism, the sense that even the victors in World War II had so lost their innocence that no moral guidelines were left for them. But if that was his idea, I've just said it a whole lot more clearly than he did in this confused and ultimately off-putting play. Under Sam Walters' direction, only Leonard Fenton as the old poet is successful in creating a character, and then only to have the play lose interest in him. The rest of the actors - no need to name and shame - range from barely adequate to considerably worse. I shall return to the Orange Tree as I always have, with the hope of a first-rate experience. But this time they've come up against a play whose virtues, if any, they were unable to uncover.
Smoking With Lulu Soho Theatre Spring 2002
In 1978 theatre and film writer Kenneth Tynan interviewed former silent film star Louise Brooks for The New Yorker. Brooks was best known for one role, the doomed vamp Lulu in the 1928 Pandora's Box, and also for a very influential close-cropped hair style. The two hit it off instantly, Tynan unabashedly a fan, and Brooks delighted by both his adulation and intellectual company. (Among other things they had in common was compulsive chain-smoking in spite of the emphysema that would kill them.) The resulting magazine piece, an undisguised love letter, is one of the most charming things Tynan ever wrote.
Janet Munsil's imaginary recreation of that encounter is barely a play - there's no real plot - but is itself an unabashed love letter to two icons of talent and devil-may-care self-destruction. Her inspiration is to insert a third character into the proceedings in the form of the film's Lulu, representing Tynan's erotic fantasies, Brooks' still-youthful energy and the subtle erotic tensions that underlie the surface chat.
And so, while we get a fair share of anecdotes and reminiscences, of Chaplin, Garbo, Dietrich and others, the real story is there in the multileveled interaction and psychological revelations. As I said, that's not particularly dramatic stuff, and those who are not already fascinated by the two characters, or who can't take pleasure in subtly-presented glimpses beneath the social masks, may find this 90-minute play thin and unsatisfying.
Now, some of it isn't all that deep or revelatory. For example, once we get the idea that Lulu is an erotic fantasy of Tynan's (which he himself admitted in 1978), then the mental and emotional displacement he has to go through to focus on the 70-year-old woman before him is fairly obvious. And Brooks' own love-hate relationship with the image of herself 50 years earlier carries no surprises.
What is nice, though, is the way Tynan's coming to grips with the gap between the real and imagined women leads him to realize the extent to which he has been wearing a social mask all his professional life, or how coming to understand what it feels like for Brooks to have her entire life subjugated to one single image leads him to realise that his obituaries will (as in fact they did) dismiss his entire life's work and remember him only as the first person to say "fuck" on the BBC.
What is nice is how Tynan's insistance on seeing Lulu in Louise gradually brings out those qualities in her, not just in a quiet sensuality, but in an independence of spirit and a contempt for a world that can't keep up with her, while at the same time we are reminded that there is so much more to this feisty old broad than that sex symbol of a half-century ago.
If Peter Eyre's Tynan sometimes seems more like an extraordinary impersonation than a created character, Thelma Barlow does succeed in imagining a complex and fascinating Louise. Sophie Millett has little to do but look lovely as the ghost of Lulu, which she does very nicely, though she is frequently upstaged by projections of the young Brooks in the 1928 film.
Songbirds Ltd Courtyard Theatre January 2002
Agents and agencies are subjects that are rarely touched on in performed works, no doubt for the obvious reason that you don't bite the hand that feeds you. This comedy neatly sidesteps the problem by offering a fly-on-the-wall peek at an agency for performers run by performers.
Sue (Jenna Shaw) is the harassed one, pinning down the admin while the bitchy one, Jane (Kirstie Austin), pins down anyone within earshot with a devastating string of one-liners. Enter the young hopeful one Olivia (Christine Handy), on whose voice the agency is about to pin its hopes, ambitions and overdraft. What ensues is a string of set pieces that pitch the characters against each other in all their combinations as they go through the daily grind of unpaid bills, auditions, voice-over sessions, and personal insecurities posed by the underage new arrival. Although hit and miss, the humour is fast and furious, tending to centre around the Odd Couple bitching of Shaw and Austin.
But halfway through the playwright fails to make up his mind whether to go for a character-driven comedy like Nine To Five or a darker, behind-the-scenes satire. This poses a technical barrier for the actresses who are halted in their tracks over character development - and it is to their credit that they keep the energy floating as the script steadily sinks. This is not helped by the fact that writer Simon Josiffe also directs - the fatal fringe equivalent of an accused man defending himself. Still, the bubbly cast ensures that the play comes across as a good pilot for a sit-com while aiming more than a few deserved digs at the industry.
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Taboo The Venue 2002-2003
Late 70s/early 80s Europe was eagerly waiting for something, anything to happen as it imploded under rampantly capitalist governments into a dual world of haves and have-nots. Punk had earlier provided some of the answers to youthful aspirations in the streets, but it took the New Romantic movement to move all that into the salons of Thatcher's Britain and beyond. Armed with drugs, sewing machines and an insatiable desire to ball, the New Romantics fled their dead suburban homes to London's West End (nor should we forget Birmingham) to create a vibrant network of clubs and pop culture that has left its mark right up to today.
Queen of the non-stop party was pop star Boy George, and Taboo is his surprisingly good musical warts and all memoir of the movement's rise and fall. I say "surprisingly" because it could have been so easily a nostalgic dirge to eighties culture, but although Mark Davies' script sets the action firmly in Taboo, one of the best known clubs of the period, the result is a touching, straight love story that can't help but exude high camp and comedy.
