Hansberry vs. Horrocks

The culture: ‘Les Blancs’ by Lorraine Hansberry, National Theatre and ‘If You Kiss Me Kiss Me’ by Jane Horrocks and Aletta Collins, Young Vic

The cheap seats: £15 Travelex National Theatre ticket (front row, side view), £10 Young Vic Under 25 ticket

The best thing about London’s theatre scene is that you can see wildly differing things within a mile of each other. The worst thing is that within 0.6 miles you can see great theatre and not so great theatre. Because the quest for cheap seats involves booking before reviews come out – and sometimes before a show is anything more than a blurb on a booking page – sometimes I end up with tickets for not so great theatre. This week, I saw both kinds.

And so, after discovering a booking in my diary that I couldn’t even remember making, I found myself at the Young Vic watching If You Kiss Me Kiss Me. It’s basically Jane Horrocks singing her way through her favourite new wave songs while a theatre audience looks on, a bit awkwardly toe-tapping (and not the hits, really, either – perhaps Horrocks is trying to prove her eclectic taste, or perhaps the rights to ‘Tainted Love’ were too expensive). The Smiths, Joy Division, The Human League, The Buzzcocks, Soft Cell, they’re all here, beautifully sung and beautifully lit by Andreas Fuchs, with talented contemporary dancers throwing shapes against Bunny Christie’s seriously impressive set. There’s a giant plug socket, a fridge, lots of strip lighting. It’s all very ~conceptual~ and I wanted to like it, I really did. In fact, it reminded me of the recent ‘Macbeth’ at the Young Vic, which I also really wanted to like.

Horrocks is pretty good. The zombie-like dancers in sports gear and suits are really, really sexy. There’s even some cunnilingus choreography that had most of the front row looking anywhere but the stage. It’s pretty out there, but it just doesn’t come together (ahem) into a meaningful whole. There’s a vague, pessimistic theme of the brutality and pointlessness of love which would usually be my thing, but there’s no narrative to hang it on so it flounders. It feels a bit voyeuristic, too, and not just because of the gyrating bodies. There’s a real gig vibe but we’re at the theatre with our hands in our laps, not sure when to clap, instead of sweating and grinding too. There are some beautiful moments, though, especially when a heartbroken Horrocks sits on the giant plug and sings The Smiths’ ‘I Know It’s Over’ and I almost cried because that song hits too close to home, especially during the stresses of essay Hell month.

It would be wrong to call If You Kiss Me Kiss Me a vanity project because there are the seeds of something interesting here. Is Jane Horrocks telling us something (important) about being a woman trying to love past the age of 50? Maybe. The problem is, it’s not clear. It’s all a bit ‘Mum-does-the-school-run-in-a-leather-jacket-with-the-hits-from-her-youth-on-and-then-struts-to-the-school-gate’ (tragic) when it could have been ‘Yes-we-still-want-to-be-wanted-and-look-we’re-still-sexy’ (powerful). Maybe it just went over my (young) head. There’s some great clothes, though. The show got me coveting the copper bomber jacket that Horrocks really rocks, and Fabienne Débarre’s wardrobe/haircut/keyboard skills. And if nothing else it’s reignited my love/loathe relationship with The Smiths. *cue feelings*

 

What really got under my skin this week was Yaël Farber’s production of  Les Blancs by playwright and civil rights activist Lorraine Hansberry at the National. Set in an unnamed African country at the brink of revolution, it’s a complex drama about national ties and dislocated belonging. As “the terror” prepare for war and the colonial settlers prepare to flee, Tshembe returns from England for his father’s funeral and finds himself in a land he barely recognises. Les Blancs is incredibly rich and constantly shifting, with delicate characterisation brought out by a really superb ensemble. It’s powerful from the pungent incense that hits you as you walk in to the shocking conclusion that leaves your mind spinning as you walk out. The production is so brilliantly put together that the revolution feels dangerously real. Despite the clever speeches, it’s the sensual elements that I still can’t shake from my mind – that smell, the smoke, the singing matriarchs, the gorgeous, filmic lighting. Another real highlight is Sheila Atim, who I last saw up at the RSC, whose performance captivates without her saying a word. As The Woman she silently haunts the shattering world of Les Blancs, an everywoman/Mother Africa figure who is both powerful and vulnerable and moves like nothing I’ve seen before. I was breathless by the time they set the old world aflame in search of new hope. Staggering stuff.

