Wednesday, 20 December 2017

'A Christmas Carol' at The Old Vic

This evening was another Christmas in a visit to The Old Vic to see the new version of 'A Christmas Carol' which is one of my favourite stories so I can't help but be a harsh judge of any production of it. The problem in trying to do a blog is that The Old Vic asked visitors not to share the many surprises and moments of wonder in the show so we don't spoil it for others. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers and only mention anything that's already been mentioned in reviews.

The first surprise was entering the auditorium to see it split in half by a runway from the stage to the back of the stalls. I knew there were seats on stage but the auditorium has virtually been remodelled for this show. In various places around the auditorium (and, I assume, in the circle) were actors dressed as market traders handing out oranges and mince pies to any who wanted them. I thought that was a lovely touch for the season.

With no scenery and minimal props it's quite an accolade to consider how the acting and the imaginative lighting created such a warm spectacle and drew the audience into its magic. I loved the hundreds of lanterns suspected above the stage to help create the atmosphere. The first 'wow' moment for me was when Marley walked onto the runway and proceeded to walk the length of the stalls dragging behind him a huge chain that went on and on and on - dead spooky!

It's not perfect and there are downsides to this new version. Too much is made up! Surely everyone knows that we never meet Scrooge's dad, that Mr Fezziwig wasn't an undertaker, that no-one made eulogies over Scrooge's coffin and that Scrooge celebrates Christmas at his nephew's house not with the Cratchits. It's not rocket science guys, there's a book where the story is all written down for you. I know you can't have all the story on stage but why make up so much when there's already a perfect story to explore?

Anyway, leaving that to one side (I *am* an 'A Christmas Carol' purist after all) there's more than enough magic in the show - and not a little daftness in the second half - to make it a magical experience. There was when .... um and then there was when ... and then, um.... No, I won't spoil it for you, you need to see it for yourself. I can tell you that snow erupts over the stalls to gasps of wonder, excitement and surprise (I got snowed on so was happy). It was also nice to hear so many Christmas carols woven into the story. I liked hearing sentences from the book spoken every now and then, mainly by the chorus.

Rhys Ifans was good as Scrooge, a bit mean to start off with (of course) and gradually finding his comic bone as the play progressed. It's clearly a star vehicle for him but he played it as part of an ensemble cast that took all the other parts, changing roles and costumes every few minutes. They were excellent and I wouldn't single any of them out as ether particularly good or bad - they were a solid cast.

By the end of the play we see the truth in Dickens' words that close the story in that, " was always said of him [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." Mr Scrooge is surely the Spirit of Christmas. I loved it and bought the programme.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

'A Woman of No Importance' at the Vaudeville Theatre

A year of Oscar Wilde plays has started at the Vaudeville Theatre so it was time to jump in and get all Wildean. An additional draw was a cast headed up by Eve Best, Anne Reid and Eleanor Bron with the additional delight of William Gaunt having a small role as a local clergyman (I last saw him play John O'Gaunt, his namesake). With that cast and a Wilde play, what's not to like, especially when we were seated down the front of the stalls with perfect views?

The play opens at the country house of Lady Hunstanton who has invited a range of different people in the hops of having an interesting weekend. We have a young lady from America, various members of the aristocracy that seem to go from one country house to the next, a young clerk that Lady Hunstanton has taken an interest in, a politician and various others. A late Victorian play is, of course, full of morality and preaching and very so often you can clearly hear Wilde's Irish views spouted by the young American lady, a cypher for his own views on 'society' and the upper classes.

When Lord Illingworth offers the young clerk, Arbuthnot, a job as his secretary everyone is happy for him. It's a good step, after all. And his mother is invited to join the party for dinner. And that's where the tone changes since Mrs Arbuthnot ran away to live with Lord Illingworth when they were both young but he refused to marry her when she became pregnant. She doesn't want her son to have anything to do with the father who did nothing to help them all those years ago and we see her explain that Lord Illingworth is actually his father. That's where the twists and turns become ever more sharper.

It's a very enjoyable production, excellently delivered. Eve Best is a safe pair of hands as the 'woman of no importance', independent and strong whose only flaw seems to be her relationship with her selfish son. The son annoyed me - that's partly the writing of course, but mainly his stupid 'Ed Sheeran' hair style that was all over the place while everyone else was in character. It was a delight to see Eleanor Bron on stage who was imperious and, well, she played Eleanor Bron really well.

A very pleasant surprise was seeing Anne Reid on stage for the first time. Not only did we get a great performance but she came out in-between acts with some of the 'servants' to sing appropriate songs that helped the story move forward and she has a lovely singing voice. She was a friend of Barbara Cook so that's hardly surprising.

