Euthanasia – let’s have a mass debate: Kill Me Now at the Park Theatre

Sunday 22nd February 2015, matinée

We’ve had some great experiences so far at the Park Theatre, so when we heard that they were going to be hosting a black comedy about disability and euthanasia called ‘Kill Me Now’, we felt strangely drawn to the idea of another visit.

Brad Fraser’s play features Jake Sturdy, a writer who has put his career to one side while he looks after his disabled son Joey (could this be a nod to Peter Nichols’ ‘Day in the Death of Joe Egg’? we wonder).  Joey is about to turn 18, and just as Jake is beginning to wonder about the future, circumstances force both of them to re-evaluate their lives as events lead to a shocking and unexpected conclusion.

Fraser is an assured writer who engages us from the very first moments of the play.  We begin with the most ordinary scene imaginable, with Jake bathing his son (quite relieved at this point to be sitting on the opposite side to the real, water filled bath).  The scene is rich in information with almost no exposition.  We learn about the characters and their situation through the natural and unabashed rituals they have, and the plot is perfectly set up as we see for ourselves that it is getting ever more difficult for the middle-aged Jake to lift the adult Joel out of the bath and into his wheelchair.  This simple start develops slowly into a more involved drama and Fraser seduces us into thinking the unthinkable, dragging age-old taboos kicking and screaming into the light, yet allowing us to see that, as the tagline says ‘normal is relative’.  The shock is balanced in equal measures by the kind of humour that has us burying our head in our hands as we stifle the belly-laughs – a process which is piqued by the visibility of the audience on all sides.

Greg Wise leads the cast as Jake in an unselfconscious and warm-hearted performance, convincingly combining the qualities of an everyman and a superman.  He barely seems to be acting at all, so engrossed are we in his situation and the impossibility of being the carer and father he wants to be.  As Joey, Oliver Gomm is remarkable. His performance, requiring considerable distortion of his body and constant movement, is technically outstanding, but he never allows us to forget the inner life of this character, whose ‘issues’ are the same as any normal teenager.  He exploits the humour of the piece to the full with excellent comic timing.  Our only question would be, with such a rarity, a fully rounded and prominent part for a disabled person, was an able-bodied actor the only option?

As younger sister Twyla, a willing helper who is drawn into an ever more challenging situation, Charlotte Harwood peels back the onion layers of her defences with great subtlety, as we gradually learn how her childhood has affected her life, giving her feisty confidence the lie.  Anna Wilson-Jones starts as a character very determined to keep her life compartmentalised, and her growing discovery that she has something to offer in this bizarre family set-up is warmly and subtly played.  Jack McMullen, a former graduate of both Grange Hill and Waterloo Road, has the perfect CV to play Joey’s sidekick, lovable rogue Rowdy, a self-confessed ‘retard’, brain damaged from birth, whose socially inappropriate behaviour and brutal frankness make him uniquely qualified to help this ever more dysfunctional family.  He is engaging and charming, providing many of the best moments of truly dark humour with perfect judgement.

Braham Murray directs the production with a complete absence of pretension, allowing the playwright’s beautifully crafted story and the fantastic ensemble cast to work their magic.  How rare it is to see a play which is truly weighty, moving and thought-provoking, yet without polemic or preaching.  Another triumph for the Park Theatre, who really seem to be on a mission to stretch and entertain audiences in equal measure.

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Was ever woman in this humour won? The Goodbye Girl Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Saturday 7th February 2015, matinée

Having promised ourselves another visit to Upstairs at the Gatehouse following their impressive Christmas show Singin’ in the rain, we were pleased to find another opportunity so soon – ‘The Goodbye Girl’, a musical based on the classic seventies film which was scripted by Neil Simon and helped Richard Dreyfus win an oscar, with music by Marvin Hamlisch and Lyrics by David Zippel.

The plot is spookily close to the last play we saw, Hello/Goodbye – a couple, thrown together in an apartment which both think they have a claim on, end up falling in love. Except that this version, nearly forty years old, seems to have worn much better.  In New York, Paula McFadden is an ex-dancer who has to revive her career when her live-in lover abandons her and her twelve year old daughter for Spain, simultaneously sub-letting the apartment to his actor friend Elliot Garfield.  When he turns up in the middle of the night, some quick negotiations result in compromise as both agree to live together to keep a roof over their heads.

