Sunday, 29 July 2018

'The King and I' at the London Palladium

We all know 'The King and I' by Rodgers and Hammerstein and we've all seen the film with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner and enjoyed them bouncing around the palace to 'Shall We Dance?'. But have you seen it performed live in front of you? It's just as magical and includes all those sequences we remember from the film. And why shouldn't it since it was a stage musical years before it was filmed.

It's the tale of Mrs Anna Leonowens who takes her son with her to old Siam to be governess to the king's many children and her sparring with the king over many things as he tries to modernise his country. And, of course, they fall in love and argue and nothing can happen of course because she is an English gentlewoman and he is the king. Because we need some passion we also have the young lovers from Burma to provide a second, supporting storyline. The play ends with Prince Chulalongkorn telling his father about all the reforms he will make as Anna sits by the king's bed and he dies. It was all very tender and gentle and I liked that the spotlight stayed on the new young king as the curtain came down.

It's a really good production imported from Lincoln Centre in New York and by the same team that put on 'South Pacific' in 2009. Coincidentally, the role of Ensign Nellie Forbush was originally played by Kelli O'Hara but she'd left before I got to see it in 2010. Kelli played Anna in the revival of 'The King and I' and we were lucky enough to have her transfer with the production to London, along with Ken Watanabe as the King. I'm very familiar with Kelli's voice from the 'South Pacific' cast recording and it was marvellous to see and hear her sing these iconic songs on stage in front of me.

Of course, being familiar with the film and the songs doesn't mean there were no surprises on the night. I wasn't expecting to hear 'Hello Young Lovers' at all, let alone so early in the play, with Kelli's voice soaring away as she tells us all about love. Such a pure and powerful voice and great delivery.

It was also good to see Ken Watanabe as the King and he and Kelli seem to gel nicely on stage, still fresh and energetic. I also liked Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang, head wife and mother to Chulalongkorn, who gave a very touching performance as someone who clearly loved her King and wanted the best for him.

It's an excellent production, great sets and sumptuous costumes, great lighting and choreography, an all-round success. It was also great to finally see and hear Kelli O'Hara. I'm so pleased I went to see it.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Three Films

I seem to go to the cinema quite rarely these days. I see the big Marvel films like 'Black Panther' and 'Avengers: Infinity War' but that tends to be about it. So it was quite a surprise to find myself seeing three films in three weeks about three people.

'The Happy Prince' is the culmination of Rupert Everett's love affair with Oscar Wilde and tells the tale of what happened to Wilde after he was released from Reading prison and went to live in exile on the Continent. I saw Rupert Everett play Wilde in 'The Judas Kiss' a few years ago and that production apparently helped to get this film off the ground. With all the production agencies, producers and assistant producers in the credits at the end, he's obviously put in a lot of work to raise the finance to get the film made.

Rupert not only plays Wilde but he also wrote and directed the film, clearly a labour of love. The film took a little while to get going but it was worth it and I loved bookending various episodes in Wilde's life  by him telling the story of 'The Happy Prince' to a couple of street urchins.

'McQueen' is a documentary about the short life of Alexander McQueen and his rise to prominence in the fashion world before his death at the age of 40. The film is a thing of beauty in itself, very elegant and measured. There is lots of footage from the time as British fashion took off in the '90s, with clips of Isabella Blow and others who were all at the centre of it with McQueen.

There was also footage of some of his spectacular fashion shows and a gob-smacking moment when robots open fire with paint onto a beautiful, pristine white dress the model is wearing. That was a wow moment and I preferred the dress after the paint job (such clever robots). The thing that was missing for me was the lack of explanation or exploration of what went wrong to rob him of his joy - drugs are mentioned and there's footage of McQueen speaking about cocaine, but nothing about what set him off on that path. The film ends with his suicide the night before his mother's funeral - all that creativity snuffed out by success and money. If you get a chance to see the film then please do so, it's well worth seeing and is beautiful in its own right.

'Carrington' is a film from the '90s about the artist Dora Carrington and her love for Lytton Stratchy. That puts her into the Bloomsbury group of artists. She was a star pupil at the Slade School of Art before the First World War alongside Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and others. She wasn't bothered about exhibiting her work, she painted because she wanted to paint for herself and for Lytton and that's probably why she isn't more well known. The film was screened as a one-off at the National Gallery.

Carrington is played by Emma Thompson and Lytton by Jonathan Pryce and it's a strange and touching tale of their platonic and deep love for each other, having their own lovers but always coming back to each other and sharing their joys, tears and lives. It ends with Carrington's suicide after Lytton dies.

