Sunday, 29 April 2018

'Fanny and Alexander' at The Old Vic

'Fanny and Alexander' at The Old Vic closed a couple of weeks ago so this is more of a completist  blog to make sure it's credited in the Plastic Bag. 'Fanny and Alexander' is, of course, an Ingmar Bergman film, a film I've never seen. This was its first stage adaptation and I was suitably impressed with the great theatricality of it all with various narrators (usually the servants in the play) talking to the audience to explain what's happening (often the food menus). There were lots of little twists and turns that made the whole thing great fun to off-set the darker moments.

The Ekdahl family live in separate apartments in their townhouse in a Swedish town where they also own the local theatre and some of them perform in the theatre company. Of the three brothers, one runs the theatre, one is a bit of a wastrel with money problems and the other is aloud-mouth philanderer - and also the most attractive character. The theatre brother dies suddenly and his widow marries the local bishop and moves to his cold palace with her two children, the Fanny and Alexander of the title. The Bishop is an old-fashioned puritanical zealot or possibly simply an abusive sadist who enjoys imposing his well on his wife and punishing her son. These scenes aren't very pleasant at all. Luckily, the Bishop gets his righteous come-uppance and the family returns to the safety of their former family home.

It's a long play at 3:15 hours and two intervals but it immediately sets the right tone when Alexander runs onto the stage to welcome us to 'the longest play in history'. It's both self-knowing and poking a bit of fun at itself and us and talking to the audience sets the scene for later narrative twists and turns. It is a long play but it didn't feel that long and that's to it's credit and the quality of the writing and the production.

My favourite player was Penelope Wilton as the Grandmother who rules the townhouse and it's people with a fist of cotton wool and a quick tongue, in a role that seemed to have been made for her. She was really excellent - it's a joy to see Penelope on stage in almost anything but this suited her to a T.  I also greatly enjoyed Jonathan Slinger as Uncle Gustav Adolf, the wastrel brother who got a huge spontaneous round of applause after he let rip at the Bishop telling the truths that people were too frightened to mouth. He might be a wastrel but he's the one I'd like to have as a friend. It was a great ensemble cast that happily played off each other and seemed to be having fun doing it.

The play closed a couple of weeks ago but, y'know what? I think I'd happily see it again when it's eventually revived. Well done everyone!

Saturday, 28 April 2018

'Twang!!' at the Union Theatre

The Union Theatre is a small space under the railway arches between Waterloo and London Bridge stations, it's small, it's bijou, it's unpretentious and it puts on stuff that you probably wouldn't see at any mainstream theatre. It put on Sondheim's 'Assassins' long before the Choccy Factory down the road thought of doing it and also the Pet Shop Boys musical 'Closer To Heaven' so it knows it's stuff. It had a tiny front of house area and a stage area blocked by odd columns all over the place but it tried and was worthy. Then, last year, it moved over the road (literally) to a space at least twice the size of the space it occupied and the other night was my first visit to the new venue to see 'Twang!!'.

Outdoors seating in the alley leading up to it (and other trendy restaurants) and a large cafe/bar area indoors was most impressive, so much bigger than the dark and dingey bar I was used to. Going up to get the tickets I'd booked online and it still doesn't have numbered seats, rather you get a token to go into the theatre in groups and you can sit anywhere. And that's where the scales started falling from my eyes.

Standing at the bar where two staff were chatting to each other and a third was chatting to her mate on the other side of the bar and I'm standing there wondering if I should clear my throat to prove I wasn't invisible is hardly the welcome I hoped for. Then having a poorly stocked bar and getting a glass of warm red wine that made me wish for ice cubes. The front of house staff in scruffy shorts and vests telling us to wait because 'there were more 3s' when we were 4s despite no-one else waiting to enter the auditorium. Um, what's that all about? Uncomfortable seats, narrow corridor between the seats with duct tape keeping the carpet covering down - I thought this was a 'new' theatre?

Then we get to the play, the little performed 'Twang!!' by Lionel Bart (of 'Oliver' fame) and re-written at some point to include references to other musicals. It's the tale of Robin Hood based on the Hollywood film, one of my favourites, so I ought to have loved it. But, it just isn't a very good musical and, if you've got poor material, then there's only so much you can do with it. I really felt for the actors trying to make this work but, quite frankly, it didn't. And I'm sorry about that.