The story is not exactly original, but it is well executed, with plenty of wit and characters who are both loveable and entertaining with their various foibles.  Paula’s desperate attempts to get back into shape are genuinely painful to watch, while Elliot’s adventures in the world of experimental theatre, playing a new and ground-breaking version of Richard III are still highly entertaining – some things never change in the world of theatre!

As Paula, Rebecca Bainbridge was a curiously familiar face, until we realised that we had seen her many years ago in a production of ‘The Great Pretenders’ at the Gatehouse, where she played an ageing Marilyn Monroe impersonator making a final bid for success in her career and love life.  She has a good-natured spikeyness about her, and brings just enough warmth amid the dizzying rollercoaster of bravado and self-doubt.  Her reaction to Elliot’s request for her to ‘be nice’ to him (misinterpreted as something a little more intimate) is priceless.  We last saw Paul Keating as the scarecrow in the ‘Wizard of Oz’, so his versatility as an actor is certainly not in question. It was nice to see him a bit more close-up, and to enjoy a charming and witty performance that pushes the boundaries of Elliot’s occasional pomposity just enough while showing us his vulnerable side, not least when he turns up after an evening of ‘sorrow drowning’ after the first (and last) night of his disastrous play. The chemistry between the two, whether verbally sparring or giving in to their feelings for each other, was a pleasure to see.

The chorus do a great job of creating the hothouse atmosphere of showbiz, whether playing out a version of Richard III that makes Propeller look tame, or putting on cheesy daytime TV fodder (a nice cameo from Tim Phelps).  James Wolstenholme and Alex Green excel as the kind of male dancers who are exhausting just to watch.

You may be wondering, after five paragraphs, when we are going to get onto the subject of the music in this musical.  The strange thing is that it was hard to see how the music adds much to this story.  We wouldn’t be the first to comment on the propensity for successful films to be raided as material for musicals, but this one was first produced on Broadway just over twenty years ago, and the irony is that the book seems to have aged better than the music.  There are some enjoyable musical moments, particularly Elliot’s song ‘I think I can play this part’, and Paula’s ‘A beat behind’, and the sharp and witty duet ‘My rules’, but for us there were no real stand-out numbers that felt like an essential part of the piece musically.

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Flat comedy: Hello/Goodbye at the Hampstead Theatre

Saturday 24th January 2015, evening

We’re not normally great fans of rom-com, but finding out that Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison were going to team up at the Hampstead Theatre in ‘Hello/Goodbye’, Peter Souter’s play about the first and last moments of a relationship, we were intrigued enough to go – we’d been disappointed to miss Shaun Evans in a recent production of ‘Miss Julie’ at the Chichester Festival Theatre so maybe this would be the next best thing (and probably less grim).

Although technically this play has a cast of four (Luke Neal and Bathsheba Piepe providing some key moments of support), it feels very much like a two-hander.  Alex and Juliet both turn up in the same flat at the same time, insisting it is theirs, and a battle of wills (and almost everything else) ensues.

There is a lot of well observed comedy in the play – the second act argument about how to get the best out of the central heating is priceless – the exasperated rehearsal of well-worn arguments and attempts at logic which are bound to fall on deaf ears will be recognisable to many.  The perfect storm of Alex’s passive aggression and Juliet’s borderline sociopathy is nicely played out and enjoyably painful to watch at times, as they must even argue about whether or not to have an argument.  When Juliet professes not to want any of their ‘joint’ things, and then fights tooth and nail when she realises she might be missing out, we know we are on familiar territory.

