Thursday, 26 May 2016

'Jekyll & Hyde' at The Old Vic

Drew McOnie's new dance show, 'Jekyll & Hyde' opened at The Old Vic last week so what better way to round off my 'Horror Week' (after seeing 'Frankenstein' and 'Doctor Faustus') than to see this creepy old tale. It's only playing for another few performances so you'd better get along quick if you want to see it. It's quite special in its own way since it's the first dance production at The Old Vic in over a decade and The Old Vic was the previous home of Sadler's Wells, London's dance capital. It was also the home of the National Theatre but this isn't a history lesson.

The Robert Louis Stevenson tale is re-imaged so that Dr Jekyll now runs a florists shop with his botanical laboratory in the back room where he experiments with growth potions. One day in the late 1950s a beautiful woman comes in to buy some flowers and he's smitten. Luckily Dahlia forgets her handbag so he chases her over London to give it back. He finds her working in a gym where the local hard man appears to think he owns her and he becomes Jekyll's nemesis. They also go to a dance club with young people dancing to the latest cool jazz sounds where he's humiliated by gym-guy. That's it, so he drinks his own growth potion strengthened by his blood and voila, Mr Hyde is born and he beats several shades out of the gym bullies.

Hyde becomes habit-forming for Jekyll and he also becomes more vicious, eventually starting to kill people. So we see love blossom between Jekyll and Dahlia while Hyde begins to lose control. Scenes alternate between the dance club and the shop but eventually Dahlia sees the truth and that's when Jekyll and Hyde take the stage together to struggle for supremacy. I won't tell you the end in case you're going to see it but it's a shocker.

It's a great production, joyful one moment and scary the next, keeping you on the edge of your seat for what might happen next. Of course, we all know that Jekyll and Hyde are the sane person so to see them struggle on stage together was a bit spectacular. The story-telling is excellent and takes you on a journey of love and its consequences. The dancing is, of course, excellent and I loved the Gene Kelly moments of Jekyll and Dahlia dancing side by side.

There's an incredibly athletic segment in the gym where the bully takes on all-comers with loud power-chord guitar to make a break from the cool jazz of most of the show. This is sort of reprised later in the show when the trendy folks become enslaved to the smell of flowers (a sub-plot) and dance around in their underwear. Such is the power of drug addiction. Part of me loves the idea than an addiction is to flowers! It's so much more civilised than being addicted to booze or drugs.

The set was great fun, with the dancers moving it round under their own power, swinging the big panels around to create a new room and space and the lighting was great too, very atmospheric. With any show like this, it stands or falls by the quality of the dancers and there are some excellent dancers in this production. The most fluid and bendy Daniel Collins plays Jekyll, from solo athletic and balletic dances to lovely sequences dancing like Gene Kelly with Rachel Muldoon as Dahlia. They're both really good. I've seen Daniel in Matthew Bourne's New Adventures productions over the years and most recently as the song and dance man in 'Show Boat'. It's about time we had a new dance star and that star could well be his for the taking.

It's a great show and if you can nab a ticket then I urge you to do so. It's been getting such a great reception that I'd be surprised if it wasn't transferred somewhere later in the year - it certainly deserves a wider audience. Five stars from me!

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

'Doctor Faustus' at the Duke of York

Last week I made a trip to see the new production of 'Doctor Faustus' by Christopher Marlowe at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End. It stars Kit Harington from 'Game of Thrones' and is obviously meant as a 'star vehicle'. I booked tickets because it's one of my favourite plays and it features Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles, the dark angel and demon that helps Faustus create his own doom. I've avoided seeing photos and reviews because I wanted to see it afresh. It's a Jamie Lloyd Company production but what I didn't notice in any of the blurbs was that it was written by Kit Marlowe and by Colin Teevan. Um, who? And why?

