Tag Archives: london

You’ve heard of Silent Disco. Prepare for Silent Opera. In a furniture store.

25 Oct
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Charles Dance as Figaro

First published in The British Theatre Guide

“We’re closed madam.”

I’m stopped by an overzealous shop attendant swooping over to hurry me out of the seemingly empty furniture store on Tottenham Court Road.  I check I’m not in Habitat by accident.

“I’m here for the opera,” I say hesitantly.  The words have an ‘open sesame’ effect and suddenly the attendant is all smiles.

“Right this way, straight to the back of the room and turn left.  Enjoy the show.”

I find myself in Heal’s ‘Spa’, surrounded by handmade soaps, receptacles made from blown glass and – tonight only – full champagne flutes.  My coat is taken and I’m handed a programme and a set of headphones.  The volume controls are explained to me and I’m instructed to enjoy the bubbles in this room until the performance starts.  Still trying to make sense of the proceedings, I negotiate my way around a large Molton Brown display to find Gok Wan fiddling with his headphones with the same air of bemused anticipation as everyone else.

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Natasha Day and Dominic Kraemer

The lights dim, we self-consciously slip on our headphones and hear Rossini’s orchestral introduction to Figaro’s opening aria.  I heard Charles Rice before I saw him, moving through the ‘audience’ pausing to rest a hand on a shoulder here or give a wry smile there.

The end of his aria saw us guided upstairs to the ‘Designer Room’ where, among the carefully curated dining sets, we perched to watch a series of excerpts from La Boheme and La Traviata, performed exquisitely by Natasha Day, Oliver Johnston and Katherine Crompton.  Then up the spiral staircase to the strains of Dido’s Lament before ending up in the ‘Sleep Studio’ to watch Mimi die on a Tempur mattress surrounded by the full cast of six.

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Natasha Day and Katherine Crompton

Lasting under an hour and cleverly weaving together themes from different operas, it’s a perfect introduction to the genre for those unwilling to commit themselves to a three-hour production or to the emotional undertaking of traditional opera.  The creative use of a commercial space is exciting, especially in a genre that often struggles under the weight of its own traditions.  Director Daisy Evans, a recent recipient of the Sky Arts Futures Fund, says this is only the beginning.  “In my next project, I want to explore the relationship between the performance and the audience using Bluetooth technology and real-time social media updates from around the venue.”  Here’s one to watch.

Silent Opera’s last performance at Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road is Wednesday 23rd October 2013.  Tickets https://heals-silent3.eventbrite.com/

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ADULT SUPERVISION at the PARK THEATRE, Finsbury

17 Oct

First appeared in British Theatre Guide on 16th October 2013

Rating ****

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Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain
Photo credit Mark Douet

That is what tonight is about”, exclaims one of Sarah Rutherford’s white mothers – the play approaching its halfway point.  Unless you’ve been asleep you’ll know she’s talking about race.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll already be suffering from mild concussion at being repeatedly slapped about the chops with the subject.

The action takes place in a swanky London ‘media room’ on the eve of Obama’s election in 2008.  Pursed-lipped and sanctimonious, Natasha plays hostess to three other mothers in an evening devised to diversify the racial portfolio of her children’s friends.  Mo and Angela are both one half of mixed race couples and “Aryan” Izzy’s only there as moral support – and because she’s known Natasha for years.  The four women turn to Truth or Dare and lethal ‘Obamatinis’ in a desperate bid to break the ice.  Meanwhile their absent children and men begin to drive the action from civilised small talk to knife-wielding hysteria.

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Olivia Poulet, Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain
Photo credit Mark Douet

As etiquette breaks down, there are fantastic moments of farce.  Angela, her vast pregnant belly and a medicinal cocktail bouncing regally together on Natasha’s exercise ball; Izzy’s entrance in full wedding regalia, bare bottom exposed; the unravelling of Natasha’s perfectly coiffed hair as she well and truly loses her composure.  This cast certainly nails comic timing, riffing off each other in a virtuous (and at times vicious) cycle of energy.  Susannah Doyle imbues the uptight Natasha with a touch of camp, while Olivia Poulet manages to move her naïve subservient Izzy away from the girlishness of her first appearance.  Amy Robbins, as the initially most likeable Mo, and Jacqueline Boatswain, as the unflappable Angela, arguably have the harder parts to play.  They cope brilliantly, steering away from easy stereotypes and allowing the comedy of their characters to build gradually as their contradictions are exposed.

