Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Millionairess

Shaw’s Corner
25 July 2008

It’s a Shaw thing!

We did it last year week before our wedding and we’ve just done it again to start off our anniversary weekend and I honestly don’t think that there’s a more perfect way to spend a summer’s evening. Watching a George Bernard Shaw play at Shaw’s Corner!

I love open air theatre and to see a play performed in the grounds of the house where the playwright lived and most probably wrote that same play is very special indeed.

Shaw’s Corner is the epitomy of this experience. Plays are only put on there a couple of weekends in a year and the late July showing always celebrates the anniversary of GBS’s birth – this year being the 152nd. This July’s offering was The Millionairess, one of Shaw's final plays, written in 1935 when he was 79, and turned into a film in 1962 with Peter Sellars and Sophia Loren, although it was drastically altered for the big screen. A good thing I think, as my husband said it was the worst Peter Sellars film ever!

In true Shaw style, the comedy is spekling, but the capitalist character in the story is portrayed as a monster. In this case it’s the flouncing Epifania Ognisanti di Parerga Fitzfassenden (Amanda Sterkenberg), who, when challenged by an Indian doctor to work and pay her way rather than live off her inheritance, gets her hands dirty for about a minute, before discovering a vocation for management rather than ordinary drudgery! Fair play to her I say!

Most of the heroine's problems are caused by her father fixation but the issue is hardly helped by a rather dim husband (Jonas Cemm) and opinionated would-be lover (Martin Durrant). But with both, she makes it clear to them who is boss, almost killing the non-lover with her martial arts skills. It is only when the penniless doctor (Stephen Chance) comes on the scene that she almost meets her match, but in the end, doesn’t quite lose. Is Shaw saying that ultimately the poor are onto a loser when faced with the rich bosses? Probably, and much as I love the work of Shaw, I also think it’s a bit rich that he bangs on about Socialism when he lived in such a nice big house. It’s easy to be a Socialist in those circumstances isn’t it - Tony Blair?!

In this setting you don’t really worry too much about the staging which is why this review is more about the event and the setting than the play. The actors perform on the long fairly narrow patio at the back of the house so there’s only room for a few chairs and a table and basic props and there are only a couple of doors that can be used as exits and entrances as the actors appear from the house itself. But it doesn’t matter, you just sit back, eat your picnic, enjoy your surroundings and listen to the words, which are of course, the all important thing.

I love the clientele there too. It’s quite funny watching people, I’d hazard a guess that many of the audience all read the Daily Mail and listen to Radio 2 and furthermore, many of these go to an event like this in the same way as they’d go to the village fete or the local pony club horse show. It’s an event that they do as part of their year, rather than because they have a great interest in theatre. Consequently, for some (and I stress for some) the picnic is the most important thing and much thought is put into the most trendy sandwich fillings, “posh” nibbles and the supermarket that does the best wine deals.

Meanwhile, those who are listening to the show demand absolute silence. The mere hint of a rustle of Rock Salt and Balsamic Vinegar oven baked hand-cooked crisps has heads spinning round like The Exorcist to see the offenders. And woe betide anyone who dares not to turn their phone off! And fair dos on that point by the way. At this particular performance, one woman spent a good deal of the second half popping Pringles tubes and fishing huge party sized packs of crisps from her ruck sack. I thought the woman in front of me was going to implode and I’m sure she’s suffering this week from the crick in her ever-spinning neck. Then, horror of horrors, crisp woman’s mobile rang. Now, if that was me I would be mortified and immediately fall on it and switch it right off. Unfortunately, the saturated fat queen’s fingers were a little clumsy (i.e. chubby) and it took an age. Then, she didn’t actually turn it off or put it on silent and of course, the person calling left a voice message. Durrrr!

But apart from this racket which, to be fair, didn’t last the entire evening, the only other thing to break the silence of a perfect summer’s evening was the words in the play. And when they have been penned by GBS, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about!

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Eurobeat: Almost Eurovision

Milton Keynes Theatre
14 July 2008

You can feel the beat!

With more man-made fibre than you could shake a stick at, more cheese than Tescos, an audience in an excited frenzy and some of the most irritatingly catchy tunes you will ever hear, Eurobeat is plainly and simply a “right laugh” from start to finish! It is utter nonsense, but a more brilliant piece of twaddle I haven’t seen in a long time!