Once we got over young Arbuthnot's tantrums at the end of the play he finds a glove in his mother's drawing room, not knowing that Lord Illingworth had visited earlier and his mother had slapped his face with that glove. Her response to the question of whose glove it was was a very satisfying ending when she said it belonged to 'a man of no importance'. Take that!

Well done all, I really enjoyed this production and I'm looking forward to the next one now. Seeing a Wilde play every few months seems like a nice thing to do. Thank you Vaudeville for taking the plunge and committing to a Wilde year!

Fra Angelico 12/12

This year I've been posting a photo of a painting by Fra Angelico that I've actually seen on the 18th of the month to celebrate his feast day of 18 February. This month, in the run up to Christmas, it's right to post a nativity scene from San Marco in Florence.

In this scene we see Mary and Joseph praying to their son while St Peter Martyr and St Catherine also pray to their lord. I like the angels on the roof (they get everywhere) and the donkey and the ox in the stable. Despite all the characters in the painting it's actually quite sparse, with a bare ground for the babe to lie on and bare walls to the stable. There's also no real reason for the saints to be there.

I've enjoyed sharing my year of Fra Angelico paintings and I'm looking forward to seeing more 'new' paintings by the good brother next year at the exhibition in Boston. 

'The Box of Delights' at Wilton's Music Hall

This evening we went to see an epic battle of good and evil to save Christmas in 'The Box of Delights' at Wilton's Music Hall. I've never been to Wilton's before but it had a Christmas Tree in the (rather small) auditorium so it gets a thumbs up from me. It's actually the perfect setting for a play like this and it helped create a lovely atmosphere.

We had wolves (oh yes we did), magicians, magical boxes with the power to shrink you down to the size of a mouse, a witch who flew, a master jewel thief, a deluge and, best of all, Toby, a really clever dog who definitely wasn't a puppet.

Our hero is Kay Harker who is on the train to his guardian's house for Christmas when he meets an old Punch & Judy man who has a mysterious Box of Delights. The old man is being hunted by wolves in human form and he must ensure the box is protected at all costs. The wolves want the box for their lord who is an evil magician and wants to use it to time travel and wreak havoc (which is what evil magicians do). The evil magician needs to stop Christmas happening to save himself so he arranges for all the clerics in the cathedral to be kidnapped and imprisoned so there's no-one left to celebrate Christmas. And the clock is ticking, getting closer to Christmas Eve...

It's a dark tale of dastardly dealings and despair until Kay plucks up his courage to confront the evil magician to save his friend and save Christmas. A roller-coaster ride of ups and downs that I won't spoil for you here - you'll have to see it for yourself.

The best things about it were Matthew Kelly as the nice magician (he also played the evil magician) and Josefina Gabrielle as the evil witch who can fly (and she does). Both were on top form and a joy to behold (I'd cross the road to avoid that witch, just in case...)

There were some lovely, imaginative scenes, like when the old man opens the Box of Delights and we see a golden, be-jewelled phoenix flying around the stage before it smolders in its own embers. The designers have clearly put some thought into how to make this work in a magical way on that small stage. And, by and large, they succeed. It wasn't perfect by any means but I really enjoyed it. It made me leave the real world outside and slip gently into this magical world and share the perils and joys of this strange 1930s world.

Well done all, I really enjoyed it! And thank you for saving Christmas!

Sunday, 17 December 2017

'Pinocchio' at the National Theatre

This years' Christmas show at the National Theatre is 'Pinocchio', the Disney version rather than sticking to the book. I've been looking forward to this one: will it have the Disney magic? how will his nose grow? what will the transformation from puppet to boy be like? It's not the easiest story to transfer to the stage but I thought it was done rather splendidly.

The first surprise was that the 'humans' in the story are actually the puppets. Heads and torso for the 'humans' were carried round by the actor playing the part plus helpers to move the arms and it worked really well. It also added another level of menace in some of the scenes, with giants looming over poor little Pinocchio.

You do, of course, already know the story. Geppetto is a toy-maker who makes a puppet boy as his son and Pinocchio has a series of adventures that help him to become a human boy. He's handily given a cricket as a conscience to help explain the story and, in this version, Jiminy is a lady puppet so doesn't have the top hat and spats I was expecting. The 'star fairy' - when not played by a human - is a flame that flits about the stage and I have no idea how they did that. I suspect it was magic.

Since the 'humans' are puppets, it makes it easier for Pinocchio to be played as a real life human dwarfed by the puppets he interacts with. The scene when Pinocchio is carved out of a tree trunk is a surprise I won't spoil here but it made me sit up and take notice. What I didn't understand was why Pinocchio had trousers and braces but no shirt? Of course he wears a shirt and should be given one immediately. The poor thing must've been freezing in this weather.