I have no idea what the original was like but why on earth did the director make them play it like this? A camp troop of men in shorts with Lily Savage as Will Scarlett (whose girlfriends were shrieking in the audience), a woman playing the Barbara Windsor role who seemed to have a nice voice but ended up screeching too often and big dance numbers that were just too big for the size of the place and meant they bumped into each other. They must've rehearsed this, surely, so why did it still happen? Why did no-one notice? The people in front of us left at half time - I stayed because I wanted to see what happened next. It didn't get any better.

I can't blame the actors for the evening - they were given material and directed to act in a certain way - but I do blame the director and the Union Theatre. It seems to be making an art form out of being amateur and unprofessional and that's not a good look. I won't be going back any time soon if that's the quality of experience on offer. The Union Theatre seems to have lost it's twang....  (which is what the play is all about, oo-er matron).

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

' Monet & Architecture' at the National Gallery

To many people, the name Claude Monet probably conjures up images of waterlilies, gardens and gorgeous landscapes. That makes an exhibition about his paintings of architecture - streets and buildings - rather inspired. And what a good exhibition it is, with 77 paintings by Monet grouped thematically and nicely spaced out. For a change there are no labels beside the paintings to distract, just a  number that you can look up in the free booklet you pick up at the entrance.

There are some lovely landscapes and seascapes with a house or church or some other building in it to justify its inclusion but this painting, 'The Steps' caught my attention because it's not in a landscape or garden, it's a set of stone steps beside a house in what looks like a courtyard. Naturally there are trees and plants in the scene as well but there would be, wouldn't there. What really made me look again was the sense that the steps were leading up and backwards into the near distance, the shadow at the front of the steps really emphasising this. Considering this is a very enclosed space there's no feeling of claustrophobia at all due to the gorgeous sunlight keeping it all light and airy. I wonder what's in the room at the top of the stairs - is it a bedroom or a store-room or something else? I'm nosy.

There were a few paintings that I thought were borderline cheating given the theme of architecture but I'll trust the National Gallery in its choices. There were a few scenes of sea and cliff and a small church on top of the cliffs which were wonderfully vivid but this painting is a bit different since it's mainly landscape and cliffs with the roof of a house nestled into the landscape. This is 'The Cliffs at Varengeville' and the house was a customs station to look out for smugglers. Is this painting really about architecture or is it a landscape that happens to have the top of a house in it?  I don't really care - it's lovely and that's enough for me.

Another painting I fell in love with was the gorgeous 'Villas at Bordighera' from 1884. I counted approximately 4, 365 colours in this painting (or thereabouts) with its lush foliage and flowers and the sun playing on the buildings under that lovely blue sky. Can you imagine having that as your back garden? I can almost hear the rustle of the palm fronds in the breeze just looking at this photo.

Something I've mentioned before is that the photos I post here in the Plastic Bag aren't always very representative of the actual paintings - you need to see the real paintings if at all possible to appreciate the colours and brush strokes and all-round atmosphere of the paintings. It makes so much difference seeing the real thing. That is especially true of Monet's paintings.

Another painting to marvel at is 'The Beach at Trouville' which radiates heat and glorious light - paintings like this really need to be seen in winter to warm us all up.

A painting that I've blogged about before is 'The Rue Montorgueil , Paris. The National Holiday of 30 June 1878' which normally lives in Musee D'Orsay in Paris. This is such a gorgeous painting with the street thronged with people, flags flying from every vantage and the inevitable sun beating down on Paris. All of those little people in the street are blobs of paint, one smear of the paint brush, so up-close they don't look like much but we can clearly see them as people. Monet knew he didn't have to be detailed and that's the beauty of his paintings - a suggestion is all we need to see whatever he wanted us to see. I love the sheer colour, vibrancy and light of this painting and it;s probably the one I'd put in my bag first if I was mounting a raid on the exhibition (which I'm not, by the way, if security is reading!).

Of course, M. Monet also confounds us with an incredibly realistic cityscape of 'The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris' from 1873. These aren't little blobs of colour on the canvas, these are far more detailed and accurate portrayals of people and the cityscape and it was almost a shock to see this painting. Am I in the right exhibition? but it's great to see how Monet's vision changed and developed over the years.