 

REVIEW: Pericles

The culture: ‘Pericles’ by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The cheap seats: £10 restricted view standing in the upper gallery. And when The Globe Box Office says ‘restricted view’ they really mean it – standing on the left side of the seating plan I saw about 45% of this production (but loved it anyway). 

The Globe’s winter season – billed as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to see “Shakespeare’s four late, indoor, classic romances” in the kind of theatre they were written for – opens with Pericles directed by Dominic Dromgoole. A play of sea-voyages, storms and separations, a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, peril and tragedy and then resurrections, reconciliations, and happy endings (almost) all round, Pericles is certainly not an easy story to tell. But, of course, the Globe manage it, staging the problematic play with magic and wonder under the warm glow of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s candles.

In a brilliant interview for Exeunt this week (http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/james-garnon-you-cant-sit-back-you-have-to-sit-forward-whats-the-point-otherwise/) Pericles actor James Garnon insisted that there’s nothing pantomimic about performing on either of the Globe’s stages. But there’s certainly an element of pantomime in Pericles (She’s dead! Ohh no she isn’t! She’s dead! OHHHH NO SHE ISN’T!!!). Performing their own kind of resurrection on the play, Dromgoole and his company have opted to revive it with a heady dose of comedy, which while a welcome edition – and a break from all that sombre “romance” – does risk tipping into ridiculousness at times. But the Globe’s ensemble are nothing if not experts in dancing that fine line between well-done and overdone comedy and have us all laughing harder than ever before at the tragi-comedy of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. While probably not to everyone’s taste, emphasising the comedy in tragi-comedy does important work by sidestepping the bardic reverence that too-often grips productions of Shakespeare’s final works.

After some peril surrounding an incestuous father/daughter pair and some heroism involving saving a starving nation with some sacks of corn, young Prince Pericles sets out on a voyage back home to Tyre and is shipwrecked, washing up on the shore of a foreign land. Here, stripped of his riches, he wins a knight’s contest for the hand of beautiful princess Thaisa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett) and also wins her heart despite his rusty armour. They marry and Thaisa falls pregnant. Having learnt nothing from his previous near-death experience, Pericles once more returns to the open waves. Another thunderstorm hits his ship, Thaisa goes into labour, and Pericles is presented with his newborn daughter and the news that Thaisa has died in childbirth. Pericles is heartbroken, cradling first the baby he names Marina (after the sea that almost killed them all…) and then the body of his wife (which he hauls about the stage, her bloodstained dress swinging, his eyes wide with horror). Leaving Thaisa’s corpse at sea and baby Marina with noble friends, he heads home to Tyre. But when Thaisa’s coffin washes ashore all is not as it seems. And virginal Marina (Jessica Baglow, whose performance cuts through the more outrageous scenes with innocence and a determined serenity) faces an assassin’s knife before encounters with pirates and pimps when she grows up to be more beautiful than the daughter of the couple who raised her.

Not worn threadbare by performance like Hamlet or MacbethPericles can still feel fresh, new, and exciting. There are audible gasps of shock and horror, cackles of disbelief, and even a few tears in the auditorium as the unlikely plot unfolds – a rare and joyous thing at a performance of Shakespeare. And it is new, in a way. While some productions popped indoors for one night only over the summer, Pericles is the first Shakespeare production designed for the Sam Wanamaker’s stage. Of course we’ll never know what first audiences saw or felt but there’s a beautiful sense that creeps up on you as the candles are lit and lifted and Claire van Kampen’s music stirs that this is how it might have been, way back when.

Pulling out all the stops and using most of the features of the Playhouse, Perciles is subtly spectacular. There are entrances from the Heavens and below, a storm-torn ship conjured with cloth and ropes, clever use of candlelight and chilling blackness. From the bawdy-house banter, to Pericles’ poetry and philosophy, and even old Gower’s narrations, the performances pin down the play and interrogate it intelligently, smoothing most of its flaws and opening it up to the audience. The result really is a play for the season, a truly heartwarming affair.

 

 

‘THE COMEDY OF ERRORS’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆

The culture: The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare’s Globe

The cheap seats: £5 Yard standing tickets, Midnight Matinee

“The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve.

Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Not to bed, Lovers, but to the Globe. This was my first experience of the Globe’s Midnight Matinee, a gimmicky thing which involves waiting outside the wooden O on Bankside from about 10.30 and watching the Bard ’til the wee hours. I absolutely recommend this for plays like ‘Macbeth’ where the witching hour is obviously appropriate and the show would very literally “murder sleep”. Watching midnight Hamlet, one might sympathise with the Danish prince’s desire “to sleep perchance to dream” but appreciate the added gloom when the Yorick graveyard scene came around. The late night start would suit ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Twelfth Night’ down to the ground; the black sky overhead might add tension to the darker moments of the histories; but it really adds very little to Blanche McIntyre’s wonderful ‘The Comedy of Errors’.

The midnight showing might have been a bit pointless but this is a really great production. So great that it’s difficult to believe that it’s McIntyre’s Globe debut, her ‘Comedy of Errors’ feels so perfectly measured for the space and the tastes of the fun-loving groundlings. There are a few awkward – but necessary – explanatory scenes that interrupt the fast pace but this is the writer’s fault, not the director’s. The cast hot foot it through the slapstick farce armed with big white pants on washing lines and fish for slapping each other. It’s silly and riotous and gets the complicated plot of twins and misunderstandings across brilliantly. Even at 2am we were still all following the action and howling with laughter.

The design looks like someone’s raided the Etsy Wish List of a teenage girl who’s just returned from her Gap Yah in the Balkans then added fake food and dumped the whole lot on the stage like a challenge: dodge the plastic grapes without ripping any tiny pompoms from your bright red trousers, Antipholus! I suspect the food was mainly there to facilitate a Joey Tribbiani-style turkey scene with one of the Dromios: playing with your food isn’t big or clever but it rarely fails to raise a chuckle. Jamie Wilkes (who has proved he’s just as good at theatre outside acting with Belt Up and Jethro Compton’s Edinburgh Trilogies) revels in it. His “Dopey from Snow White” inspired Dromio is the best hapless slave I’ve seen on stage.

This production doesn’t quite plumb the depths of the slave/master relationships or the odd romance between Luciana (Becci Gemmell) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Simon Harrison) which is frustrating. However, the actors put so much effort and extra bits into their parts that I’m willing to lose a few plot strands in order to get fleshier main characters. As well as being a dashingly handsome pair of Antipholuses, Harrison and Matthew Needham avoid the usual trap of same portrayal, different colour outfit by distinguishing themselves with cleverly nuanced performances. I loved Hattie Ladbury’s crazed Adriana, too.

It’s very fun indeed and technically a near perfect ‘Comedy of Errors’. It literally brings the house down. I was a bit too tired to enjoy it to the full (Midnight Matinee old-timers advise taking a nap before or at least bringing along a Thermos of strong coffee) but the atmosphere was incredible given the time. They say nothing good ever happens after 2am but the last half hour of this show was definitely laugh a minute good. The last show of the Globe’s season is the perfect finale, bringing an exotic flavour to the autumn theatre scene and a welcome ray of Balkan sunshine as the London nights draw darker and colder.

‘The Young and Prodigious T S Spivet’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆

dir. by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

My friend and I have had a tough month of house hunting and working so decided to treat ourselves to a night at the cinema. Just down the road from out flat is the adorable little Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey Square. And when I say little I mean it – the single screen has just 52 seats and on the night we went to see The Young and Prodigious T S Spivet there were only six of us in the audience.

Shortwave shows mainly independent films with the occasional mainstream offering. We have previously been to see Richard Ayoade’s brilliant reimaging of Dostoyevsky’s The Double and Frank, a quirky, funny and surprising film about a singer with a papier-mâché head, here. It has an incredible cosy atmosphere and the tickets are cheaper than trekking over to Leicester Square for a bland, commercialised Odeon experience. It was Sunday night. We wanted a nice, easy to watch film to cheer us up after a lot of stress. We picked The Young and Prodigious T S Spivet because it looks a lot like a cutesy film about a clever kid with a cameo from one of my all time favourites, Helena Bonham Carter.

Oh how wrong we were. T S Spivet was so, so much more than its 12A certificate and primary coloured promotion posters suggest. I should have guessed as soon as I spotted Jean-Pierre ‘director of Amélie’ Jeunet’s name on the credits. The visuals are incredible – all sweeping shots of American landscapes from the gloriously pastoral to the mundanely industrial and clever child’s perspective close-ups – and there is some great 3D-without-the-stupid-glasses work that is really quite stunning. The story contained within the film’s beautiful shots is that of a boy from a ranch in the middle of nowhere named TS. He is a genius. The 3D brings his imagination to life as diagrams and illustrations flutter out towards the audience from the brilliant mind of the young and gifted cartographer on a quest for perpetual motion.