The problem with ‘Hello/Goodbye’, however, is that the play just can’t commit itself. There is not enough substance to provide a meaty drama we can get our teeth into, and there is not a steady enough supply of comedy to counteract the lack of plot.  Ultimately the characters are unlikeable and once we get over the delight at the sheer audacity of Juliet’s behaviour, it becomes hard to care about what happens to her.  The dialogue starts to feel as though it could be from a sketch show.  The sexual tension, too, is somewhat laboured – the actors could probably have benefited from fewer heavily signposted references to heat, sweat and the removal of clothing and perhaps director Tamara Harvey could have allowed them to develop the relationship a little more subtly.  It is hard to work out what is missing, but it may be that the dominance of exposition over real-time drama doesn’t help, along with a plot that tries to go to dark places but feels ultimately sanitised.

Miranda Raison is an excellent comedienne, with a wonderfully spikey, disingenuous manner and snappy comic timing, and Shaun Evans is the perfect foil as the introverted completist Alex, with a very nice line in deadpan delivery.  Evans did feel underused though – he never seems to get his share of the emotional action, and it’s very difficult to shine for two hours playing the ‘strong silent type’.

We noticed afterwards that this play has already had an outing downstairs at the Hampstead, with a different cast.  Perhaps that small and intimate space would have served the play better, because the rather bizarre attempts to turn the Hampstead main stage into a ’round’ space didn’t quite work for us.  The space has never felt bigger, and for us, looking down on the action from the back row of the circle, it was hard to feel involved. We would argue that sitting almost behind the back of the set qualifies as restricted view, not to mention having to wait until the curtain call to get a look at Luke Neal’s face!  We can’t help feeling that the Hampstead Theatre is getting too safe in its choices – there’s nothing wrong with the occasionally fluffy piece of pure entertainment (although in this case we’d need a few more belly laughs for it to qualify as that) but we can’t quite see where the Arts Council subsidy fits in.  Surely the people of Hampstead and St John’s Wood would like to be challenged once in a while?

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So Wrong it’s Right: The Play That Goes Wrong brings chaos to the Duchess Theatre

Sunday 18th January 2015, matinée

Anyone who has witnessed, or performed in, badly done amateur dramatics will instantly recognise all the essential elements in The Play That Goes Wrong.  It is the definitive guide on how to not act, direct, write and stage-manage, and it’s a winning formula. The worse the evening gets, the better it is and if its an evening of appalling theatre you are after, this play doesn’t fail to disappoint.

The scene opens with a ‘Director’ introducing his debut production for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, ‘Murder at Haversham manor’, promising a new high for the society and a big budget production, but it turns out that this drama group take the old adage ‘The show must go on’ to the ultimate extreme, giving us not so much a ‘Whodunnit’ as a ‘Whydidtheydoit?’  Whether battling against a dysfunctional set, unconscious actors, or a disappearing dog, like all great classic comedy, the real laughs come from watching the hapless theatre company trying to rise above disaster, whether dressing a stage hand up to stand in for the female lead half-way through, bravely downing glass after glass of white spirit after a mix up with the whiskey, or the desperation of the actor playing a dead body who must somehow find a way to leave the stage unaided in the full glare of the lights.

There are too many brilliant moments to mention, but the highlights for us must be the elegant precision with which the lead actress is knocked out by a door; the ingenious way in which two actors find themselves holding up the set whilst still managing to take a phone call (in the days before hands-free), and the infamous ‘script loop’, in which the actors get caught in a potentially endless loop of repetition (involving copious amounts of white spirit again) before the culprit finally remembers the line to free himself, to rapturous applause.

Portraying incompetence on this scale is a highly skilled business, and Mischief Theatre, led by Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, have been dedicating themselves to this cause since 2008, and it shows.  The ingenuity with which they reveal the ability of human beings to fail spectacularly is seemingly endless, and it is the attention to detail which delights, whether the actor whose hair is only grey from the front, or the growing confidence of the juvenile lead getting applause for recovering from some terrible mistake. Add some perfect comic timing and a genuine understanding of the human foibles which lead apparently sane people to humiliate themselves in front of an audience, and we have a theatre group worth watching.  It’s impossible to pick anyone out, so let’s just say we wish Greg Tannahill, Henry Shields, Charlie Russell, Dave Hearn, Nancy Wallinger and Rob Falconer many more years of highly skilled and toe-curling antics.

