Theatre Record

 

This Edition

 

Issue 15 - 2004

Prompt Corner Click to enlarge

Why do we write what we write? This isn't the same question as "What is criticism for?", around which I've rambled on previous occasions. Indeed, it may not be a single question at all. There seem to me to be two distinct aspects to the matter: let's call them the strategic - why a

reviewer adopts a particular voice or perspective that runs through their work - and the tactical - the motivation behind a particular piece, or even a particular phrase.

As regards strategy, part of the picture overlaps with all those considerations I've mentioned before: it's a case of the critic triangulating themselves, so to speak, taking their bearings relative to their editorship, their readership and the sense of the culture as a whole, and only secondarily (as previously explained) relative to The Theatre.

Different pitches

These are, I think, more or less background considerations which don't give rise to conscious calculation. For instance, in addition to the Financial Times I've been writing lately for another outlet not reprinted in Theatre Record. (You can find examples on my personal Website; rather than shamelessly print the address here, I'll just advise you to do a Google search on my name, whilst reassuring you that I have nothing to do with the nudism site that also mentions. Anyway...) I find that I write in quite a different lexicon for each title, because I see myself in different relations to the respective readerships. But that's not a deliberate device; it seemed to emerge naturally, and certainly my views and verdicts on particular shows are consistent across the board. Similarly, compare Matt Wolf's writing for the International Herald Tribune (collected here) and for Variety (not): different pitches for different markets, but the same fundamental critical standpoint.

Sometimes a writer may adopt a perceptibly different print persona. I'm aware that I don't actually know the people I'm about to cite as possible examples, so I may well be entirely mistaken, in which case I apologise. But I have a hunch that, say, Lloyd Evans in the Spectator and Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail are somewhat self-conscious in their contrariety, as if they're writing theatre reviews for people who don't like theatre, and the point of that eludes me. I think there's also a sense in their columns of épater les bourgeois, even if in Mr Letts' case les bourgeois appear to consist of anyone with any taste or tolerance for theatrical developments during the past half-century or so. Whether I'm right or hideously, presumptuously wrong, he's certainly established a voice of his own in double-quick time, even if the net effect is of a series of theatre reviews more closely in harmony with the paper's overall editorial line than I can recall at any time since the ideological soundness of the now-defunct City Limits magazine. (In contrast, consider the often radical standpoint of Nicholas de Jongh in the pages of the Mail's similarly rightwing stablemate the Evening Standard.)

Albatross

More often, though, it's a matter of individual moments, of isolated instances. These sudden outbursts can happen for a whole range of reasons. There's "writing for the marquee": it's rare, at the level reprinted in Theatre Record, to find someone writing with a conscious eye to having a quotation posted up outside the venue in question, but it can happen sometimes. (And sometimes it's too blatant to succeed: in my own Marc Salem review in this issue, the scrupulous FT sub-editors have once again denied me the chance to supply the remarkable American mentalist with the quote "Destroyed my religious beliefs - Financial Times".) I'll take a lot of convincing that Charles Spencer didn't know fine well that his phrase "pure theatrical Viagra" would come to be inextricably associated with the 1998 première of David Hare's Schnitzler adaptation The Blue Room, although he may not have realised how much of a personal albatross it would also become.

Mind you, it's not unknown for an extraordinary word or phrase to arise from what Tom Stoppard's criticaster Birdboot in The Real Inspector Hound blusteringly calls "a warm regard for a fellow toiler in the vineyard of greasepaint", or the kind of response that Claudia Shear's Mae West would understand as "you're just pleased to see me". When younger, I used to joke that, in my own reviews, the adjective "astonishing" was code for "This is a performer into whose costume I should like to get". I've been trying to rehabilitate the word for some time now, but some friends and colleagues won't let me forget past sins. No doubt they'll jump with nudge-nudge, wink-wink glee upon my review of Galileo's Daughter in this issue. And now I've mentioned it here, you too may conclude that this column is a forlorn attempt to cover my own hide and regain a shred of dignity.