The final couple of rooms take us to Rouen to see the effects of the sunlight he painted of the facade of Rouen Cathedral, the atmospheric effects of the Thames in London, and the effects of water on the buildings of Venice. After Venice he largely retired to his garden to paint the wonderful scenes of his garden as his sight failed.

I think my favourite of these later paintings is 'Houses of Parliament, Sunset' from 1904 with its glaring ball of fire in the sky burning up the Thames.  Now *that* is how you paint the mother of all parliaments, a mere shadow against the power of nature. I have to wonder again, is this really about architecture or is it about the power of nature and the images of atmosphere?

I'm not sure I care, to be honest. It's an inspired concept for an exhibition and I love it. I'm familiar with some of the paintings from the National Gallery's own collection and from D'Orsay, but so many of them were new to me that it's a privilege to see them in London. I suspect the exhibition is going to Paris at some point since the catalogue is available in French. I bought the English version of the catalogue so I can relive this exhibition whenever I want to.

If you're in London when the exhibition is on then I heartily recommend a visit, but try early mornings or late afternoons when it shouldn't be so busy. This is definitely one of the exhibitions of the year.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Bernstein Triple Bill at the Royal Opera House

It's the centenary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein and to celebrate it the Royal Ballet has put on a triple bill of ballets at the Royal Opera House, including two new ballets specially commissioned for the event. We had 'Yugen' by Wayne McGregor, 'The Age of Anxiety' by Liam Scarlett and 'Corybantic Games' by Christopher Wheeldon. As ever, it was a packed house to see the Royal Ballet, especially because it was an opportunity to see new ballets for the first time.

First up was 'Yugen', choreographed by Wayne McGregor and featuring Principal Dancer Sarah Lamb. This was an abstract piece danced to the music of Bernstein and the Chichester Psalms sung in Hebrew by the Royal Opera Chorus. It was very atmospheric and the Chorus was in fine voice. It's easy to get lost in the twisting and the leaping, the lifting and the movement of the dancers, mesmerised by the sight in front of you, particularly to powerful music. I didn't really care what the dancers were trying to say, instead, I just revelled in the movement. My only criticism was about the red on red costumes with one leg wider than the other - I found it really distracting and ugly for some reason, but I loved the dance.

The second ballet was 'The Age of Anxiety' by Liam Scarlett that's been performed before but this was my first time to see it. This was a much more narrative affair and I enjoyed it the most - I recall thinking as I sat there towards the end that *this* is why I enjoy ballet. It tells a story through athletic movement and it shines a light on life, on us, and, hopefully, we learn from it.

The ballet opens in a bar in New York after the war when the troops are returning home. We see a woman on her own at the bar, an office worker sitting further along the bar, a young man in a booth and then in comes a sailor looking for fun. He's very metrosexual and happy to dance with the woman or the young man and even tries to steal the girl from the soldier that comes in later. He doesn't seem to care so long as he can celebrate life and surviving the war.

The scene shifts from the bar to the street with the group trying to hail a taxi to get home and then we arrive at the woman's apartment which is far more chic than her hanging out in a bar would suggest. More dancing and rivalry ensues  until the sailor wins and the young man leaves disappointed, pursued by the office worker. The sailor promptly falls asleep on the sofa while the office worker declares his interest in the young man outside. And then we see the dream, the golden city in the dawn sunlight summoning the young man back to adventure and the future and he succumbs, running towards it.

I really loved this ballet, so much wrapped up in only 39 minutes, tales of life and love, triumph and disaster and what it means to be alive. Sarah Lamb was, again, our leading lady, along with Alexander Campbell, Bennet Gartside and Tristan Dyer. So much story-telling and energetic dance in such a short time.

The final ballet was 'Corybantic Games' by Christopher Wheeldon, and the costumes were very ancient Greek in style. This one was, again, rather abstract in style, with the dancers appearing as ancient Greek athletes, the women in see-through frocks and the lads wearing lots of straps. It had me wondering about how you jump backwards, especially synchronised, and I couldn't quite work it out. Once again, it was the sheer athleticism and artistry of the dancers that stole my attention - how do they do that?

With this ballet I had little idea of what was going on, it was more of an abstract show-off ballet, look what I can do as the dancers leap and twirl and go up on tippy toe and challenge each other to do better. These young people are astonishingly fit and seemed to move as one even when they quite clearly weren't. I was most impressed.

