Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

Dry Rot

July 14, 2008

            The Loft Theatre in Leamington Spa reminds me of my own local theatre back home where I grew up in Kent. Everything from the red velvet curtains, the squeaking seats and the need for an overture before each act put me in the mood. This theatre experience was going to take me back to my grass roots ambitions of amateur theatre and it did not fall short of my expectations.

            ‘Dry Rot’ is a comedy set in rural 1940’s England. The Wagstaff family’s newly owned country house-cum-bed and breakfast is beset by an unlikely rabble of characters led by Alfred Tubbe. Tubbe plans to win a bet on a horse race taking place at the near by racetrack by switching the tipped winner for one he has brought in especially to fail, and needs to do it all before the Wagstaffs find out.

            The play itself is very hit and miss. The writing was inconsistent and heavily padded with dialogue about getting someone a cup of tea, even at 3am. The 10 strong cast are all given side plots to main horse racing story but most of them never seem to be resolved. Daughter Susan Wagstaff and secretary John Danby never fulfil their love plot while the eventually presence of Police Sergeant Fire is utterly superfluous and leads only to an unnecessary, although extremely well timed, chase scene involving most of the cast and a shot gun.

            In spite of the play being ropey to say the least, the cast did a good job to flog this dead horse of script. Bill Davis as Colonel Wagstaff was an enjoyable performance with good comic timing and played the enjoyable force of confused reason that often drove the play along. Another delightful performance came from Michelle Bezant whose Vicky Pollard inspired maid Beth interacted well with other cast members, who sometimes actually forgot about reacting altogether. Her undeveloped romance with Tubbe’s sidekick Fred Phipps was one side plot warmly welcomed but unfortunately stopped short.

            The best-planned part of the whole evening was the set. A well-constructed and sturdy multi-layered structure put the effort of minimalist sets to shame, revealing them to be no more than someone doing a lazy days work. Revealing was the buzz word of the play, with the pick of the frantic and high comedy scenes coming from mishaps with the secret passageway discovered in the front room by Tubbes and Phipps. The wonderful sliding door mechanism in a bookcase made me feel as if I had walked into a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Only far sillier. 

            The performance was polished and heavily thought through, but it had only moments of glory. The rest of the play was subdued under the need for tea and extraneous plots. This performance could have gone under the directorial scissors a little more. Nevertheless, ‘Dry Rot’ provided a heart-warming return to memories of my youth and I walked out smiling. Job done.   

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Warwick Student Arts Festival 2008

July 1, 2008

For five years the Warwick Student Arts Festival, or WSAF for short, has become a staple part of the end of the academic year for many Warwick University students. As the biggest student run arts festival in the UK, WSAF continually boasts a broad range of events from theatre to art, from photography to interpretive dance, from films to dance demonstrations. Since its inception in 2003, the festival coordinator and their team have continued to expand the range of events and this year was no exception. 

            With events being spread across four large venues as well as smaller obscure alcoves of the campus, WSAF has turned over more than 80 events this year. The university’s regular output of exciting and often well-produced theatre continues confidently into this week, and new student writing dominated this year’s theatre. ‘Cardboard Metropolis’, although not a polished performance, shows the potential of what young writers at Warwick have to offer. Performances of Pintar’s ‘The Dumb Waiter’ and ‘You’re A Good Man, Charlie Man Brown’ were but two of the many examples of established playwrights proving the students’ abilities to find the heart and soul of these texts, an amazing feat considering many of the actors and crew members had only recently finished sitting their final year examinations.

            Exploring new modes of art is often a welcomed and thrilling experience but some of these experimental pieces unfortunately fell flat on their faces. Quest, a fantasy inspired musical, attempted to amalgamate the bleak world of sorcery and dragons with the lipstick world of musical theatre resulting in a bizarre and often laughable attempt at a play while Angel in Crayola attempted to break the constructs of theatre altogether but to little avail. The performance was uninspiring, badly written and convoluted.

            But these examples are few and far between. Staple favourites such as The Warwick Shootout Screening, where audiences delighted in the winning films from the most extreme film making competition in the country, and the various Warwick orchestras and bands put on a good show and did not disappoint their audiences. Every musical act from the Big Band to Opera Society to Chamber Choir performed to highest degree.