Second-guess

But wait a minute. For that article of mine is in fact an example of another reviewers' motive altogether. Sometimes, you see, we don't simply write for our own editorship and/or readership; sometimes it's with a notion of our place in the critical climate as a whole. If we have the luxury of writing after the first wave of reviews has appeared, we may be aware of composing a reply or corrective to those other opinions... not unlike Prompt Corner on occasion, only with a slightly more dignified mien. Sometimes, though, we may want to (or may have to) get our retaliation in first, as it were; this means we have to second-guess what our colleagues and counterparts are likely to say, and respond to their anticipated views before we've read them. Frankly, that's what I was trying to do with Galileo's Daughter: I thought Rebecca Hall would have an unjustly hard time from critics, I thought a bit of modest, albeit ungainly, cheerleading was in order, and so I set about it. In the event, of course, Hall junior's reviews have been entirely even-handed, and I'm left looking as if I'm simultaneously carrying an absurd torch and lacing up my stalking shoes. I stand by all the critical judgements in that article, but the way I pitched them amounts to one of the more embarrassingly mistaken calls of my career. I cringe, I squirm, I look wildly about for a large rock to crawl under. Then I remember I still have half a column to write.

(Also on the subject of Galileo's Daughter, isn't it nice to see Julian Glover wearing the family beard? That square-cut white bushy growth has long been the trademark of Glover's younger half-brother, the Mercury Prize-nominated musician Robert Wyatt.)

Tights

In any case, that notion - right or wrong - of critical utterances as a whole can lead us to write consciously contrary pieces. At the risk of seeming fixated in a quite different way upon Quentin Letts, I can't help but read his review of Hamlet in this light. I think he rightly predicted that Toby Stephens' performance would be generally sniffed at, and so he set out to pre-empt the criticism. He does so with more internal cogency and fewer hostages to fortune than I did over Rebecca Hall, but in the end he looks scarcely less odd in his isolation.

Stephens' is a Hamlet that demands tights. All those beautiful, rolling cadences, accompanied by all those striking, shapely physical attitudes, really cry out for an actor's calves to be properly delineated by period hosiery. Stumbling around barefoot in his antic disposition just doesn't do justice to a delivery like his. It's an astoundingly (not astonishingly!) mellifluous performance, the nearest those of my generation and younger may get to seeing Gielgud on stage. Unfortunately, it has long ceased to be a Gielgud age. Stephens has always struck me as a comsummate acting technician, but I've never got a feeling of any passion behind his technique. It's the same here.

Nor does the rest of the production counteract this impression... with the sole exception of Greg Hicks' no less vocally resonant but also visually blood-curdling Ghost. Michael Boyd has worked miracles on the morale and corporate standing of the RSC, and he is seldom less than inspirational when talking of Shakespeare's relationship with the social politics of his own world and of ours. However, his production here simply doesn't enact that sensitivity and insight. One or two individual moments aside, there's no pervading sense of the court of Elsinore as a regime in which every move is watched; Clive Wood's Claudius and Richard Cordery's Polonius are devoid of this spymaster dimension. There's no sense of familial entanglement: I can't recall the last time I saw the scene in Gertrude's closet played so devoid of incestuous shadows. It's not helped in this case by the lack of a sense of place, which in turn is partly an effect of The Tom Piper RSC Set. Piper is an immensely gifted designer, whose trademark used to be versatile magic-cabinet sets on a limited budget. Why the RSC keep asking him for imposing rear walls that do one thing at the climax of the play and only that one thing, and why he keeps obliging, is a mystery to me.

Reinvention

John Doyle's design for his own production of Sweeney Todd, now in the Trafalgar Studios after being lauded at the Watermill, could almost be an old Tom Piper "Converta-Set". As a student in the 1980s, Tom worked a lot with Sam Mendes, and it was Mendes' 1992 Donmar production of Assassins that properly turned me on, not simply to Stephen Sondheim, but to the potential of musicals in general. Doyle's triumphantly claustrophobic reinvention of Sweeney as a grotesque chamber piece reawakened that sensation. The steeply raked, amphitheatrical auditorium of Trafalgar Studio 1 somehow adds to the experience, as our skewed perspective from such heights somehow meshes with the non-Euclidean angles of the narrative and its moral scheme. There's even a whiff of a suggestion that we're sitting in a medical lecture hall, looking down on the dissection of various unfortunates and also of a wider society.