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Driving Mr Jacobowsky: Jerry Herman’s Grand Tour stops off at the Finborogh Theatre for its European Premier

Saturday 3rd January 2015, matinée

The Grand Tour was a must-see for us – another Jerry Herman musical for our delectation, getting its European Premier no less, and a new venue, the Finborough, which seems to have gained a reputation for reviving obscure musicals.

‘The Grand Tour’ is based on a play by Franz Werfel, ‘Jacobowsky and the Colonel’, which in turn was inspired by an intriguing anecdote, as told by Werfel himself to SN Berhrman, who encouraged him to write it as a comedy, and later adapted the play himself.  The story was simple – in the panic to escape France before the Nazi invasion in WW2, a Polish Jew buys a car, but he is unable to drive.  He strikes up a pact with an anti-semitic Polish colonel who can drive but has no car.  Herman’s title is deeply ironic, not so much a Grand Tour as a desperate flight across Europe, especially in Jacobowsky’s case as he travels ever Westward in the face of persecution.

Ultimately, though, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book doesn’t bear too much scrutiny.  The idea of two born enemies forced to work together stands the test of time, but it is rather wasted here, with too many blind alleys and under-developed characters, and a surprising lack of tension given the dark theme.

There are two compelling reasons to come and see this production, however.  The first is Jerry Herman’s music which is particularly strong.  There is the powerful I’ll be here tomorrow, which some have said deserves to become a Jewish anthem just as ‘I am what I am’ became a gay anthem.  There are comic numbers such as ‘Do it for Poland’, a beautiful love ballad in the form of Marianne, and the catchy and life-affirming You I like.  The other key reason to see this production is an excellent cast, led by the outstanding Alistair Brookshaw as Jacobowsky.  He is perfectly cast and pitches the performance right on the line between victimhood and resilience, with a self-effacing warmth which soon opens up to reveal a pragmatic and resourceful man, whose whole life has prepared him for the chaos of war.  Never sentimental or self-conscious, Brookshaw lifts the mood whenever he is on stage with a fine sense of comedy and a rich and versatile voice.

Nic Kyle as Colonel Stjerbinsky is the chalk to Jacobowsky’s cheese (or should that be the other way round?), obsessed with honour and military tradition, yet dimly aware that he is missing something.  His emotional journey from stiff upper-lipped duel-fighting (yes, really!) stuffed shirt to grudging friend is a pleasure to watch.  Zoe Doano as Marianne, the Colonel’s fiance who captures Jacobowsky’s heart, exudes charm and fulfills the brief – to be unfeasibly beautiful and lovable.  She is rather under-used, though, as her character stays strictly within the confines of the male relationship she helps to build.

We would be happy to go anywhere to see Jerry Herman performed, but it can’t be denied that the size of the venue at the Finborough is limiting, especially for a production this ambitious – the original Broadway production had 29 in the cast, here pruned to 11.  Even with a Director as talented as Thom Southerland, the stage often feels overcrowded, and although Phil Lindley makes a virtue of necessity with his neat ‘flat pack’ designs, adding to the sense that the world is literally falling apart, it is hard to get a real sweep of history, and the powerful choral voices seem to be undercut by the claustrophobic space.

Our final comment may seem rather perverse given the subject matter, but the final reprise of ‘I’ll be here tomorrow’ is curiously downbeat, and we wondered whether this was a directorial decision or in the original book.  Herman himself is quoted as saying that ‘The Grand Tour is about the indomitability of the human spirit, so it was a perfect piece for me’ – we couldn’t agree more that he has made a career out of lifting his often unlikely characters to an emotional high-point, so we felt a little deflated, robbed of the chance for an all-out emotional ‘grand’ ending.  But if the journey is more important than the destination, perhaps we can’t complain too much.

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Gotta dance! Singin’ in the rain Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Saturday 27th December 2014

It was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that we approached Highgate to see ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, the latest production at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.  We couldn’t wait to see how they would manage a musical this big in a venue this small – could they pull it off? And when we got into the auditorium and saw that the seating layout was in the traverse configuration, a bugbear about which we have spoken many, too many, times, we wondered how they could possibly overcome the twin obstacles of a terrible seating arrangement and an iconic and much-loved movie to live up to.  <spoiler alert> Yes they can, and they do!

