Bye Bye Birdie, Hello sexually frustrated small-town America

Bye Bye Birdie – Ye Olde Rose & Crown, until 04 September 2015 (Tickets)Bye-Bye-Birdie-c-David-Ovenden-500x350

Life in post-war America seems to be one of the most curious periods in recent history. Despite, or more likely because of, the horrors of the previous decade, the 1950’s gives the impression of existing in a snowdome; a quaintly innocent age forever frozen in time protected from the changes to come. Apple pie, mom and pop diners, white-picket fences, the nuclear family; snapshot stereotypes summoned up by small-town conservatives as they hark back to a period they feel we never should have left.

byebye1Uncovering the truth behind the myth is one of the joys of Bye Bye Birdie. Performed on Broadway in 1960, this Tony-Award musical is notable for retaining its modernity right into 2015. Spoofing the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley’s draft notice into the army, it explodes ideas that are often casually accepted about the period and raises questions about how rose-tinted are the glasses through which we look to the past.

Sharply written, it captures the casual racism (witness an amazing string of close-to-the-knuckle one-liners spewing forth from Mae Patterson’s Jayne Ashley) and assumed patriarchal control (witness a highly hilarious rant from Harry Hart’s continually undermined Harry Macafaee) of the times. It is a world where girls become women at fifteen and are seen as fair game from predatory rock ‘n roll stars. The town has a bubbling undercurrent of sexual frustration slowly heading towards boiling point before exploding with the arrival of Zac Hamilton’s Conrad Birdie.

That it found an audience in 1960 America is perhaps not surprising, but it is also not so surprising that it has fallen out of fashion in the UK to the extent that it has never had a major UK revival since playing for 269 performances in 1961. It is not really ‘our’ history. We were too busy clearing up bomb damage and inventing skiffle to find time to buy a Buick Convertible and head off to the 5-and-dime for a soda pop.

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Talking Theatre – More Podcasting

Another week, another episode of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast. This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcas

Plays under discussion are Bakkhai, 3 Days in the Country and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Joining our host, Tim Watson, was JohnnyFox, PaulInLondon, Nick from Partially Obstructed View, and Gareth James.

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Ben Whishaw related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave (But why would you want to?)

Grand Hotel – Southwark Playhouse, until 05 September 2015 (tickets)Grand Hotel 3  Christine Grimandi Scott Garnham Photo Aviv Ron

For over a year I only heard wonderful things about Thom Southerland and how he had a magic touch when it came to staging ridiculously impressive musicals in theatres that should have been far too small to do them justice. His version of Mack & Mabel (long a favourite of the cognoscenti) was longlisted for the Evening Standard Best Musical 2012, whilst he repeated the trick the following year with the decision to attempt a staging of Titanic at the Southwark Playhouse.

Grand Hotel 2 Victoria Serra (Flaemmchen) with rest of the cast Photo Aviv RonSo it was slightly disappointing to discover that by the time Civilian Theatre got round to seeing his shows, the magic seemed to have become a little more elusive. The Mikado at the Charing Cross Theatre was fluffy, fun but ultimately inconsequential, whilst The Grand Tour at the Finborough was a curio but didn’t fully hang together. Both pieces demonstrated hints of brilliance but never quite delivered.

As a result it is a great pleasure to announce that his revival of Grand Hotel at the Southwark Playhouse is absolutely spectacular. Right across the cast through to the choregraphy, direction and staging – there is very little to fault with the production.

And this praise comes from a reviewer who could distinctly remember being unimpressed by the 2004 Donmar production (even if he couldn’t remember exactly why he didn’t take to Grandage’s version). It may have been an off night for the cast or the audience member, but since then I have rather dismissed it as a musical.

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Continuing adventures in Podcast Land

A little bit delayed but a few weeks ago I was back in the booth for another episode of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast. This time play’s under discussion were Orson’s Shadow, Constellations, Bugsy Malone and As Is.

Joining our host, Tim Watson (http://www.londontheatregoer.com), was Julie Raby and Gareth James

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast 

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

Lovett’s Pies: Enjoyable but with some questionable content

Lovett + Todd – Another Soup @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

One of the more intriguing aspects of fiction is how the creation of a make-believe world with fully-formed characters is enough to tempt audiences and artists alike into constantly wishing to re-enter that world and find out more about the part of the character’s life that exists just out of sight of the viewer. A key marker is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, with the implication being that it fills in the pre-story of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. There are many more stories in this vein that take us right up to the present with The Meursault Investigation which reframes Camus’ The Outsider through the brother of the eponymous outsider of the title.

However as post-modernity and a self-reflexive irony envelops our culture, we have seen the focus change from adding to the original to reworking the source material so that it is framed in possibilities that would seem absurd to the original authors. Poor Jane Austen has suffered greatly at the hands of others. Indignities heaped upon her characters. Like murder mysteries? Like Pride and Prejudice? Well, try Death in Pemberley! Love zombies? Love Austen? You’ll love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

That is not to imply that there is anything wrong with this. Quite the contrary, in part this is just a conscious acknowledgement of what has been going on for centuries. Playwrights, novelists, storytellers are continually retelling the same stories through different prisms. This was brought home watching the Oresteia and discovering that the events set in motion by the return of Orestes are mirrored with startling similarity in Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.

The advantages are clear; by using an existing text, you can trade off brand recognition to attract an audience and you avoid the accusation of plagiarism because it is implicit in the process. Yet it comes weighted with great risk; audiences are interested in part because they are emotionally invested in the original characters. Toy with their emotions at great peril.

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Snobbish champagne socialites at the Old Vic

High Society – Old Vic Theatre, until 22 August 2015 (Tickets)wpid-wp-1434876973039.jpg

After a decade at the helm, High Society marks Kevin Spacey’s last show in charge of the Old Vic. If Clarence Darrow was a – not unwarranted – gift from Spacey to himself, a much deserved lap of honour that indulged his love of great character parts and allowed the audience to wallow in the sheer magnetism of the man, then High Society is a chance to give the crowds a little sparkle and razzmatazz as he heads out the door.

In a fortuitous piece of scheduling, I headed to the Old Vic just days after seeing a Berlin & Hart musical (Face the Music) staged splendidly in a tiny theatre pub in east London. To watch both in such close proximity only reinforced the gigantic financial disparities in the theatre world. It is clearly evident on the stage, where Maria Friedman (Merrily We Roll Along) deploys pretty much every available bell and whistle to make the musical in-the-round, and also in the murky world of ticket prices – £10 for High Society, £18 for Face The Music – where corporate sponsorship enables incredible cheap tickets in the face of a steep production budget.

As you are sitting in the baking hot auditorium waiting for the second half to start, it is likely you will be thinking that even £10 seemed a little steep. The first half of High Society is a real mish-mash. It suffers from problems everywhere you look; the story takes time to get going as it labours under a endless series of characters being introduced only to be whisked off in search of a plot device. There is a real absence of decent songs and routines before the interval, whilst some of the vocal talent on display is rather uneven. The only exception is Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a lovely little number that sees Porter’s lyrical wit matched with fun choreography and energetic performances from Jamie Parker and Katherine Pearson.

Then the lights go down, the double bass begins to play and 12 minutes later Nathan M Wright’s superbly choreographed Let’s Misbehave has transformed the evening. It is a fantastic set-piece and one of those glorious numbers that seems as if it will go on and on for the rest of the night. Just as it hits a peak, it will relax before coming back even more impressively with a new routine. This is one of few numbers where the choreography is truly at a West End standard. It even had someone tap-dancing on the top of a piano.

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