I think I can answer the 'why' question. It's clearly a 'star vehicle' for Kit Harington and 'Faustus' is a good one for a lead man so why not? It was also obvious when the cast came on that none of them are meant to be in his 'league' looks-wise, either because they aren't or because they're all in their underwear for the whole thing. He's the only one fully dressed for most of the play, emphasising the contrast and, when he eventually does strip to his pants it's more to show off than for any dramatic reason. What's more, Kit gets to wear glasses to show that he's a serious academic and can translate Latin on a whim. This was definitely a one-man show pretending to be an ensemble piece.

I'm always in two minds about these 'star vehicle' productions that pop up every so often with a big name from telly or films doing 'real acting' on the stage for us all to gawp at and marvel at. I've seen a few good productions, like those with Kim Cattrall, Jude Law and Gillian Anderson, but I've seen some less good ones (no names mentioned). With this one, I don't really know how to assess Kit Harington since the play was so overlaidened by the production itself and it didn't really let him loose to do acting and prove his credentials (which is presumably why he's in the West End).

The thing I came away with is thinking that the production was really quite ugly and dirty-looking. For someone like Faustus to have his level of education there must be money in the family somewhere (whether 400 years ago or today) and yet he lives in a shabby bedsit. As soon as I saw the set my heart sank. And then an actress came on stage to hoover while the audience sat down, and then Faustus emerges from the toilet and sits on the bed with bile dripping from his mouth for no obvious reason. Bile keeps featuring - in different shades of vomit - throughout the play with different characters. I have a lot of sympathy for the cleaners who have to clean that mess up every night.

The quite important scenes with royalty and with rustics in the play are replaced here with meeting rock stars and presidents and that's ok to a degree - there's no harm in updating a play so long as it's done well. This wasn't. Do rock stars in 2016 still end every sentence with the word 'maaan' and act like zombie druggies or was the writer stuck in some kind of '70s induced drug-fuelled coma? Now, I don't know any rock stars personally, but come on. If you're going to change something, do it for the better. In this case, all Faustus did was change the genitals of the rock star and the groupie and then the groupie chased the rock star round with a hard-on under her slip like an old Benny Hill sketch from the '70s. All that was missing was the chase music Benny always used.

And speaking of music - invisible air guitar '80s power chords. Really?  Every now and then Faustus got his invisible guitar out and was in power chord heaven and that just left me baffled.

But the thing that went beyond the pale is Faustus mouthing the 'Helen' speech (y'know the one, 'Is this the face that launched a thousand ships...'), one of the most beautiful bits of poetry in any play to rival Shakespeare, to a scene of him stabbing and viciously raping his pupil. Ugly doesn't even come close. He chases his student and supposed love around the bedsit and, when he fails to catch her, he stabs her in the back, throws her on the bed and rapes her while mouthing the 'Helen' speech. She dies. You've lost me there Jamie Lloyd. That's just not on.

The only saving grace for the dratted thing was Jenna Russell as Mephistopheles, the devils' ambassador. Even she has to wear an ugly night gown that gets progressively dirtier as the bile and play goes on. It's her job to bring Faustus closer to the gates of hell as the play progresses and this she does most admirably. My favourite bit with Jenna was the half-time interval when she took to the stage to give a mini-concert by singing songs from Kylie, Cliff Richard and Meatloaf on the themes of the devil and hell, obviously. Now that, that was inspired. Well done Jenna, when does the album come out?

I think I've said enough really. I won't be going back for second helpings.

'Frankenstein' at the Royal Opera House

Last week we went to see the brand new full-length ballet 'Frankenstein' by Liam Scarlett, performed by the Royal Ballet. I've never seen any of his work before so this was an introduction. Rather than use the popular version of the Frankenstein story as shown in the films, this ballet goes back to the source material of Mary Shelley's book and takes its story from there. It takes a few liberties with purist story but it can't show the whole story and that's what makes the plot work.