Three films about three people, all artists, all dead while still young (Wilde was 46, McQueen was 40 and Carrington was 39) and all have left their own legacy. There's currently a year-long season of Oscar Wilde plays in the West End, the V&A put on the big exhibition about Alexander McQueen a couple of years ago so what we need is a big exhibition of Carrington's works. She was prominent in 'The Crisis of Brilliance' exhibition a few years ago but it's time for a proper retrospective exhibition - yes, Tate Britain, I'm looking at you.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Theatre Compendium II: 'An Ideal Husband', 'Swan Lake' and 'Hamlet'

Another compendium of things what I saw in June, this time Oscar Wilde, the glory that is the Royal Ballet and 'Hamlet'.

'An Ideal Husband' at the Vaudeville Theatre

The Oscar Wilde season continues at the Vaudeville with 'An Ideal Husband'. It's always fun to see an Oscar Wilde play, especially when it's well produced like this season is, but we've sort of seen it before. It's another morality tale of the upper-class high-minded wife and the not so high-minded husband, the problems with their friends,  deep secret that must never be spoken of that somehow comes to light and the inevitable fall-out of that secret becoming known to a few more people.

There are, of course, all the shenanigans that need to take place to make the play enjoyable and make the audience laugh at (not with) the characters with Wilde's authors voice coming through loud and clear at times. He is rather forensic with his digs at Victorian 'society' and morality and I suspect he would've been more scathing if he thought he could get away with it.

I really liked this production and even laughed out loud a few points (a rarity for me) but two things spoiled it - the Foxes, Edward and Freddie. Fun as it was to have a real father and son play the father and son, I just have to wonder if they were the right father and son. Edward's been around forever and knows his stuff but his accent was so impenetrably posh that I couldn't always make out what he was saying. Freddie is the (relatively) new kid on the block and I've seen him on stage, on telly and on film and I've never really liked his performances. He seems to do a lot of floppy-haired camp but I've yet to see any real and convincing acting. And I'd include this play in that - it's quite a central role but he seemed so lightweight for it. And too young if he's supposed to be a school-friend of the husband of the title.

Frances Barber was excellent as the trouble-making minx Mrs Cheeverley even though her costumes went over the top - too far over the top with the red dress! I also really liked Faith Omole as the sister and love interest for Freddie Fox's character - she had a real presence and confidence on stage and I look forward to seeing her again.

All of this season of plays have been very well produced and I'm looking forward to the next one - 'The Importance of Being Earnest'.

'Swan Lake' at the Royal Opera House

I saw 'Swan Lake' danced by the Bolshoi Ballet a couple of years ago when the Bolshoi did a short summer season at the Royal Opera House. I wasn't all that taken with it  at the time but when it was announced that the Royal Ballet would dance a new production of 'Swan Lake' I was determined to see it. I'm so pleased that I did because it was magical and marvellous.

A beautiful princess is cursed my an evil magician to be a swan by day and a human by night. The evil magician masquerades as the court adviser to the Queen and he menaces the young prince with the Queen's decision that the prince must decide who to marry. Distraught, the prince runs into the forest, to the lake, and meets a beautiful princess who, in the morning turns back into a swan. Scenes build upon scenes until the prince falls for the Black Swan who looks exactly like the princess but is actually the daughter of the evil magician. Tragedy builds on tragedy and, ultimately, the princess takes her life since the curse cannot be lifted. A sad end to a magical tale.

This was a marvellous production with new choreography added by Liam Scarlett, the number of ballerinas on stage together (at one point there were 28 in white tutus) and the astonishing and athletic  dancing. This is a production I'll remember for a long time and hope it is repeated frequently. William Bracewell was our prince and Akane Takada was the swan princess - I was particularly impressed with Akane's transformations into swan when we could see her arms ripple to become wings, a sight not easily forgotten.

All in all, it was a stunning production with sets, lighting, dancing and the wonderful music all coming together to provide the magic. Thank you Royal Ballet, that production has set the standard for all future productions I see of 'Swan Lake'. Please come back soon.

'Hamlet' at Shakespeare's Globe

There seems to be a never-ending supply of productions of 'Hamlet' with big production seemingly every year. The latest version is at the Globe under the new leadership of Michelle Terry who also took the lead role playing 'Hamlet'. It's one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and is full of beautiful poetry and 'sayings' we all recognise. So no pressure there then.

Like others in this opening season for Michelle Terry, casting is gender-blind so we have a female Hamlet and Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are half and half with a  deaf woman as part of the double-act and Ophelia is played by a man (of course) while her brother is played by a woman. None of this really matters since it's the quality of acting that draws you in to any production, not whether the actor is male or female. It was the same ensemble cast as I saw playing 'As You Like It' a month or so earlier and shared some of the same problems, particularly with Betrays Jones being largely unintelligible as Laertes throughout the play - you really really need to learn diction and how to project for a venue like the Globe.