Another refashioned theatre space reopens beneath the arches of Charing Cross. The New Players' Theatre is scarcely distinguishable from its previous incarnation in terms of architecture or décor; but where the old Players' staged faux-Victorian musical hall shows and pantomimes from genuine 19th-century scripts, it re-emerges as part of the Off West End venue mini-empire (along with the New End and the criminally underused Shaw) with a show that's as out of time as Toby Stephens' Prince of Demark. Snoopy - The Musical, as Robert Hewison notes, puts the wince in "winsome". This simply isn't the world in which it premièred in 1975. A song called Don't Be Anything Less Than Everything You Can Be is no longer a pop-personal development revelation, it's trite psychobabble with an unmemorable saccharin melody. This is a feelgood show, but there's a crucial difference between feeling and thought. Any kind of thought at all will torpedo the experience. And since pretty much everybody who'll attend the show will at some point find some notion or other crossing their minds, that amounts to rather a fatal drawback.

Weltschmerz

One desperately hopes that the Chichester triumvirate's plans to push the envelope for their audience will pay off, but unconfirmed word is that sadly it's not happening. Martin Duncan's production of Botho Strauss's sketch-play Seven Doors has more than enough liveliness, and even a little discreet camp in the performances of Steven Beard, to keep cautious Chichesterites entertained without feeling burdened by the Teutonic Weltschmerz. If only the patrons would give it a chance.

Six months after playing Sylvia Plath there in Paul Alexander's bioplay Edge, Angelica Torn returns to the King's Head in Alexander's production of Ariel Dorfman's Death And The Maiden. The trouble is, as Lyn Gardner points out, she's still playing Plath.

Ian Shuttleworth

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At the Back

The Editor notes the arrival of two new West End spaces in Prompt Corner, Trafalgar Studios and the New Players'. This, plus the latter's new "Off West End" alliance with the Shaw and the rather smaller New End, is evidence of a growing but risky trend to Off-Broadway style theatres, smaller than the viable West End houses but bigger than most of the Fringe.

There's a great economic contradiction at the heart of this. There is still something of a sense of the special night out about a visit to one of the big West End houses like the Palladium or Drury Lane, even the Apollo Victoria, which impress by their sheer scale. The middle-rank theatres suffer from all those side-effects which Lynn Barber (quoted in my last column) picked out - expensive programmes and drinks, shabby seats and so on - and the experience of a straight play in one of them is far less memorable as an occasion. Hence the rise in popularity of fashionable small theatres like the Donmar and Almeida, and these new attempts to mimic their success.

The problem is that you just can't make money out of a three hundred seater. The Donmar and the Almeida have sponsorship and subsidy to help out. Cameron Mackintosh's proposed Sondheim theatre on top of the Queen's has his personal fortune behind it. But look at the recent record of the similarly sized Arts, or further out at the new, improved Hampstead or the strangely neglected Pleasance. It's hardly encouraging to any prospective producer. The Menier and Arcola, larger than usual Fringe venues, are getting audiences - the largish Gatehouse is doing so with hardly any critical help -  but all will have to continue to run on their traditional shoestrings, with volunteer labour on and off stage to support them. Commercially, a three-hundred seater is bad news. And those who compare Off-Broadway should remember that the typical Off-Broadway house has anything up to 500 seats, which would cover the Ambassadors, Duchess, Fortune, and for that matter the Royal Court and the Young Vic, our true Off-West End.

Tim Foster has done a clever conversion job on Trafalgar Studio 1, running the rake straight down from the back circle to the new, raised stage,  à la Greenwich. It will be interesting to see what he has managed to fit under it for Studio 2, an even less viable space commercially. Quentin Letts doesn't like the cramped corridors that lead you to the auditorium, and I rather agree with him. Once inside, it depends where you're sitting. Ian Shuttleworth got the lecture-hall view from further up. I was on the stage for Sweeney Todd, in the second of two wrap-round rows that almost recreate the feel of the Watermill, if you can forget the back half of the steep tiered seating. The joy of this proximity was that in sitting behind the loudspeakers you heard John Doyle's actor-singer-musician cast unmiked. The catch was the complete lack of legroom.