This was a very enjoyable evening seeing new ballets as well as one that's been on before. You never really know what you're going to see in these Royal Ballet triple bills but there's always one that I love. This time it was 'The Age of Anxiety' which I'm very pleased to have seen.

'Bomberg' at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

The Laing Gallery puts on some interesting exhibitions so I try to visit when I'm in Newcastle. Last years's exhibition was 'Out of Chaos' with paintings about and by migrants in the early 20th Century and this time it's an exhibition of works by David Bomberg. Interestingly, both exhibitions were in association with the Ben Uri Gallery.

David Bomberg is little more than a name to me, really. I've seen some of his works in various galleries and in group exhibitions (such as the 'Crisis of Brilliance' exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago, along with his colleagues from the Slade school), but I don't know anything about him. Most of the works I've seen I'd categorise as dark smudges - they're not, of course, but compared to some of his contemporaries, that's what they seemed like. I hoped that this exhibition would show me a different side to Bomberg and it did.

The first thing you see on entering the exhibition is a lovely drawing he did when he was about 23 years old, a self-portrait. He did various self-portraits in different media but I quite liked this one, youthful and full of hope for the future - look world, look what I can do. The direct gaze and honesty in his features is quite impressive and this drawing is in the national collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibition is chronological so we see his style and choice of subjects develop. We see his painting of barges and barge-people on Regents Canal and his views of the lives of the Jewish communities in the East End of London, such as his 'Ghetto Theatre' from 1920 which is a work I've seen before and think of as one of his 'dark smudge' paintings.

It's when he went to live and work in Jerusalem and in Spain that he seems to have discovered light and his palette changed.  It was a great surprise to suddenly see all of these bright landscapes, full of light and warmth, such as this one, 'Jerusalem City and Mount of Ascension' from 1925. These paintings weren't all figurative by any means but it's good to see the range of works he created over his life. There are a few cityscapes of places like Jerusalem and Toledo in the exhibition but there are also some landscapes as well, and I particularly liked his 'Valley of La Hermida' from 1935 with it's stark beauty.

He seems to have travelled around a lot, settling here and there for some time before something went wrong and he had to return to London, such as painting school folding and having to leave Spain in advance of the Civil War. He doesn't seem to have had a very successful life at all with various business ventures failing, not getting war commissions and then, when he finally did get one, having his works rejected. I wonder what he felt about this? Did he care or was he wrapped up in his art?

I particularly liked a painting called 'The Red Hat' from 1931 which is actually a portrait of his second wife, Lilian Holt. Lilian was also an artist and it seems they painted together and inspired each other (it was she who introduced him to flower painting that took his work in another direction again). I love that red hat.

There were more portraits and landscapes and flowers on show, but the final painting in the exhibition is 'The Last Self-Portrait' from 1956 (Bomberg died in 1957). It's quite a contrast - as you'd expect - from the self-portrait that opened the exhibition but the thing I really liked about it is that he's holding his palette and brushes, his tools of his trade and art. After having read about his various failures over his life it's a proud statement at the end of his life saying 'I am an artist'.

I'm pleased I caught this exhibition and would like to know more about him. Maybe one day he'll get an exhibition in his home town of London.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Kim Wilde at The Sage, Gateshead

On Monday night I went to see Kim Wilde at her gig at The Sage in Gateshead. I've been to two of Kim's Christmas Party gigs in London so I know both she and band give good gig but I wanted to see her on tour with her new album, Here Come The Aliens' and I'm so pleased I did. And, luckily, the Aliens didn't choose that night to invade.

You could almost feel the excitement level rising as people took their seats and then the lights went down and on strode the band, taking their places and then there was Kim in her body-hugging PVC outfit with silver jacket with tassles - yes, tassles! All designed to ward off the Aliens, obviously. And what a fabulous sound came off that stage, high volume guitar and synth music with a pounding beat provided by two drummers and bass, synth/keytar, two guitars (including little brother Ricky, of course), niece Scarlett on vocals and Kim out front.

The set opened with 'Stereo Shot' from the new record before heading straight back to the early '80s with 'Water on Glass' and that set the pattern for the evening, new and old songs melding together into a great setlist, old favourites and new favourites working well together.