Writers Craig Christie and Andrew Patterson have put together a wonderful homage to the love it or hate it institution that is the Eurovision Song Contest. The actual contest itself has now become so ridiculous that it is impossible for anyone to take it seriously, so the time is absolutely right for this glorious spoof!

From wooden hosts with strange caught-in-the-headlights looks in their eyes who make totally unfunny jokes, to glittering costumes, literal dance routines, nonsensical lyrics and predictable tunes, it is camper than Butlins and incorporates everything that we know and love (or hate) about the competition! And what’s the biggest seal of approval this show can have – well it’s all introduced via a special video message by Mr Eurovision himself – Terry Wogan.

Mel Geidroyc and Les Dennis play the hosts for the evening, in the guise of former pole-vaulter Boyka and wig-bearing children's TV host Sergei. And they got douze pwan (sp) from me! With chemistry as glittering as their spangly outfits, they were clearly enjoying themselves as much as we were. Their comedy backgrounds served them both well as they made the non-humorous quips hilarious in their un-funniness with well-timed one-liners and saucy double-entendres.

And what got the biggest cheer of the night? Boyka, while whipping the crowd into a frenzy of cheering said, “imagine you’re watching Britain’s Got Talent and Simon Cowell has just strangled Amanda Holden”! The audience erupted whilst looking fondly at her lovable ex-husband. “Amanda who?” said Les, with perfect timing! What a man? What a legend!

The ten acts they introduced included every Eurovision cliché you could think of and the fire-hazard quota increased with every number as the nylon crackled off the stage! Some of the highlights were Estonia with their scantily clad boy band whose man-kinis left very little to the imagination, the UK’s warbling duet who were not always in perfect harmony, Russia’s Lycra-clad KG Boyz and Germany’s lyric-less electronic dance number.

The audience are a key part of the show in this interactive extravaganza as it really is a competition! Right from the moment you walk in you can feel the excitement building as you are given a badge which shows which country you will be supporting. After that you can buy (at reasonable prices) a flag to wave and clackers to clack to help you cheer your song on, and then when you’ve heard all the songs, you text (at no more than the normal cost of a text) your top three songs to a special number so that the crowd, just like the real thing, actually play a part in who wins the evening!

You really can’t help but get sucked into it all! I am normally the one who sits, arms folded, as everyone around me claps along to the music and gets up and dances at the end. I normally hate that kind of involvement but something overtook me during this show and there I was, clacking my clackers and cheering on Sweden, my chosen country for all I was worth – cheering anything that moved - in fact as it turned out. I honestly don’t know what happened – it just did!

The second half of the show includes the now standard mid-show Eurovision entertainment with Mel Geidroyc inexplicably dressed as a turnip, followed by the results from the juries, who appear on a big screen just like the real thing and seem just as hapless!

The show perfectly captures the sheer madness of this competition as it shows restraint, never taking the lunacy too far. It’s camp and corny with lashings of bonhomie.

It was a huge hit in Edinburgh last year and is now on its way to the West End where it is set to enjoy cult status. Don’t spend time Making Your Mind Up – get a ticket now!

Brief Encounter

The Cinema, Haymarket, London
13 July 2008

A pleasing encounter

Staged in a West End cinema on London’s Haymarket, and therefore boasting the comfiest theatre seats in the capital with a slot on the arm of your chair to hold your drink to boot, Brief Encounter is an imaginative, inventive and rather charming theatrical experience.

The iconic 1945 movie was based on a Noel Coward one-act play, Still Life. Now the two have been melded by Emma Rice and the Kneehigh Theatre Company in a multimedia show which is an interesting and inventive hybrid of the two!

The basic story is still there. Laura is a respectable suburban wife, and Alec is a married doctor. They meet at a station buffet, and fall in love over the course of a few meetings but their relationship is doomed never to last.

But enhancing the story in this production is back projection which articulates the characters’ hidden emotions and front projection that in a practical sense allows the characters to get on and off of trains. Both of these imaginatively add to the feeling of being in a cinema.

There are also other relationships in the buffet, brasher, humorous and more relaxed ones which provide a good contrast to the central coupling and highlights a middle class stifling of emotions. And the action is also interspersed with Coward songs which are played in front of the curtain in a music hall style.

Before the production there is a band and singing in the aisles and company members dressed as period usherettes guide you to your seats. During the interval there is more entertainment and spoof cinema adverts from the period selling products such as La-di-dah's Lard! I guess this is to give you a feel of what Laura and Alec might have experienced on one of their illicit meetings at the flicks. Indeed, as the play opens, the couple are watching from the front row.