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Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain
Photo credit Mark Douet

Race issues may be rammed down the audience’s throat and some of the points laboured (Angela feels it necessary to repeat and clarify the obvious post-colonial overtones of Natasha making her Ethiopian children “earn” back everything they’re given by their white parents), but on the whole the subject is handled with sophistication and modernity.  The conversation in which Angela and Mo indirectly ask Natasha why she chose to adopt black babies rather than “white trash” raises a difficult issue little confronted in the tabloid press, where Madonna and ‘Brangelina’ are feted as “the saviours of poor little black kids” without regard for the power structure this suggests.

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Jacqueline Boatswain and Olivia Poulet
Photocredit Mark Douet

Much has been made new playwright Sarah Rutherford’s originality in Adult Supervision.  But as the action unfolded I couldn’t shift the sense of déjà vu.  Déjà vu the U.S. election night setting – Christopher Shinn’s Now or Later (Royal Court, 2008).  Déjà vu the disintegration of social niceties when four parents are confined for an evening in a smart city apartment with access to booze and nothing to talk about but their kids – Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (Gielgud Theatre, 2008).  And déjà vu race talk – Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (Royal Court, 2010) and David Mamet’s Race (Hampstead Theatre, 2013).

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Jacqueline Boatswain and Olivia Poulet
Photo credit Mark Douet

Perhaps Rutherford could have made more out of gender with her all-female cast?  She touches on notions of motherhood, but ironically some of the most powerful characters in the play are the husbands, boyfriends and sons we never see.

None of that seemed to bother the guffawing audience.  The Park’s founder and artistic director Jez Bond has every right to a smug smile.  While Adult Supervision may pander to the self-indulgent navel gazing of the urbane liberal middle classes, its astuteness makes that mild concussion well worth it.

Until 3rd November.  Tickets:  020 7870 6876.  parktheatre.co.uk

GET IN WHILE STOCKS LAST: BALLO AT THE KINGS HEAD THEATRE

24 May

ImageIt was a full house last night as an audience of everything from grey-topped opera lovers to opportunistic drinkers crammed into the tiny theatre at the back of Islington’s King’s Head for director Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s camped-up ride through Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.  And that’s the appeal of this irreverent mash-up of an opera historically familiar with rewritings at the hands of the censors: it understands what pub opera is – accessible enough for the non-initiated and inventively new for the devotees.

The cartoon plot exposition opening the show, far from giving the game away (how many audience members at Covent Garden are surprised by the ending of Aida or Tosca anyway?) acts as a neat bridge between the 1859 and 2013 versions.  By dispensing early with the business of Verdi’s plot, the cast can get on with entertaining their 21st century audience with more freedom.

And that they certainly do.  Re-located to the IKEA at Wembley, re-scripted in bawdy modern English and re-timed to two hours, the six-strong team control the small space with a slickness deserving of a bigger stage.  Ensemble singing is well-timed and most solo performances are strong.  In a sensible modern update Oscar, the female trouser role, is played by a male soprano (Alan Richardson) whose vocal ease is almost eclipsed by his fabulously camp flouncing.  His pairing with a thoroughly modernised Ulrica (played superbly by Olivia Barry) suggests a sort of Shakespearean comedy duo, embracing the tradition of the pub venue rather than seeking to transcend it.

Much of the comedy comes from the bathos of distilling Verdi’s universal and epic themes of loyalty, friendship and revenge down into the office politics of flat-packing and pay rises.  It’s the gossip around the office that Tom (Dickon Gough) delights over when Amelia’s veil falls, rather than a king’s betrayal of his best friend.  And yet the ‘car park scene’ is rescued from farce by the strength of Gough’s vocal performance.