All the gang's here: club doyenne Philip Sallon (a louche Paul Baker), drug dealer Jake (Joe Docherty, chillingly funny in stubble and dress) and, of course, Boy George (an arch, sweet-voiced Euan Morton). Luke Evans' Billy is the young innocent who enters this dole heaven of cross-dressers and meets the lovely Kim (Dianne Pilkington). And not much actually happens, if truth be told, guy meets girl, guy falls in love, guy gets frock, and there are few stand-out routines although there is much striking of the pose - the Fade To Grey number nicely captures the original video of Steve Strange's (a deadringer Drew Jaymson) pop hit - and Mark McGee's Marilyn prowls the stage as if it belongs to him.
But the musical works precisely because - whether for reasons of budget or preference - it is neatly stripped down and hits the audience directly - a fact helped by the circular, intimate space of the venue itself, formerly a dance club famed for one of the best sprung floors in the capital. These are real voices with great personality, none of those West End musical clones, and in keeping with the New Romantic spirit, director Christopher Renshaw has given each performer free rein.
On top of that there is an amazing array of frocks and garish suits, utterly faithful to the period and highlighted in numbers like the ensemble's Out Of Fashion, which interweaves snatches of their pop hits in a winsome, moody number, and Matt Lucas' Ich Bin Kunst (I Am Art), which easily brings the house down as he goes OTT as fashion freak Leigh Bowery does Marlene Dietrich.
Although the men naturally get the juicy parts, Gemma Craven puts in a small but potent appearance as Billy's mum Josie - her solo Independent Woman is as good an anthem as any. Dianne Pilkington, as Billy's love interest, imakes up for her one-dimensional character with feisty playing and an impressive voice which she uses to great effect in her torch song Pretty Lies - not my style but it went down a storm.
The songs are all hummable, frequently verging on pastiche (Pretty Lies is a passable Lloyd Webber ballad), which do not get in the way of wonderful couplets that veer from acid to pathos, and frequently both at the same time. The styles range across the decades, with a strong feel for early 70s pop and 90s indie ballads, and it comes as a jar when actual songs from the era appear, such as Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?
There are the inevitable comparisons with Closer To Heaven, pop combo The Pet Shop Boys' offering from last year. Both are set in the glamorous/seedy world of clubs whose oddball characters rely on the connecting thread of the innocent guy from the sticks who gets the innocent but wordly girl, loses her as he takes a bite at the other apples on offer, and may or or may not win her back depending on who the playwright decides gets the heroin overdose or AIDS. But there, I think, the similarities end. Like his pop career, Boy George's songs are more accessible, less arch, mirrored by Davies' simple, funny book. While Closer To Heaven offers us an admittedly intimate window on the intertwinings of its protagonists, Taboo is a fictionalised celebration of a real-life period that includes the whole audience to the point you feel it might so easily be any of us portrayed up there on the stage if life had been different (a concept complicated slightly on the night I went by a happily squirming Philip Sallon in the front row). To nudge the comparison game further, imagine a bubbly fusion of Rent and Return To The Forbidden Planet.
An afternote on ticket prices: £25 gets you a seat in the very back row, a whopping £35 is what you pay for all the others. The most cursory glance at tickets for other West End shows reveals the tiny Venue to be, well, pushing (comparativcely of course) towards opera levels. Unless you're an utter eighties devotee, I'd risk it and wait until Taboo makes a well-deserved transfer to a larger London theatre that has a less draconian pricing policy.
Too Far To Walk King's Head Theatre, November 2002
Playwright Mary Morris has created a highly-charged, issues-filled piece that travels between time, space and emotions as two sisters find themselves abruptly reunited after 50 years of separation. Not only is this based on a true incident, but Morris brings something of her own experience as an impoverished, single mother who in 1971 sailed in steerage with her four children to Australia from England - what Australians call a "ten pound tourist".
Of course, there is a dark secret that first split the sisters, and their reunion becomes a journey of discovery into the future in order to unlock the past. Prunella Scales brings subtle humour to Clarissa, whose wrongful incarceration in English mental asylums - for the simple, awful reason that there were no care-home places available - has left her all but broken in spirit and body. As her elder sister Olive, long departed for a new life in Australia and now calling herself Olivia, Gillian Axtell slowly thaws her frozen memories as she absorbs the disruption of an institutionalised sibling while thoughtfully dispensing calcium tablets and dealing with the odd arrest for drunkenness.
Mirroring them are their younger selves - working-class girls in post-war northern England looking out for each other and their father after their mother's death. Annie Rowe is a coy but forceful Olive, while Susan Harrison shines as headstrong Clarissa. Their instant, natural rapport harks back to a harsher yet more innocent period - one only has to witness the gasps of recognition from the older members of the audience as they share an orange (like bananas, a prized possession during the Second World War and the years that followed), or dress each other for a wintery trek to school.
Providing essential link-ups to all this is the accomplished James Livingstone as social workers on both continents, Aussie cop and asylum inmate, while dialect coach Neil Swain earns special mention for achieving that rarity in British (or indeed American) theatre - accents that convince.
But though director Lucy Skilbeck cleverly works the cast through Morris's multi-layered action, she provides little to no guidance in the character department and the performers suffer accordingly. Scales in particular takes half the play to find her way and it is debatable whether Axtell does at all. Likewise, the good ideas in the set and lighting are used sporadically, with little thought for building on atmosphere.
There is much potential here but the plot is very much by numbers and too many disparate, undeveloped strands are shoehorned onstage, and by overemphasising the back story it loses all sense of where it really should be going. Still worth a look though, if only for what it might have been.
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Review - Oh What Lovely War - Open Air 2002 Review - The Prince of Homburg - RSC Lyric Hammersmith 2002 Review - Riverdance - Hammersmith 2002 Review - Saint's Day - Orange Tree 2002 Review - Smoking With Lulu - Soho 2002 Review - Songbirds Ltd - Courtyard 2002 Review - Taboo - Venue 2002 Review - Too Far to Walk - King's Head 2002