They argue that the relationship can no longer continue whilst on the screen Laura’s dependable husband pleads with her to return. She then seamlessly walks “through” the screen to appear with her husband. And this sets the scene for the whole production, a mix of media that holds your attention throughout.

And if you can’t get David Lean’s film and Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard out of your head, you will after a couple of minutes as Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock make the parts their own.

To reproduce Brief Encounter as a straight theatre adaptation or to perform Still Life, there is a real danger that it would appear dated and completely irrelevant to today.

By switching between live action and film footage, and between emotional pain and music-hall exuberance, Kneehigh highlight the passion beneath the self-control and using up-to-date theatre techniques gives it all a more modern feel. Besides, everyone knows what happens so you may as well have a bit of fun with it! This has the best of all worlds – and comfy seats as well!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Mary Poppins

Birmingham Hippodrome
10 July 2008

Mary Poppins flies!

What would Mary Poppins do? That’s the new mantra of myself and my husband when looking after our young nieces after going to the first night in the national tour of this wonderful and heartwarming show!

I really cannot fault this stage version of Mary Poppins! In this production, the story of the outwardly prim and proper nanny who turns a pair of rather annoying middle-class kids into something more palatable is colourful, spectacular, fun and just completely joyful, from her first appearance in the Edwardian house, to her climactic exit over the auditorium at the end.

Yes, it’s true that I sat through the whole thing with a sense of awe, wondering exactly how they fitted all the scenery back stage and whether or not the credit crunch had passed it by as each new fantastic effect or costume appeared, but I also left the theatre with a big smile on my face, almost longing for the panto season to begin as it left me with that same warm and cosy feeling that you get at those special Christmas shows!

The stage effects as things collapse and fall off walls and are then re-instated are superbly worked, the statues that come to life show excellence from the dancers playing them, the changes of scene from grey London day to colourful fantasy world are seamless and the flying is magical. Yes – it’s professionally efficient, but it’s not just about the workings of the stage, it is atmospherically warm and exciting too.

It looks fantastic, and not just in its design and costumes. The staging of the ensemble numbers is superb which is only to be expected from the wonderful Matthew Bourne who is both choreographer and co-director.

It would be easy to go overboard with a number like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but in Bourne’s skilful hands it is a highly effective piece where the word is spelled out with hand movements rather than there being a lot of leaping about. Brilliant!

Similarly, the scene where the toys come alive in the nursery could have come straight from his Nutcracker or Edward Scissorhands and the fun exuding from Step in Time which includes the marvel of Bert walking upside down around the proscenium arch, is exactly what you want from a musical spectacular.

Caroline Sheen in the title role is “practically perfect in every way”, revelling in the mixture of firmness and kindness that the part requires and Daniel Crossley as Bert is a pleasing combination of mystery man and cheeky chappy.

What I like about this story is that amongst the magic there is a lesson to be learned. Mary Poppins is not the sickly sweet goody, goody carer that she could be turned into. She’s quite harsh with her charges but in doing so is firm but fair. It’s actually a fantastic example of how childcare should be approached – although modern day parents don’t have such an amazing bag of tricks – both literally and metaphorically!

Afterwards we looked back on an incident earlier in the day when we took one of our nieces to the park then, after promising the four-year-old an ice cream, we realised that neither of us had enough change to buy it. This, as you can imagine, was a disaster. The youngster’s quivering lip led to Mr FB running – yes running - back to the car to scrabble about for the pound we use for shopping trolleys and then running back looking rather pink and sweaty.
“What would Mary Poppins have done?” I said piously as we drove home from the theatre, “she would probably have explained firmly that we had no money and then taken her home with no sickly sweet treat but then found something for her in the fridge instead.

“We should have been firm and not given in” I added sagely.

“Pah” said Mr FB.

“Mary Poppins would have magicked up the flipping pound, wouldn’t she?! Pulled out a wad of notes from her big bag like a dodgy plumber!” he added.

This is true! Making things fly across the room or suddenly appear from nowhere is enough to capture the attention of even the most obtuse child, but no matter. While we may not have the carpet bag of tricks, we do have one fabulous treat at our disposal. A trip to see Mary Poppins should keep the little darlings quiet and enthralled for a couple of hours at least! This is a great show!