The show itself has had a pretty good reception from the critics, and the normal audience who shared it with me were ecstatic. The performances don't stand up to the harshest standards of scrutiny, but the cast's multi-skilled ensemble achievement should banish any individual niggles. Doyle's re-editing of the show brings better pace to it, with the Lovett-Todd comic numbers especially effective as counterbalance to the idea that this is a 'dark masterpiece'. Gory guignol it may be, but it boasts some of Sondheim's funniest songs, reminding us that it owes as much to music hall as to melodrama.

The unsung heroine of the evening is Sarah Travis, who has created brilliant arrangements for her on-stage orchestra of woodwind, trumpet and cellos that sound as if made for the piece. Sweeney has always worked best in small-scale, chamber stagings; now it has found orchestrations to match.

There's a serious study to be written, in fact, of how Messrs Doyle and Travis work on their shows. Although the singer-musician concept is common to them all, each has a completely different musical feel. I didn't like their Gondoliers at all, largely because its story was so markedly inferior to its original, but the saxophones were to die for.

Now comes Pinafore Swing, whose entire raison d'être is its recreation of a swing band. Forget about G & S - Doyle and Travis have done so quite early on - and enjoy the music and singing. There's a wisp of a plot, just about recognisable as a watered down HMS Pinafore, and there are a few echoes of its numbers, but this time D & T have had the confidence to build something of their own, and on Sarah-Jane McClelland's gorgeous deco set, more ocean liner than dowdy troopship, they literally have a ball - yes, the cast can dance as well.

All this is to emphasise how important to a musical's success is its band. In the Doyle mode, you can't fail to notice it, but if you have a nagging feeling that Funny Thing isn't as good as it should be, you have only to look at its understaffed orchestra. Catherine Jayes has even fewer musicians at her disposal for Ian Talbot's Open Air Camelot, but in sheer production competence this show outshines Funny Thing, making the latter look like the end-of season stagger-through that the former ought to be. Better band, better singing, better acting, and a gently unforced comic performance from Russ Abbot that can teach several of the Olivier cast a real lesson. It's a sad truth that this last gasp of Lerner and Loewe is no great shakes as a musical - even smaller shakes if you know and love the T H White book on which it is very loosely based - yet it can stir the sentimental soul. I had just as big a lump in my throat at the shockingly manipulative ending as Alastair Macaulay. You'll be lucky to see the old warhorse better staged.

To return to another truism, I suggested a couple of issues back that a show is in trouble when the director appears, banging a drum. What do you make, then, of Michael Boyd's Stratford  Hamlet, whose soundtrack (John Woolf) is almost entirely percussion, albeit of a striking (sorry) originality? I very much share the editor's view of this production, a great disappointment for those of us (probably all of us) who wanted to see Mr Boyd step confidently forward to say, "Look, folks, I'm in charge." You can read what he wanted to do in Paul Taylor's profile-cum-review, which emphasises what an intelligent director Boyd is; on stage, little of this intent comes through, and you are left with a few not very helpful impressions: as well as using the percussion to heighten effect, Boyd employs Vince Herbert's beautiful but emphatic lighting to cue the action rather than vice-versa, with the lighting states switching on to tell you in no uncertain terms what to think; Toby Stephens, when languidly throwing off a high-register line with his red hair thrown back, sounds and looks eerily like his mother; his stage mother, Sian Thomas, must shudder every time she walks on stage to perform the closet scene on a set which consists of a single bentwood chair; above all, as several have pointed out, for all the novelty of its jolly Polonius, its very angry Ophelia, its Christmas Carol Ghost, this is a Hamlet in which not a single one of the many intricate relationships that drive it is brought into believable existence.

On a completely different plane, if you can work your way into the criminal-junkie argot in which Simon Bennett has written Burn, you will find there some very intricate and well drawn relationships. You will also find some good performances, including a stunner from the author himself, even if the play's hesitant pacing reveals the non-professional origins of the performers. I wondered, when reviewing his earlier, less tightly plotted Drummers, whether Mr Bennett had another play in him. He has, but I'm still waiting for one that does more than recreate a life that will concern few members of a non-institutionalised audience, except as uncomfortable voyeurs. Still, all praise to Esther Baker and Synergy for the valuable work they are doing to make drama a real path towards rehabilitation.