The stage was sparse throughout and there was simple lighting as the evening drew in in the second half. I really like that approach since it's up to the actors to create the magic and make me see castle battlements that aren't really there and, y'know what? I saw pretty sturdy battlements. One of the things I really liked was seeing Hamlet dressed in white for most of the play - normally he's always in black and that gets so boring. Well done to whoever came up with that!

I've seen a number of Hamlets over the years, from Jude Law to Dominic Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear and Andrew Scott - and my first Hamlet was Derek Jacobi way back in 1978. And you know what? With the possible exception of Mr Jacobi, I think Michelle Terry's Hamlet is the best I've seen. She really knows how to speak verse and she brought it to life by treating some lines as almost off-the-cuff quips rather than venerated lines of poetry. I was most impressed. Not everyone in the production was as excellent but she lifted the whole thing for me.

Another plus was Tanika Yearwood playing various parts, minor roles, but still there and influential. She had excellent diction and great projection, sending those words effortlessly to the back of the balcony and instantly appearing as a different character to the one she was just playing. I was most impressed.

The production wasn't perfect by any means but it's up there with the best for me, particularly Michelle Terry's Hamlet. She deserves flight of angels.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Theatre Compendium I - 'Two Noble Kinsmen' and 'My Name Is Lucy Barton'

I've fallen so far behind with my blogging that the only way to catch up is to do a compendium of theatre visits over the last month and then become more disciplined going forward. It's time to dive in ... here goes:

'Two Noble Kinsmen' at Shakespeare's Globe

'Two Noble Kinsmen' is rarely performed, and I can see why, but it's quite fun at the same time and I was very pleased to see this production since it brought it to life. Mythological figures mingle with Renaissance Italian city states and, let's face it, there aren't enough mythological figures on the London stage these days.

It opens with the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, who are persuaded to wage war to recover the bodies of three dead kings which they do and, in the process, capture two cousins Palamon and Arcite, who resign themselves to imprisonment and swear undying friendship. Then they see Theseus's sister who both fall in love with and they become bitter rivals. As you do.

The lovely Emelia has no idea they even exist when one escapes and is brought to the king and accused by the other so it comes to light they both love a puzzled Emilia. Her daft brother commands they fight each other and the winner will marry Emelia - first she's heard of it! After various plot twists they do fight and Arcite wins but is then thrown from his horse so Palamon gets to marry Emelia. Happy ending? I'm not so sure. There's also a sub-plot in which the jailor's daughter falls in love with Palamon and then goes mad (as you do when love in unreciprocated) but I'll gloss over that.

It's a rather fanciful tale co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher with the usual dodgy morality of the time (women are at the bidding of their nearest kin, etc) but I thought this production was great fun with some nice set pieces and I even liked the rustic scenes and dancing (I usually wish the rustic scenes in Shakespeare were cut out). The production brought it to life, blew the dust off and made it live again.

It was good to see Matt Henry on stage again (previously in 'Kinky Boots') and I liked Elloria Torchia as a bemused Emelia. Bryan Dick and Paul Stocker played our kinsmen, Mayo Akande was great as a statuesque Scottish Hippolyte and Francesca Mills was a great and irrepressibly energetic jailor's daughter. Thanks Globe, that's another win!

'My Name is Lucy Barton' at The Bridge Theatre

I've never read the book or even heard of it but this play is a one-woman play and starred Laura Linney in her London debut so it was well worth the trip over to Tower Bridge and the theatre. It's a strange tale of memories and the tricks they can play, of families and relationships and, most of all, parents and children.

The play is mainly set in a hospital room with Lucy is confined in New York. Her husband won't visit her because he doesn't like hospitals (says a lot about him) so he gets her mother to visit from out in the mid-west. They never got on for some reason but a bond grows between them as they talk and reminisce and Laura plays both characters. Then we start to whiz forward in time - it's the '80s so there's the inevitable mention of AIDs and then in's the 00's so we get 9/11. Her mother dies, and so does her father, she leaves her husband and becomes a successful author but still the tangles of family life continue.

I liked it well enough but I far preferred Laura's performance than the play itself. It's about 90 minutes long with no interval  and I just kept wondering how on earth she could remember all those words! There are a lot of words. I liked the lighting and projections onto the screen at the back of the stage so illustrate changing scenes while leaving the stage intact. There are few one-woman shows so it was good to see this one and to see Laura Linney on stage.