            The dance elements of the festival have been given more prominence this year. The Pole Dancing society took centre stage in the Piazza, the centre of the campus, with a vibrant and enthusiastic performance from society member Rose Biggin. Likewise, the Tribal Rhythms event was a joy to watch. Combining the best elements of Bellydance, Break-dance and Capoeria, these three societies delighted audiences with an innovative amalgamation of three very different yet wholly exhilarating dance styles. 

            The highlight of this year’s festival was the Warwick Sketch Show crew, BabyChimp, whose Evening Without Dignity had audiences laughing out loud from beginning to end, resulting in one of the most enjoyable hours I have ever spent in a theatre. Each sketch was pitch perfect with a range of material that seriously lambastes the best parts of society whilst exhibiting a surprisingly credible element of the bizarre.

            If you can wait until 2009, and can get to Warwickshire for this week of their final term, Warwick students will not fail to delight all comers to this innovative arts festival. Even when compared to some of the larger and more professionally run arts festival that are cropping up all over the country, WSAF is setting a high bar for the others to compete with. 

Troilus and Cressida

June 9, 2008

            It is important to note right away that Cheek By Jowl have already tried their hand at Shakespeare. The director of their 2004 production of ‘Othello’, Declan Donnellan, has assembled the largest cast the company has ever put on stage and turned to one the Bard’s lesser-known and more problematic plays. Tracing a troubled period in the Trojan War, ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is on the one hand a love epic of two young Trojans and on the other a gritty play critiquing the systems of war and battle honour. With a noticeably minimal set in the main of theatre of The Barbican, and returning their favoured traverse staging, I waited for the lights to lower to see what Donnellan would do with this mixed bag of a text. On paper, the play combines the best parts of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the military elements of the Histories cycle to create a decent but not always easy balance of love and war.

            This means play itself is a ‘slow burner’, needing time to set up the numerous plot strands, and by consequence the first of half this production lagged. The choice to modernise speaking patterns was handled well by some actors but others did not even grasp the meaning of what they were saying. Oliver Coleman’s Paris was a disastrous performance, causing the audience around me to move around in their seats in squeamish discomfort. Many of the actors seem to have confused passion with shouting and when combined with some of the strong regional accents in the cast it made for very difficult listening. Laurence Spellman as the mighty Ajax lost many of his lines because of this combination and unfortunately for the most part could not be understood.

            Donnellan also used his first act to lay the grounds for his exploration of sexuality and eroticism. His choice to have Richard Cant play Thersites as a drag queen-cum-transsexual was a hard puzzle to decipher. Bursting onto the stage dressed in a workman’s boiler suit, brandishing what look liked a bottle of Cif and cloth and splashed with make-up I was at first intrigued and was almost prepared to let Cant get away with it and see where this device was going. Upon opening his mouth however a voice very much like, if not exactly like, Paul O’Grady’s pierced out from between his lips, making for an off-putting performance. Cant’s performance is quite obviously based on day time television presenter’s famous drag queen alter ego, Lily Savage, and this uncanny impersonation did not seem to fit the tone of the play.

            However, by the start of the second act all the puzzle pieces fell into place. Cant came into his own, and turned out to be the key to Donnellan’s exploration of love and desire. One particular delight was a scene where Cant appears dressed in a ball gown and plays the host in a bizarrely placed yet brilliant cross-gendered cabaret in Achilles’ tent. The relationship of Achilles and his cohorts also blooms in the second half, giving him the convincing drive needed for his final showdown with Hector.

The leads, Alex Waldmann as Troilus and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Cressida, shone throughout the play bringing a youthful counter-point and an injection of life into the longer scenes of military squabbling. Briggs-Owen was the true star of this production whose timid yet strong and youthful heroine made for an enthralling watch. Other notable mentions go to David Caves as Hector and Ryan Kiggell as the most worried and stuttery Ulysses that I have ever seen.

