Sunday, 26 April 2009

England People Very Nice

Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
18 April 2009 (Mat)

A great portrayal of human Bean's!

Some people think that Richard Bean’s ‘England People Very Nice’ is racist. Well, in that case they have really missed the point. Just because a play shows racist behaviour doesn’t mean it’s a racist play. What Bean is doing is showing us this behaviour to highlight exactly what it is and that while it’s wrong, how it can come about so easily. But it’s also an extremely funny play and by making us laugh, making us realise that we are laughing at some uncomfortable stuff and by making us question ourselves, he is drumming a point home far more effectively than making a worthy speech. In other words, it’s classic satire!

In showing us the past 400 years of people’s reactions to incomers, he shows us that there have always been racist reactions and sadly, we also see that this will probably always be the case. It’s not about skin colour though, it’s about reacting to different cultures, and how all cultures have been intolerant to each other. In short, those who are already in a place will resent the arrival of new people who seem to be given everything they need.

From the arrival of the French in England to the Irish, to the Jews and finally through to Bangladeshis, the new culture that arrives is resented by the old guard. But what also really comes across is that as time goes on, the so called English people are made up of all the cultures that have arrived in the country and begs the question what is an English person anyway?

The one thing that also came across about why new people are resented is that they are all perceived to be getting something that the people who are already in the country aren’t getting, be it jobs or housing. The Protestants are uneasy about the Irish Catholics, who, in turn, are hostile to the Jews, who feel displaced by the Bangladeshis. Then finally, it’s suggested that they are angry about seemingly preferential treatment being given to Somalis.

The irony is that this is kind of a play within a play because it’s being put on by “inmates” in an immigration centre”. They have arrived in this country and certainly none of them are getting an easy ride – they are in prison.

The device used to show how things don’t change is clever. In the first half the same actors play the central characters in each section. Then in the second half, the same actors play the same characters over a period of about 60 years – without seemingly ageing. It shows that people’s reactions are exactly the same and that some things never change. But what Bean also shows is that in every case, love transcends the racial divide.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is fast-paced and helped by animations by Pete Bishop which move the story along. And though they were from the same kind of school, I enjoyed these much more than I ever did Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python stuff which frankly I found a bit scary!

It’s massive cast, by modern standards, but I’d pick out a few for a special mention - Sacha Dhawan and Michelle Terry as the star-crossed lovers in every phase, Sophie Stanton as a wonderfully brassy barmaid and Fred Ridgeway as a wise old publican.

The jokes are plentiful but it all makes a serious point. You become more and more aware of an Englishman being Daniel Defoe’s “heterogeneous thing”, essentially mongrels, and it is integration that encourages tolerance. As a result, there’s also an implied suggestion that it’s the unwillingness of some communities to integrate that causes dangerous problems, and it is this that is the most chilling message. This is probably where the racist allegations come from. I didn’t see it like that at all but all art is subjective.

There has, and sadly probably always will be racism and intolerance, and because of this there will also always be a heated debate about multicultural Britain. Richard Bean’s play is a timely – and maybe even timeless – contribution to that discussion.

Beauty and the Beast

Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage
16 April 2009

Christmas comes early!

This is a nice little show. It was slick, funny and colourful with engaging performances that delighted the audience.

The cast tell the classic tale with genial exuberance, but in case you’ve lived in a cave all your life with no electrical supplies to have viewed the numerous telly adaptations or the 1991 Disney version, it tells the story of a Prince who’s been turned into a Beast by an evil witch because he doesn’t fancy her. He can only turn back into a Prince if a beautiful young girl falls in love with him. And guess what – one does – eventually!

I am now going to resist the temptation to rant on about the dubious morals of this story, i.e. can men only be Princes if beautiful young women love them? Do only beautiful young women deserve to marry handsome Princes? STOP ME NOW!