The ballet opens with a child finding a new home with the Frankenstein's and growing up in that house with Victor, dancing all over the place it seems. The day comes for Victor to go to university to become a doctor like his father when his mother dies giving birth to his younger brother. Before he goes he pledges to marry Elizabeth. At the university he's a serious scholar, determined to find a way to prolong, and even create, life. The professor shows his students the power of electricity to re-animate an arm but Victor takes it one step forward and, in a spectacular scene, brings a corpse back to life and the Creature is made!

Realising what he's done, Victor flees back to his family home in a deep depression without realising that his creation has followed him and is hiding in the woods around the family home. Victor and the Creature meet and Victor rejects him. That's it for the Creature, rejection by his creator is more than he could bear so he takes revenge and kills, well, almost everyone. Finally, Victor and the Creature have a dance off and Victor isn't strong enough and commits suicide. The ballet ends with the Creature walking to the back of the stage dragging his creator's body behind him as the family home burns.

I really enjoyed this production, only the fifth time the ballet has been performed at Covent Garden. The story-telling was excellent, a nice flowing narrative, the costumes and staging were good and the music seemed to be just right, helping the flow of the story without getting in the way. My only slight criticism is that the choreography wasn't always as big, bold and dynamic as it could have been, such as the final dance between Victor and the Creature. Something a bit more athletic and vigorous would have suited the moment better. In any case, I liked Tristan Dyer as Victor, Sarah Lamb as Elizabeth and Ryoichi Hirano as the Creature. It was lovely to see Itziar Mendizabal as the Frankensteins' housekeeper but she didn't get much dancing, mainly stern striding and pointing.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

'Krishna in the Gardens of Assam' at the British Museum

There's a nice little exhibition at the British Museum called 'Krishna in the Gardens of Assam' and is all about an Assamese devotional textile called the 'Vrindavani Vastra'. The main exhibit is a 9 metre silk textile made up of 12 inticately woven strips that were sewn together in Tibet and a border was added so the textile could be hung up to be admired. It was given to the British Museum in 1905 by a journalist with The Times but it's not known how he acquired it from a Buddhist monastry in Tibet. It's also not known how it moved from northern India to Tibet in the first place but it's likely that it was used to wrap books or other objects sacred to Krishna and these would have been welcomed in Tibet since Lord Buddha was Indian.

Each of the strips of silk weave depict different tales about Krishna, many reflect his early life asa  cowherd. For those of who can't read the symbols (ie me) there's a series of explanations as you walk along the immesne textile so you can recognise what's going on. Whether he is banishing the king of the serpents or defeating demons he's always got time for enjoyment and the scenes I liked most are of him hiding the clothes of the local girls while they bathe so he can enjoy the sight.

My favourite piece, however, was a most wonderful coat with a silk brocade outside and this amazing cloth used as a lining. It looks to be padded so will be lovely and warm to survive the snows of Tibet. I'm in a definite state of 'want' with this coat.

The exhibition is up on the fourth floor of the Museum and the signage isn't great to find it, but I'm sure you'll enjoy looking for it! There's so much to see in that museum...

Sunday, 15 May 2016

'Russia and the Arts' at the National Portrait Gallery

There's a lovely little exhibition on at the National Portrait Gallery at the moment called 'Russia and the Arts; The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky'. By 'little' I mean two rooms and maybe a couple of dozen paintings but it's worth seeing. It's based on the portraits collected (and sometimes commissioned0 by Pavel Tretyakov who donated his personal collection to the city of Moscow in 1892 as the start of the national collection.

As you'd expect from the title, it's a collection of portraits of artists, musicians, poets, composers, and critics from the mid-1800s to early 1900s. There are a lot of beards on display, so much so that some paintings seemed to more about the hair on the head and chin rather than the man underneath. And yes, the portraits are mainly of men although a notable exception is the portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova on the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition.

There are portraits of the greats you'd expect to see including three portraits hung together of a rather ill-looking Dostoyevsky, a very hairy and puritanical Tolstoy and a disdainful Turgenev. All could've done with a comb and a pair of scissors. There's a rather unhappy looking Tchaikovsky which was a bit sad. There is also a nice portrait of Anton Chekhov dressed in a smart suit and sitting comfortably in a green velvet chair.