The secret of this adaptation is that it doesn’t seek to be anything it’s not, nor to emulate big budget productions of the same opera.  By embracing its limitations with as much affection as it does the original libretto, it succeeds in something much harder than putting on a good Verdi: making opera enjoyable for the next generation of theatre-goers.

The store closes this Sunday so get in quick.

You can buy tickets here.

Cillian Murphy Onstage: Worth a Watch?

15 May

Misterman, Lyttelton, National Theatre
by Enda Walsh
Landmark Productions

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Magill in Misterman

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Magill in Misterman

****

If you thought the UK premiere of Enda Walsh’s one-man play Misterman would drown in the National’s cavernous Lyttelton Theatre, you’d be wrong. Clearly aware of the space he has to fill, Cillian Murphy has already inhabited every nook of the divided stage and thrown oil drums into the crannies he’s missed before the first five minutes are up.

Last seen on screen, Murphy is not afraid of the stage, and the atmosphere he creates is immediately one of intense energy. His character, Thomas Magill, is an evangelical young man trapped in the memory of one fateful day in his hometown of Innisfree. As he darts around the littered warehouse (his mind?), a scattered collection of cassette players snap on and off with recordings of voices from Innisfree, Yeats’ fictional village.

The snippets of recorded voices, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, do less to pluralise the play than Murphy, who jumps vocally from squeaky schoolboy to foul-mouthed old man with an ease and energy that fill the theatre. The repertoire is extraordinary: one minute Murphy is cowering under a deluge of beatings as Magill, the next he is sashaying across the floor with a toss of his imaginary curls as the town’s lascivious café-owner. He doesn’t simply move between Walsh’s comic and haunting passages; he embodies both simultaneously.

Even reduced to one character, Walsh remains characteristically and perhaps indulgently long-winded, creating in Magill a tormented chatterbox. His first words are mutterings of part of the school catechism. But for all that particular Irish brand of Catholic guilt, Misterman isn’t a play about village religion.

“I wanted it to be about a man and a building,” Walsh says in an interview with Sean O’Hagan, “and for the audience to be asking from the off: ‘How did he end up there?’ And: ‘What’s he trying to tell us and why?’”

The audience I watched it with were still asking those questions as they left the Lyttelton. For some it was an exposé of a mind going mad, obsessively re-editing the events of one day in the outside world; for others the recorded voices were actually meant to represent actors, presumably seeing them as a cost-cutting measure to reduce the number of actors in these straightened times! Magill’s mother complex and the poignancy of a scene in which he talks to the grave of his dead father elicited a Freudian reading in some.

For Murphy, Magill’s isolation from the village’s inhabitants in his homemade industrial cave is a reflection of his internal progression. In the same interview, he says Magill “is one of those people who is like a little baby inside, who started off being pitied, then kept apart and viewed with suspicion, and then mocked in the community. Bit by bit, he has become this marginalised figure who then takes his revenge.”

But for Walsh, trying to work out the play’s message isn’t the point. “Oh, I never think of stuff like that. It’s more about form, and how much you can twist the form to fit what you can into it. I think that’s what a lot of younger Irish playwrights are grappling with; how to take on the great tradition and fuck it up a bit.” This may explain why, even as the full horror of what Magill has done becomes clear, Walsh presents him as a sympathetic character. Bursts of troubling wit and physical comedy keep even the shortest attention span from wandering.

This is reflected in the reviews. The production has been rated five stars by The Daily Express, and four stars by The Telegraph, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Financial Times and Time Out. Only Quentin Letts gives it one star, calling it a “pretentious” play “about people with mental illness” and “small rural communities”. But this may say more about the Daily Mail readership than the performance.

Walsh speaks of wanting to take a hammer to rural Ireland, and Misterman certainly does smash up the Irish idyll that still carried weight in the late 1990s when Walsh first wrote the script. But in 2012 what the play highlights is the loneliness of being an old-fashioned evangelist in modern rural Ireland. There is no place for Magill in the twenty-first century. He is as anachronistic as the school catechism that Walsh gives him to speak.