My only gripe is that for an Easter show it felt distinctly seasonal, although there is nothing really wrong with that I guess. But this isn’t a panto. It looks like a panto, it feels like a panto, it has goodies and baddies , heroes and villains. The saving grace was that there were no flashing wands! But it also doesn’t have any ‘It’s behind yous’, or a dame, or a song sheet, or a ghost scene, so it’s not a panto - therefore why did I feel like I was watching one?! Maybe it was down to the fact that it was written and directed by the wonderful Gordon Craig panto legend Paul Laidlaw.

But apart from that, it’s also a feel-good show, with a moral – true beauty lies within. This was played out slightly in the casting of the Beast, because even when the talented Wesley Hughes turned into the handsome Prince, he was frankly a tad generously proportioned, but in a normal bloke / comforting kind of way. Nothing wrong with that of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a slight double chin. But he was a nice bloke, with a fantastic voice of course, and that’s what matters. And I also think that this was inspired casting because it kept to the theme of the play. Why should the beautiful heroine only ever get to marry those with chiselled features?

The heroine, Belle, was charmingly played by Katie Lavelli and the arrogant Anton, the Beast’s competitor for her affections was played by Nathan Lubbock-Smith, in a very impressive performance that included so much charm and humour that you didn’t know whether to love or hate him!

The good humour and panto-like joie-de-vivre permeated the whole show and the use of familiar songs with slightly changed words added to the illusion. But they were all great renditions and the hilariously camp “Everybody ought to have a maid” brought the house down.

This was an amiable, enchanting evening which proved to be a real audience pleaser and put me right in the mood for Christmas, albeit some eight months early!

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Milton Keynes Theatre
13 April 2009

Come to the Cabaret!

When Mr FB saw the warning in the Foyer that the show contained “elements of nudity”, he literally did a hop, skip and a jump into the auditorium, I kid you not!

And talking of philistines, I am ashamed to also admit that I had never seen Cabaret before, not the film, not the stage show, nothing. But it’s one of those shows that you actually think you HAVE seen, mainly because you know so many of the songs. However, in my defence, I can reveal that I HAVE read Christopher Isherwood’s series of short stories collected under the title Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which provided the inspiration for the play 'I Am A Camera', and subsequently this musical.

So I was worried that I would be let down by some sort of weak story linking these fab songs together, but I wasn’t, and in the hands of this talented company I was actually enthralled.

In the show, Sally Bowles is a performer at the Kit Kat Club in Berlin for whom, along with her fellow entertainers, life is all about shows, drink, sex and trying to get money for essential items such as clothes and booze.

However, this is 1930s Germany and against all this fun and decadence, the rise of the Nazis is ever present and increases as the show goes on.

The excesses of the era are represented in the Kit Kat cabaret songs which are slick, sensual, colourful, amusing and very well executed by the company.

The nudity mentioned is basically all tasteful back views, but that’s not to say that the show isn’t steamy. There are some very highly charged scenes with much canoodling going on between all the sexes, something which bought some hilarious ooohs and aaahs from what was, shall we say, quite a mature audience.

The legendary dancer/actor Wayne Sleep is scarily watchable as Emcee. With a face packed with make-up that highlights not only his eyebrows but his ambiguity, I wasn’t sure whether I was terrified of him or on his side – maybe both! He also has some comic-dancing to do which I have to say was incredible stuff for a 60-year-old. He’s certainly still got “it”.

Samantha Barks was a good Sally Bowles. The acting side of things was competent but not outstanding, however, she certainly knows how to belt out a tune and this show gives her plenty of chance to do just that with songs like, Maybe This Time, Don’t Tell Mama and the anthemic title song. She may have only come third in the BBC’s ‘I’d Do Anything’, but for me anyway, she has certainly come out of it smiling and with a better show to boot! Sally Bowles versus two-song Nancy in Oliver – no contest!

Henry Luxembourg played Cliff, Sally’s American lover, and I am also ashamed to say that, at the first sight of him, I whispered loudly in surprise to Mr FB, “that’s Toby the serial killer from Hollyoaks!” However, he was convincing in that and he’s believable in this, a very different role.