But TS is also a brother, and a son. Here the story takes a darker turn. TS’ dizygotic twin Layton got their father’s looks and height and cowboy genes while TS inherited the intelligence of their butterfly collecting, scientist mother (Bonham Carter). When Layton dies in a tragic accident the family is blown apart and TS’ relationship with his dad is exposed as a deeply troubled one. Amongst all this conflict and grief, TS wins a prestigious prize from the Smithsonian and embarks on a cross-country solo journey to accept it.

As we follow TS on his travels a touching sub-plot emerges. TS was desperate to escape the nest that smothered him like the baby sparrow of his namesake yet misses it the second he flees. Kyle Catlett – the young Macaulay Culkin lookalike who makes his debut as TS – speaks an unforgettable line: “If I stay here I’ll be like the bats on the ranch. I will only be the echo of myself.” That had me in tears. The need to escape your hometown coupled with a deep sense of guilt and homesickness once you do is a personal battle known all too well to anyone who has ever moved out of the family home. The film spawns a beautiful metaphor from family legend – TS, like the rest of us, is just searching for his ‘pine tree’.

The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet is not just visually arresting: it sneaks up behind you in a kids’ film disguise before grabbing you by the heartstrings and refusing to let go for a long time after you leave the cinema. Surprisingly stunning.

 

 Visit shortwavecinema.com for more information about my favourite cinema in London.

 

 

A Night at the Ballet

The culture: Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Opera House, London.

The cheap seats: £10 amphitheatre slips seats (purchased through their Student Standby Scheme: www.roh.org.uk/for/students). Distant but glorious.

I’ve been in love with ballet ever since I was a little girl taking classes in a pink leotard and cross-over cardigan. I still remember the pride I felt when I graduated from elastics to ribbons. Sadly though, I left my dance classes behind as I grew up. I’ve always secretly regretted it and I’ve recently resumed.

My first experience of ‘proper ballet’ was seeing a Russian company perform ‘The Nutcracker’ in a leisure centre where I grew up. It became Christmas tradition and we saw most of the greats (including ‘Coppélia’, which freaks me out to this day).

Last night I was so lucky to be able to make my first trip to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden for their production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. It’s a well-known story so very easy to follow and even features a snippet of that song Disney made famous in their movie version (the woman behind me hummed ‘I know you I walked with you once upon a dreeeaam’ quite noticeably throughout this dance).

It was my first experience of ballet on such a large scale and it blew me away. Everything was just so beautiful, from the ornate high ceiling right down to the cellos in the Orchestra Pit.

My £10 ticket found me up above the fourth tier which was dizzying but I loved the bird’s eye view this offered me – looking down upon the masses of people (the theatre seats a whopping 2,256 people) and people-watching in the stalls (where people paid up to £122. I would much prefer to go twelve times at £10 than once at that price!). Once the ballet began I had a wonderful gaze over the stage – though from the side – which meant I could see everything clearly and admire the choreography from above. These tickets are sold as restricted view but I would call them ‘Alternative View’. Surprisingly, I was even able to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet en pointe from my seat. It was awe-inspiring.

The night was easily the most magical I’ve spent in London to date. A wave of calm washed over me from the second the Orchestra struck up and started Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. The dancing was stunning and it really took my breath away.

I left feeling like I was floating on air, covered in goosebumps, and with my hands aching from clapping so hard. I’m still baffled by the ballet’s applause etiquette though, comprehended only by the regulars in the Stalls. I think this will take me a few more trips to master – I can’t wait.

‘Henry V’ – review ☆☆☆☆☆

The culture: Henry V, Noël Coward Theatre, London

The cheap seats: £10 balcony seats. The stage was so far away and I had a side view but really not unbearable for the price. £10 day tickets also available if you want to queue but hurry – this production ends on 15th February

If the thought of Jude Law striding about in very tight trousers, brandishing a sword, and generally being all manly isn’t quite enough to convince you that this Henry V is a must-see then there is some good news for you: it’s actually a wonderful  production of Shakespeare’s history play too.

I have an ambivalent attitude towards  stars on stage. While I applaud anything that can widen participation in theatre wholeheartedly, there is always going to be a small voice in my head questioning the casting: was this celebrity just plonked on the cast list to put bums on seats? Thankfully, recent star-studded performances have proved that little voice wrong. David Tennant’s stunning, ethereal Richard II at the Barbican was a triumph. I was rather fond of Gemma Arterton as The Duchess of Malfi. But it can go horribly wrong – I heard some very bad things about Michael Grandage’s last Shakespeare at the Noël Coward, A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring David Walliams and Sheridan Smith.