Early on we had 'Kandy Krush', the current single from the album and great raucous pop song with wailing guitars and relentless drums and Kim's vocals and trademarked woh-oh-ohs. It's one of my favourites from the new record so I was happy! Other favourites were the head-banger 'Birthday' - dance like it's your birthday! - and 'Rosetta' (sung with Scarlett).

There were plenty of Kim's classics to keep everybody happy and I particularly liked 'View From A Bridge' segueing into 'Chequered Love', 'Cambodia', 'If I Can't Have You' and 'You Keep Me Hangin' On'.  It was a great selection of songs, old and new but I don't think there were any from her last two albums - I'm not sure those records were even released in this country which probably explains why.  Songs like 'Perfect Girl' and 'Hey You!' would've fit right in to this set.

All too soon Kim and the band were waving goodbye and leaving the stage - what? but there are still a dozen songs I want to hear and then I realised that, of course, she hasn't sung *that* song yet so she's bound to come back for an encore. That's part of the problem of such a huge iconic hit and it's a nice problem to have. Back they came, this time with Kim wearing a sparkly cape and the synth led off on the introduction to 'Pop Don't Stop' the first single from the new record. Then the band gathered round one of the drum kits and started a blistering version of 'Kids In America' - of course! And the whole audience joined in. That song is 37 years old - older than some people in the audience - and still sounds fabulous live. And then that really was it, 1:40 hours of happy memories.

The band's been on the road for a couple of weeks already and they sounded in fine form and everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives on that stage and everyone had a moment to shine. Kim was on top form despite mentioning that her voice was suffering - sounded fine to me Kim! - wreathed in smiles and giving her all, occasionally clowning with her baby brother Ricky. Please don't leave it another 30 years until the next tour - thanks for a fab evening Kim!

 PS: and thanks for protecting us from the Aliens with your multi-coloured ray gun!

Saturday, 14 April 2018

'From Omega to Charleston' at Piano Nobile, Holland Park

'From Omega to Charleston' is a small exhibition of the works of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant between 1910 - 1934 in Piano Nobile, a small gallery in Holland Park. It's one of those places where you have to ring the door bell to be let in since it's really a small shop converted into a gallery than anything else but it was nicely laid out, even showing paintings around the office desks downstairs.

One of the main pieces on display is a set of 50 plates commissioned by Kenneth Clark that haven't been publicly displayed together forever. The plates show paintings of 48 'famous women' through the ages including the Queen of Sheba, Elizabeth Tudor, Greta Garbo, Virginia Woolf and, of course Vanessa and Duncan (so, technically, 49 famous women).

The works on show are mainly paintings but there's also a lovely painted cabinet and some vases that are worth scrutiny (I'd happily have that cabinet in my living room). There was a lovely self-portrait of Duncan Grant in pencil and a simple painting of his lover, 'David Garnett in Profile' - the lips are very voluptuous.

My favourite paintings were by Duncan Grant. I really like the way he uses colour such as in this painting of Lytton Strachey (with the inevitable book and beard of course). This reproduction doesn't really give a very good idea of the richness and warmth of the colours, the elegance of the crossed leg and foreshortened thigh and the creases and stretches in his jacket.

It doesn't look like he took a lot of time with this portrait with very vigorous  brush strokes pulling an image of Lytton out of the background. The hat is floating somewhere on the top of his head a precise alignment doesn't really matter. And the feet are missing, something I'm all too familiar with from my own drawings, but that doesn't matter.

Another painting I fell in love with at first glance was 'The Juggler and Tightrope Walker' and that's exactly what you get in the painting. Again, the colours in this reproduction don't do it justice but it is a lovely painting.

 It's a small but really good exhibition and it made me realise while I was there that I need to know more about Duncan Grant. I keep seeing examples of his work in various exhibitions but I've never really investigated him properly. Maybe it's time for a proper retrospective at Tate Britain?

'Thoroughly Modern Millie' at Richmond Theatre

There's a new production of 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' on your at the moment and we caught it at it's first stop, at Richmond Theatre in class-war territory in west London. I've always liked the film since seeing it on Sunday afternoon telly in the 1970s with Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carole Channing. It's a rather silly romp of a story but I don't care, I like it. I wanted to see the Broadway stage version on a visit to New York but it came off a week before our visit; I didn't see the West End version (mainly because of the cast) so I wasn't going to miss this version. It's a 'star vehicle' show for Hayley Tamaddon who I don't know at all but I'm pleased she got this show on the road.