            From a design standpoint Donnellan took a chance to really explore the visual elements of the show, giving rise to some truly amazing set pieces. Paris and Helen’s awkward dialogues were broken up by a publicity photo shoot, an inspired rethinking of genuinely boring scene and a sly critique of celebrity culture, while Troilus’ final speech was spoken whilst being flanked by two giant human shadows, proving how effective a bare set and a pair of spots can really be.

            Cheek By Jowl’s monopoly on cutting edge and experimental theatre now extends to the realm of Shakespeare. If you get a chance to see this show, try to stick out the first act. By the second half, you will realise that you just needed to see the wood through the trees. A wholly gratifying and thought-provoking experience.  

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

May 26, 2008

            With the Royal Shakespeare Theatre still under construction, and having said a sad farewell to Michael Boyd’s ‘Histories’ cycle, audiences waited with trepidation for the next season from the Royal Shakespeare Company to open in the Courtyard Theatre. Presenting what one could call a ‘safe’ collection of five plays, the crowning jewel being the forthcoming ‘Hamlet’ starring Patrick Stewart and David Tenant, the other plays were promised to sparkle just as brightly. But after a disappointing ‘Taming of the Shrew’, and the visionless offering that was the ‘Merchant of Venice’, I was looking forward to what has been my favourite Shakespeare since I was a child.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that not much can go wrong with ‘Dream’. It is a simple story of tangled love, fairies and what I consider to be one of the best fools in literature, because for any of us who go to the theatre or have been in a school play knows that there is a little bit of Bottom in all of us.

            But in spite of the praises that this production has been given, I must admit that I was less than impressed. The directorial vision was incomplete and entirely incongruous. Gregory Doran’s choice to reference modern pop music acts such as Michael Jackson and Sting may be good for getting a cheap laugh but made the production seem fragmented. Why does Sting have a place amongst lover’s feuds and fairies? No answer was given.

Most of the complaints about this production also come from Doran’s directorial choices concerning his lead actors. Peter de Jersey’s Oberon was as wooden as the forest he lives in and his fairy train was littered with over acting. Joe Dixon’s Bottom may have been the bumbling mechanical that many love, but Doran’s choice to take the character out the context of the play with these dance moves (the first of many examples) made for a sporadic and confusing performance.

            In spite of its problems, people were enjoying the show and there did not seem to be a dull moment for some. The most positive aspects were the overall design elements, with lavish lunar projections, light bulbs and descending Perspex bowers, keeping the audience visually stimulated. Praise also goes to some of the cast. Putting Doran’s perplexing vision to the side, Edward Bennett, as Demetrius, and Natalie Walter, as Helena, really stood out of the crowd as one pair of mismatched lovers. Bennett’s insular persona led to a convincing portrayal of a man fighting between his feelings and Egeus’ preferences, while Walter’s shone using her full range that went above and beyond the two dimensional performances of the other leads. Praise also goes to Mark Hadfield who gave the audience an enjoyably inept and slovenly Puck.

            This offering from RSC continues to hang the old question mark over the nature of Shakespeare an its performance in modern theatre. With an entire complex dedicated to recreating England’s most important literary tradition, as well as funding from arts councils and patrons, what do audience’s want from the Bard’s work in the 21st century? Plays like Boyd’s ‘Histories’ were gripping and frankly unmissable as pieces of theatre, not just Shakespeare, with genuine thought being put into every scene and device. The Histories are difficult plays to conceive on stage. Even the tried and tested Henry V needs a serious amount of work every time it is reconceived.

In comparison, I felt that Doran’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ rode the wave of the text, often relying on the simple yet solid script which carried some of the directors’ more bizarre choices. These came in the form of modern contextual references (the reason for the fairies reversing making articulated lorry noises, or repeating the word bosom are lost on me) and hyperbolical performances, all of which point towards the shows’ aim to please a mass audience. That seems to be what the audience want and it is not ultimately a bad thing. It brings people together to watch text that can be difficult to comprehend but here it has been done at the sake of artistic integrity. The RSC have a reputation to keep up, but the season thus far continues to be a thorn in their side. Let us hope ‘Hamlet’ is not all bark and no bite.