It was with trepidation, then, that I took my vertigo-inducing seat in the same theatre last week, fingers desperately crossed that Mr Law would be marvellous. He was – a good fighter but a better lover and the perfect King Henry, delivering the role like he delivers the famous ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends…’ speech: with an understated but deeply felt passion.  Henry V follows the king into battle and finds itself in a very problematic situation, celebrating the valour of the fight and the victory but also presenting the inevitable brutalities of war, the physical and emotional pain. It’s my favourite presentation of battle in the Shakespearian canon and the cast really do it justice, respecting its tears of sorrow as much as its war cry.

Turning the spotlight momentarily from Jude Law’s show-stealing conflicted King, Ron Cook is brilliant as Pistol and Ashley Zhangazha is a surprising highlight in the usually minimal parts of Chorus/Boy. He becomes a curious uniting force in modern-day clothes and lies on the stage in the interval reading the playtext, posing some fascinating questions about the power of the imagination.

The best, and funniest, scenes come after the interval. First we are treated to Princess Katherine of France (Jessie Buckley)’s English lesson with her maid (Noma Dumezweni) which features a very crude ‘c word’ pun from the Bard that had the audience howling. Then comes King Henry’s endearing, nervous courtship of Katherine, and finally the hilarious leek scene with Pistol and Fluellen (Matt Ryan). I did enjoy the comedy than the battle scenes but the production does these well too. The set is beautifully designed in battered wood panels to become the ‘wooden O’ mentioned in the first few lines that would originally referred to The Globe. When the soldiers fight all of the drama and heat of war and fire is conveyed effectively with simple red lighting. This Henry V is proof that simply done theatre is the best kind. It’s the type of production you would expect to see at The Globe which speaks volumes about how good it is.

So don’t just go for Jude Law, go for some great Shakespeare. Those trousers are quite something, though…

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS (2013: The year I began The Great Quest to become ‘Cultured’)

A few days late but here is my New Year’s blog post. 2014 is already looking quite exciting, just a mountain of coursework and exams to overcome this week before it can really begin.

It’s evident from the title of this (sadly rather neglected) blog that when I started it I wanted to immerse myself in culture. Culture is quite an elusive thing, hard to define, a concept. The journey of enlightenment, I have discovered this year, is a thrilling one filled with stunning art exhibitions, opera and groundbreaking theatre.  But when do you become cultured? Are you cultured after seeing a few plays, or only after you’ve ticked off the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, dear readers, I am proud to say that I’ve made it. A few months ago a friend of mine said to me ‘You’re so cultured!’ in a very pleasing tone of shock and awe after I told her that I had spent the previous evening watching four hours of searing drama in the form of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Scenes From a Marriage at The Barbican, a Swedish play that they performed in their mother tongue, Dutch (a language that I had never heard a word of before that night, let alone spoken). I have never felt more proud of myself.

Rewind to the early hours of January 1st 2013. I was feeling particularly depressed and self-reflective as it was the most recent New Year’s in a string of many that I hadn’t had someone to kiss at midnight. I looked over my diaries for the past few years and they all revealed the same resolutions: lose weight (I’m a UK size 10/12…) and get a boyfriend. This year I had an epiphany and realised (at last) that I really don’t need to do either of these things (yay feminism etc.). Instead, I decided to focus my energies on something much more positive. I vowed to go to the theatre at least once a month. ‘New Year New Me’ is such a cliché but yet…

Since then I have fallen head first in love with the stage and have been lucky enough to get into reviewing. My ticket scrapbook is overflowing. The aim of my New Year’s Resolution was to see at least one play every four weeks. I now go at least once a week, sometimes as many as three times.

I have loved every minute of my time in audiences in London, my small hometown theatre and at the Edinburgh festival. I have developed as a person: last year’s resolution was so much more positive than its predecessors and has had such a great impact on my life. Yes, sometimes I do still wish that I looked a bit better in skinny jeans or had a boyfriend to cuddle up with after a show but for the majority of the time I’m just happy being me and doing what I love to do.

This year’s resolutions have big shoes to fill. Plans so far are to learn Italian, blog more, keep ticking off the Shakespeare plays until I really have seen each and every one of them performed and to keep smiling. Bring it on.