It's the tale of small-town girl, Millie, getting to New York and becoming all 'modern' by having her hair cut short and investing in short frocks while, all the time, trying to find a boss she can marry and become rich. As you do. We follow her trials and tribulations of job-hunting, falling for the wrong, i.e. poor, man and suffering the boss she longs to marry calling her Bob. Yes, there's probably something going on with that particular boss. Interweave a story of showgirls who've been adopted or are alone in the world vanishing into white slavery and you have the bones of a story. And that's all we get, the bare bones. There are various ins and outs but that's basically it. Until the mandatory happy ending but I won't tell you what it is since it's so long since I've seen the film that I'd forgotten the ending and you might have too.

I'm not a fan of the soaps so I've no idea who Hayley Tamaddon is but she was good as Millie, bright, loud and cheerful, endlessly energetic and definitely up for it. She had a good stage voice and brought a nice smiley spark to the stage whenever she was on (which was most of the time). It must be an exhausting role for her. I also liked Michael Colbourne, the big drip of a man who is penniless and  who Millie falls for only to find out that he's actually... but that would be telling. There's also Nicola Blackman playing the Carol Channing role of Muzzy and, as soon as she came on to sing her first song I couldn't help but think, 'ah a proper singer'. Not a belter but someone who knows how to use her voice. I've seen Nicola in various things over the years (last time as a Victorian matron) but this was the first time I've heard her sing and what a lovely surprise!

It's a small cast for the show but they clearly put their all into it and there's some great dancing and ensemble numbers in the show. I saw them on something like their third or fourth performance so, give them another week or two and they'll really gel and play off each other. Well done people and good luck for the rest of the tour!

'The Selfish Giant' at the Vaudeville Theatre

Last night we went to see a new production of 'The Selfish Giant' as part of the Oscar Wilde season ate the Vaudeville Theatre. It's described as a 'folk opera' by Guy Chambers with no dialogue but lots of songs to tell the story. It's a short show, only one hour and ten minutes, and there's only five shows so, as completists, we were lucky to see it. The Wilde season has announced al the main productions but the shorter 'entertainments' between the main plays seem to be announced only shortly before they're performed.

The story is quite straightforward and reasonably well known so it all comes down the telling to keep the attention and make it interesting. We have children playing in a garden with the best trees to climb, the brightest flowers and the most tasty fruits and the garden belongs to a giant. When the giant comes home from his extended visit to a friend he finds all the children in his garden and chases them off, then builds a wall to keep them out. That's when winter appears and doesn't go again until the children find a way back into the garden and the giant looks out to see that, finally, spring has arrived and he sees the error of his ways. When he goes into the garden the children run away but je finds one boy trying to climb into a tree and he helps him up before demolishing the wall and inviting the children into his garden which is now theirs. Many years later the boy returns with wounds in his hands and feet and the giant grows angry that someone dared to hurt the boy. The boy invites the giant to visit his own garden and, later that day, the giant is found dead in his garden. Cue big song.

The staging was very simple, with the band at the back of the stage and various ladders in the front half acting as trees. Different coloured balloons appeared now and then (only white balloons in winter), some white sheets to cover the ladders in winter and lots of cardboard storage boxes with yet more balloons inside. And a chair. I've seen ladders as trees a few too many times but it worked out ok.

The young cast were dressed as we've come to expect children to be dressed since 'Play Away' was on telly in the early '70s in bright colours and baggy ill-fitting clothes. It would be nice if someone could come up with a different way of dressing young adults as children some time.  They had nice enough stage voices but it was difficult for anyone to really stand out since most (or all?) of the songs involved several singers singing together. I did notice Izuka Hoyle as one of the narrators and her voice sounded nice and smooth.

The giant, on the other hand, couldn't be missed by using his bassest of bass voices. How can anyone sing that low and sustain over a whole series of songs? Well done Jeff Nicholson on sustaining that voice and managing those enormous platform shoes.