Ian Herbert

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Contents / Reviews

London

     

ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE Revival of play by Martin Crimp

BAC

27 Jul 15 Aug
960

BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE Revival of play by Dennis Potter

Bridewell

15 Jul 7 Aug
945

BURN New play by Simon Bennett

Southwark Playhouse

19 Jul 31 Jul
949

CALCULUS New play by Carl Djerassi

New End

28 Jul 28 Aug
968

CAMELOT Revival of musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based on T H White

Open Air

23 Jul 4 Sep
964

CIRQUE LILI New presentation by Jérôme Thomas

Barbican Sculpture Court

28 Jul 15 Aug
969

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN Revival of play by Ariel Dorfman

King's Head

26 Jul 29 Aug
971

LITTLE BY LITTLE New musical by Brad Ross, Ellen Greenfield, Hal Hackaday, Annette Jolles

Arts

25 Jul 22 Aug
970

MARC SALEM'S MIND GAMES Return of solo mentalism show

Tricycle

21 Jul 8 Aug
955

MARIELUISE New play by Kerstin Specht, translated by Rachael McGill

Gate

20 Jul 14 Aug
952

THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY  Revival of the play by Thomas Middleton adapted by Katie McAleese

Theatre Underground

19 Jul 14 Aug
948

SNOOPY! THE MUSICAL Revival of musical by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, from Charles M Schultz

New Players'

21 Jul 15 Aug
957

SPACE JOCKEY New solo piece by Tony Stowers

Etcetera

27 Jul 22 Aug
946

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT New play by Harry Denford

Barons Court

20 Jul 1 Aug
963

SWEENEY TODD Revival of the musical thriller by Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler from CG Bond

Trafalgar Studios

27 Jul 9 Oct
977

UBU ROI Revival of play by Alfred Jarry

Courtyard

15 Jul 1 Aug
947

¡VACAXION! ¡VACAXION! New piece by Crazy Horse TC

BAC

22 Jul 14 Aug
951

Regions

     

A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL  Revival of the play by Alan Ayckbourn

Scarborough, Stephen Joseph

20 Jul 7 Aug
986

DON JUAN  Revival of the play by Molière, translated by Simon Nye  (Peter Hall Company)

Bath, Theatre Royal

20 Jul 14 Aug
993

GALILEO'S DAUGHTER   New play by Timberlake Wertenbaker (Peter Hall Company)

Bath, Theatre Royal

19 Jul 14 Aug
990

THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR  Revival of the play by Nicolai Gogol in a new translation by John Byrne

Pitlochry

24 Jun 16 Oct
999

HAMLET  Revival of the play by William Shakespeare  (RSC)

Stratford, Royal Shakespeare

21 Jul 16 Oct
978

LEND ME A TENOR  Revival of the play by Ken Ludwig

Pitlochry

20 May 15 Oct
999

MACBETH Revival of the play by William Shakespeare, adapted by Andrew McKinnon (Bard in the Botanics)

Glasgow, Botanic Gardens

15 Jul 24 Jul
1001

MAN AND SUPERMAN  Rrevival of the play by Bernard Shaw (Peter Hall Company)

Bath, Theatre Royal

20 Jul 14 Aug
994

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM Shakespeare revival, adapted by Gordon Barr  (Bard in the Botanics)

Glasgow, Botanic Gardens

23 Jun 3 Jul
1000

PINAFORE SWING  Adapted by John Doyle from the light opera by W S Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan

Newbury, Watermill

26 Jul 11 Sep
989

RICHARD III Revival of the play by William Shakespeare, adapted by Scott Palmer  (Bard in the Botanics)

Glasgow, Botanic Gardens

30 Jun 10 Jul
1001

SEVEN DOORS  Revival of the play by Botho Strauss in a new translation by Jeremy Sams

Chichester, Minerva

15 Jul 25 Sep
984

STEPPING OUT  Revival of the play by Richard Harris

Newcastle-Under-Lyme, New Vic

23 Jul 14 Aug
989

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW  Shakespeare revival, adapted by Gordon Barr  (Bard in the Botanics)

Glasgow, Botanic Gardens

14 Jul 24 Jul
1001

THE WEIR  Revival of the play by Conor McPherson

Pitlochry

28 Jul 13 Oct
999

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