The plot might be from the fifties, but it feels very up to date, with themes that are if anything more relevant than ever – the insecurity of success in show business, the cult of celebrity and the apparent conflict between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’.  Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are a celebrated on-screen couple, however, with the talkies looming, Lina’s less that appealing voice threatens their partnership. Meanwhile, as she hopes to take their relationship to the next level, Lockwood has fallen in love with the sweet and talented Kathy Seldon and wants to boost her career with the studio boss – but will talent alone be enough in the face of the vengeful Lamont’s machinations?

Director John Plews has delivered quite a coup here – by focussing on what mattered in the film – love, relationships (good and bad) and the joys (and frustrations) of creativity, we really don’t need big production numbers.  With a talented cast and perfectly pitched performances, the whole production captures the tone of the film, and brings an extra intimacy which has its own rewards.  We’d even go so far as to say that this is the best use of a traverse layout we have seen – not perfect as there were still some frustrating ‘back of head’ moments, but by keeping the staging very simple and making the ends of the stage the main focus, we felt part of the action.  Instead of being a hindrance, the small space brings a spontaneity to the dance sequences and freshness to the choreography of such famous numbers as ‘Singin’ in the rain’, ‘Good Mornin’ and ‘Moses Supposes’, re-capturing the warmth and simplicity of the original. Add to that the film clips and out-takes charting the rocky progress of ‘The duelling Cavalier’ to ‘The Dancing Cavalier’, courtesy of some skilful overdubbing, and the hilarity is complete.

The cast were all excellent, with strong leads well supported by the small but versatile chorus. ‘Tough Act to follow’ doesn’t quite cover it when describing Simon Adkins’ task in taking on Don Lockwood, a character made so famous by Gene Kelly, especially given the iconic title sequence.  Adkins has a likeable charm and a warm singing voice which more than does justice to the music, and when it came to that song (and yes, there was real precipitation), he didn’t attempt to replicate the original step for step, but he did make it his own, conveying the sheer joy behind the song, and had us all rooting for him.  Paul Harwood as sidekick, musical genius and all-round fixer Cosmo Brown brings high energy and a truly child-like joy in sheer silliness, coupled with a touching loyalty to Don which seems to involve single-handedly saving his career and sorting out his love-life.  Kathy Seldon is by contrast the sane character in an insane world, and Frankie Jenna brings an unpretentious and feisty dignity, whether climbing out of a cake or delivering a custard pie in the face, not to mention a beautiful singing voice, whether delivering romantic gems such as ‘You are my lucky star’ or the more lighthearted joyfulness of ‘Good mornin”.  Thea Jo Wolfe as Lina Lamont has the unenviable task of portraying an actress with a voice so terrible it could bring down a studio, and she rises to the challenge with vocal chords set to stun. More importantly, she has impeccable comic timing and pace – her elocution lessons are a joy to behold, not to mention her inability to locate a microphone while filming. Although she is technically the villain of the piece, she is also a victim of the star system, and Wolfe manages to elicit sympathy along with the ridicule.  Matt Jolly stands out from the chorus and has some nice cameos including the elocution teacher, the policeman, as well as leading the delightful ‘beautiful girl’ interlude.  Lindsay Atherton also delivers an impressive dance sequence in ‘the broadway ballet’.

One of the biggest ironies we found out about when researching the film was that, in a story all about the perils of overdubbing and how it would ‘ruin’ a young woman’s career to be the uncredited voice of a star, Debbie Reynold’s voice was dubbed by an uncredited Betty Noyes for three of her songs, and when she was meant to be overdubbing Lina Lamont’s speech in the film, Jean Hagan, the actress playing Lina Lamont, used her own voice which was deemed superior.  You literally couldn’t make it up!  Just to add insult to injury, it’s reported that Gene Kelly subsequently overdubbed Reynolds’ tap-dancing steps in ‘Good Mornin”.  Which just goes to show that sometimes you can’t beat a live performance for that authentic joy and excitement.  No overdubbing here, just a highly talented cast of singers, dancers and actors in a tiny space with an excellent director.  Long may they rain!