The only section I wasn't keen on were the Pleasure Island' scenes that seemed over-long and a bit obvious. It was nice to get different voices and sounds on stage by that point in the play - and nice to have the stage full of scenery and props that kept being moved and changed - but I felt those scenes could easily have been shortened without affecting the overall play.

I'm pleased they included the main songs from the film - 'When You Wish Upon A Star' and 'I've Got No Strings' - and I couldn't help grinning like a loon when they were sung (and I was singing along in my head), In that scene the 'puppets' (played by humans, of course) were dangling on the end of strings while Pinocchio danced around freely. I loved the patchwork costumes in these scenes which helped with the overall illusion. It was nice that both musical themes kept swirling back very now and then amongst the other music in the play.

Was it perfect Christmas viewing? No, not quite, but it was full of spectacle and surprises that keep even older children like me happy. I bought the programme but probably won't do the colouring in and other games it included.

Well done to Joe Idris-Roberts as Pinocchio, Audrey Brisson as Jiminy, Mark Hadfield as Geppetto and Annette McLaughlin as the Blue Fairy, with a special shout to David Langham as the evil Mr Fox who got his just desserts by cutting off his own tail. That's what happens to baddies, you know.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The Tale of The Christmas Goose

Way back in the olden days, Horatius was sitting on a small hillock which was his favourite place to observe the woodlands around his lake. He was watching an old man dressed in rags collecting firewood in the forest on the night before the special celebration. The old man didn't seem to be very good at this task, and, thought Horatius, those sticks are all damp and won't help make a fire for anyone. Horatius was a goose of all the colours of gold and sand and had often seen the villagers collect wood for their fires. The villagers didn't have feathers, after all, and needed something to keep them warm in the depths of winter, especially in the snow.

The goose turned his head to look at the old man from a different angle and then flew off to gather his brothers and sisters to help the old man. The geese collected dry branches and sticks and dropped then at the feet of the old man who stood and looked at them in astonishment. When there was a goodly pile of dry tinder Horatius landed back on the hillock and went 'Honk' and bowed to the old man before flying away to a tree a bit further back in the forest to see what happened next.

The old man bowed to the golden goose in thanks and gathered up the sticks and created three bundles which he left outside three hovels in the village and went back to his own shack on the edge of the village. Horatius followed the old man to see what would happen and did't understand why the old man gave away all the dry twigs rather than build a nice fire to keep himself warm. 'Humans' thought Horatius and, when he returned the next day, saw that the old man had gone.

Spring and summer passed and Horatius had his own brood of goslings who were, generally, scamps but in a good way. Then, as the leaves had fallen and the snow and frost appeared, he saw the old man again and called on his children to collect a pile of firewood for the old man and stash it under a fir tree to keep it dry. Then Horatius issued a loud 'HONK' to the old man to alert him to his gift and the old man came over in wonder. He sat beside the golden goose and stroked his neck and his wings and said 'thank you Master Goose' with a low bow.

So it happened every year afterwards when the snow appeared and the special day drew near. Horatius was to be found waiting for the old man with a pile of dry kindling with his children and grand-children watching from deeper in the forest. The old man would bring a bag od seeds of the highest quality so his friend could have a snack while they comforted each other in a friendly silence.

The old man grew older and so did Horatius. Until one year the old man found a pile of dry twigs under a tree but there was no sign of his friend. He left the bag of seed for Horatius's children and shed a tear.

The King's castle wasn't far from the wood and on the day of the big celebration the old King, resplendent in his best holiday robes was looking forward to the new treat he'd been promised by his hunters. They entered his banqueting hall with a cage with a rough shape inside with the colours of dull bronze.

As the cage was put down the shape stirred and a final, defiant 'HONK' issued from the cage.  The King instantly recognised the voice of his old, winter friend from his trips into the woods disguised as a poor man in his annual penance. He jumped up and demanded that the cage should be opened and the bedraggled goose set free. The king picked up the body of his old friend and, with tears in his eyes. said 'It's me, Horatius, my friend' . Horatius recognised the old man's voice and rested his head on his shoulder which was covered in fine silk and damask.

The old king carried his friend to the table and sat him down in the place of honour on a soft cushion, ordering water and high quality seeds for his friend. Then he issued a proclamation that never again should golden geese be hunted in his kingdom. Horatius issued a loud 'honk' and his children, and grand-children and great-grand-children appeared at the windows to honour the old king and their treaty. And then he nipped the king's finger to remind him that they were still a free people and not subject to the whims of humans. And the old King giggled.

Centuries passed and we remember good King Wenceslas and the firewood but we rarely hear about his friend, Horatius. The golden geese remember him, though, and celebrate him when the snow falls and humans search for dry sticks on that special night. Keep your eyes peeled and you might see Horatio honouring his ultimate grandfather, standing on a small hillock with lots of dry sticks waiting to be claimed by anyone who needs them. Some things are important.