He grows from his initial wide-eyed innocence about the Berlin that he arrives in, through to his revulsion of the Nazis and finally rejection of them and their country.

It is this theme that makes it far more than your average musical and other supporting characters add to the darker themes. There’s Fraulein Schneider, played by the excellent Jenny Logan, whose engagement to Herr Schultz (Matt Zimmerman) is ended by the threat of what is going to happen, and the Nazi presence grows throughout the course of the show.

This culminates in an ending which, to say it is downbeat is somewhat of an understatement. The musical leaves us in no doubt where Nazi Germany is heading and the tableau of naked figures as the final scene drums this point home with force.

I had no wish to clap along at the curtain calls, I felt sad and shattered, but also somewhat uplifted by the fact that I had watched one of those rare things – a musical that really made me feel something. Not since Blood Brothers have I been quite so impressed by this kind of entertainment.


Geilgud Theatre, London
11 April 2009 (Matinee)

Enjoy without question!

Alan Bennett is without question one of Britain’s best-loved and brilliant playwrights. Alison Steadman is without question one of Britain’s best-loved and brilliant actresses. Both have the most wonderful talent to make the nuances of the ordinary, very, very funny whilst at the same time, make you realise that these nuances are sometimes also very, very sad. So, to experience both in one afternoon, with one acting out the other’s words, is a pure joy!

This is what happens at the Gielgud Theatre in ‘Enjoy’, a play that Bennett wrote in the 80s, and which has rarely seen the light of day since. (Although I did see and enjoy it in Watford two years ago!) It was critically mauled when it was first performed but that hasn’t happened this time around – probably because Bennett was way ahead of his time and people can now relate to it more. In fact, this current production was actually the highest grossing Alan Bennett play in the West End on advance sales – ever!

‘Enjoy’ looks at life in 1980s’ Leeds and how modern life was changing. Some, like Wilf, want to change with the times while others, like Connie, want to hold onto the past – as she comments, “Mr Craven [Wilf] has always been on the side of progress. He had false teeth at 27″!

And that’s the underlying theme for the whole play – not the false teeth, but the disagreement.
Long suffering elderly couple Mam/Connie, (Steadman) and Dad/Wilf (David Troughton) bicker and reminisce about better times in front of a “visitor”, who sits in the corner documenting their life for reasons that become clear as the play moves on.

Mam tries to show this observer that they are acting completely normally, while clearly they are not. She brings out the best china that they never use, an act brutally exposed by Dad. But this simple act of not doing what they normally do hides the fact that they really ARE an unusual family. And while in many plays, the bickering of a couple who have been together for years often disguises deep underlying affection – you get the feeling with these to that they don’t really like each other at all, they are just used to each other!

This is a couple out of love, confined to their home together, despising each other more every day, and wishing their kids would come back and stay. But it soon becomes clear that the reasons that they don't are complex and often very dark.

No one in the play is really what they first appear to be and that makes the whole experience thrilling and completely unpredictable. But it’s also very funny, it’s all laced with memorable Bennett one liners and numerous laugh out loud moments.

He excels at the observation of the ludicrous – although you don’t realise that things are ridiculous until he points them out. Why did I find the line “I always knew he’d be a student – I could see him opening a bank account wearing a scarf” so funny? Because Mr Bennett made me remember those adverts for student accounts and made me wonder why on earth I didn’t think that their portrayal of a stereotypical student was preposterous the first time around!

But like all classic Bennett, one minute you’re laughing and the next you’re gasping in shock. This wouldn’t be Bennett without the undercurrents of more serious issues like child molestation, prostitution, homosexuality and wife beating. But all of these issues make the narrative much more real and hard hitting, however surreal it gets.

As the play draws to a close there is an Orwellian Big Brother feel to proceedings and you could see why people in the 80s might not have got it. These days the audience is far more used to the idea not only of clinging on to your childhood and a better time but also people watching you as you live your life!