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Car crash theatre: Why won’t the critics defend quality in the West End?

Apparently, Lindsay Lohan has finished her West End stint as Karen in David Mamet’s ‘Speed the Plow’, and she is so delighted with how it all went that she is now contemplating a second Mamet play.  ‘One Mamet down’ she tweets, ‘Next stop Oleanna’.  Oleanna?! It’s a play we saw more than twenty years ago with Lia Williams and David Suchet, and a classic that deserves a revival.  We’d have gone again.  But as we are not interested in indulging a Hollywood star as she ‘learns her craft’ in front of paying audiences, we’ll have to give it a miss and wait another twenty years until one of the huge number of lesser known stage actresses who might have done the part justice gets a chance.

No, this is not a review.  We did not see this production of ‘Speed the Plow’.  But what really fascinates us is watching the critics as they squirm while trying to decide how exactly to review a performance which has been overshadowed by the actress and the publicity juggernaut she comes with.  They are choosing their words very carefully, but unqualified superlatives are notably absent.  Mark Shenton started the ball rolling early by declaring her casting a new low for the West End, but ends by saying that ‘now that the run has ended it is time to give credit where credit is due’.  Credit where it is due.  Of course!  But what for?  The amazing reviews she got perhaps?  Proving that lack of experience is no bar to delivering a stand-out performance?  No, she played out her full run, he says.  Perhaps he is being facetious.  This, he points out, may all be an elaborate ruse by the producers to lower expectations so far that people will be pleasantly surprised that she can even stand upright on stage.  As Stage colleague Richard Jordan puts it ‘Have critics been brainwashed into praising Lindsay Lohan?’  Well, er, no, not really, unless by praise you mean ‘damning with faint praise’.  Lindsay Lohan’s performance ‘Isn’t really that bad’ screams the headline for the Vanity Fair review.  The Hollywood reporter declares her ‘Okay’.  Quentin Letts is perhaps the most withering, declaring her acting as ‘that of a not specially gifted schoolgirl.’  The attempts at self-conscious humour are pretty cringeworthy.  Although not as embarrassing as the attempts of some critics to conflate her physical attributes with acting ability.  Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph describes her as ‘Attractive, leggy and arrestingly husky of voice’ and bizarrely gives her age as if he is writing for the tabloids.

It seems rather ironic that critics, currently bemoaning their fate as they become ever more marginalised in the papers, are determined to brush this debacle under the carpet with a few sarcastic comments rather than tearing their literary hair out with rage at the greed and arrogance which brings unqualified ‘stars’ to the West End to steal the jobs of those better than they are and charge premium prices just to add insult to injury.  The question doesn’t seem to be, ‘Should this be happening?’ but ‘How badly did this particular star do compared to all the other ‘names’ of mediocre talent who have graced the West End stage?’  Perhaps they hope it will all go away if they ignore it, like a child throwing a tantrum, but given the growing popularity of car-crash TV where the sight of celebrities doing anything new (and preferably humiliating) is more important than whether they do it well or badly, there is no reason to assume the West End will be immune in future.  We’ve had the casting show blight, now it’s another rash of ever more inept stunt casting.

Another interesting aspect of the coverage is the patronising assumption that Lohan has been ‘used’ in some way.  It’s sad to see her face plastered all over the publicity, indicating that the producers didn’t think Mamet or the two main stars were enough of a draw for the show – but she has to bear some responsibility for her actions.  Being ‘vulnerable’ is not the same as being stupid, and she cannot have been in any doubt that she was hired primarily for her star name.  She seems sincere in her desire to prove worthy of the opportunity she has (undeservedly) been given.  Sadly, however, instead of heaving a sigh of relief after a distinctly luke-warm set of reviews and being grateful that she ‘got away with it’ without too many personal attacks, she has decided that this is a green light to continue her quest for a stage career by going from a minor part in this three-hander, to a two-hander in which she would be very much the equal partner.  If the critics had done their jobs properly, she would not want to set foot on a West End stage again for a very long time.

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