I enjoyed it well enough and I liked the little production touches such as giving random members of the audience little lights to switch on at two points in the show - I gave mine back at the end like a good little audience member. I suspect the show needs to play for a bit longer than this short run and then Guy Chambers can get out his editing pen to tighten it up a bit and get in some more hooks. Having said that, I'd be happy to see it again in future.

Friday, 6 April 2018

'Caroline, Or Change' at Hampstead Theatre

'Caroline, Or Change' is a strange show that was put on at Chichester last year with Sharon D Clarke in the lead role and it opened a month ago at Hampstead to a sold out run. It's transferring again the Playhouse in the West End later in the year so a wider audience will have a chance to see it. A strange show? Yes, it has singing washing machines and tumble driers, a trio of lovely singers perform as the radio and a young Jewish boy leaves small change in his pockets for the family servant to find. There's a lot going on in this play. Or, rather, musical.

It's about Caroline, the black maid to the middle class Jewish Gellman family in Louisiana. The mother has recently died and Mr Gellman has re-married to Rose but son Noah can't accept his new 'mother' and treats caroline as the replacement. Rose is also unsure of her role and, as a New Yorker, doesn't know how to react to having a black servant. Race is never far from the surface in this play and Caroline is very old school, keeping her head down and keeping quiet. Rose awkwardly tries to help Caroline by giving her food for her family, which Caroline declines, and then telling her to keep the change that Noah leaves in his pockets to teach him a lesson. Feeling uncomfortable about taking coins from a boy, Caroline eventually agrees and can now buy treats for her own children. Noah is, of course, deliberately leaving change in his trouser pockets for Caroline.

It all changes when Rose's father arrives from New York for a family get together and gives Noah a $20 note. The silly boy accidentally leaves it in his pocket and Caroline takes it as instructed. But it was an accident and Noah wants it back. No, you're not getting it and the confrontation between Caroline and Noah is really quite harrowing with Caroline's whispered words to the boy. Realising what she's done, she can't go back to her employers house and can't speak of it until she's been to church. And then, after a huge climactic, cathartic song, we see her again in the basement of the house doing the washing as usual.

There's a lot going on in this play and one thing I really enjoyed was hearing all the dialogue sung rather than speech followed by a song followed by speech. The thing is virtually all sung. Caroline's realm is the basement of the house, surrounded by a washing machine and dryer with only a radio for company but, in her world, all come to life to sing to her. I initially wondered 'what on earth is going on?' when the washing machine lady emerged, singing in her silver bubble costume and blowing bubbles. I was disappointed later in the play when the cooker didn't seem to have an alter-ego - that's discrimination, that is! I loved the washing machine but my favourite was the radio that took the form of a Sixties girl group slinking around in shiny dresses. That's what radios are really like, of course.

There's a lot of fun and energy in this play as well as the more serious messages. Something I really liked was being introduced to Caroline's children, particularly her eldest daughter who represents the future by not being satisfied with what she's got. She's a follower of Dr King and she wants more out of life and is not afraid to say so. Caroline is the old guard but her daughter is the new generation that wants more. This is really subtly done and very powerful without being over-stated.

The centre of the play is, of course, Caroline. In a short scene we see a young Caroline in love with her sailor husband who treats her badly when he comes home from war and beats her. The first time she takes it but the second time she throws him out and becomes a single parent bringing up her children in a safe household. I want to say there's so much repressed rage in this play but there isn't. Caroline accepts everything handed to her as her lot and that's why it's so refreshing to see her rebel daughter. And then we see her release it all in one magnificent song towards the end, on her way to church, and it is astonishing.

This is a powerhouse of a play that took my breath away. It was lovely to see (and hear) T'Shan Williams who was with Sharon in 'The Life' last year as one the Radio Girls and I was suitably impressed with Abiona Omonua as Caroline's daughter Emmie, the voice of the future and played with such energy. I also liked Me'sha Bryan as the Washing Machine but she needs to practice blowing better bubbles.

The show really focuses on Sharon D Clarke who was magnificent as Caroline. It must be a tiring role since she's on stage for most of the time. She was tense and serious throughout and it was joy to actually see her smile at the bows at the end of the show. I really need to know how she fits her locks under that tiny wig she wears in the show.

The show is transferring to the Playhouse in the West End with Sharon reprising the lead role at the end of the year so I'm looking forward to seeing it again.