The poster girl for the exhibition is Baroness Varvara Ikskul Von Hildenbandt, a socialite and hostess for the arts in her bright red jacket and veiled hat. After a life of privilege and the wife of an ambassador she settled in Paris after the revolution. It's strange to read the short potted histories of the subjects of the portraits and wonder how they survived the hardships they sometimes went through, and that's part of the joy of a portraits exhibition - these people were real. The Baroness fled during the revolution but Anna Akhmatova stayed in Russia and lived through the dangers of the Stalin years. I need to know more about her but I'll leave the Baroness to live on through this portrait.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern

There's a great little exhibition on at the Tate Modern at the moment by Mona Hatoum, her first 'big' retrospective exhibition in this country.  She's not someone I now a lot about but, after seeing this exhibition, she's someone I'd like to know more about.

Mona is Palestinian Lebanese who settled in London in the mid-70s when Lebanon exploded into war. This makes her world view something different to most peoples' and this is shown in her art, such as the poster piece that shows the world outlined in red neon, red for warning and alert. Nowhere is safe.

A lot of her works are political. There is the piece made out of 200-odd cubes of olive soap fitted together with the shape of Palestinian homelands detailed in small beads pressed into the soap. She shows us cells without walls, with four-storey bunk beds for prisoners little bigger than 12" vinyl record shelves that fit as many prisoners as possible into a small space. It's all a matter of perspective.

One of the first pieces you see is the still from a video of Mona walking round Brixton with Doc Marten boots tied to her ankles. My initial response to this was ' so what?'. But then you think that this is Brixton in the mid-'80s, and the police wear Doc Marten's and so do skinheads and that suddenly makes this a different image. A young Palestinian woman walking round the inner city trailed by the police on the one hand and by skins on the other. It's a different experience. It's a still photo from a video piece that is shown later in the exhibition.

An installation that really made me take notice was 'Light Sentence', an installation of wire-mesh cages in a small white room lit my a single light bulb that is raised and lowered, slightly swaying in the breeze created by people coming in and out of the room. It's not about the cages or the light bulb, it's al about the shadows that grow around you and move slowly and silently. As you walk round the installation the shadows change as the light bulb moves up and down, becoming disorienting and confusing and strangely wonderful and magical.

One of my favourite pieces was towards the end of the exhibition, a giant circle on the floor covered in sand with an arm continually rotating just over the sand, one part creating a patter and the other part smoothing it out. Over and over again. It's called '+ and' and is mesmerising, watching that arm sweeping slowly round and round, creating and destroying continually. The cycle of creation and destruction goes on and on, almost religiously. All it needs is a dancing Shiva in the centre dancing the universe to destruction before it's created once again. It's a wonderful, meditative piece.

There is, of course, a lot more in this exhibition - a room full of household items wired together and electrified, a model of a baby inside an egg-slicer, public hair on a chair - but I'll let you discover these for yourself. It's well worth exploring this exhibition.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

'The Toxic Avenger' at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse seems to enjoy putting on UK premieres of American musicals and the latest is 'The Toxic Avenger' based on the film from the '80s. I've never seen the film or the stage version so this was a very tentative dip of my toe into the toxicity of the thing. It's good that Southwark Playhouse is willing to take risks and attract new audiences and, after premiering 'Xanadu' last year and reviving 'Grand Hotel' it's becoming a favourite venue. Particularly since it has also finally embraces the 21st century and now has allocated seating to avoid the silly queues of people wanting to get good seats. Well done - you know it makes sense. So, 'The Toxic Avenger' - what's it about?