Alison Steadman is wonderful as she changes from being hilarious to moving in the space of a sentence and she is complemented perfectly by Troughton as Wilf. They both give the production a chemistry and pathos it truly required to make it work.

Carol Macready is Mrs Clegg in a riotously funny, but sadly quite brief, scene, just as she did at Watford, and Josie Walker as their brassy and seemingly hard-hearted daughter Linda also reprises her role with great aplomb.

Is it uncomfortable viewing? Sometimes yes – not least because both Mr FB and I could see, in Connie and Wilf, a potential future of forgetting what each other has said, rubbing each others frail limbs and reminding each other when to go for a wee (the memory loss part is already there!) But is it satisfying viewing? Absolutely no question!

Friday, 10 April 2009

Star Wars: A Musical Journey

O2 Arena
10 April 2009

Going over to the Dark Side!

Fans of the Star Wars series will absolutely love watching their beloved 12 odd hours of films condensed into two hours of best bits with John Williams fabulous score played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with singing from the London Concert Choir.

And those, like me, who aren’t fans of Star Wars will love it for exactly the same reasons!

In my opinion, cutting down 12 hours of ridiculousness to just two can only be a good thing. And as I was assured by my Star Wars fanatic husband that they had cleverly picked out the very best bits to tell the story as well – this kind of proves my point really – that only one sixth of it was ever vaguely interesting, because the story, such as it is, could be told in well under half the time! But, despite this, I’m still not sure exactly why and who they were fighting but Harrison Ford was quite fit when he was younger!

I also now know that Luke and Leia were brother and sister and that Darth Vader didn’t end up as Luke’s dad because he shagged his mum while she was with Anakin in some kind of starry love triangle, I found out that Darth WAS Anakin - still not sure exactly how and this happened though! And there was I thinking he was Dave Prowse the Green Cross Code man – “Feel the Force Luke – and look both ways before you cross!”

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I have to say that this is a very enjoyable way of watching the films, and one that should have been employed from the start! One thing that you can’t deny about the series is the fact that the music is fantastic. And hearing it like this, with the Royal Philharmonic in full view and scenes from the films on the big screen behind them, is not only quite breathtaking, but you really begin to see what a skill it is to both score a film and then musically direct the orchestra. You have to write the right music for the action which then has to be played with exactly the right timing. So whatever I think of the film is actually quite irrelevant as this is probably the one and only time that I have found watching any of it remotely interesting! And the Star Wars fans in the audience - i.e. most of them - absolutely lapped up every minute of it!

Anthony Daniels, aka C3PO, narrates the whole thing, introducing each section and explaining what’s going on (a Godsend for me!) He also lapses into his character occasionally which brought howls of delight from the devotees. (For goodness sake - he's only an actor - he goes to the loo like all of us!) The story is explained using excerpts from the films, not in chronological order (I am reliably informed!) but showing clips from all six to illustrate a point. I found this a great way of telling me what was going on and I did see a chink of the light after only - well - 32 years! Meanwhile the fans found it fascinating - mainly because not only do they go into ecstasy at the smallest clip of the films WHENEVER they see them, here they could show their "superior" knowledge by pointing out which bit was from which film. (Yawn!)

The orchestra plays Williams’ score which has been specially chosen to fit the action on the screen and illustrate the particular mood that that part of the story brings. This was the fantastic part for me, listening to live and loud soaring music whilst watching how effectively it went with the action.

It’s a performance like I have never seen before and never thought I would want to, but in appreciating the skill that went behind putting music behind these iconic films, it was all strangely uplifting! Have I gone over to the Dark Side? Have I seen the light? Well no, not exactly, only a chink in the plot department, but I have learned stuff from the evening that will at least allow me to appreciate something about them in the future. The plot is still rubbish though!

One extra point - being up very high in the Arena I discovered that my new mini binoculars are a real boon! Roll on Michael Jackson!