The play is set in a small New Jersey town where the corrupt mayor happily imports toxic waste for back-handers and power. It's the Toxic Avenger's job to put an end to this and restore justice. Enter the town geek bemoaning the toxic waste and his secret love, Sarah the blind librarian that the mayor has entrusted the town records to. She tells the geek where the records are and he finds out what the mayor is up to and confronts her. Uh oh, big mistake. She hires the town bullies to teach him a lesson and they drop him into a vat of waste that mutates him into a super-strong green monster. He rips off their arms and legs in revenge and the librarian falls for him. Then comes the task of saving the town and bringing the mayor and the polluters to justice. Phew, it's action packed and fast moving and there's a lot going on.

So, here we have it, a serious dramatic exploration of ecological issues in the modern day and the motivations behind both sides of the argument. Um no, we have a raucous, rude and very funny musical comedy with lots of choons and madcap scenes. It's great fun and terribly un-PC, particularly with virtually every reference to Sarah the blind librarian, dropping her white stick and hunting round for it, trying to get off stage without the stick and, at one point, commenting that she's creating time for some quick costume changes behind the scenes.

The cast of five people mostly play multiple roles, appearing as one character only to disappear and reappear moments later as someone else, particularly the two lads who play everything from the local school bullies, a folk singer, policemen, hairdressers and polluting businessmen. Marc Pickering and Ashley Samuels were excellent and great fun as the two dudes. Mark Anderson played the geek and Toxie, the Toxic Avenger. Hannah Grover was Sarah and Lizzii Hills as the evil, dastardly mayor.

It's a great evening out and great fun - I really enjoyed it!  You could do a lot worse than get tickets to this show while it's on...

Sunday, 1 May 2016

'Funny Girl' at The Savoy Theatre

Last week we went to see Sheridan Smith in 'Funny Girl' at the Savoy Theatre. This is the production that sold out almost instantly when it was put on at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year, so it was a must see. I'm a fan of Sheridan's stage work and saw her in 'Little Shop of Horrors' (in which I saw her cry on cue a mere few feet away), 'Legally Blonde' (at the Savoy) and 'Flare Path' so I was looking forward to seeing her in this show.

'Funny Girl' tells the story of Fanny Brice, a poor Brooklyn girl made good who goes on to be a huge Broadway star in the early 1900s, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies and a host of other shows. It opens in 1927 before we look back at Fanny's story. We see Fanny's first auditions and her mouthy way of getting what she wants with her quick wit and her singing and dancing.  She meets her 'first top hat' after a show and he becomes the great love of her life, meeting in different places as he travels round gambling and she headlines shows. They marry and have a baby daughter but when he needs money for a new money she gives it to him and the resentment starts. He goes to prison for fraud and the play opens with Fanny waiting for his return in her dressing room before we see the story of her life and ends when we see him return to the theatre for her latest first night of a new show.

Sheridan Smith plays Fanny Brice, our heroine and is on stage for much of the performance in what must be an exhausting role, rarely still and almost always talking or singing. The original version of 'Funny Girl' was written for Barbra Streisand so there's a lot in here that harks back to Barbra's delivery of machine-gum one liners and asides but Sheridan makes it her own. The husband is played by Darius Campbell, unfeasibly tall standing next to Sheridan but I didn't feel any great chemistry between them, despite having played these roles last year at the Choccy Factory. He always seemed a bit distant, a bit stand-offish. Maybe because it's really her story and her show?

I liked Joel Montague as Fanny's friend and sort of dance coach Eddie, clearly carrying a torch for her and not hiding it very well from first meeting until the end of the play. He gave quite a subtle and touching performance but it's never going to happen Eddie. I also liked Fanny's mum played by Marilyn Cutts and you can see where Fanny got her will to succeed from. It was nice to see so many 'old' people on the stage playing the previous generation - I haven't seen that many 'older' characters on the same stage in a long time. The rest of the cast were good too and I liked the long, willowy dancers.

This is really Sheridan's show, of course, playing it big as Fanny Brice and belting out some big songs. She really made me sit up and listen with her tender version of 'People' and again for the big 'Don't Rain On My Parade'. Apparently there's going to be a cast recording so it'll be good to hear those songs again. Well done Sheridan, another memorable show!